Christian Cults

Where Fellowship and Camaraderie lives: that place where the CPS membership values fun and good fellowship as the cement of the community
User avatar
Onyx
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Posts: 10857
Joined: Mon Dec 01, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Skeptopolis

Christian Cults

Post by Onyx » Fri Jan 01, 2010 6:32 pm

I don't claim expertise in much. But each of us is an expert of sorts when it comes to our own life experience. I spent 22 years of my adult life in a Christian cult.

For some of you "Christian cult" is a contradiction in terms. If it's a cult, it's not Christian. If it's truly Christian, it's not a cult. I wish that were true.

Others faced with the word "cult" may jump to the defensive stance - "well Jesus started a cult so I'm happy to be in one". I know this defense well, as it is a favourite within cults.

Any sizable community of people will at times encompass mistakes, ambition and exploitation. An "open system" (one where people are free to speak up, and where people can talk to those outside and outside counsel makes its way in) has many safe-guards against this. Perhaps the foremost feature of a cult is that it is a "closed system." People are discouraged from seeking council outside, and those who speak up within are subtly (or not so subtly) admonished to tend to their own meekness!

What is a cult?

I'd like to start by saying that a cult is not distinguished by its erroneous doctrine. If that were the case then the term would be practically meaningless except as a mud-slinging term for everyone outside our own particular set of beliefs. I understand what a cult is completely separately from the debate of the rightness or wrongness of doctrine. This also implies that a person can be "right" about doctrine and yet in the grip of a cult. (He can certainly believe that he is right - since every man is right in his own eyes!)

There is no clear line that divides the cult from the non-cult, because there is no singular characteristic that alone makes a group into a cult. Rather, I believe there is an array of cult-like characteristics, some of which may be found even in a healthy group. Taken together, these traits begin to make a group cult-like, and in high concentration a group becomes almost undeniably "a cult". I say "almost", because for those on this inside, it's deniable.

Why do I say "Christian" cult?

This is a tough one. I believe that Christianity is good and healthy. It's good for the individual, good for the family, and good for the community - both within and without. Yet an unhealthy cult can be formed from nothing but the very ingredients of Christianity taken in a particular balance and emphasis. Cult-like behaviour may be supported by scripture in a way that is almost indistinguishable from the way any Christian may turn to scripture for guidance.

Secondly, there are good Christian people who live and function within Christian cults. Their love and Christian virtue is as real as yours. Within Christian cults, the testimonies shared, victories won, heart-lessons learned, kindness offered, friendships formed are as genuine and real as any shared in your church. If you don't believe this, then you are not going to understand what makes a cult so inviting and deceptive.

Misunderstanding the cult:

It is an often used cliche when writing about cults, yet it remains true in that elusive hard to really accept way... Normal people enter cults. It is not just the vulnerable, open-to-suggestion types anymore than in your church. Cults are full of intelligent, funny, honest, hardworking - doctors, electricians, plumbers, teachers, homemakers preachers and preacher's sons.

Cults are not overtly weird. (I wish they were - they'd be easier to spot.) The traits that make them a cult are very close to (and often the same things as) those features that make any group cohere.

What are the traits that make a cult?

The list is long, yet this is the meat of the issue. As I've already indicated, you'll find things in here that remind you of Jesus' teachings. That doesn't mean he was a cult leader. But taken together, you may begin to see how controlling and all encompassing a groups with these characteristics becomes.

It starts:
  • People are offered a vision for their future. This is inspiring, yet it's a dream always to be realised within the group.
  • People are offered "power". Power to discern truth from error, power to prosper, power to lead others...
  • Initially, much may be given freely to a new comer. The kindness given may even be overwhelming.
  • A sense of urgency is created. This is your moment to serve! The devil wants to trick you out of this opportunity! God is calling you now! The devil is attacking our freedom and our beliefs now!
  • People are given little time to reflect, or to consult with others outside of the organisation. People are kept busy within the group.
  • New people are subtly kept separate from their family and old friends, and perhaps even from other new people. They are encouraged to spend time with faithful members of the group.
  • People are sent on special missions. "This is God's call for your life right now".
It progresses:
  • Demands follow the initial generosity. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.
  • There is an unhealthy interested in separating people from their money.
  • There is an "onion" structure. Outsiders and new people only see the outer layer. As you become more committed you are shown more of how things work. The first clue is in the "intermediate" stage when you are shown "appropriate" ways to deal with new people.
  • There is a deceptive "don't tell" understanding. Imperfections are protected with silence - since it would be a stumbling block to others to air the dirty laundry.
  • The very powerful technique of granting and withholding love is used to control people. You are never so "loved" as when you are in favour, and you'll do what is required to stay in that zone. When you're out of favour - you'll know!
  • Things are only valued within the context of the group. No outside preacher or counselor is really trusted. No talent or skill is really valued unless it can be used to serve within the group.
  • Schedules are prescribed, keeping you busy for the Lord!
  • The leaders have strong claims to authority. Perhaps they are the only ones authorised to interpret scriptures, or they may have received a special revelation to exclusively teach.
  • People learn to belittle their own individual lives, they exaggerate the degradation of their pre-group past, and exaggerate their story of deliverance.
  • People learn ways to rebut every criticism.
Ultimately:
  • Fear is instilled. Fear of disfavour, fear of exclusion.
  • Information is controlled. Not much comes in, not much comes out. The release or admission of information requires approval. Much is blocked out. People have learned to police their own thoughts.
  • People watch and report on each other. Behaviour is monitored and confronted. New behaviour has been learned.
  • Leadership may have falsified qualifications to bolster authenticity.
  • Repetitive actions are taught - breathing techniques, quoting scriptures, chanting, quoting motivational phrases.
  • It is not uncommon that people have become estranged from their families - or perhaps just uncomfortable and aloof from family. Time with families is reduced.
  • Conformity is encouraged, individuality is discouraged.
  • Church history is rewritten. This is justified as being expressed from a spiritual point of view.
  • Those outside the group are demonised.
  • Thoughts contrary to the group are demonised.
  • Those who question the state of things are blamed.
  • People are threatened if they leave, (for example, the devil will be able to attack them).
Personally

It took many years to realise what was happening. Every suggestion to see sense from the outside is met with a ready-made defense. "The adversary is trying to distract, discourage and deceive us". Any dissenting thoughts from within are quashed.

Until - a good person is able to look back and reflect upon gross unkindness and unfairness. A grown man begins to see that he's never confident in his own decisions unless they are confirmed to him by leadership. A friend to many realises that his friendships have been determined, selected, and even broken by the authoritive determination of others. Finally a man says - even if this was the truth, I won't have it any longer. Every evil I've seen done was justified by scripture. Even my own internal conscience is a more reliable judge than this. And from now, I must listen to my conscience. It is not perfect or divine, but it cannot be worse than the portrayal of scripture which I have come to know as a Christian cult.
Last edited by Onyx on Thu Oct 20, 2011 11:08 pm, edited 2 times in total.

User avatar
FoxHound
My point is manifestly evident
My point is manifestly evident
Posts: 541
Joined: Mon Feb 02, 2009 6:00 pm
Location: Bristol, VA

Post by FoxHound » Fri Jan 01, 2010 7:31 pm

A keen write-up, Onyx. I'll repeat your observation that many of the factors you mentioned are widespread even within healthy, 'orthodox' Christianity. Never was this more evident to me than in my short-lived participation in my (large, evangelical) university's spiritual life program. I don't have time to go into great detail, but I will attempt to share the gist of my experience. Bear in mind, as has already been established, that all of this took place among sincere, intelligent, well-adjusted Christians who were largely unaware of their subtle use of cult methodology.

I'll state again that my alma mater is a large, popular, respected Christian university with a sincere commitment to helping students grow spiritually through an established spiritual life program. Several 'Campus Pastors' control the program and are in direct authority over various mid-level informants innocuously titled 'Spiritual Life Directors,' two of which live on each residence hall. These SLDs maintain charge over a handful of 'Prayer Leaders' - one of which was me, briefly. The first thing I remember about joining the program is the subtle encouragement of a pride of belonging coupled with a 'personality cult' (pardon the term) surrounding the 'Campus Pastors.' The 'Campus Pastors' are widely admired and their approval becomes the object of every member of the program. Every level of the program uses manipulation of the desires for approval and belonging to garner the devotion of lower levels. Internal dissent is quashed with prepared responses and all kinds of sophistry. Dissenting members of the program are verbally berated, punished, and made outcasts among their peers. Those who follow the rules and work hard to please the administration are duly rewarded with higher ranks. Those who express concern over the inward-looking, narrow, closed, iron-fisted, top-down authority structure and the widespread use of emotional manipulation within the program are shunned, first by their superiors and later by their peers, who are afraid to have their own standing and forward progress hampered by association. It is a thoroughly disgusting perversion of every principle of Christianity and of leadership - and it thrives in a large community of seemingly orthodox Christians. Disturbing indeed.

My own ascent from this cult followed closely the lines shared by Onyx. It was a slow process fraught with frustration and radical doubt. May God grant us the mercy not to become entangled in the abuses brought about by our own sin.
- Stan - B.R.A.T.A.S.S Chief of Briar-Police (Brutality) Force

User avatar
isaac
butt, Ben
butt, Ben
Posts: 10358
Joined: Wed Mar 31, 2004 6:00 pm
Location: Man Cave
Contact:

Post by isaac » Fri Jan 01, 2010 7:42 pm

*phew*

I thought for sure I was going to be named in here.

User avatar
DepartedLight
That boy's got a Thorazine deficiency.
Posts: 27731
Joined: Thu Nov 19, 2009 6:00 pm
Location: Tobacco Fairy HQ, North Carolina

Post by DepartedLight » Fri Jan 01, 2010 7:46 pm

Nice write up Onxy.

I have been in 2 cults: The Jehovah's Witness and the International Church of Christ
DL Jake

IRT 328; "kinda smells like... meat." - Mrs. Gabriel » 09 Sep 2017

User avatar
Onyx
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Posts: 10857
Joined: Mon Dec 01, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Skeptopolis

Post by Onyx » Fri Jan 01, 2010 7:51 pm

isaac wrote:*phew*

I thought for sure I was going to be named in here.
You almost made me laugh and cry at the same time! Surely a quip like that doesn't emerge without a history!

User avatar
Hovannes
one lone Wollensak
one lone Wollensak
Posts: 23903
Joined: Sun Oct 04, 2009 6:00 pm
Location: In the fertile San Joaquin Valley

Post by Hovannes » Fri Jan 01, 2010 7:55 pm

IMHO Prosperity Theology would certainly qualify as a cult---quite a popular cult, but a cult none the less.
"What doesn't kill you, gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humor."

User avatar
isaac
butt, Ben
butt, Ben
Posts: 10358
Joined: Wed Mar 31, 2004 6:00 pm
Location: Man Cave
Contact:

Post by isaac » Fri Jan 01, 2010 8:18 pm

Onyx wrote:
isaac wrote:*phew*

I thought for sure I was going to be named in here.
You almost made me laugh and cry at the same time! Surely a quip like that doesn't emerge without a history!
eh... no real story. I'd fall into some of what you more traditional folks might think of as a 'theology cult.'

User avatar
Onyx
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Posts: 10857
Joined: Mon Dec 01, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Skeptopolis

Post by Onyx » Fri Jan 01, 2010 8:31 pm

isaac wrote:
Onyx wrote:
isaac wrote:*phew*

I thought for sure I was going to be named in here.
You almost made me laugh and cry at the same time! Surely a quip like that doesn't emerge without a history!
eh... no real story. I'd fall into some of what you more traditional folks might think of as a 'theology cult.'
Yeah, I think that even the mainstream groups would have to describe each other that way based on some very different theologies of Christology/Saints/Death/Salvation/Coming Times... not exactly peripheral stuff. And yet it's not the theologies that really get you. It's the systems of human interactions which can either make church a joy or a controlling machine.

User avatar
LieutenantGibGib
Brother of the Briar
Brother of the Briar
Posts: 1670
Joined: Wed Feb 11, 2004 6:00 pm

Post by LieutenantGibGib » Fri Jan 01, 2010 8:44 pm

Scary. Some of this (power, authority, control, silencing/deriding of dissenters, chosen rather than elected leaders etc.) rather reminds me of the Christian Un*on at my university, which was basically controlled by the conservative Evangelical organisation UCCF. Open to all Christians...as long as you agree with our doctrinal basis which excludes the vast majority of Christendom.

User avatar
Zed
Cross threaded, Self Quoting, One Pluser
Cross threaded, Self Quoting, One Pluser
Posts: 13464
Joined: Sun Jun 25, 2006 6:00 pm
Location: Howard City, Michigan
Contact:

Post by Zed » Fri Jan 01, 2010 8:45 pm

I want to start a cult. I was thinking about calling it Cobunism.

User avatar
isaac
butt, Ben
butt, Ben
Posts: 10358
Joined: Wed Mar 31, 2004 6:00 pm
Location: Man Cave
Contact:

Post by isaac » Fri Jan 01, 2010 8:57 pm

Zed wrote:I want to start a cult. I was thinking about calling it Cobunism.
twould fail

User avatar
wosbald
Crux' Cleveland Correspondent
Crux' Cleveland Correspondent
Posts: 19373
Joined: Mon Feb 25, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Contact:

Post by wosbald » Fri Jan 01, 2010 9:45 pm

+JMJ+
I find the modern definition of "cult" to be somewhat arbitrary. IMO, the best definition of what most people today would consider to be a cult would be a "cult of a human person". Such a cult would follow an individual's mandate or continuing revelation and that which is constantly subject to capricious change by the "leader". Thus, Mao Tse Tung could be said to be a cult leader, since what he proclaims to be absolutely true in one instant might not be true in the next.

Religions are seen to be the custodians of an eternal and unchanging truth. Thus, Buddhism or Hinduism would be said to be religions, though some although some schools might very well take on the aspects of a cult.

In the end, I really don't ascribe credence to the modern notion of a "cult". There is truth, and there is error. There is the one true religion, and there are false religions.
"In the end, My Immaculate Heart will triumph." - Our Lady of Fatima

User avatar
sleepinggecko
Pastor
Pastor
Posts: 992
Joined: Sun Dec 02, 2007 6:00 pm
Location: NW IN/Michiana
Contact:

Post by sleepinggecko » Fri Jan 01, 2010 9:57 pm

Very insightful write-up, Onyx. And I certainly agree that there is much more of this type of methodology at work in groups that could be considered mainstream or orthodox (in the sense of doctrinally accepted in the broad scope of Christianity).

I wonder how much of this is intentional and how much is unintentional, on the part of leadership who begin to utilize these methods. In other words, do they intend to be controlling? I think many begin with good intentions, but the power/influence/etc. becomes intoxicating, perhaps. I think this is often the case, though it doesn't diminish the wrongness of it.
Please pardon any typos...I probably typed this message one-handed while holding a baby.

User avatar
Onyx
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Posts: 10857
Joined: Mon Dec 01, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Skeptopolis

Post by Onyx » Fri Jan 01, 2010 10:32 pm

wosbald wrote:In the end, I really don't ascribe credence to the modern notion of a "cult". There is truth, and there is error. There is the one true religion, and there are false religions.
I wonder wos, do you have any idea how much this sounds like my old cult? I could have said exactly the same words a few years ago. Wow. Of course I would have been saying that I was in the true religion and you were in one of the false ones. What were you saying?

User avatar
Onyx
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Posts: 10857
Joined: Mon Dec 01, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Skeptopolis

Post by Onyx » Fri Jan 01, 2010 10:38 pm

sleepinggecko wrote:Very insightful write-up, Onyx. And I certainly agree that there is much more of this type of methodology at work in groups that could be considered mainstream or orthodox (in the sense of doctrinally accepted in the broad scope of Christianity).

I wonder how much of this is intentional and how much is unintentional, on the part of leadership who begin to utilize these methods. In other words, do they intend to be controlling? I think many begin with good intentions, but the power/influence/etc. becomes intoxicating, perhaps. I think this is often the case, though it doesn't diminish the wrongness of it.
Thanks. In truth, I don't feel very insightful at all. I feel like a very slow learner. But I suppose, after giving over two decades to this thing, it would be nice to come away with at least a few insights.

From my experience, I would suggest that it starts with good intentions, and it continues with good intentions. The leaders control people genuinely believing that it is God's will and for the people's good. Yes, the power becomes intoxicating, and perhaps there are moments of clarity. But I think that the ability of the human mind is such that people can compartmentalise - they can exploit, control, lie, cheat and steel... and yet all the while believe they are doing the right thing before God and in faithfulness to their calling. They justify their sin knowing that David sinned, and yet was still a man after God's own heart. The human mind is a clever device.

(Incidentally, this ability of abusive leaders to control our lives in their own sincerity is to me the meaning of the quote from C.S. Lewis at the foot of my posts.)

And yes, I agree with you. The sincerity doesn't diminish the wrongness of it.

User avatar
wosbald
Crux' Cleveland Correspondent
Crux' Cleveland Correspondent
Posts: 19373
Joined: Mon Feb 25, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Contact:

Post by wosbald » Fri Jan 01, 2010 11:13 pm

+JMJ+
Onyx wrote:
wosbald wrote:In the end, I really don't ascribe credence to the modern notion of a "cult". There is truth, and there is error. There is the one true religion, and there are false religions.
I wonder wos, do you have any idea how much this sounds like my old cult? I could have said exactly the same words a few years ago. Wow. Of course I would have been saying that I was in the true religion and you were in one of the false ones. What were you saying?
What was I saying about what, exactly? (I thought that my post was pretty clear and succinct.)
"In the end, My Immaculate Heart will triumph." - Our Lady of Fatima

User avatar
coco
Uniquely Duggish
Uniquely Duggish
Posts: 28672
Joined: Sun Feb 01, 2009 6:00 pm
Location: Sweet Home Alabama
Contact:

Post by coco » Fri Jan 01, 2010 11:54 pm

Onyx wrote:Information is controlled. Not much comes in, not much comes out. The release or admission of information requires approval. Much is blocked out. People have learned to police their own thoughts.
Onyx's emphasis on the control of information is intriguing. The JWs control information coming in by forbidding their constituents to read any religious literature except The Watchtower (other religious works are considered to be pornographic). The Mormons control information going out by restricting core teachings from newer members until these members have proven themselves. To the new Mormon, the LDS church looks like any mainstream Protestant denomination. They save that "you can be a god" stuff till later.

In contrast, the Christian religion is a religion in which the furthermost extents of what we believe can be found in one book. Throughout history, we have not sought to conceal what we say about that book, but we proclaim it openly and publicly for all to hear. We are not Gnostics, concealing some secret knowledge for only the elite to know.
"Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a cob with a forever lucite stem." (Pipverbs 1:1)
"No more signatures that quote other CPS members." - Thunk

User avatar
Thunktank
Terminal Lance. Perpetual Sea Lawyer. Unicorn Aficionado
Terminal Lance.  Perpetual Sea Lawyer. Unicorn Aficionado
Posts: 21860
Joined: Sat Oct 25, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Home Sweet California at the Beach!

Post by Thunktank » Sat Jan 02, 2010 12:03 am

I am not going to wade into the definition of cult here. But I assure you that most in todays post Christian societies would consider Orthodox Christianity to be a cult. I mean for gosh sakes, we are even taught to teach our children that their beds are a coffin! The post Christian therapists would consider that akin to child abuse for sure.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” -Yoda

“I grew up in a church with Ned Flanders. Down to the mustache. But so did a bunch of people I assume, which makes it so fun-diddly-unny.” -tuttle

User avatar
Onyx
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Darth Onyx, Bringer of Unity
Posts: 10857
Joined: Mon Dec 01, 2008 6:00 pm
Location: Skeptopolis

Post by Onyx » Sat Jan 02, 2010 4:35 am

wosbald wrote:+JMJ+
Onyx wrote:
wosbald wrote:In the end, I really don't ascribe credence to the modern notion of a "cult". There is truth, and there is error. There is the one true religion, and there are false religions.
I wonder wos, do you have any idea how much this sounds like my old cult? I could have said exactly the same words a few years ago. Wow. Of course I would have been saying that I was in the true religion and you were in one of the false ones. What were you saying?
What was I saying about what, exactly? (I thought that my post was pretty clear and succinct.)
It was a rhetorical question. My point (which was not as clear as yours), is that believing your group is the right religion and all others are false is itself a feature of a cult. When I was in a cult, I would have said I was in God's truly beloved family and that you were in a false religion. Now you suggest that there is one true religion and all others are false (I presume that you think yours is the true one) so my challenge to you is to consider that you might be under the same delusion that I was.

Oh but I know... yours really IS the true religion.

User avatar
coco
Uniquely Duggish
Uniquely Duggish
Posts: 28672
Joined: Sun Feb 01, 2009 6:00 pm
Location: Sweet Home Alabama
Contact:

Post by coco » Sat Jan 02, 2010 5:05 am

Onyx wrote:
wosbald wrote:+JMJ+
Onyx wrote:
wosbald wrote:In the end, I really don't ascribe credence to the modern notion of a "cult". There is truth, and there is error. There is the one true religion, and there are false religions.
I wonder wos, do you have any idea how much this sounds like my old cult? I could have said exactly the same words a few years ago. Wow. Of course I would have been saying that I was in the true religion and you were in one of the false ones. What were you saying?
What was I saying about what, exactly? (I thought that my post was pretty clear and succinct.)
It was a rhetorical question. My point (which was not as clear as yours), is that believing your group is the right religion and all others are false is itself a feature of a cult. When I was in a cult, I would have said I was in God's truly beloved family and that you were in a false religion. Now you suggest that there is one true religion and all others are false (I presume that you think yours is the true one) so my challenge to you is to consider that you might be under the same delusion that I was.

Oh but I know... yours really IS the true religion.
Christ himself made a pretty exclusive claim when he said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). This is an exclusive claim that must be denied by other religions that do not regard Jesus as the one way to God and blessedness. So, it seems that there must either be:
1. one, true religion with boundaries limiting who's in and who's out, or
2. all paths lead to truth.

Sadly, picking option #2 would also involve revoking central beliefs of the religions involved or denying the law of non-contradiction. In principle, I can't fault any religious group for defining boundaries based on core beliefs.... and, of course, I believe that there is one, true religion with boundaries.

That being said, there often seems to be something... odd... about the way that cults go about establishing their exclusivity. I think that a lot of it has to do with use of fear for the purpose of manipulation, as you mentioned in your first post.
"Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a cob with a forever lucite stem." (Pipverbs 1:1)
"No more signatures that quote other CPS members." - Thunk

Post Reply