Our community is both fascinated and repulsed by the cults, but what should our attitude be? Should Evangelicals be persecuting and seeking to eradicate the cults? Or is religious freedom a more important principle? The Briefing examines the issues.
PART 1: FIGHTING FOR THE CULTS
The pictures were horrifying: bodies slumped over one another-mothers and children, brothers and sisters-no sign of life. This barren and lifeless village surrounded by jungle became a symbol of all that was hateful about fanatical religious groups-Jonestown.
The Jim Jones Affair has afforded the word ‘cult’ with a sinister, conspiratorial connotation. From its roots as a word that simply described religious worship, ‘cult’ has become a term of suspicion and contempt. A cult is a group that I am opposed to, a fanatical, narrow-minded group of zealots that all right-thinking people (like myself) despise. It will tend to be an exclusive community of ‘saved people’, whose mission is to revive true religion in the world, and who will go to any lengths to achieve it.
Evangelicals might prefer to define a ‘cult’ in terms of doctrine and teaching. A cult is a minority group that has deviated from the great truths of the gospel. More often, however, it is the size and methodology of the cult, which is picked upon. They are seen as not being ‘mainstream’, as being on the fringe of religious respectability. They concentrate on minor issues and emphasise the importance of a total conversion to the beliefs and practices of the group.
On this definition, Evangelicalism itself might well qualify as a cult. We are hardly a majority within Christendom, and many accuse us of majoring on minor issues. We stress the need for individual conversion and total commitment, even beyond the call of family loyalty.
For the cults, as for Evangelicals, making new converts is a primary goal. The cults are convinced that their teaching and manner of life are the only valid options in our world-they are committed to persuading people to join them.
For many onlookers this is an objectionable goal. To disturb the status quo of a comfortable existence, to divide people from each other, to shift from our cultural roots, to become ‘religious’-these cannot be right goals to pursue, so it is said. Of course, this is why Evangelicalism is also unpopular. Our goals are very similar. We must listen carefully to people’s objections to the cults and weigh up whether they also apply to us-are they objecting to the very idea of ‘religious’ conversion, or to the method of achieving it?
Many of their methods show a marked lack of respect for the integrity of the individual.
It is in this second area of methodology that the cults are most open to criticism. We may share their concern for personal conversion (albeit to a different gospel), but we must distance ourselves from their methods. Many of their methods show a marked lack of respect for the integrity of the individual. Often their practices do not give the would-be convert opportunity to make a free and willing decision without coercion or manipulation. Some examples:
• On weekend conferences potential converts are denied adequate food, sleep and privacy, thus lessening their ability to make rational and reasonable decisions.
• Some cult groups are very good at ‘love-bombing’. People are bombarded with ‘love’ and positive affirmation so that they bond very closely to the new group before they have had a chance to think through the issues.
• Many cults isolate new converts from normal human relationships (such as family). By living entirely within the cult community, with no external point of reference, the convert is prevented from properly evaluating the actions and decisions that he or she is making.
• Some cults openly advocate the doctrine of ‘divine deceit’, whereby the evangelist is justified in misleading someone to gain their conversion. The end is said to justify the means.
• Others run their cult community like a prison camp. Every aspect of life comes under the authority of the cult leader-the individual has no choice over the daily details of living, but must follow the group in everything.
Invoking the vague concept of ‘cult’ is a lazy way of attacking one’s opponents. If I label your group as “little more than a cult” I can avoid having to assess and come to terms with your teaching. I can adopt the higher ground, implying that you are weak minded or weak willed and have been manipulated in a way that I, the stronger, more intelligent and psychologically well-balanced person, have been able to withstand. Because of the connotations ‘cult’ has within our society, it is now little more than a term of abuse.
By using the term ‘cult’ I can rationalise other people’s conversions and protect myself from evaluating this new teaching. I can lump this group in with all the other lunatics and remain safely within the mainstream of society. The majority, of course, will always be committed to opposing the truth. Who was it that said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it”?
Because of their doctrinal error and the disastrous personal effects of cult membership, Evangelicals are tempted to join in persecuting the cults. This persecution can simply be by naming them as a ‘cult’ in the full pejorative sense. However, it can also involve taking legal action against the cult to have it banned or censored. From its place within the mainstream church, Evangelicalism has some access to the power structures of society, and could use this to make the life difficult for the fledgling cult.
Religious freedom and tolerance have been won at a high price-let us not leap on the bandwagon of cult-persecution too quickly.
However, persecution of this kind is a two-edged sword. It ill behoves Evangelicals, who are often in the minority and viewed as a cult by others, to take up the sword against cults. The very legislation that we might use against the cults may one day be turned against us. Religious freedom and tolerance have been won at a high price-let us not leap on the bandwagon of cult-persecution too quickly. The Moonies, the Orange People, the Hari Krishnas, the Mormons-these may all be objectionable to evangelical perspectives, but using legal power and social approbation are not the tools of the Evangelical, but of the ungodly. They are also not the tools of the wise Evangelical for they can be used against us as much as for us.
It may seem a strange thing to say, but perhaps Evangelicals should take up the cudgels for the cults and defend their right to preach and teach and chant and meditate and to propagate their particular false and destructive views.
PART 2: FIGHTING AGAINST THE CULTS
Fighting for the cults’ right to exist is radically different from supporting and encouraging them. We must not offer them so much as a cup of cold water, or give them any assistance or hospitality (2 John 7-11). We must fight them with godly weaponry and assess their teachings and methods with godly wisdom. We need to avoid their objectionable methodology and yet meet the needs of people that the cults are addressing and supposedly satisfying.
THE PLACE OF TEACHING
Strange and heretical groups are not peculiar to the Twentieth Century. The Apostle Paul also grappled with opponents in his ministry:
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:2-4)
He [the elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. (Titus 1:9 4)
We have a battle on our hands, a battle that must be fought by contending for the faith “that was once for all entrusted to the Saints”. The Christian minister must not only teach the truth to Christians, but also to non-Christians and any that oppose him.
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26 )
False teaching must be met with the teaching of the truth. This is our weaponry and armoury. It is important that we listen carefully to the teaching of each of the cults, so that we can answer them from the word of God. God’s word is powerful and transforms lives. We must back up the teaching of God’s word with changed and godly lives, in accordance with our teaching, and pray that God’s Spirit would open people’s hearts, leading them to repentance and faith.
There is a danger in perceiving the cult purely in intellectual, doctrinal terms…
There is a danger in perceiving the cult purely in intellectual, doctrinal terms and paying no attention to the social and psychological factors that have lead to people’s conversions. Of course, the opposite is also true-too great an emphasis on the psychological factors (at the expense of their false teaching) will also lead us to misunderstand the nature of the cult. The devil uses both these areas to deceive. He not only uses lies and half-truths, but also plays on our weakness and sinfulness. The tragic flaws in our nature leave us wide open to his schemes-our itching ears that desire teachers that say what we want to hear; our inability to perceive our own evil desires and resist them; our love of novelty; our hardened hearts; our commitment to wealth, or family.
Understanding both the nature of the cultic false teaching and the frailty and vulnerability of mankind, we can rightly speak the true word of God in these situations.
However, the method of Bible teaching is also important. How should we speak God’s word? If we are to teach the word of God as Jesus and the Apostles did, we must call for and expect conversion. The disciples followed the pattern of their Lord in telling people of their need to repent and make a total change in behaviour. A message that does not push for the conversion of all people is not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christianity is a conversion religion and our method of teaching must involve a challenge for change.
However, because we believe in the sovereignty of God, working through his word to change the hearts of people, we should not be tempted to use manipulative or dishonest means in our proclamation of the gospel. The Apostle Paul was adamant that, like Christ, he acted from right motives, concerned only to bring glory to God and salvation to men. (Galatians 1:10; 1 Corinthians :4, 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12) Therefore he says that he “renounced secret and shameful ways” and “did not use deception”, nor did he “distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscious in the sight of God”. (2 Corinthians 4:2)
The godly, Christian method of evangelism is to be concerned first for the glory of God and second for the good of the recipients. Paul preached Christ as Lord with himself as the servant of his hearers. (2 Corinthians 4:5) The Christian’s commitment to the gospel of truth makes ‘divine deceit’ absolutely abhorrent. When we turn to the book of Acts, we see that Paul argued, reasoned and proclaimed the gospel to people over many weeks and sometimes even years. If it is God’s truth we are dealing with and his sovereign purposes that are being worked out, we have no reason to try to force conversions.
NEGATIVE LESSONS FROM THE CULTS
The cults’ use of underhanded methodology is an important lesson for Christians to learn. In our desire to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, we can unwittingly adopt some of the manipulative methods that are the mark of the evil one. It is important that we not only avoid these methods, but also avoid the appearance of such methods.
We must instruct our leaders of our house parties and conferences to make sure there is sufficient time for people to sleep and rest, to have good food and sufficient time and space for personal reflection. The late night teenage evangelistic conversation isn’t necessary as a means of evangelism. All-night vision sessions and prayer meetings are a danger to balance and reasonable reflection on the word of God.
Similarly, as new members and visitors come to our congregations we must not make our welcome so warm and effusive that we gloss over the need for repentance. (At present this does not seem to be a particular problem in the mainline churches, who are noted for their cold and indifferent treatment of newcomers.)
We also must be aware of the dangers of inviting people to live in a community with us, especially before they have had a chance to evaluate and understand the gospel in the context of their ordinary lives. While we are keen to see people make a decision for Christ immediately, we must allow for time, knowing that it is God who saves. Pressure from us is not needed; we can afford to speak gently, looking for God to grant repentance.
POSITIVE LESSONS FROM THE CULTS
As new religions gather disciples from the community that we are seeking to reach with the gospel, there are many positive lessons for us to learn. Often the half-truths of the cult speak to the needs of individuals in a way that we, who are preaching the true gospel, should have been speaking.
Often their methodology is not immoral or manipulative, but shows up the slack and inept practices that we have been following. Frequently, the cult has an aggression and concern for the salvation of others that puts our comfortable inactivity to shame.
Cults provide an integrity, idealism, and commitment that are true of Christianity and yet sadly lacking amongst Christians. Converts to the cult can find a sense of reality, of dedication and willingness to put into practice what is preached-this should be found in every Christian church, but rarely is.
We are not tapping the idealism of youth and asking for a life-changing, world-changing commitment to the gospel. Instead we are tolerant, even encouraging, of their desire for worldly success, and offer them the gospel as a hobby for weekends. Instead of a profound experience of God, we manifest a thoroughly acceptable, middle-class, Australian mediocrity with a Christian ‘covering’ to rationalise our wealth and commitment to Anglo-Saxon values. We no longer see ourselves as the people who are changing the world with the message of Jesus, but as those entrusted with the upholding the traditions of yesteryear.