Wednesday, June 22, 2016


The casualty rate in Christian leadership in our generation has reached a crisis situation I don't see in living memory or history books since before the Reformation (i.e. around 500 years).  Both Protestant and Catholic sources confirm the scandal ridden situation at that time and how the Reformation and Counter-Reformation cleaned up the mess. 
We all think Christian hypocrisy shouldn't happen. I mean if a gangster does something bad - no surprise, but if a Christian leader does the same thing - scandal.
How then does it so often happen? Problem is that people think that because it shouldn't happen it can't happen - and so when something starts they go into denial - instead of trying to remedy it. The problem then grows bigger and bigger - until it becomes a scandal. For example knowing the risks of sex, money, pride and power - we should sensibly take precautions to stay far away. But people think it can't happen to religious leaders. If anyone even raises such a concern of a need to make corrections or take precautions, they react with defensive anger misguidedly to defend the leader or ministry. Followers think they can trust religious leaders more than anyone else and so don't take precautions with them for example with cross gender-relationships or money. Leaders think they can allow themselves more liberty than others because they are more spiritual - while actually they are also vulnerable. A leader thinks he can't admit to and correct a small error (because such things shouldn't happen) and so goes into denial about it - and it grows into a big error.
We should know the Bible teaches the basic sinfulness of human nature: the natural tendency to rebel against God's commands which we all inherit from Adam - unless we are careful and seek God's help. The idea that it can't happen is thus unbiblical. Church history is also littered with evidence of such scandals, but seldom taught on because we don't like it and go into denial.
Knowing the trap can help less people fall into it. Religious hypocrisy shouldn't happen. But there are two ways to respond to this. Either we go into denial about it and fall into the very trap we believe cannot happen - or we are more cautious because we don't want it to happen.
Philip Rosenthal

Thursday, May 15, 2014



Every few years, the Lord seems to raise up some extraordinarily gifted young leader and the Christian community hopes he will take them forward and guide them into God's purposes for their movement.  Roll forward ten years.  Has he done this? No.  His life is a mess.  He is no longer following God's purposes.  His great giftedness has attracted women other than his wife or a blindly loyal authoritarian personality cult (or both) - and he and the whole movement goes off the rails.  The more gifted the man, the higher the casualty rate.  It doesn't just happen in the church, but in business too.  It takes years to untangle the mess, if it ever gets cleaned up. 

SEXUAL COMPROMISE: It happens so many times following the same pattern - it almost gets boring and depressing.  Most commonly, the man is over-stressed at home and work and lonely in the crowd he leads.  He gets some comfort talking to a younger female assistant, spends too much time alone with her; she becomes a closer confidant than his wife, then they cross a physical moral boundary - and then rather than face the shame of exposure and disciplinary action, he covers it up with a growing web of half-truths.  He ends accountability relationship with anyone who he cannot manipulate and promotes those he can.  Once integrity is lost, sins multiply.  Then the movement he founded slowly loses its spiritual strength and the blessing of God.  Eventually there is so much unethical behaviour covered up that it is difficult to stop that culture, short of shutting the organisation down. 

Is this pattern just with high profile leaders?  In confidential surveys, about one third of adults confess to have fallen into adultery.  Geneticists find about on in ten people are not genetically related to the man they think is their fathers.  This secret pain tears up people, marriages, families and Christian movement that go that way.  But despite the Bible being full of warnings, you don't get much in the way of warnings to stay far away from adultery in church sermons or leader training.  Church is full of such nice smiling spiritual people - and even more our leader is such spiritual man - surely it would offend to make such a warning?

RELIGIOUS CARTELS: But the other most common way promising young men go off track, is being sucked into a religious cartel.  Every strong leader needs a team of men to help him.  Jesus had his twelve that he trained.  The problem is that sooner or later, the leader unlike Jesus is going to make some sort of mistake.  In a healthy organisation, the team will hold him accountable, correct the error and put him back on track.  But not all teams do this.  Unhealthy teams form a pack to discredit, harass and intimidate the person raising the concern. Those who argue for accountability get pushed out and the organisation spirals downward.  The same happens with business cartels and political cartels.  These cartels network, support and help eachother to squash dissent and breed fear.

But these two most common leader-destroying scenarios are the two main warnings confronting us in the book of Proverbs:  The warning not to join violent gangs (Proverbs 1:10-19) and the warning to keep away from adulterous relationships (Proverbs 5:3-20).  But most reading these would not see application to their situation.  Gangs and adultery can't happen in church - do they?  Yes they do.  The context in Proverbs is the street.  Maybe that would apply to working class areas.  Pastors and businessmen are not so much at risk of street gangs.  But gangs dynamics don't just happen on the street.  The team involved can include a high profile speaker, a public relations man, a lawyer, an engineer and an accountant.  But they end up with sophisticated gang behaviour.  Most of the people in a ministry or business can be operating in good faith, while such gangs quietly manipulate things, sucking in more people and deceiving and intimidating the rest. 

Is this rare?  No.  Almost all of the top 30 construction companies in South Africa have paid admission of guilt fines for tender collusion.  Were all the engineers in these companies involved? No.  Most didn't know about it.  But in each company there were a few who were doing this, who were networking with a few in other companies.  How does our president manage to spend R200 million of state money on his personal retirement home? Answer:  A political cartel network.  In the Bible, King David used the assistance of Joab to cover up his adultery.  But he knew before Joab was an unethical person and should have fired him long before (2 Samuel 3:28).

The dynamic happens in the church.  In know of two decades of first hand experience that most of the religious power in South Africa and in Cape Town is controlled by cartels that collude to cover up unethical behaviour.  Why do we not have revival despite umpteen City-wide and suburb organised prayer meetings?  Because such Pharisee cartels unrepentantly jump on the prayer meeting bandwaggon and they become a farce (see God ignoring such farcical prayer in Isaiah 58).  That is why John the Baptist so strongly told the Pharisees to go away from his genuine revival movement (Matthew 3:7-10).  These Pharisees are not interested in prayer till the crowds get big and the TV cameras arrive.  Then they fight for a slice of the action.

The most important sermon in the Bible is Jesus 'Sermon on the Mount' (Matthew 5-7).  What are the two main threats cited here?  Answer: Our desires (of which sexual temptation is the biggest risk) and Our dislikes (of which handling conflict is the biggest).  These are the same issues as above.  Just that in business and ministry, manipulative leaders create cartels of their followers to handle conflict on their behalf.


Experience has shown the two biggest destroyers of promising young leaders in ministry and business are relationships between gifted leaders and:
1) younger female assistants - where intimacy progresses to adultery.
2) teams of men - where secrecy and bullying progresses to gang style behaviour.
Most think they are 'bullet proof' - it is not going to happen to me, my ministry, my church or my business - the ones that have fallen are different to us - but then it does happen to them.

There is no single solution.  Like security to protect against crime, you need layers of precautions.  They are not going to be the same for every person.  See a more detailed article "How do we prevent leaders crashing" with suggestions is found at:

If you see gang style behaviour in your church, business or ministry, then speak up against it and if it doesn't stop then leave.  Likewise, if a cross gender relationship starts to develop in a risky direction at at work, it is probably wise for one of the parties to move.  These are the two main threats and we need to be ruthless (Matthew 5:29) to protect against them. 

Yours sincerely,

Philip Rosenthal

Friday, October 18, 2013


18 OCTOBER 2013


This week, the internet has been buzzing with discussion around a biblical response to abuses in the Charismatic movement, brought into sharp focus by the 'Strange Fire' Conference led by hosted by John MacArthur, which has been helpfully summarised at  While holding a view that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased, MacArthur works with certain Charismatic leaders in the group 'Together for the Gospel' and calls for biblically faithful Charismatics to speak up against abuses within the movement.  Having spent massive time and effort doing so following biblical due process, privately and writing articles (see for example, the blog, I add some insider perspective to the discussion.  People have limited energy to digest criticism before they become fatigued, dispirited or angry and so one needs to ask what are the 'root problems' rather than the 'fruit problems'?  The 'bad fruit' problems raised by MacArthurs conference this week, have been repeatedly raised inside Charismatic forums such as 'Charisma Magazine's and its editor Lee Grady - elitist personality cults, greed; marital unfaithfulness; doctrinal sloppiness and errors; questionable claimed supernatural manifestations and miracles (example:  Identifying such fruit is common cause to cessationists and Charismatics seeking to be faithful to the scriptures.  The Strange Fire conference gives little in the way of constructive solutions beyond its alternative of 'Reformed Cessationism'.  The Charismatic movement has been spiritually degenerating into a state comparable in some ways with the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church.  What are the core reasons for this degeneration and what can be done about it?


The 'Charismatic Movement' was intended to focus on seeking the person and work of 'The Holy Spirit'.  Those three words are loaded with meaning and unfortunately it has gotten diverted by much else. 
i.'The' implies only one specific Holy Spirit - one of the persons of the Trinity.  We can forget there are uncountable other evil spirits around to deceive anyone who will listen to them - and these evil spirits are associated with 'false prophets' or 'teachers'.  Discernment is therefore needed to distinguish the Holy Spirit from other spirits.
ii. The Holy Spirit is a spirit.  Much of the Charismatic movement has become obsessed with seemingly human personalities (men) and with worldly attractions such as power, money, health, publicity and success.
iii.  Most importantly and as an antidote to these problems 'HOLY' defines the character of the Holy Spirit. 
- A person who is really wanting the Holy Spirit in their life is going to be concerned with 'holiness' and a leader should be both modelling that and trying to lead his followers toward holiness.  But that is very seldom a topic for Conferences or books in the modern Charismatic movement. The poor example of so many leaders is so often excused by their 'Charismatic' ability and personality.  But that is not biblical. 
- The neglect of this issue leads consequentially to the denial of the Holy Spirits work in judging sin - both through his awakening of the conscience of the believer through the light shed by the word of God and harsher consequences for those who will not listen to him. 

Pastor John Anderson of Cry Ministries has pointed out this was the pattern of Satan in the Garden of Eden: Man desired certain things; Satan distored his view of God's character and denied his consequent judgment of sin.  Such Holy fear of the judgment of God by the HOLY SPIRIT would cause a reformation within the church - and is an antidote to the abundant quackery, foolishness and lack of holiness  Any movement genuinely seeking the Holy Spirit needs to focus on his Holy character, his holy conviction of sin and judgement of it as a priority over worldly religious benefits and supernatural manifestations.  The consequence of failure to do this is shown in scripture:  God struck dead those who tried to come to him - Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron his anointed priests in the Old Testament and Ananias and Saphirah in the New Testament as well as used the Philistines to destroy the unholy priests Hophni & Phinehas and the tabernacle at Shiloh (1 Samuel 3). There is no 'cessation' in this holy judgment of the Holy Spirit, but most Charismatics paint the Holy Spirit as if he still provides all the spiritual manifestations of biblical times with none of the judgment.  Rubbish!  This is deception.  God does the same today.  But when God judges unholiness in his church, people want to attribute this to anything else.


* GREED AND ERROR ON TELEVISION:  As evidence for 'bad fruit' in the Charismatic movement, the Strange Fire Conference points to the lives and teaching of so-called Charismatic televangelists. There are fundamental problems in the model of Christian television that needs to be addressed and is polluting the movement.
i.  Fundraising: Prime television time is mostly sold to the highest bidder.  That is the televangelist raising the most money.  That is often those most willing to distort the scriptures and portray an unrealistic view of his own life and ministry to raise money.  Those with more balanced teaching can't compete with such fundraising and are marginalised out of prime time.   Those who don't come with this approach, whether Charismatic or not do not easily get prime TV time.  Unlike a local church, those who teach are not carefully selected on criteria of godliness and held accountable morally by elders who live close to them.  Money overrides all these issues. That is not a problem with the Charismatic movement but a problem with the commercialised model of Christian television - which is also affecting the Christian book and music industry.
ii. Prosperity theology:  The most popular theology on television is consequently that promoting the idea that godliness, following their formulas, leads to financial gain.  Where did that idea come from?  Actually not out of the Charismatic movement at all.  The 'Word of faith' theology on which the prosperity teaching is based is rooted in the theology of EW Kenyon who was himself not a Charismatic, but successfully imported into the Charismatic movement in the 1980s.  That is not to deny that the Bible does include genunine teaching on prosperity and finances, which needs to be taught, but that is the source of this popular 20th Century distortion of the scriptures which many cannot distinguish from the Charismatic movement - simply because of the dominance of such teachers on Christian television.   There has been a similar problem with the commercialisation of the Christian music industry - where the best musicians sell the best - often with no scriptural training - rather than those who are writing the most biblical lyrics - and many modern worship songs are consequently very shallow.  But the problem is commercialisation and lack of biblical accountability in both the television and music industry.

* THEOLOGICAL ENGAGEMENT:  I have not seen any of the 'Strange fire' speakers, authors or bloggers cite the serious theological debate within the Charismatic movement, which are in fact considerably more rigorous in biblically rebutting error within the Charismatic movement than their own writings.  See for example 'The spiritual spider web' by Derek Morphew rebutting E.W. Kenyon; or 'Protection from Deception' by Derek Prince rebutting the excesses of the Toronto Blessing movement; Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology alternative interpretation of on miracles versus the E.W. Kenyon view; the alternative theology of healing by those drawing on the eschatology of George Ladd.  John Anderson's 'A compassionate roar' is probably the strongest rebuke ever written to a church and Western society that neglects the fear of God's judgment.   I hope the 'Strange fire' authors will read these books and engage with this serious theological debate.

* CENTRED SET AND BOUNDED SET:  The 'Strange Fire' Conference and its leaders have in some ways compared the Charismatic movement to Calvin's criticism of the Anabaptist movement and its excesses of the 16th Century.  That is a helpful comparison, but they should take it further.  Some movements are 'bounded set' i.e. they have a strict Statement of Faith to which all members and leaders much agree to.  The Reformed Confessions tended to draw this boundary more and more narrowly with time - with confessions getting longer and longer to rebut all they disagreed with.  The Charismatic movement, early Anabaptist movement and more recently the 'emerging church' do not do this.  They are 'Centred sets' - not bounded sets.  In other words, they centre around something rather than draw clear and strict lines for who is 'in' and 'out'.  The result is considerable debate when there is criticism as to who is fringe and who is central.  Often in the Charismatic movement, the centre is a personality or a network of relationships rather than a strict theological line.  There are benefits and problems with both 'centred sets' and 'bounded sets'.  Too tight lines can be drawn around trivial issues or the wrong things or stop people learning new things - but too lose lines can open the way for error.  It is very difficult to fairly compare a bounded set and a centred set.  They are very different in nature.  Most movements start out as 'centred sets' and as they mature they draw tighter and tighter boundaries.  The Reformed movement is a mature movement.  The Charismatic movement is not.  But a helpful lesson from history, is that the Anabaptist movement did mature eventually drawing boundaries and contributing towards two movements that did not share the chaos of its early days: the Mennonite movement and the Baptist movement.

* CONTINUUM VERSUS POLARISATION:  The Cessationist/Charismatic debate is often portrayed as a polarised one.  People tend to oversimplify the positions of those not sharing their views.  The reality is that if you listen closely to the views of different leaders, when they are not the heat of debate, there is not such a simple polarisation, but rather a continuum of views.  One the one end of the spectrum are people who tend to suspect almost any claim of the miraculous as false, while on the other end of the spectrum, people who accept just about every claim as true.  It is more helpful to position people on a continuum of 'cautious' versus 'open' to interpreting spiritual manifestations.  Respected reformation leaders and their successors through church history took different positions on this continuum.  Hardline reformed Cessationists tend to quote Calvin's attacks on Anabaptist false prophets, while ignoring that Calvin himself took Farel's words calling him to Geneva or suffer God's judgement as the voice of God.  They also ignore the numerous correct predictions made by Calvin's close friend and colleague pastor John Knox and his mentor Patrick Hamilton.  Hamilton for example predicted God's judgement on the town where he was burned at the stake, which was shortly afterwards fulfilled when the French sacked the town.  These predictions are recorded in Knox own book, The Scottish Reformation and has withstood the scrutiny of historians.  Luther himself predicted the reformation before it happened.  To cite the clause of the 1689 Baptist Confession on the suffiency of scripture as rebuttal of continued prediction is not the way the original authors understood this document.  These authors themselves made precise predictions (such as that one of them who was critically ill would live exactly another 15 years (fulfilled) and outlive the predictor), practiced enthusiastic prayer for healing of the sick (e.g. praying in church for a blind person to see) - in fact their ministries probably included more real miracles than what is happening in the Western Charismatic movement. Read the original history at this link Jonathan Edwards was cautious about spiritual experiences during the Great Awakening, but did not dismiss the supernatural all out of hand - rather detailing a set of criteria to biblically judge supernatural experiences.  This is not to say these people held views the same as the modern Charismatic movement, but that their spectrum of views was not as hardline as some modern Cessationists.

* GOVERNANCE DISASTER:  Most of the Protestant reformers suffered unjust persecution in the Roman Catholic Church Courts.  This motivated them strongly to focus on putting checks and balances in place to prevent the same injustices in their own churches.  Thus the focus on detailed church constitutions and disciplinary procedures - which evolved over time under rigorous study of the scriptures.  The Charismatic movement by contrast grew out of a frustration by many pastors with the constraints of these same denominations which restrained them from experimenting with the supernatural.  Most of the founders left in this climate of frustration, wanting as few rules as possible.  The result is that twenty to thirty years on, the Charismatic movement has had to deal with all the same problems of Church history, they have few checks and balances - other than just moving on to another church or starting a new one.  And so that is the pattern of what has been happening.  In the midst of this disaster, some Charismatic leaders have sought to learn from older denominations and put those checks and balances back in place - but there are more who don't learn - and are convinced they they being a 'bullet proof' superman personality will never make a mistake.

* LIFECYCLE OF MOVEMENTS:  Most movements go through stages of infancy, growing up and then dying - a few times they have a rebirth.  Reformed cessationist movements are included in this pattern.  Most of the South African Dutch Reformed Church and American Presbyterian Church went into modernism. Most of the British Puritan movement went into hyper-Calvinism and Unitarianism and then died out.  The American Fundamentalist movement according to Phil Johnson, one of the 'Strange fire' speakers degenerated in the 1970s into a set of narrow divided sects around personalities and petty doctrines.  The fact that the Charismatic movement has been infiltrated by all sorts of error and malpractice is not unique and can just as well happen to cessationists and reformed groups - and this cannot be all attributed to doctrinal position on the supernatural, as the 'Strange Fire' authors claim.  Different groups are vulnerable to drifting into different kinds of error, but error exerts a pull on all groups.

But to go back to the central issue that is needed to reverse the decline I the Charismatic movement:  Central issue of the HOLY character of the HOLY SPIRIT.  The true Holy Spirit is HOLY and this should lead to conviction of sin and a fear of God's judgment that will cleanse the church.  Those who genuninely seek to be HOLY, promote HOLINESS and submit to the Word of God may not always agree on everything but they will not be focused on personalities, greed, exaggerated claims of the supernatural and protection of scandal.  Even if we happened to be incorrect on some point of doctrine or a spiritual experience, a desire for genuine holiness and the real person of the HOLY SPIRIT and an attitude of submission to scripture will protect us from going too far into error. We will humbly study the scriptures together to move towards truth and righteousness - and substantially cleanse the church of these abuses.

Friday, October 11, 2013


Idolatry of men and ministries: Sociological Cults in the Church

By: Philip Rosenthal

1         Introduction

Cult experts have increasingly began to recognise the troubling phenomenon that certain doctrinally Bible based Christian ministries have very similar behavioural characteristics to cults.  These movements have been called ‘sociological cults’[1]; ‘personality cults’; ‘Orthodox Bible based cults’[2]; ‘Dangerous Religious Groups (DRG)’[3]; ‘Totalist Aberrant Christian Organisations (TACO)’[4].  Making the matter more complex, is that there is no clear boundary between a ‘sociological cult’ and a Christian ministry.  Because of the fallenness of human nature, most ministries sadly have at least a little hypocritical, abusive, manipulative and unethical behaviour.   Nevertheless, some ministries are unhealthier than others.  When a ministry gets into a very spiritually sick state, then it can be termed a ‘sociological cult’.  That label, however does not mean that every individual in the ministry supports the problematic behaviour.  It does mean that the behaviour is tolerated by senior leadership.

The behavioural nature of the problem makes it much harder to identify sociological cultists than for example liberals within a Bible believing denomination.  You can’t simply use a test of asking if the cultist will sign a statement of faith, because they are pragmatists.  They will happily sign any statement of faith, but it doesn’t influence their behaviour or beliefs too much.  If their top leader asks them to compromise on a Biblical absolute or truth they will just go along with him, because they don’t think much for themselves.  They just do and believe what their leader tells them to.  If their leader changes his mind or compromises – they will too.

Faithful Christians in such ministries may recognise that something is not right.  Cultish behaviour is however usually well hidden and when it is found out, very well defended.  A good Christian confronting such problems can waste a lot of time and effort trying to deal with the symptoms of the disease and often get very hurt in the process.  Sometimes a bad leader will be exposed and removed and followers will think their problems will be over.  Nevertheless, problems will reoccur, because it is rooted not in a specific person or issue, but in the disease of idolatry of men and ministries which infects the culture of the ministry.

To cure the disease, requires more than just confronting the symptomatic problems or bad leaders – it requires confronting the idolatry disease as a whole.

Unfortunately, the disease is not restricted to any particular Church denomination.  Martin Luther’s reformation protests were part doctrinal by also in part a protest at hypocrisy and abuses within the Roman Catholic Church, that many Catholics today would agree needed reform and correction.  It did not take the Protestants long however to develop hypocrisy and abuses of their own.  It is a continual battle within every movement to preserve its health.

This article exposes the disease and proposes a cure.  Study it to see whether you identify any of the characteristics of idolatry or a sociological cult in a ministry you know. 

2         What is a sociological cult?

2.1        Components of a sociological cult

A Christian sociological cult usually includes four key components: the ‘idol’; the ‘priesthood’; the ‘cult following’; and the ‘host organisation’.

  1. The idol(s) are is usually a few top leaders, the ministry and the benefits they offer.  In themselves, these are not necessarily evil.  It is when they become more important to followers than obeying God that they become idols and are evil to those who worship them.  If allowed to carry on, a demonic power attracted by idolatry takes over control of the ministry from the Holy Spirit.  The image of the idol projected to the people is usually completely different from reality, and this encourages an infallible ‘god-like’ status.

1CO 10:19-20 “Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

The scripture indicates that ultimately, behind every idol is a demon.

  1. The priesthood are a group of leaders within the ministry who have privileged access to the idol.  Ordinary members can’t get close to the leader-idol and don’t know his real life faults.  The leadership-priesthood feel they are a special important elite because of their special access to the leader.  They are rewarded by the leader-idol with power and status in the ministry.  In return, they offer unthinking blind loyalty and protection of the leader from anyone who tries to challenge him.  As the ministry becomes cultish, genuine leaders will be pushed out and personality-cult priest leaders promoted until they form a solid wall of protection around the leader-idol.

  1. The cult following are those members of the ministry who idolise the leader.  At first this will just be a few people, but gradually he will try to turn more people from focusing on Christ to adulating himself and the ministry.  If the leader is cultish, he will encourage such behaviour by continuously boasting of his own achievements and status.

  1. The host ministry are usually a group of faithful Christians who genuinely want to serve God, but who are manipulated and exploited and abused emotionally, relationally and financially by the cult.  These good, but deceived people donate most of the money; do most of the work and fill most of the seats of the organisation.

The cult leader, his priesthood and the cult-following usually think of themselves as superior to everyone else.  This makes it very hard to rationally talk to them as they will dismiss a non-cultist as not as spiritual, active or successful in Christian ministry as they are.

2.2        The parasitic relationship of the sociological cult and the host ministry

The biggest difficulty in combating cultic control in Christian ministries is distinguishing between the sociological cult within the ministry and the ministry itself – especially when the same person is leading both the sociological cult and the ministry.   A number of metaphors are helpful in illustrating this pathological relationship.

Probably the most helpful metaphor is that of a parasite.  The sociological cult serves their idol and their own interests – not God.  Genuine Christians are exploited for their money, time, loyalty, trust to feel the ambitions and lust for power and status of the sociological cultists.  They are told they are giving to serve God, but meanwhile their efforts are carefully manipulated to serve the selfish interests of the leaders – sometimes secretly, but in the case of wasteful status symbols not so secretly.  The parasites sap the strength of the organisation until it becomes spiritually weak.

The sociological cult can also be compared to a disease – especially that of HIV/AIDS.  People can catch the hypocrisy and lust for power from other infected leaders they work for.  It weakens their resistance and makes them vulnerable to all sorts of other secondary infections of disease such as abusiveness.

It can be compared to a cancer that needs to be cut out before it spreads and corrupts the whole body.  Any attempt to operate/deal with problems will hurt healthy parts of the body as well.  If one doesn’t remove the cancer, the whole body could die.  Thus it becomes extremely difficult to deal with.

Often, the authoritarian hierarchical structure operates in a similar manner to a monarchist, fascist or communist dictatorship.  The masses are exploited, misinformed, dominated, taxed and convinced to believe a myth about the greatness of the hero-leader.  Everyone is told that their troubles will soon be over if they follow the leaders vision, but in the end, only the elite benefit.

Like an abusive family, where the husband verbally abuses the wife and children, but also gives them leadership, financial provision and protection.  There is bad in such a relationship, but also much good.  The wife and children are afraid to confront or expose him, because he may counter-attack and abuse them more and they depend on him and can’t imagine how they would do without him.  In the same way, there are usually a lot of positives within a ministry afflicted with sociological cultism. Members are attracted by the positives they offer:
  • A close mostly supportive community
  • Opportunities to serve God
  • A great vision
  • Biblical truth and teaching
  • High energy activity
When a ministry is only partially infected, most of the organisation seems healthy and only those in leadership actually know what is going on.

The demonic control within the ministry is an evil like a python that displaces the Holy Spirit and slowly strangles the spiritual life out of a ministry.  First the Holy Spirit withdraws his blessing due to ethical compromise.  Then the Holy Spirit intervenes in a series of judgements against the corrupted ministry.   Unless it repents properly, it ends up wandering in a spiritual wilderness outside God’s purpose and blessing.

It is not sufficient just to change the leader.  It is also necessary to deal with the python strangling the ministry.  Otherwise the same problems are likely to repeat with the new leader.

In some ways the sociological cult is like a commercial holding company that controls other companies.  While the holding company may be wicked, the companies it owns may be perfectly decent ministries – but run a serious risk of infection.

In South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle, the two major opposing political organisations were both controlled by other secretive organisations from the inside.  The African National Congress was controlled by the South African Communist Party and the National Party was controlled by the Afrikaner Broederbond.  This secretive control meant that ordinary South Africans had little control over either organisation.  It was hard to get promotion within these political parties unless they were also members of the secret organisations.  In the same way, the sociological cultist organisations act as a secretive brotherhood within the ministry.  Thankfully, the power of these secretive organisations has weakened in the New South Africa.  This gives hope that the same can happen with the sociological cults within Christian ministries.

Some Christian denominations such as the Methodists and Anglicans include both Bible believing Christians and also liberals who don’t take the Bible too seriously.   Liberals network with each other and often control the centres of power such as the publications, although they are a minority.  In the same way, cultists by working together within a Bible based denomination can control most of the centres of power.

2.3        The authoritarian worldview of the sociological cult

Members are taught a specific worldview/lens through which to view the world.  It is circular logic that reinforces the influence of the idols and protects the idolater from outside influence.

Components of the cultish authoritarian worldview are:
  1. The world is hierarchical. Our leader is at the top; then the priesthood of leaders who serve him; then our ministry; below that other Christian ministries; below that non-Christians.
  2. Those below us are inferior and we should not listen to them.
  3. We should blindly obey the authorities over us.
  4. Anyone not in our hierarchy is not ‘under authority’ and therefore is dangerous.
  5. The top hierarchy are God’s representatives on earth.  Therefore anyone who opposes them is opposing God.
  6. Our hierarchy interprets the Bible for us.  We should not try to do so independently.  We should change our views if the hierarchy corrects them.
  7. The hierarchy are not accountable to and don’t need to explain themselves to those below.

The above false beliefs are a wall of defence around cult members, preventing them from thinking anything to questing the cult leaders.  If by some chance they do, they can be thrown out before they infect others with their thinking.

2.4        How to recognise cultish behaviour in your ministry

Members treated like children: Within a healthy ministry, members are treated by the leaders as adults capable of making responsible decisions for themselves.  Within a cultish authoritarian ministry, leaders act as if they were parents or masters and the followers as if they are servants or small children.  Small children and servants don’t have a right to know information about the ministry or hold the ministry accountable.  They must be ordered around and told what to do on petty issues that are not Biblical absolutes.  This is contrary to the New Testament’s teaching that we are free in Christ and accepted as mature ‘Sons of God’ (Galatians 4:3-7).  Authoritarianism is in some ways a form of legalism.  Just that the authority is discretionary and vests in the leaders as people rather than in the petty rules they create.  This is even more dangerous than legalism.

2.5        The spiritual side of a sociological cult

The spiritual aspects of a sociological cult include:
  • The bewitchment of followers so that they can’t see truth (Galatians 3:1-2).
  • A demonic stronghold forming behind the idol.  This must be demolished spiritually in prayer, otherwise those who try to fight the cult will find themselves battling spiritual forces.
  • Multiple deceptions of the cult to outsiders and between each other on multiple issues.  Once deception is tolerated without discipline in an organisation, it multiplies.

3         What is idolatry of men and ministries?

3.1        A broad biblical definition of idolatry

An idol is anyone or anything who takes the place of God in your life.

Habakkuk says the Babylonians are “guilty men, whose own strength is their god." (Habakkuk 1:11).  Sadly a lot of Christian groups as they get stronger trust in their own power, money and numbers to achieve things rather than in God.

Genesis 11:4-9 tells the story of the tower of Babel, where men decided to build a city and a tower reaching to the heavens.  God however, did not bless their efforts.

Paul says in Ephesians 5:5 “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”

Thus according to the Bible idols are not just statues of stone or wood.  Sex, money and power can all be idols which men can worship.  Greed is idolatry because it idolises money; the greedy person idolises himself as more worthy of the money than others and often people also idolise the leader who they thinks deserves all sorts of expensive status symbols[5].  

Idols within Christian ministry can include:
  • Religious power – control of people and organisational machinery.
  • Religious status – approval of others and association with the greatness and success of the ministry.
  • Opportunities to do religious work.
  • The friendship relationships within the religious community.
  • Approval of the ‘messianic leader’.
  • Achievement of goals e.g. numerical growth, position, academic advancement.

Many think that it is hard to impossible to get the same power, status, opportunities and friends anywhere else – so they will sacrifice their moral principles to keep these idols.

3.2        False and deceptive external image

In order to maintain an idolatrous following, any information that may show the human imperfections of the leader and ministry must be silenced.  Failures must never be mentioned.  A common biblical justification for not disclosing negative information is the example of Joshua and Caleb who promoted going into the promised land, versus the other ten spies who opposed it.   Nevertheless, this ignores the issue that Joshua and Caleb did not try to mislead the Israelites by withholding facts – they simply trusted God to overcome the problems.

There is a problem when the image the congregation has of the leader is radically different from reality.

3.3        What is the difference between idolatry and respect?

3.4        Leaders as examples versus idols

Within the Roman Catholic Church, there are some who promote the study of the lives of great Christians like St Augustine as examples for the faithful to follow.  There is nothing wrong with this.  It does however become wrong, when such people start to take the place of God.  When people see a living or dead leader as their mediator with God, then that is idolatry.

3.5        The foolishness of idolatry

God mocks the foolishness of idolatry in Isaiah 44:15-19 “It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.   Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire."  From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god."  They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.   No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, "Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?

One can equally mock the foolishness of the hero worship of human idols.  They are made from the same flawed fallen humanity as the rest of us.  So many of the false ministers who accept idolatry have been exposed as frauds and actors.  Unfortunately foolish followers don’t learn.  They just move on from one human idol to another instead of focusing on Jesus.  History has shown over and over again the foolishness of blind obedience to authority.  So many leaders have made mistakes, it is obvious that checks and balances are needed.  Some recognize this within the political realm, but think somehow that this will be avoided within Christian ministry.  Expectations on people are placed that only God can fulfill.  If you are not in an authoritarian organization, all this may seem obvious.  But this is not obvious to those inside such organizations.

3.6        Sacrifices made to the idol of Christian ministry

4         The effects of idolatry and cultishness in Christian ministries

4.1        How a sociological cult takes control of a ministry

Sociological cults usually begin as personality cults around a very strong Charismatic leader.  Nevertheless, when they have grown to a state of maturity, they can outlast the original personality if he dies or is discredited.  Christian idolaters can transfer loyalty to the ministry as a whole or to a new leader or ministry.  A whole set of personality cults can merge to form a ‘ministry cult’.

Because a sociological cult looks a lot like true Biblical revivalist Christianity and often comes from such a history:
i. Many are deceived into following them;
ii. Many of those who see the falsehood of the sociological cults reject real Biblical revivalist Christianity.

In a big movement, parts may be cultic and other parts healthy.  Sometimes, it is not too hard to get back to health, if the problems are recognised and dealt with early.

Supporters of the sociological/personality cult view themselves as superior because of their privileged access to the cult-leader who they hero-worship.   After being deceived themselves, they promote this hierarchical/elitist worldview to others.  The superiority of the ministry and leader is reinforced at every meeting where the leader is present.  He is introduced in a grandiose manner and surrounded with status symbols.  His face is on every publication.  All internal news reporting will promote the idea that the ministry is growing in a supernatural manner, even if such growth is actually based on human effort, hype and manipulation.  Any negative news about the ministry is never reported and any negative talk is silenced.  

Anyone who doesn’t show the same idolatrous deference to the hierarchy gets demoted to punished.  All who show similar blind obedience and loyalty are rewarded and promoted.  Gradually over time, a weeding process fills the top ranks of the organisation with personality-cult supporters. 

Leaders get abused by those above them. In a cascading chain reaction, they restore their bruised self-esteem by bullying those below them.  The right to bully others is seen as both a cost and a privilege of position within the hierarchy.

Eventually it gets to a point where rational independent thinking people can’t tolerate the authoritarianism and move away.  They either go peacefully to plant a new church or move to another church or they go painfully by being thrown out. 

The process of leaders compromising to accept cultish behaviour is as follows:
  1. Unaware of problem: blissful ignorance.
  2. Aware, but give benefit of the doubt to leaders.
  3. Unhappy with what is going on, but tolerate it hoping that reform will come.
  4. Become part of an abusive team without realising you are part of a manipulation.
  5. Become an abusive leader, approving of the abuses of others.

It is very hard for anyone in this deceptive and abusive environment to resist the organisation for a long period of time.  Either they are pushed out or they become part of the cultish system.  Often good people have invested so much in the organisation, they can’t bear to be pushed out – so they compromise to stay with it.

Usually, those who leave do so in a state of pain and confusion and don’t come to realise they have been part of a ministry infected with an idolatrous sociological cult until several months later.  Often, they are partially blinded to the sins of the ministry and so don’t realise how bad it was until they have been in a healthy ministry for a period of time.

All of this is a very slow process which takes many years.  If leaders realised what was happening, they would stand together and stop cult-like behaviour.  But usually the truth is hidden from them.

4.2        Stunted spiritual development

Within a cultish ministry, the leader takes the place of the Holy Spirit.  The follower is not allowed the freedom to grow spiritually, as his leader must make all his decisions for him.  The follower of a sociological cult starts to behave like a spiritual infant in terms of spiritual maturity.    When one-on-one discipleship relationships are introduced in a cultish church, the cultishness of control spreads like a disease down to infect also the lower parts of the organisation.  Not only top leaders can become idols, but anyone who the follower allows to take the place of God in their life.

In a hierarchical system with a personality cult at the top, such spiritual infants have enormous power and can do massive damage to those below them.  This is rather like allowing a three year old to drive a bulldozer.

4.3        Building of personal kingdoms rather than God’s kingdom

When the focus is off serving Jesus, ministries become personal ‘kingdoms’ and sections of ministries become ‘fiefdoms’ – each competing with each other and each fiercely loyal to their own idol-leader.  Loyalty to the leader becomes more important than loyalty to Christ.  Worldly measures of success such as money and members become more important than spiritual measures such as prayerfulness, personal holiness, love and truth.  Each idol-leader wants to do better than the other rather than all working together to serve Jesus their true master.  The world is allowed into the church.

4.4        Ultimate ruin of the idol-leader

God is jealous of idols and thus when a leader accepts the idolatry of followers, he provokes God’s anger.  In time judgement will come on him and he will most likely end his career in disgrace.

5         How to counter idolatry and cultishness

It is not easy to combat a mature sociological cult.  Nevertheless, it can be done.  One method alone will probably not solve the problem, but a number of strategies working together can bring health back to the organisation.

5.1        Removal and discrediting of a cultish leader-idol

Often leaders who accept idolatry have hidden gross hypocrisy.  When this is uncovered, exposed and disciplined, then they lose their power.  Thus the importance of investigating and exposing sin.  Even if they stay in leadership, their power will be greatly reduced, since the myth of infallibility will be exposed. 

There are three main ways to remove a bad leader.  Firstly to pray for God to remove him; Secondly for other leaders to ask him to step down; Thirdly for the congregation as a group to petition for his removal.

If the leader is removed, but his sin not exposed, then the damage he has done in spiritually misleading people will continue.  His idolatrous followers will just find a new idol and his manipulative methods will live on in those he trained.

5.2        Repentance

Those who have either idolised a leader or a leader who has accepted idolatry need to acknowledge that this is a sin and they need to repent to God.  If it has become common in an organisation, then the whole organisation needs to do so publicly and very seriously.

5.3        The idolised leader voluntarily discourages idolatry

If a leader is being idolised by his congregation and he is a genuine servant of God, then he will do his best to discourage it. 

The apostles Paul and Barnabas did this when the Greeks started idolising them:  Acts 14:12-15 “Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.  The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.  But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.”

Peter did the same, when Cornelius the Roman Centurion fell at his feet: Acts 10:25-26As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.  But Peter made him get up. "Stand up," he said, "I am only a man myself."

Good leaders can discourage hero-worship by shedding status symbols, sharing power, telling people about their own spiritual struggles and mistakes, mixing with ordinary people and promoting on merit rather than personal loyalty.  Paul Yonggi Cho, the pastor of the largest church in the world took radical action to discourage idolatry of himself.  He said that his name ‘Paul Yonggi Cho’ had become too great and so changed his name to ‘David Yonggi Cho’ to remind people he was an ordinary person.  John Calvin the great reformer, ordered that when he died, his body should be buried in an unmarked grave to prevent Protestants going to venerate him as Catholics often did with their saints at the time.  Singer Steven Curtis Chapman said that he often speaks about his wife and children at music concerts to remind people he is a family man and discourage idolatry by female fans.

5.4        Teach people to focus on Jesus

The book of Hebrews discusses the superiority of Jesus Christ over every human leader.  Its specific examples are the Old Testament saints, who the Jewish Christians of the New Testament era would have most revered.  For us today though, idols could be in the form of past and present great leaders.

5.5        Move the idolater(s) to another ministry

If a ministry has a serious problem with idolatry, it is helpful to move idolaters to another healthy church away from their friends who will encourage hero-worship of leaders.  Senior leaders who have gotten into idolatry may take much longer to recover.

5.6        Teach against authoritarianism and spiritual abuse

Church members can be immunised against an authoritarian idolatrous leadership style by teaching against it.  Remind people that the top men are not little gods and can make mistakes.  Teach against spiritual abuse.

5.7        Build checks and balances on power

An organisation can build in checks and balances on the power of the leader, through constitutions, relationships with outside groups, shared eldership and agreed procedures.  A leader who likes idolatry and power will usually leave such a ministry.

5.8        Breaking the power of spiritual strongholds through prayer

An idolatrous sociological cult, even if it happens to be a church, will attract all kinds of demonic forces that hide behind religiosity.  It is full of darkness.  These dark spiritual forces need to be driven out with prayer.

[1] Edward Dalcour: ‘Sociological cults’, accessed 22 April 06
[2] Jan Groenveld, 1995: ‘Identifying a cult’:
[3] Radio Bible Class “What’s the difference between the Right Kind of Church and a Dangerous Religious Group?”;
[4] Lawrence A Pile, “The Other Side of Discipleship”,
[5] See for examples of the greed of many contemporary Christian leaders, televangelists in particular.