Watch Out For Churches That Behave Like Cults

Some people blindly accept church rhetoric, but they risk going down a dangerous path

We’ve all heard stories of people taken in and indoctrinated by cults. Though some stories end happily after they extricate themselves from the control the cult, too many situations end badly.

There are many common characteristics to help us identify cults and cult-like behavior. Here are some of the key things that reoccur on many of these lists.

  • Utopia: The community seems too good to be true. Everything is wonderful; there are no problems. Peace and harmony abounds. (And when a potential problem surfaces, it’s quickly squelched.)
  • Exclusive Leadership: One person, or a handful of people, exercises excessive control over the group and restricts other people from participating in leadership.
  • Absolute Beliefs: Their group has the only true understanding of truth. All other groups are false.
  • Loyalty: Devotion and submission to the group is expected.
  • Persecution Complex: Everyone else is against them. The group has an us-versus-them mentality.
  • Critical Thinking Opposed: Questions aren’t tolerated and are quickly repressed.
  • Isolation: Members are separated from family and friends.
  • Shunning: People are discouraged from leaving, with excessive penalties for those who try.
  • Dependence: The group creates an emotional dependence by offering excessive love, acceptance, and support.
  • Lack of Transparency: The group’s finances are hidden from members, and inappropriate behavior by its leaders is accepted without question.

When we read this list, we’re quick to agree these characteristics are both wrong and damaging. We would never want to be in a group that behaved this way.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen some churches whose behavior and attitudes parallel many of these characteristics of a cult. While I won’t label them a cult, the way they function fills me with apprehension.The behavior and attitudes at some churches parallel many characteristics of a cult. Click To Tweet

These churches have a dynamic, charismatic minister who people follow without question and accept every word he or she says. The church’s doctrine is presented as the only true understanding, with everyone else being an error. Members are encouraged to separate themselves from those who disagree with the church’s teaching, including their family and friends. The church envelops its members, providing a tight emotional bond and offering support to such an extent that members worry about what they will lose if they leave. Though threats aren’t given, the outcome is clear they risk being cut off from the community.

Am I claiming that some churches are cults? No. But I am suggesting that they’re veering too close. And from the outside it’s sometimes hard to see the difference.

What’s the solution?

Don’t allow one person to control or dominate the group. Share leadership broadly. Be transparent. Be egalitarian. Encourage questions. Seek diversity. Make Jesus the focus, and let the Bible guide.

When I read about the early church in the book of Acts I see this type of positive, open community demonstrated in how they function. We must consider their example carefully.

The challenge in this is to examine our own church’s practices in the light of these characteristics of a cult. Then take whatever steps are needed to avoid even the appearance of cult-like activity.

With so much at stake, we can’t risk even the appearance of impropriety.

We Need to Stop Interpreting Scripture Through the Lens of Our Practices

The Bible should inform our actions, not justify our habits

Read the Bible with an open mindChristianity has its traditions and religious practices. We often persist in them with unexamined acceptance. And if we do question our behaviors, we can often find a verse in the Bible to justify them. But that doesn’t make them right.

We need to interpret scripture through the lens of scripture and not from the perspective of our own practices. The Bible is the starting point, not the ending. When we begin with what we do today and work backwards, looking to the Bible for support, we will usually find it, but we may be in error.

Consider the following.

Church Attendance: The Bible says to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Most people interpret this as a command to go to church. That’s not what the verse says. This command is a call to Christian community. This may happen at church on a Sunday morning, but it could also happen at a different location the other 167 hours of the week. This meeting together thing happens whenever two or three are gathered in his name. The point of this verse is that we shouldn’t attempt to live our faith in isolation.

Communion: Another area is our practice of communion. We even read the Bible when we partake. This makes us wrongly conclude that our celebration of communion is biblical. It’s not. The context of communion is at home with family, not as part of a church service. We’re doing communion wrong.

Sermon: Why do we have a sermon every Sunday at church? Because it’s in the Bible, right? Yet biblical preaching is to those outside the church.

You’ve heard the phrase, “preaching to the choir,” which is understood as the futility of telling people the things they already know. Yet preaching to the choir is effectively what we do at most churches every Sunday. Preaching is for people outside the church.

Worship Music: Why does a significant portion of our Sunday service include music? While singing to God is prevalent throughout the Bible, it’s interesting to note that nowhere in the New Testament is the use of musical instruments mentioned. Does this mean our singing to God should be a capella? It’s worth considering.

And the idea of having a worship leader is also an anathema to the biblical narrative. When we gather together we should all be prepared to share and to participate, which might include leading the group in a song.

Sunday School: The justification for Sunday School—aside from tradition and “that’s the way we’ve always done it”—often comes from the Old Testament verses to train up a child (Proverbs 22:6) and teach your children (Deuteronomy 11:19 and Deuteronomy 6:6-8). But who’s to do this training? The parents. Delegating this critical job to the church is lazy parenting.

But if we’re going to persist in the practice, let’s at least give Sunday School a meaningful purpose.

Tithing: Giving 10 percent is an Old Testament thing. The New Testament never commands us to tithe. Think about that the next time you hear a minister say we’re supposed to give 10 percent to the local church. That’s wrong. Though tithing might be a spiritual discipline, it’s not a command.

Offerings: Though there is some basis for the Sunday offering, we’ve co-opted it into something it wasn’t meant to be. Paul’s instruction to take up a collection each week was for the express purpose of giving money to those in need (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). How much of a church’s weekly offering goes to that?

Church Buildings: Though the Old Testament had their Temple and the Jewish people added synagogues, the New Testament followers of Jesus met in homes and sought to connect with others in public spaces. The idea of building churches didn’t occur until a few centuries later. Church facilities cost a lot of money and take a lot of time, distracting us from what is more important.Peter says we are all priests, and Paul says we should minister to each other. Click To Tweet

Paid Staff: The concept of professional, paid clergy also didn’t occur until a couple centuries after the early church started. Peter tells us that we are all priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9), and Paul tells us that we should minister to each other (1 Corinthians 14:26). When we pay staff to do what we’re supposed to be doing ourselves, we’re subjugating our responsibility and acting with laziness. Paul set a great example, often paying his own way on his missionary journeys. Today’s ministers should consider this. Seriously.

Prior posts have touched on these subjects in greater detail. They might be worth considering as you contemplate the above items. We persist in these practices out of habit and under the assumption that the Bible commands us to do so. We conclude this because we read the Bible wearing blinders, focusing our attention on our practices and seeking to find them supported in the Bible.

It’s time we reexamine everything we do and make needed changes. And if we do, it will be a game-changer.

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What Does the New Testament Say About Temples and Priests?

Through Jesus we become his priests and his temple, which should change everything

Jesus makes us his priests and his temple.In the Old Testament the people go to the temple to encounter God. The priests help them in this; they act as a liaison between them and God.

In many ways we still do this today. We go to church to encounter God. We look for our ministers to help us in our quest, to act as a liaison between us and God.

But this is a wrong perspective. We cling to the Old Testament practice and largely forget how Jesus fulfilled it. Peter helps us understand this in his first letter. He says we are living stones built into a spiritual temple, prepared for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus (1 Peter 2:5).

Yet from our perspective of going to church to encounter God, this verse is confounding. It turns what we do upside down, and that’s the point. Jesus came to turn the old ways upside down and make something new for us.

We need to embrace this. We need to change our perspectives.

Living Stones: As living stones our actions matter. We live for Jesus. We live to honor him, praise him, and glorify him. We live to tell others about him through our actions and even through our words. Our faith is alive, and our actions must show it.

Spiritual Temple: As living stones we become part of the construction of his spiritual temple. And if we are part of his temple, we don’t need to go to church to meet him because, as his temple, we are already there and can experience him at any time.

Holy Priesthood: As living stones we are being made into a holy priesthood. If we are truly priests through what Jesus did for us, then we don’t need ministers to point us to God, explain him to us, and assist us in encountering him. God is preparing us to do that for ourselves as his holy priests.

Spiritual Sacrifices: As living stones and holy priests, serving God in his spiritual temple, we offer to him a spiritual sacrifice. This spiritual sacrifice negates the need for many of the animal sacrifices and offerings we read about in the Old Testament.Through Jesus we do things in a new way. Click To Tweet

This thinking is so countercultural to the way most Christians live today that it bears careful contemplation. Through Jesus we do things in a new way. We are living stones built into a spiritual temple, being prepared for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices.

This can change everything—and it should.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is 1 Peter 2, and today’s post is on 1 Peter 2:5.]

Do We Ever Place Our Traditions Over God’s Commands?

Jesus condemns those who supersede the Word of God with their religious practices

Do We Ever Place Our Traditions Over God’s Commands?Jesus asks the people, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your traditions?” (Matthew 15:3). He goes on to give an example that is culturally relevant to his audience, but which doesn’t connect so much with us today.

Of course we would never do such a thing, would we? Sadly, we too place traditions over God’s commands. Consider these examples:

Vain Repetition: Jesus tells the people to not pray using vain repetition (Matthew 6:7), yet in church growing up we did this every Sunday, repeating a prayer from rote memory, as well as the Ten Commandments and often a creed. Yet he commands us to avoid vain repetition. Other translations say “meaningless repetition” and “babbling many words.” The Bible says to not do that, but we do.

Do Not Call Anyone Father: Jesus specifically teaches us not to call anyone Father (Rabbi or Teacher) because only God is our Father. The principle seems to be against elevating our spiritual leaders with titles, perhaps suggesting we should avoid “Pastor,” “Reverend,” and “Doctor,” as well as “Father” and “Rabbi.” Yet we do this (sometimes at the insistence of our spiritual leaders), and some traditions specifically use Father, but Jesus says not to (Matthew 23:8-10).Jesus tells us to give anonymously, to not call attention to our charitable giving. Click To Tweet

Give in Secret: Jesus tells us to give anonymously (Matthew 6:3-4), to not call attention to our charitable giving. Yet our Sunday offerings are a public event and certainly not done secretly. Yet our tradition trumps God’s command.

Seek Man’s Approval: Though it’s not a direct command, Paul condemns those who try to win the approval of people. Instead we should follow his example of trying to please God (Galatians 1:10). Yet how often do ministers water down sermons in order to avoid human offense, which might cause parishioners to get mad, cause a stink, or withhold their donations?

These are a few ways we put our own preferences above what the Bible says. I’m sure there are many more. Be on the lookout for them, and then seek to do things God’s way, regardless of tradition.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Matthew 14-16, and today’s post is on Matthew 15:3-7.]

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What Do You Expect From Your Pastor?

Ministers toil under a load of heavy demands that shouldn’t be there, and we need to change that

What Do You Expect From Your Pastor?I have read two stats about ministers that chafe at my soul.

The first is that most pastors have no real friends. When you remove the relationships they have with their congregation and denomination, where they must always guard what they say and act in expected ways as a spiritual leader, they have no friends. They have no relationships where they can be themselves. They have no place to relax with those who will accept them for who they are. They have no confidant to share worries and struggles with who will not judge them. Despite all their social interaction, being a minister must be a lonely job.

The second is that of seminary graduates entering the ministry today, only one in forty will retire from it. The other thirty-nine will switch careers. That’s 97.5 percent who will leave the job God called them to do. First, this doesn’t say much about the success rate of seminaries in preparing people for ministry. Second, this hints that a job as minister carries near impossible expectations, which is to our shame as laity, because:

We Expect Our Pastors to Spiritually Feed Us: How many times have you heard someone leave a church because “I’m just not being spiritually fed?” Have you ever said that? I have, and I was wrong to do so. My minister isn’t supposed to give me a week’s worth of spiritual nourishment on Sunday morning. I’m supposed to be mature enough to feed myself throughout the week, eating solid foods and not relying on milk as a baby. Expecting our pastors to do this for us is unfair and unbiblical.

We Expect Our Pastors to Always Be Available: Most congregants assume their pastor is there to meet their needs at any time. This puts ministers on call, 24/7. As someone who was continuously on call for years, I know how draining it is. (My on call was primarily for technical issues; people issues could usually wait until business hours.) I would cringe when the phone rang and eventually drafted my wife to screen calls. It took me years to recover. It’s not healthy to require ministers to be available at all hours, to jump when we call.

We Expect Our Pastors to Align With Our Interests: If we are passionate about a cause, we presume our ministers will share our fervor. But if they did this with everyone in the congregation, they would need to align with every movement and care about every good initiative. We have unique, God-given interests and should allow our pastors to do the same.

We Expect Our Pastors to Solve Our Problems: We assume ministers will provide counseling when we need it, meet with us whenever we want, and answer the phone every time we call. We expect a one-stop solution to whatever ails us, with our pastor as the answer. But there are not enough hours in the day for one person to meet everyone’s needs to their complete satisfaction.Instead of expecting our ministers to serve us, we need to serve one another. Click To Tweet

These expectations don’t come from God. They come from society, church culture, and past practices. But instead of expecting our ministers to serve us, we need to serve one another, to become priests to each other (consider the “priesthood of believers”). We start by consulting the Bible and looking at all the verses of how we are to treat one-another: to love, accept, instruct, submit, forgive, teach, admonish, encourage, agree, give, and so on.

If we do this, when we do this, we will place fewer expectations on our clergy. They will have less stress, and we will more fully align with what the Bible says we are supposed to do.

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s September newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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The Truth about Seminary

Seminary doesn’t prepare people for ministry; it merely meets manmade expectations

The Truth about SeminaryI know many people who have gone to seminary. And I have friends who are going to seminary. I encourage them, pray for them, and once even helped pay the tuition. I respect those who have gone to seminary and graduated. Yet for most ministry-minded people seminary is a waste of time. Truly.

Seminary Is Man’s Idea: Attending seminary is a human concept. Nowhere in the Bible is there a command to pursue advanced education in order to minister to others. Jesus doesn’t say, “Before you go into the world, spend three years in advanced studies,” he just says, “Go.” We made up the seminary part because it seemed like a  good thing to do, but it isn’t God’s idea.

Seminary Isn’t Required: None of the disciples, apostles, or elders went to seminary or received any sort of special religious training (Acts 4:13). The only one requirement is that they had spent time with Jesus. Yep, that’s it. The one essential qualification to ministry in the New Testament is having spent time with Jesus (Acts 1:21). Paul barely qualifies because, as one too late, he lacks one-on-one time with Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:8-9), but…

Seminary Knowledge Confuses People: Paul is the closest example in the New Testament to having a seminary degree. However, this detracts rather than helps. After Paul talks to Felix, the governor exclaims, “Your great learning is driving you insane,” (Acts 26:24, NIV). Yet Felix is an outsider. What do insiders think? Peter, the church’s first leader, writes this about Paul: “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand,” (2 Peter 3:18, NIV). At best, advanced learning creates a gulf between ministers and other people.

Seminary Doesn’t Help: I read that ministers who haven’t been to seminary are happier in their jobs than ministers with religion degrees. Furthermore non-seminary ministers are deemed more successful in ministry than their diploma-toting peers. So it seems seminary prepares ministers who will not be as happy or as successful.

Seminary Delays Ministry: I’ve had my heart broken too many times by people who say, “God has called me to full time ministry – so I’m going to seminary.” The first part excites me. The second part vexes my soul. If God calls you to full time ministry, then obey him and go. Don’t waste three years to get more schooling that doesn’t really matter, because…

Seminary Trains the Wrong Things: Seminary does little to draw students into a closer, personal relationship with Jesus, help them connect with God through prayer, or partner with the Holy Spirit. And it doesn’t focus on the essential people skills needed to lead a congregation. The one thing seminary is good for is to prepare people to teach at the college level. A seminary graduate possesses the academic credentials universities require. Of course to actually teach seminary requires a PhD, but an MDiv does give great credentials to teach at a Bible college.

Seminary Wastes Money: While a few seminaries are free, most cost money to attend. Spending money on something that isn’t commanded or required by God, delays ministry, and prepares for the wrong things is foolish and an example of poor stewardship. Instead invest that money in kingdom-facing initiatives that will actually do some good.

If God actually tells you to go to seminary, then go. Otherwise just start serving him. Click To TweetThe one thing seminary does accomplish is that it fulfills the expectation of people that their clergy have endured the rigors of advanced education. Indeed, in some religious circles a seminary degree is a necessary document to gain entrance. Yet this manmade requirement does little to equip ministers with the skills needed to do their jobs well.

If God actually tells you to go to seminary, then go. Otherwise just start serving him and leave the advanced education to the academics. Jesus is all you need.

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Don’t Be a Baby Christian

Learn how to eat spiritual food and feed yourself

Don’t Be a Baby ChristianThe author of Hebrews (who I suspect was Paul) warns the young church, the followers of Jesus, that they need to grow up. Though many of them should be mature enough to teach others, they still haven’t grasped the basics themselves. They persist in drinking spiritual milk when they should have graduated to solid food.

When most people hear about this passage, they assume the baby Christians, those subsisting on milk, are other people. They reason that this verse couldn’t be a reflection on their own spiritual status – or lack thereof. The truth is that I fear the church of Jesus is comprised of too many spiritual infants.

If you don’t believe me, let’s unpack this analogy. In the physical sense, babies drink milk and are wholly dependent on others to feed them. As babies grow they graduate to solid food and begin to feed themselves, first with help and then alone. This is how things function with our physical bodies and how things should function with our spiritual selves.

So when people go to church on Sunday to hear a sermon, they expect their pastor to feed them. They subsist on spiritual milk. Instead they should feed themselves and don’t need to hear a sermon every week in order to obtain their spiritual sustenance.

When pastors feed their congregation each Sunday, they keep their people in an immature state (albeit with more head knowledge) and help justify their continued employment. Instead pastors should teach their church attendees how to feed themselves, to not need a pastor to teach them. If ministers do this, they could work themselves out of a job. But that’s okay, because there are plenty of other churches in need of this same teaching.Mature Christians can feed themselves and don’t need a sermon every Sunday. Click To Tweet

Some might infer this means that the mature Christians, those who can feed themselves, don’t need to go to church. This is only half correct. Mature Christians can feed themselves and don’t need a sermon every Sunday, but they do need to meet together and be in community with other believers.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Hebrews 5-7, and today’s post is on Hebrews 5:12-14.]

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s August newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Are You a Pastor?

It’s time to reframe our idea of what it means to be a pastor

Are You a Pastor?

I am not a trained minister, an educated member of the clergy, or a professional pastor. These titles all unnerve me. I am not a pastor, at least not in the traditional sense.

About a decade ago a woman left me completely flustered when, full of sincerity, she asked, “Are you a pastor?”

I gasped and then suppressed a laugh. “Oh, no!” I assured her. “I am definitely not a pastor.”

She cocked her head and eyed me quizzically. “Well you certainly seem like one.”

My initial thought was offense. Despite having many pastors who are friends, I apparently didn’t hold the profession in high regard. However, I suspect her words were given as a compliment, even though they freaked me out. Later I shook my head in disbelief and in a vain attempt to dislodge the memory from my mind.

But this wasn’t the only time someone asked me this question, merely the first. The second time, despite being caught off guard again, I believe I responded a bit more graciously. This surprising question has been repeated over the years that followed and again resurfaced this past week..  Being a true pastor is not about credentials, it’s about having a heart to care for others. Click To Tweet

I hope people ask this because they sense something positive in me, such as a caring spirit, a gentleness that transcends self, or the love of Jesus oozing out. If so, the question “Are you a pastor?” is a tribute to God’s work in my life, even though my answer remains an emphatic, “No.”

Many people consider a pastor as synonymous with minister or preacher. I do not. I prefer to think of a pastor as a shepherd, as one who follows the example of the Great Shepherd. The pastor as shepherd is one who cares for his or her flock. Simply put, a pastor cares for others. This care comes through both prayer and through action.

In this respect, we are all called to be pastors, or as Peter writes, we are priests (1 Peter 2:5). As followers of Jesus we are tasked with caring for one another. I care for you and you care for me. We should not wait for the paid clergy to do this. We should act before they get a chance. This makes us pastors.

Yes, I am a pastor – and so are you.

When was someone a pastor to you? How can you be a pastor to others?

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s April newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

Do You Have a Spiritual Mentor?

Everyone needs someone to help him or her navigate the throes of life. As John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire to itself.” In truth, we cannot survive alone. We need others to walk along side of us. Every one needs help at some time, whether we admit it or not.

Do You Have a Spiritual Mentor?Such is the case in spiritual matters. We all need a mentor, a spiritual mentor.

A spiritual mentor can guide us, offering direction when we need it and challenging us when we think everything is fine. If we expect to grow in our faith and then put it into action, we need a mentor to direct us.

Mentoring can take various forms.

Mentors can approach us through books, instructing us from a distance, even over time. Biographies about people of faith can mentor us, as can the books they wrote and the things they taught. If they mentor us from the past we cannot ask questions. Even our contemporary mentors are often far enough removed that individual queries are not feasible. Unfortunately their mentorship is a monologue. Seldom can we engage in a dialogue with these mentors.

The Bible is a significant source of mentoring: from God – through his followers – and by God – through his Holy Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit can be a powerful mentor, if we are able to hear his voice and follow his direction.

Many people claim their pastor as a mentor, but this has many shortcomings. First mentoring from the pulpit is a one-to-many arrangement; interaction – just as with books – isn’t feasible in this format. And to expect your pastor to meet with every person one-on-one would leave no time for him or her to do anything else. Do the math and you’ll see. Besides most people already heap too many expectations on their ministers; to assume they can do one-on-one mentoring to the entire congregation isn’t realistic.

Everyone needs a spiritual mentor. Do you have one? Click To TweetThis means we need to find our own mentors. We can mentor one another. We should mentor one another.

Seek someone you can mentor and be available for someone to mentor you. You can even co-mentor one another. When one of you stumbles, the other can pick you up (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). Perhaps that’s why Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs (Luke 10:1).

Do you have a spiritual mentor? Are you a mentor to others?

Why Do I Love God and Hate Theology?

A simple definition of theology is studying God. Since I love God so much and love reading about him in the Bible you’d think I’d love theology, too. Right? Well I don’t.

Why Do I Love God and Hate Theology?Learning about God and contemplating him through his word excites me. I look forward to it every day. Yet theology leaves me cold. Start explaining the essential elements of a particular theological perspective and my eyes will glaze over. I’ll either get angry or yawn. Why is this?

Theologians make God boring.

It’s understandable. Theologians are academics, and if anyone can squeeze the life out of something it’s academia.

While working on my PhD I took a class on C. S. Lewis. I was so excited – until I read the syllabus. Though we would read one book Lewis wrote, the majority of the class would focus on books other people wrote about Lewis. Instead of reading Lewis we would read people who had read Lewis. While we could have studied Lewis firsthand, the professor inserted a degree of separation, and we studied Lewis secondhand.

Theologians do the same thing. They insert a degree of separation between us and God. While we can read God’s word directly, they effectively insert a middleman who interprets the Bible for us.

This made sense 500 years ago when no one had a copy of the Bible and most people couldn’t read anyway. But now we have our own copies of the Bible, and we can read it ourselves. So why do we need someone else to explain it? We don’t.

Yet I will go to church today and listen to someone explain the Bible.

Something’s wrong with this. It dates back to the middle ages when illiterate, uneducated people filled the pews. Things are different today. We can read and think for ourselves. We don’t need someone else to do it for us.We can learn about God through the Bible. We don’t need someone else to do it for us. Click To Tweet 

Why can’t we cut out the middleman and learn about God through his word, without a theologian or preacher who forces the Bible’s words to fit into a particular theological package?

I love God. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t stick my neck out to encourage everyone to remove all human filters and read about him firsthand.

Read the Bible. Cut out the middleman. Let’s start a revolution.

What are your thoughts on theology? Do you study the Bible or let others teach you?