I know a thing or two about spiritual abuse. I know that feeling of betrayal when the thing that’s supposed to protect you tears you to pieces. I’ve seen predators disguise themselves as faithful servants of the people of God, using subtle indoctrination and mind control techniques to weave a prison so tight around their victims that even their closest friends and family couldn’t get through to them.
For those of you who don’t know, in my last year of college one of my best friends started a Charismatic prayer group. Dozens of people joined it and in the years after our graduation we moved to Kansas City. Members of the Group were punished, isolated, and expelled for questioning the leader’s authority, and ultimately the oppression became so great that it claimed a life.
So in my experience, these are five clear warning signs that a group or movement or religious community has departed from traditional Christian orthodoxy and become a danger to its members and others.
1) Denies the reality of the natural order. Things only happen because God wills them.
In our Group, and in every other dangerous group I’ve been a part of, we were taught that everything that happens, happens as a result of God’s direct intervention. For example, Timothy* said that “gravity” didn’t really exist, but was just a name scientists give to a mysterious force that they can’t explain, which is God holding the universe together. He said a faithful, mature Christian would never die randomly, in an accident, if they were following the Lord’s will for their life. Natural disasters and the deaths of other students on our campus were viewed as God’s wrath being poured out.
Ironically, this perspective has a lot more in common with fundamentalist Islam than with historic Christianity. Islam began to go dangerously wrong in the eleventh century because of the teachings of a scholar named Al-Ash’ari who taught that when an arrow flies towards its target, it only hits the target because God wills it. In fact, the universe only exists from moment to moment because God wills it to exist in each moment. When you dye your hair red, the reason your hair becomes red is because He determines that your hair becomes red, rather than blue.
God is all-controlling. There is no cause and effect, only will.
But Jesus taught us the opposite. When His disciples saw a blind man and asked what sin his parents had committed that he had been born blind, Jesus said there was no sin involved (John 9:3). When a tower fell, killing a number of Jews, He rebuked them for thinking that the people who died had died because of their sins (Luke 13:1-4).
In saying this, Jesus laid the foundation for the Church’s theology of a natural process of cause and effect. It’s because of this belief in the natural order that science eventually developed in the West.
To recognize that God has created a universe that can essentially run itself brings civilization, stability, industry, technology, reason.
To believe that you’re only sitting here reading this essay because of a direct act of God in the natural order is to invite conspiracy theories, magical thinking, authoritarian political rule, and “religious science.” (Since the 1980s, something called “Islamic science” has taken root in Pakistan where scholars try to calculate the temperature of hell and the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis). In the groups I’ve been in where this kind of thinking flourished, it created an enchanted atmosphere of bizarre, mystical nonsense.
2) Decisions are not made through reason but by direction revelation from heaven
This is the natural extension of the preceding assumption. Our group would meet every night and seek revelation from the Lord on the most minor decisions. Dreams, visions, and impressions, rather than logic and Church teaching, were the stars that guided us. Our leader would “discern” that various people were committing sexual sins and destroy their reputations with baseless allegations.
There was no need for me to work hard and read books and become a better writer, because God would give me inspiration directly from heaven. Human imagination was worthless, vain, and misleading.
There was no need to read the footnotes in my study Bible, because that was “man’s wisdom.”
Juries are against the original plan of God, because if we just gathered and prayed for revelation about the crime that had been committed, He would reveal to us the name of the culprit.
What could go wrong?
This idea of a direct line to God is called “Gnosis,” and again, it’s remarkably similar to the fundamentalist Islamic teaching that everything worth knowing has already been revealed from on high, and if God has chosen not to reveal it, then it’s not worth exploring. If He says it, that settles it.
What this ultimately means is that God is not good according to our definition of good; He’s beyond good and evil. (A pastor I know, echoing centuries of Muslim scholars, once made the claim that things are only good or bad because God wills them to be good or bad). Human understanding of good and evil can’t be trusted. Human reasoning itself is inherently corrupt. Human thinking and emotion need to submit to the will of a superior being.
This is the logic of tyranny.
3) Unbelievers are less than human and the faithful must resist them at all costs.
At the funeral of my dear friend Rebecca* last November, just two days before the Group was disbanded, one of her housemates stood up and gave a remarkable speech. She said, “When I found out that Rebecca was dead, at first I was really sad. But then God said to me, ‘April*, she was like you.’
“And I said, ‘What do you mean?’”
“And He said, ‘Rebecca was like you. Y’all were the same.’
“And I thought about all these people I had known in high school and college who were willing to run with me up to a certain point. But eventually they didn’t want to run after God anymore. And Rebecca was the first person in my life who was actually radical, like I am.”
This is perhaps the core difference between Christianity as embodied by Jesus and its diabolical inversions. Jesus welcomed other people. He taught us to love and bless our enemies, to be good to them and repay them, expecting nothing in return. He said we’re to do this because this is what God is like (Lk. 6:35).
Demonic religion says it’s wrong even to listen to those people, wrong to be friends with them, wrong to know anything about them. They’re not made in the image of God, like we are. They don’t know the truth like we do. They’re not really Christians. They’re barely even human.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard these things spoken again and again by people who thought it was God’s will to be contemptuous and hateful of others (and to kill them if necessary).
But of course whenever I’ve pointed out that Islamism makes some of the exact same statements—to the point of suggesting that unbelievers are not “really” human—they’ll tell me, “I’m just showing you what the Bible plainly teaches.”
I think some of my more radical friends would be happier in Islam, where they would be free to read the Bible koranically without the awful intrusion of Christian teaching.
4) Violence is seen as a legitimate means of establishing God’s kingdom
Perhaps the ultimate test of religious pathology is this: “Would you be willing to kill another person if you thought God was asking you to?”
If this is the litmus, then our group would have failed it. If everything that happens is willed by God; if our knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil, is determined not by reason, but by divine revelation; and if whoever is not with us is less than human, less than the lowest worm, it naturally follows that anyone who transgresses God’s laws, which is to say anyone who crosses us, can be dispatched without mercy.
In fundamentalism, writes Charles Strozier, “nonbelievers are rejected by God and thus in some inexplicable way are only tentatively human. As such, nonbelievers are dispensable. If they intrude in the believers’ world, the psychological conditions exist for believers to accommodate violence toward nonbelievers.”
You begin to see how each succeeding doctrine builds on the ones that came before, creating a totalistic worldview with its roots in hell.
And the horrifying thing about it, the thing that depresses and infuriates me until I’m shaking with rage and frustration, is that we believed this was Christian, that in promoting and living out these ideas we were being like Jesus.
“Hitler claimed killing the Jews was the right thing to do, and how can I know it wasn’t?”
“God is so high above us, His ways are so holy, what seems evil to us could be good to Him.”
“Boze, God isn’t just some sappy, nice guy. He’s SCARY. You need to FEAR Him!”
5) Heaven on earth is promised to a faithful remnant following a time of bloody revolution
When demonic ideology is fully grown, this is what it leads to: millenarianism.
Millenarianism is the teaching that a select group of people is going to live in a paradise after a time of global catastrophe in which they cleanse the earth of all non-members.
This teaching was the basis of Nazism, Communism, and the Peoples Temple. It was the basis of our group.
And because this way of thinking has gained traction in some Evangelical circles, a lot of sincere Christians are under the conviction that this is what the Bible teaches.
But it’s not. Millenarianism has always been recognized as a heresy in mainstream, orthodox Christianity. It’s the foundational doctrine of cults and secret societies throughout history. The Catholic Church considers it so dangerous that the Catechism declares it “the Antichrist’s deception.” The Antichrist’s deception is the lie that we can consummate history through the spiritual transcendence of redemptive violence.
And I’ve had this fight over and over again because I keep running into Christians who claim to be appalled by everything Timothy taught and did, but they don’t understand what it was that made him such a dangerous person.
Just this week I was personally rebuked by a counselor for trying to renounce the idea that I’m called to be a chosen prophet calling down the end times. She told me to repent for thinking he was wrong about this!
I get the feeling that some people think the only thing wrong with Timothy is that he was gay.
But that’s not true. The problem with Timothy wasn’t his homosexuality. It’s that he believed this. He thought he was an end-times warrior getting ready to cleanse the world of all evil. He and his followers thought we were creating heaven on earth.
But what we really created, in the end, was much closer to hell.
And that’s where millenarianism leads you. It always ends in bloodshed, always. It’s so seductive because it seems so Christian and because it tantalizes us with the lure of being part of some secret, elite mission with world-historical implications. You can get high off of thinking that you’re living in the center of a cosmic drama that will rid the world of all evil. It’s a narcotic as powerful as any drug.
But the truth is that you don’t have to be “radical” or “special” or “on fire”. God still loves you. We don’t find Him primarily in dreams and visions (though I believe that those can be useful), but in the stuff of our everyday life.
You don’t have to save the world, because He’s already saved it through the Incarnation. You don’t have to escape your humanity because God, Himself, became human. He saves us in our humanity, not by taking us out of it.
Don’t run yourself ragged trying to call down God. He is already here.
He’s among us. He’s for us. He’s with us.
Emmanuel. God with us.
Now that’s a radical concept.
 “Even the injunction from the Hadith to love one’s neighbor in Islam traditionally means to love one’s fellow Muslim, not someone of another religion. Indeed, one is enjoined by the Qur’an not to make friends with them (17:87). Also, the Muslim obligation for charitable giving, zakat, is only for other Muslims, and must not be used for non-Muslims.” Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind.