Christianity and the Cult Phenomenon

Joshua Harris, the author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, recently renounced his faith and apologized for his awful book. I remember when it came out in the late 90’s, and still see the lasting damage it inflicted on two generations of young men and women. Harris ended up creating a toxic culture inside the mainstream church that would take two generations of Christian men back into the dark ages of devaluing women based on their level of sexual indiscretion, and helped fan the flames of homophobia and exclusion. His “sexual prosperity gospel”, as it’s been called, led to a life of guilt and shame for many, and created lasting scars that caused some to abandon their faith or their marriages later on in life.

Christianity teaches that a person’s worth has nothing to do with their sexual history (or orientation), but from Jesus, who was willing to die to reconcile humanity to God. We’re not defined by our sins, and we’re not defined by our past; we are defined by Christ. This is a far cry from the cultish fundamentalist legalism that Harris’s church taught for decades; the purity movement amounted to nothing more than a way for Christians to measure themselves and others up. It’s no surprise that Harris renounced his faith; if the faith he was practicing was grounded in such a flawed understanding of grace and intrinsic human worth, then by any measurement it was not Christianity. The truly sad part is that he convinced millions of Christians to adopt this same world view for more than 20 years, allowing it to hurt a lot of people before it became popular for leaders to finally speak out against it. Sorry, Josh, but an apology doesn’t let you off the hook.

But this failure wasn’t just of Harris’s own making: It was the complete failure of church leaders everywhere in elevating Harris’s status to a Christian leader. Harris was a mere 21 years old, and hadn’t even been to seminary yet when he wrote the book. Rather than rightfully dismissing his book as yet more of the trash writing of that era, the inexperienced youth leaders of that time (many of whom also lacked formal training) saw a way to get kids to act responsibly, without considering the consequences of his legalism. From piecing together accounts online, Harris’s own church reeked of a world of deep-seated problems, including sexual abuse coverup, abuses of power, control and manipulation of their congregation, and legalism running rampant. The church had become so damaging, much of his congregation ended up leaving, and there’s an entire blog dedicated to victims trying to recover from Harris and the rest of his church’s leaders. Indeed, it’s very telling to see the kind of culture his book came out of, and the horrifying fruits of it. When you read that Josh Harris has departed Christianity, this appears by all accounts to be a very good thing for Christianity.

Christians are taught in the Bible to test and challenge; to think critically, particularly of leaders (Prov 14:15, 2 Tim 2:7, 1 John 4:1, 1 Thes 5:21, Acts 17:11, Prov 9:10). In spite of this, many churches still tolerate the practice of having their doctrine spoon fed to them, extinguishing the critical thinking that Christians were meant to do. Denominationalism has helped to split the church up into more homogenous groups where rational thought can be replaced with confirmation bias, and independent thinkers that challenge the norms are treated as sources of division. I’ve left my share of cult-like churches, similar to what Harris’s appears to have been, so I can unfortunately understand the kind of environment he must have operated in. While I consider myself to be a firm Christian, my absolute frustration with the rampant quantities of bullshit in the church was one of the things that led me to study Greek and theology for several years. That made me something there isn’t enough of in the church: informed. Being able to think critically is one of the most fundamental skills a child learns, and lack of those skills is why Christians go along with the church’s latest movements, including the dangerous ones. Pastors want to be celebrities today, rather than pastors, and nobody seems to realize the long term consequences of giving celebrities spiritual authority in their lives. Yet an overwhelming majority of Christians I’ve known have been painfully ill-equipped for critical thinking, and have been raised in the church to be averse to it. This doesn’t work, frankly, leaving Christians to spend more time trying to cater to what their leaders tell them is from God, rather than seeking answers for themselves about their own lives. The entire Christian mandate boils down to four words: love God, love others. Anything beyond this should be approached cautiously and critically.

The purity movement that Harris’s book started wasn’t the only misguided cult following that’s wrecked people in the church, but it sure was a doozy. Another one, the prosperity gospel, got going long before that, and has been gnawing at the worldview of Christians in the US since the 50s. Sure, it has its extremes – modern day church leaders like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and others have created a life of high luxury for themselves convincing followers that faith is somehow tied to financial prosperity – but even the Christians that don’t buy into the overt prosperity gospel have still adopted it to some degree. It’s not uncommon Christian practice to equate one’s own financial success as a sign of God’s blessing, or expect that if one gives charity, God is obligated to return it multiplied. It’s crept into mega church pastors’ lifestyles, too – just ask John Gray, who bought his wife a Lamborghini, claiming “God helped me to make my wife’s dream come true”. The Greek word describing men like this literally translates to “Christ-monger” or “Christ-peddler” (χριστέμπρός).

But to the more dangerous side of this, the same prosperity gospel that’s preached in affluent megachurches is also preached in tiny covenant churches in socio-economically depressed areas, where it is used to take advantage of people already living below the poverty line, replacing their income with the (theologically bankrupt) promise of a blessing of a financial breakthrough from God if they give what little money they have to the pastor to buy a bass boat. I’ve seen – in person – this preying on the poor occurring in churches: the lasting effects oppress generations of minorities and transfer what little wealth they had to those who already have plenty, while leaving the poor in hopeful, yet futile anticipation for a financial “break through” that was never promised in the scriptures.

This perverse concept is a play on the Protestant Ethic, which Puritans are credited for popularizing from the reformation period. The Protestant Ethic is the notion that hard work and financial prosperity are a sign of God’s election (the idea that God has chosen a person to be saved). It’s been credited as a driving force of modern western capitalism, and is often one of the most abused principals by preachers like Joel Osteen. Its origins, however, seem to come from heretical Pelagianism, rather than Christianity. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches many of the values held by ancient Essene Jewish communities, namely that of community property. The prosperity movement not only made people very rich (or poor, depending on which side of the pulpit you’re on), but also very bigoted, as seen in some of the more perverse prejudices reflected in our politics today, such as the belief that the poor are responsible for their own predicament. The irony is not lost here.

Little could be further from what Jesus taught, yet wealth envy and wealth bigotry are a widely held bias in the minds of many Christians. This, even in spite of the role models we’ve been given: the apostles themselves went hungry and thirsty, dressed in rags, homeless, and were treated as refuse (1 Cor 4:11-13). Do we really think we deserve better than they? They preached the exact opposite of what the church believes: that it was those who chose to remain rich and greedy that would not inherit heaven; it was the meek who would inherit the earth. Timothy made it clear that the problem with riches wasn’t the possession of them, but the desire of them (Augustine, The City of God). Even the apostles had to deal with people making a buck off of Christianity (1 Tim 6:3-5). The difference is the apostles wouldn’t have put them in leadership roles.

While I’m using more well-known examples, plenty of other cult followings have run their course in many churches: the charismatic movement, the apostolic movement, Christian zionism, the grace movement, home church movement, various holiness and revival movements, the pentecostal movement, and my personal favorite, the Creedence Clearwater Revival (I kid). Some of these movements had some good points to draw from them, but many also had dangerous elements to them, and Christians have never really had the theological chops in this country to be able to refute the often shallow interpretations of Bible verses that are abused, or downright tortured, to make their points work. Each “movement” has left their mark on Christianity, altering Christians’ worldview in some way. One would not be wrong to say that the shape and beliefs of American Christianity are more a bi-product of cult phenomenon inside the church than actual theology or history.

If you look around at the “evangelical right” today, it’s not hard to see the effect this has had on Christian America over a lifetime. Consider, for example, that generations of prejudiced views about prosperity and about women are now reflected in society and in politics today. We are one of the only civilized countries that allows people to starve to death, or die from preventable, curable diseases due to our policies on welfare and healthcare. The political power of the evangelical right is also largely responsible for opposing legislation to provide equal wages for women, free contraception, prenatal care, paid maternity leave, perinatal supplies, and other such necessities. If this hypocrisy isn’t evident enough, I’ll spell it out: refusing to provide these things has been potentially more responsible for abortions in this country than Roe v. Wade ever was1: these are the very things used by other countries to bring their abortion rates and infant mortality rates to record lows. It also doesn’t help that, because there is no standardized sex education curriculum, over half of children today first learn about sex from online pornography, and the idiotic scenarios they portray about sexual norms. All of this hypocrisy comes from a worldview that has its roots in decades old movements of the mainstream evangelical church.

So today’s mainstream American Christian views were not shaped so much by the Biblical texts and theologians, as they’re often claimed to be – as much as they’ve been manufactured by various movements and Christian celebrities over time. I was around when some of them were introduced, and remember how innocent they seemed to kids and youth leaders alike – I also remember nobody having the sense to question it – it was considered a “move of God”, and you can’t argue with something like that. Christians today still prefer front row seats to a good celebrity pastor show over real church. Generations later, we’ve produced its fruit. The things that break my heart about society today, the hatred, the intolerance, the prejudice, the wealth hoarding, violence, and the disregard for human life… these are the things that many Christian churches have had a hand in propagating. The work of celebrity Christians, quack authors, bad theology, and people who fall for it all has, over sixty years, reaped the harvest of an exceptionally jaded, ignorant, and self-affirming worldview that barely even resembles the meek man who preached sacrificial love and generosity.

Not all Christians believe the things that the larger crowd is (rightfully) faulted for believing, and my heart breaks over some of the awful paths Christians have chosen to rationalize today’s church that cannot be reconciled to Jesus. I am truly sorry for how Christians have tortured Christianity in this country to look nothing like the real thing. There must be change, but first there must be an ounce of conviction, followed by some education and independent thinking. We are here to love; that’s our mission, and ironically what today’s theology is missing most of in this country.


1 I am morally, wholeheartedly against the practice of abortion, but a Christian should care about this subject enough to approach it with a carrot instead of a stick. Outlawing abortion is one of the least effective ways to actually reduce the abortion rate; likely to only move statistics behind closed doors in back alleys. This is especially true today in a world of social media and widespread accessibility of communication. If you frame the problem as, “we have too many abortions”, Christians undoubtedly gravitate to only one solution, but if you consider, more intelligently, the problem is, “we have too many unwanted pregnancies”, then there are more effective solutions that cause less loss of life and less psychological damage to the mother as well. Programs such as those in Switzerland and some Scandinavian countries have shown to be highly effective at reducing the abortion rate and even infant mortality. Had Christians done our job in the first place to fulfill our “moral imperatives”, the need for such programs would be nonexistent. Those who truly claim to be pro-life should be interested in solutions that work, rather than solutions that give the appearance of piety.