For 17 years I taught a course on America’s Cults and New Religions on the college level (and occasionally on the seminary level, too). I promoted the elective course to the student population as “Unsafe Sects.” For years I’ve thought about writing a book with that title.
Have you ever wondered why you just don’t hear that much about “cults” in the secular or Christian media anymore? One reason is because “cult watchers” can be successfully sued for calling a specific group a cult. Another is because secular sociologists of religion (and some religious ones) have virtually abandoned the word because its use risks violence against religious groups that are non-traditional. In the popular mind “cult” evokes a fanatical religious group stockpiling weapons and abusing children, etc. So the word has virtually fallen out of use except for those few groups that are notoriously and universally known to be engaging in illegal activities (and most of them are underground).
One thing I discovered when teaching the course (and talking about “cults and new religions”) in numerous churches) was a term coined by some sociologist of religion: “T.A.C.O.”–”Totalistic, Aberrational, Christian Organization.” I don’t recall who coined the term (if I ever knew). It was used in print by sociologists to describe a category of churches and sects.
I think it’s time to resurrect it.
Just in the past two to three years I’ve encountered a number of evangelical Christians whose lives have been very negatively impacted by churches (and sometimes networks of churches) who most people consider “evangelical” but fit the profile of a T.A.C.O. Somehow, many of these are able to fly under the radar, so to speak, and not be widely recognized as that. Many conservative evangelicals admire them for their dedication, intensity and outreach.
There is, I judge, a fine line between a high-demand, intense religious group and a T.A.C.O. It’s easy for the former to slide into the latter and some groups are what I would call “TACO-ish” (rather than absolutely “a” T.A.C.O.”).
Here’s an example from my own life experience. Some years ago my wife and I were members of a Baptist church that most people would consider mainstream evangelical. But dysfunction set in–beginning with the governing board. Because of my status as a church professional and researcher and teacher of cults and new religions (including T.A.C.O.s) I could see where that dysfunction was leading–toward totalizing control of the church by a small coterie of men whose motives I has reason to question. The board brought to the congregation seemingly innocent changes to the church’s by-laws that I saw could and probably would lead to some abusive behaviors. I stood up in church business meetings and pointed out where the process was leading and why the proposals were not appropriate. With very little effort I was able to sway the congregation to defeat the proposals. Then the governing board called me to meet with them. They asked me to stop speaking in church business meetings. I asked if I said anything unethical, abusive, heretical or manipulative. They said no, but…I was too strong an influence. They wanted to have their way and they knew without my voice they could. Needless to say, my wife and I left that church. Soon after that the governing board manipulated the dismissal of the entire pastoral staff–including a single mom (Christian education director) and man with four children who had just moved his family a long distance to join the church’s staff as youth pastor. Their only reason was that they wanted the new pastor (not yet chosen) to have a “clean slate” meaning to be able to bring in his own people. During a particularly tense church business meeting (which my wife and I attended just before finally leaving the church) the governing board lined up before the congregation and threatened to resign en masse unless the congregation did their bidding–gave them the power to fire the whole church staff. The denomination’s executive minister was present and spoke. He told the congregation he could not in good conscience recommend anyone to become pastor of the church if they did this. Out of fear of offending their friends on the governing board and of having no leadership, the congregation voted to give the governing board the power to fire the entire pastoral staff.
This was one personal brush with what I would consider semi-TACO-ish behavior in a “mainstream” evangelical congregation. It is not, I have come to believe, uncommon. My advice to people who experience this in their own congregations is “Run!” This kind of behavior, I believe, is not only unhealthy but also abusive.
Recently I have read about and heard sad stories from former members of churches that most people in their communities (and sometimes far and wide) consider “evangelical.” In some cases the pastors are well-known authors and greatly admired for their intense dedication to, for example, “discipling” people. In ever case I’m referring to here, there is something I would consider “cultish” or at least “TACO-ish” about the church.
What I think we need is an agency LIKE the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability to monitor and warn people away from “evangelical” churches and sects (including “networks” of congregations) that behave in aberrational, abusive ways. Being considered evangelical should not just be a matter of doctrine; a church with impeccable evangelical orthodoxy on paper might nevertheless be aberrational and abusive.
So here are my suggestions for behaviors that should cause people to RUN from a congregation EVEN IF it is perfectly orthodox doctrinally and even though its reputation is evangelical:
1) Condoning (including covering up) sexual abuse or sexual immorality of leaders within itself.
2) Silencing honest and constructive dissent.
3) Treating leaders as above normal ethical standards, above questioning.
4) Implying that “true Christianity” belongs to it alone or churches in its network.
5) Using intense methods of “discipleship training” that involve abuse of persons–including, but not limited to, teaching them they must absolutely lose their own individuality and sense of personal identity in order to become part of an “army” (or whatever) of Christ and using methods of sensory deprivation, brainwashing and/or abject obedience to human authority.
6) Teaching (often by strong implication) that without the church, especially without the leaders, members lose their spiritual connection to God. (This happens in many, often subtle, ways. For example a church may claim that its “vision” of the kingdom of God is unique and to depart from it is to depart from God’s kingdom, etc.)
7) Simply closing itself off from all outside criticism or accountability by implying to its members that the “whole world” outside the church is evil.
8) Falling into magical, superstitious beliefs and practices such as “spiritual warfare” with an emphasis on destroying all of a certain kind of object because objects “shaped like that” are often inhabited by demons. (A few years ago some churches were teaching people that if they were having marital problems it was probably because they had owl-shaped objects in their homes. I was told by members of a church that having books about world religions or cults in my library would corrupt my spiritual life. A church held bonfires to burn records and books considered unholy. Etc., etc., etc.)
9) The pastor literally owning the church lock, stock and barrel.
I don’t think what I’m talking about can be properly understood without some examples. So here are some:
A church in a small town in Louisiana (that I visited twice with a friend who was a student at a local college) was owned by the pastor. The pastor was very rich and uneducated. (He owned his own construction company.) He just decided to start his own church; there was no church board or business meetings. He handled all the money and paid the staff out of his own pocket, etc. The worship service began and, when well underway, the pastor and his wife entered to great applause. The pastor had an armed body guard near at all times. The pastor preached a gospel of prosperity–give to the church and its “ministries” and God will bless you financially and in other ways. Offerings were by people coming forward to put money in the offering plate on the “altar” with the pastor standing nearby. During one sermon the pastor began breaking and smashing small pieces of furniture–a vase, a picture, etc.–stomping on them and screaming God only knows what. Many congregants applauded.
A church in the Rocky Mountains owns a “discipleship boot camp” that uses sensory deprivation and extreme physical hardship to “train” members to obey Christ and care nothing about comfort. The emphasis is that “true discipleship” is like war–a true disciple of Christ like a true soldier must obey without question and care nothing about his or her own safety or security or well-being.
A church in Oklahoma condoned sexual harassment and sexual abuse among staff members.
A church in Texas specializes in exorcisms (every Sunday evening) with every member sooner or later being exorcised of numerous demons–often with vomiting, writhing on the floor, screaming and pulling hair.
A church in California teaches that its pastor has a direct connection to God and God says that the end of the world is coming soon with the U.S. government (rarely mentioned that explicitly) waging war on Christians so that church members must stockpile weapons and food and “get off the grid” by using wood burning heat and having their own sources of electricity (and, if possible, underground bunkers).
Often such churches call themselves “evangelical” and somehow manage to convince evangelicals they are mainstream evangelical.
The examples I’ve given are extreme, but there’s a continuum–from increasing unaccountable authority by church leaders to out-and-out cultishness. Church authority that is afraid of honest, constructive dissent and uses coercion to silence it is already on the way toward being a T.A.C.O.
My advice is to RUN from such churches. And, if possible expose them as aberrational and abusive–even if their doctrines are perfectly orthodox by evangelical standards.