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Review of “A Journey to Waco: Autobiography of a Branch Davidian”


A Journey to Waco: Autobiography of a Branch Davidian by Clive Doyle with Catherine Wessinger and Matthew Wittmer. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. 298 pp.

On February 28, 1993, ATF agents raided the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. The Davidians had separated from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1955. This particular group lived communally under the leadership of David Koresh, a self-professed “Lamb of God” and “incarnation” of the Father.

Authorities were concerned that the Davidians had ordered large numbers of weapons and were allegedly illegally converting semi-automatic rifles to automatic. Who fired first in the raid remains disputed, but the ensuing gun battle left 6 Davidians and 4 ATF agents dead. 20 ATF agents were injured; several Davidians were wounded, including Koresh. The resulting siege lasted for 51 days. When FBI agents stormed the compound on April 19, a fire started (the cause is also disputed: government agents say Davidians set the fire to commit suicide; Davidians say gas was ignited by FBI flash-bang grenades) and most of the remaining Davidians were killed. Nine survived.

Clive Doyle was one of them.

Branch Davidian Theology

a_journey_to_wacoWhile I have read dozens of memoirs from former cult members, this is the only autobiography I have read where the person continues to believe that the group leader was divinely inspired and the group was correct in its teachings. Conspiracy theorists will love the book for its portrayal of government agents as inept, overbearing, and cruel. Cult experts will be fascinated by Doyle’s recounting of the inner workings of the Branch Davidian sect and for the chapter on Branch Davidian theology.

Here are some of the most unique and troubling aspects of Branch Davidian belief:

p.76 – “David made a big point that he saw himself as the Lamb opening the book to us. He did not open it to everyone else. He opened it to us. I believe it was opened to him and he passed it on to us.”

p.76 – The Holy Spirit is female.

p.77 – Trinity is family of Father, Mother, Son

p.77 – Modalism. Jesus was the Father in flesh.

p.77 – Incarnation of the Spirit in the end times as female contending with the whore of Babylon.

p.78 – Melchizedek was an incarnation of God, not a man who was a type for Christ.

p.78 – Elihu in Job was an incarnation of God, not just a wise counselor.

p.80 – There are multiple incarnations of God in human history.

p.80 – “I believe David [Koresh] was a manifestation of God. When David first started to teach, we looked on him as a prophet. But the more we studied and the deeper we got into the prophecies, we believed that he was a manifestation of God or the Messiah figure predicted for the Last Days… By the time of the ATF raid on February 28, 1993, we looked at David as being in a category higher than a prophet.”

p.80 – “David began to see himself as this latter-day Messiah, or the Lamb who takes the book out of the hand of the One on the throne and begins to open it (Rev. 6). David took on the role of a son to the Son, in a sense.”

p.80 – “People ask, ‘Did David teach he was Jesus?’ No. ‘Did he think he was God?’ God, in the sense of God coming down in human form, he probably did.”

p.81 – In heaven, there will be a Quadrinity of Father, Mother, Son, and Wife.

p.83 – “When [David Koresh] is resurrected he will judge the world.”

p.84 – “Wave Sheaf” (Lev. 23:10-14) are the firstfruits in every generation who are most devoted to God and have more faith. Those who step out in faith ahead of everyone else.

p.85 – These “firstfruit” believers are usually martyrs. Even the 12 disciples were unworthy of ascending with Christ until they suffered and were martyred.

p.86 – Branch Davidians were martyred for following the most “present truth.”


David Koresh, via NY Daily News

p.87 – David Koresh taught that his children would be the 24 elders in Revelation 4:4. “David didn’t have twenty-four children as far as I know. Just how that will be taken care of in the Last Days, whether it includes miscarriages, I don’t know.”

p.88 – Stratified heaven. Wave sheaf will be at the wedding of the Lamb, all others will be at the Marriage Supper.

p.89 – Branch Davidians practiced the Old Testament feast days.

p.91 – Form of universalism: God raised up Muhammaed and Buddha and other major teachers to enlighten people so they can be saved.

p.92 – U.S. is the two-horned beast in Rev. 13:11.

p.116 – David prophesied persecution, said Mt. Carmel should prepare for it. Ordered a large shipment of rifles.

p.119 – Once David bought weapons, he became an expert in their use.

This heterodox theology puts the Branch Davidians outside of all creedal confessions of historical Christianity.

Paradox of Criticalness/Uncriticalness

While an insider’s view of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound offers an alternative perspective, readers should exercise as much skepticism of Doyle’s account as they do of the government’s. Neither side has all the truth; each side has its own limited perspective colored by presuppositions and worldview issues.


David Koresh (L) and Clive Doyle, via Clive Doyle

Doyle’s sincerity–and his lack of criticalness of Davidian belief and practice–is heartbreaking. He truly believes that David Koresh was/is the incarnation of God. Readers should ponder the reasons for Doyle’s uncritical belief in Koresh and his criticism of the government. For example, Doyle says nothing about David Koresh’s well-known practice of polygamy. He also barely mentions the presence of weapons at the Davidian compound, besides alluding to a “large shipment” of rifles, mentioning a shooting range in passing, and at one point saying that many of the Davidians were armed during the siege. For Doyle, it seems unremarkable that his apocalyptic group would possess an arms cache or would fire at federal agents. Doesn’t everyone? Doyle claims he saw only two Davidians firing at dozens of ATF agents on February 28, yet four heavily armored agents were killed and 20 wounded. Doyle seems not to understand that two shooters alone could not have produced those results.

While Doyle makes a big point that the Davidians were peace-loving and that the ATF raid was unprovoked, the fact that David Koresh prophesied persecution; said that most “wave sheaf” believers would be martyred; bought a large shipment of rifles as well as gas masks, ammunition, pistols, holsters and MREs; and that numerous Davidians resisted the ATF raid by killing or injuring almost 25 agents, would suggest that the group had the capability and expectation of resisting arrest in an apocalyptic fashion.

It is clear that the government botched the initial and final raids, and that government agents misunderstood the Davidians. What agents did not misunderstand was the presence of armed Davidians who resisted the search warrant which resulted in 4 dead and 20 wounded ATF agents. Despite all of Doyle’s protests to the contrary, Davidian theology and practice helped to produce the environment in which such a tragedy could occur.

Related: Malcolm Gladwell wrote a thought-provoking article in The New Yorker on 3/31/14 about missteps by federal agents during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound. Gladwell pulls from Doyle’s autobiography for much of his content. You can read the article here.


Does the Church of Wells Teach a False Gospel?

Over the past several months, the Church of Wells in Wells, Texas has received national media attention, most recently by the ABC show Nightline Prime with Dan Harris, which aired on 4/5/14.


Concern about the group first rose to prominence when the church allowed a baby to die in the summer of 2012 rather than seeking medical attention for her. They then prayed over her dead body for 14 hours in the hopes that God would raise her from the dead. The church also practices shunning of family members who disagree with the group’s teachings.

Patti and Andy Grove

Andy and Patty Grove, via ABC Nightline Prime

The Nightline Prime episode focused mainly on the Grove family. Patty and Andy Grove claim that their daughter, Catherine, was brainwashed by the group and has been kept from leaving. When a crew from ABC tried to interview Church of Wells members last month, group members refused comment or quoted King James Bible verses at reporters.

On Saturday, 4/5/14, two members of the Church of Wells were injured in a fight after they upset parents at the Wells Homecoming Parade by preaching hellfire and judgment against passersby, including small children.

It is my policy on this blog to refrain from mentioning specific groups unless they have already garnered media attention. Since reporters and public officials refuse to call the Church of Wells a cult in order to avoid libel lawsuits, I will also refrain from doing so.

Behavior Exposes Belief

While this group is in some ways unique, I think there is something we can learn from it which applies more universally to many other unhealthy groups: the practice of a church betrays its doctrines. Put another way, how a group behaves exposes what it believes. Behavior doesn’t lie. Thus, by allowing a baby to die without medical help, and by harshly shunning even professing Christians, the Church of Wells has behaved quite badly. This tells us that there is something wrong with the doctrine behind the behavior.

Oddly, if you talk to the elders of the Church of Wells they insist that their behavior is kind and loving. They say they are practicing true Christian faith, follow the Bible literally, and that they are acting in love toward family and community members.


Church of Wells elder Sean Morris, via Church of Wells website

They also believe that they are doctrinally pure. Church of Wells elder Sean Morris has repeatedly said that he believes that salvation is by grace through faith — he said this to me in private Facebook messages in the summer of 2012, and he has maintained this whenever accused of teaching a works-based salvation. If his claims are true, this would put him in agreement with the major creeds of the church and with the majority of professing believers around the world.

And yet a question presents itself: Why, if the members of the Church of Wells follow correct biblical doctrine, do they cause so much damage in every relationship in which they find themselves?

It is because the members of the Church of Wells behave as if they do not believe that salvation is by grace through faith. Instead, members are told that they must work hard in order to get saved, and that even upon salvation they are always in danger of falling from grace. Outsiders who do not live as ascetically as Church of Wells members do are considered to be sub-biblical or unsaved. This then allows church members to treat these people as sub-human contaminants to their own hard-won salvation. Church elders quote extensively from scriptures which talk about faith evidenced by works (James 2) and the necessity of Christian obedience. Yet many other churches teach these same principles without the corresponding harshness demonstrated by the Church of Wells.

A False Gospel Buried in 718 Pages

While most observers understand that there is something “off” with this group, it can be hard to pin down exactly what it is, beyond a simple lack of balance. This is made more difficult when Church of Wells elders refuse to answer phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, or in-person requests for interviews or clarification of their doctrine.


“The Condescension of God” by Sean Morris

Fortunately, the group’s doctrine is clear based on their extensive writings posted to their website and now available in book format from Amazon.com. In “The Condescension of God,” Sean Morris teaches a false gospel, but I suspect few will make it through the 718 dense pages to discover it.

There are plenty of extensive scripture quotations in the book, but scripture can be used for any purpose and to buttress any argument, no matter how twisted. So as I read through the book, I looked for interpretive statements by Morris which would clarify his position on what saves a person. In the end, it became obvious that this book teaches a false gospel of works-righteousness and confuses sanctification with justification.

Here is a quote from chapter 19 which neatly summarizes Morris’s view of salvation:

“The Church, upon regeneration, is initially saved, and to be initially saved, then you have undergone the gospel experience called ‘imputed righteousness’. If you have imputed righteousness, then, lawfully speaking, you have the righteousness of Christ covering you. Therefore at this point, you are savingly in perfection/completion; you are savingly, perfectly, and completely joined to Christ! If a man has imputed righteousness, but then fails to maintain his saving faith, this is a failure to maintain unity with the life of the righteous Christ which indwells him; therefore he will not produce Christ’s works righteousness (called ‘My works’ [Rev. 2:26]). If a man does not have works righteousness, then he has dead faith, and if it is not revived or made alive again, then he too will be judged dead, without God, Christ, and imputed righteousness – thus he has fallen from perfection into blame. If a man falls from a saving relationship with Christ, which is by saving faith apart from works, and then those inward, immediate, and empowering qualities of the gospel are not walked out, which means that the powers of initial salvation are not presently and progressively experienced by the individual, then there is no present progressive works righteousness. If a man falls from works righteousness and yet pleads for salvation because he once had imputed righteousness, he is arguing for mercy because he once believed the gospel which he no longer believes at present. Scripture overwhelmingly declares that such a man will not be saved except by the restoration of faith and repentance.” [emphasis added]

The New Testament knows nothing of this two-step process of salvation, with the first step depending on Jesus and the second step depending on human effort. Ladies and gentlemen, salvation depends entirely on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

If salvation really is a two step process, as Morris claims, where Christ’s work is the first step and our work is the second step, then we are all doomed. This is an inaccurate understanding of the scriptural text, which Morris arrives at by jettisoning accepted church teachings and instead creating his own categories and paradigms. This is what happens when someone rejects the clarity and simplicity of the gospel in order to create a 718-page contortion to explain why everyone else in the world is wrong and he is right.

In the book of Ephesians, Paul says specifically that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-10). In the book of Galatians, Paul says that Christians are both saved by the Spirit and sanctified by the Spirit (3:1-4). Works are excluded. Paul also rebukes anyone who teaches a false gospel based on works righteousness. Such teachers, Paul says, are accursed (Galatians 1:6-12).

This is Christianity 101.

The elders of the Church of Wells should repent of teaching a false gospel of works righteousness and should instead humble themselves and embrace salvation by grace through faith alone.

Update, 5/15/14: There’s a helpful new website about the Church of Wells which questions its doctrine and exposes some of its harmful practices. You can find it here: http://www.thechurchofwells.org/


Rethinking Matthew 18 – Gossip Control and the “Can’t Talk” Rule

Editor’s note: This is a re-post from Dr. Stephen Crosby’s blog, “Sword of the Kingdom.” This article about the “Can’t Talk” rule explains how authoritarian church leaders misuse the church discipline process in Matthew 18 to stifle dissent. It is an excellent article, used by permission. For my related post on “Church Leaders and the ‘Don’t Talk’ Rule,” click here.

In some authoritarian climates, Matthew 18:15-17 is unfortunately used as biblical license to enforce the “can’t talk” rule. The “can’t talk” rule silences people by labeling them as the problem if they notice a problem! If they speak out loud about a problem, they are the problem![1]


via Business Week

In these environments Mt. 18 is used to silence dissenting speech and troublemakers. The potential merit of a concern or point of view is nullified, and a fair hearing denied, by pointing to the alleged procedural violations (failing to follow Mt. 18) of the one bringing up the issue. The Christ-like response would be to deal with both: the issues of concern and the relational dynamics of the community. Using Mt. 18 as a shield against criticism or complaint (justifiable or not) is as unfortunate as it is common.

Speech is articulated thought. Articulated thought calls to action. Action shapes reality. Therefore, whoever controls speech, controls reality. Would be dictators learn this in Tyranny 101 class. By using Mt. 18 as a speech-control template (through well-meaning ignorance, conflict avoidance, or malice) leaders can manipulate a group of individuals and thus control and shape a community’s experiential reality: a reality that too often accrues to the material, social, or psychological benefit of leadership.

Isolated individuals cannot know that they share mutual concern. By psychological segregation individuals are made to feel like there’s something wrong with them, and them alone. Functional personhood involves open and honest communication. It is neither a disorder nor a sin,[2] but under the “can’t talk” rule, it’s labeled as deviant: not conforming to group norms. Christian authoritarian deviance labeling is creative, e.g.: having an “independent” spirit, deceived, divisive, rebellious, untrustworthy, unsubmissive, Jezebel-spirit, Absalom-spirit, not a “son of the house,” unwilling to “serve in another man’s vision,” and many more.[3]

A common way to shame or suppress a person into silence is to skillfully leverage the expertise of others against an isolated individual: “Do you think you are better or smarter (more “spiritual”) than expert leader so and so? Everyone else is happy. Are you smarter than everyone else too? You are the only ones with a concern. So, we are all wrong and you alone are right? Who do you think you are?”[4]A minority voice is no more constitutionally right than a majority voice. But a minority voice is worthy to be honored with a respectful and fair hearing, not deviance labeling.

These isolation and deviance labeling techniques, underwritten with the misapplication of Mt. 18, are used to cultivate self-doubt, fear, and a lack of trust in the quiet, inner voice of the Spirit warning an individual: “this is not right, something is wrong, say something!”  The voice of Christ within the community is thus silenced and legitimate problems are suppressed and stage-managed.

In these environments, the phrase: “we have a concern,” can never be uttered, only “I have a concern,” because “we have a concern” means, “you’ve been talking,”[5] and is considered a categorical violation of Mt. 18.  It’s a bit difficult to be my brother’s keeper and to care for one another[6] if I am forbidden to speak to my brother about the cares and concerns we share in community, even when these involve other people. Expressing an opinion, concern, or care is not gossip.[7]

Someone called me once and told me that she had discovered (and others had confirmed) that her Sr. pastor had hidden video cameras all throughout the church in plants, and flowers, etc., so he could catch people “talking” and “stamp out the sin of gossip.” When she sought advice from peers and tried to appeal to the Sr. pastor about how inappropriate that was, she was told “if you are not gossiping, why would you care?” She was also rebuked by her leadership for not “following Mt. 18″ with her grievance. They never addressed her issue because she allegedly violated the “Mt. 18 protocol” with her grievance. Also her church had its own protocol. She was supposed to go to her home group leader first, then the zone pastor, then the associate pastor, only then could she confront the Sr. Pastor. This dear saint was actually in soul-conflict over if it was “ok” or not to leave that church. I told her to get out! Yesterday! If you have had Mt. 18 leveraged against you, as a behavior, thought, and speech control mechanism, this blog series, and this booklet is for you.

This blog is an excerpt from our booklet: The Rescue of Matthew 18, available in print and electronic formats at www.stevecrosby.com.

[1] Ibid.

[2] The fallen, Adamic, sin nature and human personality are not the same thing.

[3] A “spirit of independence” or an “Absalom spirit” are characterized by malice, subversion, and a destructive agenda, not by the mere expression of individual personhood in dissent.

[4] Classic psychological abuse and control techniques refined to a high art by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD: the Stalinist secret police.

[5] Identical concern among individuals is only conspiracy to the insecure.

[6] Gen. 4:9; 1Cor.12:25.

[7] Gossip is malicious conversation about intimate personal details of someone else’s life, character, identity, or calling be they rumor or fact. Moral superiority is attempted through the tearing down of the other, behind the other’s back.   However, discussing systems, things, events, philosophies, ideas, methods, shared-corporate concerns, experiences, exposing corruption, expressing personal pain, looking for help, asking for other’s perspectives, getting confirmation or correction from others within the community, confessing our sins one to another are not gossip.



Copyright 2014,  Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, http://www.swordofthekingdom.com. Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.  For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact stephrcrosby@gmail.com.


The Lion Makers: Fred Phelps and the Outcome of Cult Leaders

In India, there were four Brahmans who set out on a journey. Three of them were highly educated but had little common sense. The fourth had little education but good sense.

As they journeyed through a field, the first Brahman said to the second and third, “Through our own efforts and hard work we have gained superior wisdom. Why should we share our earnings with this simple fellow who lacks education?”

The second Brahman agreed with the first, but the third Brahman said, “We have all been friends since childhood. Let us share our earnings together.” He finally convinced the other two educated Brahmans and the four men continued through the field together.

outcome of cult leaders

via epanchatantra.com

Soon, they happened upon the bones of a large animal. The first Brahman said, “Let us show our simple friend the fruits of our great wisdom. I know how to add flesh and blood to the bones of this animal.” And he did so.

The second Brahman said, “I know how to cover the flesh and bones with skin.” And he did so.

The third Brahman said, “I know how to breathe life into the body of this animal.”

Just then, the fourth Brahman spoke up: “Friends, I see that this is a lion. If you breathe life into it, he will eat us all up. So if you insist on creating this beast, let me first climb this nearby tree.” And he did.

The other Brahmans laughed at the fourth man. “Coward!” they said. “Come down and see our genius at work.”

Then the third Brahman breathed life into the lion. The lion stood, stretched himself, then turned upon the first three Brahmans and ate them all up. Content with his meal, the lion lay down and fell asleep, whereupon the fourth Brahman climbed down from the tree and went home.

–          From the Panchatantra

Creating the Beast

For decades, Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has picketed the funerals of fallen soldiers and Marines, spewed hate and venom toward homosexuals and society at large, and excommunicated members who questioned these practices. Reverend Fred Phelps created this monster, but it has been his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, who has effectively led the church over the past dozen years. As Fred Phelps withered into old age, his influence waned while Shirley’s star rose.

Now recent reports say that Fred Phelps is on his death bed. Ironically, rumor has it that he has also been excommunicated by his own church. Whether these reports are true remains to be seen. Former Westboro Baptist member Lauren Drain wrote on her Facebook page:

“If the rumors are true regarding Fred Phelps, & I have strong reason to believe that they are — this news to me is incredibly devastating. When I was back in the church 8 years ago, I witnessed various members get ex-communicated & watched in horror & fear as families were ripped apart at the seams…. I hope & pray that change can & will be the result of so many years of heartache & confusion. I pray that Pastor Phelps has a change of heart even if it is his last days. I pray that the remaining family members see what generations of judgment & banishment can do.” (For my review of Lauren’s book, Banished, click here)


via Wikipedia

I wouldn’t be surprised if Fred Phelps has been excommunicated by the church he founded. It is the norm for cult leaders to be destroyed by the very beast they create. Since cults are death-dealing and not life-giving, it is only a matter of time before their leaders suffer the very fate they threaten on outsiders.

We don’t have far to look to see cult leaders who have gone down in flames: Jim Jones and David Koresh come to mind. But these are spectacular examples. Far more common is the leader of a small cult who slowly spins out of control and nosedives until the group is destroyed or the leader’s life ends in tragedy.

My own former pastor—the leader for 25 years of a Bible cult in Maine—drove himself insane by trying to follow his own impossible standards. In his later years he fed the personality disorders which made him paranoid, perfectionistic, and narcissistic. Now he lives alone, his church destroyed, the people he used to control scattered to other churches or fallen from the faith. He is a shell of a man.

Greg Sammons, Director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, knows of no cult leader who has repented. I don’t, either. If repentance for cult leaders is possible (and surely God’s grace makes it at least possible) it is rare enough to escape the attention of experts in the field.

Consider the Outcome

Cult leaders are fond of quoting Hebrews 13:17 in order to make their followers obey them without question: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority; they keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

But the true test of a Christian leader is Hebrews 13:7: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Explicit is the command to imitate faithful leaders; implicit is the command to avoid following unfaithful leaders. By their fruit you will know them.

Fred Phelps’ final days provide a sad affirmation of the wisdom of this passage. The beast he created has now turned on him. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church should consider the outcome of Fred’s way of life—the hopelessness created by works righteousness and hateful judgment—and they should realize that their church offers nothing but suffering and death.

Common sense dictates they should flee to the man on the tree.

Update, 1:14 p.m. EST, 3/20/14: Apparently, Fred Phelps has died. This according to the Huffington Post.

Update , 3:10 p.m., EST, 3/20/14: Ed Stetzer has a wonderful response in CT to Fred Phelps’s death and how Christians should respond.


What Mark Driscoll Can Teach Us About Church Leadership

In his recent article, “Mark Driscoll’s Problems, and Ours,” Carl R. Trueman pens a thoughtful synopsis of the crisis in church leadership in the Reformed movement as seen through the lens of Mark Driscoll’s latest faux pas — a lesson applicable, of course, to other Christian movements and churches.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. The article is from the First Things website. Here is my favorite paragraph:

“Mark Driscoll is one person, a uniquely talented individual. Yet he is also a function of structural problems within the new Reformed movement itself. Despite its distinct and in many ways sophisticated theology, the ‘young, restless, and reformed’ movement has always been in some respects simply the latest manifestation of the weakest aspects of American Evangelicalism. It was, and is, a movement built on the power of a self-selected band of dynamic personalities, wonderful communicators, and talented preachers who have been marketed in a very attractive manner. Those things can all be great goods but when there is no real accountability involved, when financial arrangements are opaque in the extreme, and when personalities start to supplant the message, serious problems are never far away.”

For more of this article, click here.

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Brainwashing Writ Large: Vladimir Putin and the Crimean Crisis


A Russian army vehicle outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava, via The Independent, 3/6/14

For 25 years I was a member of a Bible cult.

One of the first questions people ask me when they discover this is, “How could any intelligent person get sucked in by a group like that?” Many people wonder how cult members can believe the mind-bending interpretations of their cult leader, when the reality on the ground is much different.

While there are several factors at play, the short answer is that cult leaders practice information control. This means that they prevent their followers from accessing outside information about the group, or they meticulously reinterpret outside information in ways which reflect negatively on outsiders and positively on the cult. This is part of a strategy of religious brainwashing. One of the chief ways cult leaders reinterpret negative press is by forming conspiracy theories about outsiders — theories they wholeheartedly believe (see my post on Paranoid Personality Disorder).

But cults aren’t the only groups to incorporate brainwashing techniques. All totalitarian groups or states use the same basic methods to brainwash their followers into toeing the party line in order to accomplish the goals of the leader. Dr. Robert Lifton, the 20th-century expert on thought reform, provided eight criteria for brainwashing. The first of these points was “Milieu Control,” in which a totalitarian leader limits followers’ access to outside information or people. I have written about this element in religious cults here.

How can intelligent people fall for the lies of a totalitarian leader?


Russian President Vladimir Putin, via Business Insider

Russian President Vladimir Putin has provided a fabulous example of brainwashing behavior writ large. While all reputable journalists on the ground in Crimea know that Russian troops, sans-insignia, are patrolling and blockading Ukrainian military installations, Putin and his Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, flatly deny that Russian troops are involved. Here are excerpts from a 3/6/14 article by NBC News:

“No, absolutely no (Russian troops),” Vladimir Putin’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared on Wednesday when asked whether his forces were involved.

When questioned about the Tiger and Rys armored personnel carriers seen throughout the strategic peninsula – vehicles used only by the militaries of the United Arab Emirates and Russia – Shoigu said he had “no idea” where they were coming from. Agence France-Presse reported that Shoigu also dismissed photographs military vehicles with Russian license plates in Crimea as a “provocation” and “nonsense.”

Journalists and residents have seen men in military uniforms, minus Russian military badges, traveling the countryside and beyond bases and in military vehicles using Russian license plates.

Some have admitted that they’re Russian military, not members of the self-defense militias.

In one video posted on YouTube, a uniformed man is asked: “Are you Ukrainian [citizens] or Russian?”

“Russian military servicemen,” he responds.

So what’s behind the East-West dissonance?

“It makes sense in the universe where Vladimir Putin lives,” said Dr. Igor Sutyagin, an expert in U.S.-Russian relations and nuclear arms control with London-based defense and security think tank RUSI. “His media says there are no Russian troops (and) he tries to export his media model to the outer world.”

Putin likely believes that Russia’s takeover in Crimea will work because the West won’t act decisively against him, despite the evidence that Russia has invaded another country in the “heart of Europe,” Sutyagin said.

“Putin is winning over Ukraine – what will force him to leave Crimea? Effectively nothing,” he said.

So there you have it. Some of the very same elements at work in cults who use religious brainwashing to persuade and retain followers are also at work in the Crimean Crisis: reinterpretation of reality, information control, conspiracy theories, milieu control, and totalitarian word-smithing.

The only way to deal with such totalitarian tactics is with equally assertive counter-measures which operate on reality and not on the offending leader’s muddy prevarications. Winston Churchill would flourish in such an assignment, but current world leaders have shown a remarkable lack of stomach for such statesmanship.

More’s the pity, because how leaders respond to Crimea will determine European politics for the next 25 years.


How to Deal with Personality Disorders among Church Leaders (Part 5 of 5)

I am not a clinician and this is not a prescription. This is my attempt to start a conversation which is long overdue. I welcome the input of Christian brothers and sisters whose education and experience better fit them to tackle this topic.

Thankfully, you don’t need a psychology degree to start to construct a biblically-based model of how to handle church leaders who evidence untreated personality disorders. This is because we are not dealing with causation (what causes a personality disorder) nor treatment (which should be handled by professionals), but only with how a church might respond to a leader who evidences this particular form of mental illness.

mental illness in the church

via forwardstl, Creative Commons

We are also not talking about all forms of mental illness, but only personality disorders. In particular the following three which are common in cult leaders and spiritually abusive church leaders: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Paranoid Personality Disorder. Each of these has specific symptoms which can readily lead to abusive leadership if left unacknowledged and untreated.

This is not theoretical. I was a member for 25 years of a church which became a Bible-cult. Our pastor was eventually professionally diagnosed with several personality disorders—this only after he was committed to the psychiatric unit at a local hospital. For many years prior to that he believed that his lifestyle was anointed by God and that his opinions and viewpoints were divinely enforceable doctrine. In reality he was a very ill man and his illness destroyed several families and left the church in ruins.

So how should a church respond if one of its leaders evidences the hallmarks of an untreated personality disorder? Here are seven thoughts:

1.) Carefully – Churches should hesitate to impugn leaders. There is no other type of human leader available but an imperfect one. The Bible never requires perfection from church leaders, only attainment of a certain degree of spiritual maturity, good character, and ability to teach the truth from God’s Word (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5). Church politics are well-known and there are plenty of parishioners who would love to cry “Personality disorder!” in order to remove a leader they dislike. But the Bible says that God hates it when the innocent are condemned (Prov. 17:15). This is not a witch hunt. Most church leaders are good, sincere folk who sometimes get it wrong but often get it right. They are worthy of honor and this post is not about them.

However, there are clinical, observable criteria which the DSM-IV lists for personality disorders. To think that these never effect any church leaders or that it doesn’t matter if a church leader has them is simplistic at best and complicit at worst. If, after careful and prayerful observation over a period of time, you suspect that your church leader evidences one of these–and in particular if he or she is acting abusively toward church members because of the disorder–then you have an obligation to take action.

2.) Orderly – Despite the protestations of cult leaders, the Bible does make provision for calling a leader to account. Christians have the biblical mandate to evaluate their leaders on the criteria provided in scripture. If a leader violates these standards and refuses to acknowledge sin or repent and change, he or she is impeachable.

The process for confronting a leader (or any other believer) is laid out in scripture in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5: a concerned parishioner should first talk (if safe!) to the offending leader; then to another mature believer (preferably another leader) who will go with them to confront the leader; then the matter should come before the church.

If the leader is truly humble, acknowledges sin, and repents, it may be possible for the leader to remain in his or her position while also seeking further treatment. Or it may not. It depends on how bad things have gotten. The second step in the process ensures that no accusation against an elder will be entertained by the church except on the testimony of two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19).

The length of this process may depend on the severity of the offending leader’s behavior. The worse it is, the more rapidly the process should move. Exceptions to this biblical process are if the leader is actively abusing people or has committed a criminal offense, whereupon he or she should be immediately reported to the appropriate civil authorities. The church has often gotten this wrong; we need to get it right.

3.) Corporately – While confronting a pastor can be done by an individual or by several witnesses, removing a pastor or elder from office is a serious business and should be done by the church as a whole. Various denominations have differing methods to do this, but the point is that just as a leader is called by a congregation, so they are removed by a congregation. The church should stand united as much as possible in the decision.

4.) Compassionately – A person with a personality disorder often does not know that he or she has a mental illness. Rather, the definition of a personality disorder is that the person believes that his or her style of relating to life and people is good and proper, when in fact it is harmful. When a church confronts a leader with the suspicion that he or she has a personality disorder, the leader may become distressed or enraged. Either way, the church should relate with compassion to the leader, recognizing that he or she is ill and/or deceived (Col. 3:12).

5.) Decisively – Compassion’s twin in these circumstances is clear action (Gal. 2:11-14). If a leader truly has a personality disorder which manifests through harmful, abusive behavior, that leader must be confronted. If the leader is unrepentant, he or she must be removed from office with speed. The leader needs help and professional treatment, and the congregation needs relief and protection. None of this is aided by a wishy-washy process or by muddy resolutions or tabled motions. To avoid making a decision is still to make a decision.

6.) Protectively – Both the leader’s reputation and the welfare of the congregation should be guarded when mutually possible. Unless the leader has committed a criminal act which necessitates legal proceedings and the attendant media attention—or unless the leader has already made his or her name a stench in the community—a church should handle the matter with diplomacy and tact. Love always protects (1 Corinthians 13:7). Give your leader the benefit of a quiet removal from office which will enable him or her to seek treatment, deal with sin toward family members or church members, and perhaps someday return to some level of service or leadership.


Martin Pettitt, Creative Commons

But the church also must be protected. If the leader is unwilling to step down, refuses to acknowledge sin, or attempts to manipulate parishioners into supporting his or her cause, the sheep must be defended. There are cases where niceness and diplomacy must go out the window and church leaders must deal decisively to remove a dangerous or abusive leader. Shepherds must protect their sheep.

7.) Restoratively – The goal of all church discipline is not punishment but rather restoration. Personality disorders are notoriously difficult to treat. The success rate is not high. But any leader who acknowledges his or her illness with its attendant harmful behavior, seeks treatment, and over a long period of time demonstrates changed behavior, healthy boundaries, and a humble willingness to accept accountability, may someday be in a place to again function as a leader in some capacity. That would be the ideal result.


I have purposely left out the details of how to remove a church leader from office because different denominations have different practices. If you belong to a church which either doesn’t follow its denominational processes or functions independently without a process for holding leaders accountable, then you have a problem. At the very least, 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 provide the qualifications on which to evaluate a leader’s behavior; and Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 provide a template for confrontation.

If you attend a church where these healthy steps are out of the question—I am thinking of a totalitarian cult where dissenters are punished and to even question the leader in your thoughts is considered sinful, as was the case in my former church—then you should leave that church and attend a healthy church where God’s word is honored and the hearts of leaders and parishioners alike are nurtured and protected. It will cost you something, but you will gain far more.

Update, 11/17/15: William E. Krill, Jr., L.P.C., has written an outstanding article about how to deal with the Narcissistic Personality Disordered pastor. You can find it here.

Related Posts:

1.) A Sensitive Topic: Personality Disorders in the Church (Part 1 of 5)
2.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Part 2 of 5)
3.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (Part 3 of 5)
4.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Paranoid  Personality Disorder (Part 4 of 5)
5.) How to Deal with Personality Disorders among Church Leaders (Part 5 of 5)
Self-Deprecating Narcissists: Why Some Christian Narcissists Appear Humble
Why We Tolerate Psychotic Pastors


Personality Disorders in the Church: Paranoid Personality Disorder (Part 4 of 5)

In my research on cults—and in my own experience as a former cult member—I have learned that many cult leaders evidence traits of undiagnosed personality disorders.

What is a personality disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic:

“A personality disorder is a type of mental illness in which you have trouble perceiving and relating to situations and to people — including yourself. In general, having a personality disorder means you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking and behaving no matter what the situation. This leads to significant problems and limitations in relationships, social encounters, work and school. In some cases, you may not realize that you have a personality disorder because your way of thinking and behaving seems natural to you, and you may blame others for the challenges you face.”

I think most of us can agree that if a church leader has an untreated personality disorder it could make him or her more prone to commit spiritual abuse. And that would be good to know, wouldn’t it?

In two previous posts we discussed Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder.

paranoid personality disorderParanoid Personality Disorder rounds out the top three personality disorders most likely to be found in a cult leader or spiritually abusive pastor. Indeed, the DSM-IV says that some individuals with Paranoid Personality Disorder “may be perceived as ‘fanatics’ and form tightly knit ‘cults’ or groups with others who share their paranoid belief systems.” When coupled with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, as PPD often is, you have a recipe for an ideal cult leader.

It’s important for me to state that I am not a clinician. I know only what I have read, learned in psychology classes, or experienced for 25 years as a member of a Bible-cult run by a man who was later professionally diagnosed with several personality disorders. But I think what I describe below will sound all too familiar for many victims of spiritual abuse. In addition, the account of King Saul in the Old Testament is a textbook example of PPD.

The purpose of this post—and of this series—is to raise awareness about a little-discussed area so that church members and church leaders can avoid following a mentally ill leader who confuses his or her mental illness with the character and will of God.

Paranoid Personality Disorder

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV), the “essential feature of Paranoid Personality Disorder is a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent.” It occurs in only about 2.5% of the general population, but as we discussed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, folks with these disorders tend to seek out leadership roles because of their need to control people and circumstances.

For a full description of this disorder, you can read the relevant section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. All material in quotes below is from the DSM-IV.

Cult Leaders and Paranoid Personality Disorder

How might this disorder manifest itself in the church? Consider the following fifteen symptoms:

1.) Overreaction to perceived or minimal offenses – Individuals with PPD fixate on past grievances and refuse to forgive or forget. The ultimate expression of this is when they equate offense against their person with an offense against Almighty God. This explains why “they are quick to counterattack and react with anger to perceived insults.” In addition, “Because of their quickness to counterattack in response to the threats they perceive around them, they may be litigious and frequently become involved in legal disputes.”

eraser paranoia

Kristin Nador, Creative Commons

2.) Revisionist history – Individuals with PPD revise their entire perception of a person if that person questions their character or leadership, or—the ultimate betrayal!—leaves their church. Years of positive memories may be altered to correlate with the new image of a sinister person rather than a friend, colleague, or associate. This is why cult leaders can shun and ostracize former members so easily: they are “of the devil,” “of the world,” “a rebel,” or some other thought-stopping term which erases an entire life and replaces it with a paranoid label.

3.) Followers must be perfect – Any deviation from perfect obedience to the leader results in suspicion, accusations, and confrontation. The leader actively looks for disloyalty and perceives obedience flaws or imperfect performance as rebellion against themselves or God.

4.) Inability to confide or delegate – The leader mistrusts others and will not confide personal information. He or she often refuses to delegate tasks because of fear that the follower is untrustworthy, either in character or in ability.

5.) Sympathetic paranoia – Individuals with PPD “read hidden meanings that are demeaning or threatening into benign remarks or events.” For this reason, followers begin to feel on edge, as if they are walking on eggshells. Even their most careful and considerate remarks can be twisted out of context by the leader, read-into, or analyzed for disrespect. This creates a climate of sympathetic paranoia.

6.) Inability to laugh at oneself or accept criticism – Individuals with PPD show a marked lack of humor when it comes to their own reputation or character. They may poke fun at others—even at themselves—but if you try to poke fun at their appearance or performance, watch out. They will lash out at you or silence you. While they dump buckets of criticism on their followers, they refuse to receive a drop of unsolicited input.

top of the heap

Keith Jones, Creative Commons

7.) Obsessed with reputation and status – Because individuals with PPD are constantly vigilant against the malevolent intentions of others, they also feel the need to constantly remind their followers how gifted and unique they are—and how far ahead they are of their followers.

8.) Trivial, circumstantial, or fabricated evidence of betrayal – Individuals with PPD need no actual evidence of malevolent intent to accuse someone else of wrongdoing. All they need is the normal stuff of life and the mystical connections made in their own head or visited upon them by “angels” or scripture to fabricate conspiracy theories.

9.) Conspiracy theories – Church leaders with PPD construct elaborate conspiracy theories which may include other churches, local law enforcement, media, ex-members, Satanists, and every other Christian except the members of their own small group. Anyone outside the group must not be trusted.

10.) Sarcasm and hostility toward outsiders – Leaders with PPD tend to treat outsiders with disdain, scorn, or patronizing rhetoric. Understandably, outsiders react against this abuse which then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for the leader with PPD. “Their combative and suspicious nature may elicit a hostile response in others, which then serves to confirm their original expectations.”

11.) Need for control and autonomy – As with the mightiest dictators, so with the pettiest: “Because individuals with PPD lack trust in others, they have an excessive need to be self-sufficient and a strong sense of autonomy. They also need to have a high degree of control over those around them.” This results in surveillance in the church, networks of “spies” who are loyal to the leader, invasion of privacy, forced confessions for attitudinal or thought sins, and public humiliation and punishment of offenders.

paranoid personality disorder12.) Stereotypes – Because individuals with PPD exert so much energy creating their conspiracy theories, they have little room to appreciate outsiders or invest in getting to know them. “Individuals with this disorder seek to confirm their preconceived negative notions regarding people or situations they encounter, attributing malevolent motivations to others that are projections of their own fears… [they also] tend to develop negative stereotypes of others, particularly those from population groups distinct from their own.”

13.) Rigidity – Individuals with PPD may demonstrate inflexibility in relationships or routine. They do this unconsciously as a safety mechanism, staying in the middle of previously marked channels which they have deemed safe enough. “They are often rigid, critical of others, and unable to collaborate.”

14.) Grandiose and Hierarchical – At the root of PPD is a distorted attempt to mandate personal security and significance. We all need both, but leaders with PPD try to carve out their own kingdoms in which they alone sit on the throne with everyone else paying them homage. “They may exhibit thinly hidden, unrealistic grandiose fantasies [and] are often attuned to issues of power and rank.”

15.) Simplistic, Fanatical, and Cult-like – “Attracted by simplistic formulations of the world, they are often wary of ambiguous situations. They may be perceived as ‘fanatics’ and form tightly knit ‘cults’ or groups with others who share their paranoid belief systems.”


In the last post in this series, we’ll talk about how the church should relate to leaders who evidence personality disorders. As we’ll see, there is a whole spectrum of response based on the level of severity, degree of awareness, and willingness to receive help.

Related Posts:

1.) A Sensitive Topic: Personality Disorders in the Church (Part 1 of 5)
2.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Part 2 of 5)
3.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (Part 3 of 5)
4.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Paranoid  Personality Disorder (Part 4 of 5)
5.) Personality Disorders in the Church: How to Deal with Them (Part 5 of 5)
Self-Deprecating Narcissists: Why Some Christian Narcissists Appear Humble
Why We Tolerate Psychotic Pastors


Confirmation Bias and the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Debate

Lower your pitchforks. This is not a post about origins. Instead it is a post considering the reaction to the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate held on Tuesday, February 4, 2014. I have read dozens of blog posts and news articles which offer interpretations of who won. And I’ve read hundreds of comments on those posts, some of which were snarky, others more fair-minded.

My favorite was the series of comments left by a gentleman on Rachel Held Evans’ thread who jumped into the discussion after admitting that he hadn’t even watched the debate. Classy. Very classy.

The reaction to the debate has provided an almost textbook example of confirmation bias. What is confirmation bias?

“In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or under-weigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis. As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.” (From Science Daily)

In case it’s important to you, I don’t yet know where I stand on the age of the earth. I’m a creationist who believes that a Christian can sincerely hold to a wide spectrum on this particular issue. But since I grew up in a Bible cult where the pastor practiced information control, religious brainwashing, and confirmation bias, I have evolved antennae which vibrate when I hear selective evidence and name-calling used as battering rams against critical thinking. This doesn’t make me unbiased or objective—I too have a preferred worldview and tend to give undue weight to facts which seem to support it—but it does make me more aware of this tendency when I read about it in newspapers or in blog posts.

nye_ham_debateI watched the entire debate, including the Q&A session, and took ten pages of notes. And what I have observed generally in the reaction to the debate by the blogosphere and major media (there are exceptions, of course) is a selective hooding of information when it disagrees with the particular author or journalist’s worldview. This makes me deeply suspicious of their conclusions.

It also beautifully illustrates why Ham and Nye could work with the same data and come to very different interpretations. After all, if we all watched the same debate made up of actual words and phrases and claims and counterclaims—raw data available by watching the video or reading a transcript—and yet some bloggers only cite Nye’s use of scientific data while others only cite Ham’s, that shows that raw data may be manipulated and interpreted to create the result we desire. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is confirmation bias.

Missed Opportunities?

Many bloggers have criticized Nye and Ham for “missing opportunities” to present compelling data for their assertions. Or they have cited instance after instance of their chosen champion’s use of facts and then have only cited their hated opponent’s use of silly jokes (both Nye and Ham), appeals to biblical authority (Ham), or failure to answer fundamental questions as to the origin of matter (Nye). The most popular theme has been to decry the debate as a Science vs. Religion travesty. It wasn’t. It was a battle between worldviews where both men offered scientific data for their worldview but disagreed on the matter of authority and interpretation.

Based only on the facts presented in the debate, both Nye and Ham presented evidence for their theory of origins. Both gave rebuttals to several of the other’s claims regarding facts, and both failed to rebut several claims.

To reduce this to a Religion vs. Science debate and then selectively quote Nye’s use of fossil skulls, tree rings, speciation, and ice layers, while failing to quote Ham’s evidence of ice-entombed planes, basalt-entombed wood, and his references to astrophysics, genetics, and hydrology, represents a glaring example of confirmation bias. Equally, bloggers or journalists who make Nye seem silly by only quoting his admissions of ignorance in regard to the origins of matter or consciousness, or by showing how poorly he understands biblical textual criticism, while ignoring his reference to tiktaalik or ice cores or fossil skulls, also show their confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias: only selecting the evidence that fits your presuppositions, and masking or ignoring any evidence that confronts it or would cause you to question your worldview.


Both Ham and Nye can’t be right. One (or both) is fabulously wrong. And there were other interpretive frameworks which were not given a place at the table at all.

But when bloggers or reporters self-righteously criticize Ham or Nye and then proceed to give undue weight to certain evidence and completely ignore conflicting evidence, they are guilty of confirmation bias. This is both unscientific and unfair. It is also hypocritical. When a blogger quotes selectively in order to make his or her position look superior while caricaturing the other side as inept, idiotic, or irrational, he or she loses credibility and impoverishes the reader who genuinely wants to learn.

Better to present a balanced perspective giving full due to the scientific claims of both sides before offering your own interpretation.

If the truth is on your side, you have nothing to fear from such generous fair-mindedness.


Missing Link: Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and the Lack of Transitional Bloggers

nye_ham_debateIn case you missed it, Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky, and Bill Nye (of Science Guy fame), will debate “Is Creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

You can catch the debate on 2.4.14 at debatelive.org.

It sounds like a great event. The chief apologist for Young Earth Creationism versus the most popular television personality in the realm of science. What’s not to love? Maybe someone will tune in to the debate and learn something. Hear an argument from Ken or Bill they’d never heard before. Decide to do some research on their own. Grow a little in critical thinking skills.

That’s why I felt a little dismayed when I started to read blog posts about the event:

Patheos: “Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham: Giving Credibility to Nonsense or Walking Into an Apologetic War Machine”

Internet Monk: “Bad Idea. Very Bad Idea. Horrendously Bad Idea.”

Dangerous Minds: “Get Your Popcorn Ready: Bill Nye the Science Guy to Debate Idiot Creation Museum Founder Ken Ham”

Richard Dawkins: “Why Bill Nye Shouldn’t Debate Ken Ham”

Evolution News: “Regarding that Creationism Debate Pitting Bill Nye Against Ken Ham, Here’s My Guilty Admission”

Huffington Post: “As a Reformed Creationist, I Hope Bill Nye Doesn’t Underestimate Ken Ham”

The last article shows why everyone is so upset about this debate: not just because it’s a media event, but because there’s a real chance that Ken Ham will run circles around Nye, and to folks who hold to Evolution, that’s a train wreck.

What you don’t see in this list of articles is any explanation as to how Ham could walk away with a win if Young Earth Creationism is built on snake oil and pseudo-science as its opponents suggest.

The Missing Link

In the list above, there’s a missing link: the link to an article which fairly represents the strongest positions on both sides and invites readers to judge for themselves. I couldn’t find one.

It troubles me that bloggers are willing to warn people away from this debate, call it a freak show or a media circus, without returning to the fact that it is a debate between two camps who interpret the same facts differently.

It’s a debate, and viewers can decide for themselves if Ham seems like a quack or if Nye comes off sounding like an expert.

But it seems that everyone has already made up their minds as to what they believe, and no debate is going to get in the way of their presuppositions. Many bloggers–certainly the ones listed above–are already fossilized in their opinions, and there are few transitional bloggers to be found.

rachel_held_evans_on_creationismAuthor and blogger Rachel Held Evans (who I normally admire as a tenacious thinker), tweeted that anyone who believes in Young Earth Creationism, in order to be consistent, “must also believe that the earth is held up by pillars and covered in a firmament.” This is unfair and actually wrong. Young Earth Creationists do understand metaphor and differences in literary genre. And by “firmament” Rachel probably means vapor canopy, because we all believe the world is covered by a firmament. Firmament means “sky” or “heavens.”

So why would Rachel, normally a clear thinker, belittle Young Earth Creationists in ways that make them sound ridiculous by using terms which aren’t even accurate? And why would no one in her Twitter feed know enough—or care enough—to point out the error?

I think it’s because when it comes to Creation vs. Evolution, the battle lines are already drawn and reactionism replaces reason.

When Bloggers Act Like Congress

Rachel wrote a book about her own journey out of Christian fundamentalism and how she evolved as a thinker (Evolving in Monkey Town – a great read). The Young Earth Creationists trigger her because she grew up believing that was the only possible interpretation of scripture, which left her feeling foolish and betrayed when she heard other perspectives. So she reacts strongly against anyone who tries to show the merits of Creation Science today.

I can understand that, because I do the same thing. I often react to the area of spiritual authority because of my own background in a Bible cult. I also sometimes mock folks who seem to farm their thinking off to other people, because that’s what I used to do. But that doesn’t make my mocking correct, and it certainly doesn’t make it Christian.

That’s why it troubles me when popular bloggers, instead of listening in order to understand the best arguments of the other side, have instead led the charge in the “no thinking and no questions allowed” campaign with Creationism vs. Evolution.

If you’re a Creationist, you’re an idiot. If you’re an Evolutionist, you’re going to hell.

How moderate.

It sounds a lot like Congress, actually, where Republicans and Democrats accuse each other of idiocy and nefarious motives, listen to each other without hearing the substance of the conversation, and try to overcome each other with blunt force. They also try to keep the other side’s arguments and proposed bills from the general public via denial of service attacks (filibustering) and snarky rhetoric which is heavy on accusation and scanty on facts.

So that’s working pretty well for our government, right?

If not, then why do we think similar scare tactics and reactionism will promote understanding in the Creation vs. Evolution debate?

But we do it. Bloggers have already told everyone why this debate is such a bad idea and what a freak show it will be. The content of the debate? Irrelevant. Why? Because for many bloggers, the debate itself lends credibility to Young Earth Creationism as reputable science. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is apparently intolerable.

Asking the Big Questions

This concerns me. If Young Earth Creationism is based on “junk” science as some of these bloggers suggest, then a debate seems like just the place to expose it.

But it’s not that simple, and the Young Earth arguments are not that easy to dismiss. This is because Young Earth Creationists have their own stable of experts and Ph.D scientists who write journal articles and use footnotes and draw diagrams and use calculus and physics and hydrology and quantum mechanics to back up their interpretation of the data. It’s actually pretty impressive.


Ken Ham, via Answers in Genesis

Young Earth Creationists, for their part, add their own shrill voice to this polarized arena. Ken Ham is well known for calling this issue a culture war and using militaristic language to describe the controversy. Evolutionists are ridiculed, pamphlets are churned out by the hundreds, children are taught to fear the mainstream educational system and to believe that a person cannot hold to evolution and still be a Christian.

I was taught these things in my former church. We attended a “Creation Vacation” in 1994 and I learned some of the questions to ask about evolution:

  • Why are there polystrate fossils?
  • Why do human footprints appear with dinosaur prints in Glen Rose, Texas?
  • Why is there such discrepancy in dating methods?
  • How can evolution defy the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?
  • Are geological patterns best explained by Uniformitarianism or Catastrophism?
  • Why does Jesus refer to a literal Adam and Eve if they never existed?
  • What about irreducible complexity?
  • Where are the transitional fossils that evolution demands?

If you’re an Evolutionist, you already have answers to most of these. I, however, believed that anyone who did not subscribe to Young Earth, six-day Creationism was going to hell.


Bill Nye, via BillNye.com

Later, after exiting my cult, I decided to do some research on the other side of the debate. Look into some of Evolution’s best questions for Christianity:

  • How is it that we can see light from stars which are billions of light years away?
  • Why do rocks and fossils appear to be millions of years old?
  • Why does the fossil record appear to show evolution from simple to complex organisms over time?
  • Why are there similarities in genetic material between apes and humans?
  • Do the days in Genesis 1 and 2 refer to literal 24-hour days? How can that be if the first several days had no sun?
  • Why did God give T-Rex and lions sharp teeth if they ate only vegetables?
  • How could Noah fit all the animals onto the ark?
  • Where did Cain get his wife?

If you’re a Young Earth Creationist, you already have answers for these. But each question certainly deserves serious study and could involve reading widely from conflicting sources, don’t you think?


Where are the transitional bloggers—those who are willing to hold in tension data which appears to be in conflict? Where are the voices of reason and moderation? Where are the critical thinkers who avoid ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments?

When a blogger says that a debate is a bad idea before the debate has happened, he or she displays a troubling bias. Don’t think about these issues, they might as well say, just believe. Trust the scientists. Trust the Evolutionists. Ken Ham is an idiot. It will be a freak show.

But maybe the freak show is happening on blogs which refuse to seriously consider alternative viewpoints or let readers and viewers decide for themselves. Is Creation a viable model of origins, or is it dead on arrival? Bloggers have already expressed their set-in-stone opinions.

I hope you can think for yourself and work it out in transition.

Maybe you can be that blogger who provides the missing link.