Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cultlike Practices

I was often accused of having joined a cult when I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Saviour. I laughed at the idea since I knew what the Bible said about salvation. Rom. 10:9,10. Upon reflection, I now think my experience of salvation was and is very real but with some very cult like practices mixed in.

Some of these practices were lifestyle issues like not playing cards, not dancing, not drinking and not working on Sundays. Other groups have other lists to be adhered to. These issues tended towards isolating one from others outside of the group.

I didn’t start out going to Sunday School, a morning service and an evening service, Wednesday night Bible study, men's fellowship? (another bible study with just men), plus a score of volunteer positions and evenings out. It was a process of aligning myself with these practices in order to show that I belonged. Spending a minimum of 12 hours a week at church was normal, lots of weeks were 20+.

These rules were not written down but to advance (grow) in maturity or leadership they were required. Faithfulness meant living within the boundaries of the group’s standards. We did not find these things a hardship but rather a joy to practice. We wanted to belong and this was proof that we did.

Conformity to the group was all that mattered. Not having a beer was more important than building friendships outside of the group. Our glorious message to our unsaved friends was accept Jesus and cut out the evil beer drinking.

My group has the best interpretation of the Bible. Wow, I was one smug dude over this one. The idea that “we don’t know what we don’t know”, never occurred to us. If I didn’t have the answer our pastor surely did.

PRIDE trapped us into a rigid belief system that could not be challenged. Everyone was told to “grow” but that simply meant accepting the group’s values (almost always the unwritten ones), one point at a time. Groups tend to have a paralyzing effect on new ideas. Amazingly, even groups with completely opposing ideas manage to use the Bible to justify them.

If I saw something in the Bible that the leader didn’t believe, obviously it was an error on my part. The idea of the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth was constantly emphasized, but in reality simply meant following the leader as he was “led” by the Spirit.

There is an unstated but real belief that when we finally get to heaven the way our group functioned will be the blueprint for everyone else. And we’ll be able to say, “See, I told you so.”

Aligning oneself with the leader is of utmost importance. Don’t expect to advance or belong if you don’t. His interpretation is final: including how one interprets the Bible or how one interprets a prophetic word. Failure to do so will result in not being trusted and set aside. The secret of disagreeing and being able to belong at the same time is to keep your mouth zipped tight.

The leader has significant influence since their voice is the one that everyone hears religiously. The amount of time and money devoted to a leader’s speaking unquestionably gives them a significant amount of power. Not surprisingly, these monologues are not meant to support an open learning model but in reality manage to isolate everyone to only hearing a very one sided view.

Some leaders are very gracious in their style of leadership while others are very autocratic, the point is that it is their vision that is to be followed. Gather a few people in your church to look after an orphanage without the leader giving his ok and test this out. The smooth leaders will include this type of plan into the overall vision of the church and will even give it their blessing so that they can be seen to be leading this worthy cause. Other leaders will be jealous that people are spending money on something they didn’t start and may be seen to compete with what they are doing.

The lion’s share of all giving should be done within the group. It doesn’t matter if the group teaches tithing or free will giving. The way God chooses to bless the world through our finances is through giving to the group. Ironically, 80-99% of offerings are spent on the group and not the world. The amount of money spent on buildings and leaders (in the name of evangelism, of course) is astounding.

Friendships only exist within the confines of agreement within the group. If you leave the group expect to be shunned: either overtly or quietly. From the more gracious groups there will be a genuine feeling of sadness that you left and that you didn’t get how important they really are. I’ve been fascinated by how fragile friendships (if that's what they ever were) are compared to the idea of solidarity within the group’s thinking.

The Church as the Body of Christ

This is often talked about but is rarely embraced. A group’s identity is far more important. The single greatest unifying factor (Jesus is a distant second) practiced by all groups is that one should belong to a group. What is shocking about this is that the New Testament never mentions the name of a single church but only identifies Christians by the city which they live in. Try telling some Christians you're simply part of the church of (name your city) and watch the weird look that comes on their faces.

Growing as a Christian should be a lifelong adventure. No group can ever say they have all that Christ has for an individual. Sadly, because of a group's need for identity, thus the cultlike practices that strengthen that idea, tend to snuff out an individual's development and growth in Christ. Not many groups have ever celebrated an individual's growing beyond the group's limitations. To do so, would reveal the tenuous house of cards that any group's identity has been built on.

Can you grow beyond your group's limits? Of course you can. Just don't tell anybody.

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