“There are difficult times ahead. As the end approaches, people are going to be self-absorbed, money hungry, self-promoting. . .addicted to lust. . .They’ll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they’re animals. Stay clear of these people. These are the kind of people who smooth-talk themselves into the homes of unstable and needy women and take advantage of them, women who, depressed by their sinfulness, take up with every new religious fad that calls itself ‘truth.'” 2 Timothy 3:1-6 (Msg)
Religious fads, money hungry evangelists, smooth-talking narcissists, depressed women, addiction to lust–Paul’s 2,000-year-old advice to Timothy sounds awfully contemporary. Sounds like the makings of a great Hollywood script. In fact, this past year we had The Master–a film reportedly based on the early years of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The Master, brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, wasn’t a Christian, of course, more of a spiritual guru–the sort who appear on Oprah with vacuous sayings about “positive thoughts” and of course, material blessings.
What I’ve been struck with of late is just how much religious cults, and church leaders with cultish followings, are led by men whose primary motivation seems to be lust–first lust for power and control, and then ultimately, sex. Perhaps, the id, the primal urge, is much of what underlies the masculine need to dominate and control. I write about cults and the temptation of power in Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations: “All cults seek control over their followers but the most pervasive and abusive cults brought to our attention by the media are those promulgated under the guise of religion, or pseudo-religions such as Scientology. Typically, the ‘prophet’ or leader of the cult passes himself off as God’s anointed one–and in some instance, like Father Divine back in the 1940s, God himself.” More often than not, the pastors of these flocks exercise executive male privilege when it comes to having their way with the better looking “ewes.”
Power is the greatest aphrodisiac, and so it isn’t any wonder that very powerful controlling leaders with cultish followings end up in bed with one or more of their followers. More than one high profile ministry leader with a cultish following has been brought down by a sex scandal. In recent decades, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard come quickly to mind. Bakker had his Jessica Hahn, Swaggart favored hookers and Haggard a boy-toy.
Characteristics of Cults:
* Strong charismatic leader
* Top down control and chain of command
* Dictated use of money or possessions
* Rigid adherence to dogma
* Strict code of behavior, often dictating diet and clothing
* Fostering an insular “us-against-the-world” ethos
* Viewing the outside world with suspicion
* Isolating their followers from the outside world and alienating them from family
* Aggressively recruiting new followers
Jonestown and beyond:
Cults that have made shocking and lurid headlines in the past few decades are Jim Jones’s Jonestown, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and Warren Jeffs renegade sect of polygamous Mormons. In all of these cults, sex was a major part of the scenario–the leader and sometimes other adult males having their way with many of the followers.
In 1978, the Jonestown massacre occurred when evangelist Jim Jones’s empire in the jungles of Guyana was threatened by Congressman Leo Ryan’s investigation. Jones had taken his followers in the People’s Temple from California to South America to isolate them and further solidify his control. At his command over 900 of his flock drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid when it appeared that his empire was about to be uncovered. Jones’s main animus seems to have been his paranoid take on national politics, and his growing meglomania was apparently fueled by drug use. He mixed drugs, politics and religion–a volatile mix–and at various times sounded like a marxist, championing North Korea, and later in his reign referring to himself as God. However, Jones, who was married, took liberties with women in his sect as well, and he was credited with fathering several children. On one occasion he agreed to have sex, and father a child, with a woman to keep her from leaving his cult.
In 1993, the Branch Davidian cult’s compound near Waco, Texas was destroyed in a fiery apocalyptic Armageddon orchestrated by its leader, David Koresh. Fifty-four adults and 31 children died because of Koresh’s madness. Koresh had many liaisons with teenage girls in his cult, and was actively being investigated by child protective services for the goings on in the Davidian compound when the ATF raided it.
In 2008, a polygamous sect of Fundamentalist Mormons made the national news when the Texas Dept of Children and Families removed 416 children from the sect’s compound, the Yearning for Zion Ranch, in a remote corner of SW Texas. This followed allegations of the sect’s patriarchs having numerous wives under the legal age of 17. This aberrant branch of Latter Day Saints was led by Warren Jeffs. His official title was “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator” His clan of several thousand followers lived in remote locales in the West, well off the radar screens of authorities, where they could quietly practice polygamy–and engage in the serial rape of children. Jeffs is currently serving a long prison sentence but most of the kids have been returned to the compound which Jeffs still rules from long distance.
Gothard’s IBLP, Vision Forum and Patriocentric parenting
Other cultish organizations outside of national media scrutiny thus far are Bill Gothard’s IBLP: The Institute for Basic Life Principles and Doug Phillip’s Vision Forum. These are two patriocentric organizations favored by many in the Christian home schooling movement. They believe that God is clearly revealed as a male in the Bible and that Adam being created first, before Eve, reveals the natural order in Creation. In other words men run the show, and women and children are here to serve the dad. Women are not allowed to teach men or hold positions of authority in the church. Women stay at home and adult girl children remain at home and under parental authority until they are given away in more or less arranged marriages. They favor a literal interpretation of scripture, and have a dominionist view of history and Christianity. The IBLP is clearly a cult, and their doctrinal first cousin, Vision Forum, has a cultish following. The rockstars of these organizations are Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar–and their 19 children. They are part of the (don’t laugh) “quiverful” movement (Ps. 127:5) that see having as many kids as possible as fulfilling a biblical mandate.
The IBLP has thousands of adherents and their ATI (Advanced Training Institute) runs several camps and retreat centers around the country. The Gothard/IBLP/ATI experience is one of a gradual initiation into an inner circle thru participation in one seminar after another. Initially, there is some obvious biblical truth in what the IBLP teaches. I attended one of Gothard’s introductory seminars, and while it wasn’t appealing to me, there was little in the teaching that I could disagree with. However, the deeper one goes into the ATI seminars the nuttier and less biblical the teachings become. Gothard is a man in his upper-70s who has never married or had children, and yet he passes himself off as an expert in marriage and child-rearing. In the IBLP “Wisdom” manuals he opines on every subject from childbirth to nutrition.
He has been taken to task by other Christian leaders for not dealing with sexual improprieties in the IBLP leadership, and Gothard himself has been accused of having an unseemly interest in innocent teenage girls–and perhaps what sounds like a foot-fetish. One of his former groupies, age-18, states that upon finally being introduced to the great man that he wanted to play “footsie” with her under the table at lunch. She was given a job at the IBLP heardquarters, and his preoccupation with touching her feet occurred day-after-day both at lunch and in private sessions in his office. An organization called Recovering Grace is dedicated to helping reeducate former members of this cult. A similar organization G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) is run by a former state’s attorney, Boz Tchividjian, who has prosecuted hundreds of cases of child sex-abuse–and who also happens to be Billy Graham’s grandson.
The most evil aspect of Gothard’s organization is not sexual abuse, but it’s destruction of families with its emphasis on a rigid patriocentic hierarchy instead of a focus on love tempered with discipline and healthy boundaries. The IBLP appears to have no understanding at all of what freedom in Christ means. Instead, they emphasize an “umbrella of authority” starting of course with God, then Gothard and then the father. This parenting model appeals to fearful, insecure men–and also to parents who are just flat-out into power and control. The umbrella of protection paradigm pervades all of their theology. I personally know a family with three children fractured by the lunacy of gothardism. The three girls are now young adults–the eldest has married, moved away and has little contact with her parents, the middle daughter now lives on her own, works and goes to college–and is labeled by her parents as living in some sort of state of rebellious sin. The youngest, age 21, remains at home, and more or less a prisoner. The dad allows his daughters very limited, closely monitored contact with his own mother, their grandmother, because control-freak that he is, he views this very godly woman, as a threat to his authority. Consequently, he’s filled his mother with grief and deprived his daughters of a richness of experience with their grandmother. A few years ago when actively under Gothard’s spell, I observed the kids behaving like Stepford wife robots and speaking about grace like it was something for wimps.
Gothard believes, among other things, in literal familial, generational curses, and holds that crimes like sexual assault are somehow ordained by God as a means of ultimately keeping women from going astray–in other words, a fear of rape is really a backhanded blessing. His take on Christian doctrine is very legalist, rigid and old covenant to say the least.
Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Aimee Semple McPherson
Not all sects are led by nut-job men. In the interest of gender-equity, there is Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939-2009) and the Church Universal and Triumphant. She inherited this “church” in 1973, upon the demise of her much older husband, Mark Prophet. At one time CUT claimed to have over 100,000 members in congregations all over the world. CUT’s headquarters shifted locales world-wide over several decades, eventually settling near Yellowstone Montana, and partially residing in bomb-shelters in preparation for the coming nuclear holocaust. Church Universal and Triumphant’s theology was an amalgam of Christianity, Theosophy and various New Age doctrines and was heavily dependent on Ms. Prophet’s personal revelation from the “Ascended Masters.”
Back in the 1920s, evangelist and faith-healer Aimee Semple McPherson had a cultish, rock-star following from her temple in Los Angeles. A stunning redhead clothed in white robes, she was one of the first to broadcast her services on radio. She helped birth a very legitimate revival in this country and a denomination still around today: The FourSquare Church–but she also may have had an Achilles heel when it came to relationships and sex. She was widowed at a young age and had two subsequent marriages. She was also the subject of numerous rumors and gossip but none of the allegations were ever proven. In 1926, she disappeared while swimming in the Pacific and was thought to have drowned. She surfaced five weeks later and claimed to have been kidnapped. While she was missing there were many Aimee sightings, and it was roundly believed that she was having a five-week affair, but once again no one knew for sure–except Aimee. She was most definitely a pioneer rock-star evangelist, and as such, was an object of envy, gossip and rumors in a very misogynist era.
Cults Under the Radar
Cults come in all shapes and sizes–but cultish organizations often appear so innocuous as to not be recognizable as such. My blogger friend Jim Wright makes the point that the most nefarious men with cultish followings are the most charming and relational of men, and that these men are so under the radar when compared to the over-the-top weirdness and evil of say, David Koresh or Jim Jones, as to be totally invisible except to the most discerning of believers. They exude so much friendly charm and apparent “godliness” that they are totally disarming. There is a part of us, if we are good, to want to see the good in other people–and usually even in the worst of people there are some redeeming qualities.
One of the trends of the past few decades in American Christianity has been the rise of the Nondenominational Urban Megachurch. Some of these churches border on being cultish. They don’t just have a building and a sanctuary, they have a whole campus that is almost like a Christian theme park. Members not only worship and learn there via dozens of specialty groups and classes, but they are also encouraged to dine there, recreate there and socialize there–complete with game rooms and playgrounds for the kiddoes. These churches are designed to meet all of the needs of their congregants. In many cases they offer too much of a comfort zone, and thus tend to insulate their members from the society around them. These megachurches function outside of any denominational oversight, and their board of elders is self-perpetuating and usually in the hip pocket of their very strong, controlling pastor. Members of the congregation start defining themselves by their church’s branding, and by their local-celebrity pastor’s reputation, and as a “family” more than as members of Christ’s greater Body. Megachurches have the enormous resources to do good, even great works, in a perishing, unbelieving world, but in the hands of a pastor who is a narcissistic sexual predator they can turn into equally great liabilities for Christ’s Body.
Sadly, it seems like every few weeks all around the country there is news about some local megachurch pastor getting in trouble for a dalliance with one of his flock. Typically, these stories makes a splash in the local media only to be replaced in a few weeks by a national story with more lurid headlines. Often the church’s elders and associate pastors first response is to close ranks and attempt to sweep it under the carpet. If that doesn’t succeed then the perpetrator is talked about in terms of having an addiction or sickness. There is usually more of an emphasis on forgiveness and understanding than repentance.
Power being the greatest aphrodisiac, it isn’t any wonder that the strong leaders of cultish churches, and religious sects in general, end up sexually abusing one or more of their flock. In the past year three head pastors in the Orlando area (Isaac Hunter, Sam Hinn, David Loveless) of local megachurches have either resigned in disgrace or been fired because of sexual sin. All three of these churches had memberships around 3,000 – 5,000 and were aggressively marketed and growing. They had snappy, cutting-edge names like: Discovery, Summit and The Gathering Place–nope, no prosaic Second Baptist or First Presbyterian for these flocks.
Home, Organic and Simple Churches
Another fairly recent phenomena is the growth of ekklesia–small, very participatory fellowships which generally meet in members homes. I’ve participated in several of these fellowships over the past couple years. They are a somewhat self-conscious attempt at imitating the First Century Church of Acts (I Cor. 14:26). Initially, I was swept off of my feet by the sense of family they offered, by their egalitarian quality, and by their participatory nature. Their worship was truly worship and not an entertainment that one sat back and watched, and their discussions were as relevant and as intimate as one wanted to make them.
But per my friend Stan’s dictum (Hahn’s Law): “Big churches have big church problems; small churches have small church problems.”–these fellowships have issues too. For one thing they can become cultish and insular–largely ministering to their dozen or so members and not have any greater missional focus. Also, problems between two key members can completely destroy an organic church because they are so small. Another disturbing trend in this movement is the rather existential, almost mystical “Christ is all” focus of some of organic church’s most prolific writers. They somewhat arrogantly maintain that church has been done all wrong for nearly 20 centuries, and that God has been a “homeless” God restlessly and relentlessly manifesting Himself, first thru the Jews, and then as the Bride of Christ, the Church. They see Christ’s Body as literal and not a metaphor. Christian blogger par-excellence, Jim Wright (crossroadjunction.com) has taken them on in a lively doctrinal debate–but he has also uncovered a disturbing pattern of likely sexual misconduct by one of organic church’s narcissist superstars–and this man’s tendency to foster a cultish, rock-star, hero-worship of himself instead of showing a track record of healthy, thriving organic churches.
It appears to this writer that the Church in whatever manifestation–orthodox, denominational, nondenominational, organic, etc.– is no more immune to the machinations of narcissists and sexual predators than any other area of society. In fact, certain individual churches and denomination’s authoritarian, patriocentric approach, and injunctions against the sin of “rebellion”, almost guarantees an atmosphere in which abusers can thrive–this is especially true of cults passing themselves off as churches.
I prefaced this with some of Paul’s advice to Timothy and I will end it with more advice from 2nd Timothy 3 and 4 from Eugene Peterson’s rendition The Message:
“Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They are as decieved as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there things can only get worse. But dont let it faze you. Stick with what you have learned and believed. . .there is nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful. . .I cant impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder. . .keep on your watch. Challenge, warn and urge your people. Don’t ever quit. Just keep it simple.”