Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 58 - Cults (Video)

No. 58. >> One of the things I hear regularly on the radio and TV and in other places is the word cult. A few years ago there was the Heaven's Gate cult. And before that, there were the Branch Davidians and Jim Jones' Peoples Temple. While I realize these groups are not Christians, I am curious, what makes a cult a cult? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: Eric, that's an excellent question. And it's one that given the basic realities of the last, say, 15 years or even farther back is one that's continued to impress itself upon us here on the American religious scene. Now, isn't it ironic how gullible we are even as modern people. We think we are so well informed. And certainly these kinds of things couldn't happen to me. And I know better than that now. When we look back at some of the stories from the past and examples of cultic leadership in the 1800s and before. Now, for example, in New York state in the early part of the 1800s, 1820s and 1830s, there was a prophet named Matthias who said he was the second coming of Christ. And he developed around himself a little community that believed that it and it alone was the true church. To be a part of the true church, you had to be connected to Matthias. He controlled every aspect of these peoples' lives. Whether their spiritual or temporal life, he had control over it all. So in order to have forgiveness of one's sins, one had to, again, recognize his authority, hear the word of forgiveness from his mouth, be sustained in that forgiveness by Matthias and be part of that community. If one was cut out from it, then one was outside the church, so said Matthias. And in terms of the social aspects of life, he controlled access to the outside world. This group was huddled in a little community, buildings in which he controlled all aspects of their existence. So who would be released to go and purchase supplies for the community, carefully guarded by him. The kind of interaction with anybody outside of the community, again, he controlled it. The relationship within the community, who would pair up with whom. Who would have the ability to speak with other people. Who would be the one who entertained the community as a whole. All of these things. Every aspect of life. Matthias controlled it. Until ultimately he became God, if you will, within the lives of these people. They didn't speak, they didn't think, they didn't eat, they didn't drink without permission from their leader. And they had become a cult. All of this in the name of Christianity in this man's case. You know, ironically enough, there was a meeting between this Matthias and Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons in Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph Smith commented on his interaction with Matthias stating he had never met a stranger person. Now, that tells you an awful lot right there. How do we get to these points? How is it that these kind of cultic figures arise and emerge? And what is the reality here in America that there had been so many of these kinds of leaders? It's, in part, the blessing and the curse of religious freedom and the First Amendment in the United States Constitution. Namely, that Congress shall not establish any religion here in America. What that provides is the terrific and wonderful freedom that we experience here in the United States to worship according to our conscience. And to do so without governmental interference. But it also allows for the emergence of some of these cultic movements. Which later on as they have emerged and developed, can take on some very dangerous characteristics. We mentioned a few. Branch Davidians. The terrific and horrible conflagration that characterized their end. A group that grew out of the Seventh-day Adventist tradition. Having very tenuous ties to it. But a prophet, an interpreter, a man of God who read the Scriptures, interpreted the signs of the times and who located the presence of the Messiah at times in himself, at times in an imminent return of Jesus. Or Jim Jones, who came out of the Christian tradition the Disciples of Christ. Who, again, saw in himself a revelation of God. And made the demand that anyone who would be part of the church, that is truly connected to God, had to thereby be connected to him as the representative of God on earth. And when the community was threatened, even after having removed itself from the United States, we had the horrific scene in which hundreds of people drank poison koolaid killing themselves. There are the more marginal kinds of cultic groups, the Heaven's Gate group, which surround themselves around a particularly charismatic leader, who has a strange and unusual message that promises a certain revelation of God and a promise of ultimate salvation. But again, it always strikes me. We say: We know better. We're modern people. We've gotten beyond this. Or have we? That plays itself out, that scene, too many times for us to become complacent. The reality of Satan's work is just that. Real. And he continues to prowl about like a roaring lion seeking to devour us, to deceive us, to turn us away from the one true faith. Through any means that he can. Including particularly charismatic leaders who can mislead us with a very unhelpful and damaging message. To that end, I think there are at least seven characteristics that characterize a cultic group. First off, there is a centralized form of leadership that rules with unquestioned authority. There is normally a charismatic individual who determines the character of the -- and the behavior of the community. Second, there is a body of convictions, beliefs and practices set forth boldly as the one and only truth. Now, don't we say that as Christians? Yes, we do. But oftentimes in cultic groups, you have this unusual immediate revelation that has come from outside to the charismatic leader that then characterizes this perspective in a unique and forceful way at variance and at odds with the received teachings of the church. Third, there is a compelling presentation of the group's vision to prospects that is inviting and challenging. That is a very winsome and open invitation to people to be part of this unique community that is, in fact, the one true faithful followers of God. And that draws people in. Invites them in. Gives them a sense of community. Particularly in our age in which life is so fragmented and individualized. The opportunity to be part of the one true church, if you will, can oftentimes pull people in. Fourth, there is a series of manipulative socializing sessions to instill psychological dependence on the group. That is to say there is a kind of boot camp, if you will, that a person goes through that ultimately shapes them in the beliefs and characteristics of this group. Ultimately resulting in promises to the centralized leadership, usually the one charismatic leader, of complete obedience in all spiritual and temporal matters. Fifth, a process of group dynamics used to control and manipulate members oftentimes using things like food, sleep deprivation, shunning by the community if one does not hold up to their standards of what they say is the truth. Sixth, a history of abuse of authority by group leaders using deception and fear tactics. And finally, seventh, the history of psychological and spiritual abuses of group members that can destroy lives. In the end, the proof is in the pudding. In that people are controlled. Held against their will. Manipulated in damaging ways that ultimately can lead to horrific ends. Again, the pictures of Waco and of the Peoples Temple in Guyana come immediately to mind. Lest we say, however, that such a thing couldn't happen to me, we need only remember how weak we are as Christians. And how quickly we give ourselves over to temptations as they present themselves. We really aren't all that wise when you get right down to it. For we consistently pursue the things that lead to death and destruction. Rather than the things of life and light. Thanks be to God we have a gracious Savior who knows our being. Who knows what it is like for us to struggle as his people in the world. Who is like unto us in all things except sinning. For he traversed the way to the cross. And paid the penalty for our weaknesses once and for all. And triumphed over them in his cross and resurrection. And his promise to us is: I will never leave you or forsake you. And I will never let any of these tempters snatch you out of my hand.