Jim Jones and Ted RobinsonBy Brian Anderson
Recently I spent some time studying the life of the Reverend Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple which received worldwide news coverage after the 1978 mass suicide of 913 individuals in Jonestown, Guyana. What I read fascinated, angered, saddened and terrified me. The more I read, the more I saw definite parallels with Ted Robinson, pastor of Faith Community Church which my wife and I attended from 1980 to 1988. My wife and I rose in the ranks over time to become elders and part of the inner-circle of committed members at Faith Community. As I have studied the life of Jim Jones, I have been shocked and alarmed to observe so many parallels between the two men, but also relieved to find some important contrasts as well; these observations have helped me to formulate some important principles for anyone thinking about joining a church.
One characteristic that both Jim Jones and Ted Robinson shared in common was that they both possessed absolute power in their respective churches. Jim Jones wielded total control over the lives of thousands of members in his churches located in Ukiah, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Within hours he could have a thousand picketers in place, or flood a politician's phone lines with calls. He was able to direct the lives of all of these members down to every detail of their lives. He dictated to them where they would work, where they would live and with whom, what church work they would do, how many hours per day they would spend doing it, and even whether or not they would have sexual relations with their spouses. The members of People's Temple completely submitted their minds to Jim Jones. One of the unspoken rules in the Temple was that no one ever challenged Jones' authority. Likewise, Ted Robinson exercised complete power over Faith Community Church. He had an uncanny ability to manipulate and control the people in his church by his charismatic and dominating personality. He alone made the final decisions in every area of church life. I served as an elder for years, but was never a part of the decision-making process. In fact on one occasion, Ted asked a group of us to make the decision as to whether the church-operated grammar school should continue the following year. After we told him what decision we had made, he overturned it in order to assert his absolute authority.
Another strong parallel between these two men was their ability to persuade and coerce people into giving their money to the church. Jim Jones was a master at swindling people out of their money and possessions. It was commonplace at People's Temple meetings to take up three or four offerings. Jones required his followers to give a minimum of 25 per cent of their income. After a time, even that was not sufficient, so he required them to give up their homes, property, cars, insurance, jewelry, antiques, heirlooms, and anything else that had value. In time, Jones had all of the members living in communes on a bare subsistence level while giving all of their income from their jobs to the church. Ted Robinson, though not near as extreme as Jones in this area, was constantly pressuring us for more money. He taught that all must give a minimum of ten percent of their income to the church. When that amount proved to be insufficient for Robinson's church building and programs, special meetings of the leadership were called. In these meetings everyone was urged to make a special "faith pledge" of one or two thousand dollars. Our own family took out a loan for $1,000 on one occasion as our pledge. At other times, we were urged to write or call relatives and friends to ask for donations to our church for its special building project. We were quick to obey these directives in order to gain Pastor Ted's approval. There was constant pressure to give more and more. Often Ted would speak for ten or fifteen minutes before an offering, exhorting us on the importance of sacrificial giving. No one in the entire church except for Ted and Linda ever saw the financial records. If anyone ever asked to see the books, they were rebuked for having the audacity to question Ted's financial integrity
Additionally, both Jim Jones and Ted Robinson had huge egos and were eager to exalt themselves. Jim Jones started out claiming that he was "The Great Prophet Of God." After time, even that exalted title was not lofty enough, so he told his congregation one day that God had revealed to him that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Lenin. Soon thereafter he began requiring his flock to address him as "Father". The church meetings consisted of upbeat songs in which the parishioners would praise "Father" for all the miracles he had supposedly wrought on their behalf. (In actual fact, Jones was conning the people with fake miracles with the help of several trusted assistants.) Then there was a time of testimonies where people would stand to testify to what a wonderful, kind, and benevolent man Jim Jones was to have helped them so. Jim Jones enjoyed basking in this praise and hero worship. He employed a team of people to work tirelessly writing letters to important politicians in which they would praise their pastor for all the great humanitarian works he was performing. Likewise, Ted Robinson claimed to be an apostle of Jesus Christ and a prophet of God. He required all of us to call him "Pastor Ted". If any one of us would dare address him simply as "Ted", we would be told we were being extremely disrespectful. On his daily radio broadcast the announcer would introduce Robinson as a nationally known Bible teacher, author, and world traveler. We knew firsthand that the only items Ted had ever written were small stapled pamphlets and Bible studies for home groups. He had no published books to speak of. His world travels consisted of one visit to Eastern Europe. Furthermore, in 1984, the church held an evangelistic rock concert and had T-shirts printed in advance. On the back were listed the names of the bands that would be performing. In addition, "Linda's Hubby" was listed along with the rest. Linda was Ted's wife, and this was one more way of getting Ted's name into the spotlight. When Faith Community Church held a dinner at Christmas for the homeless, Ted made sure that all the newspapers, radio and television stations were notified so that they could report on the wonderful works of Ted and the church.
Another similarity between the two men was the way both of them were masters at manipulating their flock through fear. Jim Jones early on in his ministry claimed to have received a revelation that an impending nuclear holocaust was about to destroy the world, and only those Temple members who stayed with him would be protected. Supposedly, Jim Jones alone knew of a safe hiding place where they would all be protected. If a member of the church considered defecting, Jones was quick to threaten them that judgment, catastrophe, illness or death would certainly overtake them if they did so. Often he could be heard stating publicly, "Bad things happen to people who leave People's Temple." When the members of People's Temple arrived for church on Sunday morning, they were required to sign their names on the bottom of a blank piece of paper. Later, Jones could have some incriminating confession printed on the top portion of the paper to be used to manipulate and control people should they decide to leave the church. If someone in the church did something Jim Jones didn't approve of, they would be brought before the church on a Wednesday evening for "discipline." These disciplines meted out by "Father" were cruel and brutal. Sometimes a person would be "spanked" with up to 175 strokes with a heavy wooden instrument, leaving its victim with deep welts and bruises. On other occasions overweight women who had been caught sneaking extra food would have to disrobe down to their underwear before a gawking crowd. On still other occasions, an individual would be thrust into a boxing match with one of Jones' strong and bulky bodyguards. In like manner, Ted Robinson was a master of manipulating through fear. At times we were told after someone left the church that they had gotten cancer or become a prostitute as a sign of God's judgment. At one of the Christmas dinners for the homeless, one of Ted's assistants didn't follow his orders in seating the people well enough to suit him. Ted repeatedly screamed into the microphone that this assistant was a wimp. I left furious that Ted could get away with abusing people like that. On another occasion Ted told his two elders that he wanted them to audibly speak in tongues during an evening meeting where he wanted the gifts of the Spirit to be manifest. One of the elders felt he couldn't make himself speak in tongues at someone's command. When Ted realized that this elder wasn't obeying his orders, he began to publicly humiliate him in front of the church, and when that didn't work told him to get out and never come back. Time and again these kinds of threats and manipulative tactics were successful in controlling people. People did what Ted wanted them to do because they feared him, plain and simple.
Additionally there are striking resemblances in how both men reacted to those who left their church. When an individual left People's Temple, they were cut off forever from those they left behind, even if they happened to be family members. If the defector happened to be privy to sensitive information, armed bodyguards would show up on his doorstep to intimidate him into silence. Often threatening notes would be sent stating that if the individual talked to anyone about the church they would lose their job, property or life. Similarly, at Faith Community Church, when an individual left we were told he was living in sin and thus must be disciplined by the church. This meant that they were to be shunned. If we ran into him, we were to speak with him only long enough to admonish him for his sin and then be on our way. Under no circumstances were we to spend time visiting with him or enjoying a meal together. I had to "shun" the best man at my wedding. I still regret my actions to this day.
Finally, both men were extremely effective in eliciting a high degree of devotion from their followers. A typical member of People's Temple would work his eight hour job, and then spend between four and eight additional hours doing church work after he came home. The more committed members worked consistently into the wee hours of the morning night after night. The church services at People's Temple were regularly six to eight hours long, often extending to one or two o'clock in the morning on a Sunday or Wednesday evening. The members were brainwashed into thinking they were helping to bring about a great utopia under Jim Jones' leadership. The members eventually became so exhausted trying to keep up this pace that there was no time left for families to be together, or even for husbands and wives to sleep together. Under this grueling regime, marriages and families fell apart. The members justified their diligence, however, because it was all for "The Cause." Ted Robinson, similarly, was able to mobilize his members and excite them to great diligence in working for the church. Members were expected to attend services on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, teach two bible studies during the week, and attend an evangelistic concert on Friday evenings. On the other evenings they were to go out on visitations or call contacts made at the rock concerts. When an old furniture warehouse needed to be refurbished into a meeting place for the church, members were expected to work long and hard hours, often till midnight or one in the morning, and then get up and go to work the next day. This grueling toil had its destructive effect in many marriages and families as well. Over time, all those in the inner circle ended up leaving the church.
While there were several striking parallels between Jones and Robinson, there were also some sharp contrasts as well. Jim Jones, for example, never preached the gospel of Jesus Christ; he never told his people that although they were sinners, they could be saved from the penalty of their sins by trusting in Christ's substitutionary death on the cross. Ted Robinson, on the other hand did preach the gospel of Christ clearly and truthfully to his people. As a result, in spite of the obvious abuses, many men and women came to faith in Christ, including my own wife. Furthermore, Jim Jones did not preach from the Bible. His sermons were taken from newspaper and magazine articles, and were a weird blend of Marxist socialism, Buddhism, and teachings from Father Divine and the Peace Mission. The only time Jones referred to the Bible was to degrade it as being full of errors and discrepancies. Sometimes in his meetings he would stomp on it, and one time he even set it on fire to prove it was only a "paper idol." Robinson on the other hand taught from the Scriptures and extolled it as God's infallible Word. His teaching was clearly within the pale of orthodox Christian doctrine. Another difference between the two men was in the use of weapons. Jim Jones maintained armed bodyguards who surrounded and protected him at all times; Ted Robinson never resorted to those extreme measures. Again, Jim Jones differed from Robinson in his bizarre teachings on sex. Jones taught his congregation that they were all homosexuals and lesbians and the sooner they recognized that the better. According to Jones, he alone, was a true heterosexual and the only man who could really satisfy a woman. He required his members to abstain from sexual relations with their spouses, while he freely and frequently had sexual intercourse with many different Temple men and women. Ted Robinson never taught such sordid sexual practices. He consistently taught that adultery, fornication and homosexuality were sins against God and should be avoided at all costs. A final area of difference in the two men was in the intensity to which they practiced their abusive practices. Though there was much in Ted Robinson which paralleled Jim Jones, he was far less extreme.
As I have thought about the parallels between these two men it has had a tremendously sobering effect on my life. Though Faith Community Church could not technically be labeled a cult because of its orthodox Christian teaching, it was very cult-like in its organization and blind obedience to its leader. Given a few more years, Ted could have turned out like Jim Jones or David Koresh. I could have ended up like those 913 persons whose lives were needlessly snuffed out by following Jones and drinking his poison. The one thing that restrained Robinson from progressing that far in his abuse, in my opinion, was that the gospel of Jesus Christ was being preached. Thus, individuals were being genuinely converted, and the Holy Spirit was active in our lives, albeit quenched and grieved by much that was going on. I'm convinced that it was the ministry of the Holy Spirit that protected us from total delusion and destruction.
As I have looked back on the whole experience, I have learned some very important lessons which are extremely relevant for anyone choosing a church:
- Make sure the church you join believes that the Bible is God's inspired Word and appeals to it as the final authority in all things. Jim Jones appealed to Scripture only to list its supposed contradictions and to mock it. Robinson appealed to the Scriptures, but often took verses out of context to suit his agenda. Make sure that the church you are joining yourself to is committed to understanding and obeying God's Word. By that I mean that the leaders of the church seek to understand and live out all issues of life under the authority of God's Word. If the authority subtly shifts from the Word of God to the word of some man, the members of that church will undoubtedly reap devastating effects in their own lives. Not only should the leaders of the church believe and practice the clear teachings of Scripture, and appeal to them in all decisions, but they should be open, and approachable about any matter from anyone in the church who would like to discuss a concern with them. Should an individual approach the leadership of the church with a concern, and be able to show from Scripture that his concern is based upon the clear teaching of Scripture, the leaders should be humble and teachable enough to learn from the individual and correct the wrong teaching or practice. If the Scriptures give latitude in a particular area, both leaders and members must learn to allow differences of conviction in the particular area without judging one another (Romans 14).
- Make sure the church you join is not run by a single individual with no built in accountability structure. Abusive churches are usually governed by a single power-hungry individual. The Scriptures uniformly show that the early churches were governed by a team of elders. We don't have a single record in the New Testament where a church was governed by one man. If there is any doubt in your mind on this issue, please look up the following passages to see whether this is the case or not (Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17,28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim.5:17; Titus 1:5; Hebrews 13:17; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). Additionally, there is no indication in these passages that any elder possessed any more authority in these churches than another elder. To put it another way, we have no record of a Senior Pastor, or Head Elder in the early churches. It appears that the elders were a team of men who worked together to shepherd God's church, each possessing equal authority with one another. God's wondrous wisdom can be seen in this arrangement. If each local church is governed by a plurality of godly men, and all these men possess equal authority, then there is a built in checks and balances system that will prevent a Jim Jones or a Ted Robinson from dominating the church for his own ends.
- Make sure when you join a church that the financial records of the church are open and available to anyone who asks. If the leaders of the church you are considering joining are defensive or opposed to doing this, you have reason to question if the handling of the finances in that particular church is above reproach.
- Another thing to look out for when joining a church is an overemphasis on money and giving. If a church is continually harping about giving, it might be an indication that God is not guiding. Although the old adage "where God guides, He provides" is not found in the Bible, it is good sound wisdom. If God's blessing and guidance is on a church, He will provide the monies necessary to fulfill His plan for that church. If the leaders of a church resort to begging, pleading, coercing, and manipulating people for more and more money, it may mean God is not in it. Be careful.
- Another thing a person should look for when joining a church is truly humble and meek leaders. Jesus said that the leaders of His church would be its servants (Mt. 20:20-28). If "the pastor" is often boasting about his great faith, sacrifice, or service and seeking to find ways to exalt himself in the eyes of others, you should be very careful about your commitment to his church. Although we ought not judge another's heart, it is important to test the fruit of a man's life. Jesus was meek and lowly of heart. His true servants will be the same.
- Another important thing to watch for in a church is how people in it are motivated to service. If the leaders are motivating people through fear, be very cautious about your involvement in it. Seek out a church where the members are motivated to action from the clear teaching of God's Word. In other words, look for a body of believers where the leaders seek to motivate the flock from love to Christ and zeal for His glory -- not from fear, guilt, or the desire to please a man. When I joined Faith Community Church I was a very young believer with little spiritual discernment. I wish someone had sat me down and shared the lessons I have outlined above before I spent eight years in that abusive church. I pray that the things I've written here will give solid counsel and practical wisdom for others so that they don't have to live through the same things that I did.