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Archive for February, 2007

Through the grapevine, we’ve heard that one of our church acquaintances has read through the articles on this site, and his assessment of what we’ve written was, “They make some good points, but they sound bitter.”

This pronouncement made us stop and evaluate our hearts. After all, we are familiar with the following passages:

Ephesians 4:31 says, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil
speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”
Hebrews 12:14-15 says, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord; looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become
defiled.”

If we truly are “bitter,” and if this site is just a forum for bitterness, then we need to clean up our writings or remove them altogether!

So, is this person correct in his assessment?

Let’s evaluate our experience and our writings according to one online dictionary’s definition of “bitter”:


bit·ter adjective, -er, -est, noun, verb, adverb –adjective


1. having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste, like that of aspirin, quinine, or aloes.
2. producing one of the four basic taste sensations; not sour, sweet, or salt.

3. hard to bear; grievous; distressful: a bitter sorrow.

4. causing pain; piercing; stinging: a bitter chill.

5. characterized by intense antagonism or hostility: bitter hatred.

6. hard to admit or accept: a bitter lesson.

7. resentful or cynical: bitter words.

Ignoring definitions 1 and 2, because those have to do with literal “bitter tastes,” let’s examine definition 3. I’d have to say, there is much about our experience that was, in retrospect, “hard to bear; grievous; distressful.” Looking back on everything, I keep feeling new little waves of shock and horror that so many people in our former congregation—including us—were so willing to ignore all the things that grew more and more obviously unscriptural.

And yes, there were things that “caused pain” (definition 4).

But we really need to focus on definitions 5 and 7. Is the information we’re posting on this site “characterized by intense antagonism or hostility” or “resentful or cynical”?

The more we’ve prayed and asked for the Holy Spirit’s help as we examine our hearts, the more we conclude that, as far as we can see, we are not antagonistic or hostile toward PEOPLE. We are not out to “take down” our former pastor, his family, or our former church. We’re not even resentful or cynical about them. They are still nice people. Pastor Smith is still a good preacher, when he stays away from an unbiblical emphasis on financial prosperity or on his own prophetic utterances. There is a lot about the place that is done well.

But we DO find ourselves feeling antagonistic and hostile toward anti-Scriptural TEACHINGS and toward anti-Scriptural BEHAVIORS, and we believe it is completely Biblical to point out what Scripture says about such things. We’re pretty sure, however, that this antagonism and hostility are more a kind of “righteous wrath” rather than “bitterness.”

If there’s ANYTHING “bitter” about our experience with this church (and these subsequent descriptions of our experience as posted on this site), it would really only have to do with definition 6: “Hard to admit or accept.”

It’s been very difficult to step back and realize that all of our enthusiastic participation—our eagerness to volunteer, our fervent financial support, and our blind acceptance of everything prophetic—was done almost completely apart from Scriptural discernment.

Truly, if there is anything resentful or cynical about what we have to say, it is directed at OURSELVES. How could we have turned a blind eye toward so many non-Biblical oddities and injustices when we, through our understanding of the Bible, KNEW better? How stupid and foolish were we, anyway, to get sucked into this parallel universe?

Is that the “bitterness” that the Bible condemns? We’ll ask you, our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help us out in this matter. Feel free to leave comments indicating whether or not YOU sense that we are operating out of bitterness. Right now, we don’t think so. We think we have a duty to exercise discernment, to publicize what we’ve discovered, to “Rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). It is our task to speak the truth.

Perhaps in doing so, we will give courage to others out there who are in similar situations but are feeling alone and unsure of what to do.

 

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I’ll be honest—this isn’t the first time we’ve left a church.

But, before you think of us as some church-hopping flakes, let me explain.

As practically lifelong Christians, we have needed to change churches occasionally. We’ve done our share of moving around the country. We’ve even done some moving within our city.

Over approximately a decade, we’ve been involved in two other churches (besides our cult-like church) here in town. The first was a wonderful congregation where we were happily involved, but our move to a new neighborhood ten miles away coincided with a massive repair project on the road we had to take to get to this church. After several Sundays where we literally idled in construction traffic for 45 minutes or more, we realized with sadness that we were going to have to find a congregation closer to our new home.

The second church was just a mile from our house. It was a much larger place, with multiple services, and although we made considerable efforts to get involved and put down roots there, we never quite felt as though it were home.

Which is probably why, when we stumbled upon the seemingly fresh, new, “alive,” Spirit-led congregation (the very one that ended up being what we now see as a “cult-like church”), it was pretty easy to walk away from the church a mile from our house.

So, as I said, we’ve left a couple of churches before, one purely for reasons of convenience, and the other because we believed we’d found someplace else that was truly special, a place that wasn’t like any other.

In that last respect, we were right. The cult-like church IS like no other place.

I mention our previous church-switching experiences because another interesting aspect of our journey with the cult-like church has been…the process of leaving it.

Granted, when we said goodbye to our previous two churches, both times this process was not born out of anything negative. But it still is amazing to us how different our exit from the cult-like church has been in comparison. When, years ago, friends from the first two churches heard that we were leaving, their responses were basically, “Hey, that’s too bad—we’re going to miss you guys. But we understand.”

The cult-church people, though, had very different reactions when we recently broke our news.

I probably should mention that, except with one very close friend, we haven’t gone into much detail when describing why we are moving to a different church. There is no point in telling anyone in that congregation about how mixed-up and heretical some of the teachings have become—none of the members would EVER want to hear it. So—rightly or wrongly—we’ve been vague, we’ve been bland, we’ve been as non-confrontational as possible. Our goal has simply been to leave. We established this website for the express purpose of providing support to anyone else who might be having similar experiences…but they’re going to have to do some searching in order to find this information. We have no ax to grind. You will notice that we name no names. We’re not interested in gossip.

So it’s been especially difficult to understand people’s reactions when they’ve called us to find out about our absences of late. Everybody who contacts us to ask where we’ve been responds, when we simply tell them we’re going someplace else, with a strange mixture of fear and concern.

Here are, almost word for word, several of the comments we’ve received (said with panicky undertones, sometimes bordering on paranoia):

“Oh, no, I hate to think of you guys leaving this anointing!”“I’m so afraid to know that you won’t be under this covering any more.”

“You’re going to miss out! God’s getting ready to do some amazing things here!”

“Look what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Such-and-Such. THEY left. Look where it got them!” [Mr. and Mrs. Such-and-Such had the bad luck to begin attending a different church where, just a few months later, the pastor was involved in a scandal.]

“There aren’t any other churches in this town where people get saved like they do here.”

“You’re not going to find a better preacher than Pastor Smith! We know. We’ve been everywhere, and there is nobody else around with his anointing!”

“Oh, we hope you’re doing the right thing! Are you SURE you’re doing the right thing??”

“You’re making a mistake!”

While I realize that these comments were made in kindness, it still seems odd to us that we are being treated as though we are losing our religion. Despite our steadfast assurances that we still believe in Jesus, are still seeking to honor Him, and are still going to be committed to a Bible-believing church body, our cult-church friends have responded to our news as though we’ve announced our conversion to Buddhism.

It’s like all these people truly believe that in this large metropolitan area, only the thousand or so people who attend Pastor Smith’s church are getting the “real gospel.” As non-Biblical as that concept is—that God would only reveal His “full truth” to just a tiny percentage of Christians in this town—it’s now apparent that quite a few of our friends are laboring under this mistaken notion.

But of course, that’s just another aspect of this church that made it sort of like a cult—Pastor Smith has conditioned his church members to view his church as the ONLY church in town that “gets it right.” We ourselves spent at least the first couple of years of our time there telling everybody about how superior our new church was. Since they do so many things well (they have a very well-equipped, flashy, and exciting children’s ministry, for instance), it’s easy to get distracted by the seeming “excellence” that’s on the surface. And while one is thus distracted, that’s when the “exclusivity” pulpit teachings seep in..and in a peculiar way, seem to make sense. For awhile.

What’s been even more interesting than the comments from these more casual church acquaintances, though, is the response we got from one of my closest friends there. She is the only person with whom I shared some of our observations and discoveries, partly because she came to the cult-church with much the same Christian education as we did, so I knew she’d understand where we were coming from, and partly because I am deeply concerned that she is making some destructive financial choices based on the pastor’s heretical “prosperity gospel” teachings. Of all the people we’ve met at this place, I thought that maybe, just maybe, she’d have to agree with our observations. Maybe she’d even be helped by them.

I was wrong.

Her response, when I shared all that we’ve been learning, was pretty much the same as the other acquaintances’ had been. She expressed doubt that we were exercising good judgment. She was fearful for us because we were “leaving this covering.” She was sad that we’d be “missing out” on all the wonderful things coming down the pike. And despite her own extensive Bible training, she denied the (to me obvious) Scriptural truth of everything I pointed out. At one juncture, she actually said, “I really don’t care about any of that petty doctrine stuff.”

That conversation ended well enough, on what I thought was a somewhat positive note. Because I really do care about her, I said, “I hope we can still be friends, despite our difference of opinion.” And she agreed that we’d always be friends.

But an email she sent the next day was very cold, canceling our lunch plans. And since then, I haven’t heard a word from her. Apparently, I’ve now been wiped off her email distribution list, too, because I haven’t received any of the typical forwards that she always liberally sent.

More than three years of close friendship gone…all for the sake of “petty doctrinal stuff” that she supposedly doesn’t care about.

My husband, too, remarked to me only today how he just noticed that he’s also been dropped from various cult-church people’s email lists. He’s also not received any of the usual forwards.

Obviously, the word has spread, and we’ve been ostracized.

If there’s anything that confirms to me the cult-like nature of our former church, it has to be these responses from our “friends” there. We’re leaving a sick place.

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Although it’s been awhile since we left our “cult-like church,” it seems like almost every day, we think of yet another aspect of our experience there that was at best odd and at worst unbiblical.

Since, as I’ve explained in a previous entry, our former church was extremely pastor-centered and pastor-focused, most of these things have to do with (and this is obviously not his real name!) Pastor Smith’s (or his wife’s) behavior, rather than with what other church members did. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where these behaviors fall on this “was-it-merely-strange?-or-was-it-unbiblical?” continuum. Some things seemed to have started out as silly little foibles, but over the course of our tenure at this church, grew progressively more blatant, to the point where they then became unbiblical behaviors. Other items were probably unbiblical from the very beginning.

And then there are certain peculiarities that we still haven’t quite figured out.

One such behavior that falls into this “gray area” was Pastor Smith’s practice of asking for personal gifts for his family. Once again, as I see this statement written out in black and white, it suddenly seems obvious that it wasn’t actually such a “gray area.” But for whatever reason, it never bothered us while we were attending this church! I doubt that it bothered any of the other members, either, because everybody seemed to enthusiastically participate in the gift-giving.

The way this played out at our former church was thus: approximately twice a year, either around “Pastor Appreciation Day” or right before Pastor Smith’s birthday, we’d receive a letter from someone at the church reminding us that there would be a special card shower the next Sunday in honor of the event. When we first started attending this church, the letters were from the “Executive Pastor.” He happened to be Pastor Smith’s brother-in-law, but somehow, THAT family relationship didn’t make the reminder letters seem like solicitations. Usually the letters would contain the exhortation that the Bible said to, “Give honor where honor is due,” a reference (I believe) to Romans 13:7.

On the given Sunday, there would be a time, usually after praise and worship but before the sermon, when the Executive Pastor would make a short presentation about how much we loved and appreciated Pastor Smith. There’d usually be a standing ovation (which, to his credit, Pastor Smith would eventually attempt to re-direct to the Lord). Then music would play, and pre-selected people would stand at the front of the sanctuary, holding beautifully decorated containers. The congregants would all troop forward and place their cards in these containers while Pastor Smith looked on, beaming with appreciation at the gesture of encouragement. Like I said, this practice, although different from anything we’d ever known at our previous church, never really bothered us. Probably because we truly loved Pastor Smith.

To help explain this particular type of “pastor love,” allow me to quote from a previous entry:

The thing was, when he’d stick to Scriptures, he was a great preacher—insightful, original, wise, and articulate…

…he was, after all, a very dynamic individual with great force of personality that was coupled with a sharp, curmudgeonly sense of humor. When he preached, he conveyed a unique earnest sincerity. I still don’t doubt for a moment that he himself believed in everything he preached. I still think he was honestly convinced of the validity of his own prophetic gift, and of how much the people needed his ministry. His earnest sincerity made you WANT to cheer for what he said, made his audience WANT to show their support for him.

Pastor Smith is a charismatic man, and he walked in a certain fatherly authority which made everybody want to please him. So it almost seemed natural to give him semi-annual card showers. This practice continued the entire time we were members there, and it never really gave us pause. It didn’t matter that Pastor Smith wore obviously expensive clothing, lived in a million dollar mansion, and drove the latest $70,000 (a conservative estimate) Mercedes. We loved him and didn’t mind honoring him.

We received similar letters of reminder around the time of Pastor Smith’s wife’s (the “First Lady’s”) birthday, too. Her card showers played out in basically the same fashion. And again, this really didn’t trouble us, although we knew she enjoyed a lifestyle that only the upper echelons of society ladies were privileged to enjoy. She had her own Mercedes sports car, designer clothing, housekeepers, and all the perks that went with being rich, but out of our love for Pastor Smith, we liked to bless his wife, too.

Then Pastor Smith’s two young-adult sons (who had been installed in church staff positions several years before, when they were still teenagers) both got engaged, and when one of them got married out of state and a post-wedding reception was announced, things seemed to take a bit of a turn.

On a Sunday morning, during his announcement of this reception, Pastor Smith declared that his son and bride would much prefer wedding cards over wedding gifts, because they’d already accumulated all the items on their registries. Then, to clarify what he meant, Pastor Smith said, “So, slip a little cash into the cards you give them!”

On that particular Sunday, I have to say that despite my loyalty and love for the Smiths (both of their sons were nice boys), we were a bit shocked. It seemed like Pastor Smith had crossed some sort of line, some sort of unspoken barrier of good taste. I mean, everybody KNOWS what a “card shower” means. Most people are fully aware that you don’t just give a card but also perhaps tuck some money into the card. It seemed rather gauche that Pastor Smith had actually spelled out that they wanted money.

But hey, it was Pastor Smith, and it was OK if he lapsed every once in awhile and exposed his rough edges. We looked the other way.

Then, the very next Sunday, Pastor Smith made the same announcement. Timmy Smith (again, not his real name) and his new wife were going to be honored at a wedding reception the following Sunday evening. Don’t go rush out and buy them a gift. Rather, give them a nice card and, SLIP A LITTLE SOMETHING IN YOUR CARD!

Wow.

That Sunday, although it wasn’t our family’s practice to discuss our pastor, both of us couldn’t help ourselves. We agreed that Pastor Smith seemed awfully desperate to garner money for Timmy.

But again, we shrugged it off.

Pastor Smith often joked, in the midst of his sermons, that when he repeated something three times, it was because he was Trinitarian. Well, this Trinitarianism carried over into his personal life.

Yet again, on the following Sunday, for the THIRD time, Pastor Smith exhorted the congregation not to give presents but to put money in their cards for Timmy Smith’s reception.

Now that I look back on it, I’m pretty sure we couldn’t have been the only people who were a bit put off by the thrice-pronounced directive for what was, after all, supposed to be voluntary gift-giving. Nonetheless, at Timmy’s wedding reception, a whole table was piled high with wedding cards.

People had fallen in line anyway and followed Pastor’s instructions like good soldiers.

The three blatant commands to put money in Timmy’s wedding cards were followed, some months later, by a letter announcing that the “First Lady” would be honored for her birthday the following Sunday. Unlike previous letters, which had ostensibly (and I say “ostensibly,” because Pastor Smith had ultimate authority over EVERY mailing that went out from the church) come from various other church staff members, THIS letter was from Pastor Smith himself. And once again, in the same really specific manner, Pastor Smith mentioned in the letter that the First Lady would really appreciate it if we were to include a monetary token of our love for her.

Again, apparently nobody minded, because lots of people participated in the First Lady’s birthday card shower. At the time, WE didn’t even mind.

But now that we’ve been away from the church for awhile, the Smith family’s whole practice of asking church members for personal gifts suddenly strikes us as ODD. Even though it was always in the form of a “reminder,” at the very least, it could NOT have been in good taste, especially when these reminders began coming from Pastor Smith himself, rather than another staff member.

And now that I think about it, it probably wasn’t biblical either.

At the very least, you’d have to say that this was a practice that exposed the Smiths to some very dangerous temptations. For instance, it seems pretty obvious that it must have opened the door for them to favor rich (or more generous) people more than they already did. Could they really NOT remember that someone like Kitty Moreno (see “Favoritism, part ii” below) had given the First Lady a significant cash birthday gift? Wouldn’t it just be human nature to find yourself swayed to give a bit more attention to the people who gave you big presents than to those who had just written a note?

You also have to wonder why the Smiths feel so free to solicit gifts for themselves. It sure doesn’t seem like they NEED any more financial “blessings.” It’s safe to say that they lead a more luxurious lifestyle than at least 98% of their congregation. Could it possibly be that years of unchecked “final authority”—with no accountability to anyone but “the Lord”—have simply blinded the Smiths to good taste, made them completely oblivious to the fact that they now come across as greedy for money, something the Bible clearly forbids?

If so, I’d have to say that we in the pews are at least somewhat responsible for the Smiths’ oblivion and insensitivity. The fact that Pastor Smith is a dynamic, charismatic individual with great force of personality is really no excuse for how we all fell in line in our willingness to pander for his favor.

The Bible commands us to exercise discernment. In our failure to do so, we’ve become enablers, blithely helping the Smiths down what the Bible says will ultimately be their own personal road of destruction, if it continues unabated. Sadly, their young sons are not too far behind them. In fact, I’m afraid they both have a completely overblown opinion of their actual talents because of the overly generous congregation’s unwarranted standing ovations and willingness to cut them slack and accept everything they do since they’re Pastor Smith’s “boys.”

In our willingness to check our brains at the church doors, we’ve created a monster. We can only blame ourselves.

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I really don’t want this site to be viewed as negative. There are thousands (if not millions) of folks that spend way too much time writing every negative thing they can about ministries.

We all know that there are bad churches out there (see our posts). We all know that there is heresy being spewed forth from the pulpit (again…see our posts).

For this post, instead of telling you about what we are leaving, I thought I would spend some time telling you about where we are going.

Here’s a list of what we are looking for in a church/ministry:

  1. Balance. Theology needs to balance with charismatic beliefs. Don’t deny the Power, but also, don’t deny the Word in search of that Power. Far too many folks step over lost souls in search of “signs and wonders”.
  2. Humility. How many of us are tired of dealing with the celebrity that is rampant throughout the charismatic world? The pastor that can preach the true Word, while admitting personal conviction at the same time, is more valuable (at least to me) than the flashy evangelist that steps from his Challenger Jet to the platform to deliver a “word”.
  3. Servant Leadership. Instead of being an untouchable, “worshipped from afar” individual, wouldn’t it be nice to be around leadership who had true concern for your spiritual well being? A pastor that walked amongst the congregants with ease, without the need for bodyguards…how refreshing!
  4. Transparency. As the Church should be the believing body (and not a family run business), there should be no secrets relating to the organization. Financial records, personnel (HR) decisions, etc. should be disclosed (within reason).

This is just a start. I’d love to hear from you regarding your thoughts on this list.

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(see Propheteering Part 1 here)

It sounds so simple to refer to our “cult-like church” as our “former church,” but it’s not simple at all. It’s actually difficult, painful, and at times, completely confusing.

We resigned from our leadership positions a few weeks ago. Conveniently for us, at the start of the new year they began the process of revamping certain ministries anyway, so our resignation probably seemed to be just a byproduct of this revamping. But we haven’t done anything yet to officially disassociate ourselves from this congregation. Consequently, we’re still on lots of email distribution lists.

Yesterday, we received via email a transcript of a prophecy given to the church by a minister who visited this past Sunday. And I felt rising up within myself all sorts of conflicting feelings.

You see, the prophecy was really a wonderful “Word,” speaking (of course, in typically vague terms) of a powerful new anointing that was going to come upon our pastor and the “house,” how all the leaders would begin to have great peace in their homes, how a “tremendous harvest” was coming to our church, how the church folks would walk in a new authority, with everything “under their feet.”

Obviously, the service had impacted lots of people, because I received other little email notes asking where we’d been, telling us how we’d missed such an “awesome time in the Lord,” and exhorting us to attend the next service with this visiting minister, when he’d be prophesying again.

Like I said, I had lots of conflicting feelings when I read these emails.

My first thought was one of envy, like we’d really missed the boat. What a shame, that we had deliberately chosen to remove ourselves from such a great congregation of people who had such a great “anointing” to look forward to. I mean, who wouldn’t want to want to walk in authority? Who wouldn’t want to be part of a tremendous harvest?

My next thought, though, was one of cynicism. “Here we go again,” I snickered to myself. “These poor people are so naïve!” How many times before had we heard this exact same thing, about the “great harvest” that was coming to our church? Just off the top of my head, I could recall several occasions where visiting ministers had prophesied the exact same thing. One such guest minister had even declared that our church would need to move to two services within the year because there would be such an influx of new people. He’d made those of us in the audience turn around and face the balcony and speak to it, declaring that it would be full to overflowing.

Of course, that year had passed, and there’d never been a need to have two Sunday services. If anything, attendance had declined during that time period. They even started to close the balcony, so that people would be forced to fill up the main sanctuary first.

I think it’s safe to say that after several years, I’ve earned the right to be cynical about these prophesies.

But then, because I’ve been studying in I and II Thessalonians over the last few days, I also had a conscience-stricken moment as I remembered I Thessalonians 5:20, which says, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt.” Of course, that’s what I’d been doing.

This is all so confusing to me. On the one hand, you have all these dear, sincere church folks writing all these enthusiastic emails, praising the “powerful prophetic” service that they’d had on Sunday and looking forward with great anticipation to the midweek service when they’ll get to hear more of the same. They are obviously convinced that God is speaking through this guest minister.

But my wary mind whispers, “Just like ‘God spoke’ through that last guest minister about the overflowing balcony?”

I turned back to I Thessalonians 5 and re-read the whole chapter. Once again, I felt a sharp pang of guilt at verse 20. But then I continued on, through verses 21-22, which say, “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.”

I think it’s this lack of “testing everything” that bothers me. If having an attitude of contempt toward prophecy is against the Bible, so is blind acceptance of everything uttered in the name of prophecy.

In a conversation with my sister this morning, I told her of my confusion, my frustration over this issue: how do you both “test everything” AND still value prophecy and not treat it with contempt? I mean, I’m still enough a part of our “former church” (or, our “former church” is still enough a part of me) that, when I hear of prophesies like this most recent one, I find myself feeling pangs of fear that I’m about to miss out on something great.

But then, with this observation, my sister cut through the charismaniac fog threatening once again to cloud my judgment. She said, “From everything you’ve told me, there’s sin in this congregation. They favor the rich. In their blatant materialism, they love the world. They value prophecy more than they value God’s written Word. And there are a ton of other smaller issues of sinfulness. WOULD GOD GIVE THIS CHURCH A ‘WORD’ CONTAINING SUCH ENCOURAGEMENT WITHOUT FIRST ADDRESSING THESE SINS?”

In my sister’s wise observation, I had a very clear answer. Obviously, this prophecy, with all its talk of “powerful anointings” and “great authority” and “tremendous harvest”…well, it sounded good. I’m sure everybody in the church would like it to be true. But if you do what Paul tells the Thessalonians to do—“Test everything”—then this “Word” does not pass the simple “smell” test of Scripture.

The Bible teaches very clearly that God will not overlook sin without repentance. God is not going to bless someone (or a group of someones) with great authority or great anointing (whatever “anointing” is!) if they are engaging in behaviors or have values that are in direct conflict with Scripture.

God remains consistent with His written Word.

So, even if it seems like this prophecy does come to pass eventually, we’ll be obligated to say that it was not because of God’s doings.

“Our former church” is still, for me, a hard phrase to say. But it’s getting a little easier every day.

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A Christian Cult?

Four years ago, after a lifetime spent in good, solid, Bible-teaching churches, and after more than twenty years of education from Christian schools and Christian colleges, I became a member of what is, in effect, a Christian cult.

Seeing the truth written out like that is difficult.

After all, I should have known better. I’d received extensive training in “Comparative Religions.” I could articulate perfectly to a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness why those religions weren’t actually “Christian.” I mean, no matter how hard the Mormons, especially, try to whitewash themselves and hide behind their family values, or their distribution of King James Bibles, or talk about their “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the simple fact is that they believe in extra-biblical revelation, value those revelations (“The Pearl of Great Price,” “Doctrines and Covenants,” “The Book of Mormon”) far above the Bible, use subjective personal experiences to validate these texts (a Mormon will often “bear her testimony” to you and tell you how she just “knows” Joseph Smith was a true prophet because of the “burning in the bosom” she experiences), and believe in a completely different Jesus (satan’s brother) than that of orthodox Christianity.

So it’s been quite a shock to realize that I succumbed to what amounted to almost exactly the same errors.

Oh, our cult-ish Christian church SAYS all the right stuff. Mostly. If you were to leaf through the glossy pages of their “Visitors’ Packet,” you’d see that they believe in biblical teachings about Jesus’ death on the cross, His resurrection, our sinfulness, our need for a Savior, and so forth. On paper, at least, this church professes to value the Bible as God’s perfect written Word to His people, too.

And, if you were to attend a service, you’d probably hear sound teaching from the pulpit (most of the time). You’d even often get to witness an altar call, where people would pray the “sinners’ prayer” and then receive Bibles and other materials helpful for new Christians.

That part was good.

So, you ask, why the shocking and pejorative use of the term “Cult”?

Well, in one respect, that question doesn’t have an easy, obvious answer. As I said, the church’s official stance—its official positions on all the crucial doctrines—lined up perfectly with what the Bible teaches. And, most of the time, as I’ve said, you wouldn’t hear anything downright heretical from the pulpit.

But if we Christians define a “cult” as any group that:

1. places undue emphasis on teachings or practices that are either not from the Bible at all, or are only peripherally (at best) mentioned in the Bible;
2. uses personal testimony and experience to validate these practices;
3. values these practices far above more traditional Bible teachings on doctrine, or holiness, or love;

and, most importantly,

4. preaches a different Jesus than the Jesus revealed in the Bible;

then our church would MOST DEFINITELY qualify as a cult. Especially if you factor in two more characteristics:

1. A charismatic leader who, while answering to nobody but “the Lord,” exerts total and ultimate control over church policies and programs; and
2. Church members who, for the most part, direct far more energy toward pleasing and honoring the group’s leader than toward pleasing Christ.

Sad to say, everything listed above was glaringly apparent at our old church. You didn’t even have to attend church there very long to observe some of these things. I noticed several oddities from the very beginning of our tenure there but, I’m ashamed to admit, turned a blind eye to them because of my own personal experiences at the church.

For instance, our former church placed far more emphasis upon “signs and wonders” than on solid biblical exegesis. If the pastor announced that his Sunday night sermon would be on the subject of, say, “Demonstrating the Fruits of the Spirit In Your Daily Life,” you could bet that there’d be a sparse crowd to hear him preach. On the other hand, if he announced—as he often did—that he’d be “praying with people,” you’d have a hard time finding a seat.

You see, “praying with people” at our church meant that Pastor would have a “prayer line,” where we’d all take turns (guided firmly by the ushers) lining up across the front of the auditorium. Pastor would walk down the line and “lay hands on” each person. Most of the time, people would be “slain in the Spirit” or “fall out under the power,” which meant that they’d collapse backward, eased gently onto the floor by one of the “catchers” (strong guys who followed Pastor and stood behind the “pray-ees” to break their falls).

If you were really lucky, Pastor would also pause when he reached you in the prayer line and “give you a Word.” (You can check out the entry entitled “Propheteering” below for a more detailed analysis of what this prophecy was like.)

Our church REALLY valued the “prophetic,” probably even more than “falling out under the power.” Our pastor was known for his “prophetic gifting,” and while, as I’ve said before, I still do not believe that he deliberately sets out to manipulate anyone with his prophetic utterances, he DOES habitually urge his congregants to place great hope in their “Thus saith the Lords,” which at our church meant the “Words” we’d received through our pastor. He’d never actually SAY it, but I have no doubt that he was fully aware that people valued these personal prophetic “Words” far more than they valued all of God’s promises in the Bible.

So, although we could hear decent, Bible-based preaching (most of the time), the real stuff that people went to our church for—the reason I found myself constantly confusing “sharing Christ” with “inviting people to my church”—were these “signs and wonders.” As I said, people were especially enamored with the prophetic, and it was completely normal for the whole audience to burst into enthusiastic applause if someone received a “Word” and then ALSO “fell out under the power” after Pastor had touched his or her forehead.

I have to say, I was fascinated by these practices, too, for awhile. I’m still wrestling with what, exactly, the whole “slain in the Spirit” thing actually was for me, but I can tell you that it always felt really good. It was almost like a jolt of electricity that just knocked you flat and then sent you into a totally relaxed state. I can remember lying on the really hard concrete-covered-by-a-thin-layer-of-carpeting sanctuary floor, somewhat conscious of the lights and the people around me, but also very focused on…well, I’m still not sure what.

But it felt good.

And these good feelings—just like the Mormons’ “burning of the bosom”—were used to legitimize a practice that is, at best, only peripherally mentioned in the Bible. If you ever had a question about the Biblical validity of the “signs and wonders,” your question would be viewed as unnecessary in light of people’s experiential validation.

These “signs and wonders,” as I’ve described them above, also bring up another cult-like characteristic of our former church: everything flowed through our pastor or his approved guest ministers.

Again, I still haven’t completely gotten a handle on this whole thing, but at our church, there was always talk about “The Anointing.” I mean, you’d hear that phrase CONSTANTLY. To this day, I’m still not completely sure how they’d define what “The Anointing” is, exactly. Nobody ever bothered teaching on “The Anointing” from the pulpit, aside from vague references to Old Testament passages referring to the anointing of the kings of Israel.

But from what I could gather, “The Anointing” at our former church referred to the Holy Spirit’s special presence that comes upon or resides with a particular individual. At our church, that individual was our pastor.

And “The Anointing” was something that could be transferred to people by the “laying on of hands.” It wasn’t uncommon for Pastor to interrupt himself with, “I feel the anointing so strong right now!” Occasionally he’d even charge out into the audience and, with no “prayer line” whatsoever, begin to run around and “lay hands on” random individuals, who’d all collapse in dramatic fashion while fast-paced music would play.

Just to clarify something here—I am in NO WAY mocking the concept that the Holy Spirit can come upon an individual in a special way to empower him or her for a specific task, or to deliver a specific message. I don’t even doubt for a moment that some of the stuff our pastor did while “under The Anointing” was completely legitimate and bore good, biblical fruit. I don’t doubt that the pastor was enabled by the Holy Spirit to minister to some individuals, that some people received healing from God, that some people were profoundly changed—for their eternal good—through the pastor’s moving in obedience to what God wanted him to do.

But in our church, I think the problems—the stuff that’s made it become rather cult-ish—stem from how we were taught to view this empowerment. We were taught to view the Holy Spirit as almost some sort of tangible commodity (even though lip service was given from the pulpit on how the Holy Spirit is a person, not an “it”). This tangible commodity (“The Anointing”) was transmitted only through certain individuals, special “men of God,” the primary one being our pastor.

“The Anointing” was what made this church special, was why people chose to attend there rather than someplace else. We constantly heard about how our church was a “house of habitation [of the Holy Spirit], rather than a house of visitation.” We were constantly told from the pulpit how vital it was for us to be in “the house of God’s planting” (which of course meant OUR church, and NOWHERE else). It didn’t even—until recently—strike me as odd that when one of my friends would talk about her unsaved acquaintances, she’d say, “They need this Anointing so badly!”

I mean, she wouldn’t say, “They need Jesus.” She’d say, “They need THIS ANOINTING.”

Think about that for a moment. Doesn’t that seem odd and cult-like, especially in light of the fact that “The Anointing” was basically a vague, almost extra-Biblical concept never clearly defined, and that it was, for the most part, dispensed at our church only through one individual, our pastor?

But again, we all used our subjective personal experiences or feelings to either validate this concept, or else we ignored our confusion.

This unbiblical emphasis on “The Anointing” went hand in hand with another trait of cults: the pastor, because of his “anointing,” was essentially the centerpiece of the church. Although probably even the pastor himself would think that Jesus was the center of everything the church did, the truth was that it was much more about the pastor. We listened to several sermons about how crucial it was to “know who the ‘Anointed Man of God’ is in your life.” Week after week, although other solidly biblical teachings WERE given, we were also bombarded with exhortations about how much we needed Pastor. Right alongside the good teachings, there’d also be these little “plugs” for how special and unique our pastor was, how he was the “priest and prophet” of “this house,” how we needed to “stay under the covering of his anointing.”

Oh, don’t get me wrong—Pastor is an extremely intelligent man and was at least somewhat subtle about these kinds of statements. He didn’t blatantly trumpet his own gifts, but, for instance, he’d take a scripture such as the first half of Proverbs 29:18 (“Where there is no vision, the people perish…”), and then he’d explain how it meant, “Where there is no PROPHETIC UTTERANCE, the people perish.” Then he’d use that verse to show how we needed prophecy in our lives, how it was so important to remain where a prophetic voice would speak into us.

Although I am, as I’ve already stated, someone with a lot of Christian knowledge and education, it didn’t take very long for me to fall in line with the rest of the clapping, cheering congregation and agree with most of what Pastor preached.

The thing was, when he’d stick to Scriptures, he was a great preacher—insightful, original, wise, and articulate. When he’d veer into a slightly questionable area, such as seeming to use the pulpit to pump up his own importance, it was easy to cut him some slack. He was, after all, a very dynamic individual with great force of personality that was coupled with a sharp, curmudgeonly sense of humor. When he preached, he conveyed a unique earnest sincerity. I still don’t doubt for a moment that he himself believed in everything he preached. I still think he was honestly convinced of the validity of his own prophetic gift, and of how much the people needed his ministry. His earnest sincerity made you WANT to cheer for what he said, made his audience WANT to show their support for him.

Plus, whether through a personal experience—because you were “slain in the Spirit” through his ministry—or because you loved how unpredictable and exciting this church was compared to the “dry, dull” churches you might have been used to, it was easy to buy into the notion that you needed this special “Anointing,” whatever it was. Through some combination of the pastor’s own powerful personal charisma and the way good teachings were constantly being mixed with scriptures twisted out of context, you found yourself viewing the pastor as special, deserving of special treatment.

You also would find yourself agreeing with the pastor’s view of his own ultimate authority. Although I’d spent my entire Christian life in egalitarian Evangelical and Baptist churches with congregational forms of church governance, I threw myself wholeheartedly behind our church’s way of doing stuff. I actually thought it was a good thing that Pastor made all the decisions about what went on at church. I liked what I thought was his “strong leadership style.”

He was able to inspire that level of support, that sort of loyalty.

In fact, I saw nothing wrong with how the pastor drove a new, very expensive Mercedes and lived in a million-dollar mansion. At the height of our loyalty to this church, I firmly believed that he deserved those perks. He had a tough job, and he’d (as he was fond of saying from the pulpit) “paid a price for The Anointing.”

I wasn’t bothered, either, by how Pastor was given what amounted to the royal treatment at the church. He was treated like a celebrity, with people willing to stand around waiting for his arrival so that they could open his car door, open the doors to the building, escort him around, and keep away the “pesky riff-raff” who might approach him demanding an off-the-cuff “Word” or otherwise accost him and disturb his concentration.

He was, after all, the “Anointed Man of God,” and it was right to (he was also fond of quoting this verse) “Give honor where honor is due.”

To be fair, I must add here that Pastor had toiled for years in obscurity, building up two different small, poor congregations into much larger and more powerful groups. Obviously he hadn’t always been motivated by money or status. He hadn’t always held himself above the pathetic or bedraggled or unpresentable folks.

Yet, somewhere along the way, he’d begun to allow—or perhaps even foster—the sort of special treatment for himself, to the point where now, everybody around him seemed to be doing backflips to honor him.

This highly contagious attitude of venerating the pastor would also lead to another cult-like characteristic of our former church, which is that just about everybody was FAR more concerned with pleasing the Pastor than about exhibiting behavior that pleased Jesus. I mean, it’s not that those two things were necessarily mutually exclusive. That is, I’m sure Pastor would THINK that he wanted his church members to please the Lord. He would have been pleased if he’d heard that someone was off preaching the Gospel, for instance.

But the people surrounding him—those in charge of all the “important” ministries, such as the aforementioned door-opening and so forth—would sooner lash out in anger at you than be viewed as slacking off on their door-opening. And the door-opening ministry was seen as having a whole lot more status than, say, working in one of the preschool classes did.

I ALWAYS thought that this was wrong. I was very aware of all that Jesus said about leadership—that true leadership was about being a servant. I knew the Bible teaches that whoever gives a cup of water to a little child will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven, while NOTHING is mentioned about “whoever opens the door for the great Anointed Man of God.” Yet the way this church was set up, people were always clamoring to do something for Pastor’s comfort, while the children’s ministry had to beg and beg for workers.

And that leads me to another issue, the biggest problem of all: the Jesus our church preached was different from the Jesus of the Bible. Oh, they’d say He was God’s Son, fully God and fully man. They’d talk about His redemptive work on the cross, His resurrection. They’d say all the right stuff about how Jesus saves us from sin and death.

But the Jesus at our church—as demonstrated by the celebrity status of our pastor—was proud and self-important.

Worse, the Jesus at our church was rich. Never mind that over and over again, the Bible speaks far more about the dangers of money—we were taught that Jesus was loaded. He had so much money that He needed Judas as His money manager. He was so rich that the Roman guards gambled for His robes at the foot of the cross.

And the Jesus at our church also wanted YOU to be rich, too! In fact, after you were saved from your sins, that was what you’d hear more about than anything else. Over the past four years, I’ve lost count of how many times Pastor has prophesied that this or that individual would begin to walk in the “greatest blessing” of their lives. “Blessing” was always understood within the context of money, of course. The crowds would REALLY begin to dance in the aisles when Pastor would prophesy that “the House” would experience financial overflow.

One such occasion was to be—along with the completely unscriptural favoritism of the rich that I’ve already discussed in a previous entry—the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

I mean, one Sunday morning, we were sitting in our usual spot when Pastor began prophesying about the great financial blessing that was coming to those of us in “the House.” For some reason, I just wasn’t “feeling it” the way I used to. Maybe I’d heard it all too many times before and had never seen it come to pass for many of the people sitting around me. Whatever the case, I felt oddly detached from this particular “Word.” I didn’t join the cheering masses who were on their feet, clapping and hooting enthusiastically. I did stand with everybody else when the typical up-tempo “shout music” began to play, but I didn’t feel any need to dance with them. Rather, as I watched all the people around me begin to do their typical “Holy Ghost gymnastics” because of the “news” that they were going to experience financial blessing, I felt even more coldness flood my heart.

And then I found myself thinking, “If the prophetic ‘Word’ had been that each of us would lead one person to Jesus this week, would these people be so excited?”

Sadly, I knew immediately that the answer would be “NO.” The frenzied joy on display all around us was for the love of money, NOT for love of Jesus or His Gospel.

On that particular day, I had to admit that there was something seriously wrong in my church. While I do believe that God responds to the prayer of faith, and I do believe that God will add “all these things” (which would include enough material blessings to get the job done) to anyone who truly seeks God’s kingdom, something was clearly out of whack. These people had it all backward.

That’s when I began sorting through what, exactly, was going on here. How was it that this place, where there was still some good teaching, could have so many qualities that are clearly out of alignment with Scripture?

I mean, let’s see. Our pastor was self-important, or at the very least did not mind APPEARING self-important. (He could, with just a glance of disapproval, have put a stop long ago to the door-opening, the frenzied pandering for his favor, but he obviously had chosen not to.) The church people placed a tremendous amount of importance upon quasi-biblical practices while ignoring many of the deeper truths of actual Scripture. The church believed in a Jesus who was very unlike the Jesus of the Bible, and this Jesus had led the church to blatant, sad materialism.

The hardest part of all of this is that, because of Pastor’s ultimate authority and his stranglehold on church governance, our only recourse upon discovering how our church has lost its way was…to leave. There is absolutely no place for us to bring our concerns. As we’ve gone round and round with everything we’ve observed over the past four years, both my husband and I have remembered lots of little references from the pulpit that now make perfect sense. Such as, our pastor often would make little “jokes” (which, in retrospect, were not at all funny but instead mean-spirited) about the idiots who would request meetings with him just so they could “debate theology.” Our pastor also talked a great deal about people who leave, how they’d be in a silly huff over some unimportant detail, how they’d get their feelings hurt, and then they’d make the biggest mistake of their lives by leaving “the covering of this House.”

And, on many other occasions, our pastor would, after trumpeting some controversial new teaching or some action, actually utter the phrase, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Or, “You didn’t hire me, so you can’t fire me.”

Looking back, a lot of this makes sense now.

And all we can conclude is that our former pastor, despite all that is good, right, and biblical about a lot of what he preaches, has knowingly and deliberately cultivated this cult-like church culture (notice a word theme here?), where fear of his (and his wife’s) displeasure has replaced the fear of the Lord.

That’s why, sadly, we must refer to him as our “former” pastor and this church as our “former” church. It breaks our hearts, but we have no choice.

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Covering?

I found this post (actually, my wife found it and forwarded it to me), and it hits the mark with what so many of us are dealing with. I’ve included it entirely here. The original can be found at this link.

Your average evangelical may have never heard the phrase “who is your covering” but it is very common in Charismatic circles. A covering is a governing spiritual authority. A member of a congregation may be covered by an elder or small group leader who is in turn covered by the pastoral staff who is in turn covered by the senior pastor. Usually the hierarchy stops there but it could extend to denominational officials. Most Charismatic churches are in a non-hierarchical denominations or in no denomination at all.

I’ve always struggled to understand why so many people in these types of churches stress the importance of being under authority. If you really believe in church governing authority you better hook up with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church.

The whole concept of covering has minimal biblical support. 1Cor 11 is the only place you’ll find coverings. They were a physical covering women wore on their heads. These coverings are identified as a symbol of authority.

11:3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the
man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
11:4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his
head.
11:5 But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered
disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head.
11:6 For if a woman will not cover her head, she should cut off her hair.
But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head
shaved, she should cover her head.
11:7 For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and
glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man.
11:8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man.
11:9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man.
11:10 For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her
head, because of the angels.

Taken literally and directly one could argue that Paul maintains that husbands have authority over their wives. However it would be hard to use these passages to justify some sort of hierarchy of church authority because Paul plainly states Christ is the head of every man, not an elder, pastor or apostle!

If you ask someone to explain what covering means they would probably start talking about accountability. Your covering is just someone you are accountable to. A quick search in the bible (NRSV) on accountability finds the following relevant passages.

Ro 3:19 – Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are
under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be
held accountable to God.
Ro 14:12 – So then, each of us will be accountable
to God.
Jas 2:10 – For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has
become accountable for all of it.

We are held accountable to God and there is no mention of accountability to other Christians. I don’t want people to hear something that I’m not saying. I’m not saying the concept of accountability is unbiblical. I would argue that there is something deeper and richer than mere accountability. I would call that concept koinonia or fellowship. Some forms of accountability can be found in koinonia. This form of accountability is primarily relational, between equals. It is driven by love and based on mutual submission. It is only possible inside a transparent, trusting relationship. The focus is building up one another in love.

A common form of accountability is the stick and shame approach.

Shame: I avoid committing certain acts because I don’t want to admit my shame to my accountability partner.
Stick: I avoid committing certain acts because I will face certain negative consequences if an authority finds out.

Both of these are much like the regulations Paul talks about in Colossians “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”
Sadly this is the main form of accountability that exists in church. When it is over emphasized it makes koinonia less possible. Fear of shame or judgment keeps people from being real. What often happens when people file in to a church building on Sunday morning? They go in to church mode. In church mode language, mannerisms, and behavior all change to project a more holy image to others. The lack of transparency and authenticity makes real accountability impossible.
Unfortunately when we over emphasize accountability it ceases to be part of life giving fellowship and becomes oppressive.
What about authority then? There is lots of biblical support for authority. 1Peter 5:1-5 (NRSV) is as strong a verse as any.

1Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ,
as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among
you

2 to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the
oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it not
for sordid gain but eagerly.

3 Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the
flock.

4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of
glory that never fades away.

5 In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of
the elders.
And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your
dealings with one
another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to
the humble.”


How we understand authority has to reconcile with Jesus’ and Peter’s words about
lording it over others.

Matthew 20:25-28

25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the
Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you
must be your servant,
27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;
28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give
his life a ransom for many.”

Paul also chimes in on the role of leaders in the church.

1Cor 2:5-10, 21-23

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.
6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each
will receive wages according to the labor of each.
9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must
choose with care how to build on it.

21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,
22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the
present or the future—all belong to you,
23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Church authority exists but it is found inside a church leadership marked by servanthood, humility, and equality. We are all God’s servants. Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The emphasis in the New Testament church is the work of the body, the entire body. Leaders exist and they do have their roles but they do not dominate the life of the church.

This is what bothers me so deeply about many Charismatic churches. The spiritual authorities dominate and maintain a tight control on everything. They are not equals. They are the spiritual elites.

I’m still deeply shaken by what Paul means in verse 22 when he says that the apostles belonged to the members of the church in Corinth. What does that mean for leaders to belong to the people in their oversight than the other way around?

Are there times for church authority to hold people accountable for their actions? Yes. Sometimes people engage in activity that is extremely harmful and they should be sanctioned or removed for good of the church. This kind of policing should be done as a last resort. This should happen when all other forms of encouragement fail.

From what I observed most leaders that stress “coverings” aren’t as concerned about fruitful accountability. They are far too content with a church that has very little koinonia and a whole lot of top down control. Biblical accountability is primarily found in mutual submission. There is “top down” authority in the New Testament but it is used primarily as a last resort to keep the church safe. When the emphasis switches from mutual submission to hierarchy the church is hindered as people don’t have the freedom to minister as God has called them. The working of the gifts is not facilitated but stifled.

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