Confronting the cult craze

Is something missing in the current practice of Christianity?

by the editors.

Shock waves from the Jonestown atrocity in the Guyanan jungle a few months ago continue to create a negative attitude among many toward religion in general. Possible results of such an attitude are as multifaceted as they are elusive. The specter of an in crease in governmental regulation and intervention is one. Already some lawyers, public officials, and concerned citizens have called for Congressional investigations of controversial religious organizations, tax probes of churches and sects suspected of financial violations, and questioning by Federal agents in cases of possible or alleged criminal activity by religious groups. We agree with President Carter's statement at a press conference, following the massacre in Guyana. "I don't think we ought to have an overreaction, because of the Jonestown tragedy, by trying to control people's religious beliefs."

However, our thrust here is not religious liberty. We will let our sister journal Liberty cover this point.* As serious as the potential threat to religious liberty may be, we feel there are more far-reaching implications that have eternal consequences.

The Jonestown tragedy and other re cent violent outbreaks have focused attention as never before on the current "cult craze." The term cult usually is applied to a system of religious worship or ritual, but it can also have a secular application. One definition includes the thought of a devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person or a principle, especially when regarded as a fad, such as the cult of nudism. Thus, this word has wider application than a mere religious aberration.

For instance, the political scene gives evidence of cults. We cringe in horror at the nearly 1,000 lives that were snuffed out at Jonestown, but consider the unnumbered millions who have been driven to the altar of sacrifice by strong-armed political cults.

However, the term is most often used in a religious sense to describe those groups that significantly deviate from what is considered to be historical, orthodox Christianity. Up to 3 million American young people are currently estimated to belong to a variety of cults and religious fringe groups. Surely such figures should cause us.to ask, "Why have so many youth decided that historic Christianity cannot fulfill their religious needs? What do these cults offer that is lacking in Christianity?"

Secular psychologists, trying to find an explanation for increasing acts of bizarre violence, have pointed the finger in part at the church and religion. U.S. News and World Report of December 11, 1978, quoted psychoanalyst and sociologist Ernest van den Haag: "One reason for the growth of cults is that the traditional churches have become so feeble. People want more, and it's up to the established churches to become more meaningful to people." Haag also said that the major reason why certain people have built up such enormous stores of resentment and anger is that "society has not given any meaning to their lives such as religion gave in the past."

Is it true that Christianity as a whole does not present the moral direction and solid Biblical content for people's lives that it once did? From where we sit, it seems that we must agree the charge is for the most part well founded. There fore in this and future articles we want to explore what we consider to be hall marks of authentic Christianity. We recognize that such a task is not always clear-cut. Some traits considered to be distinctive of cults may well be reflected also in orthodox Christianity. At times the distinctions may involve mere differences in degree. Yet if the church is to come to grips with her place in the lives of modern men and women, we must consider the characteristics that have given authority and authenticity to her voice through the ages.

Authentic Christianity never uses force or coercion

In light of the Jonestown massacre it is natural to begin here. Even limited acquaintance with the life of Christ, as found in the Scriptures, would indicate that such processes as "programming" or "brainwashing" fall outside God's plan. Much more so, do overt force and persecution. The principle of love is the foundation of Christ's church. Many cults today react with hate toward any one who challenges their doctrines or points out defects. In contrast, the authentic Christian church will use love even in the disciplining of its members. The ultimate discipline that the New Testament church allows is expulsion of a member from its fellowship. And, in so doing, the discipline is to be carried out in such a way that the offender senses that the church still loves him, even though he is no longer permitted to re main a member.

The lack of coercion in Christianity is emphasized in the experience of Jesus with James and John, the sons of thunder. When one Samaritan village re fused to receive the Master, James and John were filled with indignation. They suggested to Christ that He should teach the village a lesson by commanding fire to come down from heaven to consume the inhabitants. Jesus' response under lies a basic truth found in authentic Christianity. "He turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:55, 56). Jesus compels no one to receive Him. It is Satan who seeks to compel the con science. The merciful Christ ever tries to win men through love and tenderness. No forced service, no forced obedience, is acceptable in Christ's sight.

As Ellen White wrote: "There can be no more conclusive evidence that we possess the spirit of Satan than the dis position to hurt and destroy those who do not appreciate our work, or who act contrary to our ideas." —The Desire of Ages, p. 487. Although history is stained on all sides with horrible episodes of religious bigotry, nothing is more offensive to God.

The authority of the Scriptures

The "cult craze" has proved to be much less than a craze in the American Midwest, where these aberrant religions have not enjoyed much pulling power. Observers feel that this lack of interest is largely because of the fairly conservative Bible-oriented form that Christianity has assumed there.

The fact that cults don't seem to make any converts in those places where the Bible's authority is recognized and where adherents cling to a strong value system should cause Christian ministers to lay aside, for a moment at least, the theological tomes and critical commentaries that line their library shelves, and take a fresh look at their too-often-neglected Bibles.

It is being increasingly recognized that the evolutionary-humanistic philosophy that has shaped much of theology for more than a generation is fast becoming bankrupt. The current sharp trend toward political, ethical, and even theological conservatism is an indication of a pendulum swing toward a greater respect for authority. Even good manners are making a comeback!

Permissiveness and pragmatism have left their mark on a generation that now seems largely rootless and especially vulnerable to self-serving, ego-tripping authority figures. What else can one expect from those reared in a climate of Biblical illiteracy and wishy-washy witness?

In his book In the Presence of Mine Enemies, Howard Rutledge, who spent seven years (five of them in solitary confinement) in a prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam, tells how he and many of his fellow prisoners kept their integrity and sanity and overcame the power of death around them by turning back to those spiritual dimensions they had nearly for gotten, but that had been built in the "Sunday-school days" of their youth. At least they had this much to fall back on when they so desperately needed it.

What about the members of your congregation? Are they being fed the Bread of Life that can alone sustain them during the crisis periods of life? Is their faith being established in the Holy Scriptures as the authoritative revelation of God's will—the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience? Are they convinced that the Bible is inspired, dependable, and trust worthy?

In His Word, God has committed to us the knowledge essential for our salvation and the wisdom that will keep us from being blown about by every false wind of doctrine. And it is expressed in language that has touched the lives and hearts of people and satisfied their deepest needs for many thousands of years and in nearly every country on earth. This fact alone is enough to demonstrate clearly that the Bible is the product of a divine mind rather than the result of the imperfect, ever-changing vagaries of human thought.

Human knowledge, even in this age flooded by the light of scientific discovery, has proved to be a most unreliable guide. Without a faith based solidly on God's revelation of Himself and His will for us, people are left adrift without an anchor for the soul and, as a matter of course, become susceptible to the cur rents and fads that bounce back and forth like the erratic pendulum swings of a clock in an earthquake.

And the earth is quaking—quaking from a series of gruesome and unprecedented shocks that give us unquestionable evidence that people today need to have their confidence reestablished in the authority of the Word of God. Any professed Christian group that down grades the Scriptures and their authority, by whatever means, certainly has disregarded one of the fundamental hallmarks of historic Christianity.

The deity and centrality of Christ

Nothing is more central to historic Christianity than the person of Christ Himself. Nothing distinguishes the quality of one's faith more than his attitude to the Christ around which Christianity revolves.

The Christian church through the centuries has often taken up the cudgel against cults that threatened the Biblical truth of the deity and centrality of the Saviour. The church is still doing the same. The current "cult craze," characterized by a focus on divine masters of Eastern enlightenment, charismatic father figures such as Jim Jones and the Reverend Moon (whose followers look on him as the "Second Messiah"), and other bizarre groups, utterly fails in giving the Son of God His rightful place.

However much we deplore these overt substitutions for the scriptural truth of a divine Saviour who is the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, the Creator and Redeemer of mankind, we must recognize that tendencies exist within both the liberal and conservative elements of Christianity that likewise detract from the exalted position Jesus Christ should occupy.

No doubt we must trace at least some of society's spiritual vacuum, decried by even the secularists today, to those within the church who have peeled away the supernatural elements from Scripture. When we discard the virgin birth, when we relegate the miracles of Jesus to the status of pious myths, what are we left with? We are left holding the husk of a Christ who is merely a moral teacher a teacher to be distinguished above all other great human thinkers, perhaps, but a mere moral teacher, nevertheless, and not a divine Saviour. We are left with only a human philosopher who saves us by his masterful example, rather than with a divine Redeemer who saves us by His substitutionary death.

On the other hand, we may maintain sound Biblical views of the nature and work of Christ and still detract from His unique position in the church. There seems to be a disturbing trend within Christianity that is sweeping ministers, almost unawares, into a most insidious cult—the cult of the individual, the look-at-me cult.

Drives for the largest Sunday school in the area (with resultant fame for the pas tor), religious television programming built around glamorous musicians and charismatic preacher-personalities, builders of multimillion-dollar church edifices with far-flung enterprises and famous preachers, all these seem to us to be symptomatic of a subtle upstaging of Jesus Christ, while ostensibly engaged in building up His cause. Pope John Paul II is to be commended for his deliberate attempt to scale down the pomp and ceremonial trappings traditionally associated with his office.

Let it never be forgotten that a religion of externals is naturally attractive to the unconverted heart. There is a seductive, bewitching power found in glamorous religious facilities housing well-rehearsed productions of music and lectures. Compare all the fanfare and excitement found in some of our churches with the lowly Christ, born in a manger, brought up in a carpenter's home, and finally nailed to a cross. Who He was, and what He did, constitute the all-important reason for looking to Him and no one else. He needed no royal robes while He walked on earth, for He was God in human form. He needed no publicity agents, for His authority and power were manifestly present. Compare His example with what is taking place in many quarters of the religious world today! It seems to us that there is too much "showmanship" and too little "Sonmanship" associated with the religious activities of ministers of all faiths, including our own.

At Jonestown, the cult of the individual grew to such proportions that Jim Jones reportedly screamed at those paying more attention to the Bible than to him,"Look at me, hot at this!" and then egotistically slammed the Bible to the floor. We stand shocked at such behavior. But before we shake our head, pull aside the hem of our ecclesiastical robes, and point the finger of scorn at the "cultists," perhaps we ought to make sure that we are not developing personality cults around ourselves.

Fellow preachers, nothing must take the place of Jesus—not reputation, not doctrine devoid of Christ, not position, nor anything else! Ellen G. White eloquently admonishes, "Lift up Jesus, you that teach the people, lift Him up in sermon, in song, in prayer. Let all your powers be directed to pointing souls, confused, bewildered, lost, to 'the Lamb of God.' Lift Him up, the risen Saviour, and say to all who hear, Come to Him who 'hath loved us, and hath given him self for us' [Eph. 5:2]. Let the science of salvation be the burden of every sermon, the theme of every song. Let it be poured forth in every supplication. Bring nothing into your preaching to supplement Christ, the wisdom and power of God. Hold forth the word of life, presenting Jesus as the hope of the penitent and the stronghold of every believer. Reveal the way of peace to the troubled and the despondent, and show forth the grace and completeness of the Saviour." —Gospel Workers, p. 160.


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by the editors.

January 1979

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