Over the past several weeks I have posted eight articles describing the eight marks of a mind control cult. As I have noted, these posts are not the definitive works on this subject and can be found in Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and Steven Hassan’s book Combating Cult Mind Control. This post is going to be a little longer than I normally will be posting. I want to give some practical advice on avoiding getting mixed up in a cult or a high-control group that is an offshoot of an established religion, especially on that calls itself Christian.
When it comes to high-control Christian groups what are the warning signs? This is a question that has a great number of answers, and by no means should this list be considered exhaustive. Let’s begin our exploration. As with cults, high control Christian groups have an unhealthy focus on the founder of the group to whom the members of the group must display an unquestioning loyalty. There are two Christian groups that come to my mind in regards to this. Both were founded in the same year, and both have charismatic leaders. The difference is that one does not speak of their founder as having been an indispensable part of the salvation of the members of that group, while the other does to the exclusion of the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit.
Second, the group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. The reason is that as people grow in their Christian walk they see the manipulation and lack of biblical warrant for teachings and techniques used by the leadership.
The group is preoccupied with finances. Often the leaders of this group will make giving an issue of salvation. You will hear 20 minute mini-sermons on giving that are designed to manipulate the emotions of the members to give. You might even hear how there is a “curse” on you if you do not tithe. If that is the case, then Christ did not fulfill the law, and His death was worthless.
Questioning, doubt or private dissent is discouraged if not punished outright. Dissent against the God dishonoring doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church are what created the great Protestant movements, and vicariously the Pentecostal movement of the early 1900s.
They employ mind-numbing techniques like chanting, singing the same song verse repeatedly, or speaking in tongues. I want to take a moment here and state that I do believe in the perpetuity of the spiritual gifts. However, what is passed off as speaking in tongues in most Pentecostal churches is unbiblical and done in a way that is against scriptural mandate. Hence, I do not view this activity as it is done in that context as the true gift of speaking in tongues.
High control groups often hold denunciation sessions in which those with doubts in the leadership or who have left the group. I experienced this one time in my Christian walk, and it was the most uncomfortable thing I was ever involved in. This sort of event has no scriptural warrant for its practice, and should not be performed in a church that names itself as a gathering of followers of Christ.
Leadership with these groups often dictates how the members should think, feel and act. They will determine who gets married, they will break-off engagements, they tell members where to live, how to discipline children, etc. In other words, they employ the mark of Demand for Purity that minimizes the conscience of the member in favor of the thoughts of the group’s leadership.
The group has an “elitist” mentality. In which they claim a special exalted status, or that they are the ONLY group effectively doing whatever ministry they do. The group’s leader is often viewed as a “messiah” by the rank-and-file. Often the leader and lower tiered leaders do not show deference and humility to those that they are charged by scripture to care for, rather they “lord” their position of leadership over the members by demanding service and subjection from them.
The leadership often claims extra-biblical revelation. God communicates directly to the leader. I once heard a sermon in which Matthew 22:20-22 was ripped from its context in order to form a cultic pretext for giving. The preacher began his sermon by stating that he had a “revelation” from God regarding this verse. In employing this technique, he can dismiss any critical analysis of his sermon and how it had been based on bad biblical interpretation. Further, this use of “revelation” is often a tool in which the group’s leader can bring in an idea that replaces the message of the Gospel. If the group you are involved in places any idea above the preaching of the Gospel, i.e. that Jesus died for sinners, then there is danger that your group may be a high control group.
High control groups often exhibit an “us versus them” mentality. Members have little or no contact with other Christians or worse yet with those that are most in need of hearing the Gospel.
High control group leaders often have no accountability to anyone, in or out of the group. Many of these groups are based on the unbiblical “senior pastor” form of church government. In this form of church government the senior pastor has no one that functions as a “check and balance” to his power. The lay leaders under the pastor merely function as “yes men” for the pastor’s whims. Often these churches are marked by the "senior pastor" model, which is not Biblical. The Biblical model appears to be a plurality of elders ruling over the local church.
There is an “ends justify the means” mentality within the leadership. In other words, what ever emotional manipulations that can be used to attain certain results are fair game as long as they get the results that are desired. This can be seen in the way high control groups pleads for finances from its members.
The leadership of these groups employs fear and guilt in order to manipulate and control the members of the group. This is often done in the area of giving to the group in terms of tithing. Many churches teach that those who do not tithe are cursed, which means that Christ’s death only partially fulfilled the Mosaic Law, and that Christians are still under this segment of the Law.
The members’ subservience to the leadership of the group often leads them to cut ties with family and friends in order to fulfill the group’s vision. Often members will give up personal goals or hobbies because they are not keeping the group’s cause first and foremost in their lives. One last thing, church does not count as a hobby, neither does Bible reading or prayer as these are things we do if we truly love Christ.
Lastly, there is a social segregation in which members are “strongly encouraged” to live and socialize exclusively within the group. If a person names him/herself as a follower of Christ then it is necessary for him/her to have a circle of influence outside the church. To not have a circle of friends that are not Christian is to not be living a missional life.
These are some marks of high control Christian groups that need to be exposed because these groups are actually throwing more shame on the cross of Christ. Further, if a Christian is involved in a group like this, then they must be warned in order to end the cycle of spiritual abuse that the leadership of these groups heap upon their members. Lastly, if you are a lay leader of a group like this or the leader of a group like this, then I pray that you repent of these abusive techniques, and begin to seek the biblical way to leading Christ’s church.
In this final post we also want to give some practical warning to those that are in healthy churches. First, people have to be careful of self-serving biases. In other words, be careful of thinking that you are smarter than the average person, better looking than the average person, more skilled than others, or that you will outlive your peers. Scripture teaches us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to (Romans 12:3). No one is immune from deception. That is why being involved with a community of other followers of Christ is such an important part of Christianity. As I mentioned in part one of The Eight Marks series, the cults are trained to seek out and focus on people that are vulnerable in the middle of highly emotional tragedies. The support that we get from fellow believers in these times is invaluable.
Secondly, most people think they are immune from cult influence. This is just not true, especially when cults do not expose themselves fully to recruits. Others think that only people with “low self-esteem” join cults. Again, this is just not true as I have seen all sorts of individuals, from persons with advanced college degrees to the performer of the most menial work, get duped by cults. Others think that only people with major psychological problems join cults. Again, studies show that only 5 to 6 percent of cult members had a preexisting psychological problem that predisposed them to cult involvement. The point that I want to emphasize is that you have to cult-proof yourself by thinking that while involvement in such a group is not something you are looking for, there is the possibility that it could happen. This is kind of like the alcoholic that determines that today he will not drink, but that realizes that within him is lies the possibility to drink.
In my time as a JW, I never had success with a Christian that not only knew what they believed but why they believed it. It’s not enough to know that Jesus rose from the dead, but why you believe that he rose from the dead. It’s not enough to know that you believe in the Triune God, but why you believe in the Triune God. It’s not enough to be a part of a good church, but to know why you belong to a good church. Ultimately the believer must become an expert in his/her beliefs. Because by becoming an expert in what you believe then you have a basis upon which to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil.