Kimberlee Johnson serves on the Urban Studies faculty at Eastern University, Philadelphia, where she also directs the Center for Urban Youth Development and the Juvenile Justice Ministry Certificate program. She is also a youth justice advocate and member of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Dr. Johnson is an ordained American Baptist Churches, USA minister serving as an associate at Tasker Street Missionary Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and is the founder of the Fellowship of Women Clergy.
I joined a cult. As a young adult follower of Jesus Christ who wholeheartedly desired to grow in faith, I prayed for an opportunity to learn more of God’s Word and will for my life. As God would have it, that request was answered in a most unconventional way—I became part of a religious organization that used the Bible as a tool for deception, manipulation and control. Through a series of divinely orchestrated events and interventions, I was extricated from that organization and left with an enduring commitment to learning, living and teaching others the Scriptures.
The apostle Paul’s final words in 2 Timothy to his son in the Christian faith, Timothy, have inspired and motivated me to a life of faithful service grounded on biblical principles. In 2 Timothy 4:1-3, it says, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.”
More than 30 years ago, God used this passage (the books of 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, really) to call me into the Gospel ministry. I didn’t know then that I would become an ordained American Baptist USA preacher, but the Lord showed me that I would teach his Word to many. And the Lord did this at a time when I was unlearned, unconfident, young, inexperienced, confused and filled with doubt. But it was abundantly clear to me after being delivered from the cult that my deception occurred so very easily because I was not grounded in the sound and enduring doctrines of the Bible.
The very first sermon I preached was based on 2 Timothy 4:1-3. Paul’s warning to Timothy, the young pastor at Ephesus, that, “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires” is certainly applicable today. After serving now for many years in ministry in numerous cultural contexts, I have found this to be true.
This text reminds me that as was the case in Ephesus, there will always be opportunists and deceivers in Christian contexts. They work for their own social or material advantage rather than for the well being of the hearers. My prayer has always been that my ministry will be filled with integrity and with love, and that neither popularity nor profit would ever be a motive.
Historically, the Bible has been used to justify oppression, war, chattel slavery, and other atrocities. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman describes how the Scriptures were used in self-serving and oppressive ways, citing particularly its misuse by American slave masters. He also describes his grandmother’s account of a slave minister who declared to his fellow slaves as God’s children and “established for them the ground of personal dignity.” The same Bible that is used to oppress, can be used to set captives free. Sound doctrine is indeed liberating—spiritually, mentally, and socially liberating. In my case, the sacred text of Scripture was used by, perhaps well-meaning, religious people to nearly destroy my faith. Perhaps they themselves were deceived and their intentions were not self-serving. Nevertheless, they led me and many astray.
Paul encouraged Timothy to be persistent in sharing God’s message in both favorable and unfavorable contexts. So, while today many seek to be entertained, I have committed myself to attaining biblical knowledge, developing skill and wholly relying on the Spirit of God. My primarily audience is always Lord. While some believers require signs and wonders, I have committed myself to prioritizing a ministry grounded by biblical teaching, informed by my culture, shaped by my experiences and yielded to God’s wise direction, and then allowing God to use me in whatever ways appropriate at a given time.
 Thurman, H. (1976). Jesus and the disinherited. Beacon Press.
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