Cult-Proofing Your KidsBy Dr. Paul R. Martin
Fifteen to twenty years ago I could boast haughtily that I was like David's men, for I thought I, too, understood the times and knew what I should do (I Chron. 12:32). In my senior year of high school I experienced the shock and horror of losing our president, John F. Kennedy. I still remember the day well. It was a Friday, and in preparation for a big basketball game that weekend the Wheaton Academy pep band was warming up for a pep rally. As the baritone player for the band, I was there wearing my stray hat and my red and white pinstriped shirt. However, we didn't have our rally that day. Instead, the teacher walked in, and with deep sorrow announced the shooting of our president. My youthful idealism began to shatter.
A few years later our generation was into the Vietnam war, the hippie revolution, drugs, sex, and heavy metal rock and roll. "Flower children" were everywhere. My evangelical church seemed cold and uncaring. Idealism was at an all-time low. A few years later, I joined the "Jesus Movement." This was the Christian youth version of being a hippie, or at least of being anti-establishment. My needs for friendship, purpose, and belonging seemed to be met at last.
During that time I read voraciously. I probably read one thousand books. As a Christian I know well the problems of the world. I had read most, if not all, the books of C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Jacques Ellul, Os Guinness, Clark H. Pinnock, B. B. Warfield, Hal Lindsey, G. K. Chesterton, John Warwick Montgomery, Friedrich Nietzche, Karl Marx, and Søren Kierkegaard, along with numerous biblical commentaries, various theological works, some of the church fathers, and much more. I also read books on cults, such as James Bjornstad's Counterfiets at Your Door, Kenneth Boa's Cults, World Religions, and You, Pat Means's The Mystical Maze, and Jan Karel Van Baalen's The Chaos of the Cults, to name just a few. At that time I held the traditional view of what a cult is ― any religious body that holds beliefs and practices clearly in opposition to historic Christianity as expressed in the Apostles' Creed.
Ironically, however, I was being swept away by an evangelical Christian movement that was growing more and more cultic itself. In the early seventies the group was known informally as "The Blitz." Later it gave itself the name "Great Commission International" (GCI) and "Great Commission Church." A few of the cultic practices I began to see exercised by GCI in 1977 were the use of deceit, the claim that our group had discovered the only correct way to evangelize the world (a practice that was lost after the first Christian generation and then was rediscovered by the founder of our movement), and the suppression of any sort of questioning or confrontation of the leadership. Nothing I had read prepared me to see the warning signs when I joined.
Ultimately, by 1978 the lack of ethical standards I perceived on the part of GCI's national leader finally woke me up. He was able to justify veiled deception and outright misrepresentation as effective means of getting out the Gospel. To question this was to be divisive. For seven months, I struggled in vein to get this leader to listen. The experience for me and my wife was like being interrogated in a Communist Chinese prison. During that time she suffered a miscarriage, and I was physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. My father, an evangelical pastor, heard of these discussions and was enraged. Normally a calm man, his anger flared. I will never forget what he said about my leader: "Paul, I have met thousands of people in my life, but when I met your leader, cold chills ran down my spine. He is the most evil man I have met in my life. . . . He is a false teacher . . . he throttled you."
At first I dismissed my dad's words; I was still loyal to my leader, in spite of being rebuffed by him. But because of my dad's concerns, I began to question more things. A few others in the group began to open up. We compared notes. We discovered that we saw the identical problems ― the suppression of questioning, inaccurate interpretation of Scripture, and the use of deceit. Because of troubling issues like these, I left GCI in the summer of 1978 to begin a teaching job at Geneva College.
But as I related my story to my Christian brothers and sisters, I could sense that few really understood. Talking about it became painful. I grew embarrassed and withdrawn. The notable exception was the elders at my new church, who listened in quiet support and refrained from offering either quick fixes or judgment.
Later, Barbara and I began to hear of others leaving the group. We heard painful stories of hurt, betrayal, broken health, broken dreams. Often I wept. I still do when I hear of the pain. Those who left became a needed support for each other.
Much prayer and counsel convinced me to switch careers. I wanted to learn more about psychology and religion, in the hope of being able to help others victimized by groups such as Great Commission International.
Barbara and I opened Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center two years after I received the Ph.D. degree in psychological counseling. To my amazement, I learned that there were innumerable groups around the country like the one we recently left. Hurting people were everywhere. We found it typical that both the ex-cultists and their parents usually had gone through an agonizing search for help. For some, it was years before they found someone to explain the psychological dynamics of cultic mind control phenomena.
As I reflected back on my extensive reading of evangelical Christian literature, I realized that I was not one "who understood the times" and knew what he should do (1 Chron. 12:32). I was unprepared to see the dangers of cultism even within evangelical circles.
By "cultism" here I refer not only to doctrinal problems but behavior ones as well. I will examine the tendencies in some groups to "use extreme and unethical techniques of manipulation to recruit and assimilate members and to control members' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as means of furthering the leader's goals."1 And when I use the term "evangelical," I refer to the acceptance of various historic Christian doctrines, such as the full authority of the Bible, the triune nature of God, justification by faith alone and not by works, and the necessity for personal spiritual conversion.2
Because of my Christian background, I thought I would never join a "cult." But like most evangelicals, I thought of cults as being Mormons, Moonies, the Jehova's Witnesses, and the usual five-to-ten other groups commonly listed in books written about these movements. Certainly I was not prepared for the dangers of legalism within evangelical ranks. To me, legalism meant all the "don'ts" ― negative rules about the use of make-up, about dancing, going to movies, swimming on Sundays, dating, and other trivial things. Little did I know there could be a legalism of "do's" ― do read the Bible, share your faith daily, make disciples of others, study the Word, and constantly pray. As good as these things are in themselves, when placed in a context of duty and obligation with the resulting guilt from nonperformance, the "do" version of legalism can be just as deadly as the "don't." One simply never knows how much is enough.
Commitment and dedication were so emphasized in my upbringing that I had absolutely no defenses when challenged by Great Commission International to be "totally committed to God." No one ever told me that there may be potential dangers where faith commitment is concerned. No one ever warned me of the subtleties of influence factors, and the tremendously powerful techniques used in thought reform. The enemies we were taught to avoid as we grew up were the ones that were blatantly obvious. More "clever" enemies were seldom, if ever, mentioned.
This leads me to a major point. It has become a cliché to say that our world is underground great turmoil. Frequently we hear of the "spiritual collapse of the West," and the "moral malaise in our society."3 Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said that Western civilization should now be called "Western pagan" instead of "Western Christian."4 He notes the loss of the moral basis of our society.
As evangelicals we are so concerned about the decline of moral values, as well as the rise of secularism and New Age thinking, that few are sounding the alarm about the serious dangers posed by some who actually champion moral values, spirituality, and evangelism ― yet at the same time advocate cultic behavior. We must see the cult problem within the context of the re-emergence of totalitarianism. Such totalism (the attempt of an autocratic leader or hierarchy to control all aspects of people's lives) is utterly insensitive to boundaries in religion, and this includes the boundaries in evangelical Christianity.
It has been truly sad and horrifying to see the caliber of people coming to Wellspring. Here I see some of the best, brightest, and most attractive youth of our nation. Some were valedictorians of their high schools, most were in the upper ten percent of their graduating class, and many were students at prestigious colleges and universities when they responded to the call of a particular cultic group.5 They were lured by the challenge of dedication, spirituality, and morality. Now they face months, possibly years, of recovery. Did no one warn them? Did anyone try to prepare them? In their time, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John all warned about false prophets, false teachers, those who would seek to deceive the very elect. But we are not being similarly warned today.
So I write this book to sound an alarm. Christians have overlooked a great enemy ― the enemy disguised as evangelical Christianity. Much of the current harm is done by the most subtle of errors. Great danger threatens the unsuspecting while appearing neutral or even non-religious, and simple Christian faith alone offers little defense against the lure.
If this book can keep even one person ― perhaps your child ― from joining the sort of group I describe, or speed just one ex-member's recovery, my dreams and prayers will have been answered.
--- Notes ---
1. Joan Ross and Michael Langone, Cults: What Parents Should Know (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1989), 20.
2. Robert R. Hinnels, ed., The Dictionary of Religion
(New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1984), 119-20.
3. Robert Dugan, Jr., Winning the New Civil War
(Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1991), 171.
4. Ibid., 169.
5. I don't at all mean to imply that it is less tragic when people of lower intellectual ability or social status join cults. It simply has been my experience that the cults do not normally target the average or below-average student, and they are not too successful when they do try. I do not know why; I simply don't see them coming to Wellspring for help with any degree of consistency.
Excerpt from Chapter 2, "Fringe Churches" (p. 38-39)
Great Commission Association of Churches (formerly known as Great Commission International and originally called "The Blitz Movement")
Great Commission started during the Jesus Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and from there it grew rapidly. Within a few years there were over five thousand followers with chapters on nearly every major university campus in the Midwest and the South. Local chapters had names like "Iowa State University Bible Studies" "the Cornerstone," "the Solid Rock Fellowship," and "New Life." Its chief distinctive was the notion that God had given us the "Vision," a divinely inspired "strategy" based on Acts 1:8 to reach the world for Christ in this generation. ("But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.") When I was a member of GCI during the 1970s, our leaders maintained that no other group had this same "vision," and critics were expelled for questioning or challenging this vision of the leadership. GCI was highly authoritarian, and demanded strict commitment from all followers. Many ex-members have faced long years of therapy trying to recover from their experiences in this group. Some have attempted suicide. Still others, some ten years later, sustained such psychological damage that they have been unable to get on with their lives, often taking jobs well below their educational and intellectual qualifications.
Some encouraging reforms have occurred in recent years after the founder, Jim McCotter, left the movement in the late 1980s. However, the current leadership has not yet revoked the excommunication of its earlier critics. The admissions of error so far have been mainly confined to a position paper, the circulation of which has been questioned by many ex-members. Furthermore, Great Commission leaders have not yet contacted a number of former members who feel wronged and who have personally sought reconciliation. There has been some positive movement in that direction, but most ex-members that I have talked to are not fully satisfied with the reforms or apologies and feel that the issues of deep personal hurt and offense have not been adequately addressed.