Bible Cults: the vanity of using Jesus as a hook

An essay by Joe Szimhart for your consideration taken from – (2/28/2011)

"Abba": 3 Marys - oil - 40x30 Szimhart 2011

Cults and religious movements, especially new ones, often go bad when gurus and their devotees devalue and eliminate valid moderating influences. Emerging churches often go bad when vain pastors use the Bible as a hook to attract recruits under their special influence.[1]

The value of moderating influences cannot be overestimated when a pastor or church leader makes extraordinary claims about himself and his mission to motivate a deployable congregation. Studies in religious movements have shown again and again what Robert J. Lifton noted in his 1961 “study of “brainwashing in China” (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism):

“In discussing tendencies toward individual totalism within my subjects, I made it clear that these were a matter of degree, and that some potential for this form of all-or-nothing alignment exists within everyone. Similarly, any ideology—that is, any set of emotionally charged convictions about man and his relationship to the natural or supernatural world—may be carried by its adherents in a totalist direction. But this is most likely to occur with ideologies which are most sweeping in their content and most ambitious—or messianic—in their claims, whether religious, political or scientific. And where totalism exists, a religion, a political movement, or even a scientific organization becomes little more than an exclusive cult.” (p 419)[2]

Lifton names what he calls “the dispensing of existence,” one of his 8 themes that comprise a totalist milieu, as the defining feature of an “exclusive cult.” In as much as any new church or old Christian sect tends toward totalism, it removes itself from any claim to the democratic ideas represented in the Gospel. Elders are elected after serious scrutiny by leaders and congregants in a Christian community (see: New Testament pastorals in 1, 2 Timothy; Titus). The dispensing of existence in its extreme took place in Stalinist Russia where entire villages were killed, but on average the typical abusive cult rarely kills anyone. Dispensing existence in Bible cults more often means who is saved or condemned, who is “born again” and who is not as defined by the leader and the cult milieu.

“…idealogical totalism itself may offer a [person] an intense peak experience: a sense of transcending all that is ordinary and prosaic, of freeing [oneself] from the encumbrances of human ambivalence, of entering a sphere of truth, reality, trust, and sincerity beyond any [the person] had ever known or even imagined.”[3]

Many new charismatic churches view themselves as “spirit filled,” or Holy Spirit driven, thus avoiding criticism from outsiders who view them as hyperactive and obsessively involved in rituals like prophesying, speaking in tongues, witnessing, and finding meaning in signs and wonders. Under Lifton’s themes in a totalist milieu he lists “mystical manipulation.”[4]

Within such a milieu or group activity, new recruits can experience a holy feeling, a deep familial connection, or an ecstasy that managers of the group have set in motion. The leaders themselves may have had an “awakening” after only one service or workshop and later proclaim, “I knew right away this was of the Lord.” Ex-members will often look back on such an experience as the moment of conversion when they felt the “holy spirit” flood through them, or had a dream or saw a sign that “proved” that the group or guru was the real deal. Too late the ex-members, most after years and some after decades, realize that personal experience of a spiritual nature can be deceiving and that the group knew all along how getting someone to speak in tongues, for example, could flood the new recruit with emotion and release endorphins in the brain. A little love-bombing after such a euphoric experience is all that was needed to convert someone to a group and submit to the leader, perhaps for life and all “in the name of Jesus.”

Lifton also adds something I consider vitally important to this discussion about immoderate, hyperactive churches. In his examination of a dogma held by its adherents as an “ultimate moral vision for ordering human existence” Lifton calls this extraordinary dogma a “sacred science” because it cannot be questioned.[5] In other words, to question the truth means to questions God or God’s appointed prophet. If one criticizes a totalist Bible cult’s dogma, the cult leaders will accuse one of being both against God and against reason. Bible cults provide airtight ‘reasons’ from dubiously selected sacred scriptures. In Bible cults this is tantamount to blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

“The assumption here is not so much that man can be God, but rather that man’s ideas can be God: that an absolute science of ideas (and implicitly, an absolute science of man) exists, or is at least very close to being attained; that this science can be combined with an equally absolute body of moral principles; and that the resulting doctrine is true for all men at all times. Although no ideology goes quite this far in overt statement, such assumptions are implicit in totalist practice.”[6]

International Churches of Christ and Kip McKean

For example, in recent history we can find immoderate claims by a church leader in the International Churches of Christ (ICOC). Known as “the Boston Movement” early in its development, the ICOC was founded by Kip McKean in the late 1980s.[7] The ICOC branched off the mainline Churches of Christ distinguishing itself with a hyperactive style of recruiting or evangelizing and micromanaging recruits through an intrusive technique of “discipling.” The movement grew quickly but soon attracted accusations of harmful cult behavior. Indeed, many ex-members of ICOC throughout the 1980s and 1990s listed the same social and psychological influences or thought reform techniques used by destructive cultic organizations.[8] These techniques cause a form of social contagion (commonly known as ‘brainwashing’ or thought reform) through mystical identification with a transcendent doctrine, a charismatic relationship with leaders who control doctrine, constant rounds of mental and devotional activity to comply with the group agenda, and phobia indoctrination that devalues outsiders and sets up exit perils to keep a devotee from ever doubting or thinking of leaving the cult.[9]

Many former members—two out of three recruits eventually leave—believe their personal development was hindered and sidetracked, their independent spirits broken, and their spiritual needs exploited in the group’s milieu.”[10] Many campuses across the country banned ICOC members from recruiting on their grounds.

The ICOC estimates its following with over 500 “congregations” and nearly 100,000 members as of 2005. It follows a Christian restorationist agenda claiming to restore the church to its primitive roots as described in Acts 2. A wide range of new Bible cults as I know them tend to make this same exclusive restorationist claim: they and only they strive to be the “true” church as originally intended by Jesus through Peter and Paul. The ICOC continues to receive criticism despite the removal of Kip McKean as leader in 2002 and internal reforms to moderate its abusive “mind control” or thought reform tactics.[11]

McKean began his journey into the American Restoration movement (with roots in the 19th century) in 1972 when the Crossroads Church recruited him as a freshman at the University of Florida. (McKean’s ancestor, Thomas McKean, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence). He rose quickly in the Crossroad ranks, eventually becoming a minister at several mainline Churches of Christ. In 1979 he was offered the pulpit to minister to a struggling Boston area congregation that witnessed rapid growth from 30 members to 3,000 in just two years under his leadership. McKean came up with the doctrine of “vision for the world” which required recruits to establish “pillar churches” in key metropolitan centers to spread the faith globally. Thus, his Boston movement sprouted congregations named London Church of Christ, Detroit Church of Christ, Los Angeles Church of Christ, etc. to distinguish them from the mainline Church of Christ. Since McKean’s departure, the ICOC congregations have decentralized and many have sought reunification with the mainline churches. Not to be outdone, in recent years the redoubtable Kip McKean started another movement in Oregon he calls International Churches of Christ.[12]

A significant study by Flavil R. Yeakley and others was published in 1988 regarding Mckean’s discipling movement.[13] The Discipling Dilemma” reveals how a pattern of unhealthy personality change attends the totalist agendas of such movements. The study included over 800 ICOC members, with around 9% higher percentage of females participating. The researchers used a well-established psychological instrument for determining whether an individual exhibits a combination certain personality traits. Known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI, the question and answer instrument tests for Extroversion [E] or Introversion [I], Sensing [S] or Intuition [N], Thinking [T] or Feeling [F], and Judging [J] or Perceiving [P].  Results come in 16 combinations or personality types. The Yeakley study showed that ICOC members reported as coming from a typical spectrum of personality types when recruited. After sufficient indoctrination, the members tended to perceive themselves as ESFJs or Emotion, Sensing, Feeling, Judging. ICOC leaders suggested this was the personality most favored by Jesus, so that is the reason for the perception. Yeakley and others countered that ICOC’s self-serving reaction indicates an unhealthy view of the reality that Jesus taught. Also, the study shows that recruits who came with INTP traits tended to show the most change, thus the most drift from their natural, God-given personality.

The study offers testable evidence for what research into harmful cults has indicated for decades[14]: Ex-members consistently report “I was not myself” or “I was not in my right mind” or “My will was disengaged” when looking back at their experience with totalist organizations that encourage ritualistic and highly devotional behavior.

Bounded Choice

Professor Janja Lalich, herself an ex-10-year member of a political cult, wrote her dissertation based on her and previous research into cult behavior. The title of her book, Bounded Choice, indicates that choice or “freedom” is not eliminated in cults, rather choice is contained by dogma, suggestion, and threat. For example, the Church of Scientology sells a path called the Bridge to Total Freedom, yet decades of testimony from ex-members indicates strongly that freedom was constricted at every turn if they were to comply with what they came to see as bizarre and harmful demands in the church. My colleagues and I have called this the “illusion of choice.”

Twisting scripture

Bible cults tend to abuse scriptures like Luke 14:26 regarding ‘hating one’s parents’. Followers might say, one should not idolize one’s parents and spending time with them or visiting is a form of idolatry—unless of course they are already in the same cultic church. Idolize in this context is what Lifton calls “loaded language” in that only insiders of the cult will grasp the severity of the suggestion that any normal attention paid to parents is ‘idolatry.’ The barre of purity is so high that no normally good behaviour toward a parent is acceptable because one is not putting “Jesus” or group activity first. What is sorely missing in Bible cults is the admonition from 1 Timothy 5:8: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

Out of context scripture quotes are dangerous, to say the least. For example, where would the Christian Church be today if the Apostles followed Matthew 10: 5-6? “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel .”

James Sire lists and explains “20 Ways” that cults misread scripture or the Bible. By cult Sire means any group that significantly deviates from traditional interpretations of Scripture. In the Christian tradition Sire accepts mainline evangelical, Protestant and Catholic tradition because all agree on the fundamental principles in the Gospel as well as later formations like the Apostles Creed. All apply moderating principles for accountability and strive to comply with laws of the land. He also lists as cultic any deviation from acceptable application of scripture. In a way, he is using a common set of guidelines in philosophy: To examine regarding knowledge, behaviour and governance. Does the interpretation of scripture by the leader or group match what we know or can know as reliable? Are the behaviours commensurate with the best or at least acceptable guidelines in society from a thorough reading of scripture? How does the group govern itself: What are the checks and balances?

Sire covers many instances where Jehovah Witnesses, Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Hindu and Buddhist gurus, and New Agers deviate from Scripture. He also comments on apparently Christian pastors:

“Some Christian preachers are well known, unfortunately, for their own similar use of the Bible. The preacher wants to say something to his congregation, so he looks for a verse or two of Scripture on which to hang his preconceived message.”[15]

Sire calls this way of using the Bible a “hook” or a sure way to grab attention by hooking onto the authority of a famous text or author for credibility. The preacher will bait and switch by claiming the “Word of God” with the quote, then preach as if inspired by the Holy Spirit, prancing and sweating on a stage with a Bible in his hands. Or she might calmly and with measured cadences drive home a point to a transfixed congregation. The state of hypnosis or suggestibility is equally effective whether the receptor is in high or low arousal—compliance and focused attention is all that is required. The preacher’s audience, if hooked, will not dare question the “holy spirit” during such a performance. The one unforgivable sin, they are taught, is to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit” when someone is prophesying, preaching, or speaking in tongues in “His” holy name. However, a discerning Christian must decide whether the performance is indeed inspired or merely a human performance under a flawed spirit. Sire offers many clear examples of how preachers deviate from the “Spirit” of the Gospel and how we not only can but must question.

Indeed, the process of doubting when properly applied, or scepticism, is one of the hallmarks of a healthy Christian. We have examples from the holy book wherein even God is questioned or tested as in Judges 6:39: Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew.”  And certainly Jesus addressed any number of questions from his disciples as well as from Scribes, Pharisees and the devil.

Brain Science

In her book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor advises us to “stop and think” in certain ways to develop and maintain a healthy brain that goes with a healthy social self or healthy behaviours. “Your susceptibility to brainwashing (and other forms of influence) has much to do with the state of your brain.”[16] A Christian with an unhealthy sense of reason is seriously flawed in mind and spirit and is not “whole” in Christ.

Faith and healing

Health itself comes into question with many hyper-fundamentalist sects. Faith is strained in these sects or cults to perform as the Bible never intended. One extreme version of Protestantism appeared with the New Thought movements and churches stemming from the 19th Century.

New Thought permeates much of American society in insidious ways. For example, Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral enterprise and Joel Osteen’s mega-church are indebted to New Thought. Any church or pastor who incorporates ideas out of books like The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman V. Peale and Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill repeat old New Thought ideas and are closer in spiritual ideology to Science of the Mind, Unity, Church of Religious Science and Christian Science than standard Gospel tradition. Peale’s techniques that imitate affirmations in New Thought have been likened to autosuggestion and self hypnosis. Autosuggestion can be debilitating over time as the practitioner or praying devotee experiences frustration with lack of success. The positive thinking technique “defeats an individual’s self motivation, self knowledge, unique sense of self, sense of reality, and the ability to think critically.”[17]

In other words, the cult devotee will come to believe this:

Jesus will heal me if I have full faith in Him. I do not need a doctor. Jesus is my doctor! If I go to a doctor, I do not have faith in Jesus. I am not thinking positively enough.

Thus faith is overburdened and becomes self-abuse as well as abuse of others if it is forced on children.

Resources for education and recovery

There are many resources for Christians who truly want to checks and balances to keep faith and pastors healthy. There are a few on the Watchman Fellowship website:

One good resource is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderan (1991) that not only uses appropriate scripture to define a healthy church but also offers reasonable advice for those in recovery from abusive churches.


Churches should hold pastors to a rigorous set of ethics. A thorough list is on:

A shorter version of ethics for pastors:

Devotion: A pastor must be devoted to God, community and the people of her congregation. Building strong interpersonal and spiritual relationships with all the people a pastor meets is vital.

Integrity: Pastors must practice what they preach. It is important for a pastor to conduct herself in a proper manner in accordance to things she says, does and believes.

Confidentiality: A pastor has a duty to keep personal matters private to the people who entrust in her confidence during counseling and consultation.

Professionalism: A pastor must maintain professionalism in personal appearance and community conduct since she will be a representative of a particular faith.

Responsibility: A pastor’s code of ethics is much higher than normal, since the position contains power that allows for major influence within a community and on the lives of individuals.[18]

God Willing movie

Watch the newly released film “God Willing: What would you do if faith took your child away?” by Evangeline Griego for a deeper insight into how such behavior causes painful rifts in families.  PBS TV stations will be running the film starting April 2011.


In this brief essay I merely introduce the problem of a Bible cult. In another paper, “Razor’s Edge Indeed” I listed four themes or factors that indicate when a cult goes bad.[19] I remark on these four themes below, but I suggest reading my entire essay to get a better sense of their meaning.

1. Transpersonal attraction: “As we’ve already seen, spiritually abusive systems are easy to get into but hard to leave.”[20] New recruits tend to say things like: I was filled with the Holy Spirit for days; best day of my life; I knew then that I found the truth; I felt incredible energy surge up my spine; these were the most spiritual people I ever met in my life; all my burdens fell from my shoulders; I felt like I was transported to another world; I was in ecstasy.

2. Exclusive leadership: After the ecstasy, a new recruit invariably turns to the environment in which it happened for support, explanation and direction. Naturally, all devotees point to the leader as the ultimate guide but just as often someone is named as the sub-leader, personal spiritual friend or “discipler.” No one outside the group is good enough or as reliable. Elitism filters into the recruit’s attitude. Any challenges to the leader or belief system result in revulsion.

3. Circular tension: An orbit of devotion sets in. The recruit feels momentum at first as if making progress but soon finds limits. Challenges to leadership or questions about the group cause tension and to avoid tension the recruit stays “in place” circling the leader’s direction, sustaining daily rituals and continuing to sustain “mind control” that extends into behavioral, intellectual and emotional self-control.

4. Exit perils: Due to the “us verses them” system, anything outside the group milieu of ideas, prohibitions, or elite status is tainted, contaminated, ignorant or evil. Any one who defects will encounter “exit costs” as loss of salvation or the best chance to serve God, and become one of the lost. The transpersonal protection from disease, insanity, corruption, failure, or evil will fade, so one is now at risk. Friends in the group will shun the defector. Financial and personal investments may be lost.

After defection, recovery can be difficult depending on psychological need, lingering phobias, financial distress, and spiritual fatigue or confusion.  When it comes to harmful and deceptive cults that continue to operate under protection of the law, recovery is the best revenge!

There is help out there. Contact me if you need some tips or referrals. Or go to



[1] An argument is valid if and only if the truth of its premises entails the truth of its conclusion. It would be self-contradictory to affirm the premises and deny the conclusion. The corresponding conditional of a valid argument is a logical truth and the negation of its corresponding conditional is a contradiction. The conclusion is a logical consequence of its premises. To validate something means to test and prove its worth. [2] Robert J. Lifton (1989) Thought Reform and the Psychology of  Totalism ( University of North Carolina Press) [3] IBID, 435 [4] IBID, 422 [5] IBID, 423 [6] IBID, 428 [7] [8] [9]’s+Edge+Indeed:+A+Deprogrammer’s+View+of+Harmful+Cult+Activity [10] [11] [12] [13] Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr; Howard W. Norton; Don E. Vinzant; Gene Vinzant (1988)  The Discipling Dilemma: A Study of the Discipling Movement Among Churches of Christ (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Co.) [14] Janja Lalich, PhD. (2004) Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults ( University of California Press) [15] James W. Sire (1980) Scripture Twisting: 20 ways the Cults Misread the Bible (Intervarsity Press) p 42 [16] Kathleen Taylor (2004) Brainwashing: The science of thought control (Oxford University Press) p 215 [17] [18]Code of Ethics for Pastors | [19] Also go to:’s+Edge+Indeed:+A+Deprogrammer’s+View+of+Harmful+Cult+Activity [20] David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderan (1991) The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany House) 184


1 Comment

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One response to “Bible Cults: the vanity of using Jesus as a hook

  1. Reverend Andrew St. John

    you seem to be good, kind, concerned people and i want to tell you that because of my involvement with Christianity on many levels, though i am Catholic, many groups are like the Jim Roberts “cult”. The strict Eastern Orthodox monasteries are like that as well as some Baptist groups and many others. monks and nuns are much like these people as well as others. and they really are little different than many kinds of Christians are. look into Christ Is The Answer in El Paso and Juarez for instance? some people and groups are just ‘extreme’ in their approach while some abuse and oppress their members and converts. there is one ‘cult’ in the Newport, WA and Priest River, ID; and Seattle, WA that is called Eagle Heights Ministries and they are not healthy at all and are led by “Dr. D” or Pastor Dennis Tarpien. a very unhealthy group! ty

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