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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