“The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-distrust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciple.” — Amos Bronson Alcott, The Dial (1840)
In 1970 I had an encounter with Jesus Christ that changed my life forever. There were many young people at that same time that were touched by Him in a life changing way. Most of them had been into the hippie scene of free love, drugs, and other forms of hedonism. Because America seemed to have no meaning for them with its constant wars, materialism and empty, cold religious systems, they went the other way. Some of them had even turned to Eastern mysticism trying to find some kind of reality in their lives.
Most of these young people, like myself, had a genuine conversion experience and this phenomenon became known as “The Jesus Revolution.” But as it is in most cases, when one turns to the Lord from this evil world, Satan is out to get us back any way he can and as soon as possible. Satan is a judo expert. He takes our fleshly forward motion adds his power to it and throws us off course. That is what happened to our group as well. Because we had a hunger to grow in Christ and become “mature Christians,” we soon found ourselves following a man who knew the Bible. We wanted to know what it had to say about Jesus, so we submitted to this man and his teachings. This happened all over the USA and anywhere God was working in the lives of these young people with their new found love for Jesus. Soon, Bible wielding leaders rose up wherever God had moved and subjugated many of these people under their absolute control, often isolating them from the rest of society. Our group soon pooled its resources under our new leadership and bought a ranch about thirty miles from town. It was a hippie’s dream come true. We were out of the city and back to nature. The trouble is that isolation is another tactic of cult leaders. Our teacher held himself up as having special knowledge of the scriptures that nobody else had and as a result we became isolated from other Christians. This way he didn’t have to constantly contend with teachings that were adverse to his and there were many older Christians that tried to warn us of what we were getting into. Many Christian cults like this still exist today that were started by these abhorrent leaders. Though they are sectarian by nature, some of them are even counted as “main line denominations” to this present day and no one in the dare stray from the teachings of “the Founder.”
Recently Susanne Schuberth wrote an article about religious cults that quoted a woman who grew up in an Indian cult under a guru who had settled in the northeastern USA. This man had total control over her life from her birth until she was twenty five when Jayanti Tamm got set free of his control. In her blog article, Susanne quoted a list of fifteen things Jayanti wrote that most cults, Christian or otherwise, have in common (1). I found that they fit my own experience, but are not complete. In my hunger to do the will of God in my life, I also stumbled into two Christian cult situations in the first ten years of my walk. The first lasted for six years and the second had control of us for less than six months. It seems that I had learned something from the first one that helped me see more clearly into what the second one was rapidly becoming. I must say here that one of those things I learned was to listen to my dear wife’s warnings instead of subjugating her under my “authority” and that of the cult as I had done the first time around. To this day she reads and proof reads all that I write and often has helpful comments to share before I publish a blog.
All that said, I wish to share my own observations of what cults do to gain and maintain control over those who get sucked into them. I think you will find that even some “mainline churches” use some of these tactics. Here are some of my own observations.
Most cults have a charismatic founder (alive or passed on) who has a magnetic personality that people fall prey to. Have you ever found yourself under the influence of a sales person that gets you to buy something that you really don’t need, want or can’t afford? This is what I am talking about. Not only cult leaders, but many pastors and evangelists today use their personal charisma and charm to get people to do what they want and donate money that they can’t afford to give. Many have lost their homes and even more because of this. Leaders with this kind of soul power can often get others to do their will regardless of their own personal well being and even to the destruction of their own families.
Another practice you run into in these groups is what I call “group think.” Everyone that does not act and think according to the “party line” or the precepts of the cult are castigated and made an example before the rest of the group. They might not be hauled before the Sanhedrin as the Jews did to their disobedient members, but in many cases the pastor or leader just preaches a sermon in such a way that all the members know who it is about and the fallen one knows that they will be shunned or worse if they don’t get back in line again. Peer pressure can be very effective when a person wants to be accepted in a loving family. As a result everyone becomes afraid to do anything that the leader might find fault with. They end up in abject obedience and become more fearful of disappointing the leader than of disobeying the will of God. This is not so hard to do in today’s Christianity where few are encouraged by church leadership to cultivate listening for God’s voice and to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It was to this very thing that John warned the early church writing,
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him [the Holy Spirit] abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1John 2:26-27, ESV2011)
In an earlier verse, John was speaking of many antichrists that had already risen-up among them (see 1 John 2:18). The word in the Greek is antichristos and it not only means against Christ, but even worse, it means instead of Christ. These false teachers put themselves ahead of Christ in the lives of believers who submit to them. They “deny Christ” by taking His place in the hearts of His saints, just as a man might try to deny me of my wife by seducing her away from me. Imagine how Jesus feels when His church leaders do this very thing to Him concerning His bride!
This mind control can become very strong in many groups to the point that members must get permission from the leader before they can make any purchases, move from one house to another, decide who they may or may not marry or even get permission to take their own wives out on a date! It is no wonder that every one of the marriages arranged by our first cult leader ended in divorce. It is no wonder that many of their kids grew up hating God.
Another part of this control mechanism is to keep the people busy to the point that they have no time for themselves or their families. Sometimes this even leads to sleep deprivation which makes the person even easier to control. In the first cult I was in we often were working or attending meeting up to 18 hours a day. This tool was perfected during the Korean War by the communists in their concentration camps on the American prisoners of war. Another thing that the guards used was that of giving special favors to prisoners who would spy on the rest and report if anyone said or did a negative thing against their captors. In these cases, such a violator was severely beaten while the rest watched. The enemy finally attained such mind control that a camp with as many as 150 prisoners in it might only need one guard to keep them in line. Sad to say, many of us have seen these same tactics (short of physical beatings) practiced in churches, often with the same results. Some cults actually spanked or whipped errant followers to make them and the others fear anything that might be counted as disobedience.
These groups also tend to be sectarian in nature. They believe that their leader or founder is the only one that knows the “whole body of truth” by which they may please God. Most of them are subjugated to a legal system that binds them in fear, the fear of being ousted from the group they have grown to love. When the ostracized are forced to leave, curses are often spoken on them and their families, and most of them turn from God and never want Him in their lives again. It is sad that such leadership often presents themselves as being God’s man (or woman) on earth who was sent to rule over their followers through their teachings. In this mindset to displease the leader is to displease God. When I was a young Catholic in parochial school, the nuns taught us that they were married to Jesus and to displease or speak ill of them was to insult Jesus with the accompanying consequences. Even non-Christian cults have their counterparts to most of the things I am writing about here. Former adherents of Scientology went through hell to get loose of that organization and this cult’s enforcers continue to harass them even for years afterwards. We had to finally move out of town to get away from the cults we were in.
There is a practice of meditation that is encouraged in eastern religions where the adherents blank-out their minds and open up to the spirits they worship. There is a form of this being practiced in some “Christian” churches today. We were told at “Toronto Fellowship” type meetings in the mid ‘90’s to let our minds go blank and “just receive the ‘father’s blessing.’” If we questioned what was going on while being prayed for, we were being “cerebral Christians” and were resisting what God wanted in our lives. Many people who followed their advice ended up getting “drunk in the spirit,” roaring like lions and making other animal noises and slithering around on the floor. The more outlandish the manifestation, the more we were considered “under the anointing.” Many of these people came under demonic spirits in these meetings that ruined their lives.
Some churches have even taken up the practice of Eastern mysticism like Yoga meditation and Kundalini with no thought whatsoever about the teachings of Christ against such things. They are told by the such meditation will release their captivity within and bring about greater creativity, sexual power and prosperity… everything a worldly person could want. No wonder Jesus told the Jews that it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeks after a sign. It is spiritual adultery to have encounters with demons and their signs.
Another tool that many cult leaders use is the subjugation of women. When Jim Jones was starting to go in an obviously deluded direction, it was the older women in the group that spoke up and gave warning at their isolated compound in the jungles of Guyana. As a result they were castigated and intimidated into silence and if that didn’t work they were finally imprisoned. Jones finally got his way and over 900 people drank poisonous Kool Aid in a fake communion service.
Remember Christian cult leaders know how to use the Bible [as do other cult leaders with their holy writ] for their own power. The worst of these is radical Islam where they are told that killing non-believers will get them special favor with Allah in heaven and their strict adherence to Sharia law is the worst form of bondage where even the women are sexually mutilated. In most cults the one who knows the holy writ is always the last man standing in any argument. We were in a “holiness cult” where the two leaders used their idea of “holiness” to judge and control the rest of us. They also encourage us in prayer meetings to confess our sins and desires out loud. We were in this group for a short time and were given the “left foot of fellowship” when I finally spoke out against their abusive ways. After we left the group their fear tactics and intimidation continued to increase until certain of the women were imprisoned in a rented house and kept under constant guard to shut them up. These two leaders also encouraged a heavy hand on the children by their parents. This finally ended up with one of the little ones dying from neglect of medical attention. (The child was being spanked because it was fussing and would not stop crying. He finally slipped into a coma and died at the hospital.) At this point the authorities took notice of the welts on the child and the lack of medical attention and one of the cult leaders ended up in prison, as did the father.
Another thing that cult leaders do is to try and pit husbands against wives and vice versa. They use the old “divide and conquer” method when one has something that the leader wants (sex, money, talent, power, etc.) and the other one is less desirable. Sometimes this occurs when one of them speaks out against their abuses, or are otherwise in the way of them getting what the leaders want. This also happened in the cult mentioned above when the pastor of the church they took control of was made to look like a buffoon and his fair blonde wife was told she was a “prophetess” — of course she prophesied words that the leaders wanted to hear. That marriage ended in divorce and the father was not allowed to see his children until they finally grew up and sought him out many years later.
In short, Satan is more than happy to make leaders like these appear as “an angel of light” through their personal soulish charisma and “giftings.” This is why Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.” Demons love to give signs and God gave us One true sign, Jesus dying on the cross and rising again from the grave on the third day (see Matthew 12:39-41).
Paul wrote a strong warning that applies today:
“The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”(2Thess 2:9-12, ESV2011)
These leaders I have observed and their lieutenants all wanted power, and thus they loved a lie and hated the Truth who manifested Himself as a gentle lamb who laid down His life for us all and loved not His life unto death. Why is seeking power even in the Church a sin? Here is what Jesus warned two of His disciples when they were vying to sit on His right of power and on His left in the kingdom of heaven:
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:41-45, NIV)
It is not just Christian cults that abuse power, all cults do. That is the siren song of the devil. Satan tempted Eve by saying, “For God knows that when you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Only Jesus is like God and there is no shortcut to being conformed into the likeness of Christ. The way of the cross that kills our carnal soul nature is the first requirement and it is no easy road. Jesus said, “He who finds his [soul] life will lose it. But he who loses his [soul] life for my sake and the kingdom’s sake will find it.” There is an old country western song that had a line in it that is very poignant, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
Dear saints, be aware that our enemy prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour and is often manifest in the form of charismatic Christian leadership. As for our Christian growth? It was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Give your hearts totally to Jesus and pray that He does whatever it takes in your lives that pleases God and He will get you to the goal that the Father has laid out before you in His kingdom. For me it has been learning some very hard lessons in cults and churches. Like my friend George Davis put it, “God rubbed my nose in everything He wanted me to never do.”
For further reading, here is another site that has listed the earmarks of cults: