p1 When a church loses its way and turns into a cult
People often invest their time and lives at a church because they trust a pastor teaching sound doctrine or feel comfortable with the people. But not everything always stays the same, some churches improve, others do not.
Sometimes people notice the change other times it can take a lot to wake up from ones deception. We hear of stories of people constantly being conned by men using the bible. I had watched a TV program on abusive churches that said, the faithful want to believe so strongly they don’t ask enough questions they get burned. And it can happen to any denomination or non denomination. “The Baptist foundation of Arizona promised to build churches, this scam cost 20,000 victims almost six hundred million dollars. In Florida another bogus investment scheme cost church goers nineteen million dollars and all they got in return was an apology.” As the TV special pointed out blind faith is costly. I would add that when you follow men without consulting the word you will lose all perspective and find yourself in the story of the pied piper. Jesus told us Matthew 7:15 "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” Jesus is making the point that they make themselves to look like sheep, they go baa baa. But not all want money - they all want followers, devoted loyal people to either them, or their unique cause or doctrine. They speak Christianese and are determined to have followers for lunch and dinner. Like a hungry wolf they chew up their flesh and spit out the bones.
The Pastors, elders are to watch over you like a shepherd cares for the sheep, this means, they are above all else to protect you from harm doctrinally and be a help when you are in need. To put it simply: A pastor (shepherd) is to care for the sheep. You expect a Church leader to do the right thing automatically, after all they are supposed to be more spiritually minded, but this is not always the case.
When pastors don’t watch over the flock there are those who will take advantage, from seeking vulnerable women to scams having to do with money. It happens more than one would think. Recently in Hawaii an involved member in good standing of a church targeted distressed homeowners and took off with a number of peoples money through their real estate scam, the FBI is still looking for them.
We have to be on guard, even in church and we should expect accountability so that we are safe from harm.
Watch how leadership cares for the sheep around you then you will know how they will care for you if the time comes. If a pastor can’t attend to someone in need, he should send another. When a pastor neglects taking care of people and the things necessary for the people he may lack administration skills, or, something may be taking place that is more than a flaw. Pastor’s/elder’s are to deal with the problems inside the church. If they neglect this then they are not fulfilling their duty as shepherds. The leaders are to be held to a greater accountability in the teaching and position of leadership. A church should be ready and willing to help those in need, to care for the sick, the financially hurting. They should not expect you to be giving to them your time or money if you are diminished in these areas. If possible, they should help with the hospital bills. But not all churches have extra funds to sufficiently take care of things like this. This is where body ministry should take place, people who are led by the Spirit and use their gifts of mercy or hospitality. When God sees a church handle these matters well He blesses them with more people because they have shown they care, and He can trust them.
There should be no forced volunteerism in evangelism or any work in the church. This often is the case when the church leaders have not taught people correctly or discipled them. They expect people to do the work like they do. They want to see results and may require people to do what the Bible says and fall into legalism. This happens when the Spirit is not moving and they try to get results in the flesh.
This can be seen by those who “Manipulate rewards, punishments and experiences to elicit behavior and attitudes desired by leadership” (Freedom of Mind Steve Hassan).
They give a certain criteria they expect from members and it is usually measured by them-self. It mostly about what a leader wants to see happen, not what the Lord may be developing. It can be about miracles and healings though it can be about practical matters as well. They will point to the bible, using themselves as examples and speak of all the miracles being done by their hands and expect the same from everyone else. This can be a reaction to an unusual high number of sick and dying people in the congregation. They may not recognize the Lord may be dealing with sin in the church (1 Cor.11:29-30).
We often hear about information control in shepherding groups. Leadership should have transparency, not like the transparency promised in politics. But a Biblical meekness that is yielding, honest and will try to do what is right by the Lord.Pay attention to how they handle problems, do they hide the details, do they change the details and try to sweep things under the rug or are they open and accountable. Is there favoritism because of people’s friendships, favoritism because of their visibility in what they do or there giving of tithes; this is an ongoing problem in the church.
There are Pastors who act like drill sergeants in the army, exercising authority but if they are not living in humility, being servants, serving others from their heart then it is not biblical authority that they are using. God will empower the humble, not the prideful. Some people thrive on control from their position, this is their self worth. They expect no questions or personal challenges, only obedience. It is often these same men do not like to be told they are wrong or be challenged; they want control over situations, and you. They are considered “cultic leaders” (those who overstep their authority) we identify it as strong shepherding. They will often gather their leadership to protect them. They insulate themselves to cover - up their own wrongdoing, incompetence, so they can stay in their position and nothing changes. Leaders make mistakes just like anyone else but it is how they admit their mistakes that is most important. There are differences between mistakes and continue doing wrong on purpose. A mistake will often be corrected by a change of behavior. People can think they are doing what is right while they are hurting innocent people, when they are told this and continue, they are practicing what is called cognitive dissonance. If one is hurting another and does not change their course, it is malevolent not a mistake.
There are pastors that control their board and there are churches whose board controls the pastor. This is why there must be a plurality of elders who have proven the word is their standard, not a pastor or a position. While there is a level of trust and loyalty to a pastor, one cannot have blind trust. Otherwise they will marginalize the hurt they are causing to people whom they are supposed to love.
I have seen very few pastors tell their congregation they were wrong, especially divulging specifics. But when they did I had more respect for their position and being a humble person. We should all be able to admit when we wronged others as quickly as possible, that bitterness, resentment, grudges, and anger do not develop. James 1:19-20 “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Quick to listen (not just hear), so that they do not produce a work in the flesh.
You need to be perceptive enough to know if you are bringing something up to a leader that he is willing to hear it. If it involves a conflict with another person the elder should always hear the other side to make an accurate judgment, both persons should be present. If this is not how it is treated then there is something seriously wrong with the way they approach these matters. These types of situations are most often the reason people leave.
If you have a conflict with a pastor that reacts like this and you want to tell him of a problem you are having with him or another leader or friend, do not go to him alone. If he thinks his job is in jeopardy or he interprets it as a personal challenge, he may not be friendly. You need to protect yourself with witnesses. Don’t take it for granted he will act as friendly to you as he was before, don’t expect the same reaction you have received over the years. Everything can change under these conditions. If his spiritual mind that is to be ruled by the word is put aside, then you know 1) he may not called to his position, (especially if this action is repetitive) or 2) he cares more about himself than what you have to say, and 3) he does not care what God has to say about the situation but is about his self preservation.
These type of people often do power plays. Don’t push the matter, leave it or he will find some way to hurt you. Don’t think that the shunning tactics or demonizing people only happens in cult groups and does not take place in churches that may have good doctrine; it does. Leaders/ pastors are not perfect and can just as easily step out of walking in the Spirit of Christ and become self absorbed. In our day this is becoming increasingly more common where people are brought to court instead of trying to work things out; because they are unable to do what the scripture tells them to (1 Cor. 6:1-6): to find one among them that is spiritual to judge a matter. When they do this they have left the Lords authority and cannot expect any grace until they repent. The Holy Spirit does not lead us against what is written and if a pastor says we do not have to listen to the word but to him instead, than he is either being led by another spirit or his self.
Church matters should always be worked out through the church. There is always a stark difference from those who want to handle matters like these in a biblical manner and those who do not. When you find a leadership react to any legitimate challenge, you have watched a church change into a shepherding cult. And there will always be a leader, a cult of personality is not only found in large churches, it can be found in small churches as well.
They can resort to various ways to make sure a member does not cause trouble. It can be as bad as to “ disrupt an individual's identity—personal behavior, thoughts, emotions—and reconstruct it in the image of the leader. This is done by rigidly controlling the member's physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life. Cult control is a social process that encourages obedience and conformity. It discourages autonomy ” (Freedom of Mind Steve Hassan). We have seen this as a very common activity in various degrees, it is always to have you not think differently than they do.
What you need to look for - do they treat you like a member of their organization or a member of the body of Christ? This means they do not immediately react with criticism or self defense to anything you disagree on (doctrine or something else). Do they listen, do they respect you? Are they are genuinely trying to see if what they are doing is wrong and not immediately judge you as wrong. Do you see them shuffle around the details or obfuscate the facts? Various techniques are employed to change people from being independent thinkers to dependent, to win them over to ones own conclusions. They may bring up the past, telling the person that they have not wronged them before so they should not think they are being wronged now. The group or church becomes more important, then you as a person are less important than church unity, because all they want to do is keep the peace.
Steve Hassan cites various examples of what can take place, one of the main occurrences is that they “disrupt an individual's identity—personal behavior, thoughts, emotions—and reconstruct it in the image of the leader. This is done by rigidly controlling the member's physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life. Cult control is a social process that encourages obedience and conformity. It discourages autonomy ” (Freedom of Mind)
Watch out for those who find their unity in friendship instead of the truth of Scripture. The danger is that doctrine will become neutral and fellowship is then based on personality. They have a different definition of unity. To them, if you are not uniting because of church membership to do what they want to do, then you are not considered friendly or in fellowship. You are a challenger to the direction they want to take the church, which is often not a good safe spiritual place if this is what it based on.
When they try to shield a pastor’s reputation instead of holding him accountable then you know there is a problem. True leadership in the church does not act in this manner, they care about the word and obeying the Lord above all else, even if it is their friend – they are willing to tell him he has strayed to bring correction.
As Proverbs states “Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. (27:5-6)
Watch for those who struggle with the flesh such as anger or have a temper. Those who love the finer things of life, who want the admiration of people, and want to be treated as special. They will be unable to minister correctly in situations that require these flaws to be put aside.
Just because someone is a pastor or has a big ministry does not mean they teach accurately or are even telling you the truth, this is what those who refuse to discern do not understand. Not everyone who calls themself a Christian has God’s intentions, or even good intentions. Paul and Peter both warned of false teachers in the early church and spoke of it becoming far worse in the latter days, the last day church will have many problems but this should not prevent us from finding other believers that we can fellowship and do ministry with.
Do we care about people or doctrine? People should not have to choose between the two, but sometimes they must. Doctrine is not what always holds someone to the group but friendships. Friends are harder to find. The concern that they will have to give up their friends brings insecurity and fear that they will be alone. Many often choose to stay and not see a problem through.
If a church has a problem with you moving to another church for fellowship then that is a warning sign. It is your belief system that should matter, not your membership of a particular church. As a Christian then you can move from one church to another and still be a Christian. Do not let anyone tell you that we forsake our relationship with the Lord when we are not fellowshipping at their church, or any church.
While we seek out fellowship and try to be part of a local body, in our day this is not always possible. Those who leave can’t always find a church with good doctrine. Moses was alone as God made him a leader. John the Baptist had no synagogue he attended, he was alone in the desert.
Heb.11 talks about those who were wandering the wilderness by themselves. Heb. 11:38-39 “of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise”
As believers we all have the Holy Spirit who is to be our teacher, our comforter. If a pastor insists you must have a covering, he is saying that he is to be your leader and that God will be in relationship to you t hrough him. There is no New Testament teaching of a covering, this is what is called strong shepherding. When you hear them say if you leave then you are forsaking the church or God, know that this is empty words to make you guilty. They will try to make you stay so everyone else will think that there is nothing was wrong. It becomes a matter of control. Telling you that you must be under a covering is a tactic of coercion to submit to their leadership. You are not there to make the pastor look or feel good. Some people want more control than the Bible gives them and it’s important that you recognize it before you fall in submission to them.
As Steve Hassan states , Knowledge of the tactics and characteristics of destructive influence is the best weapon .” (Freedom of Mind)
When the church becomes a battleground and you find people turning against you because of whatever reason, gossip, rumors or a refusal of fellowship you have no choice to leave. There is only so much one can do, you leave but you don’t have to be silent why you lefr.
Accountability is far below what it should be in our time, especially for those who lead. So many have been hurt from church leadership that they do not want to return to church anymore. I can fully understand their position, they want to be safe. It is best to find a church home, try not to hop around from church to church looking for that right fellowship. Don’t let a bad experience destroy your spiritual life. Those who have gone through these situations can minister to others and make the church a safer healthier place. Let God use your injury for his people and his glory.
p2 The sociological perspective of a cult