A cult is defined as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or unorthodox.”
I spent most of my life with such a group. Although some would disagree me, I can tell you that the church I knew was indeed in every sense a cult. When you’re a part of cult you don’t know you’re in one. My experience with church involved a group called the Church of God of Prophecy (COGOP). What I am going to tell you is my own personal experience with COGOP. I am not speaking for everyone only my first-hand knowledge and life in the church.
When you’re a part of cult you don’t know you’re in one.
If you are not familiar with the Church of God of Prophecy (COGOP), it is a Pentecostal denomination spinoff of the Church of God which occurred in 1923 when there were some issues with leadership and finances. You can Google COGOP for more historical information but I will tell you from an early age, I was taught that COGOP was “the” one true church. We were the “bride of Christ” and exclusive. In fact, this was regarded as fact because the church even had their own flag. The flag was a symbol which meant we were chosen. We even said pledges to the flag. (Sound like a cult yet?) When I would ask about people in other church denominations, I was always told that those people had not “seen the light yet” and “their eyes have not been opened to the truth.” Of course, we were the only ones that had the truth.
The church had some strict teachings. It was a list of more don’ts than dos. In fact if anyone violated any of these teachings, charges were brought against them and they would be “turned out” of the church. It’s funny when I tell these stories around some today who flatly deny this ever happened. I was there when a group of men in the church brought up these “charges” against members they witnessed had worn shorts in public or was seen smoking. After a first and second motion in a church conference, these members were removed from the church membership roll. Yeah, it happened. I was there and witnessed it first-hand.
ADVICE THAT REALLY WASN’T ADVICE
The church also had what they called “Advice To Members” but don’t let it fool, it was not viewed as “advice” but something every member was expected to comply with or could face charges.
Here’s what the “Advice to Members” entailed:
As a member, you count one and should attend every regular service as far as possible. Remember no one can fill your place, and the service will be that much hindered without your presence. Show love and fellowship to everyone without partiality. Don’t wait for others to greet you, but you greet them. Show special courtesy to strangers who may attend one of your services. As a rule, take part in the singing. Be ready for vocal prayer when called on or prompted by the Spirit. Be ready for testimony when such is in order. Stand by your pastor or appointed leader and assist him in every way you can. Always pray silently for the preacher while he delivers the message. Always live a consecrated life at home and abroad so no one can justly think or speak of you as a hypocrite. Guard your conversation. Be careful what you say about a brother, sister, or anyone else. Don’t be a critic and try to find something in others to criticize. Examine yourself occasionally and see if you are in the faith. Don’t yield to discouragement or despondency. Be cheerful and happy and try to make others the same. Spend as much time as you can in secret prayer. Give yourself all you can to intercessory prayer. Daily prayers and study of God’s Word are necessary and very important for the spiritual welfare of each child of God; therefore, everyone is urged faithfully to maintain, as far as is possible, family worship at home at least once a day. The Scripture gives strong precautionary principles regarding adornment to satisfy the pride of life. Paul uses the terms “modesty,” “shamefacedness,” and “sobriety” as the guiding principal for the New Testament Christian. Human nature is such that adornment can become a hindrance to one’s personal relationship with Christ. Furthermore,”…caution should be taken in the wearing of ornaments for the decoration lest we would offend the conscience of another brother or sister.” An overriding principal for such matters is found in: Romans 14:13 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. To be a stumbling block is to do something that may cause one to fall back into sin. Matthew 16:24-27 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Total commitment, even unto death, is necessary. Cross bearing is a willingness to suffer and die for the Lord’s sake just as he suffered and died for our sake. Cease making self the object of our life. 1 Timothy 2:1-10 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity. I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Live a good and holy life, with special emphasis on its source, which is a deep reverence for God. God desires the salvation of all people. The Bible also indicates that God chooses some (not all) to be saved. He chose those He knew would believe and follow Him. Christ gave Himself as a ransom. Through His death, He bridged the gap between God and man and made salvation available to all. 1 Peter 3:17-18 For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing. For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: Jesus is an example of how we should live as a Christian. We are to be ready to suffer for doing good. 1 John 2:15-17 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. This doesn’t mean the world of people or the created world, but rather the world, or realm, or sin which is controlled by Satan and organized against God and righteousness. You should not permit yourself to be trapped by worldly attractions. The Bible says, “Neither give place to the devil.” Dabbling with worldly amusements like professional ball games, horse races, stock car races, wrestling arenas, skating rinks, motion picture houses or drive-in theaters, bowling alleys, and going swimming where men and women both use the same bathing area would give the devil a foothold or place in your place. Always tithe your income and put it in the church treasury. Make freewill offerings other than your tithes. Younger members should not keep company or associate too intimately with worldly outsiders. Because of the ever-increasing number of broken homes, separations, divorces, and remarriages, the greatest care should be taken with much prayer and consideration regarding proposed matrimony. A member who may have a living companion should not marry another under any circumstances, even if divorced. Neither should a member marry anyone who has a living companion although such a person may be divorced. Children are a heritage from the Lord. Those who have children are responsible to teach them an early age to reverence the house of God. This should be done by setting a good example before them and by instruction them with such a good spirit that they will have a strong desire to serve the Lord. MINISTERS are to meet all the requirements in being examples to the members by keeping their children under reasonable control at all times and by restraining them from running about over the house of God, especially while the services are in progress. The White Wing Messenger is a very important part of the Church of God. It should be ready regularly by every member, and your interest in advertising the church should be so great that when you have finished reading your copy, you would pass it along to someone else. Every member who possible can, should subscribe, and each minister is asked to be a “paid-up” subscriber and an earnest worker for our church paper—the White Wing Messenger. These are the last days and perilous times have come, and it will require much watchfulness and humble prayer for you to so live and act that you will never bring reproach on the worthy name of Christ and His church that you so much love.
Never form too close an intimacy with the opposite sex even if they are brothers and sisters in the Lord. Give no place to the adversary. Abstain from the very appearance of evil. Hebrews 13:17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. Though out the New Testament we are taught to have respect for authority and to exercise order and discipline in the Church. These kindly instructions and advice are given by those who are watching for your soul as they much give an account, and it is hoped they will be received with the same meek, gentle spirit in which they are given.
I never witnessed any charges brought against anyone for not taking part in the singing yet extreme weight was given to other areas in the list. The church in my day was very difficult to figure out. When I was dating, this list ruled out almost everything I could do on a date. I posed the question once about what I could take a girl on a date and do you know what the answer was? I was told “You can take her to church.” Yeah, try that for a pickup line and see how many dates you get.
Seriously, though the church took fun out of everything you could possibly do. For folks that went through a divorce, if they wanted to remain members, they would have to either remain unmarried or wait for their ex to die before they could date anyone else. There were a lot of divorced people praying for their exes to die – for Godly reasons of course!
PUT A RING ON IT
In the 1990s, the church went through a huge transition. Although it was masked under a cloak of top secrecy if you weren’t present to hear it, the church began allowing members to wear their wedding rings. You would not believe the fuss that went on about this. Many people said that the reason the church was relaxing its stance on wedding rings was because they were losing members. I don’t know if that was true or not but that was the talk going around. Now, I will admit to you that I had a difficult time with the ring issue. After years of being taught against wearing any kind of jewelry, I was dealing with this issue and decided I was going to wear my wedding ring. I met with my pastor at the time and informed him that I was going to wear my wedding ring. You would have thought I had done the most unthinkable thing possible. He looked at me and told me how disappointed he was in me with being raised in the church and was “floored” by my desire to wear my wedding ring. He also asked that I would wait a week before wearing them to church so he could prepare himself and the congregation. I learned later that he had a secret clandestine meeting with the other men of the church and asked them if I should continue in any leadership roles in the church. They apparently had no problems with it. The next Sunday I came in with my wedding ring and almost every eyeball was looking at my ring finger. I even got the ire of an anonymous caller who would leave hateful messages on my answering machine about it. Yes, this is the “true” church doing this. Amazing. The ring controversy finally settled down and others started wearing their rings.
The ring issue was a huge example I experienced of the double-standard in the church. People were lightning quick to criticize me of something yet they had their own vices. The church wasn’t doing a good job of reaching the lost because they were losing the found.
The ring controversy created a rift in COGOP and eventually a group called “The Concerned” split off to form their own group which many call THE Church of God (don’t forget THE in the title). There were also others that split off to form various groups as a result of the schism over the rings as well as the debate over divorce and remarriage.
Divorce and Remarriage was another big issue with the church as well. When I left they were considering changing their stance on it. They liked to quote the scripture on how God hates divorce but neglect the fact that God loves the divorced person. And if you want to know the “truth” just ask someone. Especially on the issue of divorce and remarriage. Each person will give you their own slant and their own scriptural reference to support what THEY think is the truth. They called it “rightly dividing the Word” but it always divided into the person giving the interpretation at the moment. The subject of Divorce and Remarriage was such a big deal that there was even an article about it in the New York Times:
Many COGOPs have tried to be more relevant to people and more “friendly” instead of the strict teachings they have been historically known for. Some have renamed their churches to more seeker-friendly titles such as “Harvest Fellowship” or “Liberty Fellowship” and so on. While they are still under the COGOP umbrella, they want to dispel the rigid disciplines of the past. At the time I left COGOP, it was more likely that you will find each church is autonomous of another. Some in rural communities are apt to keep the hard line of the past. It varies from church to church.
ALL HYPE AND NO SUBSTANCE
When I reflect back on my time in the church I can tell you that I never witnessed miracle. Never saw blinded eyes opened. Didn’t see people raised from the dead. Not one deaf person was healed. No one ever got up from their wheelchair and started walking. Nothing. I never saw it. I heard STORIES about these and I believed the stories I was told. I believed these things could happen so it wasn’t a lack of faith on my part and I certainly wasn’t a doubting Thomas. I was in all the way. I WANTED to see these things but in all of my 46 years I never saw it – not first-hand anyway. All the church seemed to be was a lot of hype with no substance. I heard a lot of loud preaching and people who would get my emotions worked up. I have seen people holler and run the church aisles in the spirit. Lots of emotionalism. Did the church fail me? Yes, I think you can see that it did. I still believe in healing and miracles but I don’t need any yelling preacher to get me hyped up about it.
As I told you last week, I really tried to believe everything the church was telling us but it just didn’t work. Not for me. It is really quite disenchanting when you had a “man of God” preaching love from the pulpit and telling racially insensitive jokes when not on God’s stage. That’s very disturbing to me and I am ashamed to have ever been involved in a church like that. Yes, I tried to believe it all and accept it but it didn’t work. I got to a breaking point from the expectations and hypocrisy to force me to discover my true relationship with God. It wasn’t about the “advice to members” or wearing rings, it was about relationship. Did you know that God doesn’t care about a person’s perfect church attendance record? Being a part of a strict church isn’t equal to being a Christian. I eventually have un-learned that the hard way.
I saw some good, a lot of bad and lots of ugly during my COGOP days. One of the ugliest moments I recall was when my father was appointed as a pastor at a church in deep South Georgia. They didn’t take too kindly to having a new pastor or anyone not related to someone in their church. One night we were in the car home from church a group of church members followed us out and attempted to run us off the road. I remember my mother telling me to lay down the back seat as they approached us and swerved close to us. It was a scary moment and one that will instill a sense of fear in your life. So, yes, I have reasons to be critical of the church I left and why I left it.
While there was a lot of bad experiences, there were a some good things about my life in the church. The best part was the friends I made through the years. Most of them are still with COGOP and I have no problems with that because they are good people and they are trying to be a positive influence in today’s version of COGOP. I keep in touch with a few of them. We all have our own crosses to bear and our own journeys to travel in life. This is mine. Next week I will tell you about how I sorted everything out and reveal the main reason that I left the church.