“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 1:4)
I get so tired of church leader groupies. You know the kind. No matter what the person says or does, they are never wrong. “Their heart is on display” for the world to see what a fantastic person they are, and you are wrong, divisive, in rebellion, and unloving (if you are Christian at all) to point out anything that might be construed to the contrary. In fact, you are probably bringing God’s condemnation and curse on yourself by daring to question these clearly blessed and anointed people.
I am not above being inspired or helped by others, being encouraged, learning from, and discussing things with others (the more the merrier!), but ultimately, I am my own person. I still desire to “fit in” with society, but to fit in as me. I was made in God’s image, I don’t need to be made into another’s or a group’s. But groupies are different. Pastor, Bible study leader, church, band, or “fill-in-the-blank” ministry groupies march to the beat of their leaders’ drums, for better or for worse. There is nothing wrong with having a favorite author, singer, speaker, etc. but a line is crossed into the realm of “groupie” when your entire theology is wrapped (or warped) according to someone else’s teachings and beliefs. An even more serious line is crossed into the realm of “cult”, when your entire life is designed around someone else’s teachings and beliefs.
Signs of a Cult
Interestingly, a Google search for “signs of a cult” bring up resources mostly from Christian sites.
One non-religious, cult expert site is: http://www.culteducation.com/warningsigns.html
But the problem with lists like these is only those not in the cult see it. Those in the cult will immediately balk, saying things like, “We’re allowed to ask questions; People are free to leave; we know our leader is merely human and sins (although you will never know what those sins are, because they are not actually accountable to you).”
Still, these lists are useful and I would add to them, titling of leaders. Some leaders just stick with “Pastor”, “Reverend”, or “Preacher”, others use terms like, “Prophet”, “Apostle”, “Evangelist”, “First Lady”, etc. Titling goes directly against Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:8-10, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.”
It also goes against the examples of leaders in the Bible. Nowhere was Elijah called “Prophet Elijah”, even though he was a well-known prophet. Paul was not called “Apostle Paul”, “Evangelist Paul”, or “Pastor Paul”, but just “Paul of Tarsus”.
According to http://www.cultwatch.com/howcultswork.html , a cult is any group that uses mind control. This source is quick to point out that many cults involve people who are intelligent, well-dressed, and well-mannered, rather than the stereotypical cults with people who dress “differently” and act nuts. I would also like to point out that not all cults are small.
Cultwatch.com separates cults into different groups: religious, commercial, self-help & counseling, and political. I believe that there are some special groups who strive to encompass all of these under the heading of “religion”, and for this article, I am focusing on the Christian religion.
Cultwatch.com makes it clear they define “mind control” as a set of subtle, psychological techniques that strongly influence a person’s decision-making, rather than literally taking control of a person’s mind. In other words, quiet, subversive, manipulative tactics are preferred over brute force. A person is technically free to ask questions or leave or do what they want, but mind control methods psychologically discourage a person from doing so.
My dad was fond of a story about training elephants in India. He said when the elephants were little, trainers would place a rope or chain around the elephant’s foot, to prevent it from wandering. As an adult, the elephant remembered that, and even though it had the power to break the rope or chain, it didn’t, because it thought it couldn’t.
There are some “special” Christian groups and pastors who employ these mind control techniques. Just like Machiavelli’s suggestion in The Prince, leaders are careful not to put their real heart on display, but their display heart. They put on the proper attitude of perfectly balanced humility, boldness, and good humor just like putting on a shirt.
“…a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and heats him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Ever one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them.” (Chapter 18)
So pause next time, before you boast about how “transparent” your megachurch pastor/popular church leader is (Jesus wasn’t popular, you know…). How transparent can a person you only see and hear from (it’s rarely the other way ’round) once or twice a week for an hour be?
Do they flatter you by telling you, you are in their “inner circle”? Or maybe the entire church is meant to be the “inner circle”. They give the appearance of confiding in you, confessing to you, helping you personally, and making you feel as if you are really, finally doing something positive with your life, but all that is merely appealing to our prideful natures. It is not wrong to want to do good things for God, but when those “good things” take precedence over simple obedience to His word (when the end justifies the means), things have gone too far.
How can one tell? It’s actually quite easy. Don’t look at them, listen to what they are actually saying. Does it come across oddly? Does it seem over-the-top? Is it crass? Rude? Aggressive? Does what they say sound so super-spiritual it hardly makes sense? “The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:21-22). Most importantly, does what they say accurately line up with Scripture?
(Matt. 12:34-37) “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
The Israelites were good at looking good. They did all the right things, sacrificed at the right times, maintained the Sabbath and all religious festivals, and yet Jesus called their leaders “a brood of vipers”! He calls them “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23: 27-28).
Is the leader accountable to the congregation? A board of elders? Or “other pastors” of different congregations? Did the leader/pastor hire (and/or does he have the authority to fire) elders, co-leaders, and co-pastors? Could the congregation ask for said leader’s resignation without the church falling apart? How accountable is this leader to his/her own people/audience, really?
Does the leader earn an income from the church? Do they earn an income from DVDs, books, seminars, or public speaking engagements? Should they have both sources of income? Has it been made public that one source or a large portion of income has been designated for the glory of God (tithing)? Does writing and selling books interfere with leading? Does the leader or one of their hirelings do the church budget? Is the budget published? Can the budget be petitioned by regular members?
This one is tricky, because we are Biblically called to live above reproach for non-believers to see. Still, we are not to draw attention to ourselves or our “great” actions of love. Some leaders play the victim card, by inviting (or using) alleged persecution (in this case, I refer to when others disagree with something the leader says) to elevate their martyr status. A “super-Christian” could also be someone with their hands in many cookie jars. Are they leader of a large church, missionary organization, on the board of directors for a seminary, author, and traveling speaker? A super-Christian looks perfect, is powerful, is usually wealthy, and yet appears to remain humble (I refer back to “The Prince”).
All the Right Words:
In ancient Greece, those who excelled in the art of debate and speech-giving were elevated to celebrity status. Ancient Greek playwrights had and continue to have a profound influence on our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. The Ancient Greeks knew how to use words. Politicians, business, and church leaders have also been trained in such arts. They are great actors and public speakers, drawing their listeners in, hammering home a point, providing dramatic examples, and incorporating media such as video, music, and dance to emphasize points and convince their hearers of whatever point they are making.
Their goal is to illicit an emotional response from their audience, because it is in so doing, the audience will be moved to action. Soft words, dramatic pauses, graphic representations, personal testimonials, heart-wrenching songs, exciting promises, dimmed lights, giving non-essential orders (clap your hands, greet your neighbor, stand up, sit down, etc.), causing a controversy, and other techniques are used to manipulate an audience members’ emotions, and is then attributed to God working in that person’s life or heart.
A good speaker and author knows their audience well. They have researched and know what their audience’s expectations, desires, and needs are, and they will tune their writing, speeches, and personal appearance to be more acceptable to their audience.
The Bible has a great deal to say about learning, teaching, and living out sound doctrine. “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1) While everyone makes mistakes and grace should be extended, good teaching cannot be underestimated. Does the leader frequently make light of the Bible? Do they assume non-Biblical background stories about Biblical characters? Do they often take Scripture out of context (the only real way to know this is to read the Bible for yourself)? Do they claim they will fill in with quoted research “later”? Do they recommend reading the Bible less? Do they advocate alternative actions in place of Bible study, or ways to “enhance” personal Bible study such as repeating phrases or relaxation techniques? Are Bible studies handed down or strongly recommended by the church leader or those they have hired, or can individuals determine what they want to study?
A Perfect Example
Ron Carpenter is a pastor at Redemption World Outreach Center, a very large church in South Carolina, and recently put himself in the spotlight over his wife’s infidelity. After being attacked in online comments by some of Carpenter’s groupies that the man was honest and hurt, and hearing they called Carpenter and his wife “Apostle”, “Pastor”, and “First Lady”, I had to know more. I watched the full, 43 minute video of Carpenter’s 10/13/2013 confession for his wife (which appears to have been taken down, because the link now only goes to a version a little under 2 minutes) and picked up on several things, based solely on Carpenter’s own words.
- It is clear from the video, Pastor Ron makes all the major decisions at his church. He decides when he should go on sabbatical (not the Elders), he decides what outreaches they are doing (for example, the marriage conferences), and he has the authority to cancel them last minute (“we won’t be doing an anniversary celebration this year…”).
- It’s also pretty clear from the video, the Elders had no idea what had been happening in Pastor Ron’s life or marriage for the past 10 years. Pastor Ron holds himself accountable to Pastor Ron.
- His wife removed herself from all speaking and ministries, and stopped coming to church, but she was still co-Pastor, “First Lady”, and “Apostle”?
- Pastor Ron had panic attacks after his wife’s confession not because of his marriage, but because he “was in a PR nightmare” and was “known around the world”. And because he had a ministry to consider, he kept his marriage. (Also, Super-Christian)
- He said he had a secret inside. Why did he not seek a counselor? Why did he not give it to God? Why not take a sabbatical if he felt so hypocritical at the pulpit? Why not ask for prayer without giving details? “I did not deceive you”, he tells his congregation throughout his speech. (Also: Super Christian and Bad Theology)
- (Elder Rick) “Don’t let the world influence you with what they say about him [Ron]. That man is a man of integrity” (in other words, the world cannot hold Ron Carpenter accountable for his actions, because he is “above the world”. This is a classic cult tactic of preventing questioning of their leader).
- “I am bearing the expense of one year of extensive treatment”. How generous of a husband and pastor to take care of his sick wife.
- “Somebody wrote a book called The Necessity of an Enemy…” which he proceeds to quote while the audience applauds and stands, and cheers wildly. Is this really the time to plug your own book?
- He tears up and thanks everyone saying “hallelujah”, then bluntly states, “I am not going on sabbatical. I have not done anything wrong” (cue another standing ovation). (Also “Right Words” and “Accountability”)
- He recounts in intimate detail all the grueling, out of state counseling sessions, sleepless nights, panic attacks, hospital visits, etc. he endured because of his wife’s sin. He makes it clear he sees himself as simply an innocent helper, victim, and martyr.
- He tells everyone he hasn’t slept, lost 12 lbs in 4 days, ate half an omelet that day (odd detail), stayed up all night… and wept (Jesus wept reference?).
- I don’t know if he always speaks this way, but for this message, he speaks in a soft, low, rhythmic voice (similar to hypnosis/mediation); He also uses reverse psychology to challenge people to stay, and later to challenge people to clap.
- He flatters his church members, and let’s them know they are in his inner circle with phrases like, “it’s for you I’m here”; “I didn’t want to hurt you”; “I need you”; “I love you”; (at the end) “I need to be here with you”; “you are one of my only joys in life”. (Also “Super Christian”)
- He brings the audience into it (planting false memories?), claiming everyone at the church “saw her erratic behavior” and changed personality. But no one speaks up, no one apparently did speak up ten years ago, saw it or showed concern about it, else why did she continue in her role as co-Pastor for 10 years? (Also shows a lack of accountability)
- It is strange he tears up, recounting an experience that happened 6 years previously, and why did he not put the mike down during his crying? At exactly the midpoint of his speech, he breaks down and his audience stands, applauds, and reaches hands toward him in prayer. After a sufficient pause, he turns around and continues.
- He suddenly says, “I am so embarrassed, I cannot even look you in the eyes” with his head down, staring at the podium. This elicits encouraging applause, but why can he suddenly not look at everyone, when he’s been giving great eye contact the rest of the time?
- He invites people to leave without fear of being ostracized, saying he understands if they don’t want to be under leadership who has fought the kind of battles he has fought (this is reverse psychology and martyr-status again). Audience (as if on cue) stands and applauds again, hooting, and shouting, “We aren’t leaving”.
- “I will be here next week, and you don’t need to miss, because it’s going to be the most powerful service in the history of [this] church!” (continued ovation) This sounds like a plug for next week’s church service.
- No anniversary church celebration, but “this place needs to be packed because I am going to break something Apostolic over this house…You have been affected in ways you don’t yet know.” Does he really know that everyone in his large audience has been “affected” by his wife’s sin? Or is this another way to keep the people coming back?
- “The storm is coming. Brace yourselves.” What storm is he anticipating? Everyone seems very supportive.
- “I covered her then” (but not now?), “I covered her sins, like Jesus covered mine”. Red flag! People can’t do that for each other.
- “If this were ‘just’ sin, I would not be telling you this.” He knows he’s doing wrong by confessing her adultery before everyone, and he’s justifying it.
- “I have 2 joys left: my kids and you” (yet another ovation). What about God?
- “I will not be restoring this union. I am solid on this point.” Here’s the rub: she appears to be repentant because she allegedly went into treatment voluntarily. He claims she’s sick, but he will divorce her in her hour of need (in sickness and in health?).
- (Elder Rick) “Only the leader of the house can break the spirit”. (Elder Rick) “I think we need some touching right now.” (That’s just…creepy)
What Does the Bible Say?
Let’s contrast these techniques with Paul in the Bible.
Accountability: Although Paul appeared highly independent in his missionary travels, he was accountable to the churches he wrote to, and especially the church at Jerusalem and Antioch, who sent him and Barnabas as missionaries (Acts 11).
Money: Paul did not make money off his letters, or speaking engagements, despite the extensive traveling he did. Paul did not receive pay via tithe; instead he worked where he went as a tent maker (Acts 18:3).
Super-Christian: Although Paul wrote and traveled, he did not consider himself the leader of any church. He was not on a special board of directors, neither did he found any missionary society. He just went, worked, and spoke to people.
Right Words: Above all else, Paul was very clear about this one. He lived at the height of the ancient Greek rhetoric celebrities, but he was adamant, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)
Bad Doctrine: The truth about God’s word was of the utmost importance to Paul. He tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15); “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound[b] words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” (1 Timothy 6:3-4). And to the church at Rome, he wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17)
So I will close with my opening statement: