Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Anatamoy of a Cult

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Jesus' attitude to the lost is summed up perfectly in John 3:17, a verse perhaps not as familiar as the one preceding it: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” (NASB)

In any and every aspect of the Christian life it has become commonplace to ask, “What would Jesus do?” But how does this text work out and what would Jesus do in relation to the cults? Did Jesus meet and interact with any cults? People usually think of the Pharisees here but, while they certainly did display classic cultic characteristics – such as a strong legalism, judgementalism, controlling leadership, adding to the Law – it is well to remember that the Pharisees were part of the orthodox religion of the day.

We see the same in today's church, where a particular group may be a little legalistic, judgemental and disapproving, may make past tradition into a creed for today and so forth. But this does not disqualify such a group from the wider body of Christ.

Anatomy of a Cult

Jesus met a cult when he met the Samaritans. As we look at the history of the Samaritans we build up a profile of the typical cult, identify the characteristics to look for, and the pitfalls as well as the opportunities in witnessing.

2 Kings 17:21-23 - Here we find the roots of the Samaritan culture and people. These verses are an overview of what happened to Israel after the reign of Solomon. From the death of Solomon Israel was ruled by kings who compromised. The situation is described more fully in 1 Kings 12. Here the kingdom is divided under the rule of Solomon's son, Rehoboam. The northern kingdom is ruled by Jeroboam who, fearing that Israelites travelling to Jerusalem for the temple and Jewish festivals might turn back to Rehoboam, built altars and established worship in his own kingdom:

So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."

And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.

Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one.

He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.

And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made.

He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of- Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings. (1 Kings 12:28-33)

Power and Control

Cults, and cultic churches, are not about truth but about power. Like Jeroboam, their concern is controlling and holding onto their constituency. There is usually a power centre, just like Shechem or Bethel in the story of Jeroboam, and a figure who sets up alternative worship, feasts and special days “devised from [their] own hearts.”

They create their own centres of worship

The identify another focus of worship

They establish their own methods of worship.

Some things develop, evolve with time in a church. Mode of dress, language and idiom, types of activities, organisation but there is always a sense of continuity with the past, of tradition. But the cult makes a clean break with the past. What has gone before is invariably swept aside to make way for the new. It is revealing to compare this attitude with that of Jesus who said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mt.5:17) Going on to give the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reinforces what has gone before.

Ad Hoc Development

2 Kings 17:7-20 - Eventually Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria, a permanent exile.

2 Kings 17:24-41 - We go on to read that Samaria was resettled with foreigners (24), a strategy of the Assyrian king who would exile conquered people's in foreign lands. These were punished by God for not fearing him (25-26) but the king of Assyria had a solution (27-28) and brought back one of the priests exiled from Israel. This, however, was no solution because “Every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. (29) and they ended up with a corrupt mixture of Israelite and foreign gods and abominable practices that were a sin before God.

When exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, as recorded in Ezra (4:1-3), these were the people who came down to Jerusalem and offered to help. But they were rejected and so set out to discourage those who had returned (Ezra 4:4).

As with the Samaritans the ideas and practices of a cult are often developed in an ad hoc fashion. Improvised solutions to local problems build up to a confusing collection of contradictory teachings and ideas. Future generations face the challenge of making sense of doctrines and practices that cannot be reconciled because they were never developed with any plan in mind. Like the Samaritans members can end up with their own version of the cult built around some basic central ideas.

The Ezra Strategy

As with the Samaritans at the time of Ezra, cults sometimes attempt to be accepted as part of the orthodox religion. When we reject these overtures we are simply doing what Ezra and the people did in keeping our orthodoxy free of confusing and deceptive ideas that would ultimately hinder the work of God.

By the time of Jesus the Samaritans were a mix of races with a questionable history and questionable and unorthodox practices. They rejected much of the revelation of God, their scriptures were restricted to the five books of Moses and they disputed the true place of worship with the Jews in Jerusalem. They had even built a rival temple on mount Gezirim, about 400BC, which the Jews destroyed in 128BC.

The Samaritans were leftovers from the Northern Jewish kingdom who had intermarried with foreigners after the chiefs and nobles were taken into exile in 722BC” (John Piper)

  • Temple on Mount Gezirim

  • Rejected OT except selections from Moses

  • Mixture of truth and error

This was a cult and we can learn a great deal from Jesus and his encounter with the woman of Samaria.

The Samaritan Woman John 4

4:9-15 Jesus offers “the gift of water” but she can’t see past her immediate circumstances. Her view of the world is circumscribed and limited but Jesus perseveres. In the same way the cult member can't initially see past their own world-view. Don’t give up on people too soon.

4:16-18 Why does Jesus reveal her sin? (John 3:20) We can’t, as Jesus, read people’s hearts but we can and must bring people by way of the Cross and the gospel message is always the same – man has sinned and God calls us to repentance. Romans 7 is helpful here as Paul describes the human plight in Rom.7: 7-25 (esp. Rom.7:19-20)

4:19,20 The universal response to conviction is avoidance, changing the subject, talking a little religion. Jesus patiently uses the opportunity to talk about truth. Where we worship is not as important as how and who we worship. We mustn't be sidetracked by discussion of relatively minor issues.

4:21-24 Jesus points out that Samaritan knowledge of God is deficient and their worship, therefore, deficient, so he deals now with the error (v22) We mustn't be afraid to correct error.

He brings out three things in this conversation:

  • Sin blinds us and we must allow Him to deal with our sin and recognise this problem for others

  • Religion, per se, is no good if we have the wrong God and come to Him the wrong way and we must be prepared to demonstrate the right way

  • As witnesses we must understand why people’s understanding is so deficient and show patience and persevere in our witnessing, using God’s priorities

Where else do we find Samaritans?

We find them in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and of the faith and gratitude of a leper (Luke 17:11-19). You can see why the Pharisees hated Jesus when he compared them unfavourably with Samaritans! Paul writes about those who obey the law for conscience sake (Romans 2:14-15) and people from all sorts of backgrounds can and do work good works. This doesn't mean they don't need saving or correcting; the “Good” Samaritan needed Jesus too. It does mean that we should value them for who they are as we seek to bring them into the good of what God has for all who turn to him in faith and stop trusting in their own good works.

How would you feel if it was the parable of the Good Mormon? Or the thankful JW? Are you grateful for such people in the world even as you seek to evangelise them? Conversely, do you allow their good conduct to blind you to the problems in their faith and does this stop you witnessing? Can you love and value them and share boldly the gospel truth?

Sunday, 11 August 2019

How to Start a Cult

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If I was to start a cult these are the steps I would take:
  1. Reinvention: Every cult leader worth his salt has an image that he/she must work hard to maintain, from the clothes they wear to the way they conduct themselves. Saffron or white robes, smart casual western dress, formal wear, (a white suit is effective, as are robes, turbans, etc.) all will be determined by the image you want to project, but it must be consistent, people must recognise you instantly from your appearance and persona. Maybe this is why so many cult leaders choose to come across as still and contemplative rather than active and energetic.
  2. Novelty: It is important to have a message. The best messages have some novelty, revolve around issues of Revival, Renewal, Restoration, Transformation. It’s good if it is a ‘lost’ message, or something misunderstood until you came along to explain it. You can look really good if you can compare yourself favourably with ‘corrupt Christendom; the confusion of the churches is a puzzle only you can solve. But some tradition must be worked in because it is familiar and a role for Jesus is essential. You may bring new Scripture or, if you don’t want to take the risk of being branded heretic from the off, bring new, fresh commentary to established Scripture. You are going to recapture the best of the past, put it together with your new revelation, and make a better future.
  3. Simplicity: The message must be simplified and presented in sound bites. People laugh at politicians for repeating the party line on news programmes but if you repeat something often enough it becomes the truth. 'Strong and stable government,' 'A new day is dawning,' 'God is doing a new thing,' 'New wine skins,' 'Follow the prophet,' etc. These become a mantra that makes it easy for your followers to articulate your message and feel good for doing so without actually having any depth of understanding.
  4. Target Have a target audience. This is typically young people and intellectuals. Young people because they are old enough to have realised the world is a mess, naive enough to think they can 'make all the difference,' but young enough that they don't have the wisdom and discernment to help them make sound judgements when they hear your mantra. Intellectuals because they are older, educated, convinced they can take their education and make a difference in the world if only they could find a way; you provide the way. They also mistakenly think only stupid people join cults and so their guard is down. They can be won by flattery and a sense of purpose like everyone else.
  5. Hierarchy: Restrict access to yourself, dividing followers into groups and individuals that compete for your attention. By all means speak to crowds, but allow only a select few access into your inner circle. This makes them concentrate on how to get closer to you as the source of meaning for them. It constructs a cohort of followers that is most faithful in doing the work for you, putting out your message, reassuring the ordinary members, modelling the best and most faithful example for others.
  6. Exclusivity: Restrict access to the world. We conduct our lives according to the social norms of wider society. By restricting access to those norms of behaviour you create in them a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which you can write your own social norms. This is sometimes achieved by physically removing people from the world into a community, which has the added advantages of constant, direct control. Having members in community makes them more easily controlled and encourages them to spy on each other for any dissent. It is more usual to separate peopl socially, spiritually, and intellectually by holding a lot of meetings, to which they 'must come' if they are to grow, having them spend time reading, meditating, etc. suggesting they cut ties with old friends until they are rightly emebdded in the group.
  7. Popularity: Accept that not everyone will like you. Play to the crowd that does, demonise those that don't.
  8. Grooming: You should be able to groom key people, an exhausting and demanding process but essential if you are to build an inner circle and competition to enter it. This involves active listening, making someone feel they are the most important person in the room, even in a crowd. This means keeping eye contact, having a listening posture, mirroring (reflecting back their own posture and expressions), cutting out all distractions, quickly picking up on concerns, hopes, and fears and speaking to those specific points, or distracting from them with a picture of a better world where these things won't exist. 'Keep the faith friend.'
  9. Proselytising: Keep an emphasis on recruitment, calling it evangelism. This achieves two things; (1) it focuses followers on repeating the message, reinforcing their own conviction, and keeping them busy (2) it gets new recruits to replace those who are bound to leave the fold.
  10. Contest: Create competition for succession, making vague promises to various members of the inner circle, making them vie for your attention.
What would you add to the list?

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Bible: The most precious thing this world affords

'The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.' (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2 June 1953. She would spend her life living in castles and palaces. She would sit on thrones, ride in gold carriages, and leading designers would line up to make her the best clothes, She would wear the finest jewellery, eat the finest meals, and travel first class.

At her coronation in Westminster Abbey, amidst all the pomp and ceremony, lords and ladies, dignitaries both spiritual and secular, she was handed a Bible with these words:

Our gracious Queen:
to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.

What is true for princes is surely true for everyone. This is the rule for the best life, the life we were made to have. It is to the Bible we go to understand something of what that life looks like and of God's purposes for me and for you. I wonder what the Bible is to you?

In Psalm 119 we read, 'Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path.' (v.105)

When you are struggling to find your way do you look to the Bible to be a lamp to your feet, a light to your path? When you are trying to negotiate the challenges of this world do you go to the Bible for illumination?

For some, the Bible is like the convenience store, the corner shop. We're glad it's there, we go to it for our bits and pieces, we run to it in an emergency, but we do our main shop in the supermarket.

So with the Bible. We go to it for our bits and pieces, for those things that encourage us (23rd Psalm, John 3:16), at those times when we want comfort and reassurance, but when it comes to how we think about the big issues, the knotty issues of life - science and faith, moral and lifestyle choices, the ideas the world presses on us and urgently insists we embrace - we too often go to the supermarket of the world. We allow the world to shape and influence our thinking, shape our world-view.

We say, 'that's what people do today, that's how the thinking goes today.' The problem is, not so long ago people thought and acted quite differently, and in the not too distant future people will think and act differently again.

In the TV documentary Back in Time for School, fifteen pupils and their teachers time-travel as they fast-forward through more than 100 years of school life. As they move forward in time attitudes and philosophies change, from celebrating empire, to preparing for war.

Girls start in classes with the boys doing science, then they are separated as the boys do science and the girls do domestic science because this was thought to be the best way to prepare them for the brave new post-war world of the twenties and thirties. It is well said, who marries the spirit of the age will end up widowed in the next.

How will young people deal with the changes that are bound to come, when they increasingly find they don't understand the world any more? When the issues they thought were settled are churned up again and a younger generation, with different attitudes comes to very different conclusions?

The speech to the queen ends with these words:

Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.

The Bible gives an eyewitness account of Jesus. John writes so that we, his readers, should have fellowship in knowing what they saw, looked upon, heard, and touched, 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us...' (1 John 1:1-4)

The Bible brings us hope. Paul reminds us, 'Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.' (Romans 15:4)

The Bible teaches, reproves, corrects and equips. In a letter to Timothy Paul writes, 'All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.' (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The Bible calls us to action. James writes, urging us, 'Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.' (James 1:22)

The Bible calls us to defend the truth. In their book The Identity of the Church Anthony and Richard Hanson observe: 'God's word is not anybody's word. The church has a right to be protected from heretics, cranks, and fanatics...'

Jude reminds us, 'beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed...ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.' (Jude 3-4)

We cannot have that fellowship John writes about, we cannot know hope, be instructed in the things of God, identify to what actions we are called, or understand clearly the faith we are called to defend unless and until we have and apply ourselves to the word of God in the Bible. In the earliest account of Christian fellowship we have the example from those who, 'devoted them selves to the apostle's teaching...' (Acts 2:42-47)

The most precious thing this world affords.

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Anatamoy of a Cult

Technorati Tags: cult , cults , Reachout trust Jesus' attitude to the lost is summed up perfectly in John 3:17, a verse perhaps not as f...