CULTISM IN THE CHURCH?
T. PIERCE BROWN
Long before I wrote a workbook on personal evangelism entitled “Christianity in Action,” I yearned to get Christians involved in winning souls to Christ. Long before I wrote a workbook on teaching entitled “Teach With Success,” I was trying to get more Christians involved in teaching God’s Word, privately and publicly.
One can imagine my delight therefore, after moving to a congregation, to find 30 or more persons who were already involved in intensive personal evangelism. The fact that they called their efforts “soul talks” did not bother me, as long as the talks were scriptural, and the end result was a devoted Christian having been born from above. I rejoiced almost to the point of tears to see so many young people standing around with their Bibles in their hands, engaging each other in apparent loving conversation for an hour or so after the regular church services, and hearing that they were meeting 4 or 5 nights a week in additional Bible studies, devotional periods and Christian activity!
Imagine my surprise and consternation when I discovered, among many other things, the following:
1. Most of the love that seemed to be evidenced by the group for others did not seem to extend to anyone not converted by the group to the programs of the group! When other members of the congregation were sick or in the hospital, none of this loving, “totally committed” group visited or called on them, as far as I could discover! I wondered, “Why?” I had heard them talk about “love for the Body,” but now I found myself wondering, “What Body? What is their concept of the body?”
2. I inquired why some of them did not assist in the regular work of the congregation, since they seemed so talented and devoted. They told me, “I am not a member here!” They had been here a year or so, meeting with the church, having special devotional and Bible studies in the building, yet not a member here! I wondered, “Why? Where did you get the kind of teaching that encourages that?” I have come across a few persons over the years who had “not moved their letter” but thought it was individual ignorance, not an organized or deliberate effort to a particular group to control members of the church in some other city!
3. I noticed that few of them seemed to contribute money to the work of this congregation. I wondered, “Why? How could a group of people be so devoted to the Lord and his church and not contribute to its growth?” Can any thoughtful person, much less a Christian, use the facilities provided by others and feel no sense of responsibility to assist in building or paying for them? To whom did they feel an allegiance, and why?
4. As I talked with the newer converts, I noticed that they seldom talked about, or became involved in any program or activity that was planned by the elders of this congregation. They were so involved in some group or individual activity demanded by some other person that they could never assist in this congregation’s efforts. Why? Who were these persons who had such control over them, and how did they get such control?
5. Several times when someone would be baptized as a result of a “soul talk,” neither elders, preachers, nor the congregation was notified.
6. When I began to inquire of the new converts concerning their understanding of their relationship to the eldership or to the congregation, I discovered that in most cases they seemed to have none! Some of them reported that they were told not to go to the elders for advice, counsel, or leadership! When I inquired, “To whom do you go?” I discovered it was to a “prayer partner” or a “spiritual mother” or “father” who had pointed them to Christ, even if that person had been a member of the Lord’s family only a year! I have taught the value of obeying James 5:16, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another that you may be healed.” But I never thought I would see it develop into a thought-control system that would ape the Roman confessional box! Nor did ever visualize a “spiritual father” whose proscriptions and anathemas were apparently as binding as those of a parish priest on his flock were!
7. I discovered that some relatively new converts were told that “total commitment to Christ” meant that if their parents did not like for them to be away from home for their special meetings for up to six nights a week in extended “soul talks” and devotional programs, they should leave home! Devotion to a program of activity designed by some human was equated with devotion to Christ. I was told that on many occasions advice similar to this was given: A wife with an irresponsible, unbelieving husband with small children was told that she could leave them in his care to attend the “soul talk,” and if he did not like it, he could leave her. That would be one of the costs of discipleship! After all, Christ had said that if a person loves husband or wife, mother or father more than him, he is not worthy!
All my preaching life I have taught that Matthew 10:37 is binding, but I never thought I would see the day it would be perverted into meaning that one must substitute the authority of self-appointed leaders to decide that attendance to the “soul talk” he designed, or the devotional program he planned is more important than the discharge of another responsibility which God ordained! Is it possible that the expression of Jesus, “hate his own father and mother and his own life” could be so perverted that one might be led to kill himself or his parents?
8. I discovered that if anyone questioned the wisdom of any program or practice, it was construed as a crafty attack of the Devil, and was to be resisted. Any such “weakness” as attending to family duties instead of attending a “soul talk” was to be confessed to a prayer partner, who would, with the help of the “spiritual advisor” increase their guilt complex until they ceased from such unauthorized activity and again came back to submission to the “group will”–called “total commitment to Christ.”
9. Few new converts with whom I talked seemed to understand properly the purpose of baptism, or the nature and structure of the church. They were thoroughly taught that when you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior you would be baptized and become a part of the Body. But if there is any difference in a person who hears Billy Graham teach, accepts Jesus as his personal Savior and is baptized, and those who heard Peter preach in Acts 2 and were baptized, it seemed that few knew or cared!
From somewhere is coming the philosophy that if one is taught anything about the distinctive nature of the Lord’s church, it will “turn people off,” and you cannot baptize as many. No doubt this is true. If one is primarily interested in the number of baptisms he can report, a Billy Graham crusade might be the proper guide. But if one is interested in converting a person to Christ, rather than to a dynamic leader, cult, or challenging program, another guide is needed.
Of course I have known for almost half a century that there is much sectarianism in the church of the Lord–and has been since the first century (1 Corinthians 1:10ff). But such sectarianism is harder to recognize and oppose when those who advocate it are much more devoted (to something) than the average church member, attending all the regular services of the church and three or four of their own, baptizing three times as many persons as all the rest of the church combined! But I also discovered years ago that the closer a wrong thing is to a right thing, the more dangerous it is, whether it is in doctrine or in emphasis. A counterfeit $20 bill would probably not be too hurtful if it had George Washington’s picture on it!
I have always known that there is tension between various responsibilities–to home, to government, to God, etc. and that when they conflict, one must obey God rather than man. But I have never been conscious before of the insidious teaching that if a mother stays at home and studies the Bible with, and cares for the needs of her children, she is presumed to be yielding to the temptation of the Devil. But if she leaves them in the care of an unreliable husband and attends a devotional program that is demanded of her, she is obeying God!
I suppose the average person would think, as I did, “What kind of an old-fogey crackpot would oppose a Bible study just because it is called a `soul talk’?” or “What criticism can one possibly have of a `prayer partner’?” or “Of course you can expect opposition from an `old line’ fossilized preacher who is jealous of anyone who baptizes 300 a year when he may baptize 3.” My judgment was and is that it is wonderful to break away from the spirit of deadness, indifference and carelessness that has permeated a large part of the church of the Lord. To challenge young and old with “total commitment” and sacrificial living for Christ and have them respond is thrilling. But when I see an insidious and creeping cultism, mind control, and perverted Christianity masquerading under the guise of a positive mental attitude, progress and enthusiastic devotion to the Lord, I weep. Cannot we have devotion and commitment without disregarding the principle of congregational autonomy, and the subversion of the eldership in a given congregation? Can we not have commitment without reviving the ascetic philosophy condemned by Paul in Colossians 2:20-30?
To seek first thekingdomofGodand his righteousness are injunctions of our Lord! But to make them mean that a Christian should disregard the need to play with his children and be a proper father and husband is another question. The mistakes made by many of us who are preachers in those respects are bad enough for they create family stress, breakdowns and guilt complexes. But that is merely results of the mistake in judgment of one man. Imagine how the error is compounded when and if that mistake of the preacher as to how he should resolve this “conflict of interest” is taught to all new converts as the true Christian principle! Imagine the wreckage of homes that will come when large numbers of active, loving, devoted persons teach others that since Christ is more important than husband or children, then to “follow your leader” (not even an elder, but some self-appointed “spiritual father”) and do whatever he said is more important than marriage or home responsibility!