WHAT IT MEANS TO LEAVE A CULT

 

Ann Roberts grew up in a small Millerite offshoot called the International Bible Students. Her cult splintered from the original Russelites and shares the heresies of non-eternal hell and a non-eternal human soul with both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists. The remarkable thing about Ann’s story, however, is her description of the process involved in exiting a cult that has deeply brainwashed its members into a heretical worldview. Those of us who have left Adventism for biblical Christianity resonate with her fears of being further deceived and of needing detailed doctrinal teaching and deep Bible study in order to untangle the cultic understandings that often puzzle or frustrate “normal” Christians. We share Ann’s story for two reasons. First, it confirms that we who have fought our way out of Adventism into biblical Christianity are not alone nor are we crazy. Second, this story helps those who have never been locked in a cult to understand what it means when we former cultists actually leave. Ann illuminates our losses, needs, and thought processes clearly as she tells her unique story.

 

Heresy is nothing new. Not long after Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian church began to splinter over doctrine and cultural issues, but in the case of heresy, it is not true that only the strongest survive. History can barely keep up with the fragments of apostates and dissenters who met quietly, behind closed doors, surviving—thriving—savoring their persecution as evidence of the true faith; salt that had not lost its flavor. Today, we call many of these groups cults. But the people within such groups call themselves believers.

I grew up a member of the International Bible Students—a distant off-shoot of the Millerite movement. We were the true fellowship of Christ, called out from the denominations, obeying the command in Revelation 18:4, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins.” The seventh angel had sounded his trumpet. Ours was the church of Laodicea,1 the lukewarm church fighting against the enemy of indifference. Pastor Charles Taze Russell, our leader, had been the messenger of this time period. Though he died near the turn of the 20th century, he left us with a myriad of his writings—the really good stuff, a final revelation for God’s church. And although Russell never claimed to be a prophet, we regarded his teachings as the lone key with which to unlock the mysteries of biblical prophecy. Christ had, indeed, returned in 1874, though invisibly—unnoticed by the world and the realm of nominal Christendom. Nevertheless, only the real church would understand the significance behind the Jews returning to their land. The End Times were upon us, we only had to keep vigilant, and spread the good news: that there was no hell, that Christ died for all, the resurrection was for all men, and that God’s most faithful would be raised first to organize the Kingdom efforts, to reign from heaven as a literal 144,000 throughout the millennium,2 during which Satan would be bound and everything would be awesome. Also, Jesus was the archangel Michael. We were not a cult.

Alright. Even if we were a cult, at least we were a nice one.

For most of my life I didn’t know the world thought of my church as a cult. I had no idea they ever thought of us at all. Most Christians, when hearing highlights from our doctrines, assumed we were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but in fact, most of the first Jehovah’s Witnesses, at one point, had been Bible Students. Ours was the group that broke from Judge Rutherford after the death of Russell in 1916, and while the Witnesses built a giant off the back of Russell’s writings, the Bible Students took his teachings and settled themselves in ecclesias all over the world, where they praised and studied, argued and splintered, and attempted lackluster evangelism efforts because, after all, when there is no Hell,3 there also isn’t much point to the legwork.

 

Warned with a chuckle

It was only when I developed curiosity regarding the history of our group that my uncle, a prominent elder4 within the church, warned me with a chuckle, “You’re going to see a lot of interesting things about Pastor Russell on the Internet. Be aware, they aren’t true.” And this advice wasn’t issued in a sinister tone, but with full, faithful assurance. My uncle didn’t attempt to shield my eyes from contradictory views, or worry that the Devil would ensnare me with false teachings—that heinous seeds of doubt might be planted. Of course, he didn’t fear the loss of control over my soul. We were not a cult.

I won’t go into detail about what I found on the Internet that day, or that night, or the subsequent days where I sat around, biting my nails, reading lurid accusations against the man who founded our faith, squirming in my chair as I learned why the mainline churches loathed our doctrine—not because it was a threat to their authority, but more because of its vast, glittering array of heresies. It was as if Pastor Russell had folded every major heresy throughout church history into an origami swan of glad tidings. He had adopted Arianism, modified Arminianism, Restorationism, Pyramid theology, soul sleep, Adventism, Annihilationism, some very interesting views on substitutionary atonement, and a horde of lesser beliefs that set us so far apart from other Christian groups. It was no wonder we felt special.

I’ve learned that exiting a cult, especially one you have lived in since birth, is akin to wriggling out of a wet bathing suit when it’s rolled, like tight cables, halfway down your body—the battle, ongoing and exhausting, until you’re like, “Nah. I’d rather die in this thing.” In any organization, there are individuals who quietly question their faith, but the process of change appears so taxing and cruel, and the emotional sacrifices—too many. They will die where they are. Others remain because the religion is seemingly working for them. Their experience has been positive, and that positive feeling is mistaken for truth. And some will stay because the alternatives seem worse, because many individuals in cults have undergone a lifelong indoctrination against all outside religions. This is why most Bible Students leave and go into the world,5 not into nearby Christian congregations. Our movement began as an exodus from the mainstream Protestant churches—a depiction of Babylon—whose doctrine Russell spent a lifetime critiquing, whose deficiencies he highlighted continually, expressly—thoroughly. No, a return to Orthodox Christianity would be going backward, not forward.

Here was my problem: not long before my investigation on the Internet, I had actually been inside a real Christian church—just once—but I remember the experience vividly. As a Bible Student, I’d been trained to identify the outside denominations as “nominal”—Christian in name only. I was led to believe that the people in these churches might appear outwardly sweet, but they didn’t know their Bible, there was little depth to their faith, and they worshipped gods who looked like shamrocks and threatened flaming hells ruled by devils with pitchforks. These institutions were hungry for money, and their leaders were always soliciting parishioner’s wealth by passing around offering plates.6 And it is possible, had my first visit to a Christian church been to a different church than the one I ultimately attended, that I would have found some of these descriptions to be true. But as it happened, the church I visited was Grace Community—John MacArthur’s church—also known to some as the “City of God.”

 

My first visit to a “real” church

If you don’t know anything about Grace Community church, I’d like you to summon up the idea of a sweet, impressionable congregation—one that consults the table of contents to find Job in its Bibles—and then kill it with fire. This is not MacArthur’s church. Grace Community is the very opposite of the term lukewarm, the opposite of everything I’d been led to believe about the nominal Christians. They remain passionate, militant, relentless in their faith—and as it turns out, yours too! Because at the slightest inkling of your sad, unsaved soul, the people of Grace will swoop in on chariots of fire to evangelize you, and it will be done under dim lights, with all the coddling and patience of a Russian gulag.

Grace had a college evangelism team that met Wednesday nights to greet and convict the godless. They would set up their little tables, stacked with books and Bibles, and then stand with their hands folded, searching the pupils of passersby, hoping to see a gleam of interest. Just by chance, I managed to be around when their Bible Study leader took on a blithe-looking philosophy professor who chose to goad these Christians over the issue of scriptural infallibility. At this point in my life, I had only seen Bible Students evangelize, if you could call it that. They are a kindly, educated group who hand out pamphlets, issue a thumbs up, and gleefully wait for a Trinitarian to crash their party, such that a game of scriptural chess might arise.7

Not so with the Grace folks. The Bible Study leader took to the smug professor with a flaming sword. “YOU, SIR, ARE IN SIN, AND YOU MUST REPENT!” His voice bellowed throughout the grounds, as I inched away from the spectacle. This was a highly confrontational form of Christianity. These people were culture warriors, and looking back, how could they not be? They believed in God’s wrath—that it would be pure and righteous, and terrible. They believed that people needed to be saved from something.

I, however, was not prepared. I was just a student, searching for a college Bible study. I wanted someone with whom to share my prophetic knowledge of Ezekiel—someone to impress, during a time when my own ecclesia was diminishing and I was now the last person left in my age group. Most of our young people had left for remote schools. Many had lost their faith and interest in uncloaking the inscrutabilities of Isaiah. I felt I had no choice but to seek fellowship outside my home church. So, upon discovering that Grace led a study on my campus, I was there, dressed to the nines, with two Bible translations and a concordance in hand.

Within twenty minutes I realized I didn’t know anything about this Christian religion or its culture. For the Bible Student, there is a familiar Sunday routine. Everyone takes their seats, we sing one sad hymn accompanied by a mournful piano, a prayer ensues that can last anywhere from twenty to ninety seconds, before which, the women pin small, lace doilies to their heads, and then the sermon begins. It will ultimately have to do with the ransom sacrifice,8 or the symbolism of the Tabernacle.9 One more hymn, then a coffee break, a Bible study about the Beast and its horns, and next, lunch with the five other members of your ecclesia who aren’t on dialysis.

Again, not so with the Grace folks. We sang some songs. Songs I didn’t know. I looked at the floor a lot, and then we sang some more. They sang with fervor and gratitude, and with a desire for God that I had never seen, maybe because what my church desired was to know the precise hour of the apocalypse. I thought, at one point, when we’d divided into study groups, that I might help these poor hyper-sentimental Calvinists to understand the book of Revelation. I referenced some very colorful passages about plagues, trampled winepresses, and golden bowls, and explained that it made no sense for Christians to have large families so close to the binding of Satan. I was met with stares, a John Macarthur commentary, and an invitation to their main service on Sunday, which I eagerly accepted because these people clearly needed me.

I don’t exactly remember what I anticipated, the first morning I visited a nominal Christian church, but I do recall navigating through Grace’s campus and expecting to see more—jewels? Maybe a stained-glass window, or five thousand of them? Throngs of goblins lounging atop mountains of gold, pouring wine down their throats out of gem-laden chalices? Instead, I arrived at a large, unassuming collection of buildings within a setting that seemed almost academic. The sanctuary was huge, but for all the wealth this nominal church had accrued, its only decoration was one somber wooden cross, set up high on the back wall, behind the podium. There was a massive influx of people, and several congested parking lots, and me, clacking around on what I assumed was appropriate attire for the nominal church—four-inch heels and a designer pencil dress that cost enough to pay the sanctuary’s electric bill. Unfortunately, I was surrounded by simply-dressed, sober-minded believers who really enjoyed that morning’s sermon, which was devoted to modesty.

The singing was great that day. The sermon was great. I was not.

It was years before I returned to Grace, and when I did, I was in much better shape—in that I was pregnant and in shame, and I wasn’t as happy to be there, as I needed to be there, in full awareness of my sin. To endure the humiliation of bright happy Christian faces, so thankful to have a newcomer amongst them, and then to answer that soul-biting question, “So, when were you saved?” I’m not. I am not like you. I don’t even know who I am.

 

Difficult time controlling secret fears

I wish I could say that, now, over a decade later, after I’ve witnessed truth, experienced saving faith, reveled in an abundance of sound preaching, passed John MacArthur several times on my way to the music room, and sung in his choir where, perched against the back wall I would judiciously watch to see which congregants opened their eyes during prayer (I am a terrible person), that I am at peace—that my soul rests firmly in the Spirit, and my life and my thoughts are like still waters. But this simply isn’t true, and from what I’ve seen, most people that come out of cults or exotic fringe groups have a difficult time controlling their secret fears—the constant, unsettling recollection that, at one point in your life, you had things wrong, but you felt such assurance. I very much remember the times when, as a young girl, I would pray to the Lord, so thankful that I belonged to this little flock of individuals who had been granted the truth—that we’d been set apart—while the world remained in darkness. And now that I am no longer a Bible Student, I struggle with assurance. Everything has to be examined, cross-examined, proven beyond a doubt because I was wrong once before. What if I’m wrong again?

Because a firm and full conversion to Christ is such a rare occurrence, particularly for those who have been damaged by cults and are still harboring fear and resentment, I feel the need to interject an observation about such persons: Theirs will be highly multifaceted and doctrinal conversions. Individuals coming in from the world, or a weak introductory faith, are often saved after realizing their sin and need for a Savior. But cult constituents are very different. They require far more apologetics and doctrinal counseling. They need to be reasoned with, often to the point of full religious deprogramming. I become nervous when hearing some Christians say, “Well, it’s possible these people experience doctrinal conversions without true saving faith,” because it could easily be argued some experience emotional conversions without the stabilizing roots of doctrine—and solid doctrine is the foundation of modern Christian faith. These are not the days of fiery tongues and miracles. Christians face a silent landscape with only the Word to guide them.

 

Ex-cult members plow through their Bibles

It’s likely that the more educated you were in your previous religion, the more deprogramming and knowledge you will need to obtain Truth. The more intellectual you are, the warier of contradiction and poor argument. I have met individuals who came into Christ from the world with an incredible zeal for God, but with a poor grasp of Christian ethics and culture. In which case, it took time for them to understand something as simple as how to dress on Sunday mornings. Likewise, it is easy for traditional Christians to overlook the complexity of church doctrine and not realize why ex-cult members spend so much time dissecting and plowing through their Bibles, studying and weighing all things, as their means to knowing God. There is much less “Let go, and let God,” when one must completely reinterpret his view of God.

I am still the daughter of one of two leading Bible Student elders. My father continues to conduct Sunday meetings, writes for various Bible Student publications, and trots all over the continent, delivering sermons and irritating my mother with his unwillingness to purchase a cellphone. My uncle died almost ten years ago; the absence of his scholarship—a huge blow to the movement—has left a void too large to fill. On my bookshelf, there are still a few pieces of Bible Student literature, including a Bible translation that was pioneered by my father which, of course, cannot be used in the orthodox Christian churches due to its translation of John 1:1. But it’s my dad’s. I have a hard time letting go.

My husband is a Christian and very patient with my sentimentality, though he regards my religious upbringing with the same awe as one viewing an alien spacecraft hurtling toward a cornfield. And since the local Bible Student ecclesia actually meets no more than five blocks from our house, we occasionally take our children to see this group of people, who are still family.10 My mother, an ex-Jehovah’s Witness,11 will quite joyfully engage us in a debate regarding the deity of Christ—a debate which almost always ends with my being written out of the will. Most times, mine are the only children in the meeting hall, as the religion is quickly dying out. A church that believes Armageddon is just around the corner has little incentive to build strong godly families, or to promote zeal in the movement. But Bible Students take delight in their dwindling numbers as, for them, it is a sign that the church is nearing completion—that the Kingdom is near. It is a challenge to evangelize people who view an empty church as a sign of success, but as always, a true Bible Student will invite you to try. †

 

Endnotes

  1. Bible Students interpret the various churches mentioned in Revelation as symbolic of the true church as it progressed throughout the ages; starting with Ephesus, the first church that formed after Christ’s death, and ending with the current church, Laodicea.
  2. For Bible Students, the thousand years in Revelation represents a testing period for mankind. All individuals not of the church class will be resurrected on earth, free from Satan and the bondage of sin. This serves as a “second chance” for all those who have lived. At the end of the millennium, those who do not pass the test will be subject to the second death.
  3. Bible Students do not believe in eternal torment, or the immortality of the soul.
  4. With the exception of Pastor Charles Russell, Bible Students refer to their pastors using the biblical term “elder.” These elders are elected by an ecclesiastical majority.
  5. Most Bible Students have viewed the world as a safer alternative to Christendom. For this reason, many Bible Students will send their children to public schools and universities, rather than those affiliated with mainstream churches. This is largely because Russell interpreted the call out of Babylon as a command to leave institutional Christianity, though he strongly discouraged a college education in the Humanities.
  6. This is particularly insufferable to Bible Students, who never solicit funds from their members. Ecclesias are funded by donations only. Most ecclesias rent out their facilities, and will meet in the homes of members if funds are not available. A mortgage is seen as debt—an unnecessary burden for Christians.
  7. In general, Bible Students thrive on good scriptural debate. If you plan to descend on their doctrines, prepare your arguments well, or you will find them more educated in their heresy than you are in orthodoxy.
  8. A Bible Student term used to illustrate Christ’s death on the cross as a means to eliminate the ramifications of Original sin.
  9. Bible Students are fascinated with certain biblical numbers and structures, which they believe to be symbolic.
  10. Bible Students do not ostracize those who depart from standard doctrine, or those who express different points of view. They consider themselves free agents.
  11. Close to half of Bible Student converts come in from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, due to the group’s similar origins and theology.

 


The author, Ann Roberts, is the little girl on the front left of the picture. Her parents, who are still Bible Students, are the couple behind her on the left.

Leave a Reply