He looked like a California surfer, and my first impression when he walked up to me in the mall was to smile back at him. It was 1976, and I was out of school for the summer. He asked me if I was looking for answers in life. Yes, I said. Isn’t every young person?
Then he handed me the most bizarre evangelistic pamphlet I’ve ever seen. It contained pornographic drawings and an odd poem mixing religion and sex. Having been raised a Christian, I knew I’d encountered something unusually evil, and I hurried away. Only later did I learn that I’d met a member of the Children of God, a cult whose Christian witness revolved largely around sex masquerading as Christian love.
The Children of God cult has faded, but new cults continue to spring up, presenting new dangers to the unwary spiritual seeker.
The word cult, in its original definition, meant any group whose members held common beliefs. But the word has evolved to the point that in popular usage, it now means a particularly dangerous kind of religious group.
There is no single set of beliefs or doctrines that define a cult. Some start out as Christian gatherings, but there are cults rooted in other world religions too. Cults are identified less by their beliefs than by their mode of operation. One of the most readily recognized marks of a cult is a dominating leader who holds an extreme degree of influence over his or her followers.
Some cult leaders, like Jim Jones, Warren Jeffs, and David Koresh, have become well known. They didn’t necessarily start out to be cult leaders—although they may have benefited from a natural charisma and an uncanny ability to convince others to believe them. At the beginning, they appeared to offer solutions to people’s problems. Jones ran ministries to feed and house the poor, and he lobbied political leaders on their behalf. Jeffs offered security to those confused about the historical beliefs of the Mormon Church concerning plural marriage. Koresh sought out people with chaotic lives whom he brought into his compound with the promise of salvation and belonging.
The danger comes when these leaders begin to believe that they have a special connection with God that no one else has. Ignoring the Bible’s caution that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20), cult leaders twist the simple words of Scripture into self-serving prophecies. Jones and Koresh, for example, each used Scripture to teach that he was a reincarnation of Jesus, ignoring Jesus’ explicit warning against such impostors (Matthew 24:23–26).
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the cult leader’s delusion that he has absolute authority leads him to believe he is above biblical moral standards and the laws of the land. Jones, Koresh, and Jeffs all coerced others, even children, into sexual relationships with them. Other cult leaders force their followers to solicit money or otherwise labor for the leader’s enrichment.
The Bible tells stories of many godly leaders who were very charismatic, but in each case, God held them strictly accountable for how they used their influence. When he took another man’s wife, God condemned King David’s abuse of power (2 Samuel 12:1–14).
Jesus had a magnetic personality and a strong personal appeal, but His ministry was always of a convincing, not a coercive, character. He said, “Whoever believes in Me”—by his or her own free choice—“will have everlasting life” (see John 3:16). Never do we see Jesus using His power to take advantage of others. Though some wanted Him to assume political leadership (see Matthew 20:20, 21), He remained humble and poor (see Luke 9:48), living always by the precepts He taught others. When a rich young man came to seek spiritual advice, Jesus told him to sell all he had and give the money, not to Him, but to the poor (Matthew 19:21).
We who look at these cults from the outside may wonder why anyone would want to follow a Jim Jones or a David Koresh. But the cults have made a science of identifying and taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities. To those who feel broken and traumatized, they hold out the promise of a stable, happy life. To the unsure, they appear to provide certainty.
Behind the scenes, though, there is manipulation and coercion.
Cult leaders know that open contact with people in the outside world risks breaking their hold over their members, so they shield them from others except for carefully choreographed encounters. Jones’s followers were confined in Jonestown, deep in the jungles of Guyana. Jeffs settled his followers far out in the arid prairies of the American West. And Koresh had a secured compound near Waco, Texas. Those like the Children of God, who force their members to witness in the world, build in them strong psychological defenses so they won’t believe anyone outside the group.
Jesus, on the other hand, never secluded Himself. He challenged His followers to remain in the world without being worldly (see John 17:15, 16). Nor did He refuse to listen to other points of view. Though as the Son of God He knew all truth, He entered into dialogue even with His enemies.
Cults not only cut off their members’ interaction with the world— sometimes breaking up families and severing all outside ties—but they also use abusive methods to weaken psychological defenses. New members may be deprived of food or sleep, denied privacy, or kept in meetings for hours while speakers pound them with relentless repetitions of the leader’s teachings.
As members get deeper into the group, leaders may browbeat and intimidate them. Sometimes followers are required to confess publicly their deepest doubts and most shameful failings—all of which are used against them later. Questioning anything may result in physical or psychological punishment.
A friend of mine who was in a cult was repeatedly told, “You are worthless without us. You’ll never make it outside.” Or, “If you leave us, you will be forever lost.”
“I believed them,” he said. It took years of psychological counseling to help him live happily in the outside world.
God wants His followers to have freedom of choice—even at the risk that they might choose not to follow Him. “ ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,’ ” God said through Joshua (Joshua 24:15; italics added). Jesus presented truth with clear and compelling arguments— but He exercised control over no one, not even the most vulnerable. They were free to follow Him—or free to reject Him, as some of His followers and at least one of His closest friends did (see John 6:66; Matthew 26:14–16).
For these reasons, cults are dangerous to one’s mental and spiritual health—and to life, both in this world and in the world to come.
In March of 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide at the direction of their leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite Jr. Applewhite had convinced them that when they died they would reappear on an alien spaceship that he believed was flying behind the approaching Hale-Bopp comet. When authorities entered the Heaven’s Gate compound in Rancho Santa Fe, California, they found 39 bodies lying straight on their beds, dressed neatly, and wearing identical black athletic shoes.
In the Branch Davidian compound, David Koresh forced girls as young as ten to have immoral relationships with him. When authorities came to arrest him, Koresh and his followers fought back. The compound caught fire. Some members were killed by bullets. Others perished in flames. The dead included 54 adults and 21 children.
David Berg, known to his followers as Moses David, forced female members of the Children of God cult into evangelistic prostitution he called “flirty fishing.” He reasoned that in heaven, people would thank them for using any means to win them to Christ! One member, Ricky Rodriguez, who’d grown up in Berg’s own household, later recounted frequent sexual encounters between small children and adult family members. In 1995, a deeply disturbed Rodriguez murdered a childhood nanny who had molested him, then took his own life. He left a video explaining that he was avenging all the children whose lives this abusive cult had destroyed.
Though Jones, Jeffs, Koresh, and Berg all used the name of Jesus Christ, each twisted Jesus’ message into something entrapping, abusive, and self-serving. The result was a far cry from Jesus’ promise of “life . . . more abundantly” (John 10:10, KJV). Far from taking advantage of the broken and abused, without exception, Jesus helped and healed those who came to Him. Those who’d fallen into sin He forgave, and He gave them power to “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV). Many followed Him—not because they’d been forced to, but because they loved Him.
God doesn’t ask us to abandon freedom or rationality in order to believe in Him. He said, “ ‘Come now, let us reason together’ ” (Isaiah 1:18). As to the outrageous claims of cult leaders, God warned that “if they speak not according to [God’s] word . . . there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, KJV). There are many good Christian leaders, but even their claims must be confirmed by the words of Scripture. The Bible must be the supreme foundation for the beliefs and practices of any religious leader or group. Leaders whose demands are not biblical— who insist that belonging to their group and blindly following them as their leaders—are false teachers.
Cults are dangerous, but they can have no hold on those whose lives are illuminated by God’s Word— that marvelous lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105)!
Lessons from a former cult member
Mark Breau studied to be a minister before becoming a follower of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas. He left some months before the fiery demise of the compound and death of Koresh. Mark describes lessons he took from his time in the cult in an interview with Signs of the Times® in 1999.
”We lived for the Bible and what we believed. We felt we were doing the Lord’s work. When the ‘signs’ started appearing, I didn’t pay too much attention. I noticed David’s interpretation of the Bible seemed to center on himself. He saw himself in prophecy. Then he became authoritarian. He started seeing threats where none existed, and the ideals we once held were thrown out. By the time I finally came to my senses, the Mount Carmel compound was an armed camp, not a Bible school.
“I learned the danger of narrow-mindedness and of believing you have all the answers. People attempt to reach God in whatever way they can. We should respect that. One reason Davidians didn’t leave Mount Carmel was pride. They were used to thinking they had a special pipeline to God; they couldn’t deal with the idea that God tries to help everyone.
“I also learned a lot about human nature. No matter how good we think we are, we all have potential for evil. I saw people who anyone would call ‘good’ sink to depths unimaginable earlier. And the reverse is also true: people you thought would never have stood up to evil came forward and stood with the bravest.
“Finally, I learned that love is the key to all true religion. Jesus said to do to others as you would have them do to you. So we should ask ourselves, ‘Is where I am, what I am doing, showing love and respect for my fellow humans?’ The answer to such a question will determine if where you are is good or not.
“A lot of people died in Waco, and a lot of hard lessons were learned. But life goes on. This is true for any tragedy. My advice to anyone who’s come through something really bad is to live that new life with all the gusto and enjoyment you can.”