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Dave Gets Stuck into the Cults


I have recently criticised groups like The Family, Twelve Tribes, and others on the basis of some of the traditional criteria for recognising "cults". As much as I would like to support others like ourselves who may be under fire unfairly, there definitely do seem to be some valid complaints about some of these groups. But it's not quite that simple, and I would like to discuss the whole issue of cults a bit further, applying various criteria to ourselves, traditional cults, and then mainstream churches, with Quakers thrown in as well.
Partly because one of the professed problems with "cults" is that they see what is wrong in everyone else except themselves (and because we know firsthand how unfair the criticisms have been of ourselves), I have tried to assume other groups accused of being cults are being criticised unfairly too. I still think that hate groups like the Rick Ross forum make little or no effort to be fair in their criticisms of new religious movements, but the truth is that there are some things that ARE wrong with many of these groups, and those problems need to be addressed.

Of course, much of what I see in these other groups is also there within the more respected organisations, and so that in itself makes a lot of the harsh criticisms unfair, and the traditional criteria for recognising a cult fairly useless.

Finance Issues

For starters, it is customary to accuse "cults" of trying to rip people off, in order to make money for the leaders. It always bothers me when they say that about us, because Cherry and I have tried very hard NOT to abuse our role as leaders, and to live as closely as possible to the same lifestyle that other members of our community enjoy (e.g. bin raiding, buying used clothes, living in the simplest accommodation, even going on survival outreaches). But that does not seem to be the case with most of the other groups, whether they are called cults or not. Leaders seem not to have any shame about living at a level that is often incredibly higher than that of those whom they lead.

Within our community, when people forsake all (which is rarely over $1,000), it goes to the team that they are working with (unless it is given straight to some outside charity). Cherry and I have never personally received any of the money that people have forsaken when joining. Malcolm (who, btw, forsook almost nothing when he joined about 30 years ago) repeatedly states on the Internet as fact that we are selling kidneys and that the money is going into some secret account for Cherry and me. If he were not hiding out in Korea, we would almost certainly be suing him for slander. He is totally false with both accusations, but his shred of "evidence" is that when he was in the community, in the early days, our extremely limited funds went into a bank account that was in Cherry's and my name. Of course, he always fails to mention that every cent in that account was accounted for to the entire community and that we voted on all expenditures apart from things like food and rent. The accounts are no longer in our names, and have not been for many years. However, even today, Cherry and I have to account for what we do with our "own" pension cheques.

But it appears that very little accountability is present in a lot of small new groups, and so such criticisms are almost always going to be proven true, at least to some degree. More respectable groups often have some kind of accountability, but that accountability still allows for things like bigger salaries and more luxurious accommodation for the leaders than what many of the members have. Look at the leader of the Catholic Church if you want to see an extreme example of abuse of that nature! It almost seems like the more mainstream the organisation, the more opulent the lifestyle of its leader.

A similar money problem arises with regard to us distributing literature on the streets and asking for donations. It does often happen that members of our community start to look on literature distribution as a source of income, and we do take into account rough estimates of how much we are likely to get in donations when making plans as a community. Nevertheless, we repeatedly go through exercises in an attempt to purge assumptions about donations out of our lifestyle. There are survival outreaches, where members do NOT use literature and do not ask for donations. And there are "freebie blitzes" where we just give away literature for free. They almost always end in people feeling quite angry at how much literature goes straight into rubbish bins as a result, thus making us MORE determined to ask for the smallest possible donation as proof that the person we are giving a book to is really interested in reading it. We average a little over $1 each for the books we give out, with most of that going toward the cost of printing them, and NONE of it going to me. People are not donating to a "charity" but to our printers! And we never present ourselves as a charity.

Now let's contrast that with what we see, both in the traditional cults and in mainstream churches.

Something I noted very early in the piece with the Children of God, was that they definitely saw literature distribution as a money-raising exercise. And when one title did not "sell" well, they would try something else, until eventually they found that balloons and coloured posters with drawings of sexy girls on them sold best of all, and that is what they went for. Also, they had no problem with going out and getting system jobs if more money could be raised in that way. It was all very disappointing. But hey, you only need to walk into any religious book shop to see how it works within the more respectable churches. The prices they charge (something like $20 for a paperback) are phenomenal. So, yes, we agree that organisations set up for the purpose of channelling funds to the leadership deserve the criticism that they receive for doing that, whether it be traditional "cults" or the more respectable churches.

Authoritarian Leaders

Then there is the matter of leaders being obeyed without question. We have always taught that in a crisis situation, it may be necessary for leaders to give orders (I seem to recall a riot situation in India many years ago, when people were ordered to get into auto rickshaws and flee and there was unnecessary delay because some members wanted to discuss the pros and cons!) However, I have also taught that this "right" of a leader to issue an order must be saved for emergencies and not abused.

The rank and file in any organisation will usually forfeit their voice on many matters to the leaders just because it is more convenient than having to go through all of the issues on every little decision. But that, too, is something that leaders need to be careful about keeping to a minimum. A good leader will usually put pressure on followers to take a more active part in decision-making. We have tried to do that in the Jesus Christians, and even when we experimented many years ago with "leaders meetings" (because the rank and file were sick of long meetings) we soon ended them and returned to requiring members to attend business meetings. In our own community there has always been a grievance system which can be used against myself or any other leader, and it has been used (only a couple of times, thankfully!) to the point where I was kicked out. We Jesus Christians often have long drawn-out business meetings, in an effort to allow everyone to have their say on important decisions. All of this, in my opinion, indicates a lack of abuse amongst ourselves.

But it appears that this does not happen in almost all other organisations. We found the Quakers to be the best at listening to everyone, and yet reality is that they never take a vote on anything. The presiding clerk is free to act arbitrarily in determining "the spirit of the meeting". Generally that is not abused, but we saw it ruthlessly abused on a number of occasions. I think (or hope) that those occasions were exceptional. However, in many other groups it seems that dictatorial control has become the rule. Years ago, we had a discussion with Yonek, from the Twelve Tribes, when he was in Australia, and he had no shame at all about telling us, "You will have to abandon your Jesus if you want to work with me." I don't think he is calling himself Jesus, but in essence he had taken on the role of acting as everyone's authority on what Jesus does or does not want them to do.

The Catholic Church, as the biggest church in the world, has a leader who actually claims infallibility at times, as the "vicar of Christ". Imagine what would be said of any leader in a new religious movement if they made such a claim. And even on those other occasions when the Pope is not claiming infallibility, decisions are not voted on by the rank and file. Many mainstream churches have systems where leaders are elected by the congregation, but still the major decisions are taken by the leaders without specific reference to the masses after the election is finished.

The Second Coming

Then there is the subject of the return of Jesus. It is easier for most of the churches to identify this as a trademark of a cult, because virtually all of the mainstream churches have virtually thrown out mention of Jesus coming back. However, most of them still have it buried away somewhere in their archives. I don't know of any who have officially rejected it. It's just that the moment anyone brings it up, the same old claims will be made about them sounding "cultish".

Now consider this: The only understanding that the Unprogrammed Quakers in Australia appear to have with regard to the return of Jesus and the establishment of his kingdom here on earth is that THEY are that kingdom. It was what George Fox (probably quite sincerely) thought in the early days, and that was the only response I received when I asked a weighty Quaker in Australia what their position was on Bible prophecies about the Second Coming. But, once again, the Quakers are relatively harmless by comparison to others and this is not a doctrine which is openly taught anyway. It's just that all of these more respectable organisations have NOT thrown out a theoretical faith in the Second Coming even though they want to say that any group that TEACHES Bible prophecy is a dangerous cult.

Of course we do study Bible prophecy, and we get quite excited about it. But something we have never done is to set a date for anything. I think that we have also been quite open to the possibility that there are MANY valid interpretations and applications of the prophecies. That puts us on a middle ground between the mainline groups which cover up their belief in Bible prophecy and groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, The Family and Twelve Tribes who have set dates, and who take a dogmatic stance with regard to a specific interpretation of prophecy, usually aimed at making their group the "one true church".

Exclusivity & Inflated Leaders

Another point with regard to identifying cults is that they are exclusive, thinking that everyone else is wrong except themselves. I think that this one often stems from the Bible prophecy emphasis. The usual tendency amongst the more bizarre groups is to try to locate themselves in the prophecies. I have recently heard (unconfirmed) that David Koresh taught that he was the "Lamb" from the Revelation. David Berg taught that he was the "Branch" mentioned in Old Testament prophecies and he was the person referred to with regard to the "key of David" in The Revelation. Yonek is quite definite that he is the architect of the Twelve Tribes mentioned in The Revelation, and that people need to go through him to be a part of it.

Such exclusivism is not, however, limited to fringe groups. The Catholic Church has always taught that it is the one true church. Protestants divide into Calvinists and Armenians, both of whom consider the other to be heretics, teaching a false plan of salvation. And some of the most liberal churches see anything with hints of fundamentalism as being anathema. The cult-busters themselves are the worst offenders in this regard. Rick Ross, in the U.S. claims that there are 1,500 groups in America which he can classify as cults. Even those cult-busters who support Calvinist theology, which says that you just say a little prayer and you can sin all you want afterwards and still go to heaven, did not allow for the Children of God (and others who teach the Calvinist doctrine fanatically) getting into heaven. The whole cult-busting maelstrom has a way of building on people's paranoia until they are seeing demons behind every teapot. Exclusivist? Absolutely!

We as Jesus Christians, accept that it is usually hard to speak with equal enthusiasm about other groups besides our own, simply because if we honestly believed the other group were better, we would probably be in the other groups. But we also teach that sincerity is the ultimate criteria for entrance into the kingdom of heaven, and that we do not have a monopoly on that. We go so far as to say that members of non-Christian religions and even atheists may qualify for salvation if they are walking in all the light that they have. We also say that being a member of the Jesus Christians does not guarantee a person anything as far as God is concerned. It was precisely because the Quakers were the first group that we encountered which seemed to be saying this too, that we became so enthusiastic in our support of them. Yet it was our embracing of so much of Australian Quakerism that the Quakers found offensive. One Regional Meeting actually ruled that ANY Jesus Christian would be barred from attending Yearly Meeting, no matter how much they attended meetings during the year. So you have to ask yourselves, "Who was guilty of excluding?" It certainly was not us.

Back to this thought about leaders seeing themselves as having some special role in history: The best our critics have been able to come up with about myself is a spurious claim that I think I am an "apostle". In fact, there was a verbal statement from me in one specific situation, eleven years ago, where I suggested that what made Paul an apostle may have been that he led several churches which were otherwise autonomous. (I had previously thought of an apostle as a missionary, in which case, our whole membership could probably be considered apostles.) At the time we were discussing the concept of forming two "sister" communities, and I suggested that we ELECT someone to oversee the two communities, and that person would operate more or less like Paul did, moving between the two communities to be some sort of a spiritual leader to them. That's it. When there was a failed attempt to oust me as that leader, I wrote an angry letter ("Divine Authority") using that term (which has now been deleted). An official position of anyone as an "apostle" never eventuated. That's the worst that they can come up with to say that I am claiming some unique role in history. I've also been pretty clear when discussing the Two Witnesses and the army of 144,000 in the Revelation, to specify that I am not casting myself as having a part in either of those roles. In fact, I have stated quite clearly that if virginity is a requirement for the 144K, I'm out for sure.

Conclusion

I've touched on just a few of the criteria for determining whether a group is a cult or not. They include abuse of finances (with leaders living a lifestyle that is better than that of the followers), believing that your group is the one true church, straying from democratic decision-making, delusions of grandeur about the role of the leader(s), and interpretations of Bible prophecy which tend to bolster these other emphases. There is no group that is perfect, and so we will need to be constantly on guard against these sort of excesses in our own ranks. But for the moment, I think that our community is quite healthy spiritually. Praise God for that.

Note: I am no longer the official leader of the Jesus Christians anyway. That role is now being filled by Joe and Alf, with further elections scheduled. However, I still do exercise a lot of influence as an advisor to both of them.
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