Discerning Subtle Marks of a Cult and Leaving It (Part 1)

Clint Leiter shares a testimony of God’s faithfulness in bringing him out of a cult to then starting a church. He talks about some common characteristics of cults; and also how people can recognize them in order to avoid the subtle trap of being lured into them.

James: You have previously mentioned to me that in your past before pastoring in Missouri you got pulled into a group that was a cult. I believe you used that term. Correct me if I’m wrong. I thought it would be helpful if you could describe what errors they held to and how the subtlety of it deceived you for that season. Maybe what you went through there could help someone else who’s being deceived in a similar situation.

Clint: Well, that’s a bit of history in my past that I’m somewhat embarrassed and ashamed over – that I would be led into something like that. I have used the word “cult” before because I believe that’s what it was. In my case, my background was somewhat dead churches, compromised churches. And so I encountered this individual who was very zealous – on the outside very zealous. And the group that I was a part of was a parachurch organization that had for its emphasis a ministry to the poor, the widows, the oppressed, and particularly in third world countries. And so at that point in my life, I was thirsting very much for something real and alive, and that zeal was right there. And I may have been an early convert at that point in my life. It’s difficult for me to say. But at any point, I was lured in and captivated by this zeal. And I think it’s a characteristic of cults to be initiated by one man who is a charismatic personality. And so that’s something to be on guard against. This fellow was a charismatic personality. He was six foot four. Very outgoing. Very musical and very zealous. And so initially, that’s what caught my eye and lured me in. During those years of my life, there was a lot of Clint Leiter and not enough of Jesus. I think I had some good motivation in the way of the Gospel to the third world, but in my travels to India and Africa and Mexico and so on, there was a lot of adventure seeking in that. And this cult provided that opportunity to fulfill that thirst that was there for me. Now, I say they were parachurch organization in the sense that they weren’t affiliated with any particular church; any particular body. And their emphasis was an overemphasis on the poor and the needy and the oppressed in the world. And it’s often times, I think, a characteristic of cults that they take something from the Bible and overemphasize it. For instance, I’ll give you an example. At the end of James 1, pure religion undefiled, James says, it is to meet the widows and the orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. Well, in the context, James is simply using that as an example over and against being a hearer of the Word and not a doer of it. But they take that verse and they say this is Christianity. If you’re not going down to the widow down the street from you and mowing her lawn, or you’re not starting an orphanage or being a part of an orphanage or you’re not separating yourself as a group from the world, you’re not fulfilling that. And so that was a characteristic that I would say should be a danger sign. That is, highlighting something, overbalanced in the Bible. Another characteristic that was a part of this group was an overemphasis on the Old Testament and the way God dealt with Israel – the nation of Israel. It led in this group after I had left to them performing Jewish ceremonies and erecting tabernacles out in the parking lot, and studying Hebrew and all of those kinds of things, as well as food pantry ministries to Jewish communities in Chicago. So there was an overemphasis on the Old Testament. The leader of the group, he was into memorizing the Bible and oftentimes it’s another characteristic of cults. They do know the Bible, it’s just that they’re able to twist it to meet their ends. But of all the books of the Bible he chose to memorize, it was Isaiah. I mean, it wasn’t John. It wasn’t Romans. It wasn’t Hebrews. It was Isaiah. And so I just use that again as an illustration. It was an overemphasis on the Old Testament. Another thing that I saw in this group as I look back on it especially is legalism. And you know, do not handle, do not taste, do not touch. Colossians 2 there. And those things Paul says to the Colossian church, they have an appearance of wisdom. But what are they? They’re self-made religion, self-abasement, harsh treatment of the body, those kinds of things. So they were legalistic. This is what you do if you’re a true Christian. It was a focus on doing rather than on being. And that’s a characteristic, I think, I noticed of the cult that we were in. Another characteristic to be on guard against, and that is immorality. Moral lapses. I think that comes directly as a result of legalism. Because again, Colossians 2, these things are of no value against fleshly indulgence. And so you’ve got legalism. There’s no power there to deal with the lusts of the flesh and so on. That comes through walking in the Spirit. So inevitably, and how often have we seen it, in parachurch organizations and so on where things get skewed and overemphasized and a legalistic bent to their manner, there’s some moral failure among the leadership and that was the case here in this group as well that led to us taking a stand against that and leaving. God surrounded me with godly men that were able to counsel me and encourage me and bring me out of that. Because I say there is a power to those cults that is unrecognized maybe by people who haven’t been directly involved in them. And that power lures in and then that power holds once you’re in there. And when you’re confronted with the truth, you begin to suspect yourself rather than the cult. You begin to say to yourself, “Well, surely I’m not seeing things right. Surely it’s not like that.” And there’s a power that holds people in there. And so those are some characteristics that I noticed being in that cult and that were prevalent in drawing me, luring me into it. I think the Lord used that nonetheless in my life. I was exposed to the third world. I made a lot of trips in far away places and ministered in whatever flawed capacity I was in to people in really hard, difficult situations in third world countries. And I still have that as an experience that helped me in my Christian walk.

James: When you were coming out of it, were people like Charles Leiter saying things to you? And did you receive that initially? Or did it take a long period of time for you to see the errors that they were pointing out?

Clint: Charles was very helpful to me that way. With him, I did not doubt his insight. I knew immediately that what I was a part of was wrong. I needed to get out of it. So he was one of those that has been put in my life signally used of God that way to steer me in the right direction and keep me from making a ruin of things. So it was very helpful.

James: So where did you go from that point to get to where you’re at now pastoring in Sedalia?

Clint: Well, again, one of the characteristics of the cult that I was in – I think it has to be common in a lot of ways – a parachurch organization that it becomes a cult – they begin to view themselves not as an aside ministry, an extension of the church, they begin to view themselves as the church. And this group had worship meetings and things like that. They were very communal and made up mostly of young people who were disadvantaged and came from bad situations who felt the love there and the compassion and so they were drawn into it. But anyway, they were a church meeting on Sunday mornings. We were a part of that as well at that point in our life. When we left that group, we began to meet in my father’s basement as a home church. Just a small group of Christians, mostly family, in his basement. And I felt a compelling desire to shepherd that group on a weekly basis; to bring a word from the Bible. Something with the authority of Scripture to it. Something thought out and planned. A sermon. And so we began to function as a church. We began to take communion. We had hymn books. My mom played the piano. And I would prepare a sermon. I asked my father if he felt any desire, compelling desire to pastor this group. And he said he didn’t, and I said, well, I do. So I began to operate and function in that capacity. I was working full time as an industrial electrician at the time. And so I would rise from my bed and spend a few sleepy moments there in preparation and head off to work and keep a notepad in my pocket. And as I was meditating on a verse, I’d jot down some thoughts or something. And my week would progress that way and I would cram on Saturday and try and produce something that could be prepared useful for a group on Sunday morning. So I began functioning that way. We invited men to come speak to us. Charles came and spoke. Conrad Murrell came and spoke to us. Michael Durham from Paducah, Kentucky. Mack Tomlinson. Different ones came and spoke to us and we were less than a dozen people. It’s a real tribute to these men of God. They don’t have to have hundreds to stand before. They gladly did that. But when Conrad was staying with us one time in my home ministering to us, we were sitting on the love seat and I was talking to him and just telling him where I was at and how I felt like God had something for me here, and yet I was an electrician at the same time. And Conrad, he sat there characteristically quiet as he does thinking. And then he said, well, Clint, I think there’s no other way to view this than you’ve been drafted into the ministry. And that word was very prophetic coming from him. It was very confirming coming from him. And all I could do was sit there and weep at that point in time. It was just like a burden had lifted. It was what I needed to hear. And so from then on, that set my course in a resolve to shepherd the people of God.

James: As far as the transition from going from Illinois to Missouri and co-pastoring with Bob Jennings, how did the Lord bring that about?