Chuck Swindoll began distributing the list of telltale signs in 1978 while he was pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, when the church lost a number of college students to the Assembly, including Gary H., who was being groomed to assist Howie Stevenson as music director. He wrote the first part of this article in 1987.
The news has recently carried a story about one of Jim Jones' cohorts. You remember him, don't you, and the whole Jonestown tragedy? It's been nine years, but the memory is as vivid as if it were last week. If I live to be 125, I think I'll never lose the chill that runs up my spine every time I recall those 900-plus people who voluntarily drank poison, laid down without a fight (in rows!)..."looking like full-grown rag dolls," as one eyewitness reported when he viewed the corpses in the steamy jungle of Guyana. Over 900 people who, though dead, still speak.
They were once living, thinking, breathing, caring human beings. People much like you and me. They knew and sang a lot of the same hymns we love. They attended meetings, much like we attend. They listened to preaching, they carried Bibles, they often referred to Scripture, they gave offerings. They were committed and sincere and loyal and enthusiastic...and blind.
Yes, that's the right word. Blind. It's not my choice of word, it's Jesus.' His counsel to all who begin to realize that their leaders have gone off the deep end Read and never, ever forget:
Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit. Matt 15:14
Three extremely powerful words: "Let them alone." The Greek is an emphatic imperative: "Leave them!" The term means "to forsake." We'd say, "Get outa there!" It's the best counsel I've ever read for folks who are getting involved in a cult or a religious movement that's gone to seed. It applies to any alleged "spiritual" leader who has stepped beyond proper bounds.
Unfortunately, when you're blind, you no longer see error. In fact, you lack what I often call a sensitive antenna. That doesn't suddenly happen, you realize. People don't suddenly agree to drink poison and convince their children to do the same. Slowly, gradually, as imperceptibly as tiny chunks of soil breaking off a cliff at the beach, clear and discerning sight begins to fade. First, peripheral vision gets blurred. Next, tunnel vision occurs. Then, the light even in the tunnel decreases. Finally, it's down to a big dog and a white cane...ultimately, even that is taken away as "follow the leader" becomes the only acceptable rule for all in the tunnel. The leader becomes Lord. Heresy replaces orthodoxy.
His (or her) words are absolute law. If he (or she) requires slavery, don't dare question it. If it's a new color scheme, accept it; red is really blue, yellow is actually green...and black? Well, it's now off-white.
When you're blind, face it, all those colors run together. All you need to concern yourself with is what color the leader says it is...then repeat it without thinking it through. And welcome to Nazi Germany. If you buy into the system, not even the ovens as Auschwitz or the hellish conditions at Ravensbruck or Flossenberg or Wolbrom or Krakow keep you awake. Somehow, when you're blinded like that, you can't even smell, feel, or hear any more. Nothing matters...only the will of the master at the top. Most don't wear swastikas on their arms; some wear crosses around their necks and pray and quote scripture.
For not quite a decade I have been distributing a warning list to all who are following strong religious leaders. Every time I repeat it, I remind folks that it's not all leaders I'm suspicious of...just blind leaders. God is still using trustworthy leaders--always has--so don't think for a minute I'm down on all who point the way...only those who have lost their way, but convince others they still know where they're going. (Yes, that could happen to me, too. No leader is immune to error!) How can you tell when you're dancing near the edge? What are some telltale signs that poison is brewing and blindness is setting in? At the risk of sounding repetitious, here's that list again:
Authoritarianism: Watch out when the leader deliberately represses your freedom...when inflexibility, oppressiveness, and threats take the place of a servant's heart. You can count on it, if a teachable spirit is absent, pride is present. If he or she refuses to listen to your words of concern, leave!
Exclusiveness: It's the we-alone-are-right-about-everything syndrome. Watch out when everything gets inbred, prompting a clannish, cliquish, closed mentality. Taken to an extreme, you'll be encouraged to break long-term commitments with your mate, family members, or friends. Paranoia becomes pronounced. If the leader is becoming the sole dispenser of truth, leave!
Greed: It's red-flag time when the emphasis frequently returns to money...especially funds that wind up in the leader's pocket. Pay attention to growing attitudes of fiscal secrecy and financial policies that aren't open for discussion. Dependable, God-honoring leaders aren't motivated by the bucks. If your is and won't change, leave!
Sensuality: Immorality and God's blessing cannot coexist. Any leader who promotes, laughs at, flirts with, or practices sexual looseness--or is too familiar with the same or opposite sex--is playing with fire, and you are going to get burned. If there's an absence of moral purity, leave!
Unaccountability: Beware of the touch-me-not guru who operates in his (or her) own world claiming, "I am God's anointed! I answer only to Him!" No matter how gifted, competent, or popular, no one can maintain godly leadership without faithful counsel and occasional confrontation from objective, wise, truth-talking confidants. If your leader is totally unaccountable, leave!
Rationalization: When wrong is justified, when plausible but untrue reasons for conduct are used, when scriptural truth is twisted to fit a lifestyle that lacks credibility, stop your support. Leave!
Too strong? Not really. Deadly poison that blinds needs a strong antidote. I can think of over 900 people who, if they could, would say I haven't been strong enough.
Further reading on how to evaluate a church: