Christian Living

Spiritual Life


IN THIS CHAPTER, you will discover:

• The history of two destructive cults.

• The risks of deprogramming.

• Characteristics of fundamentalist and Pentecostal fringe groups.

• Historical tests of orthodoxy and heresy.

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:

• Understand the power of cults to ruin lives.

• Respond appropriately if your child becomes involved in a cult.

• Spot cultic tendencies within orthodox churches.

• Correctly balance experience and doctrine in your faith.

Destructive Cults

Reading: Another Gospel, pp. 372-75, 231-43.

Key Scripture: “With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed–an accursed brood!” (2 Peter 2:14).

Key Words: Sannyasins, Litnessing, Flirty Fishing.

The Manson murders and the tragedy of Jonestown readily come to mind when destructive cults are mentioned. But every cult, by virtue of its authoritarian, exclusivist outlook, is potentially dangerous. In this lesson we will look at two contemporary destructive cults – one rooted in Eastern thought and the other originating in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s.

Rajneesh Ashram

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh came to America in 1981 and established his own city, Rajneeshpuram, on 64,000 acres near Antelope, Oregon. Rajneesh’s Hinduism was very unlike Swami Prabupada’s. He clothed his monism in the garb of Western humanistic psychotherapy. He expressed his religious philosophy in an urbane, irreverent, “anything goes” style more suited to Westerners than Easterners. Rajneeshism combined mysticism, materialism, and sexual experimentation in a heady blend that attracted thousands of American sannyasins (renunciates or devotees). Most of these were well-educated, and an unusually high percentage were psychologists and psychiatrists.

A sign outside the assembly hall in Rajneesh’s Indian ashram reads: “Leave your mind and your slippers here.” In dozens of centers worldwide, sannyasins were taught to jettison their moral convictions and their rationality in the quest for enlightenment. Episodes were filmed that show “beatings, bones being broken, and an attempted rape during a therapy session” (p. 374). In Rajneeshpuram disciples worked twelve-hour shifts while Rajneesh assembled a collection of ninety-three Rolls-Royces. Murder plots were hatched and arms were stockpiled as the tiny town of Antelope was overshadowed and threatened by the commune.

Rajneesh was deported in 1985 for promoting sexual promiscuity and committing income tax evasion ­– the same reasons he originally left India. He died in 1990. Undoubtedly, other figures will appear to take his place and repeat his antinomian teaching that moral anarchy is the key to spiritual freedom.

The Children of God (Family of Love)

In 1968 Christian and Missionary Alliance evangelist David “Moses” Berg declared war on “the system.” Soon he was feared and rejected by his denomination, local churches, and city officials. Berg’s evangelism, though undoubtedly resulting in some genuine conversions, began to reflect his own alienation from God. As he became the “Moses” of a private Israel, a familiar pattern of cultic elements emerged: messianic claims, false prophecy, false doctrines, and occultism. Vast sums of money were raised through litnessing (the sale of religious literature) and flirty fishing (religious prostitution). The Children of God spread to over seventy countries, and thousands of young people were trapped and abused in Berg’s web of perversion and deceit.

Besides directing females to become “hookers for Jesus,” Berg also advocated homosexuality, pedophilia, incest, mate-swapping, and even sex with spirits. Berg’s downward spiral into spiritual darkness is chronicled well in his “Mo” letters which “damned” Jews, instructed children to “damn” their parents, and called for the murder of Berg’s eldest daughter and her husband.

Key Concepts:

1. Rajneesh taught: “God is not a person . . . there is nobody to pray to . . . all worshipping is sheer _____________ .” [373]

2. Rajneesh wed monism with Western humanistic ____________ . [See above]

3. Although Rajneesh’s devotees were called _________________ or
renunciates, they were encouraged to pursue sexual freedom. [374]

4. Berg received the gift of speaking in tongues from ______________ , his gypsy “spirit guide.” [233]

5. Berg ordered his female followers to be “hookers for Jesus” and called
the practice “ _____________________________ .” [237-38]

6. According to Children of God members, the “ ____________ ” letters are the “Word of God for today.” [239]

Life Application: Groups like those described above cannot be allowed to prey upon our children and communities, particularly in the name of the gospel of Christ. Do not be reluctant to report suspected instances of cultic abuse to the government authorities. Sponsor and support educational programs in churches about the dangers of cults. If contacted, representatives from the police department will often give informative lectures about occult-related crime.

Deprogramming and Exit Counseling

Reading: Another Gospel, pp. 27-28, 38, 260-61, 278-79.

Key Scripture: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

Key Word: Psychopathology.

What can parents do if their child becomes involved in a destructive cult? Many have resorted to deprogrammers in a desperate attempt to free the child from cultic involvement. Deprogramming is a form of coercive persuasion that is designed to reverse the brainwashing by which cults are thought to recruit vulnerable young people. Professional deprogrammers typically abduct cult members and keep them confined until their allegiance to the cult can be broken – if it can be broken.

Deprogramming is, at best, a risky and dangerous procedure. Approximately half of deprogrammings are successful. In those that are, cultists are forced to take an objective look at the character and doctrines of the organizations they are involved with. They are presented with evidence proving that they have been deceived and manipulated. They come to recognize that their neurotic dependency on the group has caused them to become emotionally and intellectually fragmented. Through the instruction and care of the deprogramming team (which usually includes the parents), the ex-devotee becomes self-determining once again. They recognize the value of the “outside world” and can accept love from those outside the cult.

In unsuccessful deprogrammings, cultists escape, fake a “deconversion,” or simply outlast the deprogrammers (or their parents’ ability to pay them). Children have successfully brought suit against their parents and the deprogrammer for kidnapping. Parents contemplating deprogramming also should consider that the moral character, expertise, and spiritual discernment of deprogrammers vary widely. Cultists have endured brutality and physical abuse from deprogrammers, which scarred them deeply and permanently alienated them from their parents.

There are other arguments against deprogramming. Evidence exists that brainwashing is less of a factor in cult conversions than was previously supposed. Also, psychopathology–mental and behavioral dysfunction–is lower among cultists than estimated. The high dropout rate among cultists suggests that parents might be wiser to wait out their child’s cult involvement than to run the risks involved with deprogramming.

There are two alternatives to deprogramming that parents of cultists can consider. If there is reason to believe that an individual involved in a cult has truly lost the capacity for consent and is psychologically or physically at risk, parents may petition the court for an ex parte conservatorship order. If granted, the parents may assume guardianship of the child for a specified period. A second alternative is exit counseling. In this form of counseling the cult member voluntarily dialogues with a counselor, and (ideally) a former cult member during weekends at home.

Above all, parents of cultists should continue to show them patient, unconditional Christian love. Although they are almost certainly unaware of it, the “love” that the cult offers is highly conditional. Eventually, a circumstance may arise in which the difference between the two types of love dawns upon the cultist. This is often the moment when the cult’s hold upon that individual breaks.

Key Concepts:

1. In his book Let Our Children Go! deprogrammer __________________ boastfully describes how he physically abused cultists. [260-61]

2. Deprogramming is effective about ____ percent of the time. [See above]

3. There is evidence that _______________ is less of a factor in cult conversions than was previously supposed. [278]

4. By the late 1980s fewer than ______________of the original nine thousand devotees initiated by Prabupada remained in the Hare Krishnas. [279]

5. ______________________ counseling involves voluntary dialogue with a counselor and a former cult member. [See above]

6. The love and acceptance that cults offer young people are highly ________
___________________. [See above]

Life Application: Most people join cults because the cult functions as a substitute family. The best way to “cult-proof” your children is to love them, create self-esteem in them, teach them how to think independently, and give them a strong Christian foundation. Are you doing these things? Do they know God in you? Do you communicate with your children enough to know their fears and goals? Do you empathize with them? Finally, in what ways can you share the knowledge you have gained from this course about cults with your children?

Fundamentalist Fringe Groups

Reading: Another Gospel, pp. 17-19.

Key Scripture: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13).

Key Words: Shepherding, Hyper-Faith.

Cultic activity does not always involve a departure from orthodox doctrine. Exclusivism, isolationism, legalism, authoritarianism, perfectionism, and a “persecution mentality” are all cultic tendencies that can occur within orthodox churches or parachurch ministries. Orthodox fringe groups are usually begun by domineering leaders who demand rigid conformity and obedience from their followers. The personal lives of members are closely scrutinized for “sin.” Strict control is exercised over all habits and decision-making.

A form of overly intrusive church discipline practiced by some fundamentalist and evangelical churches is called shepherding. A church member who is being shepherded reports to a specified church elder or leader in the shepherding hierarchy. Major (and not-so-major) decisions on the part of “sheep” must be cleared with the shepherd.

Many church leaders who championed shepherding have repudiated and abandoned it. In practice, it was found that the surrender of self-determination was psychologically and spiritually harmful. Also, the absolute control given to shepherding leaders often leads them to abuse their powers.

In Pentecostal fringe groups, hyper-faith teachings sometimes lead to cultic behaviors. These teachings make faith healing and “prosperity thinking” the focus of Christian practice. The deaths of fifty-two members of Hobart Freeman’s Faith Assembly – most of them infants and children – can be attributed to extremist attitudes about faith healing. The “name it and claim it” doctrines preached by some popular Pentecostal leaders today is closer to the “positive thinking” of Charles Fillmore than to biblical Christianity.

Often extremes of authority and Pentecostal enthusiasm are wedded within the same group (as with Faith Assembly). Such groups become so isolationist and doctrinally inbred that they veer off into Montanist extremism. An example is the Church of the Living Word, founded by John Roberts Stevens. The “living word” here is not Christ, but the prophetic utterances spoken by members during worship services. These utterances, particularly those of Stevens himself, are thought to supersede Scripture in importance. Ecstatic prophecy is seen as a way of “channeling” God whereby the human prophet becomes deified.

Fundamentalist fringe groups tend to major on minor elements of faith and doctrine. This inclination is strikingly illustrated by the practice of snake-handling. A few small sects make Mark 16:17-18 the cornerstone of their common worship service. They congregate (illegally in some states) to pray, drink strychnine, and pass around poisonous snakes. Every year several die. Tragically, some of these are children. Another group that “majors on minors” is the Assemblies of Yahweh. This movement separates itself from other Christians because of its insistence on a particular pronunciation and spelling of the names of God and Jesus.

In other fundamentalist fringe groups the group itself, rather than some element of doctrine, becomes the primary focus. Tony Alamo (born Bernie Lazar Hoffman) was a Christian evangelist who attracted a following during the Jesus Movement. Although its doctrine is orthodox, the Holy Alamo Christian Church is characterized by extreme exclusivism, uncompromising obedience to Alamo, and a “siege” mentality. Alamo is widely known today for his badly written hate literature aimed at Roman Catholicism, ex-President Reagan, and a parade of other “satanic” enemies.

Christians should beware of any group or church that demands excessive submission, or that makes minor points of Christian dogma into tests of orthodoxy. Christ came to make us free (John 8:34-36; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 5). He himself is the “one shepherd” (John 10:14, 16).

Key Concepts: [All answers above]

1. In the form of church discipline called __________________, each church member reports to a church elder or leader.

2. The surrender of ______________ is psychologically and spiritually harmful.

3. The death of fifty-two members of Hobart Freeman’s Faith Assembly was the result of extremist attitudes regarding _____________________.

4. The “name it and claim it” doctrine is closer to the “positive thinking” of ______________________________ than to biblical Christianity.

5. In Montanist extremes of Pentecostalism, __________________ utterances are thought to supersede Scripture in importance.

6. Fundamentalist fringe groups tend to major on ________________ elements of faith and doctrine.

Life Application: Are you presently under any extreme authoritarian or dogmatic restrictions in your church? How would you respond if you saw these tendencies developing? What should our attitude be toward those involved in fundamentalist fringe groups?


Reading: Another Gospel, pp. 399-406, 353-55.

Key Scripture: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5).

Key Words: Kerygma; Nicene, Apostolic, and Athanasian Creeds; Council of Chalcedon.

The growth of spiritual counterfeits and of religious pluralism has made discernment more difficult today than ever before. How are we to evaluate the differences in denominations and their many varied interpretations of the Bible? Dissension over the interpretation of the single phrase, “this is my body” (Matt. 26:26), has led to bloody warfare between Christians in the past. And what of the issues of church government, baptism, millennialism, charismatic gifts, the role of women in the church, and the nature of Scripture? With all these questions to consider, how do we know what constitutes heresy and what constitutes orthodoxy?

This problem of discernment is further complicated by several other issues. Biblical illiteracy among Christians is epidemic. Cults like Mormonism and the Unification Church fund aggressive public relations campaigns that portray them as mainstream Christian denominations. Irresponsible “cult-bashers” obscure the facts needed for discernment through exaggeration and fabrication. The New Age Movement has infected the church with doctrines that are foreign to authentic Christianity.

Fortunately, however, Christians have a trustworthy basis for unity and discernment in the Bible and in the creeds passed down from the early church. The earliest formulation of the gospel message is called the kerygma, and is expressed in our Key Scripture. The church’s fuller understanding of Christ’s incarnation was articulated in the Nicene, Apostolic, and Athanasian Creeds and in the writings of the early church councils, such as the Council of Chalcedon. These “deposits of faith” stand as clear expressions of the essentials of Christian belief and as tests for orthodoxy. In matters of doctrine and practice not expressly addressed in Scripture, we should follow the biblical command to refrain from judging others (Rom. 14). Remember: Christ’s final prayer was that His church be unified as a testimony to the world that the love of the Father was truly expressed in the Son (John 17:20-23).

Some writers have claimed that the church has been “seduced” into accepting New Age beliefs in the form of meditation, visualization, and inner healing. The charge that contemplative prayer, meditation, and mystical or charismatic experience is alien to Christianity cannot be taken seriously by anyone familiar with church history. But to have a “non-mystical” Christianity is as absurd as having a “non-supernatural” Christianity. All the central doctrines of the faith, such as the Trinity, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Incarnation, are mysteries that transcend the boundaries of human logic. It is important, however, to ask what kinds of mystical religion are acceptable and orthodox. History has taught us the danger of elevating experience above doctrine.

The central test of the validity of Christian forms of mystical religious experience is that they glorify Christ rather than humanity. As we have seen, New Age religious practices direct attention toward consciousness and the “self” rather than toward God and others. New Age mystical experience typically strives for a pantheistic merging of the individual with the “All.” The biblical model for mystical experience is not “merging” but “marriage” (Song of Songs; Rev. 19:7). Thus, the creature and the Creator are not confused.

In evaluating the place of religious experience in the church, it is wise to consider the fact that a Christianity constituted of lifeless dogma is just as deadly as one in which experience eclipses doctrine. Because of the seductive nature of human pride, doctrine, dogma, and orthodoxy can be – and often are – used as a defense against the experience of God. Jesus reserved His harshest condemnation not for tax collectors and sinners or for “heretical” Samaritans, but for orthodox Pharisees who lived sterile, doctrinally correct lives and “evangelized” others to become their disciples (Matt. 23). Jesus said: “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).

Key Concepts:

1. The creed that recognized the two natures of Christ most clearly was the___________________ Creed. [402-3]

2. The earliest formulation of the gospel message is called the ________________________________________. [See above]

3. The biblical model for mystical experience is not “merging” but “ ________________________________.” [See above]

4. Dr. Tucker writes: “It is unfortunate that such time-honored Christian
tradition as ____________ , ________________ , and ______________
are being lumped together with New Age thinking.” [354-55]

5. Doctrinal orthodoxy can be used as a defense against the ________________________________ of God. [See above]

Life Application: What can you do to deepen your “spiritual worship” of the Father (John 4:23)? Do you practice such spiritual disciplines as prayer, fasting, and meditation on God’s Word? If not, develop a plan to incorporate these into your regular schedule.

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Review Questions

1. Berg ordered his female followers to be “hookers for Jesus” and called the practice “ _____________________ .”

Flirty Fishing

Fish Hookers

2. According to the Children of God, the “ ____________ ” letters are the “Word of God for today.”



3. Rajneesh taught: “God is not a person . . . there is nobody to pray to . . . all worshipping is sheer __________________ .”



4. Rajneesh wed monism with Western humanistic ________________________.



5. Rajneesh’s devotee’s, called _____________, or renunciates, were encouraged to have sex frequently and indiscriminately.



6. Deprogramming is effective about ________________ percent of the time.



7. There is evidence that ____________________ is less of a factor in cult conversions than was previously supposed.



8. ______________ counseling involves voluntary dialogue with a counselor and a former cult member.



9. The love and acceptance that cults offer are highly ______________________.



10. In the form of church discipline called ___________________, each church member must report to a church elder or leader.



11. The surrender of _____________________ is psychologically and spiritually harmful.



12. The deaths of fifty-two members of Hobart Freeman’s Faith Assembly resulted from extreme attitudes regarding __________________.

Trust Hope

Faith Healing

13. “Name it and claim it” doctrines are closer to the “positive thinking” of ________________ than to biblical Christianity.

Charles Fillmore

C. S. Lewis

14. In Montanist extremes of Pentecostalism, ______________ utterances are thought to supersede Scripture in importance.

Different language


15. Fundamentalist fringe groups major on _____________ elements of faith and doctrine.



16. The ___________________ Creed set forth the two natures of Christ.



17. The earliest formulation of the gospel is called the _________________________.



18. “ __________, mysticism, and inner healing are time-honored Christian traditions.”



19. Doctrinal orthodoxy can be a defense against the __________________ of God.



20. The biblical model for mystical experience is not “merging” but “________________.”



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