Wednesday, February 05, 2014
When is a church a cult?
In the review article I did on the Go Stand Speak video and the street preaching movement in the last RBT, I made reference to one of the featured speakers in the video and controversy over The Church at Wells, Texas. Texas Monthly magazine did an extended feature article in its February 2014 issue on this church, asking “When is a church a cult?” A message board has also been set up with various locals, family members, and others weighing in (sometimes unhelpfully) on the situation.
It is a fascinating religio-sociological study.
The members of the Church of Wells are generally well educated young adults (the core leaders met at Baylor University) who come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds, and who mostly grew up in mainstream evangelical churches. This reminded me of Rodney Stark’s study of early Christianity in The Rise of Early Christianity and his observation that most new religious movements do not begin among the poor and under-educated but among the more privileged and well-educated.
The leaders became heavily involved in the street preaching movement and their theology has been influenced by soteriological Calvinism and their reading of Spurgeon and the Puritans, as well as revivalistic preachers like Leonard Ravenhill and Rolphe Barnard. Where the group appears to have run into trouble is with its communal living and communal ownership of businesses, intense conflict with family and friends of members, isolation, and confrontations with local residents in the community.
Theologically, the church’s practices appear to raise questions in the following areas:
· It seems to stress the requirement of some kind of heightened spiritual experience to prove that one has been converted (salvation is not something given until diligently sought). R. Scott Clark would call this QIRE (the quest for an illegitimate religious experience). I have heard Paul Washer, who has had a significant influence on these young folk and others like them, for example, stress this sort of thing.
· Related to its views on regeneration, it seems the church does not hold to the classical Reformed understanding of the perseverance of the saints. Part of this comes as a reaction against easy-believism evangelism, false assurance, and “carnal Christianity,” typical of the mainstream evangelicalism in which they were raised and now vehemently attacked by the street preacher movement (e.g., the sermons of Paul Washer) by which they have been influenced.
· Also related to the above, the church seems to stress a distinct view of sanctification that may tend toward perfectionism. It has, at the least, led toward a self-righteous and judgmental demeanor.
· It also seems to hold to a non-cessationist viewpoint with regard to spiritual gifts. Members prayed for a newborn child who died to be “resurrected” (this is the term I’ve seen in the discussion; by this I’m sure they mean “resuscitated”) rather than seeking immediate medical help. Other anecdotal accounts include references to claiming direct divine communication via internal premonitions and “signs.”
· The church’s worship meetings are apparently closed to members (and their children) only. How does this fit with 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 where the “unlearned” and “unbelievers” were included in the church’s meetings?
· The rightful stress on obedience to Christ over obedience to all other human relationships, including that of families, must be weighed against the equally strong scriptural stream that stresses honor for parents and care for family members (cf. Matt 10:34-39; Exod 20:12; 1 Tim 5:8). This weighing appears largely to be lacking.
· The “elders” are three very young (though obviously very earnest and intelligent) men, all under age 30. One wag labeled it “the church of the hot boys.” It seems like things have spun out of control in their efforts to create an ideal Christian community.
· It seems that all opposition has been interpreted as persecution. I also find this to be typical of the street preaching mentality. I recently read one “in your face” street preaching advocate refer to it as “riot evangelism.” Whatever happened, however, to Paul’s admonition to believers to aspire to live quiet and uncontroversial lives (1 Thess 4:11)?
I know these are sensitive issues, and I am not crazy about discussing a local church’s internal life, but the issues surrounding this church have now become public. The charge of being a cult is, granted, hard to nail down and, if inaccurate, harmful and wrong. I once had a man accuse my Reformed views on church eldership, the preservation of Scripture, and the abiding validity of the fourth commandment as being “cultic.” Like most pastors, in the course of my ministry, I have sometimes been accused of being overbearing and controlling when I have had to confront or address difficult issues. I am sure many would see any conservative church as being a cult. Where, however, is the line between being a faithful and disciplined church and being a “cult”?
There are some things that conservative, Reformed churches can learn from Wells. One, I think, is the value of holding a historic, Reformed confession, as a safeguard against novel beliefs and practices. Another is the danger of “revivalistic” and experience-driven religion, as opposed to simple reliance on the ordinary means of grace. A third is the importance of ecclesiological accountability. How might much of this have been addressed if this church were connected to others that might have privately called a council to examine and confront errors and ill behavior on many sides?