How could I be so blind? Why did I not see the signs? Everyone around me knew I was in over my head, and they were plotting an intervention. Cults are insidious - even for long-time followers of Christ.

I was a happy, albeit complacent churchgoer from the get-go. I started chucking graham crackers at the nursery ladies before I could talk. We never missed a Sunday at Cockrell Hill Baptist Church. We had our own pew and everything. God help the poor visitor who sat in our spot! I invited Jesus into my heart at the ripe old age of six, and my family scrubbed the muddy faces of Kathy, my little sis, and me until they shone. If God had brownie points, we were racking them up. The only Sundays we missed were when we contracted the three biggy kiddie diseases: measles, mumps and chicken pox.

My bulletin-coloring turned into gum-chewing into hand-holding with the hottest boy in the youth group. I cruised along with nominal commitment and blithe ignorance of Scripture despite the concerted efforts of my pastors to pound basic theology into my thick little noggin. I was the typical Baptist good girl. I kept my nose clean, lived under the radar and followed the rules: don’t drink, smoke or chew, or go with boys who do. I know I loved Jesus, but we were distant acquaintances - I always held Him at arm’s length.

When I left my well-insulated, happy family and trotted off to Baylor University, I didn’t like the girl I saw in the mirror. She seemed selfish and shallow to me - and very alone. The emptiness of my spiritual life overwhelmed me. The Jesus Movement that swept through the university campuses around the country hit the Baylor student body like a ten-ton truck. Prayer groups sprung up in dorm rooms and campus lawns. Even tent revivals (a practice long-abandoned in the 1950’s) were held by student preachers passionate about seeing God’s fire fall. Great Bible teachers like Josh McDowell, Bill Gothard and Tim LaHaye launched their ministries. Campus Crusade for Christ spread like wildfire as Bill Bright challenged college students to reach the world with the gospel. It was a great time to be alive.

One crisp fall evening I happened onto a small prayer meeting in the Baylor prayer chapel. Students were sharing around the circle and I told them how empty and hollow my life felt. I told them I knew Christ, but I wanted more. Robert, the group’s leader, told me I needed more of the Holy Spirit, and so I prayed for the baptism of the Spirit, and for His gifts to operate in my life. I didn’t realize at the time that the Holy Spirit was a person, and that I already had all of Him. I just needed to let Him have all of me. I experienced the filling of the Spirit in those moments, the first of many times I have prayed for Jesus to be Lord of every part of my life.

For the first time, I began seeking God earnestly. Soon after I met my preacher-boy husband, Roger. We began pastoring a small country church in Penelope, Texas (a town so small, it’s not even on the map!). Roger preached and I played piano and sang at every service. We visited their sick, baptized their children and buried their dead. Vacation Bible School was pretty much a two-man operation, except for Mrs. Baird who brought the punch and cookies. Partnering in ministry with the man I loved was amazing. I still marvel that we were able to pastor a church when he was 22 and I was 18! What a privilege!

My quiet times with God were incredible. I filled journal after journal with insights from the Bible - a book I had hardly touched growing up. Our campus prayer meetings lasted long into the night. I remember sensing that God was speaking to my heart and walking closely beside me every day. What an amazing journey. But when Roger left for seminary the next fall, I felt that I had lost my moorings. I missed him so much. Many of the churches I visited were warm and inviting, but I needed direction and comfort. I wanted a pastor who would speak to me from God.

I found the guy. Brother Smith (not his real name) pastored a wildly demonstrative congregation, and people prophesied over me twice a week. I didn’t need to listen to God any more, my fellow Christians told me exactly what to do (and what not to do). Pastor Smith would scold us if we missed a service, and I had this gnawing feeling growing deep inside that God was mad at me all of the time. I felt that I had disappointed Jesus if I wasn’t fasting and reading the Bible constantly. I withdrew from friends and family, dismissing them as carnal and deceived.

Don’t get me wrong. Because I was reading the Bible, I learned more Bible in those years than at any other time in my life. Pastor told me how to dress, and that I should give all my money away. My weight plummeted down to eighty-nine pounds and I felt that nothing I could do would appease God’s disapproval of me. Brother Smith and the members of his clan were my only safe place. My teachers, friends, parents and fiancée didn’t know anything about living a true Christian life. I was only close to Jesus when I was close to my pastor.

Finally, Roger gave me an ultimatum. I could leave the church and become his wife, or I could remain in the “family” forever. I knew I loved my fiancée. I also felt called to serve alongside him in the ministry, so I had to make the break. The next Sunday evening after service, I sat down with the pastor and told him of my decision. He shook his head in consternation and quoted a Bible verse:

“In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Psalm 10:4 NIV

His words were like a knife to my heart. Pastor turned and walked away. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I felt so lost, so condemned. But after a very long time of praying, wise counsel and patience from Roger, I began to see clearly. I had been duped. I was in a cult (even though it had all the trappings of a great church). The god Brother Smith was preaching was not the God of the Bible. He was a demanding, accusing condemning taskmaster who was perpetually disappointed with me (who does that sound like?). I was living a life of legalism and asceticism, and I felt trapped. Because of my faulty view of God, I didn’t think He would hear or answer my prayers, and the pastor’s words burned in my ears every day. I had to forgive myself to truly experience God’s forgiveness and grace. I needed discipleship and spiritual warfare counseling to deal with the lies I had believed and to recover my peace and joy in Christ.

I learned a thing or two from my encounter with a false teacher, and I’ll share my thoughts with you.

1. Beware of the “wolf” in sheep’s clothing who tells you he is the only one who hears from God. These charismatic leaders are like bug lights that draw you in only to destroy your spiritual life. They insinuate themselves into your trust circle and become more and more controlling.

Proverbs 18:1 “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment.” NKJV

2. God promises to lead you when you are His child. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to guide you into all truth.

Psalms 25:9 “He guides the humble in what is right, and teaches them his way.” NIV

3. Carefully evaluate the view of God that is being taught. Is it based on Scripture?

1 John 4:16-20 “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” NIV

4. Every cult (and every world religion) is based upon human effort rather than the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ.

Galatians 3:1-4 “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” NIV

5. God’s wisdom is always open to reason. The fruits of wisdom are the fruits of the Spirit.

James 3:17-18 “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.” NASB

6. Test the spirits against God’s Word. Jessie-Penn Lewis said that deception often rides on the heels of revival.

1 John 4:1 “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” NIV

I now know why blind followers take suicide pacts, commit polygamy and kill in the name of God. We humans are easily deceived. It is only by the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit and the truth of God’s Word that we stand.

For over twenty-five years, Dr. Julie Barrier has been in demand as a national and international conference speaker, addressing topics such as marriage and ministry, developing healthy relationships, biblical study, and women’s issues. She is the founder and director of the Preach It, Teach It website, www.preachitteachit.org, providing sermons, devotionals, blogs, and videos by internationally renowned teachers and authors such as Francis Chan, Josh McDowell, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, David Ferguson, Jim Cymbala, Larry Osborne, Mark Batterson, Stanley Toussaint and many more. International resources are also offered in ten languages. Since its inception in June 2008, Preach It, Teach It has received more than five hundred thousand hits from 203 countries. For many years, Julie also taught Biblical Foundations of Worship, Conducting, and Arranging as an adjunct Professor at the Dixon School of Church Music at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. She has served as a minister of worship, orchestra conductor, and arranger at Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Barrier has also performed as a concert artist and orchestra conductor. Dr. Barrier is the author or composer of over fifty published works: books, choral pieces, orchestral works, musical theater scripts, and journal articles. Her latest book is Bored in Big Church: Recollections of a Church Brat and Tattletale (Xulon Press, 2011). She and her husband, Roger, have two beautiful daughters and two sons-in-law. If you wish to book a conference with the Barriers, go to www.churchthrive.com.

This article first appeared on Dr. Barrier's blog at Preach It, Teach It. Used with permission.

Publication date: September 20, 2011