One of the most common features of heresies, cults and spiritually abusive groups down through the ages has been their claims to possess some kind of “special knowledge.” False teachers come along with messages that go something like, “Yes, the Bible teaches [such-and-such], but there’s something the Bible leaves out [or something hidden in Scripture that no one else has found in the past 2,000 years] that you need to know …” Or, “Unfortunately, your Bible teachers don’t have the spiritual insight [or maturity, or integrity, or whatever] needed to find the ‘deeper truths’ of Scripture and the Christian life.” Or, “We’re the only ones who take a biblical stand on [such-and-such an] issue.”
Even before you ever see these teachers you may encounter those who speak highly of their “message,” their “insight,” their “spiritual power,” or any one (or more) of a number of things that would put them on a higher plane than the average Christian. The praises these disciples heap on their leaders begin to give them a kind of automatic aura in your mind that the leaders now don’t have to actually do anything to earn. The followers carefully cultivate your curiosity, developing it into an eager anticipation.
When you finally meet the false teacher it’s in a setting that enhances his (or her) mystique. He may be up on a stage before a large audience, among a small, modest band of disciples, or alone with you. Either way, the setting and agenda is carefully controlled to gradually draw you into the leader’s fold, and thus into a position subordinate to him. He (or she) is somehow “up there” while you are merely “down here.” He is the “expert,” and although you may not have realized it up until now, you are the one in need of his expertise, his “special knowledge.”
The pattern I’ve just described is not universal, but it is typical. The claim of special knowledge, however, is an essential part of the elitist character of all these groups, and so universal that it’s sometimes difficult to select those cults that best exemplify it. They’re all so adept at this game.
This “guru effect,” as it’s called, operates in many settings. As Inc. magazine in their article “Beware the Guru Effect” a few years ago,
Even sophisticated businesspeople with strong negotiating skills can get burned by expensive computer consultants who —- because their auras demand awe and respect — are never questioned about their systems or implementation.
Not long ago, the partners of a Los Angeles law firm met a consultant who promised to bring them “up to speed” on computers. [...]
The “guru” put a $200,000 price tag on the project. Some of the senior managers found his ideas so innovative that they decided to make the firm a proving ground for a complete package, which they and the consultant would market to other firms. [...] It looked so promising that the firm invested tens of thousands of dollars in the consultant’s small company.
In the end, for unknown reasons, the consultant never delivered the goods. And, adding insult to injury, the lawyers soon learned that everything in the promised package was available off-the-shelf for half the price. “This happens all the time,” says the former associate.
The guru effect is so notorious in the stock market that a computer game based on stock trading includes it as a strategic option for winning the game. Tom Chown in his review of the game Wall Street Trader 2000 catches this point:
The most powerful weapon is your press agent who can use your “guru effect”, swinging the market the way you want it to go based on your score and reputation.
The parallels between how the guru effect works in the world and in the church are striking. The guru has an “aura” that demands “awe and respect.” Sometimes the guru might supplement that aura with overt intimidation to discourage questions (especially if he or she has an abrasive personality). Thus the guru’s prospective dupes don’t do the kind of “due diligence” research they normally would — and should. They don’t look for a second opinion. They don’t seriously entertain nagging doubts. They move on to the next step on the guru’s agenda.
When that happens, the guru’s victims have been officially conned. Everything from that point on is but a series of footnotes to the moment when they suppressed all qualms of conscience and decided to trust him. As long as they keep trusting him, he will continue to manipulate them.
If the results of being duped this way are lamentable in the business world, they can be downright tragic in the spiritual world. This is because the guru’s purpose is not to teach anyone anything. The guru’s purpose is to make himself indispensable by making you more and more dependent on him.
The biblical book of Proverbs repeatedly warns God’s people to seek advice from multiple sources (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 20:18; 24:6). He has not simply given His church one teacher, but has given us many teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13). Don’t let any one person set himself or herself up in your life with some kind of unique authority. Such authority does not exist; it’s bogus.
The problem is that the Christian life is difficult, and we want someone who can put us on the inside track, show us the ropes, or take us to a higher plane where the difficulties aren’t so severe. We see others around us who seem so much more successful at living the Christian life than we are, and figure they must have some secret. If only we could find out what it was.
But this kind of misguided thinking will only set you up to be fooled. The fact that you’re sometimes desperate to improve your spiritual life makes you a normal Christian. The fact that you might be willing to pin all your hopes for this on one person will make you an easy mark for a false teacher. Sadly, lots of Christians are in that category. To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born-again every minute.” I know because I was one once, and I’ve met many others who either were or still are.
Do you want the unvarnished truth? The truth is: that person who doesn’t seem to have as many problems in his or her Christian life as you do is at best someone who’s good at protecting his or her privacy, or at worst a hypocrite.
The job of the teacher is not to provide you with some “hidden truth” that the average Christian can’t find in Scripture. There is no such “hidden truth.” Nor does Scripture require some special spiritual gift for believers to understand it.
The Bible is God’s complete revelation to us. Any sequel (e.g.: the Book of Mormon) or supplement (e.g.: the writings of Ellen White, the Watchtower magazine, or your favorite teacher) or “final revelation” (e.g.: the Qur’an) inevitably and invariably serves to warp the Bible’s true meaning.
True biblical teaching focuses on Jesus Christ. Instead of trying to impress you with special “insights” or esoteric “truth,” good Bible teachers will consistently point you to the same Jesus Who is available to everyone in Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Luke 24:25-27). Anyone emphasizing anything or anyone else above Him is peddling defective merchandize.