Perhaps you’ve noticed that the word “cult” seems to have been derived from the word “culture.” A cult, in a sense, is a little culture, and a culture, in a sense, is a large cult.
Webster’s defines a cult as, “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Of course, what is “small,” “religious,” “strange,” and “sinister” is quite subjective. Even atheists, for example, who possess an extraordinary faith that God does not exist, can be considered religious. And I have neighbors who think I’m strange, but I think the same about them!
Regardless of the accuracy of any labels, we’re all members of cultures and sub-cultures. We’re social beings, and we crave affirmation and love. Gaining those two things requires some conformity, and so we join groups, formally and informally. Let’s face it, we’re all “cult” members, in a sense, on some level. And therein lies an inherent danger, one that I want to explore in this article.
A Cult Hidden in Plain Sight
Let me begin by telling you about a cult that most Americans would not label a cult. It is one that is “hidden in plain sight”—definitely small, religious, strange and sinister. You may be a little shocked to learn the truth about its members. (But you may be even more shocked to discover how much many of us resemble them.)
There are about 320,000 Amish people living in the U.S., most all of whom are descended from just 200 families who immigrated in the 1700s. Thus, they are a relatively small group by comparison to the U.S. population.
Amish people only marry Amish people, and due to centuries of inbreeding, they suffer much higher incidences of certain genetic disorders. In the Amish community where my youngest daughter and her family live (they are not Amish), there are 520 Amish households—but only 20 family names. Once you become familiar with that particular Amish community (as I have over the past few years) it is alarming to learn how plagued it is by genetic disorders. It seems as if every third or fourth household is inhabited by children or adults who have something physically or mentally wrong with them. This phenomenon is just one symptom, among others, of sinister forces at work.
The North American Amish population doubles about every 20 years, but it isn’t growing because non-Amish people are converting. Rather, it is because the Amish don’t practice birth control, so families are large. Under enormous social pressure, 85% of Amish children make a teenage vow to remain Amish for life, promising to adhere to a code of behavior unique to their settlement. It is no exaggeration to say that the only reason anyone is Amish is because they were born into an Amish family. If the Amish ever stopped having children, within a century there would be no Amish people.
Observers often scratch their heads at Amish practices, particularly the shunning of modern conveniences thought to be “worldly,” such as cars, connections to the electrical grid, and cell phones. More knowledgeable observers do even more scratching of their heads once they discover all the inconsistencies in Amish rulebooks. For example, although the Amish don’t own or drive cars, many ride to work every day, or to Walmart every week, in cars driven by others. In fact, they regularly pay for what amounts to a rural taxi service. And although the Amish don’t own cell phones or allow landline phones in their homes, many frequently, even daily, utilize pay phones or the phones of their non-Amish neighbors.
The unwritten Amish code of conduct, referred to among themselves as the Ordnung (meaning “order”) varies from settlement to settlement, but it regulates thousands of Amish practices, as miniscule as the width of hat brims, the color of barns, the size of household mirrors, and acceptable children’s toys.
Here are just a few of their common rules: Unmarried men are to be clean-shaven, whereas married men should never shave or trim their beards—yet mustaches are forbidden. Woman are not permitted to shave or trim any hair on their bodies or heads. Suspenders, rather than belts, must hold up men’s trousers. All jewelry, including wedding bands and wrist watches, is forbidden. Motorized tractors may be used to power mechanized agricultural equipment, but never for fieldwork, which is reserved for horses. Wheels are permitted but not rubber tires. Airplane travel is forbidden. Children attend school only through the eighth grade. After that, they are expected to work on the farm or in the home.
Any nonconformity to the Ordnung results in confrontation by one’s local bishop. Unrepentance eventually results in excommunication and shunning by vote of the community, in hopes of motivating the nonconformer to repent. Shunning does not end all social interaction with other Amish people, but no other Amish person will eat at the same table or do business with anyone “under the ban.” If you are married to a spouse who is being shunned, you must deny him/her sex. (This could explain why Amish men “under the ban” seem to repent faster than Amish women!)
If one leaves the Amish, not only will he be shunned for life by all his Amish family members and friends, but he has no chance of getting into heaven. Hell is guaranteed. That, I hope you agree, is very sinister.
The Amish Non-Gospel
Amish roots stem from the 16th-century Radical Reformation in Europe—a genuine revival of biblical devotion and spirituality—but today’s Amish have drifted a long way from their beginnings. All that remains is some of the original moral conviction, a semi-communal style of life, and a limited understanding of Scripture. Unlike their 16th-century forefathers, they are not compassionately proclaiming the gospel to the lost. In fact, they are not proclaiming the gospel at all, and it’s because they have no gospel to proclaim. They have no expectation nor desire for outsiders—referred to universally as the “English”—to join them. No outsider is welcome to even visit their bi-weekly church services.
The Amish, in general, do not believe in being born again. In fact, when any of their number are born again and start acting like a born-again believer, they are excommunicated. Only proud people, they say, would ever dare claim to possess assurance of salvation. Personal Bible study is generally discouraged, because it has been observed by the Amish that those who do study the Bible are more apt to leave the ranks. That, I hope you also agree, is sinister.
If you try to share the gospel with the Amish, as many of us have, you will generally be quickly shut down. And those who shut you down will warn fellow Amish about you.
Tragically, Amish communities are not unfamiliar with sexual immorality of the worse sort. Here is an excerpt from a recent research article:
Over the past year, I’ve interviewed nearly three dozen Amish people, in addition to law enforcement, judges, attorneys, outreach workers, and scholars. I’ve learned that sexual abuse in their communities is an open secret spanning generations. Victims told me stories of inappropriate touching, groping, fondling, exposure to genitals, digital penetration, coerced oral sex, anal sex, and rape, all at the hands of their own family members, neighbors, and church leaders (for the entire article, see https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/amish-keep-themselves-hiding-horrifying-130000888.html).
Such sexual abuse is, of course, limited to a minority within the Amish community. Nevertheless, it exists. I have personally spoken with an Amish woman numerous times whose late husband spent time in prison for sexually abusing their daughters. (Thankfully, he found Jesus in prison before he died.)
At one time, I perceived the Amish as people who are living out a simple and authentic expression of their Christian faith. But the more I’ve interacted with them, the more I’ve realized that they are steeped in man-made rules and traditions, enshrouded in spiritual darkness and religious pride, corporately insulated against the gospel, and trapped inside a fear-based, uniform-wearing cult from which it is nearly impossible to escape. One can only imagine what would happen among the Amish if no Amish person had to fear shunning and excommunication. It is fear—of losing one’s family, friends, livelihood, and chance at gaining heaven—that keeps the Amish Amish. How true is the biblical proverb: “The fear of man brings a snare” (Prov. 29:25).
We Non-Amish Amish
As I have contemplated the tragic state of those trapped within the Amish cult, it has occurred to me that many outside the Amish are similarly snared by the fear of man, including Christians. Including me. In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, we’re all just like the Amish. And it all stems from our desire to be loved and accepted. Allow me to elaborate.
When you look at all the subcultures within the larger culture, you notice that people gravitate towards affinity groups where they can find affirmation on some level. Because we all desire to be loved and accepted, we naturally gravitate towards those who will love and accept us. So we either find and join affirming groups where we fit in nicely, or we compromise and conform in order to fit in.
This explains, for example, fashion, and why it’s ever-changing. No one wants to dress “like they did back in the 90s.” Similarly, it explains why some teens start wearing all black clothing, white and black makeup, and listen only to goth music. Conforming to the subculture gains love and acceptance. Even “non-conformists” end up conforming to a non-conformist group.
All subcultures, including large ones like political parties and small ones like the “regulars” at the local bar, subtly broadcast the same message, “We’ll accept you if you think and act like us.” So we comply, at least to some degree, to be accepted. When it comes to political parties, they all have their geographical and institutional strongholds, an indication that the desire for acceptance, and not simply ideology, plays a part in determining one’s political affiliation.
This same phenomenon becomes evident when an “outsider” brings a different viewpoint to any affinity group. The outsider will generally discover greater resistance to his differing view if he suggests it to the group rather than to any individual group member when he is alone. Among fellow group members, the individual risks losing his affirmation for suggesting views contrary to the group’s accepted dogma, whereas alone, he is much safer. (This is why it is generally best to share the gospel with individuals rather than groups.)
This phenomenon explains why “prayer counselors” at Billy Graham Crusades were pre-instructed to stand and come forward as soon as the altar call was given. Seeing hundreds of people stream towards the podium made it much easier for unbelievers to “walk the aisle,” because they felt like they were joining a crowd, which is always easier than going alone.
This also explains why politicians are always quick to start sentences with the words, “The American people realize…,” even when they know many or most American people hold a different viewpoint. They know we want to be accepted, so they send the muted message, “You don’t want to be in the minority, otherwise you won’t be accepted.”
And it’s why Facebook is so popular. We all like “Likes.” Facebook counts them for us.
One final example: Have you ever attended a performance that ended with a standing ovation? Very few such ovations are universally spontaneous. They often begin with one or two audience members, who are likely related to some of the performers, standing to their feet. Then a few more folks nearby also stand to applaud. There is a definite “proximity effect.” Eventually a critical mass is reached where everyone who is still seated feels immense pressure to join the standing ovation. Although it may take 15 seconds for all of the first half of the audience to stand to applaud, the second half of the crowd stands practically in unison. Anyone who “sits out” at that point stands out, and he knows he risks being perceived as “unappreciative” or “hyper-critical.” Consequently, everyone stands, albeit reluctantly. The truth is, most folks who participate in standing ovations are still inwardly sitting!
The Desire to be Loved: Right or Wrong?
Although everything I have written so far may well be true, please know that I am not implying that it is wrong to desire to be loved and accepted by others. That desire is natural and I assume God-given. That desire could even be considered virtuous when we desire the love and acceptance of righteous, godly people, and thus conform to righteousness and godliness.
On the other hand, the desire to be loved and accepted by people is neither good nor virtuous when it overrides the desire to be loved and accepted by God. Case in point:
Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God (John 12:42-43, emphasis added).
The message in this passage is clear: the approval of God should be more important to us than the approval of people. Those rulers of whom John wrote who believed in Jesus should have publicly confessed their faith in Him even if they were put out of the synagogue. But they did not, because the approval of people was more important to them than the approval of God.
This is no trivial matter. Jesus warned:
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven (Matt. 10:32).
If faced with the choice between gaining the approval of man or God, we should seek the latter. And if we do, it guarantees the loss of the former. You can’t have one without the other, which is why the Bible promises, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12), and why Jesus warned, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). If everyone likes you, that is a sure sign you aren’t seeking God’s approval.
The Cults of Christendom
The exception to this rule is…(drum roll, please)…the local church. At least, the church is supposed to be the exception to this rule. All believers are supposed to love one another, as they comprise the singular body of Christ, the one Lord in whom they all believe. Yet the many subcultures of the church world, just like the Amish subculture, have often added manmade standards for acceptance, many of which are doctrinal in nature. Conformity is mandatory. You not only have to believe in the Lord Jesus, but you must also agree with a distinctive doctrinal statement, and the result is that modern Christian culture is full of little cults. Some are so exclusive that every professing Christian outside their four walls is labeled a “heretic.” (For example, I have an old Calvinist friend who recently wrote to me, alarmed because his pastor started preaching that, if you don’t embrace Calvinism, you are damned.)
Although I personally believe that I believe in Jesus, and I believe there is some corroborating evidence in my life for my faith, I am currently being shunned by quite a few individuals and groups who also profess to be followers of Christ. They will not speak with me or have anything to do with me. Some shun me because of some offense I’ve allegedly or actually committed against them, and some shun me because of some doctrinal disagreement. Some are waiting for God’s judgment to fall on me, and some are sure I’m headed for hell. If I do make it to heaven, I suspect it will be difficult to avoid bumping into these people sometime during our first 100 million years. And I suspect that encounter might feel a little awkward.
Can we be honest enough to admit that the body of Christ is full of “doctrinal cults?” They are small and religious and, may I suggest, strange and sinister to God, who commanded us to love one another.
For many groups, you are persona non grata if you don’t agree with their doctrinal list. You are not welcome at their churches, Bible studies or conferences. The gates of their fortresses are guarded by proof texts. And you don’t dare question anything because, just like the Amish who are trapped inside their prisons of fear, you know you can lose all your friends in less than a week’s time by one false step outside the doctrinal box, a box into which your group imagines it has stuffed the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, everlasting, mysterious God of the universe. And all under the guise of serving the One who said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” and, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 14:15; 13:35). May God have mercy on us!
Similarly, if you leave a church to join another, you run the risk of being branded as disloyal, doctrinally unsound, or a “wandering sheep.” It has been said that the church is the only army that shoots its wounded. Perhaps we could add that the church is the only army whose Commander sometimes assigns His soldiers to new or different posts, and other soldiers label them traitors.
How is that all-too-common phenomena unlike what occurs in cults? What happened to Christ’s one body? What happened to Jesus’ prayer that we might all be one?
Here are the two BIG QUESTIONS I’m compelled to ask: First, Have you conformed to a cult in any way? And second, How much of what you believe, do, or teach is due to the desire to please people as opposed to how much is due to the desire to please God?
I’m asking you, in part, because I recently realized that I have been caving in to conformity in order to please people over God. Over the past 20 years, I’ve done my best to focus on teaching about repentance, the necessity of obedience, the true nature of saving faith, discipleship, and stewardship—none of which are obscure or trivial biblical topics. Those messages have touched people all over the world, but not in large numbers, due to their challenging nature. Over the past few years, however, in seeking wider appeal for the ministry of Heaven’s Family, I began to compromise and water down the words of Jesus. The Lord got my attention, however, with one of those Bible verses that should grip us all in the throat:
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26).
To be ashamed of Jesus’ words is to be ashamed of Him.
Jesus expects, and is worthy of, our highest allegiance—that which is above our allegiance to all people, even our closest family members:
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matt. 10:37).
So, I repented, and I now have a renewed determination to please God through my teaching regardless of whether or not it is approved by people. Thankfully, there are always some that embrace the truth, no matter how challenging.
The only “cult” I’m interested in being a member of is the “cult” of Jesus’ disciples. Those are the blessed folks:
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:10-11).
Or as Luke recorded from one of Jesus’ similar sermons:
Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets (Luke 6:22-23).
If we are following Jesus, we desire the approval of God over the approval of people.
An Emblematic Photo
The photo we used at the top of this e-teaching is certainly emblematic of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. In fact, the solitary man who is not saluting (did you spot him?) may be a pious Christian named Wegert Gustav, who prayed against Hitler. More often, however, he is identified as August Landmesser, who joined the Nazi Party in 1931 in hopes of improving his chances of employment. He was expelled in 1935, however, when he attempted to marry a Jewish woman. This photo illustrating his defiance was taken in 1936. He was later imprisoned, then drafted into penal military service and killed in action. His fiancee’ was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.
As is so well-illustrated by that photo, the pressure to conform in Nazi Germany was immense. It was the “right” thing to do. Everybody was doing it. Those who resisted were branded as traitors to the motherland and their race. They were shamed and imprisoned. Some forfeited their lives. Today, however, we consider them moral heroes, while the world remembers the Nazis as immoral monsters.
As you look at that photo, keep in mind that no conscience of any person giving the Nazi salute had actually fallen silent. Rather, that universal inward voice was simply suppressed by people who desired the approval of men over the approval of God.
No human being is unfamiliar with that suppression. True followers of Christ, however, have repented and started listening and obeying. In fact, God speaks louder to them and empowers them to obey by His Holy Spirit.
Who, in that photo, best represents you? If it is those who are saluting, remember that not too long before that photo was taken, August Landmesser would have been saluting with them. But then he fell in love with a Jew.
 To learn the inspiring story of one such Austrian Catholic who followed his conscience, see the 2019 movie, A Hidden Life.