Eight Distinctives Of An
Aberrational Christian or Bible-based Group
When discussing Christian or Bible-based groups that are "aberrant", the intent is not to simply to hang a label on a minority sect based on their departure from a certain doctrinal standard or theology. There are many groups that do have peculiar doctrinal emphases which are in no way "dangerous" or "cultic", however, it is more accurately the gravitation towards high-control, authoritarian leadership structures that actually make a group "aberrant". In describing this tendency towards spiritual totalitarianism, one could accurately depict the methodology in terms of it's visible manifestation, as does Steve Hassan in his BITE Model of Mind Control. In our explanation below, however, we address the process in the specific way that it expresses itself in a Bible-based group, inasmuch as the beliefs of the group are utilized to create and maintain that strict authoritarian schema. It is the perversion of otherwise benign belief and doctrine which becomes the vehicle for the leader(s) to gain control over the members.
Definition: Aberration - undue emphasis on a fringe doctrine, or a group of persons holding that doctrine that has not separated itself from the Church, frequently resulting in a potentially dangerous leadership structure. This is often an anti-conformist group, sometimes led by a charismatic leader, but as often by some principle of greater strictness, more single minded dedication, or more intense renunciation of the world and its attractions. Often has as its main principle some aspect of orthodox faith that is being neglected. The question concerning the seriousness of the fringe doctrine will be answered by the fact that the group has chosen to stay in the Church (i.e. within the boundaries of the "faith once for all delivered unto the saints").
Introduction: There are eight general distinctives that are frequently found in aberrational Christian groups. Not all aberrational groups will necessarily exhibit everyone of these distinctives, but most do, and some will evidence one or more with greater intensity and scope. It is important to remember in identifying an aberrational Christian group that we are not dealing with a thorough going heresy, but often a mainstream group that is in transition from the fringes of Christianity to a heretical group completely outside Christian orthodoxy. For our purposes the difference between the two is this. A heretical group takes something major in Christianity (who Jesus is, salvation, the Trinity, etc.) and either negates it, or makes it minor. An aberrational group, on the other hand, typically takes something minor in Christianity and makes it major (submission to a pastor, baptism, worldliness, holiness, etc.) usually for the purpose of being able to manipulate or control the members.
Examples: Victory Chapel (a.k.a. Potter's House, Church of the Open Door); International Churches of Christ (a.k.a. Boston Church of Christ, Boston Movement) however, some would list the ICC as a full blown heresy; Greater Grace World Outreach (Bible Speaks); and numerous independent churches.
I. Scripture Twisting.
This is the most important distinctive from which all other distinctives flow. Usually there is a deficient concept of Church history or theological categories. Consequently Scripture is taken out of context, carelessly applied, and used to justify wrong conclusions (prooftexting).
- Doctrine developed from historical books of the Bible. Here, the historical books of the Old and New Testaments (Exodus, Kings, Samuel, parts of Gospels, Acts, etc.) are used to derive authoritative doctrine for the Church today.
- Contextual chaos. Verses are pasted together to prove a doctrine.
- Mystical mush. Taking verses intended to be literal or are idiomatic and giving them a "spiritual" interpretation.
II. Controlling Leader/Leadership.
Frequently, near to total submission is implicitly or explicitly demanded by the leader/leadership. This is because they have "the mind of Christ," special revelation, are "God's anointed," etc.
- The leader/leadership has a special pipeline to God with no actual accountability. This gives to them a special authority and weightiness in their pronouncements, even in non-essentials.
- Scriptures like Hebrews 13:17; Psalm 105:15, etc. are used to manipulate the member and justify the leader's position. These verses are taken out of context and were never intended for leaders who are not accountable.
- The leader/leadership often determines the areas of your life that are important for you to submit in. Refusing their counsel is to be rebellious.
- The problem is that members of these aberrational groups tend to abdicate their decision making power to the group or leader.
III. Separation/Isolation Of The Membership.
Members are separated from the "world" in a variety of ways in order to protect them from "harmful" influences.
- This is couched in spiritual language and is usually sincerely believed by the leader/leadership as an appropriate and necessary step for them to take. "We want to help you to become the best in Christ that you can possibly be. It has been our experience that you can be harmed by living with..., getting involved in..., reading..., associating with..., etc. This certainly wouldn't please Jesus, and you might even fall away from the truth. It has happened in the past."
- This separation is often from family, friends, and even other Christian groups.
IV. The Chosen Few.
Spiritual elitism is often rampant in these aberrational groups. All other Christians outside your group are either lukewarm or not true believers at all.
- Consequently, salvation is not found outside the walls of the group and other Christians are "fair game" for proselytizing (ie. conversion to a group, tradition or belief system).
- Aberrational Christian groups rarely, if ever, cooperate with other Christian groups not associated with them.
V. Uniformity Of Lifestyle.
This uniformity of lifestyle may be manifested in beliefs, dress, language and living conditions.
- The desire is to create a true disciple of Jesus Christ. However, the issue is what makes a disciple and how is one identified.
- This uniformity can intrude in all the private areas of an individuals life where the Scriptures are silent.
VI. No Dissent.
Because the leadership is authoritarian it follows that there can be no questioning of God's anointed or prophet.
- In non-coercive groups and churches differences on lesser points of doctrine and practice are tolerated. It is the unity of the Spirit that is essential. The individuality of the member is always affirmed. However, minor differences of doctrine and practice are not tolerated in aberrational groups.
- To speak out or to question is to have a rebellious spirit and to possibly fall under God's wrath.
VII. Traumatic Departure.
Leaving an aberrational Christian Group is always extremely traumatic.
- If a member plans on leaving and the leadership finds out there may be a painful confrontation with the leadership who seek to talk the "rebellious" member out of leaving.
- Frequently, the person may be told, "If you leave bad things will happen to you. Maybe you will get cancer..., get hit by a car..., lose everything..., go insane..., and even die."
- Leaving is also very traumatic because even though the member no longer believes in the group, they have been indoctrinated to believe that salvation does not exist outside their walls. Thus, where can the departing member go?
VIII. In Transition
Doctrines and practices tend to mutate further and further from healthy belief and expressions.
- Aberrational groups are never static but tend to devolve theologically. Many begin fairly orthodox, but over time become heretical in major doctrines.
- The practices and rituals of aberrational groups also tend to take on divine authority. Practices that were optional or conditional in the beginning become absolute standards whereby commitment and spirituality are measured.
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