by LYNDSAY FREER
A cult is generally accepted to mean a religion or sect considered by mainstream religions to be unorthodox or extremist, with members often living outside conventional society.

The New Zealand Herald recently ran a series of articles about the arrival of new breeds of cults that are operating in this country, concentrating particularly on those that originate in Korea and other parts of Asia.

This was picked up by Steve Worsley, a pastor in an Auckland Baptist church, who had also done considerable research into the history of these cults and the way they operate. He shared some disturbing insights into one of these Korean cults in an article in the NZ Baptist magazine. “While some find this topic fascinating,” he wrote, “the reality of dealing with it is heart-breaking.”

The difference between so-called Christian cults and traditional Christianity is that mainstream churches have an outward focus of love and service to the community and to those in need, whereas the cult looks inward, and is usually led by a charismatic leader with absolute authority. Cults’ leadership often uses coercive persuasion to deprive members of freedom of thought and activity.

One cult story that has captured media interest in recent weeks has once again concerned the community at Gloriavale in the South Island.

Gloriavale expelled one of its members, John Ready, for being in possession of some material that had been surreptitiously left by a Christian group in an effort to show give Gloriavale members a more orthodox understanding and interpretation of Scripture.

Gloriavale’s leadership determined that members could only read material that was approved by them, and so Mr Ready, who challenged them, was required to leave the property. He was not allowed to contact his wife and nine children who remained incommunicado in the Gloriavale community.

In response to questions from NZ Catholic, the Catholic chaplain to Auckland’s tertiary campuses, Fr Chris Denham, said that the principal tactic of the cults is always the same. “I have discussed this phenomenon with our ecumenical chaplain and it has been our experience that the cults take advantage of the fact that students are often separated from most of their pre-existing social and familial support structures,” he said.

“They are no longer at school, and may well have moved to a different city or country from their family. This is, of course, almost always the case with international students, who make up perhaps the largest target group for such cults.

“If they were regular attenders at religious services previously, they may not have made contact with a community in their new home. The recruiters try to make a connection using fairly basic things like Bible study groups, and then try to leverage that contact to draw the young people in further. The more they are drawn in, the more the group tries to isolate them from their other connections making members of the organisation the only contact the young people have.”

Fr Denham has fortunately not had experience of young people being personally involved, and believes that the very fact they are connected to something like the chaplaincy makes it much less likely that they will be recruited.

“Some of our students, however, have had friends who were recruited,” he continued.

“It has been quite distressing for them to see their friends being caught up in it. Happily in these few cases the young people realised something was not right and were able to get out, albeit needing support to do so,” he said.

Pastor Worsley wrote that if young people are invited to a Bible study group
that is not run by their church, they should ask three questions:

Which recognised church denomination is this Bible study group affiliated with?

What qualifications does the Bible study leader have?

Can they show a statement of faith?

“If you get fobbed off with any of these questions,” he wrote, “don’t attend.”

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