"Are you kidding me?!" Brenda bit, as they climbed in the car to drive home from their first visit to Corner Church together.
No hint of the emotion in her voice showed on her face. Cars have windows, and she did not want her hurt on public display.
"Tell me," she went on with a pleasant smile, "that you know that's no church at all, but a cult."
Jim felt his face turning red, as he backed the car into the flow of traffic, and merged into the little queue to enter the street.
"We were just love-bombed in there! Don't you know cults do that? My father told me about cults all the time, and how to watch out for them. He said since I didn't know the Lord, I would be easy prey for any cult - any time." Her voice was sharp, but her face composed. Jim's face was growing redder by the second. "He said cults get people to come back by making them feel totally loved from the moment they hit the door, but it's all an act. Can't you see it's not normal for people to be that nice to us the first time they meet us?"
Brenda's words were perfectly reasonable, and she looked completely at peace with the world, but her tone said her two-second fuse was half-burnt.
The thinking centers in Jim's brain were battening the hatches. Grief, shame, loss and confusion were all flooding his mind, so his brain shut down in self-defense. He kept seeing over and again how excited he was 30 seconds ago to hear what Brenda had thought. She'd been so cheerful in there, and his excitement left him utterly unprepared for this. He didn't know how he could have missed any signs of a cult, but he guessed he must have missed a bunch.
"And what's all this about pairing me off with Shiela? And Karen's my den mother? What are they afraid I might think without their constant supervision?!"
Every exclamation point sealed another hatch in Jim's mind.
"I cannot believe you want Lacy to be raised like this!"
They were on the road now, and Brenda allowed her composure to break. She hid her face in her hands, and wept.
The car was silent, except for Brenda's sobs.
Jim kept trying to see the things he'd missed, but he just kept seeing Thom's and Bob's and Karl's smiling faces. They didn't want to hurt Lacy. But what would a cult really look like?
He didn't know. He didn't know what to think.
As they neared their driveway, Brenda whispered, "What am I supposed to tell my dad?"
Her dad, Pete, had tried to hide how miserable he was the day they'd married, and he was beside himself the day they'd told him they were joining the Walkers. Imagining the look on his face as Brenda told him about Corner Church terrified him.
"Say something!" She shouted.
There was nothing and everything for Jim to say, and no matter what came out he was probably wrong. Jim still could not open his mouth. He looked at her through his own tears, and kept thinking. He ventured, "We don't have to go. It's OK..."
"Obviously we don't have to go!" she interrupted. "How did you not know it was a cult? How did I end up married to a man who wouldn't know that?"
To this, Jim had nothing, so he stared while he tried to see something, anything that should have been a clue.
Lacy had been very, very quiet since the fight began. Into this lull, she inserted a little whimper.
Brenda let that be her cue to go inside and start setting her up for her nap. Jim puttered around outside, and kept tugging at those sealed hatches in his head. None of them was ready to budge yet.
A half hour later, he had done everything he could in the yard without actually working, so he went inside. Brenda was already sitting on the couch, waiting for him. He did a quick coin-flip in his head, and decided to join her on the couch.
She didn't bite him. At least that wasn't a wrong call.
"Maybe I overreacted," Brenda said, but there was no grin on her face. She was still pretty tense.
Jim felt a door or two in his head loosen.
"I can see where you were coming from, now, though," Jim replied. "With Thom there, I just didn't even think that Corner Church might be dangerous. I'm glad you were thinking that way."
Brenda looked up at Jim, "Did you mean it when you said you might consider not going there?"
Jim was surprised. "If we find it's wrong, it's wrong. Why would I want to drag you some place that's wrong?" The hatches were opening. The air seeping back into his mind was letting him grab on to reality, and maybe even release his hold on his infant dreams. Corner Church might really be a cult. The air was also letting him see that Brenda could be wrong. They needed more information.
"I need to be sure that they are a cult, though, before I run away. I know cults are friendly, but I don't think that makes friendliness cultish." Jim grinned, "We could always just ask Thom whether or not they're a cult."
Brenda thought about that for half a second, and wheeled around to shoot it down. But she saw Jim's grin and started laughing. He'd gotten her. They hugged, and let some of the tension drain away.
Jim finally said, "Let's call your dad, and see what he says makes a church a cult." Pete cared more about them than about what church they attended, so she agreed.
That evening, they grabbed the tablet and put the question to Pete over the speaker-vid. Pete almost burst his shirt on the spot when he was sure they were seriously coming to him for advice. He pulled himself together, though, and the three of them started brainstorming.
"A cult is any group that cheapens the Lordship of Jesus Christ," Pete started. "And that usually means twisting the scriptures. They can affirm a lot of right doctrines, but if a man's interpretation of scripture counts for more than the scripture itself, then it's a cult. That's why cults almost always start out as personality cults. It takes a pretty charismatic man to convince a whole church that his twist on a verse is superior to what the verse says on its own."
For Brenda, this was all review. Jim had to spin it around in his head for a minute.
"But, Pete," Jim asked. "You're Reformed, right? How come people don't accuse you of twisting a bunch of verses too, and decide you're a cult?"
"It's all in what we mean when we say, 'twisting,'" Pete replied. "The Jehovah's Witnesses look at the way Jesus, 'did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,' in Philippians 2, and conclude that Jesus is not God. They misuse that verse to assault the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and then overturn the rest of the scripture with it. THAT's twisting! The Reformed Church and the Methodists both affirm Jesus as God and Head of the body, then we disagree about what He does as Head. That's a big difference. And we try to understand the scriptures, not wrest them to our destruction."
Pete stopped and asked, "What are you kids looking at, that you need to ask these questions?"
Jim looked at Brenda, and let her answer.
"It's just a little church down here, Dad. One of our brothers from the Walkers is an elder there, so it seemed like it might be safe, but they made me nervous when I visited this morning. They seriously love-bombed us when we walked in, and then they assigned each of us a 'Barney' as a partner, and a couple of 'den-mothers' to watch over us in our neighborhood, and a 'knowledge-work agenda' to start on. Before they were done, I was wondering what they were afraid I might think if they left me to my own."
Pete mulled this over.
Jim reached out to the tablet, and opened a screen-in-screen and mailed Pete a copy of the Library Packet from Corner Church. He explained to Pete, as he did so, that Corner Church built it in non-secure mode, so he would not need any Rights Management software to view their doctrinal stands.
Jim went on, "I was looking at it this afternoon before we called, and they bullet more things that are not important to them than things that are. It's really strange."
Pete promised to give it a look after they disconnected, then went on with Brenda, "I'm glad you trusted your instincts, Brenda. Good for you. But let me ask a couple questions, and see if I hear anything a little scarier. What's their leader's name?"
Brenda answered, "Tim."
"So, did the other members spend a lot of time saying, 'Tim teaches..." or "Tim says...'?"
Jim and Brenda looked at each other, and back at Pete. Neither of them could remember anyone having treated Tim's ideas like they were the final word.
Pete went on, "It's not always a bad thing, when people respect their leader, so even a, 'Yes,' answer is not the end of the world. But, if Tim had taught everyone to always see the scripture through his interpretive lenses, that would be a very bad thing, and you probably would have picked up on it. In a personality cult, the members spend a lot of time explaining to new people why it makes perfect sense for them to put so much stock in one man's opinions. They have to justify it, because deep down they know they're wrong.
"The little church you're looking at might just be authoritarian, rather than actually cultish. They might believe that the laity should be in perfect submission to the elders, and that would be very bad. But, there are a lot of authoritarian churches that are not really cults. They are still in error, and they still hurt people, so I would avoid this church if you find out they are authoritarians, but that would not make them a cult until they began to twist the Lord's Headship."
Jim and Brenda looked at each other again. They were both having a hard time imagining Corner Church micromanaging their lives. They shook their heads, and Pete went on.
"You don't have to know everything about them after one visit. Just keep your ears open, and run if anyone starts talking about blind obedience to Tim or the elders.
"Look," Pete concluded, "it would be too much for me to hope that this little church has all their doctrines straight to my way of thinking, but if they put Christ first, I might take a chance on them. Just realize that you're taking a chance. You can't know what any church you join is going to be like. The more traditional it is, the more likely they're 'normal,' but your radical little church just might give you a radical little blessing.
"I'll tell you this. If they ever say, 'We are the work of God on earth. Everyone else has fallen by the wayside, and God is working through us,' don't walk away - run! I don't care how 'right' anyone is. If they can say those words, their heart has gone rancid."
After some fond farewells, they clicked off and Jim and Brenda layed back together on the couch.
There was not much to talk about. They were in too deep already. They would have to go for at least a couple weeks, just to see what it was all about.
Each leaned over into the other, and quietly wondered what they were getting into.