Lessons from Waco II

Why some Adventists were vulnerable to fatal fanaticism.

Caleb Rosado, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where he specializes in the sociology of religion.

As law enforcement investigators sifted through the rubble of David Koresh's charred kingdom, Christians—Adventists in particular—began their own autopsy of the tragedy. Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church had no connection whatever with the fanatical Davidian cult, the inescapable reality is that most members of the group came from an Adventist back ground, including Koresh himself.

What made these Adventists vulnerable to the fatal fire of fanaticism? Are there lessons some of our people need to learn to be protected from future deceptions? Let us search for answers as we continue this two-part analysis of sects and cults.

Who joins cults

The Branch Davidians were unique among cultists in that they emerged from a sect that had previously emerged from another sect. Some aspects of the group were sectlike: strong Bible teaching, a sense that they alone had the "truth," and the belief that only they were God's true followers. Other aspects were cultlike: Koresh believing himself to be Jesus, having multiple wives, and having an obsession with sex and weapons.

Because sects and cults differ in how they respond to the secularization process, they do not attract the same kinds of members. Sects tend to draw disproportionately from the lower socioeconomic classes, from among the power less, the socially and spiritually deprived, and new converts. Successful cults, how ever, draw their members from the more privileged members of society, the educated, the unchurched, and those uninterested in organized religion.

Because of its sect-cult status, the Branch Davidians drew from both groups. Evidence from former members and cult research provides an interesting picture.

1. Previous connections to Adventism. The Branch Davidians were an off shoot of the original Davidians, who came out of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1930. This historical connection is important because the mission of the group was not to save the world but to reform the Adventist Church. They perceived the church to be Babylon, and they targeted most of their prophecies against it, including the slaughter in Ezekiel 9.

2. A strong focus on apocalyptic prophecies. From their beginning Seventh-day Adventists have put a strong emphasis on the prophetic message. This emphasis is found not only in the person of a prophet, Ellen G. White, but in the Adventist self-concept of being commissioned by God to proclaim the end-time prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.

When a church gets too involved in organizational or mundane matters to the neglect of its message, reformers will arise, seeking to get it back on track. An increasing number of "independent ministries" currently challenge the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Many are beneficial, but some are deviant in their attempts to reform the church. 1 A few offshoot groups focus on what they perceive is a correct interpretation of the prophecies.

Because the Adventist Church emphasizes prophecy, particularly the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, it should not surprise us that most converts to the Branch Davidians and Adventist fringe groups are persons with Adventist backgrounds.

3. Persons marginal to the church and to society. Many who are drawn to new sects and cults are disgruntled ultraconservatives. They may have a gripe with the system and view church leader ship negatively and even with hostility. Some of them experience a sense of social and spiritual powerlessness. The ones with the least invested in the organization can be critical of it; they have the least to lose by leaving it since the system has invested so little in them. This is why women, youth, persons of color, and recent converts become attracted to new sects and cults. They feel the old organization does not meet their needs. Most sect and cult converts are also reacting against complacency, worldliness, and liberal views and lifestyles they see in the church. They believe church standards have been low ered and want the secularization process to be reversed.

Christians should be concerned that the gospel demands not be lowered. What differentiates sect and cult members from healthy believers is a recalcitrant, in flexible belief in their own tightness and that all who do not agree with them are wrong. Thus they focus on sin and its exposure rather than love. The spiritual and social marginal status of these people in the church often results in a/negative aura that engulfs them because they focus on perfectionism. When a new sect forms, perfectionism leads to additional schisms, since perfect people cannot tolerate people they perceive as imperfect (not like them). They remind one of new converts childlike in their spiritual and moral growth. They become stuck in an arrested stage of spiritual development, immature, and susceptible to every wind of doctrine (see Eph. 4:14).

4. Persons who lack strong personal attachments. Sociological research on cults concludes that "the crucial factor leading to membership in a novel religion is the development of social bonds with persons who already are members" of the novel religion.2 We often think that doctrine is the primary attraction to these converts, but research shows that more often than not social attachments are the primary basis of conversion.3 "Rather than being drawn to the group mainly because of the appeal of its doctrines, people [are] drawn to the doctrines because of their ties to the group." 4

Persons who lack strong friendships and bonds of interpersonal affection with members of a religious organization are vulnerable to recruitment by persons from a deviant group. This does not mean they are abnormal. The brain washing theory behind cult recruitment does not hold up under objective re search.5 People who join cults as well as sects do so primarily because of spiritual needs not being met by existing organizations. They find the warmth and friend ship of sect and cult members attractive to their social and spiritual needs.6 According to Stark and Bainbridge, brain washing stories are popular in the media because they excuse people from having made bad judgments in joining a deviant group.7 People who don't receive sup port for their ideas, and who especially lack strong interpersonal bonds, can be drawn away by deviant attachments.

5. Persons who suspend critical thinking by turning authority over to a single person, usually a charismatic figure. We live in a confusing age which is also largely biblically illiterate—even while Bibles abound as never before. Perception of prophecy is often misaligned by distorted portrayals from Hollywood. In such a time of great social change, with spiritual and moral values up for grabs, people are searching for stability. This requires sound thinking. But television, movies, videos, and advertisements tend to suffocate individual thought. Others offer answers for situations that seem too complex for us personally to solve.

In times of great confusion and change, people feel a need for strong moral leadership. This explains why conservative churches and not liberal ones are growing. Dean Kelly says that "strong organizations are strict ... the stricter the stronger." 8 In a market economy, like in anything else, people value religion in terms of how much it costs—that which costs little is little valued, while that which costs a great deal (in terms of time, effort, investment, sacrifice) is greatly valued. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke spell it out clearly in the following proposition. "Religious organizations are stronger to the degree that they impose significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members." 9

What this means is that in times of great confusion, people want others to do the thinking for them. This spares them the risk of making wrong decisions. It also takes away personal responsibility for their actions. They merely do what they are told. This also explains why when people defect from a cult they claim brainwashing, because again the sense of responsibility for one's actions is removed. People don't like to admit they made mistakes.

In the movie The Wave, a filmed experiment of how to make a fascist society, the leader declares to a friend: "It's amazing how much they like you when you make decisions for them." When a strong, persuasive leader such as Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones, or David Koresh, comes along, whom do they attract? The gullible, the nonthinkers, those searching for easy solutions to complex problems, and those desiring quick fixes. Their decision to join is reinforced when they are led to believe they now belong to a movement that will have significance in world history. Belonging to that which transcends the mundane is a most seductive force. People will die for that! This is witnessed in martyrdom, not only in the history of Christianity, but also in the final conflagration of the Branch Davidians.

6. Level of education. Most persons who join new sects tend to have low levels of education, come from a low socioeconomic status, and a working class background. These persons believe one does not need much education, especially from worldly schools, to under stand the Lord's message. They suppose the less one is influenced by worldly philosophies and humanistic views, the readier they are for true education by the Holy Spirit.

Those who join cults, however, have different characteristics. Since cults espouse a new religious view, they often attract people from the margins of organized religions who have given up on the church. Many of these are educated, come from professional backgrounds, and are even financially well-off. Some cult converts turn to religion after science failed to answer their basic questions about life, the most fundamental being about immortality and eternity. As Rodney Stark observed: "In the face of some of life's greatest questions, all human beings are deprived." 10 Both rich and poor need religion to find a meaningful existence.

When people give up on the church, religious innovation through cult formation steps on the stage of opportunity to meet their needs. Thus the socially comfortable who want more in life than material abundance turn to cults for innovative ideas to explain the mysteries of life. They often exchange profit for prophecies and prophets. To find some one who can specifically give a time and date for the end of the world when most of us don't even know what tomorrow will bring is important to some people. We should not be surprised then to have found that a Harvard Law School graduate, a lawyer, a computer programmer, and medical personnel were among Koresh's followers. 11 All this lines up with the types of persons attracted to cults.

7. An appeal to authority other than Scripture. Persons concerned with re forming the church and straightening out the lives of others want a clear "Thus says the Lord" voice of authority in their lives. However, they do not find the straight testimony of the Word of God in the Bible sufficient. To them, the Bible is not specific enough and too open to interpretation. Thus such people want something more detailed, unambiguous, clearly spelled out, and less confusing. The Jews of Jesus' day had the Mishnah, the Mormons have the Book of Mormon, and Seventh-day Adventists have the writings of Ellen G. White.

Adventists attracted by the teachings of sects and independent ministries find more comfort in the writings of Ellen G. White than the Bible. They regard her writings as less open to misinterpretation and easier to understand. But that is because they pursue a selective reading of her writings—those that go along with their chosen interpretations. When a sect evolves into a cult, as it did with the Branch Davidians, even those writings become open to misunderstanding. They now feel they need the live word of a true prophet—the cult leader—whose words and teachings they can hold to be of value equal to or even greater than those of the Bible. The cult leader's interpretation of the Bible now becomes the new standard of behavior and doctrine. The leaders discourage all others from investigating the Scriptures on their own.12 This happened to Roman Catholicism during the Middle Ages until Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular.

8. A desire for power. Persons who lack social and moral power in a respect able organization often see in a sect or cult an opportunity to exploit the spiritual naivete and hunger of others for personal material and social gain. These persons can be potential leaders that unite themselves with a cult and shift the leadership of the group over to them selves. They are the spiritual hustlers and con artists. Jim Jones, the Roden family, and David Koresh lacked recognition and respectability in the organizations from which they came, so they turned to cults for their few minutes of earthly glory.

9. Small groups with no official leadership. One place where subversive doctrines and teachings find a receptive audience is in a small church that has no official spiritual leader; or if a leader exists, the members have little confidence in him. Long ago Solomon declared that where there is not vision a people perish (Prov. 29:18). The phenomenon of no official leader opens the way for spiritual opportunists and religious con artists to step into the gap and fill the void. The apostle Paul speaks of a crop of spiritual "infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Eph. 4:14, NIV).

In view of these dynamics in people's lives that make them susceptible to cults, what can churches do to dissuade per sons from blindly following spiritual pied pipers?

Preventing chaos

A clear statement of the problem as we have discussed it uncovers steps of action that a church must take to prevent spiritual chaos. Unfortunately, it is easier to talk about these steps than to take them. The steps are simple, but opposition can make them difficult:

1. Turn up the heat in the local congregation. Coldness characterizes too many local churches. H.M.S. Richards, the late founder of the Voice of Prophecy, suggested years ago that many churches are so cold one could skate down the center aisle. I don't think our churches are any warmer today. Human hearts need the warm love of Christ so that from the moment either seekers or members drive into the parking lot they feel welcome. They can be welcomed by a parking attendant, a door greeter, a bulletin/register person, a pastor and loving church members reminiscent of the father in the Luke 15 parable of the prodigal son.

Walter Douglas, my former first elder and now a pastor at All Nations Church, Michigan, calls that "riotous loving!" Cult members term it "love bombing." And I find nothing wrong with that, so long as it is sincere and from the heart. Has your church ever thrown a party for return prodigals? Could that be why so few return?

In this year of reclaiming former members, why not make k a party year? Our God loves to throw parties, and the biggest one is yet to come. He has al ready sent out the invitations. You can read the notice in Revelation 22:17.

2. Teach members how to-form strong social attachments. If developing social bonds is the most crucial factor in the conversion process, why should we let the cults become more adroit at this than our churches? Friendship was Christ's method and the only one that will succeed. "Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with [people] as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.'"13 The "formula for success" is a simple fourstep one:

a. Socialize—"The Saviour mingled with [people]."

b. Sympathize—"He showed His sympathy for them."

c. Serve—He "ministered to their needs."

d. Salvation—"Then He bade them, 'Follow.' "

The combination of the first three steps results in confidence. Once a person's confidence is gained, then salvation can be extended. Unfortunately, we usually begin with the fourth step without building friendships and bonds of attachment. Then we wonder why people don't respond. The truth is that they are moved more by our methods than our message. Once the method has arrested their attention with friendship, they will listen to what we have to say. Isn't this what Ellen White meant by being tenderhearted, courteous, and kind?

Many sit in our churches lonely, marginal, hungry for affection and personal attention. In an age of high tech, people need high touch! Who said AT&T should control the market on "reaching out and touching someone"? Christians need to make the world a warmer place.

3. Preach a strong, spiritually balanced message. Preach the gospel along with strong Christ-centered prophetic preaching. This requires that we re member that the book of Revelation is the Revelation of Jesus Christ. People must walk away from our prophetic preaching with an understanding of Christ as the center of the message and not some negative, depressing imagery that leaves them hopeless and discouraged.

4. Preach the Bible. The church does not have two authorities, but one—the Bible. The writings of Ellen G. White exist to guide us to the Bible, not to take its place. In too many Adventist pulpits and Sabbath school classes visitors may hear the name of Ellen G. White more often than the name of Jesus Christ. Her writings are often cited more than the Bible. We are to be foremost preachers of Jesus, not Ellen! Her writings are available to promote Christ.

On Sabbath mornings Christ must be the central focus of all the church does. During midweek services we can hold classes on the Spirit of Prophecy and its importance to the well-being of the church. But when we make Ellen G. White the main authority in the church, we become guilty of abusing her gift. Adventist youth don't know the Bible, and few even bring it to church. Why should they? God's Word is seldom used in many churches, and its study is not often encouraged. We need solid, relevant, timely, expository preaching that teaches people the beauty of the gospel. The centrality of the Scriptures must return to our pulpits. If it does not return, numerous David Koreshes may be waiting in the wings of our church foyers preparing to entice a generation of young people with their "new" understandings of the Bible.

5. Teach people to think for them selves. These changing, confusing times not only call for people "who will not be bought or sold," 14 but also for people who are thinkers. Long ago Ellen White gave the following charge: "Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator individuality, power to think and to do.... It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men's thought. 15 Unfortunately, this counsel has not al ways been followed. Creator power, "power to think and to do," is not a priority in our curriculum. More often than not, products of Christian schools have been more programmed in crucial regurgitation than in critical reflection. Youth are most often not taught to think for themselves and make independent choices but to follow carefully prescribed rules and regulations. Thus, merely by obeying and going along with all the rules, young men and women are perceived to be decent Christians—when in reality they may just be afraid to step out of line.

Blind conformity does not necessarily lead to strong leadership. What it does lead to is to strong followers fol lowing blind leadership. This may ex plain why so many of David Koresh's followers were Adventist youth, recruited from Adventist colleges. What are we doing in our academic institutions that create minds receptive to deception? To be fair, let me affirm that the majority of our young people are not being led astray, but remain solid in their commitment to Christ and to the church. Nevertheless, is the potential there? Do we dam up the ocean, or do we teach our young people how to swim?

In summary, we must teach our young people to be individual thinkers, capable of constructive critical reflection and wise decisions.

6. Develop a strong mission statement. Every church must develop a strong mission statement arising out of the needs of the community the church serves (both in and out of the church). The statement needs to be the work of the entire congregation, not just the pastor or church board. People will take ownership of only that to which they have given input. This statement must become a working document, not a museum piece for dis play. All aspects of the church program must reflect the working out of the mission statement.

The importance of developing a mission statement lies in the reality that some churches have become incubators for disgruntled, potential cult members. These congregations do not have a mission or purpose for existence. They have no strong program of witness, evangelism, and ministry in their community. Lacking a sense of direction in the spiritual energy of the membership, that energy will spend itself in other directions: dissipate into the spiritual blahs of inactivity and noncommitment; turn inward in criticism, division, and factions; or worse—leave members open to influences of persuasive outside agitators with their own agenda of "new light." The best way to avoid these derailing influences is to engage the church in a wholistic ministry that emerges from a grasp of its mission.

7. Create a worship style that arises out of the needs of the church. Most Adventist worship styles, whether traditional or celebration, merely borrow from other churches or denominations. This eclectic approach does not address the needs of all members. The worship style for each local congregation must be unique to that congregation and its mission rather than borrowed because some body saw it in another church and liked it. We need to become thinkers and doers rather than copiers.

8. Develop an inclusive model of ministry. For too long the church has been operating with exclusive models of ministry. Exclusive models divide, separate, and move people away from the center, which is Christ. When we focus more on exclusion than inclusion, we drive people toward the open arms of spiritual deviants interested more in separating than in uniting. An inclusive model unites, builds on diversity, moves people toward the center—Jesus Christ. Our goal is not uniformity, since not even God aspires to that. We want unity in diversity in Christ, collectively learning from what each can contribute. That challenge we must face in rapidly changing times.

Near the turn of the century, an era also marked by dynamic change, the great Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana declared: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As we approach the year 2000, more apocalyptic cults will emerge, claiming to be anchors amid social storms. David Koresh was simply the 1993 model. What will the 1994 model look like? Will it also have Adventist connections? Let us learn the lessons of Waco and be on guard

1 Issues: The Seventh-day Adventist Church
and Certain Private Ministries (Silver Spring,
Md.: North American Division of Seventh-day
Adventists, 1992).

2 Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge,
The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival,
and Cult Formation (Berkeley, Calif.: University
of California, 1985), p. 424.

3 John Lofland and Rodney Stark, "Becoming
a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a
Deviant Perspective," American Sociology
Review 30 (1965), pp. 862-875.

4 Rodney Stark, Sociology, 4th ed. (Belmont,
Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1992), p. 86.

5 Eileen Barker, New Religious Movements: A
Practical Introduction (London: Her Majesty's
Stationary Office, 1989); Stark and Bainbridge.

6 See the experience of Jeannie Mills, a former
Seventh-day Adventist, who was led to join the
Peoples' Temple. Jeannie Mills, Six Years With
God: Life Inside Jim Jones's Peoples' Temple (New
York: A&W Publishers, Inc., 1979). Her story is
retold in the book by Caleb Rosado, Broken Walls
(Boise, Id.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1990).

7 Stark and Bainbridge, pp. 417-423.

8 See Dean Kelly, Why Conservative Churches
Are Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

9 Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, The
Churching of America, 1776-1990 (New
Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press,
1992), p. 238. (Italic supplied.)

10 Stark, p. 430.

11 Marc Breault, "Some Background on the
Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist
Movement From 1955 to the Early Part of 1991" (un
published manuscript, Apr. 17,1991, revised May
27, 1991), pp. 14,22.


12 See Breault for a discussion of this profession
among the Branch Davidians.

13 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1942), p.
143. (Italics supplied).

14 White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 57.

15 Ibid., p. 27. (Italics supplied.)

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Caleb Rosado, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where he specializes in the sociology of religion.

August 1993

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