reprint of the Bethel Ministries Newsletter of Nov-Dec 1986 

 

Do Cults Follow The Same Patterns?

by Randall Watters

TYPICAL BEGINNINGS  

Though the word "cult" may have several dictionary meanings, it is largely used to describe a religious organization that centers around a man or a group of men who claim to be God's exclusive channel of truth to the world. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen an abundance of such groups, each with similar roots yet divergent paths. Groups such as the Mormons, the Worldwide Church of God and Jehovah's Witnesses all started with a man (or woman in other cases, such as Christian Science) rejecting Christianity in its historical context, and rejecting the churches as well. These cult leaders were disillusioned with traditional Christianity, and sought to bring light to others through their efforts to "simplify" the Bible message or make it more understandable to the rational man. Though the doctrines of the major cults vary widely, their roots as well as their pattern of development are strikingly similar.

The following seven characteristics of the cults provides insight into their sameness: 

[1] Rejection of the antinomies of Scripture by denying one of the truths that make it an antinomy, i.e., for example, denying the Deity of Christ so as to make his humanity more acceptable, or denying the existence of hell so as to retain a more understandable view of God's love.  

[2] Formulation of a simplified interpretation of Scripture so as to make the Bible more acceptable or believable. Rather than teaching that the convert must be born again in order to understand the deeper truths of the Word (Jo 3:3-7; 1 Jo 2:27), the fallen mind is appealed to by the use of rational explanations of Bible truths. Elaborate and fanciful stories may lay the groundwork for their world-view, as in the case of the Mormons. 

[3] A different basis for interpretation must be established, since the usual means of interpretation (such as the Biblical, historical, grammatical method used by scholars and historians) is rejected, basically because it leads one to the same conclusions as orthodox Christianity. There must be a shifting of world views. Extra-Biblical revelation must be provided by the new cult leader, in an effort to prove that such "new light" affects how the Bible is interpreted. Rarely is their method of interpretation hinted at, since there really is no coherent or consistent method; each cult leader believes he is God's channel of communication to men, and what he says IS true doctrine.

[4] Followers of the leader(s) must recognize them as the modern day spokesman for God, or leave the group. This is emphasized directly in the bold claims of their literature or speeches. Certain doctrines must be conformed to that were established, not by the early Christian church or Jesus, but by the modern method of interpretation of the cult leader. Of course, it will be claimed that their doctrines "have always been the truth," it's just that the church has somehow missed the light of understanding for 1900 years! 

[5] One's salvation must depend on belonging to the group, or one might assume that others outside the group could possibly be Christians. A works merit system is established, whereby God becomes progressively more accepting of the individual as he/she conforms to the directives of his spiritual leaders.  

[6] The saving power and nature of Christ and the identity of the Holy Spirit is denied, since it requires a person to be born again to understand such truths in the first place (John 14:9,16-17; 1 John 2:27). Since the true power of the gospel and the ability of God to fully save us in spite of ourselves is stripped away, obedience to the cult leader and maintaining one's works become the vital factor for salvation. 

[7] Freedom of thought is inhibited, lest the followers be overpowered by another train of thought alien to the religion. This is usually accomplished by (a) keeping the convert too busy to read or consider other views, (b) developing a morbid fear of the devil and his efforts to use others (even friends) to lead them astray, (c) prohibiting the reading of other religious literature, especially that written by former members of the religion, and (d) a continual daily or weekly program of indoctrination that must be kept up in order to maintain their unique world view. Such a fabricated world view must be emphasized regularly, or it will soon lose its power over the person. His own common sense will seek to re-establish control over his mind. A tremendous guilt complex is placed on the individual who bucks the system, so that even if he/she leaves, they are at best a shell of a person fraught with morbid fears and mental problems, only too happy to later re-join the fold to re-establish peace of mind. 

 

Stage 1: THE SEDUCTIVE APPEAL OF UNITY 

The developing pattern of new cults from infancy to maturity is quite fascinating. They all center around one charismatic leader in the beginning. There is much euphoria among the little group over the idea of being the only ones whom God has blessed with the teachings of his "chosen servant." There is a bond of intimacy within the group based on this common identity, a kind of intimate friendship not found among orthodox Christians; 2 somewhat similar to the excitement of belonging to a secret club. Much effort is expended in making new converts, as the converts must learn to change their whole way of thinking to match that of the cult leader. 3 Because they have put so much work into converting individuals, and because the victims end up as, in effect, clones of themselves, they are excited for the new converts and heap much special attention on them, almost as if they were sons or daughters to them. Indeed, many are openly labeled as their spiritual children. Like doting mothers and fathers, the spiritual parents watch carefully over their new convert to see that their faith is not shaken by new discoveries or by their reading literature which exposes them as a cult. In the case of the Moonies, for instance, if a initiate decides to leave the group, the others quickly pull them back into their circle and physically and emotionally make a big fuss over them, using the security and emotional bonding of the group as the magnet to draw them back in.

Within a few months, however, the initiate is expected to "tow the line" like everyone else, and the special attention disappears. It is replaced with the yoke of servitude.  

Stage 2: CONFERRING INFALLIBILITY 

In time, however, the new organization faces accusation from the churches and others who become concerned over their methods of indoctrination as well as their isolation of the victim from his family and former friends. Some who oppose them are sincerely concerned with the well-being of the initiate, while others simply strike out blindly against the oddity of the cults. The existence of the latter type of opposer is capitalized on by the cult leader(s), and much propaganda is then spread to stigmatize outsiders who criticize the group. The propaganda is quite effective in convincing the initiate that all who oppose their group are either demonic or seriously misled by the devil, and must be avoided at all costs. Some, like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, will become quite angry and rebuke the initiate for listening to "apostates" and will threaten them with group ostracism and excommunication if they entertain such thoughts for long.

 

In the meantime, hypocrisy usually appears from within the cult leadership itself, planting the seeds of destruction that will later be the undoing of the cult. Unlike the appearance of hypocrisy in the average church, it is not as easily explained away in the cults, since they are supposedly "God's exclusive representatives to the world." The followers cannot just go to another church in response. They have been conditioned to view other churches as false religions, and criticism of the organization or its leaders will not be tolerated.

This development prepares the stage for "purges" of those within the ranks who cannot stomach the lying or deception they may notice. The followers soon become divided: the "loyal" ones allow their consciences to be dulled to the real moral issues and justice as they re-affirm their leader as God's chosen spokesman, while the dissenters refuse to tolerate the power play going on in God's name. Dissent, of course, can be for noble motives, or it can even be a power play by others within the group to gain control or at least to obtain more power themselves. The existence of the latter form of dissent is quickly used to stigmatize all dissenters, and dissent for any reason is seen as evil. The cult leader thus effectively isolates himself from criticism, thereby becoming infallible for all practical purposes, though usually denying such.

Such purges must occur periodically to "keep the organization clean." That is simply another way of saying that they need to kick out those who are independent thinkers, the greatest enemies of cults. In some cults, such as the Moonies, the family is viewed as the enemy, since families are, in effect, little independent nuclei themselves, and can breed differences of opinion or practices hidden from the rest of the group. In others like the Mormons, Worldwide Church of God and Jehovah's Witnesses, the family is seen as valuable, but dissenters from within the family must be quickly exposed, or the judgment of the "apostate" will also fall upon the head of the one failing to report his mother, child, or best friend. This Nazi-like mentality must be bred to ensure a proper policing of the ranks. It also makes dissent much more unlikely, because of the high price that must be paid by the one who attempts to speak out and be heard. He will lose both his spiritual as well as his literal family permanently. If a member leaves, the others are not allowed to talk to them from then on, for fear of being contaminated. This is also effective as a form of psychological punishment intended to bring them back into the cult. Predictably, it often works.  

Stage 3: THE SCHOLASTIC DISHONESTY OF THE CULT 

Not only are there attacks from inside the group and outside by well-meaning persons, but there are those who will publish writings or give lectures that refute the doctrines of the cult as unbiblical. The scholastic dishonesty of the group is the first thing to be attacked, since most cults rarely contain any truly educated men familiar with Biblical language and history. Since cults do not disclose their method of interpretation, they will either plainly admit that they receive direct revelations from God, or that "they simply accept the Bible for what it says." That fallacy is immediately refuted by producing just one Scripture that they interpret in a less-than-literal fashion! They must have some means of categorizing doctrines and verses, and these are always found in their publications. Their publications ARE their method of interpretation.

At this stage, the organization learns to become adept at making excuses for their changes in doctrine over the years by claiming that God is progressively revealing them things, or by denying that they ever made doctrinal changes at all, preferring to call them "clarifications."

When the cult leader is accused of making interpretive errors due to a misunderstanding of the Biblical languages or to inaccurate historical information, they will usually ignore the accusations. If enough discussion is generated by dissenters, they will, of course, be forced to provide an answer, at least to satisfy the doubts of their own people. This answer usually comes in one of two forms. Either they (a) misrepresent the point in question, in effect making a "straw man" out of the supposed error, or they will look high and low to find someone who is recognized among scholars that agrees with them on a certain point (as if finding one person who agrees with them is sufficient). Usually they cannot find a reputable scholar, so they will resort to quoting others who are on the fringes of the scholastic world, i.e., the liberals or eccentrics. If they are bold enough to quote recognized authorities, they usually take their statements out of context or only partially quote them. They often get away with this without repercussions, as few scholars are in a position to afford a lawyer for a misrepresentation suit.

The followers of the organization readily accept all such proof provided by its own writers. After all, they are not supposed to study the books of real scholars themselves, and so they trust their leaders to study them when necessary, so as to refute "opposers." The writers of their publications, on the other hand, continually pore over such "outside" material, seeking to find whatever justification they can to support their position. They have no interest in what the scholars are actually saying, as they are simply out to verify organizational policy. The mind of these self-styled apologists becomes a labyrinth of inconsistency as they must continually rationalize their taking statements out of context and misrepresenting authors. This is also true of the cult leader himself, since he must sooner or later make decisions to preserve unity that will cause harm to others, because, in his mind, the end justifies the means. Having become morally corrupt, he is no longer capable of recognizing truth, let alone speaking it.

The language of a cult is developed over a long period of time. Not only are there special "buzz" words that have a meaning exclusive to the group, but words traditionally used by Christians become twisted according to their own view. They may use words like "born again," "saved," "holy spirit," etc. but they come to mean something entirely different than in the outside world. This aids them in making converts, since they must appeal to the outsider initially by convincing him that they "pretty much believe the same thing" as other Christians, only later turning the initiate on to the more esoteric or strange beliefs of the group. Conversion is a slow process of brainwashing, as words take on new meanings, and previous religious views or hopes are seen as erroneous.

Though cults which fit this pattern may seem to continue on indefinitely, even growing at alarming rates, their structure is slowly crumbling at the foundations. Formed initially as a group of dissenters from Christianity themselves, they eventually become a massive "mother" organization, with its own dissenters breaking away. Because of their scholastic dishonesty and their treatment of dissenters, they never lose their reputation as a cult unless they make radical changes, which would result in loss of many members. Since members are their source of power and income, this simply will not happen to any notable extent, other than their admitting to being imperfect and subject to mistakes.

Such organizations are, in effect, sealed in a course of history. All cults seem to go down the same road. In the end, the persecuted, if they grow, will become the persecutors. As the quest for power rears its ugly head, thousands will be discarded alongside the road, bringing great bloodguilt on the organization.

THE SILENT VICTIMS 

Nothing is quite so sad as the former cult member who has just discovered he has wasted X years of his life pursuing a mythical religion. The author can certainly vouch for that, having spent eight years in such a group. The ex-cultist easily becomes suspicious of all religious people, giving others the impression that he is an agnostic; while he is usually just afraid of religion rather than the Bible or God. Former cultists may blame God or their parents for allowing them to get involved in a cult, and this has to be dealt with by others who are in a position to help, such as a support group for ex-cultists. The local church is often in a position to help, if the person can actually bring himself to inquire.

The most effective remedy for the ex-cultist is to realize that the Bible is much different than what they have come to believe. There are sound methods for interpreting it, just as any historical document can be interpreted according to its history, its language, and the customs of its people. This is one of the hardest thoughts to get across to the ex-cultist, as he sees the Bible as a confusing book with many possible interpretations (so why bother?). Orthodox Christian scholars (more so than local pastors) can help them to understand the roots of Christianity.


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