The pale greens of spring in Maine ran like wet paint outside the window, blurring as my eyes welled with tears.
Meanwhile, my pastor neatly summarized my choices: “Either I am God’s servant and everything I have taught you is true, or I am a fraud and everything you have committed to is false,” he said calmly. “There is no middle ground. You are totally invested.”
I sat in his office with tears running down my face. Ferris* had just told me that I idolized my friends at college and that I needed to dial back on my relationships. I had arrived home for the summer earlier that week.
What Ferris said didn’t make any sense. I already had a 4.0 average and was in little danger of tanking academically. And I spent precious little time with my college friends as it was.
But Ferris was unyielding. “Your responsibility is to your academics and to holding fast to what you have learned here,” he said. “You are in danger of becoming friends with the world. I have already noticed that your affected hairstyle is similar to that of your friends. They are influencing you to act like the world.” He pointed at a photo of my two best friends from Taylor University, a small Christian college in Indiana. I had shared the picture with one of Ferris’s adult children, and they dutifully passed it on to their father out of “concern” for me.
The information web within our tiny church was tight and sticky.
Ferris pointed at one of the young men in the picture. He was a muscular football player with long, glorious curls. My hair was straight and short. The other fellow had platinum blond hair with generous cowlicks. For both young men, their hairstyles were natural. Affected? I didn’t understand what Ferris meant.
“Yes, Steve,” Ferris continued, “you have conformed to the pattern of the world and have become friends with the world. These young men claim to be Christians, but a tree is evidenced by its fruit. Their hairstyles give them away. They are fleshly.”
I stared at my pastor, my mind flickering like a television screen between channels. Ferris sat in cool assurance, his precisely parted hair and buttoned-up appearance straight from the 1950s. Isolated in his office, surrounded by a flock of people who submitted to his every pronouncement, he had encountered little of culture in the last twenty years. Perhaps he didn’t realize that the young men in the picture fit well within conservative Christian culture.
I tried to explain.
Ferris frowned and raised his hand.
“You are relying on worldly wisdom,” he said. “It makes sense to you, but you need to trust that God has given me wisdom in these areas. Think of all the biblical knowledge God has taught me over the years. Think of all the marvelous things God has revealed to our little church. How could it be possible that God would speak all those mysteries and reveal all this knowledge, and now suddenly I would speak falsehood? No, Steve, I am God’s servant and you must submit to me. Remember how much you have sacrificed already. Remember how much you have invested. Jesus promises that if you persevere, you will receive a hundred-fold in this life, and in the age to come: eternal life!”
Though I disagreed with his statements about hairstyles, I couldn’t overturn his logic. I believed that our church was the most biblical I had ever encountered, and we were completely invested. We spent nine hours in church each Sunday studying God’s Word. And that was just on Sunday.
Other days of the week we had Men’s Fellowship, a Ladies’ Bible Study, Youth Group, Young Adult Group, and Tree Climbers for the 1st and 2nd graders. We had opportunities to clean the church, mow the church lawn, or clean up the property during a Men’s Work Day. We studied our church sermon notes and reviewed the information we were supposed to memorize about various aspects of the Old Testament. We also listened to church tapes during the week. In fact, I listened to three or four tapes, for a total of three or four hours in addition to Sunday services. We gave 10-20% of our income to the church, not including the numerous special offerings or benevolence offerings which we were expected to give to.
And then there were all the family members we had shunned. If I suddenly believed that Ferris was wrong—that he was a fraud—then that meant that I had been wrong to ostracize my relatives and my twin brother. It would mean that I was the problem, and not them. It would mean that I was misguided and a dupe of Satan, rather than them.
I had invested everything in Ferris’s interpretation of God’s Word and his avowals that we were a specially chosen group of people. I truly believed that I was sacrificing my family and my happiness for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I had invested everything.
If my commitment proved false, I realized, the world would simply turn upside down. Nothing would make sense. I might be wrong in some things, but I couldn’t be wrong in everything, could I? No. That wouldn’t be consistent. I was too sincere, too humble, too plain good. God would never allow me to be deceived like that.
Such deception would be like standing in a packed elevator while smelling someone’s terrible body odor, wrinkling my nose and pointing at the construction worker in the corner, telling everyone in the elevator that the other man stinks and that we should ostracize him, only to realize when I got off the elevator that the odor was actually coming from me. Yes, it would be like that, but at a cosmic level.
My flickering brain suddenly resolved into a sharp picture: Ferris was right. I may not like his statements, but Jesus had said that even he came not to bring peace but a sword. A man’s enemies would be the members of his own household. Ferris was right—I just needed to trust him more.
And I was suddenly back in the groove, back in my channel of total commitment, back in a life consistent with the worldview in which I had completely invested.
And I was totally wrong.
*Not his real name.
In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini, Ph.D. notes that one of the linchpins of influence is commitment and consistency. “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”
People who remain in cults, as I did, experience doubts just like non cult-members do. The difference is that cult members put up walls against the unbearable logic of these doubts. Against all reason they persist in their commitment. They have so totally invested in the system—which they believe meets their three cosmic needs of assurance of salvation (security), love, and significance—that they will ignore such doubts or explain them away in order to remain consistent with their previous commitment.
As Cialdini alludes, it is not always the act of hard-thinking that discourages cult members from thinking critically about their group, but rather the consequences of such thinking. To admit that one’s group is a cult carries serious consequences: it means that you have been deceived, that you have judged others wrongly, that you have treated disagreeing family members disgracefully, and that you have misunderstood the character of God.
But it also carries enormous benefits: to see the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. To put your hope in Jesus rather than in a smooth-talking or religious-sounding person. To love others well, without fear. And to encounter God as he really is: in all his awesome mystery and unfathomable love and grace, rather than as a stingy, nit-picking legalist who blasts one of his children as soon as they tiptoe off the frozen way of eggshells.
So if you find doubts cropping up about your church, entertain them. Think hard and well about them. Look at what the Bible says. Seek advice.
Then act in a manner consistent with your commitment to truth.