Last week, my husband and I had some friends over for dinner. As we sat around the table, they asked us to pray for a friend of theirs. This friend had recently escaped a cult and her experience in it had left her broken and incredibly suspicious of the church. I’ve been praying that our friends would be able to show her what Christ’s love truly looks like.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized one large reason cults seem so frightening is that we’re not sure what to look for. So many people seem to get swept up into a cult without even realizing what’s going on. How could I be certain I would be any less gullible? With those questions on my heart, I’m grateful for Roger Olson’s article, T.A.C.O.s Anyone? on Patheos.com that deals with this very subject—how to recognize a cult.
T.A.C.O stands for ‘Totalistic, Aberrational, Christian Organization,’ and T.A.C.O. churches are often self-labeled as “evangelical.” While often admired for their dedication, intensity, and outreach, Olson warns these churches are in reality abusive and controlling.
Olson gives 9 behaviors that should cause people to run from a congregation, even if the doctrine at that “church” seems sound and the church itself has a high reputation.
1) Condoning (including covering up) sexual abuse or sexual immorality of leaders within itself.
2) Silencing honest and constructive dissent.
3) Treating leaders as above normal ethical standards, above questioning.
4) Implying that “true Christianity” belongs to it alone or churches in its network.
5) Using intense methods of “discipleship training” that involve abuse of persons–including, but not limited to, teaching them they must absolutely lose their own individuality and sense of personal identity in order to become part of an “army” (or whatever) of Christ and using methods of sensory deprivation, brainwashing and/or abject obedience to human authority.
6) Teaching (often by strong implication) that without the church, especially without the leaders, members lose their spiritual connection to God. (This happens in many, often subtle, ways. For example a church may claim that its “vision” of the kingdom of God is unique and to depart from it is to depart from God’s kingdom, etc.)
7) Simply closing itself off from all outside criticism or accountability by implying to its members that the “whole world” outside the church is evil.
8) Falling into magical, superstitious beliefs and practices such as “spiritual warfare” with an emphasis on destroying all of a certain kind of object because objects “shaped like that” are often inhabited by demons. (A few years ago some churches were teaching people that if they were having marital problems it was probably because they had owl-shaped objects in their homes. I was told by members of a church that having books about world religions or cults in my library would corrupt my spiritual life. A church held bonfires to burn records and books considered unholy. Etc., etc., etc.)
9) The pastor literally owning the church lock, stock and barrel.
Olson ends the list with several real life examples that are worth reading to get a better understanding of just how these cults function.
Another real life example worth reading is Dr. Julie Barrier’s story of coming back from a cult on Crosswalk.com. The church she and her husband attended had many of the characteristics Olson warns against. It took her husband giving her an ultimatum- leave the church or leave him- to help her finally have the courage to leave her “church.” Dr. Barrier shares some of her own warning signs from her experience in a cult.
1. Beware of the “wolf” in sheep’s clothing who tells you he is the only one who hears from God. These charismatic leaders are like bug lights that draw you in only to destroy your spiritual life. They insinuate themselves into your trust circle and become more and more controlling.
2. God promises to lead you when you are His child. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to guide you into all truth.
3. Carefully evaluate the view of God that is being taught. Is it based on Scripture?
4. Every cult (and every world religion) is based upon human effort rather than the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ.
5. God’s wisdom is always open to reason. The fruits of wisdom are the fruits of the Spirit.
6. Test the spirits against God’s Word. Jessie-Penn Lewis said that deception often rides on the heels of revival.
Olson argues that we need a council (such as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) that could help us monitor and warn people away from churches and sects that behave in abusive ways.
What do you think we can do to stop cults from leading people astray? Have you ever found yourself in a church that was abusive or cult-like? How were you able to recognize it as such, and then leave?
Kelly Givens is the editor of iBelieve.com