Your son has stopped calling. Or your daughter.
Your sister’s mannerisms have changed. Now all she wants to talk about is her church and the wisdom of the leader. She stops showing up at family gatherings. She returns Christmas presents, unopened.
Your brother terminates a conversation. “Stop trying to deceive me,” he shouts. “You’re just another Christian hypocrite. I’ll never talk to you again!” He storms out the door.
Can you reach the unreachable? Is it even possible?
As a former Bible-cult member for twenty-five years, I understand how difficult it can be to reach a loved one in a cult. It can truly seem impossible. God, however, is not limited by the impossible.
Here are ten things to consider when interacting with a loved one in a suspected cult. Notice that the first five all have to do with understanding. I believe that sincere understanding is the most important element if we want to reach a deceived loved one. Unfortunately, it is often the first thing we jettison in our panic over their strange beliefs and actions.
Ten Ways to Reach the Unreachable:
1.) Understand what you believe. Sounds strange, but the place to start is with yourself. What do you believe about God? About Jesus? Do you have a good grasp of Scripture? If your loved one is in a Bible-based cult, he/she grounds their beliefs on twisted scripture. You had better know your own foundational beliefs before you start trying to straighten out theirs. Otherwise, they will just quote happy circles around you and walk away feeling confirmed in their assumption that they are elect and you are doomed. For a good Bible resource, check out Bible.org.
2.) Understand the need for prayer and mature spiritual support. The Holy Spirit alone can disarm spiritual strongholds and break bondages. Since cults specialize in spiritual deception, the battle is primarily spiritual. Anyone who knows someone in a cult has likely encountered their glazed-over eyes and stilted demeanor. These folks are held captive by lies, but God can release them. Initiate corporate prayer and let your church know what’s happening. You need support in this battle.
3.) Understand the sincerity of their faith. What to you sounds bizarre, to them is divinely-inspired faith. The starting place for any conversation with a loved one in a suspected cult is to understand them. You don’t have to agree, but you must understand. Understanding provides the climate in which ensuing dialogue can take place. Understand in order to be understood.
4.) Understand what they believe. Ask lots of questions. Most cult members love to talk about what they believe since it is the most important thing in their life. They also want to convert others to their way of thinking. I know that I did. So ask questions. Take notes. Ask them to provide CDs or MP3s of sermons. Sit in on a meeting, if they let you (and if you think it is safe). Your loved one likely has an opinion on everything, so ask lots of questions and build a profile of their faith. This will tell you where they have gone off the rails.
5.) Understand what others say about them. Gather information. Once you have gotten a personal sense of what your loved one believes, correlate that information with news articles, media reports, and websites about the group. The Internet can provide many resources. The group in question may already be flagged as an aberrant organization. Do your homework and it will help you converse intelligently with anyone in the group.
6.) Avoid giving them books about cults. They don’t believe they are in a cult. Rather, they think that they have found the truth from God and that all other Christians are wrong. Giving them a book about cults will only make them consider you a threat. They will think you are an unsafe person who will never accept their message and are therefore not worth staying in touch with. I remember my former pastor dismantling “The Warning Signs of Cults” in an evening service while everyone in the congregation took notes, including me. We were a cult, but we couldn’t see it.
7.) Do give them resources about Christian doctrine. Ask if you can talk about what they believe and whether those beliefs line up with historical, orthodox Christian belief. They may claim that they follow the New Testament model for the church, or the book of Acts.
Wonderful! In that case, they shouldn’t mind providing feedback on a reputable book of Christian systematic theology which contains hundreds of New Testament citations (an excellent short read is Charles Ryrie’s Survey of Bible Doctrine). Their responses should help clarify their position and provide great opportunities for dialogue.
8.) Do show them how their beliefs are out-of-balance with scripture. Every Bible-based cult uses scripture to justify their actions. The problem is that those scriptures are taken out of context or are twisted to mean something the original authors never intended. Show me a cult and I will show you how they corrupt scripture or ignore scriptures that are intended by God to balance extremes. Anything can be justified by a Bible verse taken out of context. The beauty of true Christianity is that it takes a balanced approach to life which avoids aberrant extremes, delights in joy and freedom, and celebrates healthy personalities, choices, and giftings.
9.) Do discuss the nature of biblical salvation. Bible-based cults always confuse the manner and means of salvation. Instead of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), Bible-cults add works to this formula. They will say, “Yes, salvation is by grace through faith, BUT you must also prove your faith by your actions. If you are a genuine Christian you must bear spiritual fruit. We can judge someone’s salvation by their fruit.” Thus, they make salvation a works-based system rather than a free gift of grace as the Bible teaches. They confuse salvation with sanctification. But God’s gift really is free to those who believe: Jesus paid it all; there is nothing left to pay. The book of Galatians can help here.
10.) Cautiously point out inconsistencies in the leadership.This is tricky, and I hesitate to mention it, except that this is the very thing that helped to blow my own cult apart. Followers are trained to never make an accusation against a leader, but cult leaders are the
Achilles heel of cults. Since every cult has a leader or leaders who are inspired by their own misguided beliefs or personality disorders, those leaders will evidence inconsistency between what they profess and what Scripture teaches. Legitimate spiritual authority is based on biblical truth and a character that is trustworthy. Explain to your loved one the biblical qualifications for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5) and hold the group’s leadership to these standards. Anything less is unbiblical.
In all of these steps, exercise patience. Love is patient. You may not see results immediately. There are no guarantees. But if you continue to seek understanding, ask questions, pray, seek corporate support, and gently point out inconsistencies of doctrine and behavior, perhaps God will use your unconditional love and wise words to reach the unreachable. It is God’s work, after all, and his heart longs to liberate captives.
He liberated me.