Kool-Aid, Cults, and Evangelical Christianity

What is Evangelicalism's impact on today's church?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” -- Matthew 7:21-23 (RSVCE)

On November 18th, 1978, Jim Jones and the members of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ lost their lives in a concerted act of “revolutionary suicide” by consuming cyanide and drug-laced Flavoraid. Jones, a charismatic leader with a penchant for promiscuity, had led these poor souls to settle at a communal compound in Guyana in order to fulfill his utopian vision. These were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, normal people looking to live what they thought would be a better life. Sadly, this pilgrimage to South America found no happy ending, only the cold embrace of a life cut short. How did faith--the virtue we are taught saves us--become the harbinger of their deaths?

Thanks to a media faux pas in reporting the Jonestown incident, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” became synonymous for showing mindless devotion to a person or cause. And while people often throw the phrase around in dissent of another’s religious or political beliefs, the severity of its origin is forgotten in lieu of a cheap, sarcastic quip. Regrettably, people tend to look for leaders with the same magnetism that Jones and others like him possess. Their charisma coupled with narcissistic tendencies enable them to abuse those lost sheep who are looking for a shepherd to lead them to greener pastures; however, many times one important weapon in their arsenal is forgotten--Evangelical Christianity itself.

Modern Evangelicalism is rooted deeply in the Protestant Reformation with Pietism, Presbyterianism, Puritanism, and Moravianism heavily influencing its theological stances. Evangelicals consider their perceived personal notion of conversion to be the central focus of their salvation, using the term “born again” to describe the experience, with an emphasis on sola gratia and sola fide. In addition to this, most Evangelical churches practice a congregational form of ecclesiastical polity, in which the local “church” acts independently from a governing body as an autonomous organization. In some cases, such as with the Assemblies of God, the local church may have a convoluted association with a governing body on a state or national level, while the pastor and/or board of directors/deacons have complete control over all teachings and administering of the “sacraments”. Herein lies the central flaw within Evangelicalism--each man or woman becomes his/her own magisterium.

Cultus (def): Latin meaning tilling, cultivation; training, education; adoration

While our modern definition of the word “cult” has strayed from its latin root, cultus, we still view cults as systems of religious veneration toward a person or set of principles that skew to the non-normative. Many such Christian cults found their beginnings amongst the religious movements during the 19th century known as the Second Great Awakening and the American Restoration Movement. During this time, Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists began to see a fracturing of their congregations due to charismatic leaders pushing new and “exciting” religious ideas, which in turn were recycled heresies akin to Modalism, Arianism, and Bogomilism. Many of these “new” ideas denied the Trinity or the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures, further removing themselves from an orthodox understanding of both God and sacred scripture. As time progressed, these religious leaders formed new fellowships that were the precursors to organizations like the Peoples Temple, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Branch Davidians.

Most mainline Protestant denominations adhere to some semblance of the tenants of the Nicene Creed, but congregational polity in modern churches allows for more liberal interpretations of orthodoxy with an emphasis on personal interpretation or private revelation. While there is nothing inherently evil in having what is termed as a “personal relationship with Jesus”, there are more serious implications than one might realize when seeking to build a church without any oversight or spiritual direction from the reliable wisdom of sacred tradition. St. Paul warns St. Timothy of the dangers of this in 2 Timothy 4:3-4:

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” -- 2 Timothy 4:3-4 (RSVCE)

People will seek out a shepherd to lead them, but sometimes those shepherds lead their flocks to the slaughter. Within the Catholic Church, sacred tradition and holy scripture form a single deposit of faith, with which the magisterium has handed down a definitive interpretation of the Word of God. Evangelicalism is founded on the idea that an individual is better equipped to interpret scripture and lead a church than nearly two thousand years of apostolic tradition.

Evangelical Christianity in its rejecting sacred tradition, allows an individual to have a “divine revelation” paired with inconsistent interpretation and context of sacred scripture to build a church in that individual’s own image. Denominations, regardless of their point of origination, are not created ex nihlo, they begin as part of another church and are birthed out of a disagreement within that fellowship. Frequently, these new churches split off due to a pastor being fired, or a member of the congregation finding some calling to come out of the “false teaching” present in the current church. Sadly, this is also how Christian cults are born--out of the individual’s desire to interpret the Word of God as he/she sees fit.

Jim Jones, Vernon Wayne Howell (later known as David Koresh), and Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate) each began their respective cults from personal revelations and scriptural interpretations. Each of these and other cult leaders like them exhibited varying degrees of narcissistic and/or anti-social behaviors, which obviously became driving factors within their specific organization; however, it was their roots in Evangelical Christianity that empowered them to lead large numbers of followers into apostasy and in extreme cases, death. Although it is hyperbolic to say that Evangelicalism’s conclusion is found in extremist cults, it is correct to say that it does enable ministers to victimize their flocks through liturgical abuses and the misinterpretation of scripture by its emphasis on personal experiences.

The Evangelicals’ rejection of sacred tradition as authoritative robs them of half of their spiritual lineage, thereby leaving them susceptible to a myriad of heresies that lead one to believe any number of fallacies. Throughout its nearly 2000-year history, the Catholic Church has experienced many breaks due to heterodox theology, each with its own brand of revisionism. Over the centuries, Church leadership has committed acts not consistent with the teachings it promulgates; however, She has righted the course each time. If Evangelicalism is somehow the Protestant answer to those wrongs, then it has succeeded only in recreating many of the same problems that caused its original divorce from Christ’s Church.