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Why do Evangelicals Flee One Cult, Only to Join Another?

cult of apple
Cartoon by Mike Luckovich

One of the hardest things I had to come to terms with was the fact that my parents raised me in a cult; that I was a member of a cult; that I attended a college operated by a cult; that I married a girl who was also a member of a cult; that I spent twenty-five years evangelizing for a cult and pastoring its churches. Worse yet, as devoted cult members, my wife and I raised our six children in the way of the cult, in the truth of the cult, and in the life of the cult. All religions, to some degree or the other, are cults. The dictionary describes the word “cult” several ways:

  • A system of religious beliefs and rituals
  • A religion or sect that is generally considered to be unorthodox, extreme, or false [who determines what is unorthodox, extreme, or false?]
  • Followers of an unorthodox, extremist, or false religion or sect who often live outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader
  • Followers of an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices

As you can see from these definitions, Christianity is a cult. In particular, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement and Evangelicalism, in general, are cults. I rarely use the word “cult” when describing Evangelical beliefs and practices because the word means something different to Evangelicals. In their minds, sects such as The Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church, and the Roman Catholic Church are cults. Some Evangelical churches bring in cult specialists to teach congregants about what is and isn’t a cult. Countless Evangelicals have read Walter Martin’s seminal work, The Kingdom of the Cults. Martin’s book was considered the go-to reference work when it came to cults. Martin defined a cult this way: a group of people gathered about a specific person—or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible. In Martin’s mind, any group of people who follow a person’s misinterpretation of the Bible is a cult. Of course, Martin — a Fundamentalist Baptist — was the sole arbiter of what was considered a misinterpretation of the Bible. Written in 1965, The Kingdom of the Cults included sects such as Seventh-day Adventism, Unitarian Universalism, Worldwide Church of God, Buddhism, and Islam. Martin also believed certain heterodox Christian sects had cultic tendencies. I am sure that if Martin were alive today, a revised version of The Kingdom of the Cults would be significantly larger than the 701 pages of the first edition. Martin and his followers, much like Joseph McCarthy, who saw communists under every bed, saw cultism everywhere they looked — except in their own backyards, that is.

Over the years, I have heard from numerous college classmates and former parishioners who wanted me to know that they had left cultic IFB churches and joined up with what they believed were non-cultic Evangelical churches. These letter-writers praised me for my exposure of the IFB church movement, but they were dismayed over my rejection of Christianity in general. In their minds, I threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; if I would just find a church like theirs I would see and know the “truth.” I concluded, after reading their testimonies, that all they had really done is trade one cult for another.

Take, for example, my college classmates. Most of them were raised in strict IFB homes and churches. Some of them had pastor fathers. Later in life, they came to believe that the IFB church movement, with its attendant legalistic codes of conduct, was a cult. As I mentioned in my post titled, Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists? there are two components to religious fundamentalism: theological fundamentalism and social fundamentalism. Most Evangelicals are both theological and social Fundamentalists, even though some of them will deny the latter. My college classmates, in leaving the IFB church movement, distanced themselves from social fundamentalism while retaining their theological fundamentalist beliefs. They wrongly believe that by rejecting the codes of conduct of their former churches, they were no longer members of a cult. However, their theology changed very little, and often they just traded a “legalistic” code of conduct for a “Biblical” one. These “non-legalists” revel in their newfound freedoms — drinking alcohol, going to movies, wearing pants (women), saying curse words, smoking cigars, having long hair (men), listening to secular music, using non-King James Bible translations, and having sex in non-missionary positions, to name a few — thinking that they have finally escaped the cult, when in fact they just moved their church membership from one cult to another. When the core theology of their old church is compared to their new church, few differences are found.

I can’t emphasize this enough: regardless of the name on the door, the style of worship/music, or ecclesiology, Evangelical churches are pretty much all the same. Many Evangelicals consider Westboro Baptist Church to be a cult. However, a close examination of their theology reveals that there is little difference between the theology of the late Fred Phelps and his clan and that of Southern Baptist luminary Al Mohler and his fellow Calvinists. Ask ten local Evangelical churches for copies of their church doctrinal statement and compare them. You will find differences on matters of church government, spiritual gifts, and other peripheral issues Christians perpetually fight over, but when it comes to the core doctrines of Christianity, they are in agreement.

Calvinists and Arminians — who have been bickering with each other for centuries — will vehemently disagree with my assertion that they are one and the same, but when you peel away each group’s peculiar interpretations of the Bible, what you are left with are the historic, orthodox beliefs expressed in the creeds of early Christianity. There may be countless flavors of ice cream, but they all have one thing in common: milk. So it is with Evangelical sects and churches. During what I call our wandering years, Polly and I attended over one hundred Christian churches, looking for a church that took seriously the teachings of Christ. We concluded that Evangelical churches are pretty much all the same, and that the decision on which church to attend is pretty much up to which kind of ice cream you like the best. No matter how “special” some Evangelical churches think they are, close examination reveals that they are not much different from other churches. This means then, that there is little to no difference theologically among Christian cults. Codes of conduct differ from church to church, but at the center of every congregation is the greatest cult leader of all time, Jesus Christ. (See But Our Church is DIFFERENT!)

Go back and read the definitions of the word cult at the top of this post, and then read Walter Martin’s definition of a cult/cult leader. Is not Jesus a cult leader? Is not the Apostle Paul also a cult leader? Is not the sect founded and propagated by Jesus, Peter, James, John, and Paul, and propagated for two thousand years by pastors/priests/evangelists/missionaries a cult? Is not the Judaism of the Old Testament a blood cult, as is its offspring, Christianity? Surely a fair-minded person must conclude that Christianity is a cult. Regardless of denomination, peculiar beliefs, and different codes of conduct, all Christian churches are, in effect, cult temples, no different from the “pagan” temples mentioned in the New Testament.

Disagree? By all means, use the comment section to explain why your Christian/Evangelical/IFB sect/church is not a cult, but other sects and churches are. Why should your beliefs and practices be considered truth and all others false? Hint, the Bible says is not an acceptable answer (nor are worn-out presuppositional tropes). All cultists appeal to their religious texts for proof that their beliefs and practices are “truth.” Why should anyone accept your sect’s book as “truth?” Why should anyone believe that Jesus is the way, truth, and life or that the Christian God is the one true God?

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    The feelings. We go from one cult or addiction to another for the feelings it allows us and the ones it helps us bury. When we are abandoned as babies and given over to God, the panic of loss is too much to bear. We grow in knowledge of Christian delusion heaped on us day and night and when we are punished, cajoled, hit, corrected, when we are wept over and begged and told we are loved…. It is pointed out that we are fallen and evil creatures, all of us and the only hope is to abandon ourselves too. This self-hatred is entirely learned behavior and when injected at a young enough age, it is a terribly difficult thing to let go. (Even my heart condition whispers to me that I killed Jesus.)
    I know people who do all kinds of drugs, both Rx and black market and many of them are very balanced in their getting high and getting the feelings of relief/joy/repose/you-name-it. They are moderates in the ‘faith’, just as some believers are, some churchgoers. And there are ex-Quiverfull blog writers I read who still attend church sometimes for a ‘hit’ even though they are not believers, not users exactly.
    We are addicted because we are damaged from birth, many of us. We get good therapy to assist us in keeping the ‘demon’ of belief under control, to keep from mainlining heroin and ruining our lives completely. We ‘manage’ our external lives with a specific order specifically to be able to turn away from the terror of our inner chaos, the orginal abandonment and rejection. Sweet baby Jesus is pure dope. How much would you like today? Have you abandoned your children to Jesus for their own good, to save them from you, you evil parent?

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    Many years ago the church I was attending brought in Walter martin for weeklong series on cults. He was an excellent speaker and I made sure to be there every night. I wonder how he would present evangelical Christianity if he had deconverted. I have a feeling he would be a lot like Bruce

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    Every religion starts out under the definition of cult – unorthodox teachings, etc. Then some gained acceptance, respectability, etc., and are just called religion. I don’t know who is in charge of downgrading a cult to a religion ha ha.

    My husband says that my running and obstacle racing communities are cults. When I follow trends in nutrition, some if those groups are cult-like too (est this, don’t eat that, or DIE).

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    Julia Traver

    Bruce, I have been reading your posts for quite a while now, so I thought it might be appropriate to stick my little toe in the water. I have never been a fundamentalist, an IFB, a Calvinist, or anything of that stripe. I was originally brought up Lutheran. However, I am a scholar and my philosophies/theology has changed very dramatically. However, that is another story for another time.
    The word Cultus (from the Latin) means to give worship. That is the only thing implied by this word when it was first used. Cult in the original use was not perjorative as it has rightly become in this modern day. Every deity had their own cultic following. It is the Deity — not the priest or the minister or the pastor or whatever you want to name this individual. It is the Deity you worship — not the human being. There are no sermons or books hoisted higher than the Divinity. There are no human explanations because we cannot explain a God. This is even the case in ancient Hebrew temple practice.
    There were several bad things that happened in the first few centuries of the common era, religion wise: 1. Constantine getting involved with the Christians (ie Council at Nicea), Titus’ defeat of Judea and/or the destruction of the temple, rise of Hermeticism/Gnosticism and possibly neo-Platonism, etc. If I was sitting in symposium I could probably remember more ;-).

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I totally agree with what you have written. If I wasn’t clear, all religions are cults, not just Evangelicals. I would even go so far as to say that we can see cultic tendencies in non-religious groups. I know several people who treat essential oils as Christians do the blood of Christ. They aggressively evangelize on behalf of their cult and even have a priesthood of sorts with their experts/conference speakers.

      Several years ago, I made the argument that there were several factions within atheism which had the hallmarks of religion. That didn’t go over very well. ? Today? These same factions have split, with some believers saying other believers aren’t “true” believers.

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    Kola Dushaj

    Any religion can be considered a cult. Any worldview can be considered a religion. So than we are all members of a cult and there is usually a figure in that cult. I am of the cult of the Lord Jesus Christ and it seems you are of Bart Ehrman’s persuasion. Its just the way it is. We are all Somebodies fool. I’m Christ’s fool. Who’s fool are you?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      You are grossly and ignorantly distorting the use of the word cult.

      Around here I’m the God everyone worships. I am, after all, Bruce Almighty. Surely, you’ve seen the movie about me? I encourage you to consider joining the Bruce Cult. Heaven on earth awaits if you renounce your blood cult and join my cult. The advantages are many, and best of all everything is FREE. Top that Jesus!

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    I went from the Pentecostal cult of my childhood to the Baptist cult of my husband. Both nearly killed me emotionally even though I remained functional. Finally free, but still have emotion setbacks and struggles from triggers every once in awhile. Cannot hardly stand being around my parents or anyone who is a diehard cult member. I just try to distance and isolate from them. We have fought hard to raise our kids differently and are glad to say we succeeded. These cults are dangerous and must be called out publicly. Thanks for telling it like it is.

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    Great article…..could not agree more that it is a cult propagated for 2000yrs…:):)….a blood ritual, with Jesus at its head,to replace the lamb sacrifice cult of Judaism.

    The cult movement I feel sorry for are those of the JWs. Actually spreading god’s word, door knocking and handing out free bibles, invading others privacy to promote their cults version of the same book. That is commitment. By default, they automatically feel compelled to become travelling prophets, self made priests, and probably the main reason for their cult being disliked.
    Most Christian cults are aligned to the priest knows best policy,( he has the PhD to prove it), and its better to hear his take on a Sunday, than become a philosophical theologian themselves, and chose which literal interpretation to follow.
    Shouldnt everyone become a priest (like JW s) because the bible demands it?
    Only the decendents of the Levites can be priests?
    Only men of Jesus can be priests?
    Only PhD/M.Div, or theologians can be priests?…..this cult is confusing (only a trained expert should promote it)

    The thing that unites all the Christian cults though, is the Bible……a book that mentions many cults,and actually creates cults in movements designed to both defend its contradictions, or promote its ideas.
    The JWs aligned to the ‘sacred name’ movement….. J e H o V a H, a geuss at JHVH.
    Baptists align to the ‘born again’ movement…… An adult baptism washing away sin.
    + many others….
    Be aware there is now a “welcoming” movement, the Bible has(forgotten sodomy)& produced tolerance and acceptance and now welcomes the LGBTQ ‘movement’, and aligned to the Episcopal cult.
    There is also a “collective” movement…..collecting churches all back under one

    How true Mary! These cults are dangerous and must be called out publicly. Especially a cult’s movements.

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    “a group of people gathered about a specific person—or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.”

    walter martin didn’t believe that hindus, muslims and buddhists were cult members? i have always been under the very distinct impression that he did…

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    I believe Trumpism fits the definition of a cult. I can’t recall a time when you’d see pickup trucks or homes festooned with flags and signs of a politician outside election season. It will be interesting to see how many people peel themselves away now that he’s announced that he’s running fir president in 2024. A lot of the “elites” have openly backed away – what will that do fir his rank-and-file followers? Will the cult shrink, or will it continue to grow?

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Obstacle–You beat me to what I was going to say. Contrary to what liberal pundits and others say, Trump supporters aren’t gathered around Trump the person because, I think, they don’t really know who he is. Nor could they tell you what he stands for, if anything besides himself. Rather, they worship an image or idea they have of him. In that sense, the cult of Trump is no different from that of Christianity: Nobody knows what Christ, or even the apostles, were like and we only know what they might have thought through sources that, though written, are hardly authoritative.

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    As Julia noted above, I think the modern semantics of the word “cult” become troublesome the more one tries to apply the term. Most of us have no trouble regarding a Scientologist as more or less a “cultist,” but a liberal Quaker? A bell ringer for the Salvation Army? Case in point, when Bruce visited an Episcopal Church, someone there told him he could “believe whatever he wanted.” How is that group “cultist” then? Only in the sense of its having a god (according to the old definition). Still, it hardly amounts to Scientology. The meaning of “cult” quickly becomes tenuous. On this score, it’s significant that churches are also accused merely of being “clubs.” There’s an important distinction there—in a club you’re allowed to leave while a cult would aggressively attempt to “keep” you. Implicit in the terms “cult” and “club” are, I think, important criticisms of religious groups they’re applied against. A “cult” is far too controlling, while a “club” is too lukewarm, vapid, and distant. The cult would control you, but the club doesn’t give a damn about you.

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    If Trumpism is a cult, Qanon is a Trump cult on steroids. I’ve been following a group on Reddit who has family or friends in the Q cult, and their loved ones have lost their minds. They believe stuff that would have landed a lot of them in mental hospitals 50 years ago. They believe every conspiracy theory, and are constantly paranoid. But it is noted that these Q cult members are ripe for the picking, getting grifted by many different leaders. I wonder why this movement arose and maybe it was just a prank. But the money possibilities are too good for anyone claiming to have knowledge of Q.

    It is pretty bad. And some of the grieving friends and family note violent tendencies in their loved ones. We already have heard of more than one murder happening due to people lost in the Q delusion killing family. Guns and cults really go well together in the US.

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Bruce Gerencser