Yesterday, one of my blog posts—published eight months ago—got nearly 13,000 views.
About 20% of that came from this post on Reddit, which showed a list of crazy rules at some church called the Word of Faith Fellowship.
For some reason, it seems to have driven a lot of traffic to one blog post titled “Word of Faith and a Cult Checklist.” It was not about that church in particular. I was involved in a movement called the Word of Faith back in the 1980’s and 90’s. Today, it is more likely to be called the Prosperity Gospel. I have written a lot on my blog about the Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel. My sister once thought it was a cult, and I wanted to know myself. I found a cult checklist in an article called “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups” from the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). I edited it a little for clarification on some points.
The idea for the post was to go through the checklist and answer according to my experiences with the Word of Faith movement. I cannot comment on the Word of Faith Fellowship, because I have no experience with that particular church. But their “do and don’t” list above sounds very cult-like. Just saying.
Nonetheless, it seems people who are interested in cults or the Word of Faith Fellowship are finding their way to that post. If you are wondering if you or someone you know belongs to a cult, here is the checklist.
Number 1: The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
Number 2: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
Number 3: Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
Number 4: The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
Number 5: The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
Number 6: The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
Number 7: The leader is not accountable to any authorities.
Number 8: The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
Number 9: The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
Number 10: Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.
Number 11: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Number 12: The group is preoccupied with making money.
Number 13: Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Number 14: Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
Number 15: The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
One of my word of faith teachers preached on using fasting to increase the power of your prayer. The text came from Isaiah 58. By the way, spoiler alert, that’s not what Isaiah 58 says when you read it in context. This teacher that I thought was so brilliant and so anointed and spoke the uncompromised Word of God, yeah, he took it out of context, like just about every other Bible verse he preached. But I didn’t know that at the time.
And I was thinking I was the only one who believed in the power of faith to heal. Everyone else believed, “God can heal, but you don’t know if it is God’s will.” And I’d be like, “Well, Isaiah 53:5 says, But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (KJV). 1 Peter 2:24 says, Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (KJV).
Note: I’m using the King James Version because when I was in the Word of Faith movement, it was the preferred translation. It is not necessarily the most accurate. More on that in future posts.
They taught and still teach if you belong to Christ, the Bible says Jesus’ death didn’t just bring you forgiveness of sins. It’s not just about the sweet by and by. It’s about the rotten stinking here and now. You can have peace of mind and healing for your body along with forgiveness for your sins. Why settle for one when you can have all three?
If it says it in the Bible, then it is God’s will. If you can find a verse in the Bible that says you have it, it’s yours. If you find a promise in the Bible, you can claim it. And if you do that in faith, and believe and do not doubt, and don’t believe the lies of the Devil that you are sick when the Bible says you’re well, God will have no choice but to give you what to ask. That is what I learned from the Word of Faith on how to get your prayers answered yes.
With all the focus on health and wealth, it can sound selfish. This wasn’t selfish. My great uncle had Alzheimer’s, and it was ravaging his brain. He needed to be healed. I had one side telling me we don’t know if it’s God’s will to heal your uncle. I had another side telling me it is always God’s will to heal, because the Bible says so. Which do you think I chose?
If it is to be, is it up to me?
But inevitably, there will come a time when you pray for healing and don’t get healed. Or you pray for someone else to be healed, and it doesn’t happen. How can that be if God promised it? It’s because either you didn’t know about the promise of God, or you didn’t believe that God would heal you or whoever you prayed for. You started out in faith, but some doubt crept in, and that stopped your prayers from being answered. Those are pretty much the only reasons. It’s never because it wasn’t God’s will, because they say it is always God’s will to heal.
I was the only one in my immediate family who believed this way. Therefore, I was the only one who could exercise faith to get my uncle healed. If it was going to happen it had to be through me, through my faith and my belief. And I needed all the help I could get. My favorite televangelist preached on this passage on Isaiah 58.
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
(Isa 58:6 KJV)
So fasting will supposedly release you from bands of Satan and break every yoke the Devil has put on you.
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.
(Isa 58:8 KJV)
There it is, thine health shall spring forth speedily, because you fasted. The televangelist quoted that and then would tell stories about himself or other big names in the Word of Faith when they fasted because they weren’t getting their prayers answered, or some stubborn demon wouldn’t leave, and they would be saved, delivered, and healed because they were super-charged with the power of the Holy Ghost. So I thought that was what I needed to do.
I think my brother is in a cult
One weekend, I came home from college. My sister was there. My parents had gone away, and we were supposed to call Domino’s or Pizza Hut to get a pizza or something for dinner. But I couldn’t eat. I was fasting so I could focus my prayers for uncle Raymond. So I told my sister that I wouldn’t be eating anything for dinner, so she could get whatever she wanted. She kind of freaked out. In fact, anytime I fasted, none of them took it well. I was like, “What? Like this hasn’t been a common religious practice, not only in Christianity but Judaism and Islam and Buddhism for thousands of years?”
I thought she was overreacting. But like I said, I was deep into this Word of Faith doctrine. And if I remember correctly, she had just recently seen a movie about people who got sucked into a cult. That’s how it always works with a cult. You kind of get sucked into it, because they seem to have all the answers you seek. They may not be correct, but they’re easy to understand, and they appear to make sense out of your life. When I listened to this one teacher, I felt like he was pulling back the veil and revealing the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms.
And so, you think you are getting the truth from them, and you can’t get it from anyone else. Maybe you think they can teach you how to have supernatural gifts and manifestations of God, just like you read about in the Bible. You end up doing things you wouldn’t normally do in the name of your faith.
She had watched me for years with my, shall we say, eccentric ideas about God and religion and faith. So I’m guessing it wasn’t just what I said about fasting and praying for our uncle to be healed that she was reacting to. I think she had been worried about this for a while, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
So she called the pastor of the Presbyterian Church the rest of the family attended. My Word of Faith teachers called churches like this “one of those dead churches, stuck with their dead religion that care more about their dead traditions than they do about the Bible. And that’s why they don’t get their prayers answered, and then they say it’s the will of God. It wasn’t the will of God. They don’t believe the Bible.” That was their standard answer basically to everything that was wrong with denominational churches. So, if I wanted help getting my prayers answered, I knew I couldn’t get any help from that pastor.
Poor guy. He just had no chance with me at the time. I mean, the Word of Faith was promising me miracles and supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit with power. And that church was telling me I could pray, but it was really up to God.
But she called him and said, “I think my brother is in a cult.” She even wanted to have me kidnapped and deprogrammed. I guess she had seen that in the movie. She had told me this years ago, but she never told me what he said to her. I just knew that somehow he had talked her out of the whole kidnapping and deprogramming idea.
But I found out what he said, and I wish I had known back then, because I would have respected him a lot more. She and her husband came to visit. Down here — this was so cool — It was in February of 2020, just before Covid restrictions, and in our little town, the oldest venue there is the Opera House, which was hosting Jeremy’s 10, a Pearl Jam tribute band. So I called my brother-in-law (or maybe texted him) and I was like, “You want to see a Pearl Jam tribute band?”
And he was like, “Do they really sound like them?”
“I think so.” I sent him some links from their website.
Wisdom in action
They came down for the weekend. He and I went to see them, and my wife and sister had their fun just hanging out and talking about whatever sisters-in-law talk about when they get together. They watched a couple of episodes of Cold Case. I didn’t watch that when it first came out, but my wife and I ended up watching the whole series on Roku.
Anyway, during that weekend she brought up that incident, and I finally found out what he had said to her. He asked her what was happening that made her think I was in a cult. After she explained it, he said, “It doesn’t sound like he’s a danger to himself or to you. If that changes, call me.”
I did a video and post earlier on what I think makes a good pastor. It’s not comprehensive. It was just a few thoughts off the top of my head, because where I am now the pastor is getting ready to retire, and he’s been really good. One of the things I am learning more and more is how important wisdom is for any kind of leadership, and how rare it is. So it is really important for a pastor to have wisdom, because you’re going to be getting calls like what my sister did that night. And you’re going to have to help them navigate not just theological territory that is confusing for them. You’re going to have to help them navigate some scary emotional and family situations. And his answer was perfect wisdom. He didn’t dismiss her concerns, and he had the wisdom to recognize the most important question is not, “Is he in a cult?” but “Is he a danger to himself or others?” Because even if she was right, I don’t think anyone could have convinced me I was in a cult. In my mind, I was in the Truth (with a capital T). But knowing I was not a danger to myself or others set her mind at ease.
My family in general did not know how to handle me. That’s because no one knew about the Word of Faith back then. There was nothing to prepare them or guide them in dealing with a son or brother who swallowed this strange new theology hook, line, and sinker. Word of Faith was new to a lot of people, and I think because I had these strange ideas that were coming from someone who claimed to speak the Word of God, which of course meant you couldn’t question it in any way, it looked like a cult.
What is “the Word of God”?
And speaking the word of God did not just mean quoting scripture. Sometimes, they would even start speaking words from God directly, punctuating them with “says the LORD,” or “says your God,” so you know it’s not the preacher speaking now. It’s God. That was so exciting. I wanted to be able to access God directly like that. How can a traditional Presbyterian church compete with that?
These days, you hear people talking about the Prosperity Gospel. Well, Word of Faith was Prosperity Gospel before Prosperity Gospel. Our pastor did try to address it in one sermon. But even he didn’t understand why it had a hold on me and why it can have a hold on anyone, especially if you have a heart that wants to please God. And I doubt any of his classes in seminary taught him how to counter this false gospel.
He said at one point, “Nowhere in the Bible does God promise health and wealth and success if you have faith,” or something along those lines. Well, if it were that simple to refute, I would have left it a long time ago. But when people said something like that, I would think, “What do you mean nowhere in the Bible does it say that?” And I could roll off a whole bunch of scriptures that said just that, like, Isaiah 53:5 “By his stripes we are healed.” There’s the promise of healing. First Peter 2:24 promises forgiveness of sins and healing of the body. Protection from harm? Psalm 91. Healing for your loved one? Psalm 107:20. He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions (KJV). When I pray for my uncle, God is sending his word to heal him and deliver him from destruction.
Prosperity? 3 John verse 2. Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. (KJV). Okay, so there’s prosperity and health right there.
Abraham was rich because God blessed him (Gen 13:1–2). And Galatians 3:13–14 says, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (KJV).
And people would say, “God answers prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.” The Word of Faith said, if it’s promised in the Bible, don’t take no for an answer. God is looking for people who will challenge dead traditions, who will not take no for an answer, who will believe the Bible, who will take God at His word and believe it above all circumstances, above their symptoms, above what the doctor says, above how they feel, above their bank account, above everything, seen and unseen, that contradicts it. David believed in God more than he believed in the size of the giant, and God gave him victory because of it. That’s the kind of faith you need to have if you want to get your prayers answered. And if you don’t have that kind of faith, don’t expect any answer except No. If you’re happy with God saying No, believe that old time traditional church teaching. If you want to know how to get God to answer yes, listen to us.
Full Gospel or Fool’s Gospel?
Eventually, I found a “full gospel” church (that’s what Word of Faith folks liked to call themselves) that preached this message. The pastor one time imitated religious folk with, “‘Well, brother, we hope and pray…’. Then he countered, “God already said in his word, knuckle head! I didn’t mean that! I didn’t mean that! I apologize! I was talking to myself.”
We had a good laugh out of it, but that was basically the attitude we were taught to have. When you pray for something that is already promised in the Bible, you don’t hope and pray. You don’t pray, “If it be thy will.” If it wasn’t God’s will, God wouldn’t have put it in the Bible.
Of course, in order to maintain that belief, you have to ignore verses like,
And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:
(1Jo 5:14 KJV)
See, there’s the rub. If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. There were situations where even Jesus did not heal every sick person he saw. There is no guarantee that if you pray for healing, it is according to God’s will. Or this?
Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:
Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.
For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.
(Jam 4:13–15 KJV)
They say praying If the Lord will shows a lack of faith. Yet that is exactly what James says to do, and it is in keeping with the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. And all their promises of prosperity do not explain this verse.
Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
(Jam 2:5 KJV)
What does that say about all those claims that if you are rich and making a lot of money, it’s because God is blessing you? Or if you are faithful to God, God will make you rich and successful in everything you do?
I think I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live that long. The Bible is only the word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. When you read the Bible in context, there are basically only two promises God makes to you and me as individual believers: forgiveness for our sins, and he will be with us always. That’s it. No promises of perfect health, abundant wealth, protection from diseases like Covid, or success in all your endeavors. When they quote verses like Isaiah 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24; 3 Jn 2; Psa 107:20; Psa 91; Isa 58:6-8, or pretty much anything in the Bible, I’m telling you they are quoting it out of context. My Presbyterian minister–and the rest of my family, for that matter–had that right. But I didn’t know that then.
Failing the smell test
I don’t know how much of the specifics my sister knew, but she knew I followed some televangelists who did not pass the smell test. And she had seen enough I guess that when I talked about fasting so that I can pray for our uncle like it was under my control — that I could make it happen because of my faith, regardless of whether it was God’s will or not — then she couldn’t help thinking I needed serious help. She was right about that. I’m still not sure if it was a cult, but I needed help. The problem was I don’t think anyone knew — me least of all — what kind of help I needed.
Word of Faith, or Prosperity Gospel, I don’t believe is a cult, because there isn’t one authoritative figure that everyone follows. I was never part of an isolated community like the Jim Jones cult. Their theology is strange and a different gospel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a cult. However, it is possible that they have adopted standard cult methods of mind control to manipulate true believers, like I once was, to believe their message. Looking back, especially at that one teacher and self-proclaimed prophet I followed more than any other, I think I was manipulated. So that’s why I say I’m not sure my sister was wrong.
Whether I was in a cult or not, I have seen many ways religion can hurt people. If anything about my experience sounds familiar to you, maybe you should reconsider whether you are on the right path. If you want to know more, or you know you need help but don’t know where to turn, the International Cult Studies Association’s website is a good place to start.
Beyond that, let me tell you this. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean God promised it to you. The Bible does say Abraham was rich, and that through Christ we have access to the blessing of Abraham. That does not mean God promised to make you rich. God also blessed Abraham with a son when he was 100 years old. God did not promise that same “blessing” for you or me (Thank you, Jesus!). I’m not saying God won’t give you health, wealth, or success. I’m saying God never promised to give you that. This might not be what you want to hear, but I’m telling you, that is the truth that set me free.
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In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
(Mat 2:1 NRSV)
The Greek word for “wise men” is magoi, the plural of magus. It may read “magi”, “kings”, or “wise men,” depending on your translation. The word is usually more closely associated with magic than royalty or wisdom, so magi seems the most accurate. Gingrich’s Lexicon says it can mean “wise men” or “astrologers.” Friberg’s Lexicon says it refers to the high priestly caste of Persia. Thayer’s Lexicon says it was a name the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians used to refer to “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” …