Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
There’s a four-letter word getting thrown around a lot lately. It’s a word I’ve heard used flippantly, jokingly, and disparagingly. Admittedly, sometimes it seems like the most accurate, albeit inflammatory, word to use. Often this word is spoken, perhaps rightly so, by broken and hurting people out of pain and frustration. It’s a word that was used by a commenter on my previous post in Provoketive Magazine, Slap On a Little Lipstick, You’ll Be Fine. If I am being completely honest, it’s a word I’ve used, sometimes quickly out of anger, and a lot more cautiously after great deliberation.
That’s right, I am talking about the ‘C’ word: Cult.
Cult is a term used by many Christians to describe Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and many other fringe religious groups and doomsday groups like Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate. It’s also been used to discredit Christian churches and ministries with an authoritarian structure, rigid rules, and/or apparent spiritual abuse. The commenter from my last article used it in reference to what he thought was a minister requiring me to wear lipstick (as a note, I never stated in that article whether that incident occurred at a secular or religious organization). And I’ll admit it, I’d be pretty tempted to slap that label on a minister requiring women to wear lipstick.
Given that it carries such negative overtones, it is probably not a word one should use unless it is known for certain that a group is a cult. But what is a true cult?
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary gives the following definition:
1 : formal religious veneration : worship
Going by this definition, any religious group or faith is a cult. That’s right, that means any Christian church or group, mainstream or otherwise, by definition is a cult. And it doesn’t stop at religion: any fad or craze with a following is a cult, like the cult of Mac or my personal cult following of choice, that of the canceled Sci-Fi show, Firefly. Really, with the exception of the third listed definition of cult (i.e. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious), the word shouldn’t necessarily carry a negative connotation.
If, for the sake of this article, we decided to simply run with Webster’s third definition of cult, it would be difficult to find a fully objective person or governing body to determine what is unorthodox regarding religious beliefs and doctrine. So who gets to decide? If you asked a Lutheran, Catholic, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Mennonite, and Episcopalian each about what constituted orthodox versus unorthodox beliefs in other denominations, you would undoubtedly find each denomination labeled unorthodox (and thus a cult) by at least one other denomination.
Even sociologists and psychologist tend to disagree over whether or not to continue the use of the word cult, since what started as a mostly neutral term now tends to bring to mind the poisoned Kool-Aid victims of the Jonestown Massacre. Furthermore, there is more of a continuum or spectrum between what constitutes “cult” and “non-cult,” rather than simple black and white definitions. As such, many have given to using further descriptors for cults, such as “dangerous” or “benign.”
This is why I appreciate the resources that the International Cultic Studies Association has online regarding cults. The ICSA acknowledges upfront the difficulty in cult terminology, and then focuses on the damaging aspects and practices that can occur in cults, without giving a subjective list of cults or bad organizations on their website. Instead, it is up to the reader to use the information to decide on their own. That being said, here is the list of characteristics often found with cultic groups, according to Michael D. Langone, Ph.D, Executive Director of the ICSA:
- The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
- The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society
- The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
- The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guiltinorder to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
- Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
- The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
Please note that this list is not meant to be a definitive or all-encompassing checklist to diagnose groups, but merely a guideline of characteristics that cults often display. Even if an organization were to have many of these characteristics, I think we should be careful before immediately labeling a group as a cult, given how loaded a word it is. Also, I propose that it is entirely possible that a group everyone would agree is not truly a cult could be shown to display many of these traits, depending on how you describe them.
For example, a sports team could easily be described in such a way as to seem cultic. For one thing, all the members are committed wholly to the coach; questioning the coach can lead to losing the game, being benched, or even being completely removed from the team. Also, team members often engage in weirdly scripted pre-game chants with indiscernible grunts, meant to increase team unity and create a team mind-set. Furthermore, the team must all dress in complete uniformity, down to the color of their clothing, or they are not allowed to participate. The team also has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, viewing all other teams as opponents they must defeat. Being apart of the team will also likely affect their relationships and other personal goals; due to long practice sessions and traveling for games, they will have little to no time to pursue other activities, and they may not see their family very often during the on-season. Now granted, this example doesn’t fit every characteristic listed, but as you can see, it could be easy to make a group fit these characteristics if you were already prejudiced against it.
Because “cult” is an indistinctly defined term that can be misused and misapplied to great detriment, it is important to be careful before immediately slapping the cult label on any religious group that we disagree with or even one that has truly injured us. That being said, damaging groups and cults flying under the Christian flag do exist, and it is wise to be aware of these cult characteristics. Many have the “I’m too smart or balanced to get pulled into a cult” mentality, but people of all walks of life are susceptible to cults, especially as cults often give misleading information about their true nature, organizational structure, rules, etc., when you first become involved. I certainly thought I was too intelligent or psychologically sound to get involved with a sketchy ministry or (gasp!) a cult.
For approximately eight years, I was a part of a 5-fold para-church Christian ministry. If you are unfamiliar with that wordy terminology, essentially it was a Christian organization focused on the 5-fold ministry gifts listed in Ephesians 4:11 (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher) that was not a church, but rather a ministry that worked alongside Christian churches. I knew of the ministry through respected friends and acquaintances from the church I attend in high school, and my first involvement was merely as a member of the worship team while I was in college.
Shortly after college, my husband and I “joined the team,” becoming more deeply involved and committed to the ministry. As time progressed, the ministry’s meetings (both public meetings and private “team only” meetings) became more frequent and went into the early morning hours (I often arrived back home after 3 am). In addition, more rigid rules were created and enforced regarding everything from not drinking alcohol, meeting attendance, how to act around the leader of our ministry, dress code, taboo discussion topics with non-team members, and much more. Public questioning of the leader was not allowed, and if you questioned him in private, somehow it was always turned around that you had a ”heart issue” and “issues with authority.” Really though, with the high demands on the team, long hours volunteering, etc., everyone was usually too tired to think, let alone have the faculties necessary to find fault with the ministry or leadership.
The “heart issue” was a commonly employed method to get the team to stay in line. When other members left the team (by choice or otherwise), or if the leadership found out we were associating with people who did not agree 100% with the ministry, we were discouraged to continue anything more than a superficial relationship with them. The head of the ministry was always careful to point out that he wasn’t saying we couldn’t associate with them, but that the fact that we would want to, knowing what they thought of the ministry, revealed our true heart. Even missing optional extra-curricular team events was taken as evidence of having heart issues.
Eventually I became even more involved with the ministry, to the point of being privy to much of the leadership’s confidential information regarding the inner workings of the ministry, other ministers, and even other team members. At first, it was an honor to have such a position. However, eventually I began to see the cracks in the leadership and the ministry– cracks I could not point out unless I wanted to have a “come to Jesus meeting” where my supposed heart issues, authority issues, and God knows what other issues might be raised, to deflect from the flaws in leadership. Many things were done at the bidding of the leadership that I did not really agree with. Team members were booted from the ministry when they wouldn’t toe the line, and the rest of the team was given false or highly misleading information about why they left. Long weeks of meetings were called because ‘God was moving’, when behind closed doors in staff meetings, we discussed having extra meetings to get more money to keep the ministry afloat. These are just a couple of examples of the many issues I could mention.
Despite my dislike of who I was becoming at this ministry and my disagreements with what the leadership were doing, I deeply struggled with leaving. Anyone who left the ministry was declared to be ”out of God’s will,” and I certainly did not want to be that! Furthermore, we had put eight years of our livelihood into that ministry, and leaving would lead me to question whether we had wasted the entirety of those years. At the same time, I could no longer believe that the ministry was truly acting in a way that glorified or modeled Christ.
While I struggled and prayed for God to either release me or give me the fortitude to leave on my own, my husband was absolutely certain we needed to leave. He met with the head of the ministry about this, who disagreed that it was time for us to leave. At his request, my husband agreed to take 30 days to pray about this, after which they would meet again. At the same time, I decided it was time to move out of my current job within the ministry, even if we still remained on the team. After the 30 days, my husband’s decision remained the same. The day before his scheduled follow-up meeting, the leader called us up and kicked us off the team by phone before we had the chance to meet with him in person and possibly leave on good terms.
Despite my relief at being released from the team, I still had an incredible amount of anger and pain stemming from how things were handled, both during our time at the ministry and in the way in which we were released from the team. In the first few months after we left, I easily denounced this ministry as a cult. And I suspect that many others may jump to that same conclusion after reading my account from my time there. Looking through the list from the ICSA, this ministry does fit at least 13 out of 15 of the characteristics of cultic groups. Does that mean my original declaration was correct, even if it was spoken out of pain and anger? Perhaps there is more to the story.
Despite the many issues I have with that ministry, I do believe that everyone there, including the leadership, truly believes that they are helping people and doing God’s will. Granted, having good intentions doesn’t keep people from hurting others or doing incredible wrong. Many horrific acts have been done and continue to be done in the name of God and God’s will. And, the belief that you are helping people is certainly not a litmus test to prove non-cult status. But does it count for something along the spectrum of dangerous cult/benign cult/non-cult?
At this ministry, it is my opinion that they end up doing significantly more damage to people than they do good; but, it certainly isn’t at the same level as drinking poisoned Kool-Aid and committing mass suicide. Is there a certain level of damage by which we can measure what is a cult? And, cult or not, what is the correct and appropriate response for Christians when faced with a Christian ministry, church, or organization that is clearly damaging to people? Do we publicly denounce them or silently pray for them?
With this particular group, and perhaps with many other cult-like Christian groups, I think the root of the issue may be with a dictatorial authority structure that does not brook any questioning of leadership, leading to abuse of power. However, this is an authority structure that many groups of Christians believe is biblical and ideal. So what then? Are they right technically but abusing a God-given structure, are they wrong and simply misunderstanding scripture, or worse, are they twisting and manipulating scripture? At what point are doctrinal disagreements and differences in interpretation of scripture so far off that they are grounds for pulling out the cult label? Who really gets to decide who is a heretic nowadays, anyway?
After my particular experience, I certainly wouldn’t recommend that ministry to anyone, friend or foe. If anything, I would tell them to run in the opposite direction. But at this point I also wouldn’t publicly denounce them as a definitive cult. No, it’s not because I “drank the Kool-Aid.” They certainly straddle that fence between spiritual abuse and cult with more aplomb than a sure-footed tight-rope walker. And that line between a legitimate ministry that has fallen due to an abusive authority and a full-blown, destructive cult already blurs so much to me that I just won’t make that final judgment. Instead I choose to pray for them, holding out hope that, in their desire to do God’s will and minister to the body, they will see the damage they are doing and change. And, I pray for myself, that if I have somehow misjudged them, God will open my eyes.