Aberrant Christianity: What Is It?

by Pat Knapp

Unlike groups like the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses, aberrant Christian sects are often viewed as only unorthodox and not necessitating close evaluation. On the surface they may even appear "normal."

But the presence of immature and even unregenerate leadership in a church can have DISASTROUS results. This was seen in the mass suicide/murders in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978 and, more recently, in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993.

So what is "Aberrant" Christianity? How can we help those affected and, hopefully, keep ourselves and others from being caught up in such groups in the first place? Before addressing these issues, some insights into just what comprises an aberrational Christian group would be in order. A short story ...

A Personal Testimony

It started in 1970. I had been a Christian for a year and was attending a local Christian college. At this time, I joined a small assembly of believers that became 13 years of involvement in an aberrant Christian group. Initially, the group appeared relatively healthy and the basic Gospel was preached. However, as time went on, we became more convinced of our "specialness" -- our "unique calling."

The leader had come from India and saw himself as a missionary to the USA. He had been ordained a Southern Baptist minister, taught for a while at Wheaton College and was associated with India's leading evangelist. The leader believed God called him to a special place of servant-hood that would lead to many misunderstanding him.

In 1973 he claimed he was being "led" by God to divorce his current wife. He explained God had revealed to him that he had never "truly" been married to her as they were not married "in Spirit." He was now to marry the wife of another member. This woman was nearly 30 years his junior.

As a result of this incidence, the group split. My wife and I chose to stay with the leader. I was in the Army at the time and was shortly assigned to the Second General Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany for 15 months.

During this time, the leader wrote us almost daily. He said he was committed to our spiritual welfare. We were instructed not to have much to do with Christians in Germany as they hadn't been "enlightened" as we were.

Due to this extreme exclusiveness, we felt the only way we could have any Christian fellowship was to develop our own small home church there in Germany. We started our own extension and met weekly for worship, always promoting the Mother church and its doctrines.

Many "revelations from God" were given to the leader during our stay in Germany. He was "led" to purchase an extremely expensive home; then he was "led" to tell me of my responsibility to help him pay for it!

A great deal of money, a car, appliances and saving bonds were turned over to him. Then God "revealed" to him that he was to sell the home. Since many in the group were so occupied with being "counseled" by him rather than working, there were too few funds to make the payments (later I redefined his "counseling" as a form of emotional abuse).

Upon returning to Denver I took a job the leader had decided was right for me. I wasn't suited for it and I didn't want it. To the leader, this didn't matter as only "God's anointed" knew God's will for us.

We entered a long period of heavy counseling. These sessions often lasted long into the night and early morning hours. Much of this "counseling" focused on the importance of giving up all contact with our parents/ relatives and friends outside of the group. They were "evil" because they had not "accepted the cross" as we had.

We were eager to "belong" and to feel special, so we went along. We refused any contact from those previously important to us. This lasted for 8 years. All of this was done in the name of "committed Christianity" -- or so we thought.

Questions arose frequently for us: "Why, if the group was truly being led by the Holy Spirit and consistent with the Word of God, did it not grow? Why didn't the church have any lasting impact on people outside its membership (or for that matter, inside)? Why did it all seem so much like a cardboard front?"

These questions were not permitted to be asked. When occasionally they surfaced (cloaked in religious jargon), counseling was done by the leader and one of the more "mature" brothers of the group. These sessions were used as a club to bring the person who asked the questions into submission.

As time went on, more and more emotional bridges were burned (separation from parents, outside friends etc.). It became increasingly harder to resist the whims of the leader and the direction the group was taking. By this time, the leader was referred to as "Dad" or "Papa" by most in the group.

Finally in January of 1984, things came to a head for us. I discovered the leader had been involved in gross sin. This sin could not be justified by seeing the Scripture "in the Spirit" as he put it. THEOLOGICAL RELATIVISM had become the norm.

I confronted him on it. He said, "It could be true; it could be false. I knew when I entered this ministry I would be accused of such things. Believe what you will." He took the Fifth Amendment. The STANDARD FOR TRUTH had become his feelings, not the Word of God. He became accountable to "God alone" with no mutual submission.

We left with our family, now including four children. Since then we have re-established our relationships with relatives and friends. We also are going through the needed healing process, both for ourselves and those we hurt.

Characteristics of an Aberrant Group

So how does one differentiate between a genuinely sound, Christian group and one which is aberrant? There are central doctrinal and behavioral points that can be listed to illustrate the characteristics of aberrant groups. Not all aberrant groups will have ALL of these, nor will they have them in the SAME DEGREE. But these points can serve as RED FLAGS when evaluating a particular group.

1. Brief, Sound Beginnings:

Frequently these groups will begin with moderately sound doctrine. This however changes in order to rationalize the heavy commitment demanded of group members and to support the LEADERSHIP'S goals and ambitions. The personal desires, problems, idiosyncrasies and sins of the leader(s) begin to be expressed via changes in group practices and eventually in the doctrines of the group (1 Timothy 1:3-7).

2. Devaluation of the Bible:

This takes place either through emphasizing the leader's "revelations" over sound interpretation of the Bible or through vague or complex interpretations of Scripture. Often the interpretations will emphasize only certain verses consistent with the group's goals while negating others.

Sound hermeneutics (proper methods of Biblical interpretation) is rarely taught. The "sheep" are considered to be "not smart enough" or "not interested" in this important and essential teaching (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15; 2 Peter 3:14-16).

3. Fanaticism:

"Faith teaching" is sometimes exemplified by refusing to see doctors for check-ups, throwing away insulin or quitting one's job to "enter a life of faith." Scriptural teaching concerning the stewardship of one's talents and money are tossed aside when they conflict with the leader's teachings or the furtherance of the group's goals (1 Tim 5:23; Proverbs 6:6-11).

4. Devaluation or Loss of Personal Choice:

Personal choice is given up in deference to the leadership. One becomes and remains a small child when it comes to decision making. The leadership makes the significant and sometimes even small decisions for one's life (1 Timothy 2:5; Galatians 6:4f).

5. Closed System:

Internal criticism is considered to be rebellion, a critical spirit or seen as causing division among the brethren. Outside criticism is called "persecution" or a "Satanic attack." Satan is given an over-abundance of credit.

Most, if not all, of the individual's needs are met within the group. This eventually leads to the cutting off of significant outsiders (Galatians 2:11-21; John 17:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5:9f).

6. Demanding Lifestyle:

Strict adherence to the group's rules is required without consideration for cultural conditions. A communal setting often heightens the control but is not required (Colossians 2:18-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5).

7. Fear and Guilt:

These emotions are contrived and used as primary motivators. Members are told they will lose their salvation, hurt God, become a "nominal" Christian, or loose status within the group if they are disobedient. Ostracizing an uncooperative member is used to bring about obedience (Romans 8:1, 15; 1 John 4:15-18).

8. Anti-intellectual: Experience = truth:

One is merely socially and emotionally caught up into the beliefs of the church. There is very little use for apologetics or theology and a propositional view of reality. Questions concerning the group's belief system or actions are only tolerated in a token fashion and are strongly controlled by the group's leadership (Hosea 4:6; Luke 2:46; Acts 15:1-29).

9. Misplaced Responsibility:

Your responsibility for a relationship with God is transferred to the authority figure or the organizational system. The FOCUS for the individual is not to find a clearer understanding of who God is but instead to do the will of God (as defined by the dysfunctional system) and obey the leadership (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 4:14-16, 12:2; 1 John 2:27).

10. Salvation = Grace Plus:

Works of some sort (obedience, evangelism, financial giving, etc.) are added to the free gift of salvation. A person's performance equates to their salvation and spirituality (Romans 4:4-6, 9:16, 11:6).

11. Elitism:

"WE HAVE THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH WILL DIE WITH US." This attitude is evident in some special doctrine or way of life the group exhibits. All outside the group are considered non-Christians or at least inferior Christians (Proverbs 8:13; Mark 9:38-40; 2 Corinthians 10:12-18).

What is our Responsibility?

What is our responsibility in reference to such groups? I believe it is three-fold:

1. We must have a PASSION for following our living Savior. This includes:

    A. Earnest self-evaluation of our behaviors and doctrines (2 Corinthians 13:5).

    B. Intellectually knowing what we believe and why (Colossians 4:5f; 1 Timothy 4:6).

    C. Defend our faith with compassion and understanding of others (1 Peter 3:15).

2. We need to PATIENTLY and in CHRIST-LIKE LOVE confront those comfortable in aberrant Christian teaching and practice. Most of those involved have become involved out of ignorance and/ or great personal need - not out of a desire to control and manipulate others (2 Timothy 4:2; Jude 22f).

3. We need to recognize we are in SPIRITUAL WARFARE when dealing with those affected. Longsuffering and prayer are NECESSITIES not options (Ephesians 6:10-18).

Many people end up in aberrant Christian groups due to disillusionment with the "CHEAP CHRISTIANITY" they often see in many traditional churches.

(2 Peter 3:17-18)

Suggested Bibliography

Arterburn & Felton. Toxic Faith.
Barrs & Macaulay. Being Human.
Burks, Ron & Vickie. Damaged Disciples.
Bussell, Harold. Unholy Devotion.
Enroth, Ron. Churches that Abuses.
Hassan, Steven. Combating Cult Mind Control.
Johnson, Arthur. Faith Misguided.
Milne, Bruce. Know the Truth.
Schaeffer, Francis. True Spirituality.
VanVonderen, Jeff. Tired of Trying to Measure Up.
VanVonderen & Johnson. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
Webster, Douglas. A Passion for Christ.  Selling Jesus.

About the Author

Pat Knapp is a graduate of Denver Seminary, where he earned an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion with an emphasis on cults and apologetics. He was the director of a counter-cult ministry called "Shield of Faith" for several years and an ex-member of an aberrant Christian group for 13 years. He exited in 1984 and has been working with people in their recovery from religious abuse since then. Pat can be contacted via e-mail at: pat.knapp@attbi.com.

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