From Community to Cult

This has been a difficult post for me to contemplate, not to mention for me to actually write.  It is my hope that anyone who has faced (or is facing) similar issues will find some guidance and peace of mind. 

I grew up Presbyterian, but have attended mostly evangelical/charismatic ‘style’ churches for the last 20 years (see my earlier post).  Twenty years is more than enough time for some common problems to have been reinforced:  Many evangelicals have an underlying distrust (if not disdain) for intellectual thought, and have adopted a “fortress mentality” – where they attempt to combat the difficult questions and challenges of our culture with greater religious “emotional intensity” while never actually addressing or confronting the challenges leveled at them by those of different convictions.  Nancy Pearcey, in her book “Total Truth” (a book I’ve found to be a wonderful resource on Christian worldview), writes at length on this phenomenon, since it is a common scenario in many evangelical churches.  This vein of anti-intellectualism has caused evangelicalism to lend itself to a systemic distrust of questioning.  In some cases, it’s simply a moderate fear of “will I have the answers if someone questions my doctrine?”  That can be a healthy fear – if it leads one to confront those questions in their own life head on, rather than hide behind ‘religious experience’ alone.  However, in two specific instances, I have seen the ‘distrust of questioning’ taken to an extreme that I cannot find any Biblical support for.

At the heart of this is the desire – the need – for communal bonds.  For all that good that came of evangelicalism’s early days, there was a prevailing attitude of distrust towards the ‘religious authorities’ of the time.  In Total Truth, Pearcey writes, “Taunting religious authorities became so widespread on college campuses that in 1741 the trustees at Yale University had to pass a college law forbidding students to call college officers ‘carnal’ or ‘unconverted’” (pg 271).  The point here is that while there was good that emerged from what evangelicals know as the “Great Awakenings”, at the same time the old order of strong communal bonds within believing communities was disintegrating.  You cannot assault the institutions that made those bonds possible, without also dissolving the bonds as well.

The result is a problem evangelical churches have wrestled with for decades: how to foster real community.  Pearcey explains, “In the colonial period, the dominant political philosophy had been classical and Christian republicanism, which was highly communal.  But in the new liberalism…the ethos of self-sacrifice was replaced by one of self-assertion and self-interest” (pg 280).  In describing the emerging style of preaching at the time, Pearcey writes, “Increasingly, the populist preacher became a performer, stringing together stories and anecdotes…this method engaged the audience’s emotions while subtly enhancing the speaker’s own image by highlighting his own ministry and spiritual experiences.  The outcome of all this was the rise of personality cults, the celebrity system that has become so entrenched in evangelicalism” (pg 287).

And here is where the fine and dangerous line is crossed.  This is how many evangelical congregations have moved from the desire for real community, into the territory reserved for cults: “One of the dangers in personality cults”, according to Pearcey, “is that they easily lead to demagoguery…strong-willed leaders who, ironically, ended up exercising an even higher degree of dogmatism and control than pastors in traditional denominations, whom they denounced” (pg 289).

How those leaders assert their control can vary.  However, in my experience, the squashing of dissenting opinions seems to be a common symptom.  A close companion to that symptom is that members (especially leaders) in that congregation have no qualms about severing relationship with those they disagree with, regardless of prior history.  So, here’s a short quiz for you:  If you currently attend a church, how well do they handle disagreement?  If you disagree, are you ostracized, directly or indirectly?  What about others who have disagreed?  Does your church push for “unity” by attempting to enforce “uniformity”?  If the leaders of your church show no broken-heartedness over ‘severed’ relationships with those who’ve disagreed with them, may I humbly (albeit emphatically) suggest you find a new church?  As Christians, we should be among the best examples of the power of reconciliation.  We have several Biblical examples (Paul & Peter, Paul and Mark, to name two) of Christians who disagreed and came into conflict, and yet continued to support one another in the end.  If we have a pattern of cutting people out of our lives because they won’t “line up” with our “vision”, are we not simply acting like petulant children?  To borrow a paraphrase from Augustine: “In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, love.

  • Brian S

    Superb writing, Jim.

  • @shawnrstewart

    Well put Jim.

    Spiritual abuse in the church also plays out when the leadership of a local church is elevated to a point where any hint of 'mutual submission' (Eph 5:21) completely disappears. This is most often supported by a distortion of submission to those in authority (Hebrews 13:17). What is left is a micro papacy, where people are fundamentally taught to not think for themselves, but to allow the group or the leaders to think for them. This is of course a reversal of a foundational principle of the reformation.

    This system also produces as a by product, suspicion and arrogance toward those not in the group which of course is the opposite of love (1 Cor. 13) and flies in the face of Paul's teaching in 2 Cor. 1:24 "But that does not mean we want to dominate you by telling you how to put your faith into practice. We want to work together with you so you will be full of joy, for it is by your own faith that you stand firm." (NLT)

    A verse that come to mind to support your point about disagreement is James 3:17 which discusses wisdom from above being peaceable, gentle and willing to yield. Another verse that speaks to disagreement and choosing to separate from those in disagreement: Romans 12:18 which emphasizes "as far as IT DEPENDS ON YOU to live at peace with everyone. And finally Ephesians 4:1-6.

    I offer a couple links as resources for identifying spiritual abuse in a church or group system:

    1. 10 rules of a toxic faith system:
    2. Have I been the victim of spiritual abuse (self quiz):

    Thanks Jim for writing this post.

    • Jim Cowart

      Shawn – your wisdom is deeply appreciated. What a great translation of 2 Cor. 1:24! Thanks for the links as well, definitely going to check them out.

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  • Jason

    First, I'd like to say that this was an excellent and well-researched piece, Jim. Secondly, in my life I've seen churches (a church) split over disagreement. What's worse, that same church has experiences ripples ever since and have had small-scaled splits every 5-6 years.

    Having been raised in church, strayed for years and only returned a few years ago now, I have to say that the separatism or "us and them" view of the saved and unsaved as well as between fellow congregants can be very heart-breaking, infuriating and all kinds of twisty. It also misses the point of what all this is supposed to be about in the first place. One cannot blur the line between morality and superiority as there's such a danger in living bits & pieces of the Bible or making it up as one goes. We can no longer afford to get it wrong, can we?

    I'm glad you opted to post this piece. It's certainly one that has me thinking.

    • Jim Cowart

      Thanks so much for the comment Jason – well written, as always! "There's such a danger in living bits & pieces of the Bible" – great way to phrase that! Paul warned that if we didn't have love, we're no better than a 'clanging cymbal'. I've seen churches hurt many believers because they stopped making the effort to live out a Biblically-based life in LOVE.