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The Danger of Cults
From Fervour to Fanaticism
THE mass suicide of nine hundred men, women and children in a Guyanan jungle in 1978 brought home to many people the danger of religious fanaticism. The "Reverend" Jim Jones led his followers from California into an isolated South American village because of the pressures of the twentieth century world and his conviction of an approaching apocalypse, or dramatic end to the world. Everyone outside that community was seen as an enemy, leading eventually to such a feeling of desperate persecution that all of Jones's followers were persuaded by him to take a lethal poisoned drink.
Fifteen years later, in 1993, another leader made similar prophecies to his followers. They retreated, not to another country, but into a heavily defended compound where they stockpiled food and ammunition sufficient to withstand an armed, military style attack. This community had come, over a period of time, to view those in authority as agents of evil forces directed against their chosen way of life. A simple approach from law enforcement officers brought about siege conditions at Waco, Texas which ended in a holocaust, killing virtually all who were left in the compound of buildings. The charismatic leader, David Koresh, had prophesied such a fiery end as the ultimate confirmation of the accuracy of his teachings.
Since then, there have been mass cult suicides in Canada and Switzerland by members of the Solar Temple Cult. In California another group believed that a passing comet had come to take them to a better world. It was a sign to them of "Heaven's Gate". The thirty-nine young people who took their own lives believed they were servants of a "Higher Source" - the name they used for their group. When their bodies were discovered they were all identically dressed and lying neatly in similar postures.
Another group, 'Aum Supreme Truth' in Japan, did not take their own lives but unleashed a powerful poisonous gas in trains on the Tokyo subway, affecting thousands of the city's commuters. With this development it became apparent that cults were not only a danger to their own members, but could pose a serious threat to the general public.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the examples already cited is the way young people and sometimes children are involved. Parents are naturally very concerned lest their own children are drawn into the activities of a cult and away from the principles they have been taught in their families. Warnings are sometimes given about different groups who target those who are young and impressionable. We need to know the factors which mark out cults, and what it is that can make them dangerous or lead to tragedies like those in Jonestown or Waco.
We need first of all to determine the factors that create a cult. Is anyone who believes differently from us, automatically a member of a cult? Some literature circulated by various Cult Help Groups suggests that any organisation which does not accept the teachings of the mainstream Christian churches is a cult. But is it right for all non-conformists to be likened to the fanatical groups we have briefly considered? What exactly is a cult?
Are All Minority Religions Cults?
This can be seen from the use of the word 'sect' in the Bible. The Apostle Paul in the first century AD spoke of his strict Jewish upbringing: "According to the strictest sect of our (Jewish) religion I lived a Pharisee" (Acts 26:5). The Pharisees did not always agree with other religious Jews, notably the ruling Sadducees (see Acts 23:6), but their existence was not regarded as a serious threat to others. Also when Paul accepted the gospel of Christ and became his apostle, he recognised that the Jews were suspicious of his joining a group with different beliefs. He therefore sought to put their minds at rest: "According to the Way which they (i.e., the Jews) call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets" (Acts 24:14)
By contrast, the term 'Cult' is normally associated with those groups regarded as distinctly dangerous - because of the implications of their beliefs and the methods used to attract and control their members. Cult is a more sinister term with overtones of persuading individuals against their will and against their better judgement. It must not be confused with simply holding different beliefs.
Governments have struggled with the concept of outlawing organisations they believe to pose a danger, and have generally followed the definitions given above to determine which organisations are sects and which can be classified as cults.
Key practices which attract the designation 'cult' include the following:
All these factors are intended to make the group very close knit; they bond individual members to the group, but more particularly to the leader - who is usually a very charismatic and dominant personality. In the process of being bonded to the group and its leader, members are gradually alienated from the rest of society, and in extreme cases are removed totally from society to live as if they have nothing to do with normal life.
The effect of this withdrawal from society in general is often revealed only when an individual who has been attracted to a cult seeks to leave it. Great pressure is applied - psychological pressure, and sometimes physical force too - to encourage the individual to change his or her mind. Family members who have not joined the group are described as enemies, and leaving the group is seen to be a personal attack upon the leader himself.
It is easy to see how this approach can quickly tip over into even more unacceptable practices, where a leader uses his influence to bind recruits to him by sexual domination. His 'favourites' are granted small but significant privileges, giving them a sense of importance, while the less favoured are encouraged to try harder to please him, and thus come even more under his domination. The careful use of drugs - purchased on behalf of the recruits – is another sinister way of taking control of recruits' minds and lives. Sometimes recruits have to hand over all their personal wealth to the group and, because they live in accommodation provided for them, are soon completely indebted to the group for everything they need.
The definitions that have been developed, and the aspects which classify an organisation as a cult are important when we come to consider minority, non-conformist groups. This booklet, for example, has been prepared by Christadelphians. In some literature published about cults, warnings are sounded against the beliefs and practices of Christadelphians. Are these warnings justified?
Christadelphians do not have a leader who sets the rules. The only head they recognise is the Lord Jesus Christ, and their only authority is the Bible which they believe is the Word of God. In fact, they are critical of other religious groups who have pastors, ministers, bishops and archbishops - a complex organisation where authority is vested in a few and where the ordinary members have no real input.
No Human Leadership
Equally, he never demanded or expected a following when he was alive, and he would have been horrified to think that it would be any different after his death. The same is true of all other prominent Christadelphians; they have always sought to serve others and have never been hungry for power or influence over their fellow believers.
Christadelphians, in fact, do not consider themselves to be a group with a history extending over a mere century and a half, but faithful descendants (in terms of beliefs and practices) of the first century Apostles. They claim to have an Apostolic Faith.
Nor is it just the absence of individual charismatic leadership that stops Christadelphians from being a cult. One striking feature is their non-hierarchical organisation, based on the examples found in the New Testament of how believers in the first century organised themselves. Each congregation (they are called 'ecclesias') is responsible for its own affairs. They all accept a common basis of belief, but its implementation is left to each separate ecclesia. Within each ecclesia, the work is undertaken by members appointed for limited periods, who are answerable to the whole congregation. Their services and the administration of each congregation are undertaken by the completely voluntary assistance of lay members. One sociologist commenting on how Christadelphians are organised has remarked at the extent to which individual members are involved in all aspects of the work (Bryan R. Wilson, Sects and Society, 1961, page 271).
Various methods are used to advertise their beliefs. They hold regular meetings - talks, seminars and debates - where Bible subjects are introduced. They have a travelling Bible exhibition explaining how God's Word is dependable and accurate. They produce books, leaflets and videos dealing with different aspects of Bible teaching. They organise week long activities, concentrating their efforts in one geographical area at a time with a variety of different events to encourage people to think about their lives and the gospel message.
Always, the Bible is the focus of their appeal. Christadelphians are keen to discuss its message, and talk about "Bible teachings", not about "Christadelphian teachings". They encourage individuals to enquire for themselves, to ask questions and to discover information for themselves. Jesus spoke of the gospel as the "pearl of great price" (Matthew 13:46), and Christadelphians treat it as the most valuable thing in their lives.
No one is asked to commit him or herself quickly. Everyone is given ample time to consider carefully the implications of accepting God's gracious offer of salvation, and of the responsibilities of discipleship.
They do not specially target any particular group in the community. They do not approach only young people or children; they do not focus specially upon women and not on men. Any special activities for children, such as Sunday Schools, are completely open to the parents as well. Individuals are never encouraged to leave their homes and families, or to part with their money. As a community, Christadelphians do not engage in tithing - donating a tenth of one's income - nor do they expect it of any of their converts. They are not therefore a wealthy community, with the problems of greed and corruption which large funds can cause, and they do not have paid ministers.
There are no rules about diet. Because of the well-known dangers created by substance dependence, some Christadelphians are teetotalers, smoking is shunned and members are expected to keep clear of drug taking. But these are all essentially personal decisions. Christadelphians take to heart the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote: "He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself . . . Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:6-8).
Cults encourage their members to separate themselves from surrounding society. This sometimes occurs through the clothing members are encouraged or demanded to wear. The Amish in North America, for example, though they do not exhibit other features of cults, deliberately dress in black old fashioned clothing. Other groups demand dark suits or long skirts or head scarves. In extreme cases, clothing is only the beginning of a complete separation from society. Members are expected to live in 'group' accommodation, only to work with other members, and to restrict contact with 'unbelievers' to an absolute minimum.
None of these methods are practised by Christadelphians. They are generally conservative in their clothing, and shrink from outrageous and provocative fashions. But the choice of clothing is left completely to individual conscience. In accordance with the apostle's teachings (1 Corinthians 11:1-16), their female members wear a head covering when they worship. But the choice of head covering is left to each individual.
Occupations which would offend their consciences - like joining the armed forces or police service - are not followed. But with these exceptions, Christadelphians are to be found in all walks of life: in the professions and trades - farmers, fishermen and pharmacists. There could be a Christadelphian living next door to you, or working alongside you. Their real Master and Lord is the Lord Jesus Christ, but as he said, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21), Christadelphians try hard to be good, honest and law abiding citizens.
Leaving a Cult
If an individual wishes to leave the Christadelphians, he (or she) is free to do so. Naturally, other members will wish to discuss this decision with him, but they will not force their presence, and will respect the decision which has been taken. If a member has a family which does not share his beliefs, he is encouraged not to separate himself from them, but to show by his behaviour that his faith has made him a more considerate and loving person.
The Cult Busters
A lot of written material about cults comes from the evangelical 'Christian' churches. They have organisations which claim to be "Cult-Busters". In reality, these are thinly disguised preaching organisations, sometimes posing as Cult Help Groups, using scare tactics to promote their own teachings. It is ironic that the leading features which distinguish a cult often apply to their own arrangements. They are known, for example, to have highly charismatic leaders (television and media 'stars' in their own right). They hold large conventions where music, chanting, clapping and dancing are all used to excite the emotions. These often conclude with highly charged appeals to "Come on up and be saved", meaning to commit immediately to the beliefs of the organisation. Often, little opportunity is given for calm, logical appraisal of the message which has been presented.
The Challenge of Bible Teachings
Christadelphians do not ask anyone to accept what they have to say without checking all they hear against the teaching of the Bible. The same test should be applied to anyone who suggests that our lives should take on a new direction. The Bible talks with obvious approval of the residents of the city of Berea in Macedonia: "These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11).
Here is a challenge worth taking up. Turn to the Bible, for Jesus said, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39).
-- MICHAEL ASHTON
This booklet is only concerned with taking a dispassionate look at the concept of sects and cults, not with taking specific issue with the beliefs and practices of any particular group or groups. Christadelphians sincerely hold different beliefs from all other ‘Christian' groups, and there is literature available explaining all these beliefs. Those specific differences are not, however dealt with in this booklet.
Reproduced with the kind permission of The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd (UK), by whom all rights are reserved.