I’ve just finished reading a beautifully written memoir In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott. It is about the author’s relationship with her larger than life father and his family’s participation in a religious cult: The Exclusive Brethren. No surprise that it’s well written, as Stott teaches literature at the University of East Anglia in Britain.
The Exclusive Brethren are one of the two major sects that arose when the Plymouth Brethren split in 1848. Her father, Roger Stott, was at one time a minister in the Brethren, as was his father before him. Today, the Exclusive Brethren number about 45,000 worldwide; they reside mostly in the UK, Australia, the United States and other English speaking countries.
Like most cults, the Exclusive Brethren of the 1950s and 60s had powerful, charismatic leaders ( James Taylor and JT Junior). They had a rigid adherence to dogma and practiced shunning for individuals and families who even minimally strayed from the doctrines promulgated by the father and son Taylors.
The Exclusive Brethren were enormously patriarchal. While women attended church meetings, they were not allowed to participate in the meetings. Women in the sect dressed beyond modest and home schooled their children long before it became popular. The Brethren tried as much as possible to live apart from a world they believed was controlled by Satan, and they believed that Christ’s return in the Rapture was imminent. Many worked in family and cult run businesses that were quite successful. They took care of each other and that made it doubly difficult to exit the cult.
They believed that scripture precluded them from even eating lunch with non-Brethren. As one can imagine, one onerous rule on top of another made for an increasingly strange, idiosyncratic lifestyle.
The Plymouth Brethren came into existence in the late 1820s. One of their influential pastors was John Nelson Darby. Darby’s name is not well known except by those deeply into Christian theology or church history– and yet his influence on contemporary Christian dogma is immense.
Contemporary beliefs about The Rapture is largely the result of Darby’s teaching. The Rapture of the Church — and the church being sanctified born-again believers — will occur just prior to the time of the Great Tribulation. Jesus will be seen coming down from the clouds and all true believers will rise to meet him in the air (I Thess. 4:16-17 ). They will be taken from the earth and not have to endure the seven years of hell on earth that will precede the end of the age. The general public is familiar with Darby’s formulation of the Rapture due to the broad influence of the Scofield Reference Bible and the Left Behind series of bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
Rebecca Stott was a young girl when her family parted ways with the Exclusive Brethren. The Exclusive Brethren splintered into several factions following a 1970 convention in Aberdeen, Scotland. Over the course of several days a very drunken JT Junior openly hit on the wives of other Brethren men and called some leading men of the sect names — “bastard” being one of them. His behavior was so strange and uncouth, and yet his reputation so inflated, that many in the audience simply looked the other way. Some thought that he was testing their loyalty. Many tried to excuse or rationalize his behavior. The cognitive dissonance engendered by the strange scene caused some to say it just didn’t happen. Nevertheless, denying the sinful, deviant and often illegal behavior of a draconian leader is a depressingly common practice in Christian cults.
After the splintering of the Exclusive sect, Roger Stott the author’s father, became increasingly worldly. He was a brilliant man, widely read in Shakespeare, Yeats and T. S. Eliot — and deeply immersed in the brooding films of Ingmar Bergman. He pursued acting in a little theater group. He was also a compulsive gambler. He very clearly suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as bipolar disorder. As is typical of so many bipolars his spending habits were excessive and he eventually served a brief prison sentence for embezzlement.
The author vividly and poignantly describes her attempts to cope with the craziness of the cult via escapist fantasies as a child — and the subsequent shock of having to come out into the “real” world around age eight. However, the book begins with her trying to help her dying father finish writing his memoirs and him trying to come to grips with how so many apparently good people remained immersed in the madness of the Exclusive Brethren. She comforted her father as his life ebbed away and attemptted to get some closure on their strained relationship. Like so many wounded children she sought acceptance and love from a parent who always remained a bit distant. Her story, her family’s and the cult is told in a series of extended flashbacks. It is beautifully written and at several points I found myself welling up.
It struck me as particularly sad that the obvious hypocrisy and madness of the cult caused her to turn away from Christianity and instead to place her faith in science. She has written and lectured extensively about evolution and Darwin. I suspect the loss of faith happens to many who emerge from Christian cults.
In Stott’s recounting of the various Brethren sects and their innumerable spits over doctrine of no great importance I was struck by how much it resembled a history of Christianity itself with its endless heresies and schisms — and also how my own experience of the faith has been a microcosm of that endless ripping apart of Christ’s Body.
My early indoctrination was both as a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic and at various times as an adult I have attended Nazarene, Congregational and Presbyterian churches. I found my church “home” 25 years ago in the new paradigm for evangelicalism: the Nondenominational Urban Megachurch. Seven years ago, feeling progressively unsatisfied with the megachurch, I started also attending a small fellowship that met in homes. It seemed a wonderful change until the home church started splitting over doctrine — the pain of Christ’s greater Body being reflected in the microcosm.
Around the same time I started attending a 12-step para-church organization called Celebrate Recovery (CR). A three hour CR meeting echoes a church service but unlike most churches the folks attending CR are far more transparent about their struggles and not as dogmatic in their theology. Accepting Jesus as one’s savior and progressively drawing closer to him is the key. Healing and sobriety is merely a byproduct of that relationship. Theological details beyond that relationship are of secondary importance. Participation in CR for those struggling with “hurts, habits and hang-ups” offers folks much more in terms of relationship and support than most any individual church and certainly any denomination.
Today, I tend to identify myself as a Jesus-follower instead of a Christian. My personal journey from church to church reflects the restlessness of contemporary Christianity. However, in most every manifestation of believers I’ve observed the work of cultish dynamics — powerful, charismatic leaders, rigid adherence to dogma, top-down control and an attitude of scorn or fear to those with different beliefs.
I have written about cults and cultish behavior in my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations. One of the three temptations Jesus faced (Luke 4) was that of power and control, and control is what cults are all about. The leader imposes his paradigm of reality onto his followers using various methods of power and coercion. He usurps their reality and free will and imposes his own.
Jesus, however, after the 40 days in the wilderness rejects the offer of a shortcut to power and glory. He refuses to worship Satan. Jesus quotes scripture: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'” He thoroughly rejects the idol of power and the devil’s offer of it.
The first couple of the Ten Commandments are about idolatry. Being first, presumably they are the in some sense the most important, and it is very evident that seeking power and control over others is an enormous idol for most people –the spectrum of control ranging from the angry outbursts of the “terrible twos” to the pettiness of a micromanaging spouse or boss, all the way to Hitler, Stalin or Mao. Idolatry is an ever present temptation in the life of a believer — and perhaps the greatest of idols is that of power and control — the all-too-common sin to usurp another’s freedom.
Contemplating the inherent evil in cults and cultish behavior brings Jesus’s message of setting people free into sharp focus (John 8:36, Gal. 5:1). The abundant life and the freedom Jesus promises is the polar opposite of the idolatry at the very heart of all cults. If not to the leader, there is likely a idolatrous belief in some idiosyncratic interpretation of scripture. In other words, the Lord revealed some truths to only them that left out the other 99% of Christians. But even beyond that, some folks plainly make an idol out of scripture. I find it terribly sad that they are more in love with their interpretation of the words than they are with the author — and as the wilderness temptations illustrate, Satan knows scripture quite well and is very capable of using it against mere humans.
One of the unifying beliefs of all the Brethren sects is of avoiding Satan’s worldly snares so as to be found worthy of being taken in the Pre-tribulation Rapture. Much of Darby’s Rapture doctrine is based on a few verses in I Thessalonians, and I pretty much bought into it too until I read eminent theologian N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. Wright casts that passage into the context of the First Century. The intent of folks meeting Christ in the air was not Him taking them away but one of them welcoming Him back to earth. It was a custom of that era for people to greet an important emissary outside of the gates of a city and accompanying them in. In other words, Darby, Tim LaHaye and myriad other Bible expositors misinterpreted the passage and likely engaged in the wishful thinking that true believers will escape the horror of the Great Tribulation. Most mature believers experience of Christ is not that He will spare us from trials and tribulations but that He will accompany us thru them.