By David West
Until last week (3/93), few of us had heard of Vernon Howell (a.k.a. David Koresh) or the “Branch Davidian” (a radical cult which splintered from the Seventh-Day Adventist’s in the mid-1930’s). Now, everyone in the world who keeps up with the news knows quite a bit about both.
Though my knowledge of them is limited to what I have learned from the news, I believe this situation can teach those who are willing to learn many valuable spiritual lessons. It would be foolish to ignore them.
Why Do People Join Cults?
It might help us to prevent people from joining cults if we knew something about why they join.
Lack of love and acceptance in some mainstream churches. Many join cults because they have not found the love, warmth and acceptance they were looking for in the mainstream churches. They felt left to face a crisis alone. They could not break through the barriers that prevented them from becoming part of the family.
This is what happened to David Koresh. He was pushed away by some members of the church when he became infatuated with an Adventist minister’s daughter. It was mostly the coldness of the church he was in that affected him.
Love is to be the first identifying characteristic of God’s people. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34,35). If people cannot find love by traditional means, they will look elsewhere.
Cults are happy to step in and “love bomb” the prospect into becoming a part of the group before he even becomes aware of what the group believes and practices.
Lack of spiritual focus in some mainstream churches. Many have been disillusioned and frustrated by the lack of spiritual focus in so many mainstream churches. They quit because their spiritual needs are not met by the entertainment, recreation, “social gospel,” and other fleshly inducements offered by so many churches.
They see too many associating with the churches to obtain carnal rewards. They come to eat, to play, and to be entertained. “Jesus answered and said, `Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled”‘ (Jn. 6:26-27).
But, quitting doesn’t remove their “soul hunger.” So, they look elsewhere. Many times, the cults are quick to move in and fill the void. This leaves the person far worse off than before (Matt. 12:43-45).
Do we contribute to the growth of cults by not radiating love to those who need it? Do we drive them away by satisfying them with the “food which perishes” rather than “the food which endures to eternal life” (Jn. 6:27)? Do we meet every need but the soul’s hunger for spiritual nourishment?
The Characteristics of Cults
We need to know something of the nature of a cult, so that we can recognize one when we see it.
A charismatic leader. Cults are either begun or run by a charismatic leader who has learned to manipulate and control people. He usually has Messianic delusions. He assures people that if they will put their ultimate trust in him, he will deliver them and lead them to whatever utopia he is promising.
David Koresh is such a man. He has great power over his followers. He has in the past claimed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. He has been preparing his people to follow him into Armageddon. The cult believes the end of the world is near and that Koresh (a 33-year-old son of a carpenter) is the Messiah.
Strict obedience. Cults demand strict obedience to their leader. Any disobedience is severely punished. Koresh is very militaristic in leadership. If anyone disobeys him, the whole camp must fast. He claims that food deprivation will help prepare them for the rigors of war. The people are nearly always hungry.
Withdrawal from society. Cults withdraw from society. They avoid normal relationships with those outside the group. They isolate themselves from society at large. Branch Davidian has a fortress on 77 acres of cattle pasture ten miles out of town. They are self-sufficient and are heavily armed.
No diversity. Cults allow no diversity among members. Everyone is required to believe and do exactly the same things. All cult teachings must be blindly accepted. No reflection or critical thinking is allowed. There is strong censorship of any teaching not approved by the leader. People are kept in line by intimidation, threat and fear. They accept what they are told whether they understand it or not, whether they agree with it or not.
Suspicious of society. Cults are deeply suspicious of the outside world. Everything in society is suspect. Cohesion is maintained by paranoia. They are convinced that somebody out there is trying to get them. So they cling to each other and avoid outside influences.
Branch Davidian considers itself “God’s army” and views everyone else as Babylon. They are expecting an apocalyptic confrontation with the surrounding community.
Surrender personal responsibility. Cults require members to surrender their personal responsibility. Voluntarily brainwashed, they do not know what their role in the community is until they are told by the leader. They lose their ability to think for themselves. Like robots they do as they are told. Without their leader they wouldn’t know what to do.
Leaders abuse power. Cult leaders abuse their power. The member is usually required to surrender his property, income, personality, and body to the leader who then uses them for his personal gratification and enrichment. Ex-members report that his power over people has caused Koresh to become an obnoxious, foul-mouthed, pushy person.
Abuse of sex. Cults usually consider sex a central theme. Usually it is the abuse of sex. Most consider sexual activity dirty and evil. They often forbid even married members to engage in it. Of course, the leader is exempt from such restrictions.
Though Koresh runs the complex like a monastery, he is far from celibate. He is reported to have slept with numerous women at the compound. He has designated 14 of them his “wives,” calling them the “house of David,” and forbids their husbands to have sex with them. He reportedly has had sex with many young girls (as young as 11-14) “in the name of God.”
End in tragedy. Cults end in tragedy. They destroy former relationships with family and friends. They take away freedom and dignity. They sometimes end in the loss of life. But, even worse, they cost one his soul.
The New Testament Church — A Radical Contrast Consider how the Lord’s church differs from the cults:
No abuse of power. Its leader never abuses his power. Jesus Christ is in the head of his church (Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18; Matt. 16:18). While here on earth, Jesus had many opportunities to exploit his power and influence, but he never did.
At the start, he would not use his power to satisfy his hunger in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). At the end, he would not use his power to deliver himself from death on the cross. He never sexually misused the women who followed him.
Instead, we find him girding himself with a towel and washing his disciple’s feet (Jn. 13:1-20). He is the ultimate example of humility and self-sacrifice for mankind (Phil. 2:5-11).
Stays involved in society. The Lord’s church always stays in contact with people. As with its Lord, it does not withdraw and isolate itself from penetrating as leaven in dough (Matt. 13:33), salt in meat (Matt. 5:13), and light in darkness (Matt. 5:14-16). It is never paranoid about people on the outside. It loves and cares for them.
Encourages diversity. The Lord’s church encourages diversity. In Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, the human body is used as an analogy for the church. Just as the body is made up of diverse members who all do their part to make the body function properly, so is the church. It allows the individual to follow his own conscience and convictions in following his Lord (Rom. 14:1-12). “Let each man be full convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). “So each one will give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
Guards one dignity. The Lord’s church guards one’s personality, sexuality, and power of choice. The God who created us with the power to choose good or evil, right or wrong, has never hindered our right to decide for ourselves what we will believe and do. Certainly he will hold us responsible if we choose to believe error or to practice rebellion against his will (2 Cor. 5:10; Acts 17:30,31; 2 Thess. 1:8-10). But, he never forces anyone to conform. He upholds our dignity by allowing us to manifest our attitude toward him in the choices we make. Do not ever let anyone take away your freedom in Christ and put you back in bondage (Gal. 5:1).
God invented sex. When God’s boundaries are respected, sex is neither sinful nor dirty. The sexual relationship is honorable and pure within marriage (Heb. 13:4; Eph. 5:31).
Results in glory. The Lord’s church results in glory, not tragedy. When the church follows the Lord and his revealed will (the Bible), the community will become a better place. God’s plan will not result in a tragic destruction of lives in the community. He honors life, hope, and the future. By the way, many people lump all religion together. They take the worst aspects of a particular religion and at-tribute them to all religion. This is why they say “more wars and atrocities have been caused by religion than by anything else.” They conclude that all religion is motivated by hate, sensuality and greed and that the more devoted one becomes to his religion the more likely he is to become a violent “wacko.”
Consider two responses to that charge: First, those who commit themselves to following Jesus Christ (not some sinful, fallible man) and the New Testament (not some latter-day revelation to the leader), are never responsible for the ungodly immoral things done in the name of religion.
Second, many religions are completely passive. Should we then generalize from that and conclude that all religion is passive?
Don’t paint with too board a brush. All religions are not the same. Strict adherence to Jesus as one’s only creed and the Bible as one’s only authoritative standard is never responsible for man’s atrocities.
Some Lessons for Us to Learn
There are so many lessons that those of us who care about what is happening to people’s lives and souls need to learn.
1. The danger of one man having absolute power. Jesus never intended for any man to have dictatorial powers over his people. He has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18).
Yet, some men love the chief seats (Matt. 23:1-12; Lk. 14:7-11) and desire to be great in the kingdom by bossing others and demanding preeminence (3 Jn. 9-10). The only power Jesus gives any spiritual leader is the power of moral persuasion and the appeal to others to do what the Bible says. The way to greatness in God’s kingdom is not in being served (Matt. 20:28), but in humble service to others (Jn. 13:5-20).
The Lord’s church has no dictatorial leaders. The disciples of Jesus frequently argued about who would be the greatest in the kingdom and who would sit on his right hand. Jesus clearly showed them that power in his kingdom would be unlike power in worldly kingdoms.
And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be the greatest. And he said unto them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors. But not so with you, but let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Lk. 22:24-27).
Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
When we witness a demonstration of how “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” we ought to appreciate the wisdom of God in ordaining that each local congregation of his people be led by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23). In this way, no one man can ever lead the group to destruction.
2. The danger of following man. Not only are there men who are willing to control the lives of others, there are people who are happy to let them. Some look for someone to think for them and to tell them what to do. They are willing to turn over their mind, will, and body to another. Slavery of any kind is inhumane, but enslavement of the human mind and will is the most miserable slavery on earth.
In speaking of the character and work of false teachers, Peter said, “These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:17-18).
Yet, we are witnessing, in Waco, as we have so many places before, the folly of following a false teacher.
“If a blind man guides a blind man, they will both fall into a pit” (Matt. 15:14).
7 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but try the spirits to see whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I In. 4:1).
“Beware of false prophets, who have come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15).
7 “. . . Such men are slaves not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Rom. 16:17-18).
7 “But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9).
Read all of 2 Peter 2.
God’s word is truth On. 17:17). It is only the truth that can set us free (Jn. 8:32). Therefore, we should buy the truth and refuse to sell it (Prov. 23:23).
Yet, many do not love the truth and would prefer to believe a lie (2 Thess. 2:9-12; 2 Tim. 4:1-4). God promises to send a strong delusion to such that they might believe a lie and be damned. Any time we do not fervently love the truth, we are in grave danger of being led astray.
Doing something “in the name of the Lord,” doesn’t make it right. On Judgment Day, many will protest their condemnation saying that they did many good works in his name, but Jesus will say he doesn’t know them because they worked without his authority (Matt. 7:21-28). We must be certain that when we act in the name of Jesus we are acting by his authority (Col. 3:17; Matt. 28:18).
Zeal without knowledge is dangerous. It is good to have zeal. In fact, Christians must have zeal (Tit. 2:14; Rev. 3:19). But, it is truth, not zeal, that sets us free (Jn. 8:32).
Many have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. In the process, they fail to obtain God’s righteousness. “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:1-3).
Had the people in these cults been grounded in the truth, they would have seen through the false teaching and false character of their spiritual leader.
Consider some examples:
Claiming to be the Second Coming of Jesus. When Koresh claimed to be the second coming of Jesus, they would have seen that his coming bears no resemblance to how Jesus is supposed to return (I Thess. 4:13-5:6).
Violence and bloodshed. When he started stockpiling weapons, and using them to prevent his arrest, they would have remembered that Jesus told Peter to put away his sword because, if he didn’t want to be arrested, he could call 12 legions of angels to rescue him (Matt. 26:52-54).
While on trial, Jesus told the governor Pilate that if his kingdom were of this world, his servants would fight to protect him. But, his kingdom was not that kind of kingdom (Jn. 18:36). His servants are not engaged in a carnal war with carnal weapons (2 Cot. 10:3-6).
Break the law. When he started breaking the law of the land, they would have known that civil government is ordained by God and that it is God’s servant and we are to obey it as it seeks to enforce just law (Rom. 13:1-7; I Pet. 2:13-17).
Committing fornication. When he started committing fornication with his female followers, they would have known that fornicators and adulterers will not go to heaven (I Cor. 6:9-10: Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:8).
What you believe does makes a difference, even if you are sincere. Many contend that one religion is as good as another. We are told that beliefs don’t matter as long as you are sincere. Who can believe it? Is what Koresh and his followers are doing just as good as everything else being done religiously? Is God just as pleased with him as he is with those who actually follow the Bible?
Sincerity has never been enough to guarantee a right relationship with God. Saul of Tarsus (later the apostle Paul) persecuted the church, even to the point of having Christians put to death. He did so sincerely and with a good con-science (Acts 23:1), but sincerity didn’t make him right with God. He needed to be converted and come to God on God’s terms (1 Tim. 1:13-15; Acts 22:16).
One church is not as good as another. People have been saying that for years. But, it isn’t true. Is Koresh’s church as good as every other? Some people substitute religion for salvation. But, Jesus did not come to make us religious. We were already religious when he came. He came to make men religiously right! It is possible to be religiously wrong and be lost.
The need for objective, not subjective, revelation. Many people, rather than listening to the voice of God through objective revelation (the Bible), claim to communicate with God subjectively (through visions and voices). They are not satisfied with the confirmed word of God in which all can receive the same message. They claim that God tells them things that are not in the Bible.
The New Testament is God’s final revelation of his will to man (Heb. 1:1,2). Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (Jn. 16:13). Did he keep his promise? Or is he continuing to reveal new truth today?
God’s word is complete and perfect, thoroughly able to furnish us unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16,17). We have
been given all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). Is there anything left for him to say to us?
We are to contend earnestly for the faith that was “once for all time delivered unto the saint” (Jude 3). The faith has been completely and totally revealed. There is nothing left that needs to be added. It is the perfect law of liberty (Jas. 1:25).
We must learn not to exceed that which is written in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 4:6). God threatens dire consequences to those who add to or take away from his word (Rev. 1:8,9). Those who preach any other gospel than that which is revealed are to be accursed (Gal. 1:8,9). Those who are not con-tent to abide in the doctrine of Christ, but transgress and go beyond are not God’s people (2 In. 9-11).
I wonder how they could oppose David Koresh who claims that he is doing all these things because God told him to. Whatever argument they would use to prove that he is wrong, could be turned with equal force against them. Those who claim to receive direct message from God not only contradict each other repeatedly, but also contradict the Bible at nearly every turn. They say that they know they have the truth, speak in tongues and perform miracles. But, the gibberish they speak is the same gibberish spoken by all the others who they would claim were not genuinely inspired of God. It is the same gibberish spoken by pagans in their rituals. It is not the same thing spoken by the apostles and prophets of the New Testament.
Their miracles are the same bogus tricks that those in competition with them claim as proof that God is with them. They are also the cheap magician’s tricks which have been used by all the false prophets of heathen religions throughout the ages. How could someone like Oral Roberts say anything against this man whose claims are not any more outlandish than his?
8. The importance of religious criticism. How do far-out cults get started? Why do so many get caught up in them? What can be done to prevent them from springing up? Some will want the government to step in and regulate religion, determining which are true and which are false. Do we really want such an abridgement of our freedom of religion? If they take away the freedom of some group we don’t like, what is to prevent them from eventually taking way our freedom as well?
As it is now, the government cannot intervene unless a punishable crime has been committed. Do we have no recourse but waiting for the government to step in when finally laws are broken? Yes, I believe the religious community plays a significant role in cultivating or curbing such activity. Who or what is to blame for the existence of such groups? I suggest that the denominations of America have created the climate that has made the conditions favorable for such things. It is an environment which stifles open investigation, criticism and debates over the religious teaching and activities of each other. They are so intent on being loving and having unity, that are unwilling to challenge any but the most bizarre cult. Almost anything that wears the name “religion,” must be left alone. No careful scrutiny from the Bible is allowed.
The people of a community will reject false teachers only after they hear rational criticism of them and see the proof of their error. The only way to prevent people from following far-out cults is public exposure.
Yet, most religious groups today stand opposed to religious criticism. They label such criticism as sinful. They say that it is not Christ-like to oppose other religions and their teachings. (Those who say such things have not given very careful attention to the life of Jesus. Read Matthew 23 as an example of a Christ-like attitude toward false teachers.)
On one occasion, the apostle Paul opposed the apostle Peter to his face because he stood condemned (Gal. 2:11-21). He rebuked the Galatians for their error and then asked, “Have I therefore become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal. 4:10)
The great silence which results when those who know the truth will not oppose error allows men, such as David Koresh and Jim Jones, to obtain influence and followers among those who are searching for spiritual satisfaction.
Religious criticism could expose the errors of such a man before tragedy finally causes attention to be drawn to him. You cannot tell by looking at the outward appearance of a man whether he is a true teacher or a false teacher.
False prophets are ravenous wolves who come disguised a sheep (Matt. 7:15). How do we know a true sheep from a wolf in disguise? Compare what he teaches with what the Bible teaches.
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
Of course, all religious criticism should be characterized by the correct motivation and the right attitude. We must speak the truth, but we must also speak it in love (Eph. 4:17). We cannot leave off either truth or love.
And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Tim. 2:24-26).
Why do we wait until error has reached its tragic consequences before we speak up and evaluate it? Why not salvage many potential victims beforehand by exposing error and grounding them in truth? We are not against people. We are for them. We are against error and are for getting as many as possible out of error and into the light of God’s glorious word.
Religious criticism and debate would accomplish this purpose. Why then don’t we do it? Is it because we don’t think there is such a thing as truth? Is it because we think error is just as good as truth? Is it because we don’t want the eye of criticism to turn around and investigate us?
What do we have to hide? Which has the most to fear from the crucible of debate: truth or error? Truth always shines brighter when exposed to the light of honest investigation.
“Whosoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no light in them” (Isa. 8:20).
We must earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3). We must be set for the defense of the gospel (Phil. 1:16). We must be ready to give an answer (reasoned defense) to anyone who asks us for a reason of the hope that is within us with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15).
If truth is better than error, and right is better than wrong, and true teaching is better than false teaching, and only the truth can set us free On. 8:32), then those of us who love the precious souls of the men and women for whom Jesus died, ought to stand up and debate our cause. ` “Come now, and let us reason together,’ saith the Lord” (Isa. 1:18).
If we have the truth, others need it and we ought to be doubling our efforts to get the truth into their hands whatever the cost and sacrifice. If we are in error, we need the truth. If that be the case, God hasten the day when some-one who loves our soul will come and share that pearl of great price with us (Matt. 13:44-46). There’s not much hope that those who need it will receive it, unless we each have a willingness to have what we believe and practice examined under the white heat of God’s refining fire (his word). It will burn away the chaff, and leave us with solid nuggets of truth. Truth rejoices at the opportunity to be contrasted with error.
It matters not if the whole world unites to oppose what the word of God teaches. The world will pass away, but God’s word won’t. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). “For, all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord abides forever. This is the word which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:24-25).
“But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
If we refuse to stand up and expose error when and where we see it, we are contributing to the success of men like Jim Jones and David Koresh. (This article is available as a tract from the author.)
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 8, p. 21-26
April 15, 1993