By Vinnie MacIsaac
It is more than fear. It is more than uncertainty. It is even more than mere misinformation, and please if you try to say it is all the media’s fault I am likely to scream! The Coronavirus has some people making suicide runs with religious fervor such as we have not seen since Jim Jones and his poison- spiked Kool-Aid.[i] In 1978 Jim Jones infamously led over 900 hundred people to, knowingly, drink poison as a loyalty test to their faith in him. What I find remarkable is that it took years of brainwashing and communal living, not to mention moving his followers to the third world to achieve this, but that during the COVID19 outbreak of 2020 megachurch leaders and religious universities are able to invoke similar faith-loyalty test with ease. Every sober-minded believer should be deeply disturbed to witness such reckless use of spiritual influence in what can only be described as cultic, spiritual abuse!
Last year I wrote an article called, “The Comeback Of Cults,” where I explored the sex cult of Allison Mack and Keith Raniere, which is sometimes called the NXIVM cult, or Smallville Cult. This cult targeted young women who wanted to be empowered to be famous, but ended up being sex- trafficked, instead. While, thankfully, both Raniere and Mack were convicted and will be doing hard jail time, the point of my article was that cults are on a comeback tour and they are morphing into new forms we have not seen before.
The core of a powerful cult is not a religion, per se. These new cults anchor themselves in falsehoods that cause, otherwise normal, people to devote themselves to the leader of those falsehoods with religious fervor. Worship is given to an idea that is focused around a central promoter or promoters. In the case of the NXIVM cult, the falsehood was, “You, too, can be famous like Allison Mack, if you do with your body, whatever Keith Raniere says, which in addition to being his sex prop, since sex is something that sells now a days as you can learn from the London escorts lifestyle which provide these services for a lot of adult men now a days. Once a cult leader has hooked your core sense of value, they can drive us to very bizarre outcomes we would have never adhered to at the start. One of the pitfalls of a highly pluralistic society is that we don’t have to believe in Truth, just our truth, and our truth may not be grounded in facts, science, or even sound philosophy. Rather, we just need to believe is our truth with fervor to make it real; and this line of thinking leaves people wide open to be exploited by those who wish to exploit false narratives for gain.
From the start of the Coronavirus outbreak, people took this really dangerous virus and exploited it for political gain. Sides were drawn and narratives formed, in both political directions. While I am not assigning blame, I am not pulling punches either. If you allow your reason, to be so highly politicalized that you deny the existence of a real threat to yourself or others, that is not Christianity. That is making your political views into Idolatry. And once you have an idol, I promise you, a cult will follow. Americans have become too inundated with the normalization of “alternative facts” and “fake news” accusations, that they have willingly opened the flood gates to accept false narratives. After all, what really matters to most hyper-political Americans, is having their side win, not achieving the betterment of society or faith. When idols and false narratives mix, all you need to complete “the trinity of a cult,” is a charismatic leader that champions your favorite narrative and idol. When such a leader arises, he or she will take you captive, because you can’t distinguish pure faith[ii], from your favorite idol and narrative anymore. And what follows may well be the ultimate corruption of Christianity.
When the existence of the Coronavirus could no longer be denied, due to the piling up of dead bodies in our cities, the Corona Cult narrative began to morph into various forms that made it ripe for wolves in sheep’s clothing to exploit. Up came bizarre and whacky conspiracy theories that, unfortunately, got peddled by otherwise normal people. Why? Their idol and narrative were in danger and rather than admit they were wrong, conspiracy became the name of the game. It is heartbreaking to me that I saw many Christians I love and respect fall into this trap all because they mixed up faith, politics, and conspiracy. Suddenly Coronavirus was declared by those who once thought it was unreal (but no longer able to deny it’s existence), as just another flu, or only an old person’s or a certain races’ disease. Then it got downright weird, some claimed it escaped a lab, was government population control, and yes even as bizarre as it sounds, others insisted it came from 5G WIFI on our phones.[iii] The worst of all bad conspiracy theories was that this was a “dry run” by the governments to take over the world and invoke an apocalyptic “New World Order,” that would eventually outlaw all Religious freedoms. This last one is highly problematic because it plays “loose and fancy” without evidence, with legitimate Biblical apocalyptic themes and America’s anxieties of distrust in the power of Government, embedded in our psyche since the American Revolution itself. In short, it is playing with matches in a dry forest.
The point is, we made the perfect storm for charismatic leaders to step up to the plate and manipulate our fears, exploit people of faith, and rain down public disgust and distrust on the church. Don’t point fingers, don’t blame the media, we did this. We did this to ourselves by permitting such non-sense and not more directly rebuking false narratives and political idolism (on both the right and left). So when a charismatic charlatan, stands up and hides his or her egomaniacal agenda behind Christianity, it is we[iv] who gave them the platform to claim the government is trying to shut down that church, or faith can cure you from getting COVID-19, or God is calling us to support the President by showing up the conspiracy of COIVD-19 as a ruse.
And the results of this handy work our churches are infecting people, pastors being arrested, and Christian universities infecting their own students! Hey Church, wake up! You are not being persecuted, but you are giving reasonable people a good reason to want to persecute you! You have played your own self, right into the devil’s hands. I am sure he is smiling at us and saying, “Well done church!”
To both the charismatic charlatans and their followings, I hereby call them out based on the words of Scripture, which declares the heart, the will, and the mindset of a true shepherd of God to God’s people, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” (3 John 1:2). Anyone advocating Christians disregard the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines are violating a core Biblical principle of Shepherdship! Yes, we care for the soul, spiritual wellbeing, and a rightful place in society for the church, but, no true shepherd would not also care for the physical health and physical wellbeing of members of the flock. If your shepherd is not holding up Biblical leadership principles like those found in 3 John 1:2, you need to seriously ask yourself if you are following a charlatan? Your health, your very life, and the lives of any whom you touch may lay in the balance.
The Atlantic, founded in 1857, is an American magazine, originally focusing on the abolition of slavery and other social news issues, has been called, “a gracefully aging … The 150-year-old granddaddy of periodicals…it keeps us smart and in the know,”[v] and it forewarned Christians, back in 2014 of the dangers of charlatans hiding in faith groups, in the article, “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult.”[vi] The article is a sobering first-hand account of Boze Herrington, who was involved in a faith group that became cultic and led to the death of one of its members. Herrington cites Mike Bickle’s[vii] list of seven signs we should all be on the lookout for in church faith groups that practice on the fringe. They are as follows;
- Opposing critical thinking
- Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
- Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
- Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
- Dishonoring the family unit
- Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
- Separation from the Church (as an orthodox accountable larger organization)[viii]
I get people are scared. I get it because I am scared too. I get that the church has a legitimate place in society, and should not be shut out. But, maybe, that place is not to fight for our rights to assemble at the risk of harm to self and others? Maybe that place is to advocate hope, trust, and faith, in times of darkness, doubt, and fear. The First Amendment promises us, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” but they are not picking on us as a faith group, nor seeking to prohibit the free exercise of faith, they are only asking us, for the benefit of the public good, to temporarily, practice our faith in our own homes. You know, like Christians practiced in the Bible? [ix] Remember, Christians in the Bible, and for hundreds of years later, did not have buildings and met in homes. Under pagan Roman rule, the church was forbidden to even own property.
There will always be those who seek to abuse the good name of the church for the sake of their egos, building mortgage payments, to maintain their staff, or for deluded social/political views; really their reasons are endless. We can’t stop that, and sadly, they reflect poorly on us and cheapen true faith which is built on hope, goodwill, and love. You might not be able to stop charlatans but you can, in fact, stop producing the breeding grounds they thrive in. Please, literally, for the sake of Christ, put away all political idolatry (be it left, right or center), rebuke openly harmful false narratives, get yourself busy with doing what Christ commanded you to do, “Love Thy Neighbor as yourself.” By the way, during the COVID19 pandemic, in case you’re still missing it, that means, Stay Home!
Respectfully, to all my fellow believers, as a little shepherd to the flock, I say with the Apostle John, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
Vinnie MacIsaac (@VinnieMacIsaac) is the pastor of Solid Rock Seventh-day Adventist Church in Arlington, Virginia. He blogs at SimplyVinnie.com. Republished with permission.