Caught in a Cult

social-exclusionAbout fourteen years ago I was involved in a cult.

I didn’t realise it. It felt like the truth. And it felt lovely – until I tried to leave.

I’d moved to London and was just getting settled.  One day, a girl of about my age approached me on the tube. She was warm and friendly and we chatted about life.  “I’m a Christian,” she said.  I smiled, “me too!” She asked about the church I was going to, and talked about hers.

“It’s amazing!” she said, “everyone there is really sold out on Jesus.  I think you’d fit right in.”  She invited me to a bible study that day, but I was busy.  “How about tomorrow?  I can meet you from work?” Flattered, I agreed.

The next night we met and she enveloped me in a huge hug.  I’m not a hug-y person, but it was lovely to be greeted so warmly – especially in London, where only stalkers make eye contact. We went to a school hall where the church rented rooms.  It was packed, with the happiest, friendliest people I’d ever seen. Everyone hugged me.  Everyone wanted to know my name. “We’re thrilled that you came, ” they said.  “We can’t wait to get to know you.” Like being in an ad for Diet Coke, except – somehow, I belonged.

The preacher was like no-one else I’d ever heard.  Dynamic, powerful, intense. He spoke about God and the church with such passion, as though nothing else mattered. He talked about what He’d done for us; and all we had to give up for Him.  People were laughing and crying and hugging. They told stories of recovery from addiction and lives transformed.  “Before I came to this church I was broken. But the pastor saved my life.”

I left on a high, with hundreds of friends.  And as we walked back, the girl I met talked about making a commitment.  “I’m a Christian,” I said.  “I already believe.” She smiled.  “That’s a good start.  But are you really sold out for Him?  Have you given up everything?  Are you obedient?  Are you bringing others to know Him?”

I wasn’t sure.  I thought I loved Him, but not like these people.  I thought I lived for Him, but they went to church every day. I had lots of non-Christian friends.  I went clubbing at the weekend. They lived for church.  All their money, all their time, all their energies.  This was what a real Christian looked like.

I started going to more Bible studies.  And the more I did, the harder it was to do anything else.   The pastor’s wife met with me and said, “God’s got great things planned for you.  But you need to get serious about Him. If you want to be accepted,  you need to open up about your past.  You tell us everything you’ve ever done and ask our advice on what you should do. We’ll tell you what God wants and we’ll teach you how to live.”

So I talked – about anorexia, depression, OCD. Things I hadn’t shared, even with close friends.   “Well done” they said. “We love you as you are, but no-one else will; especially with your background. You can only trust us.” I wasn’t sure – but they seemed to know the Bible inside out. “True believers” they said, “obey God in everything.  That means listening to us.”

Over time, the meetings increased.  They started early and went on late, and they wanted me to bring others. I was exhausted.  Friends  asked if everything was okay.  “I’m fine,” I said, “I’m happier than ever.” I was – when I was with the church.  But when I was away I felt flat and low.  The world seemed dangerous and I was told to cut off contact with unbelievers.  Move out of your flat, they said.  Give up your earnings and come live with us.  This, they said, was what Jesus wanted.  This was what Jesus would do.

Jesus also wanted me to be baptised.  I already am, I said, “in the church where I grew up.” “It’s not the real church,” they argued.  “They might think they know Jesus, but are they sold out for Him?  Not like the Bible teaches. Not like us.”

Alarm bells sounded. Jesus didn’t say anything about being saved by baptism in a special church. He said come to Him – and the rest follows. We learned it in Sunday school:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

I tried to ask questions and I tried to pull back. “The devil has got hold of you”, they told me.  “You haven’t got enough faith. If you keep going, you’ll be cut off from the church.”

I was frightened and confused. I’d lost my old friends.  This church was like family. They knew all my secrets. They loved me like no-one else. Without them, I was nothing.

In desperation, I talked to a  Christian I knew from uni.  “What do you reckon? ” I said. “Get out,” replied Glen, “It sounds like a cult.”

He met my discipler to tell her I was leaving. There were tears and then threats.  Quoting Scripture, he fought my corner and led me out of the café and out of the church. He helped me to change my phone number and kept me going when my church friends cut me off. ‘God will not forgive you for this betrayal’, they said. Nonsense, said Glen (though in more colourful language). If God was who they claimed He was, I was already in it.

It took a long time before I could be persuaded to visit another church. But Glen got me along to his one: All Souls, Langham Place. For months, I hid at the back and fled from contact. Yet gradually I began to feel safe. The teaching there was simple and it made sense. We were encouraged to ask questions and to measure everything the ministers said against the Bible. They didn’t ask for my money or tell me to give up my job. They spoke instead about what Jesus had done for us. He does it all, they said. That’s the good news.

If people tell you’re saved by Jesus, plus anything else, they’re lying. Here’s some other warning signs of a cult;

– you’re not allowed to question the main leader or the church (and they may claim to get special messages from God)

– the church or group is seen as special; and only those in it are saved.  If you disagree or threaten to leave, they cut you off

– you’re made to feel you always fall short of the church standards – but they also use flattery, saying you have a special calling or God is using you in a really big way

–  new members are shown huge amounts of love and attention (which is taken away if you don’t agree).

– if you ask questions about leaders or the history of the group, it’s kept hidden or avoided

– they say the outside world is a threat and claim that anything negative about them is from the devil.

If this is you, then get help and get out. The gospel is not Jesus plus something.  It’s just Jesus.

Galatians 5:1:  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.


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12 thoughts on “Caught in a Cult

  1. Thank you so much for writing on this. This is such an important subject. It’s so difficult to be able to discern what is and isn’t a ‘good’ (or insert more appropriate adjective) church. I have so often felt that my instincts have told me one thing quite clearly, but then guilt and doubt has settled in and thoughts such as ‘it must be me that’s wrong, not them’/’they’re a church, so they’ve got to be right…’. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Yes: guilt and doubt can really blind us, especially when they’re used by the ones who should be preaching grace and faith

  3. Thankyou – these things can be so subtle so it’s good to have such a clear article. So glad God sent you a “knight in shining armour” to wield the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.

  4. Ooh, Glen ;-) – as the comment above reads, (a) “knight in shining armour” to wield the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God ;-)

    Hehehe but more seriously, this sounds incredibly similar to a church in my country, that has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons .. (yes – I suppose it happens all around the world, which is sad. But I’ve never read a post that is such an on-point descripton of such goings-on before, & that I can take from the most objective pov cos it’s not some angsty local blogger tryna fuel their own agenda lol)

    But ah, this is amazing xx Yay Glen & yay you! & yes, reading this post makes me more able to recognise these places for what they are – cults.

    For a long while I’ve always told myself not to be ‘so judgey’, that there might truly be people in these places who honestly do (want to) love God. That being on the outside it wasn’t in my place to comment on such things.

    But the goings-on in these places, for what they are – are still wrong. I wouldn’t think that everyone there is bad though, I would suppose there’s a large group of people like your then-self – having shared a large part of their personal, innermost secrets with this group of people (that sound so exciting at first glance ..), they are stuck there either because they feel they cannot leave a group who knows such personal things about them, and/or coercion to stay by the leaders of the group. Or both.

    Before I get into another rambly circle of airing more unsolicited opinions on the issue- THANK YOU, this post is such a gem – because there is a certain validation when the opinion you’ve always been afraid to hold (for fear of personal bias) is put forth by someone else who has no reason to hold any such biasedness .. like I said, such a breath of fresh air, this is the first article I’ve read that addresses such issues in churches outside my own country – I’m not sure how best to express this, but knowing these things exist all over (just as head knowledge) vs the connection you get on reading this encounter of someone else’s experience .. is different, cos it makes things all the more real.

    Idk I always feel more validated when an objective party (in this case because you’re not a local blogger in my country whose comments have an agenda lol) verbalizes views I’ve always been afraid to have. Hahaha thank you xxx

  5. It’s a very painful truth, but one of the most dark chapters of our times are the ‘churches’ who have sought to ‘shepherd’ in this fashion (“this is the will of God – do what we say or you’re in rebellion”). I went through a very similar experience with my late wife and we then ended up running a house church to deal with some of the casualties, but there were many whose lives were totally broken by what they went through, and I can only hope that they, like us, found God’s true care somewhere down the road. Thank God that there are places which want to truly glorify the grace of God and share that marvel with the world.

  6. Thank you for sharing this Emma, I had a similar experience in London when I was 18 – not such an established church, more a handful of people, but reading your post was very reminiscent…it was very damaging, and created a lot of doubt and uncertainty about my salvation – it is also heartbreaking because there was so much ‘good’ in the people that I was involved in – their faith was attractive, inspiring and their lifestyles so simple yet radical…but it is by grace we are saved, through faith, not of ourselves, the gift of God – Jesus. Nothing can be allowed to corrupt that truth.

  7. Thanks Dee. As you say, we can feel like we’re being judgemental or maybe it’s just us, but thankfully the Bible is so clear on salvation by faith. The verse I quoted I was taught in Sunday school, when I was about seven or eight – but this stayed with me, and years later, it was enough to point me to the real gospel. Simple truths, but so powerful.

  8. Hi Howard – so sorry this has been part of your experience too. You’re right; it breaks people and turns them away from the real gospel and from real fellowship. Devastating.

  9. Such an important point Chloe : there are many in these groups who genuinely believe that they are serving God and who are lovely, passionate people. It’s not that everyone knows what’s happening; very few do – and this is why cults are so poisonous.

  10. I was doing some research on cults and this page came up. Thank God that He sent Glen to help you get out. There are so many cults and some of them are so subtly different from the truth that it is hard to work out the difference until you have been dragged in. Yes, in Christ, there is freedom to give your all to Him. It’s not a pressure. It’s happiness. Blessings in abundance, Emma. Thanks for writing this.

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