Sunday, July 8, 2012

Christian Blogger Claims IHOP is a Cult

While hunting for commentary pieces for an earlier Commentary Tidbits post, I stumbled across a blog called the Gospel Masquerade. Ariel, the website's author, is a Christian blogger who wrote about her negative experiences with the International House of Prayer (IHOP), a prominent New Apostolic Reformation organization. Even though the Gospel Masquerade is now inactive, it provides hard-hitting commentary on IHOP's theology and practices.

In a 2009 post entitled "Why I Believe IHOP is a Cult", Ariel argues that IHOP qualifies as a cult, recounting her difficult experiences as an IHOP intern . She claims that IHOP charged interns exorbant fees, exerted rigid control over interns' behavior, pressured interns to recruit new members, and taught an elitist religious message. Furthermore, she alleges that IHOP head Mike Bickle is a charismatic leader who has placed himself on a pedestal.
"Over and over and over again I’ve heard it said (both directly by Mike as well as from others) that he (Mike) would be the leader of a movement that “changed the nature and expression of Christianity in the earth”. Every time, all recognition points to Mike. His “mission” to transform the church and capture the hearts of America’s youth has been his declared goal since the early 1980’s. One of the major dangers is that these grandious [sic] sounding claims and “prophetic” words are laden with flattery, narcissism, elitism and are a perfect guise under which anything Mike introduces through IHOP can fall under the heading of being a “new thing” God is doing.

This elitist teaching puts Mike on a pedestal and he has a Messianic-like devoted following of people who would do anything if he told them to without a moment of questioning or hesitation ... Mike has an alluring charisma and many seem to be instantly drawn to his convincing appearance of direction and purpose. He teaches with passion and emotion rather than truth and its that charisma that draws and hooks people causing many to blindly follow (and defend) his message."
Ariel claims that interns suffer spiritual and emotional trauma during their tenure at IHOP, and that some are bereft once they exit the IHOP environment.
"Once outside of the IHOP environment, they are terrified and overwhelmed by the “real” world and don’t know how to function in it when they’ve been in an intensive internship environment. There is a degree of re-acclimating to normal life that feels like an IHOP detox afterward. It’s a severe emotional drop because the hyped up services and conferences that were your manna are now gone and when there is no prayer room, your life in God feels empty and lifeless. Many simply don’t know how to engage with God in a real day-to-day basis once they’ve left. I experienced this and heard the exact same thing from a handful of my friends after they left IHOP and the internship. At that point when disillusionment sets in, I know many interns that walked away from God completely upon leaving the internship and went back into lifestyles worse than the ones they left when they came to IHOP originally."
A quick internet search shows that Ariel is not the only person who had made such allegations. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, a former IHOP student claims that she was asked to leave after she challenged the instructors' teachings on "signs and wonders." Other former students claim that isolation and excessive sensory information compromised their independent thinking skills.

Other critics are Christians who take issue with IHOP's theology and practices. Christian blogs such as Slaughter of the Sheep look askance at IHOP, and a 2008 discussion in Soulforce's online forum explores whether or not IHOP's practices are cultlike.

Mike Bickle himself has addressed cult accusation against IHOP on several occasions. For example, in a 2011 video entitled "Is IHOP-KC a cult?", Bickle argues that IHOP does not have the traits of a cult. At the 0:44 mark, Bickle claims that he understands why some members of the community would be nervous about IHOP's focus on youth, but insists that IHOP youth are a positive presence.
"I get a community being nervous about a couple thousand young people who love the Bible 'cause what if those young people are mean-spirited? What if the young people are super-judgmental? I mean, we want our young people to be compassionate with a servant spirit and love the city, build up the community. They don't know that though, so I give them grace."
At the 1:07 mark, Bickle insists that cults are increasing because the time of Jesus' return is approaching.
"I've taught on it a number of times, the characteristics of a cult, because there's going to be lots of cults and deception. The closer we get to the return of the Lord, the more deception and cult-like behavior and activity will happen. I think it's going to increase dramatically."
I was particularly struck my Bickle's insistence that IHOP promotes critical thinking. At the 1:29 mark, he claims that he challenges new IHOP students to discern whether or not his teachings are biblically sound.
"Number one characteristic of a cult is they do not value critical thinking. And one of the things I do every time we get a new groups of students ... I go talk to them [and] say, 'We charge you to think through and challenge every single thing you heard said in this place. If it's me saying it, Allan Hood, our Bible teachers. Don't accept anything you don't see with your own eyes and your own Bible.' And I say, 'I charge you to challenge us on every single point to make sure its Biblical. We honor you for it. We don't penalize you for it. We honor you for it. Now We ask you to do it with a humble spirit, and we ask you to do it in the right settings so you're not divisive about it, but we want you to say, 'Where's that in the Bible?'"
I take issue with Bickle's claim for several reasons. First, measuring a claim against the Bible is not necessarily an act of critical thinking, because it accepts the Bible's content uncritically and without nuance. Measuring a claim according to whether or not it is rational, internally consistent, and in agreement with known facts is a much better use of critical thinking skills. Second, Republic of Gilead has documented cases in which IHOP speakers (mainly Lou Engle and Mike Bickle) made irrational or intolerant statements about LGBTQ persons, gender roles, Islam, mainstream society, and demons. Such comments do not smack of critical thought, making Bickle's admonishing to use critical thinking skills rather ironic.

Next, at the 3:33 mark, Bickle argued that a cult condemns those who leave its ranks. He contrasted this to IHOP, which rejoices when its charges are recruited into other Christian ministries. No mention is made of persons who leave IHOP for a non-Christian religion or a non-religious life, however.
"When a person leaves the ministry -- a cult, if you leave the ministry, if you leave, they pronounce judgment on you. They reject you. The whole community shuns you if you leave. We value people leaving our ministry and joining other ministries ... We celebrate it when somebody recruits them."
I found Bickle's 2011 response to cult accusations inadequate. I would have liked to see Bickle devote more time to issues such as grandiose teachings and allegations of unethical demands on students and interns. Furthermore, his claim that respectful questioning is welcome at IHOP contradicts claims made by other former followers. Finally, his claim that IHOP encourages critical thinking ignores the many irrational statements made by IHOP speakers. I am not necessarily accusing IHOP of being a cult, only of providing an inadequate response to accusations.

Bickle has devoted a lengthy talk to alleged cults and "false" teachers. In a 2009 talk entitled "How to Discern False Teachers and Cults: 7 Characteristics," Bickle refers to cults and false teachers as "the enemy's attack against intimacy with Jesus." At the 4:17 mark, Bickle claimed that false signs and teachings are tools of Satan against truth.
"The conflict in the end times will be a battle for truth ... Satan's main weapon will be deception, and he'll use false signs and wonders to back up the deception."
Bickle claimed that people falling away from God and the ascendancy of the Antichrist are signs of the end times. He encouraged listeners to love truth and bring false teachings to light amidst such signs. At the 5:00 mark, he described this truth in terms of theological orthodoxy.
"The enemy is bringing confusion even in the church as to the definition of who Jesus is. And there's believers beginning to move the boundary lines on this ... and there's a false grace message that is endorsing compromise and 'it really doesn't matter what we do because everything's okay in the end.' And the truth is, we have to love God on God's terms, not on our terms. It has to be on God's terms. Our love for Gods is expressed in our allegiance to Jesus, in allegiance to his word. That's how our love for God is expressed."
Bickle defined a cult as a group drawing people to one leader and his unbiblical ideas. One of these criteria serves as a warning flag, he told listeners, while two or more should cause observers to take note. He listed his criteria for alleged cults and false teachers, including:
  • sexual immorality
  • "covetousness"
  • emphasis on the group's doctrinal uniqueness
  • excessive loyalty to leaders instead of Jesus and family
  • discouragement of critical thought
  • insistence on lifelong commitments
  • morally dubious behavior justified through "special revelation" (i.e., rejection of private ownership of property, unethical financial practices)
  • exclusion of the larger Christian community instead of a "spirit of inclusion"
  • rejection of Christian doctrines (i.e., the resurrection, the Trinity, salvation through grace and faith, infallibility of scripture).
I found some of these criteria highly problematic. While some of Bickle's criteria do characterize cults (i.e., morally dubious behavior, excessive loyalty to leaders), others do not necessarily describe cults, but rather non-fundamentalist belief systems. Some Christian denominations reject inerrant interpretations of scripture in favor of more nuanced approaches to the Bible, for instance, but that does not make them cults. Catholicism includes priests and monastics who have made voluntary lifelong commitments to religious life, but modern Catholicism is not a cult. Things that fundamentalist Christians might brand as "sexual immorality," such as same-sex relationships, are accepted by LGBTQ-affirming churches. Some fundamentalist groups (including IHOP, I would argue) discourage critical thinking, and while this is worrisome, this trait alone is not indicative of a cult. Some of Bickle's criteria were insightful, while others are inadequate for defining true cults. To boot, some of these criteria aren't applicable to non-Christian groups, making his criteria inadequate for identifying non-Christian cults.

Bickle's talk, rather than tackling accusations against IHOP, wove alleged cults into an end times narrative. At times, the talk seemed to be less about the dangers of cults and more about orthodoxy. While Bickle may have been genuinely trying to warn listeners about dubious religious groups, his 2009 talk could have discussed cults in a much more comprehensive, relevant manner. And, it could have been an opportunity to vindicate IHOP in the face of cult allegations.

Is IHOP a cult? I don't have enough information to make that call. While IHOP's preachers have definitely made troubling statements about reproductive rights, gender roles, Islam, and the LGBTQ community, this qualifies them as Religious Right voices, not necessarily cult figures. Still, I think that observers should take note of Ariel's allegations at the Gospel Masquerade, as well as similar claims from other quarters. Additionally, IHOP needs to address such claims in a relevant, comprehensive manner.

(Hat tip to God's Own Party.)


  1. they also try and lure the young peeps with rock music and nite time masses. . It's awonder that things like can not only survive, but thrive. WTF.


    1. Kris -- Do you mean IHOP, or dubious Christian ministries as a whole?

  2. I have to admit - I originally thought you meant International House of Pancakes. Which some people follow with cult-like devotion.

    Growing up, Mormons always claimed that you should question your beliefs. But it's not really questioning when there is only one "acceptable" answer (that the church is true.)

    1. Postmormon Girl -- Well, if the pancakes and eggs are as good as I've heard, who can blame them?

      I agree with your observation. True doubt and questioning mean that a person is free to reach more than one conclusion.

  3. I've heard that from many fundamentalist pastors--challenge what I say, be very discerning...test everything against the Bible. *facepalm*

    They never say, "Test what I say about homosexuality against your actual experiences in relating to gay friends and neighbors." Or, "Test what I say about the natural world by taking some science classes."

    1. I love your observation, Michelle. Thank you for that!

    2. Michelle -- It's self-confirmation for fundamentalist pastors. They define truth by how they interpret scripture, then use scripture as "proof" of their truth. Other criteria for evaluating truth is deemed inferior.

  4. Can I get a stack of three pancakes and some link sausage with this blog post, Ahab? Something about it makes me hungry for breakfast.

    1. Paul -- Pancakes and "signs and wonders" sausage coming right up!

    2. Dude...seriously...I say the header and I thought you were talking about a 'pancake' cult!!!! I dumb or what!

    3. Okjimm -- Sign me up for THAT cult! :)

  5. I also laughed out loud when I saw the title. I thought your post was going to be about some kook who thought that IHOP was a cult because the owners donated some of the proceeds of their pancake sales to Planned Parenthood...or some such scenario.

    But that Bickle character is pretty creepy. Interpreting "critical thinking" as agreeing with him screams cult to me.

    1. Donna -- HA! I can see it now. "They're seducing our youth into a wicked life of scrambled eggs and toast!"

      Yeah, Bickle is a character all right. I'd keep my eye on him.


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