Idolatry of men and ministries: Sociological Cults in the Church
By: Philip Rosenthal
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’; ‘personality cults’; ‘Orthodox Bible based cults’; ‘Dangerous Religious Groups (DRG)’; ‘Totalist Aberrant Christian Organisations (TACO)’. 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.
A Christian sociological cult usually includes four key components: the ‘idol’; the ‘priesthood’; the ‘cult following’; and the ‘host organisation’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Those below us are inferior and we should not listen to them.
- We should blindly obey the authorities over us.
- Anyone not in our hierarchy is not ‘under authority’ and therefore is dangerous.
- The top hierarchy are God’s representatives on earth. Therefore anyone who opposes them is opposing God.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
- Unaware of problem: blissful ignorance.
- Aware, but give benefit of the doubt to leaders.
- Unhappy with what is going on, but tolerate it hoping that reform will come.
- Become part of an abusive team without realising you are part of a manipulation.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 10:25-26 “As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.