After a friend shared some articles about the ongoing situation with James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel – one of which contained a charge from one of the (resigning) elders on his staff concerning cult-like behavior – several people threw their hands up in horror at hearing the word “cult” associated with a church.
It may come as a surprise that even evangelical churches can become cultic groups. But so it is. Quoting Steve Smith :
Can a group affirm the Bible and still be a cult?
What makes some groups destructive is not their doctrine but rather their practice. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them,” (cf. Matthew 7:15-20), and destructive groups have a way of twisting scriptures and practicing coercion which results in damaged followers. Ironically, groups like this are often intensely concerned about the fruits of salvation in their followers, yet their own fruit is rotten.
In his paper, “Cult Formation“, Robert J. Lifton, M.D. listed three primary characteristics of a cult as follows:
a) A charismatic leader [or, I add, nucleus of leaders] with no meaningful accountability,
b) A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform, and
c) Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
When the whole Harvest situation came to my attention, and I read MacDonald’s version, members’ testimonies and Roys’ investigation (which I did, not out of morbid fascination but because James MacDonald is a familiar name and several of my friends follow his ministry), what stood out immediately to me were those basic cultic characteristics.
Some people are taking exception to the fact that the situation is being made public, and that Christians are sharing links to the investigation on the social media, something they call “participating in a smear campaign”. They think we are bound to only speak well of other Christians, protect their reputations, overlook facts and cover up any sin in the interest of love & good testimony.
But reputations are not sacred – in fact, as Rebecca Davis pointed out in her outstanding article, “The only thing a person deserves when it comes to reputation is to have his reputation match his character.” If Christian leaders or groups are engaging in cultic behavior, they SHOULD be exposed – in the interest of all. Those being wronged should be helped. Those wronging should be stopped, and they should receive the opportunity to repent.
Silence (the no-whistleblowing policy) is not always the spiritual option – not when:
It replaces truth-telling;
It is inspired by fear;
It keeps wrong unchallenged;
It covers up harm;
It enables harmers.
There are situations where Paul’s directive applies: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather EXPOSE THEM” (Eph. 5:11).