Patterns & Trends

Nothing New Under the Sun: Trends and Patterns of Ex-Adventist Cult Leaders

Most (but not necessarily all) of these ex-Adventist cult leaders have the following patterns, trends and behaviours in common:
- Most have a negative relationship with the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church.  In fact, many are offshoots of the SDARM and other break-away groups – schisms-of-schisms.
- Most claim to be either Jesus, the Messiah, a prophet or some other persons with divine standing – clearly false Christs or false prophets.
- Most seem to be motivated by power – especially sexual-linked-power.
- A surprising number have been involved in sexual indiscretions or perpetrated sexual abuse.
- A surprising number have been in trouble with law enforcement – some have been incarcerated in prison.
- Most seem to be middle-age white men with a fascination for church-plants in Africa.
- Most seem to teach a legalistic and perfectionist theology of purported ‘Victory over Sin’ – an ironic concept given the fruits of most of them.
- Most seem to teach wild conspiracy theories – about 9/11, Freemasons, Hitler and the moon landing.
- Most seem to have an amazing knowledge of the Bible, and a charismatic personality; however, so does Satan himself as coming in an angel of light.  By contrast, when judged by their fruits, these men seem to come out sorely lacking.
- These men usually cause havoc to God’s people much in excess of their tiny sizes.
- Ellen White providentially warned of such offshoots repeatedly arising where, ‘little companies continually rising who believe that God is only with the very few, the very scattered, and their influence is to tear down and scatter that which God's servants build up.’
- The ‘mainstream’ SDA Church leadership should perhaps do more to intervene against these men, warning its sheep, and do so much earlier. Sadly, the SDA leadership is far less inclined to intervene against Adventism’s conservative fringe compared with its liberal fringe.   

Introduction: Some overall observations
What can be gleaned from examining these various schisms of the ‘mainstream’ and official Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA)? Each of these ex-Adventist cult leaders is unique – yet the more they are examined, the more they start to seem the same. King Solomon did after all teach in Ecc 1:9, What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’
This article will attempt to draw some anecdotal observations and patterns.  In particular, what similarities and overall trends can be observed?  What common warning signs can be gleaned?  How can future potential tragedies be avoided?

What motivates these ex-Adventist cult leaders?
It is probably impossible to know for sure what motivates these ex-Adventist cult leaders.  However, it seems that what motivates these men in a word is – power.  As Ellen White herself warned about the lure of power and the power of self-rationalisation:
‘Like Korah and his companions, many, even of the professed followers of Christ, are thinking, planning, and working so eagerly for self-exaltation that in order to gain the sympathy and support of the people they are ready to pervert the truth, falsifying and misrepresenting the Lord's servants, and even charging them with the base and selfish motives that inspire their own hearts. By persistently reiterating falsehood, and that against all evidence, they at last come to believe it to be truth. While endeavoring to destroy the confidence of the people in the men of God's appointment, they really believe that they are engaged in a good work, verily doing God service.’ (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 403-404.)

Why are many of these ex-Adventist cult leaders often involved in sexual scandals?
Why these various ex-Adventists cult leaders usually end up involved in sexual scandals is hard to explain.  However, it is probably because sexually deviant men often link sexual arousal with power – and these men seem to want power!  Women can likewise succumb sexually to the predatory behaviour of men in power.  The Monica Lewinski affair involving President Clinton is but one well-known example.
However, the important point about these various sexual indiscretions is that these cult leaders’ true colours always eventually show themselves.  Thus, regardless of amazing Bible knowledge and charismatic showmanship, the ‘fruits’ never lie.  As Jesus warned in Matt 7:15-20, it is by the fruits of what such men do, not merely what they say, which is the true test of discernment:
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.’

What is the obsession with conspiracy theories (as distinct from the ‘true’ conspiracy of the Great Controversy)?
As observed by Anthony McPherson in the article “Conspiracy Adventism” of 14 June 2013 from the Record, there is a vast difference between conspiracy-theory Adventism and true Great Controversy Adventism:
‘There is a vast world of difference between being a great controversy Adventist and a grand conspiracy Adventist. The way each narrates history, handles Scripture, shapes discipleship, impacts church community, and forms the mind and heart are often very different. One is our inspired calling from God, the other is a twisted product of man. In the introduction to her book The Great Controversy, Ellen White explains her methodology and aim. She says: “The great events which have marked the progress of reform in past ages are matters of history, well known and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world; they are facts which none can gainsay.” What a contrast to conspiratorial Adventism! This should be our approach. Tragically, conspiracy Adventism turns all of this on its head. Crazy, dubious claims are made the essence of the message.’
As also explained by Tammy Roesch in “Seventh-day Adventists and Conspiracy Theories” there is a danger in confusing prophecies found in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy, with attempts to ‘fill in the gaps’ through conspiracy theories such as those peddled by Walter Veith:
‘So why are Adventists attracted to conspiracy theories? The ones most attractive to Seventh-day Adventists involve religion, especially the subject of Last Day Events. If the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy writings give some details, they want more. But curiosity can be a very dangerous element. Adventists are especially vulnerable to theories of a New World Order because they want so badly to see any signs that might confirm their belief that Jesus is coming very soon and the dreaded Mark of the Beast is just around the corner. In my view people believe in New World Order because it is what people with their “itching ears” want to hear.’

What does the Bible teach about conspiracy-theory fanaticism?
As also rightly observed by Anthony McPherson in the article “Conspiracy Adventism”, there is much danger in unscriptural speculations:
‘Paul has strong words for those who turn the church away from the truth to speculative fables: “As I urged you . . . charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3,4; see also 1 Timothy 4:7 and 2 Timothy 4:4). In Titus, after encouraging a devotion to the Gospel and good works, Paul warns: “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9). As a pastor you soon learn what produces healthy discipleship and what leads to fanaticism, perpetual immaturity and a harsh, argumentative spirit. Devotion to conspiracy theory is a prime example. Obedience to Paul’s words would immediately eliminate it from Adventism.’
As McPherson then finally observes, conspiracy theorists ironically often move away from Jesus:
‘I have never yet seen an Adventist conspiracy theory presentation that didn’t dramatically move the focus away from Jesus Christ and onto the wildest speculation. Jesus becomes a minor supporting act. Front and centre are always the phantom conspirators and of course the heroic conspiracy theorist himself. Conspiracy theory parasitically lives off its improper attachment to Christianity. And, inevitably, the parasite always ends up killing its host.’

What does Sister White say about such fanaticism?
One is reminded of Sister White’s warning about such fanaticism:
After preaching the Word of God to warn the people of the errors of Rome, fanatics began passing through the land, destroying souls as they went. Learning of what was happening, Melanchthon said, "There are indeed extraordinary spirits in these men; but what spirits?" But when Martin Luther heard of it, he said, "I always expected that Satan would send us this plague.”’ (Great Controversy, 187).
As similarly noted elsewhere, Sister White lamented the good reputation of the Adventist Church being destroyed by the unfavourable impression of fanatics:
‘We cannot allow excitable elements among us to display themselves in a way that would destroy our influence with those whom we wish to reach with the truth. It took us years to outlive the unfavorable impression that unbelievers gained of Adventists through their knowledge of the strange and wicked workings of fanatical elements among us during the early years of our existence as a separate people.’ (Ellen G. White, Manuscript 115, 1908)

What is the deal with the many church-plants in Africa?
An interesting anecdotal observation is that many of these cult-like groups seem to have a church-plant somewhere in Africa.  For example, both the Bent’s CSDA and Thiel’s HASS both seem to have church-plants in Africa – Uganda and Kenya respectively. Pippin similarly supposedly caused his sexual indiscretions whilst in Africa – as opposed to his usual home in the US.
So why Africa?  Who knows exactly.  Perhaps it is because these African congregations always provide a good back up or avenue of retreat. 
Africa might be seen as a good choice for several reasons. First, it might be seen as easier raising funds for ‘our mission in Africa’; whereas, ‘our mission in Monte Carlo’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.  Secondly, Africa is cheap. 
Third, one presumes that operating in Africa, with its many corrupt officials (in some parts at least), allows cult-leaders to operate unfettered quite unlike the scrutiny of Western law enforcement. For example, a sexual predator might be able to operate with the sort of impunity that might not be tolerated in the US, Canada, Europe or Australia. 
The above observation is not intended as a pejorative jibe at the African continent.  Rather, the great concern that these mostly white, middle-aged men are simply trying to export their own problems.

What is the obsession with legalism, perfectionism and ‘Victory over Sin’ – except of course when it suits the cult-leader?
An emphasis on legal, perfectionism and ‘Victory over Sin’ appears to be another common element running through these various groups. 
Such teachings have long been found within the fringes of Adventism, such as the ‘Holy Flesh Movement’ and those who opposed the 1888 message of righteousness by faith.  Ellen White explicitly challenged each of these legalistic movements, and clearly taught:
‘The claim to be sinless is in itself, evidence that he who makes this claim is far from holy.’ (GO 473, 471; ST March 23. 1888; AA 561-582; St. 7.)
And if that is not clear enough, the Bible itself more importantly teaches:
‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’
In some ways it is not the teaching of this doctrine as much as the emphasis which is the greater concern. This is because a truly sinless and perfect person would never preach that they were perfect.
As paradoxically as this may seem, even if we were sinless, in our humility we would deny being sinless.  Thus, even Christ, who never sinned, was careful to claim in humility in Mar 10:18:
‘Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’

Why have so many of these ex-Adventist cult leaders ended up in prison?
Interestingly enough, a number of these various leaders have already ended up in prison – such as Bent and McGill.  Some have been in trouble with government authorities and may be prosecuted in the future – such as Veith and Hudson.  Some have been lucky to escape criminal charges till now – such as Pippin.  At the most extreme, some have violently resisted arrest by law enforcement – such as Koresh.  Finally, some still seem to remain good law-abiding citizens (although personal non-criminal morality is a different question) and hopefully stay that way – such as Thiel.
However, the similarities with criminal offences are another common trend easily identifiable amongst of all these extreme ex-Adventist groups.  Whilst going to prison can be a sign of God’s favour – not curse – the fact is most of these men have gone to prison for morally reprehensible crimes.    They have been in trouble with the law for reasons to which God appointed government authorities to bring wrath to the wrongdoer – as Rom 13:1-7 explains.
Arguably McGill seems the most moral of them all, for at least he went to prison on account of a legal principle over trademark issues and not merely some sexual scandal. However, even he is arguably nothing more than a common criminal, attempting to ‘steal’ the Adventist name, being was rightly punished for contempt of Court as a result.

How many of the groups pass Gameliel’s test of good fruit?
These ex-Adventist cults usually boasts of their small numbers, using it to justify their elite and selective status – a common argument used by most cults. It is true that only a handful of people can change the world, and God would rather a handful of honest followers than a legion of unrighteous. After all, Jesus never raised an army but merely taught 12 disciples. However, a group’s growth after a reasonable period of time does appear to be a test of its fruit-bearing worth, as Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39 observed:
‘Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For it their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will find yourselves fighting against God.’
So the question is – given enough time – how successful are most of these groups?  Consider that starting with just a handful of pioneers, in 150 years the SDA Church is now some 22 million strong.  The SDARM by contrast, in 100 years, is only some 60,000.  The situation with these other offshoots is even more deplorable, where they rarely survive a couple of decades in any significant numbers. 
McGill’s group is probably the best example of this.  For example, there are claims that McGill is effectively promoting a hoax.  Despite a large presence on the internet and the illusion of many churches, it is possible the CSDA may in fact have virtually no members! 

Why do apocalyptic doomsday cults often come from an Adventist background?
Perhaps our emphasis on the Second Coming, a wholly biblical doctrine found in all Christian denominations but really emphasised in the SDA Church, is part of the reason as to why many ex-Adventist doomsday cults come from an Adventist background.  For example, a person who is inherently unstable mentally is probably going to be attracted to Adventism in a way unlike say Anglicanism or Lutheranism. 
Even if such nuts are an aberration fringe, hardly representative of the rest of the SDA Church’s 22-million adherents, the tendency of such extremists to be attracted to our faith makes many of us more sane and reasonable Adventists very uncomfortable.  As explored by Loren Seibold in “Our Nutty Fringe” of 20 Dec 2012, from the independent Adventist magazine Spectrum, there is something within Adventism that attracts unbalanced conspiracy-minded doomsayers:
‘On the day the Waco standoff came to a climax, I was on my way to a class with a dozen other pastors of various denominations for my doctoral program at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Naturally, everyone was talking about it when I arrived. I remember the teacher turning to me as I walked in and saying, “Loren can tell us about these Waco people. They’re Seventh-day Adventists.”
…No matter that most had been disfellowshipped from their congregations, no matter that they didn’t call themselves Seventh-day Adventists, no matter what the denomination’s PR department had said, we knew where they came from. Most had been baptized as Seventh-day Adventists. They had attended our churches, and some our schools. They believed many of the same things we do about the Sabbath and diet and the time of the end.
…It’s confusing, even to us. Our theological basics aren’t all that different from other Protestants: Triune God, Bible, Christian behavior, church, salvation through Jesus, eternal life—in central points, not unlike what you’d find in many denominations. So are we a legitimate Bible-based Protestant church, or something else? It all depends on how you look at us.’

What is the situation with these continually rising offshoots?
Ellen White seemed to warn about these small offshoots continually rising up from amongst God’s people:
‘There are little companies continually rising who believe that God is only with the very few, the very scattered, and their influence is to tear down and scatter that which God's servants build up. Restless minds who want to be seeing and believing something new continually are constantly rising, some in one place and some in another, all doing a special work for the enemy, yet claiming to have the truth. They stand separate from the people whom God is leading out and prospering, and through whom He is to do His great work. They are continually expressing their fears that the body of Sabbathkeepers are becoming like the world, but there are scarcely two of these whose views are in harmony. They are scattered and confused, and yet deceive themselves so much as to think that God is especially with them. …
This class do not know what they really believe, or the reasons for their belief. They are ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.’Testimonies For the Church, Vol. 1. pp. 417- 418.
Some might question the culture within ‘mainstream’ and especially conservative Adventism that gives foundation to such groups.  However, someone more forgiving might say false Christs and false prophets are to be expected, if we truly believe the SDA Church was raised by God to give a special message for these End Times. 

How culpable is the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church for these ex-Adventist offshoots?
On one level the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church should not at all be seen as culpable for these various ex-Adventist offshoots.  In most cases, these various cult leaders have been subject to the official SDA Church’s strongest censor, which is disfellowshipment (i.e. excommunication).  Moreover, in many instances, we are not even dealing with an ex-Adventist offshoot, but rather an offshoot-of-an-offshoot, which left the official Church decades ago.  
However, if there is to be any indictment or criticism, it seems to be on the tendency of the SDA leadership to passively ignore the Church’s lunatic and conspiracy-minded ultra-conservative fringe, whilst squashing even the slightest challenge from its more liberal and progressive wing.  As Seibold further explores:
Venn diagram, but with an appended compliment of their own bizarre ideas, from survivalism to radical health extremism to invisible barcodes on our foreheads to the Adventist church itself being Babylon.
…Contrast the foaming-at-the-mouth reaction (even from some church leaders) to Ohio Conference’s relatively benign and often pedestrian Innovation Conference, with the absence of any reaction at all to the dozens of convocations where Colin Standish, Bill Hughes or Walter Veith speak.’
To that extent, arguably the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church should do more to combat its own lunatic and conspiracy fringe – and do so early.  Perhaps earlier intervention and better education of its members would help prevent some of these extremist groups from ever taking shape in the first place. 

What lessons can the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church take?
Our own ‘mainstream’ SDA Church came out of the Great Disappointment – that erroneous expectation of Christ’s return on 22 Oct 1844.  As a result of that experience, Adventists should be (and to our credit often are) more cautious than most about false Christs making predictions about the end of the world.  Jesus made clear in Matt 24:36:
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’
Probably the greatest lesson we can take is the example of John-the-Baptist. The Jews had their own preconceived notions of the End Times, which included the return of Elijah before the heralding of the Messiah.  Unexpectedly, Jesus explained in Matt 11:14:
‘And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.’
This provides an important object lesson.  Even where prophecy is correct, it tends to be fulfilled in a way we don’t quite expect.  As such, we need to be careful of preconceived ideas that may result in us no longer truly watching for Christ’s return.

How can the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church better protect its members from these dangerous ex-Adventist cults?
Finally, it is important to ask how the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church can better protect its members from these dangerous ex-Adventist cults. The answer seems in a word – education.  As rightly argued in the article by Alexander Carpenter Sects, Media, Religion: Thoughts on another post-Adventist cult” of 7 May 2008, from independent Adventist magazine Spectrum:
‘I'm no expert, but the destructive traits of cults come less from Adventism than from larger social mores like familial bonds, lack of hermeneutical self-awareness and the tension between individualism and community.’
Perhaps it is the apathy of many members, of our Laodicean state, which makes our people vulnerable to these spiritual predators.  As illustrated above, education doesn’t mean mere rote learning of various biblical and SOP texts – as many with this sort of education are still deceived.  Rather, what is needed is true understanding of the Word of God – both deep and wide.  Only then can we be fully equipped to take proper head of to Christ’s warning in Matt 7:15:
‘Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’

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