Recently, a friend told me they were writing about a very sensitive subject: their experience in an unhealthy, cult-like church. This friend later asked if I would be willing to share it here on my blog. At the author’s request, I am posting it anonymously, as to include my friend’s name would undoubtedly cause a great deal of unnecessary relational turmoil. I trust that—whether you’ve come out of a cult-like church or only heard about them on Twitter—you’ll find these lessons as helpful as I have.
When I went off to college as a bright-eyed 18-year-old, I found a church to get involved with right away. The church had a college group that met in my dorm, and I loved it from the beginning. It was an incredibly friendly group and I forged deep relationships that are still some of my closest friendships 19 years later. We were deeply committed to giving our lives to Christ, and many of our unchurched friends from the dorm gave their lives to Christ as well. I myself was baptized that fall in a frigid alpine lake at the top of a mountain.
Unbeknownst to me or my friends, this church’s wider movement had been classified as a cult a handful of years before and was included in several publications about abusive churches for their manipulative, controlling tactics. The church movement knew about its weaknesses and was, and still is, trying with God’s help to overcome them. It is no longer considered a cult, but a subtle residual culture of spiritual manipulation and control persists. It is hard to change decades of culture.
The movement was rallied around a noble cause—spreading the gospel—but in order to most efficiently and effectively spread the gospel, a rigorous structure was in place to recruit, train and send out more people. To keep the mission of the people tight and focused, a strong emphasis was placed on following, imitating and obeying your leaders. Therefore, there was one tract for people to follow, and deviation from that accepted path was often perceived as a sign of spiritual immaturity or rebellion. This extended into many areas including the method for procuring a spouse (no dating), the method of child discipline (exclusive spanking), how you schooled your child (homeschool), and whether wives worked after having children (definitely not). And because of a hierarchical discipleship model, deviation from the normative beliefs always made it up the chain of command.
But, perhaps most worrisome, was the emphasis on life-long commitment to the movement. To leave the movement or to move to a city without a church from the movement, was to move outside of God’s call on your life. Yes, there were other Christians, but no one doing it quite as well as they were. It was often implied that to leave the church was to move down the supposed ladder of Christianity.
As with many churches with cult-like tendencies, outside influence was not encouraged. People, especially college students, often distanced themselves from their families. The movement also provided plenty of conferences and writings, removing the need to look to outside input from Christendom and limiting believers’ input to only the movement’s. People were often expected to attend at least four meetings a week, and college students were expected to spend their holiday breaks and their entire summer break at out-of-state retreats with the group. The church became the center of your life.
Reading this from an outside perspective, the red flags might seem obvious. But the subtleties aren’t clear until you move deeper into the movement and by that time, you have been indoctrinated. It’s not until you are quite entangled that you realize that your arms have been pinned, if only psychologically. You realize that you are not free to think what you want to think. You are not free to move where you want to move.
When I finally left the movement eight years later after a crisis of faith, realizing how much legalism and control had wrapped their fingers around my faith, I slowly began to taste again the freedom we have in Christ. It takes years to recover from the subtle damage that spiritual control has on faith. I’m still discovering how my view of God, myself and the Bible are tainted by legalism.
But here are a few things I learned from being in an unhealthy church:
1. I’ll never take on any label other than Christ. Labels aren’t necessarily bad, but they can be used to legitimize or prioritize your brand of belief over another, whether it’s Presbyterian, Reformed or charismatic. I have already been in the bondage of having to be in the right church in order to have God’s favor. Now I know that the only label I need is Christ. I will never again try to prove that I’m the “right” kind of Christian by qualifying Christ in any way.
2. Always discern the difference between a command, a principle and a preference in the Bible. Christians who try to control others’ beliefs usually have rigorous biblical support for why their way is the best or the only way. It’s imperative to be able to understand the context and the intent of a passage.
3. Read widely. When we only expose ourselves to one camp’s viewpoints we are very much in danger of becoming insular and crippling our ability to think critically. While I was in this church, people’s views on nearly every topic were dictated and controlled from the top. The fear in allowing critical thought is that people will deviate from your prescribed view. But God does not want automatons who simply do what they are told, but thoughtful followers who are willing to pursue Him with their minds.
4. Have a healthy commitment to church and church friends. The threat this group levels at those who consider leaving is that they will never find such committed friendships again and they will never find a church as committed to spreading the gospel as they are. And they are right, in my experience. I am often frustrated by the non-committal relationship people have with their church and their church friends. We should have a healthy commitment to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. But we should never be given the choice of trading our spiritual freedom for friendships.
5. Most of all, never take on a burden of slavery again. Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.Stand firm,then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” These days, no one is telling us we need to be circumcised to be saved. But there are still plenty of yokes people will try to place on your neck. Usually it’s not under the guise of getting saved, but of being a “good” or a “true” Christian. People will lay on your shoulders a seemingly endless list of things it takes to be a good Christian and gain God’s favor. Throw them off. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Never be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.