Biblical definitions of the Jonestown phenomenon.

To come to grips with the immense problem caused by cultic conversion techniques is to face a dilemma—especially if we recognize that a large proportion of converts to the newer cults come from evangelical churches. It is one thing to condemn the false teaching and practices of these movements; it is quite another to solve the enormous problems within our traditional evangelical churches that have allowed cults to develop as they have. We need not merely a cure for the disease, but a preventive medicine that will enable us to end the disease altogether.

Jonestown and other excesses should teach us a crucial lesson: that we must protect the weak, the lonely, and the peripheral members of our churches from charletans who would prey upon their ignorance and needs. To discover preventive principles, we need look no further than the Word of God. The early church was forced to defend itself against very similar tactics, and its experience provides us with answers that we can apply to our own day.

1. Jesus’ principle. In John 10 Jesus referred to wolves who would destroy and the self-centered hireling who would not protect the sheep. The first principle, then, is to examine our leaders and discern when self-interest or false teaching begins to erode their ideals. The church should never assume that a great leader will always make correct decisions. Whenever an autocratic power begins to assert itself, a church is in a dangerous situation; when it intrudes itself into the teaching ministry, the church must take direct action.

We should be aware of the number of cult leaders who have come out of evangelical ranks to become vocal in their opposition—not merely after they have declared themselves but, more importantly, as they are developing their heretical ideas. Jesus’ declaration of the “woes” in Matthew 23 must serve as our model—not, of course, with a “head-hunter” mentality, but as a positive caution. It is not wrong for the church to develop strong models and leaders. It is wrong for leaders to elevate themselves above their office and to deny the servant approach to their ministry.

2. The principles of Acts. In Acts 17:11 the Berean Christians were described as “of more noble character” than the Thessalonians because they “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (NIV). We must prepare this type of layperson, eager for the Word—yet desiring to examine it for himself/herself before accepting the truth of a statement. Men and women must be hungry for spiritual truth, but not so naive that they will accept anything they are told. Luke, in Acts, assumed that the Bereans knew truth when they saw it; we cannot do so.

Article continues below

The church today must teach methodology as well as content. Pastors need to encourage their flocks to interact with their messages, not merely to accept without thinking whatever they are told. This is naturally threatening to an insecure pastor; but it does not need to be. Pastors should be shepherds who lead their flock in the great adventure of spiritual growth; they should never separate themselves from that process and speak from outside the realm of scriptural study. Pastor and congregation should be pilgrims together on the highway of God’s plan. When this is true, the congregation will be able to discern truth from error.

In Acts we also note the strong stress on fellowship and relationships. This is stated in the thesis paragraph of 2:42–47 and exemplified in the illustrations that follow in 3:1–5:11. The early church was typified by unity and social togetherness. Our churches must balance their strong teaching programs with programs of caring and sharing. People today yearn desperately for a feeling, caring group in which they can receive love and protection. We must provide this and not throw countless searching hearts to the wolves because of our lack of concern. This cannot be stressed too much. More than any other single factor, the lack of sharing in the average church has produced lonely, frustrated Christians.

This sharing is especially needed in the family. The new cults all seek to remove from their adherents the roots of familial togetherness. Reports of indoctrination techniques recount how a group leader will ask seekers to describe experiences in which their families have let them down. The group will then enclose such persons and exude “love” and promises to fill those gaps in their lives. The church must begin to help reestablish family sharing and unity; together these make up one of the greatest bulwarks against cult manipulations.

3. Paul’s approach. Two stresses can be noted in Paul’s writings, especially in the pastoral Epistles. He emphasizes first the importance of tradition: the truths handed down from the founders of the church were to be used as controls against aberrations. We see this in several of the Epistles (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3–5, 2 Tim. 2:2). The “traditions” were statements of accepted dogma, which in the early church were used as hedges against new teachings that twisted truth.

Article continues below

When we examine cults today we discover that few, if any, have constructed a “new” heresy. Teachings such as the Arianism and gnosticism of Jehovah’s Witnesses and of The Way to the libertinism of the Children of God and of the People’s Temple, have all been condemned before. We should become students of church history to enable us to observe heretical tendencies as they evolve. Above all, our churches must be Bible-centered and not leader-centered. We must not ask, “Who said it?” but rather, “Is what was said truly biblical?” The canonical works, properly interpreted, provide the “tradition” by which our people will be protected from the false teachers.

Second, Paul stresses the importance of church discipline. This is a sensitive area, but one in which many of our churches are lax—especially when we realize that in his epistles Paul applied discipline to the leaders as often as to others. The early church believed that the discipline should fit the offense. We see this in 2 Thessalonians 3, where Paul commands the brethren to “stay aloof” from those who were living off others (vv. 6–8), and to “take special note” and refuse to associate with (an intensification of the earlier charge) those who further refused to obey the letter (vv. 14–15). The type of discipline varied according to the offense.

Above all, 2 Timothy 2:24–26 tells us that the erring brother must be “corrected with gentleness” and a desire to bring him to repentance. Love and redemptive purpose rather than stern judgmentalism must be the attitude behind discipline. Nevertheless, churches are prone to allow situations to deteriorate before they react (the problem in Philippians 4:2–3 is an example); they must get involved before it is too late. If cult leaders had been dealt with properly before they became aberrant, many movements may never have started.

4. The Johannine formulae. In I John we find two criteria for distinguishing true teachers from false. The first test is their ethics. If a ministry is characterized by a self-centered lifestyle rather than a love-centered servant attitude, this must be dealt with—and it must be an ongoing examination. Jim Jones’s early ministry was above all characterized by social concern. But as his message began to deviate, so did his moral and ethical stance. The same could be said of David Berg, founder of the Children of God. One cannot divorce his words from his deeds (1 John 2:15–17, 3:17; cf. James 1:22–27).

Article continues below

The second criterion is the message. We must constantly watch the truth-content of the teaching, checking it against a scriptural basis. John stresses the Christological test: whether one assents to the traditional statements of the incarnation (4:2) and deity (4:15) of Jesus Christ. The problem again is the lack of serious hermeneutical methodology among both preachers and laymen. A strong preacher/teacher could take the average evangelical church congregation over a period of years and, winning its confidence and wholehearted adherence, gradually lead it cultic. Some, of course, would recognize the growing aberration (as did some at Jonestown); but the majority would follow blindly. The church should be taught to think for itself.

5. The method in Jude and II Peter. These two epistles have a very direct approach, with two focuses: confronting and repudiating false teachers (Jude 8–10), and mercifully and apologetically helping to restore those swayed or convinced by the heretics (Jude 22–23). When someone is proclaiming falsehood, we dare not wait until a movement has developed, but we must deal with it immediately and forcefully—especially with respect to those who are being led astray. An approach must be developed and begun, if possible, before a person is totally converted to the cult movement. Above all, a detailed renunciation of these cults must be presented in our churches as a protective hedge against the modern heresies.

In order, therefore, to avoid future Jonestowns, the church must begin a positive program to prevent cult groups from developing and proselytizing. We must begin with a serious study of the sociological factors that allow deviant groups to grow. Until we are aware of the problems in society as a whole and in our churches in particular, it is impossible to deal with them. Once we have accomplished this, we must work at alleviating the pressures and meeting the needs.

Above all, the church must avoid overreacting as a result of Jonestown and the mind-control techniques used by other cults. It is wrong for us to retreat to a hyperconservative austerity that merely condemns and judges. Rather, we should take a positive but careful approach, making Scripture our rule, but seeking to approve and authenticate the message rather than to discredit the individual. We must remember the message of 1 Corinthians 13: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth” (v. 6). Further, we should create an atmosphere of seeking after truth with the absolute standard of God’s Word as our criterion. If we do this, we will not place our leaders on a pedestal, but we will strive together to discover relevant solutions to the sociological and religious pressures that mark our age.

Article continues below

We need one final word of caution: before church discipline is applied to heretical teaching, we must define “heresy” carefully. In the New Testament and in church history it is always the central, fundamental doctrines—such as the deity of Christ or the Atonement—that are treated thus. Peripheral or “pet” doctrines as, for example, the rapture question or Calvinism-Arminianism, are not matters for orthodoxy-heresy examination. Two criteria may help us distinguish the issue: (1) Is the Word of God absolutely clear on the centrality of this doctrine? (2) Are evangelicals with the same love and treatment of Scripture divided on this issue? If these both point to the peripheral nature of a topic, it must be approached through dialogue and not discipline and with tolerance rather than intolerance.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.