On November 18th, 1978, in the jungle commune of Jonestown, Guyana, South America, more than 900 people drank cyanide-laced purple Flavoraid served up from a common pot. More than 270 were children. The babies were given the poison with little syringes. Folks who resisted or tried to run were gunned down. Their cult leader, Jim Jones, finally dispatched himself with a bullet to the head.
In March of 1997, Marshall Applewhite played out a similar scene in Rancho Santa Fe, California. His 39 followers figured that the appearance of the Hale-Bopp Comet meant it was time to shed their earthly bodies and meet up with “the mother ship.” In blind loyalty to Applewhite, they all washed down the poison with vodka.
You hear about such things and wonder how people could be so brainwashed. How could they be so controlled by one man? How could they be so emotionally bullied?
More often than not, those who attach themselves to a cult leader are disgruntled, disillusioned refugees from some existing denomination. The cult leader himself is perhaps someone who didn’t get his way where he was and wanted absolute control over people’s lives. The power was his narcotic. He may have started out with a Bible in his hand, but pretty soon it was all about him. His distorted, unscriptural teachings became law. Lost sheep…blind leader.
Church history is filled with such extremes – Christ-denying cults that began around some magnetic or intimidating personality.
Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Joseph Smith founded the Mormons. Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science movement. All these are anti-Trinitarian cults. Some years ago David Koresh and his Branch Davidians went out in a blaze of glory in a controversial show-down with the government. Koresh called himself “the Lamb of God” while bedding down the women of his flock. Rev. Sun Myung Moon led his “Moonies” of the Unification Church years back. Maybe you remember them selling flowers in the airports and assembling for mass weddings. Moon is dead. They don’t get much press anymore.
This arrogance of the personality cult is found not only in the extremes. Whenever and wherever pastors or lay leaders fashion fan clubs for themselves, name their ministries after themselves, and fleece the flock to enrich themselves, an infection sets in.
Instead of pointing souls to Christ Jesus, every cult is founded on someone dead or dying. But a true Christian congregation is founded on the words and redemptive work of Him who died and rose and is alive forevermore. Christ’s sheep know the voice of their Good Shepherd.
Trained by His voice, they can also detect the accent of a false shepherd.
Jesus said: “Anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the door, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber…Amen, Amen, I tell you: I am the door for the sheep. All who came before Me were thieves and robbers…I am the door. Whoever enters through Me will be saved…I am the Good Shepherd…I lay down My life for the sheep…”