Faith Unto Death: Koresh, Jones, Freeman and Berg
The morning was overcast with intermittent showers. An unmarked van was parked on Farm Road 2491. The view was gently rolling farm land. It hardly seemed an area that would interest a television film crew. Yet they sat patiently hoping that a hunch would pay off.
A mailman, going to visit family and friends, stopped to ask if the men were lost. The men assured him they were okay. The good Samaritan continued on his way. He turned onto another road a short distance ahead and then into a driveway which led to a very large complex of buildings.
After about forty five minutes, the men in the van noticed a caravan of vehicles coming up the road. The vehicles were pickups pulling long flatbed trailers covered with tarp. The van pulled in behind the trailers and followed them up the road duplicating the same route the mailman had taken. The trailers stopped at the formidable building complex with its forty foot lookout tower. The occupants of the van unloaded with their mini cam and other gear, confident they were about to obtain an exclusive news scoop.
Two and one half hours had passed. It had seemed an eternity, filled with the sounds of war. Hundreds of bullets had struck the trucks, trailers and van. Men had been screaming in agony. Now the van was loaded with wounded, its floors and seats covered with blood. Others with leg wounds were being carried by comrades down the long driveway.
On 28 February, Americans were shocked by video images captured by the news crew. Once again religious extremism had erupted into violence resulting in death and injury. The incredible scenes brought mental flashbacks from 18 November 1978 - Jonestown. Everyone started looking for answers to the questions: who are these people, who is this man David Koresh, how could these people believe such absurd things?
Surely anyone who could believe that a mechanic and would be rock star is Jesus Christ must be poor, uneducated and very gullible. People are surprised to find that many followers of religious extremists are highly educated people. Many have been successful business and professional leaders. Education and socioeconomic position are not major factors in analyzing the dynamics of religious belief and practice.
Religious Extremism in American History
What lessons can be learned from such men as Jim Jones, David Berg, Hobart Freeman and David Koresh? These names are all associated with extremist religious movements. The main lesson to remember is this: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
All these men had started their ministries in normal churches. Jim Jones was a Methodist pastor before starting the People's Temple. David Berg had been a Christian Missionary Alliance minister before founding the Children of God. Hobart Freeman was a highly respected Bible scholar and Seminary professor before he started the Faith Assembly movement. David Koresh was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
An enticing characteristic of these men was their burning zeal and commitment to what they proclaimed. Both Jones and Berg left their denominations and took their gospel of social revolution to the youth culture of California. They offered the promise of religious, social and economic Utopia. Freeman left his denomination to practice Bible truths he believed were being ignored by mainline churches. He believed the gifts of the Spirit such as healing and tongues should be restored to the Church and practices such as observance of Easter and Christmas should be rejected as pagan. David Koresh was caught up in an apocalyptic expectation that became an all consuming passion.
The reasons people give for following these men are as unique as the followers themselves. Each individual has their own view of life and is desirous of contributing and belonging to something greater than self. Most people live by a routine calendar of events. They wish for more control over their circumstances, for more power to make the world a better place.
Suddenly, into their lives comes a man (or woman) whose soul is on fire. His anger expresses their anger. His passion moves them to believe there is a possibility of change. His rhetoric is compelling. His call is entertained. He is worth listening to. He seems compassionate. He is articulate.
Signs of Warning
There are a number of warning signs in these claims which should be heeded. People are conditioned to believe an expert. Religious zealots can expound on the Bible for hours at a time. Both Jim Jones and David Koresh taught studies lasting from eight to fifteen hours. David Berg also held lengthy studies with his Children of God followers.
All of these men claim to be specifically chosen by God for an end-time ministry. To join them was to be a part of God's great plan for the world in the last days. God, Himself, was calling them to His one true church.
There is usually an attack on the person of Jesus Christ. The leader must find ways to diminish the Bible's declarations ofChrist's deity and all sufficient redemption. Remember, "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" as Paul wrote to Timothy. Jim Jones renounced Christianity for a Marxist gospel of social utopianism, ruling by fear and brutality. Berg and Freeman claimed to be prophets of God fulfilling Bible prophecy. Koresh claimed to be the Lamb.
These leaders also majored on the minor. Berg and Koresh both emphasized the Old Testament prophecies and the Book of Revelation's cataclysmic predictions for the future. Berg, Freeman, and Koresh all claimed to lead God's exclusive church. Berg and Koresh majored on the end-time prophecy to the exclusion of cardinal doctrines (e.g. bodily resurrection of Christ and salvation by faith). Freeman majored on the minor doctrine of divine healing by telling followers that through faith they could overcome death.
These leaders also taught that to leave the group was to receive a sentence of death. Berg and Koresh held that to leave the groups was tantamount to losing ones salvation. Freeman taught that those who left Faith Assembly were excluded from the Rapture. Jones told his followers if they left him they would be murdered.
Before joining any group, a wise person will look past the leader's personal charisma. They will examine the doctrines and practices in light of New Testament teaching. Often a leader will start out on an orthodox footing and drift into error over a period of time. Be ever vigilant! Never abdicate your right to think your own thoughts. Never allow yourself to be isolated from outside contact with family, friends and other believers, not of your own fellowship.
The Bible is not subject to private interpretation. Learn the rules of proper interpretation. Be cautious in following anyone who claims to be a special messenger from God. Avoid New Truth, never before known to the church.
Jim Jones forced 913 men, women, and children to either drink poison or be shot. Hobart Freeman and eighty nine followers died because they refused medical treatment. David Berg led his followers into exile and unspeakable perversion. David Koresh holds the lives of over one hundred followers in his hands. Some are prepared to die for him - they have already killed for him.
These tragedies are a challenge to the Christian community to proclaim the truth in a manner that is relevant. The hearts of men are still echoing Pontius Pilate's cry, "What is truth?"