I love you guys, and I mean that. Part of my job is to protect you, and part of that job is to expose falsehood.
Here are some warning signs to know if you’re in a cult. Please know that most people in a cult don’t even know they’re in a cult, which is how they got there in the first place. But examine carefully. Everything from the voodoo pagan witch palace to the tiny little thatch-roof church around the corner can suck you in.
1) They will not allow free access to friends, family, or travel.
If your movements and communication are being controlled: well that’s something out of George Orwell.
Most cults begin a slow but steady process of squishing your world into cult-only people. You’ll be given a total love bombing, you might be convinced that your friends and family are bad people, that the cult “gets you” and are the only people who ever will, and for a final inoculation, they’ll warn you that your friends and family are the ones trying to prevent your freedom. It’s a bunch of psychological trickery that surprisingly works.
“It’s for your own good.” But it’s not. No one has the right to dictate those choices, even if those choices are stupid. The only exception might be that abusive boyfriend, but in that case you call the police. And not the doctrine police.
What about Christianity? — When a Muslim or Hindu or hyper-Christian-conservative family cuts off their kids, no real church should ever tell the kids, “That’s for the best.” There’s always hope for reconciliation and forgiveness. Persecution is never an excuse to return the favor, unlike the Fair Game Policy, which now makes me fair game to get a brick thrown at my face.
2) They ask for all kinds of money.
An authentic church service should never, ever cost money at the door, and should never ask for a single dime outside of creative resources. Even then, churches should really consider sharing those resources. It just makes the church look icky when they don’t.
Certain religions will demand money for spiritual upgrades. Upgrading to what: I don’t know. I’m sure it upgrades the leader to a Leer jet.
The problem goes beyond just asking for money. When there are $10 million church buildings while 26,000 children die every single day, something is wrong. Church buildings start to look like entertainment centers instead of sacred havens for the hurting. I’ve spoken to too many people who were turned off by touchscreens at church daycare centers and garish stages for the preacher wearing Hugo Boss armed with an iPad.
While I’m all for giving to a charitable cause, and certainly there’s an appropriate reason to give to a church, the whole thing is already skirting the edge of dishonesty. When preachers inordinately go off on tithing, “stealing from God’s house,” and basing your spiritual life on how much you give, people smell something rotten.
What about Christianity? — There was a time when I was convinced that churches were scams, passing around the offering plate while preaching hell to scare unwitting people into unloading their bank accounts. And it’s true that many “Christian” churches are full of scammers, con artists, rip-offs, and Peter Popoff.
But supporting the right sort of church or community is a good thing. Yes, some of that offering plate goes to paying the building’s bills — it should — but a sound church is also making a difference in the the wider world. And a pastor at some point has to talk about the uncomfortable topic of finances. Trust me on this: a decent pastor will hate talking about money, and will do it as sensitive as possible because he knows how hard you work for it.
The offering can’t ever be coerced, either. No church in its right mind is hanging over your shoulder expecting a hand-out. And no congregant should have to question, “Where is my money really going?” Which is why transparency about funds is an absolute must.
3) Only their “teachers” can interpret their teaching for you.
Some of you have heard that great story by Francis Chan, who was grieved over some Jehovah’s Witnesses: they were convinced only they could interpret the Bible through their special teachers.
A cult will not let you think for yourself.
That’s how most cults get you. They tease you with a seductive idea, pump your head full of it, then keep you walking in that delirious fog.
This worries me about some legitimaye Christian pastors who advertise their books with, Finally, now the secret of discipleship is revealed. Or some kind of cover-up has occurred. Or only the Reformed Calvinist group “really understand the Gospel.” When you gloat over the truth and feel sorry for those who don’t, that’s a cult thing, bro.
What about Christianity? — Christians and authentic communities will encourage the hard questions. They will not primarily tell you what to think, but how, and to reach your own conclusions.
No one can persuade you of anything anyway, because persuasion only works as long as the next best argument. It takes nothing less than a miracle of God to come to real faith. If someone has to convince you into that, you can be convinced right out of it. No one talks blind people into seeing. Which is why, in the end, you’ll have to pursue the truth for yourself. You’ll find that God has been pursuing you through all along.
4) They violently or illogically adhere to a standard.
With all the stories about children dying from their parents refusing blood transfusions and the infamous Lisa McPherson case, who was given “treatment” by Scientologist doctors and ended up dying from malnutrition and over a hundred cockroach bites, you’d think experience (and common sense) would prevail.
But many of us feel an innate drive to stick to standards, as if stubborn adherence in itself is a virtue. That leads to Pharisees, polygamy, isolation, and suicide bombings.
What about Christianity? — Following Jesus and his teaching is not easy. Some of the commands in the Bible appear difficult because they are difficult. Our natural inclination is to serve ourselves, put down other people, and take the easiest way out. Grace and peace and love are often counter-intuitive because those things inconvenience us.
The kicker is that we must be stubborn about love and serving. That’s how life makes sense. Jesus put the Pharisees on blast because they stuck to the rules at the expense of loving people. If someone were to fall down a well during the Sabbath, it makes no sense to uphold the Sabbath at the cost of a human life.
Often it’s our pride that drives us to silly self-righteous principles, which is like speeding the wrong direction down a one way street. But seeking the common good of humanity and the honor of God is a principle worth embracing against all odds.
5) It’s just weird.
Some cults are not very innocuous. If a group of people were to ask you to eat an electric eel while spinning cartwheels across a bed of rusty nails: well, hey man, like don’t do that.
But cults can also be great about sounding true. They’re not all hooded robes, cryptic symbols, and shady communes. Cults are mostly derived out of taking a truth and twisting it for some agenda. Eventually you’ll find some inconsistencies in the teaching. Of course there are no perfect preachers, but you have to wonder: At its most basic level, is this something God would say or I would make up? More specifically: Based on what I know to be reality, is this what I would expect given what I know?
What about Christianity? — From the outside, certainly some churches look weird. The raising of hands in worship, the loud lady who yells “Amen,” the preacher’s vocabulary, the Lord’s Supper. Not to mention the speaking of tongues, getting dreams from God, or being “slain in the spirit.” Or as Mormons believe, one day you can become a god.
I try to keep it simple here. If I were to read the Bible all the way through: What would I conclude? What is the obvious teaching of Scripture? Is this something I would teach my children? What would this look like for a future generation? How does this jive with reality?
Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match—all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go farther from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring.
Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies — these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simpler either.
— C.S. Lewis
1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
— 1 John 4:1-6
If I’ve missed anything, please let me know below. Love y’all.