When a cult leader is not a cult leader (2)

The complex web of people I examined in my last post seems to show that the leaders of extreme Charismatic and Pentecostal movements share a similar profile as well as a personal network- indeed, a profile that also matches the ancient historical originators of heterodox cults like the Montanists or the Valentinians. This may be summarised by saying they are con-men who appear to have become so detached from truth that they partially believe their own hype – deceiving and deceived, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:13.

That may go a long way towards explaining how they deceive “even the elect,” the genuine believers who are painfully slow in recognising heinous evil, and unable to believe, even when they do see it, that the whole superstructure of belief they have accepted from these guys is a tissue of lies. And hence Charismatic leaders, who have finally twigged that, say, Paul Cain was a false prophet who even kept blackmail files on his colleagues to prevent exposure, will still describe him as highly gifted, but with flaws. Perhaps this lack of the gift of discernment says something about the authenticity of the other “sign gifts.”

Perhaps the tidiest way to go about comparing these Super-apostles and prophets with Jesus, as I undertook to do last time, is to list some of the characteristics I see in them, and assess how Jesus matches up – or not. In order to make this a legitimate exercise, I need to construct a null hypothesis that Jesus was a cult leader like all others. This entails questioning the reliability of the records of signs and wonders in the New Testament, and particularly the gospels, not because (as critical scholarship has historically claimed) they consist of legends gradually developed over time by believers, but because they were written by close associates of the leader originating the lies, deeply manipulated by Jesus (as someone like Costi Hinn describes of his own deception by his uncle Benny), and even complicit in the deception in a complex way.

To give a graphic example of the last point, William Branham once claimed, on stage, that an important new revelation had come through a prophetic dream by one of his right-hand men. This was a shock to the disciple, who had had no such dream. But there was no way he could, or wanted to, contradict the master, and he continued to endorse the claim until long after the death of Branham. Perhaps at the time he even believed the oft-repeated lie himself, on the authority of a demi-god, rather than his own self-knowledge. He eventually broke free and admitted the truth – but how many cultists are so conditioned that they maintain obvious falsehoods told them by their leader even until their own deaths?

In the case of Jesus, perhaps our biggest single antidote to such a possibility, given to us through the wisdom of God, is the prominence of the writings of the apostle Paul. In recent years, the uncontested epistles of Paul, known to date within twenty or thirty years of Jesus’s death, have provided the most effective apologetic for the truth of the Resurrection against claims that it was legendary. Paul, a sworn enemy of “the Way,” was converted by a direct encounter with Christ, with no involvement at all in the cult. Probably within three years of the Passion, he was in Jerusalem comparing notes with the apostles, and both parties agreed on Jesus’ deity, death and resurrection, which became central to Paul’s own teaching in the epistles.

And so in Paul, we have an independent witness, not in any way liable to have been subjected to mind control by a fraudulent cult-leader, who is in a position to check out the public claims of the apostles first hand. If Jesus had led a secretive cult of personality, Paul’s endorsement is about as plausible as Justin Peters meeting up with Charismatic leaders and being convinced that the late Paul Cain was, indeed, a true prophet of God.

I will now proceed with a (certainly incomplete) list of typical cult-leader attributes, and compare what we can say about Jesus.

(1) Dubious identity and mythmaking. A surprising number of the early Pentecostal cult leaders made up their life stories in an iconographic way – often after fleeing from prosecution for misdemeanours in distant states. William Branham invented several conflicting auto-hagigraphies, and changed his name either to escape his past or to construct a mystical meaning for the new name. It’s notable that he only began to preach the most fanciful versions of his birth after his mother died and could not contradict him, and it’s also notable that his wider family regard him as an infamous relative, rather than as a messenger from God.

On the face of it, we might say that the accounts of Jesus’s birth are also suspiciously miraculous, and that his first thirty years are shrouded in mystery. But in fact, when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth to preach, he was disdained as a familiar figure from a well-known family, not as a long-absent stranger. And, remarkably, it appears that his own family members were only convinced of his authenticity after his death, Paul recording that one of his resurrection appearances was to James, by then the leader of the Jerusalem church. We may infer that the accounts of his birth and childhood originated from late-converted family witnesses, rather than being spun by Jesus to increase his bona fides.

(2) Authoritarian control is the hallmark of cult leaders, whether exercised crudely by aggression or more subtly by mind-control techniques. This characteristic is usually associated with poor treatment of subordinates (who tithe and work for free whilst the leader pockets the love-gifts), and by secret abuse of many kinds. They manage this by being put on a pedestal that separates them from the masses. They live in mansions, drive fleets of cars, stay in luxury hotels and restrict the “green-room” to their family and close associates. The secret life enables every abuse from transporting suitcases full of cash by private jet, to personal “ministry sessions” with attractive young interns or worship leaders (male or female). It often seems that secrecy is maintained amongst the core members (as in Paul Cain’s case) by mutual knowledge of wrongdoing, aka blackmail.

The pattern of Jesus’s ministry was radically different. Jewish discipleship entailed attendance on the rabbi 24 hours a day, the only recorded exceptions being Jesus’s private prayer in deserted places. If Jesus had had an affair with Mary Magdalene, every apostle would have known and either been scandalised, or invented some doctrine to justify it as Muhammad does in the Quran. Finances were so restricted that Jesus had to work a miracle with a fish to pay his temple-tax, and he had no home or land of his own. Jesus quite clearly recognised his own authority over his disciples: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am,” he says. Yet that passage is about his washing his disciples’ feet, against their protests, the night before giving his life for them. He knows Judas is a betrayer and a thief, and yet gives him free rein to be so even at their last meal.

Jesus was able to tell the accusers at his trial that he had taught nothing in secret, and earlier he was able to challenge his opponents, successfully, to convict him of any sin. That is an astonishing level of transparency for any leader.

(3) Stage management and PR marks every modern cult leader, from John Dowie’s newspaper ads for healing and the “free healing” centre he set up outside the 1893 World Fair (once inside, beneficiaries were told to hand over their life-savings to Dowie), through the crowded wailing, singing and “holy laughter” in Seymour’s Azusa Street (whist he, reportedly, sat behind the stage with his head in a packing case!), to the lighting, smoke, prolonged mood music and other theatrics of today’s NAR churches. It turns out to be common practice for “prophets” to use stage-magician tricks for their “words of knowledge”: Branham used the prayer-cards people filled in at the door to claim personal revelations from Jesus, at least one of the Kansas City Prophets got his seven-year old son to prepare info from directories for prophecies, and now it is the iPad on stage that contains the personal information gleaned from social media to astonish the congregation. The “prayer line” technique enables minders to select those who are to be healed and to exclude others. And so on in a well-oiled machine.

But as Graham Kendrick once sang, Jesus “got no Cadillac, and he don’t pack a powerful P.A., or hire a meeting hall.” Jesus taught and healed wherever the crowds arrived, whether forcing him into a boat (ruining the opportunity to slay anyone in the spirit with his jacket) or spoiling his disciple-away-day on an unprepared hillside where he worked one of his most public and spectacular miracles. And unlike the Kenneth Copelands of this world, instead of wandering around shouting “Amen! Glory! Glory!” after healing someone, or even after just knocking over their wheelchair without healing them, Jesus usually told people to keep quiet about his miracle, unless there was some teaching point to be made. And it goes without saying that being publicly executed is not generally regarded as good PR for one’s movement.

(4) False prophecy, not to mention trivial prophecy. If Jesus gave personal supernatural insights, it was in private (knowing Nathaniel on first meeting, or knowing the Samaritan woman’s marital history). He saw no value in telling the crowd that he supernaturally perceived someone among them had a particular disease, and calling them out to heal them. He just healed the people who asked, infallibly. The whole company of the modern prophets failed to predict COVID even a week in advance – Jesus foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple 40 years ahead, not to mention minor things like the worldwide spread of his Church from a handful of low-status disciples. He never got it wrong. Just to remind you, the disgraced convenor of the KC Prophets, Mike Bickle, boasted of a 20% accuracy rate for their gold-standard prophecies. John Wimber claimed a best case of 40% at Anaheim Vineyard. I wouldn’t leave my umbrella at home if either forecast sunny weather.

(5) Unauthenticated miracles are notorious in modern Charismatic circles. The Internet prevents the old trick of carrying around a sheaf of testimonies to healings in other cities, but never the present one. There is still mileage, though, in stories of resurrections and gold fillings, so long as they are deep in some foreign jungle. Otherwise, the documentation of healings that outlast the placebo effect is invariably either lost, or refused on privacy grounds (a bit like government vaccine-harm data, then!).

But even Jesus’s enemies could not deny the reality, and the permanence, of Jesus’s healings, especially when he sent lepers to the temple to have their cure authenticated legally. They had to accuse him of sorcery, not fraud. After Jesus’s death, it was a “notable” and undeniable miracle done in his name that started the deadly conflict between the new Church and the Jewish authorities. Paul reminded the recipients of his letters of miracles done among them. And the naming and geographical placement of beneficiaries of healing, like Jairus and Lazarus in the gospels, and Dorcas in Acts, provided a paper-trail for any sceptical Jew to follow.

The feeding of the 5,000 in all four gospels (and of the 4,000 in some) would be a pretty difficult scam to conceal, unless the disciples invented the whole crowd. And the raising of Lazarus was not somewhere in South America, but a mere sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem, for anyone to check, and is recorded as a direct reason for the arrest of Jesus. The greatest miracle of all, Christ’s Resurrection, was (as Paul reminded King Agrippa) “not done in a corner,” but in the vicinity of hundreds of thousands of Passover pilgrims.

(6) Channeling of resources into one’s own lifestyle appears to be a major motive for Hyper-charismatic pastors, often grossly so, the tithe or “seed-sowing” being made a regular condition of healing. Love-gifts are more lucrative than a simple salary.

I’ve already spoken of the difference of these Ponzi schemes from the ministry of Jesus, but I must add the poverty of the whole Christian movement throughout its early history. Paul spends many words pleading for an offering for the impoverished mother-church in Judaea, with financial safeguarding provisions, and otherwise giving is usually commended for the poor, and to support churches’ own pastors, rather than to build mansions for apostles, or even megachurches for the masses. He is able to boast that he maintained himself by work, even though entitled to support from those he converted and discipled.

(7) Unethical or self-regarding teaching is normal for cult leaders from Muhammad (if indeed he ever existed) to today’s Super-apostles to whom God habitually speaks directly to increase their status, rather than to enlighten the flock. By the way, have you seen that YouTube video “I went to heaven, but couldn’t see Jesus for Charismatic prophets”? 🙂

Notice how even when Jesus casually speaks of coming from heaven (as in John’s gospel) it is invariably to edify the disciples in some way, and never to reveal Gnostic secrets. This leads on to…

(8) Poor use, or non-use, of Scripture, which is notorious in the cults. In the customary absence of any competent theological training, the emphasis of the Televangelists is usually on “new revelation,” despite the standard teaching amongst moderate evangelicals that modern prophecies should never contradict Scripture. But the Get Out of Jail Free card is that grave-sucking, or God speaking to you routinely in prayer, or worldwide revival with miracles, or some other “New Thing,” may not be in Scripture, but don’t contradict it. But since Scripture is only ever cited out of context, that premise is seldom tested anyway. An astonishing number of cult leaders claim to be Elijah redividus. Branham started off claiming to be Moses, before taking on the mantle of Elijah and, finally, of God incarnate. Who knows what he would have become if that car accident hadn’t wiped him out?

One of my own Charismatic patients – actually a nice and sane guy, and I believe a genuine believer – thought he was carrying the mantle of John the Baptist, for which I could see no Scriptural warrant or evidence on the ground. But “the Spirit blows where it will” once subjective experience is the criterion, at every level, and the Bible is relativised at best, and by those like Bill Johnson damned with faint praise as a false member of a Conservative Evangelical Trinity of “Father, Son and Holy Scripture.”

Jesus the Word, on the other hand, invites his opponents to check his teaching from the Scriptures he spoke through the Holy Spirit, and two millennia later, we can still see that when he says he fulfills prophecy, he does, and when he improves on the contemporary Jewish understanding of the Law, his arguments are sound. Indeed, all his words are steeped in Scripture – check out Peter Williams’s explanation of the Prodigal Son parable in The Surprising Genius of Jesus: What the Gospels Reveal about the Greatest Teacher.

(9) Self preservation often at the expense of disciples. The classic common form of this is to claim infallible power to heal, and then to excuse every failure by blaming the sick person for lack of faith, or hidden sin. Listen, people – it is more parsimonious to doubt one false healer than hundreds of false believers. Worse examples are those who, usually after exposure of crimes, abandon their organisation to debt, pastoral catastrophe, and perhaps criminal proceedings, and set up another profit-prophet-shop elsewhere. The index case is, of course, William Branham protege Jim Jones, who wasn’t going to admit defeat without sending his entire community to perdition ahead of him him, with poison.

The Cross is the entire answer to this. All Jesus’s disciples abandoned him, yet remember how, in the garden, he tells his captors to take him but let his disciples go. But I don’t need to tell you that, after Christianity has stood for the God of self-giving love for two millennia. The cults are all about the visible power of God. Only Jesus is about the power of suffering.

(10) Disillusion and apostasy are my last points. If the cult leader is exposed in some way, either before death, after death, or in the case of William Branham, simply by dying, things fall apart. For many, this is the end of their adherence to the cult, and in disillusion they either abandon religion (which is Satan’s aim more than simple deception), or by God’s grace, find the true Christ. For many the cognitive dissonance is dealt with in other ways, and so the cult continues in altered form under the successors of the founder, generally with a confusing series of splits and sub-sects. The number of Pentecostal denominations is Legion.

Once again, one might see Christianity, superficially, in the same light. The gospels themselves record the utter disillusion of the disciples after the crucifixion. Sceptics construct all kinds of stories about the disciples imagining his resurrection from wishful thinking, or the development of a belief that he was spiritually still with them slowly transmogrifying into belief in bodily resurrection. Plenty has been written on how this is both historically and psychologically implausible. But here we can simply note how, in sects like Branham’s, hopes of resurrection begin strongly, before being overtaken by the universal finality of death. If the disciples of Jesus stole the body, only an utterly cynical and unrealistic conspiracy would lead them to live and die for the lie once their Messiah began to decompose.

No – Jesus was as different from the Super-apostles of today in death as he was in life. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” With such a miraculous story recorded in the Scriptures, and with the Holy Spirit given to each and every believer to make it a living reality in the heart, one might wonder why it is that so many Evangelicals are now seeking dramatic experiences from teachers so disappointingly and demonstrably inferior to the Christ of the pure gospel.

You’ll have to ask them that, I guess.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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