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I Was Once a Card-Carrying Cult Member

by Greg Albrecht

I was once a card-carrying cult member. I bought into the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong (the collective body of these teachings today is often called Armstrongism) hook, line and sinker. I was a true believer.

It's fascinating to see the reactions of people when I tell them I was once in a cult. If I'm talking with a group of people and the subject comes up, it's as if all the air has suddenly been sucked out of the room. Everyone gets really quiet, while they wait for me to start telling lurid stories about how I once sacrificed goats and defaced cemeteries. Polite society, especially "good, church-going folks" tend to regard someone who is an ex-cult member as being roughly equivalent to an ex-convict. The typical, usually unstated reaction is something like, "How could you have been so stupid?"

There is no doubt about it—I was a sucker. I bought into a spiritual snow-job. Armstrongism seemed so plausible, because it was based on my ability to make God happy. Of course, I believed what I wanted to believe. I believed I had the spiritual power to please God. According to Armstrong in-speak, I could "qualify" for the kingdom of God. I could "make it" if I built enough "holy, righteous character."

Armstrongism appealed to my vanity, because I was told that the vast majority of people didn't "have the truth" like I did (in retrospect, I can only say "thank God" they didn't!). It was a religion, in that it filled me with fear of God's punishment if I failed to measure up. Like any and all religions, my experience with cultic religion manipulated my guilt and shame. I didn't know it at the time, but Armstrongism "shut the kingdom of heaven" in my face (Matthew 23:13).

Long Lists of Rules
Cultic religion (and all religion for that matter) exercises control over your life with long lists of rules, accompanied by the punishments exacted and the shame doled out when you are unable to measure up to those rules. Religion, whether it is deemed by culture to be acceptable or unacceptable, is all about human performance and how that performance is presumed to please and appease God.

Rules of Armstrongism included no pork or shellfish. No Christmas or Easter. No cosmetics for women. No "worldly" friends. No celebration of birthdays. No voting or service on a jury. No dating or marriage of anyone who was an "outsider." No involvement in politics. Mandatory tithing. No participation in work or sports from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday (Saturday was the "true" sabbath). "Holy" days, as stipulated in the Old Testament, replaced what were called "falsely-so-called" Christian holidays.

Given my experiences, and most importantly, my rescue, by God's grace, I have come to know many thousands of spiritual refugees, people whom Christ-less religion has chewed up and spit out. It is my privilege to minister to those who, in some way, were once duped and deceived by religion.
The people PTM serves come from virtually every cult and from every major religious institution broadly represented by the world of Christendom. They are spiritual refugees from religious bondage and exploitation at the hands of "respectable" churches as well as that inflicted by less respected, even despised cults.

When spiritual refugees tell me their sad tales of grief and misery suffered at the hands of Christ-less religion, they often look back and realize they were hoodwinked by some spiritual snow-job or spiritual hoax.

Religion is a Con Game
As I have served those who have had similar experiences in widely divergent religious groups, I have come to see that all Christ-less religion, whether deemed to be a cult or not, can seem so right, so virtuous and so noble.

Christ-less religion appeals to our human desire to be able to control our own spiritual destinies, to manipulate God into loving us on the basis of our performance.

The kingdom of religion appeals to human vanity, telling us that what we know and what we do makes us better than others who are not part of our religious club. Legalistic religion threatens its followers with fear of the punishment they will surely endure if they fail to fall into line. Religion preys on our guilt and shame, assuring us we can make God happy if we work hard enough. Human performance is the common denominator upon which all Christ-less religions base their empty claims and promises.

Generally speaking, the well-known world religions subscribed to and believed by hundreds of millions of people are felt to be harmless. The reasoning goes something like this: "How could hundreds of millions of people be deceived—and if their religion is hurting them in some way, then why don't they just leave? How could hundreds of millions of people buy into a con?"

There was a time when the world of Christendom at large felt that Mormonism was a cult. But now, given the political and economic influence arising out of the sheer numbers of Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is now often respectfully called a religion or a denomination. It goes without saying that Mormons are not fond of being called a "cult" and do all they can to avoid that label.

But there is no question that there is a need to expose cults that attempt to pass themselves off as Christian, for they are toxic counterfeits.
• Cults masquerade as being authentic and orthodox in their teaching and practice.
• Cults are a sham, they are dangerous and they are definitely a toxic hazard to spiritual health!
• Cults that operate behind the skirts of authentic Christianity reject sound, historically-validated Christ-centered teaching, beginning with how they understand the nature of God.
• Cults reject biblical accountability, often leading their followers into dysfunctional, even bizarre religious practices.
Cults reject the centrality of Jesus Christ, in favor of some form of performance-based legalism, which in turn often leads to abuse, in the name of God.

Religion at Large—Cult or Not—Is Dangerous
But in its zeal to reveal the inherent perils of cultic teaching, more widely accepted, "time-honored" big-business religion often neglects to subject itself to its own spiritual examination. Religious institutions and their members often kid themselves that they are immune from harmful practices and teaching by virtue of their longevity and their size. By this rationale, the early New Testament Christian church was a dangerous cult, because, compared with other religious movements, it had only just begun and it was small in numbers.

One of my favorite quotes from George Bernard Shaw goes something like this: "If 50 million people [the estimated population of Great Britain when Shaw originally penned the words] say or do a stupid thing it's still a stupid thing."

In an effort to preserve their own reputations, established Christ-less religions enshrine themselves and their beliefs as being acceptable, taking pride in their crusades to condemn small, new, emerging movements. They proclaim those who march to their drumbeat to be legitimate—while those who don't are maligned as illegitimate.

Sometimes it actually is a case of the pot calling the kettle black (the practice of accusing another of faults that one has himself!). Religious institutions, some of which amount to corporate empires, pride themselves on their political clout and number of constituents, and find fault with the speck of sawdust in others' eyes, without considering the huge plank in their own (Matthew 7:3-5).

One of the meanings given for the word cult by the Oxford English Dictionary is remarkably the same as I believe applies to the world of religion at large: "A particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies." You may have heard some of the jokes about popular definitions of the word "cult"—"anyone who doesn't agree with me" or "the church that I don't attend."

The primary meaning of both "cult" and "religion" are virtually one and the same—"a system of religious beliefs, practices, observances and rituals through which humans are persuaded they may appease and please God." In the broadest sense, all Christ-less religions are cults. Initially, as I left the world of cultic teaching and practice, I thought that almost any respected church would be based on God's grace, and centered in and on Jesus Christ. Another shock!

Within a few years of my miraculous rescue from the cult of Armstrongism, by God's grace, I found out that legalistic teachings and practices are not confined to groups generally accepted as cults. The more I came to know the Jesus I never knew, and the more he transformed me, the less religious
I became.

Today, I describe myself as an irreligious Christian—a relationship I believe to be absolutely necessary, given religion's hold on the world of Christendom.

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What is God like? A punishing judge? A doting grandfather? A deadbeat dad? A vengeful warrior? How do such 'good cop/bad cop' distortions of the divine arise and come to dominate churches and cultures? Whether our notions of 'god' are personal projections or inherited traditions, author and theologian Brad Jersak proposes a radical reassessment, arguing for "A More Christlike God: a More Beautiful Gospel."

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