When one converses with various members of the same cult group (for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses), one quickly realizes that they react and respond very similarly to things that are posed to them, as if they are all trained the same way. When asked about it, they proudly answer that it is the same worldwide. They are not divided among themselves like the Christian churches; they are a unity. The way a Jehovah’s Witness answers you in South Africa will be the same way one answers you anywhere else in the world. Even the terms they use will correspond. However, it’s not just in terms of their doctrine that they sound so similar (even with the explanatory examples they use). Their behavior and way of speaking also match. Even their clothing is similar. When Jehovah’s Witness men do street work, they wear neat long pants, a shirt, and a tie. Mormons, on the other hand, can be recognized by their black pants, white shirt, tie, and name badge. A group like the Hare Krishnas is, of course, easily recognizable by the shaved head with the “ponytail” and the long robe they wear. The more you interact with people from different cult groups, the more you realize that these people feel, think, act, speak, have knowledge, live, and believe very similarly. Their members come from different backgrounds – rich and poor, educated and illiterate, old and young, white and brown and black, male and female. They differ from each other, but when it comes to their religious expression and the resulting everyday life, they are so similar. The only way to explain this is that their religious organization must have an abnormally strong controlling power over its people.
These diverse religious organizations, each in its own way, exert a dominant influence over their members. Today, in English (particularly American) apologetic literature, they are described by the term “cults.”1 In her book “Another Gospel” (1989:15), Professor Ruth Tucker writes that the word “cult” has become a widely accepted term. According to her, it is impossible to work on the subject of unorthodox religions without using the word “cults.” That the term “cult” is no longer unfamiliar to English speakers is evident from the titles of books that are on the shelves today, such as “The cults are coming,” “The new cults,” “The cult explosion,” “Dealing with destructive cults,” “Combatting cult mind control,” “Youth, Brainwashing, and the extremist cults,” “The chaos of cults,” and so on. It can also be seen from the treatment of the same groups by books with the word “cults” in their titles, which helps clarify which groups are encompassed by the term “cults.”
In Afrikaans, however, the cult groups are still placed under the broader term “sektes” (sects). For example, in his book “Die vernaamste sektes in ons land” (1970), Dr. Ja. J. Müller discusses Jehovah’s Witnesses and “Christian Science” alongside the so-called “Pinkstersektes” such as the Apostolic Faith Mission, Full Gospel Church, and Pentecostal Protestant Church. The fact that there is a radical difference between (as he calls them) “Pinkstersektes” and groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and “Christian Science” is evident, for example, in the fact that traditional Afrikaans churches do recognize the “Pinkstersektes” as fellow believers (including recognizing their baptism), but they do not consider groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses to be true Christians. Just as in English, a finer distinction in Afrikaans between Christian sects and so-called Christian (but rather anti-Christian) cults has become necessary. The problem we now face is to clearly define the term “cult.” Over time, it will become clear that there are clear similarities among cult groups. However, providing a single definition of a cult is very difficult. The existing definitions emphasize different aspects:
– Professor Charles Braden defines a cult in the preface to his book “These also believe” (19:xii) as any religious group that significantly differs in one or more aspects of belief or practice from those religious groups considered the normative expression of religion in our total culture. However, what is considered “normative” varies from country to country. For example, Christianity in Islamic countries could be considered cults according to this definition. Additionally, what is “normative” is fluid. Can Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses not claim to have become a “normative expression of religion in our total culture” based on their numbers alone?
– Dr. Walter Martin’s description of a cult as a group of people who gather around a specific person or persons’ interpretation of the Bible (1968:11) cannot be used as is. Although we understand what Martin means by this, cults can argue that Calvinists also gather around a specific person (Calvin) and his interpretation of the Bible.
– In his book “Rise of the cults” (1977:11), Martin defines a cult based on its departure from Christian orthodox teachings: a cult is a religious group that deviates in any basic way from the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith (while still pretending to be Christian). However, even this definition does not cover all aspects of the groups usually described as cults.
– Dr. Gordon Lewis defines a cult in his newsletter from Nov-Dec. 1986 as a religious organization centered around a person or group of people who claim to be God’s exclusive channel to bring the truth to humanity. However, with this definition, we still have a problem that many facets of being a cult are not included.
As Brooks Alexander states in his article “What is a cult” (1979), neither a definition based on deviations from Christian orthodox doctrine nor a definition based on techniques of behavior manipulation or conditioning is comprehensive enough to cover everything. Attempts to provide a more comprehensive definition can be found in Martin’s later work “The New Cults” (1980:16) and Tucker (1989:16). Martin defines a cult as a religious group centered around a leader or group of leaders who reject or misinterpret the basic biblical doctrines. Most cults have a single leader or a succession of leaders who claim to represent the voice of God on earth and have more authority than the Bible. Nevertheless, they claim that their doctrines are in line with the Bible, even though they reject one or more cardinal doctrines of Scripture. Tucker’s extensive definition states that a cult is a religious group with a “prophetic” founder called by God to deliver a special message not found in the Bible itself. To do this “authoritatively,” the leadership style is authoritarian, the organization is seen as exclusive, and everything is confirmed by a legalistic lifestyle and a persecution mentality. Tucker then suggests that there are many other characteristics of cults, but the above is sufficient to describe groups such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Science, the Unification Church, and The Way International. We can also add groups like the Moonies, the Peoples Temple (Jim Jones), Catholic Apostle groups (such as Old Apostles, New Apostles, and Apostle Unity), the World Wide Church of God (Herbert W. Armstrong), and so on.
What is striking is that, through several definitions, we have obtained many characteristics of a religious cult. The key that brings all these characteristics together is found in Watters’ definition, namely that all these religious groups are centered around a leader or leaders who claim to be God’s exclusive channel for bringing divine truth to humanity. As a result, not only are the members’ doctrines determined by the leader(s), but also their behavior, thinking, information, even their emotions, language, code of life, blessing from God and their organization, salvation, method of interpreting Scripture, and even their perspective on history (which includes their own history). In a certain sense, the members are prisoners of the leader(s) because the latter, with “divine” authority, can say anything to them, and they must obey it for their own salvation and their good relationship with their Creator.
FEATURES OF A CULT:
A groundbreaking work on the characteristics of cults is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s 1961 book, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism,” subtitled “A study of ‘brainwashing’ in China.” In this book, Lifton summarized his research on how the Chinese Communists induced a radical transformation of life and worldview in their American prisoners of war. In Chapter 22 (pp. 419-437), Lifton provides eight features that also apply to religious cults (my explanations follow each):
1) “Milieu Control” – Control the members’ environment, especially through some form of isolation. Contact with former members and critical material is discouraged or even prohibited. Selective information is disseminated.
2) “Mystical Manipulation” – Something mystical adheres to cults. In a religious cult, this is because God is always present in the organization and its work. To be obedient to the organization is to be obedient to God. To disagree with the organization is to disagree with God.
3) “Demands for Purity” – Everything is either black or white, right or wrong. Whether something is good depends on its relationship with the cult. There is little room for personal decisions. Members are controlled by guilt feelings. Purity is achieved by becoming part of the cult’s ideology.
4) “The cult of confession” – Serious sins (as defined by the organization) must be confessed immediately. Members must also report other members who act contrary to the regulations. Confession of sin creates a sense of oneness with the group. The leaders now have a whip (knowledge of their sins) to keep the members in line.
5) “The sacred science” – The doctrines of cults are too sacred to be questioned. Claims are also made of airtight logic, so the doctrines appear as absolute truths against which no contradictions are possible. Such an attractive system naturally provides security and certainty.
6) “Loading the language” – Here, Lifton points out the use of thought-terminating clichés that put an end to a conversation or controversy. Politically, these terms include words like “capitalist” and “imperialist.” Religiously, they can be terms like “worldly” and “apostates.”
7) “Doctrine over person” – Personal feelings must yield to the goal of everything (namely, the Chinese Communist utopian state). Consequently, logical personal beliefs must be altered if they conflict with the cult’s ideology. Personal experience takes a backseat to the teachings. The history of the cults is altered to fit their doctrinal logic.
8) “Dispensing of existence” – If one is not part of the “people,” according to the Chinese Communists, they are considered “outside the people,” meaning “nonpeople.” Thus, cults decide who has the right to exist and who does not; who will be destroyed in the final war and who will not; who is part of God’s organization and who is not; which history books are accurate and which are not; that outsiders can be misled, and so on.
Characteristics of Cults
Walter Martin (1980: 17-21) gives ten characteristics of a cult:
- Origin: Usually a strong leader who claims to act on behalf of God or with divine authority.
- Bible: Has authoritative scriptures added to or modified from the Bible.
- Membership: Strict standards for membership and extreme discipline. Being expelled results in losing friends and family, one’s purpose in life, and God’s approval.
- Factors present in cults are so similar that it happens that someone leaves one cult only to become involved in another.
- Evangelism activities: This is the mark of a true dedicated member. The importance of “earning” salvation is emphasized (although sometimes denied).
- Leaders: Self-appointed leaders (through “inner” revelation) with little or no theological training.
- New revelations: Changes in doctrines and practices occur as the leader(s) receive “new light.”
- Continuing revelations: Because God communicates with humanity through the cult, the “new light” may even contradict God’s “initial” revelation, the Bible.
- Restoration of true Christianity: Cults see themselves as the restoration of true Christianity. Because only they are pure, this exclusivity leads to dangerous isolation.
- Language: Cults give their own meanings to words and even create words unique to them.
Similar descriptions of cult characteristics can be found in Watters (1986 – 7 characteristics), Barnard (1971 – 10 characteristics), and Hassan (1988 – 4 characteristics). Hassan rightly emphasizes the control cults have over their members and sees the four basic characteristics of a cult as control over emotions, behavior, thinking, and information. This classification aligns with Hassan’s approach but expands to include the other characteristics mentioned. The characteristics of cults are then divided into the following 12 main groups, attempting to incorporate both doctrinal and practical aspects:
Control of thought Control of behavior Control of emotions/feelings Control of information and environment Control of language Control of norms “Control” of God Control of salvation Control of scriptural interpretation Control of doctrines Control of history Control of membership.
Members of a specific group think alike. When asked about their beliefs, their organization, everyday events, and even political and social conditions, you will repeatedly hear the same or similar answers. They believe that apartheid is wrong; that America should not have gone to war in Iraq; that Jesus is not God but a reincarnation of Christ; that smoking is a sin; that coffee should not be consumed; that their organization derives its authority from God; that faulty prophecies are part of the past, but what the organization teaches now is entirely true; that one should not see a doctor when sick but should only pray; that blood transfusions are evil; that they are persecuted by those who disagree with them; that critical thinking is dangerous, and so on. When debating with cult members, you only make progress up to a point. It’s as if you hit a mental roadblock. This typically happens when the facts presented begin to challenge the authority or integrity of the organization. Members do not want to think about this and usually respond with aggression, accusations of slander, or withdrawal from the conversation. Even when presented with evidence that the organization has misled them, it’s as if they cannot see it.
It’s as if these rational individuals who could debate the beliefs so well have suddenly become irrational. Hassan (1988:61-63) describes this process as a “thought-stopping technique” that a member must learn “to keep their mind ‘centered'”. To be a good member, one must learn to manipulate their own thought processes. Their belief that they are “in the truth” colors, blocks, or filters all incoming information. This is done by cults telling members that it’s better not to think about certain things at all. This way, they can better grow in the “true” faith. When a member has a “bad” thought, they push it out of their mind and force their thoughts to align with the group’s thinking. They learn to shut out anything that threatens their existence (almost like an alcoholic uses alcohol to forget negative things). What they do see is denied (“It’s not true”), rationalized (“There must be a good reason”), or justified (“It’s supposed to be that way”). Different groups employ different thought-blocking methods, such as concentrated prayer, chanting loudly or softly, meditation, singing, or humming. Members believe that the better they become at erasing “negative” thoughts, the more they have grown in faith, even though they are actually becoming greater slaves to the organization. Hassan also points out that once someone breaks free from a cult, they go through a difficult withdrawal process before overcoming this addiction. (The author has witnessed this in people who have left cults.) What is also noticeable from conversations with cult members is that when they can no longer answer questions, they believe that their organization DEFINITELY has the answer. The promise is usually made that they will get back to you on the matter (which does not always happen, probably because the leaders of the organization tell them not to talk further with you). The reason for this can be found in Hassan’s statement (1988:61) that cult members believe that their dogma provides the answer to all problems and situations. The member no longer has to think for themselves because the dogma has already done the thinking. Therefore, you often hear cult members say that they can’t answer you anymore but that you should talk to their leaders because they will definitely have the right answer. Dr. Walter Martin (1968:24) describes this closed-mindedness in cult members as “closedmindedness.”
He also points out that (although they pretend otherwise) they are not really interested in a rational cognitive evaluation of facts that they perceive as negative. However, members can easily apply the criteria they cannot apply to their own organization to others. This can be described as ‘compartmentalized thinking’. Once something like doubting the authority of the organization is locked in a compartment, it is almost impossible to penetrate this aspect of the cult member. Martin also notes (1968:26-27) that the reason a member is willing to conform to the group to the extreme against their rational thinking is to remain part of this closed group. Martin provides examples of this as well. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that their organization is the mouthpiece of God, even though they are aware of numerous failed prophecies of the organization. Similarly, Mormon historians and theologians are well aware that the first edition of the ‘Book of Mormon differs significantly in several places from the current edition because many corrections had to be made. Nevertheless, both editions are considered divine revelations by Mormons. Even “Christian Science” followers are willing to live with such contradictions. Although their founder, Mary Baker Eddy, often used doctors in her later years, received morphine injections for pain, wore glasses, and had her teeth removed when they caused problems, her followers still adhere to her teachings that pain is an illusion and that doctors and anesthesia should not be used. In all the above examples of compartmentalized thinking, conflicting matters are placed in different compartments, and the group has made peace with the contradictions. Martin sees this as a good example of how Satan can blind people’s minds (2 Cor. 4:4). Typically, cult members are misled to believe that criticism of their organization is “lies about us that Satan has planted in people’s minds” (Hassan, 1988:62).
Cult groups feel so strongly about thought control that a group like the Moonies is hostile to family ties. Watters (1986:2) attributes this to the fact that a family is an independent cell where differences in opinion or practices from the cult can develop in secret. A cult slogan like “Keep the organization clean” is another way of saying that people who think for themselves should be eliminated. How thoughts can be manipulated by organizations in such a way is not the focus of this paper. However, it can be briefly pointed out with Hassan (1988:47) that our consciousness is limited, and we can only pay attention to a certain amount of information at once. (For example, when you read here, you are not consciously aware of all the sounds around you, you do not feel the chair you are sitting on, and you do not see every letter for what it is, etc.) The majority of impulses received are handled by the subconscious. The subconscious is also capable of presenting mental images that one experiences as reality. People can also immerse themselves in things as if they were real (e.g., in books, etc.). Unfortunately, a new reality can also be created unconsciously, causing one to believe it is true, or one’s critical faculty is suppressed to a level where they accept authority (often maternal = the mother organization). A new frame of reference is created by cults for their members, so when members must make decisions themselves, it is done against this new background. Friends of people who join a cult often hear that they now think and react entirely differently to things. Usually, people do not join cults but are recruited by cults. To protect oneself from the pull of cults, it is important to maintain critical thinking. God teaches us in His Word that the truth sets us free. We who have been freed by Christ must not allow our thinking to be enslaved by someone else’s ideas.
What drives people like Jehovah’s Witnesses to spend every weekend selling books at shopping centers and going out every weeknight (after a day of work) to convince others of their beliefs or to receive further training for it? What drives people like the Old Apostles to believe that they must dedicate 10% of their time (17 hours per week) to the practice of their religion or its official propagation? What drives people like the Christian Science movement to act as if their physical problems don’t exist and thus invite a lot of misery upon themselves? What drives people like the Hare Krishnas to sing the same things over and over for at least two hours every day and sway in a trance-like manner (“chant”)? What drives people (many of whom are wealthy and prominent) like the followers of Rajneesh to dance in admiration of him, give all their money to him, and engage in sexual intercourse with anyone? What drives people like the Mormons to endlessly search their genealogical records and have the deceased baptized; as well as to permanently wear a garment under their clothes that is supposed to protect them against the attacks of evil? What drives people like the Moonies to push away their families whom they once cared so much about? What led the almost 1000 members of the Peoples Temple of Jim Jones to commit mass suicide together? To all these questions, there is a single answer: the leaders of these cults who claim to be the mouthpieces of God on Earth control their behavior.
Martin (1968:33) is correct when he says that in the realm of cults, we find a mosaic of abnormal conditioned behavioral patterns expressed within a theological framework. The double personality found in many cult members, with their behavior and actions alternating between that of the person they are and the cult member, is also relevant. One could almost describe it as someone who acts normally or professionally as the situation requires. The difference is that the member acts “normally” and “professionally” toward the same person in one visit – depending on whether the conversation is about everyday matters or something related to the cult. Hassan (1988:73) says that this behavior is familiar to anyone who works with cult members. This “dual identity” is often confusing for the person’s family – especially in the first few weeks or months of their involvement. The author himself witnessed this with a young man who came from a Christian household but became involved with the so-called “Israel vision.” One moment (in Hassan’s words), the person speaks in cultic terms with a hostile or all-knowing attitude; then suddenly reverts to being his old self with his old attitudes and mannerisms. When he is in one phase, his speech is robotic, full of cult clichés. When he is back to being his old self, his voice fluctuates with emotions, and he is more willing to share his feelings. However, this dual identity is not equally visible in all cult members.
The sense of unity among cult members also has a significant influence on their behavior. It is a recognized fact that people behave differently when they are part of a group compared to when they are on their own. In a group, for example, you see opportunities for more things than you can achieve alone. In a cult, this sense of unity is very strong because they see themselves as the chosen ones to proclaim “God’s message” to the world. This sense of unity is further reinforced because they feel dependent on each other due to their differences from the rest of the world. They are like a family enduring the world’s attacks together. This bond becomes so strong that a group like the Peoples Temple was willing to commit mass suicide because their leader, Jim Jones, made them believe that it was the only way to escape the world’s attacks. Watters (1986:1, 2) points out that this sense of unity creates a friendship bond within the group that is not found among orthodox Christians – much like the sense of unity among members of a secret club. This sense of unity not only has a significant influence on their behavior towards each other but also makes them willing to recruit new members for their elite group (based on their belief that only they possess the truth and are therefore the chosen instruments of God to spread it). No time or effort is spared to train new members, until they have become prototypes of the old members in their thinking, behavior, and emotions. Hassan describes this in the form of hierarchical modeling (1988:81), where the new member takes the more experienced one as a role model, the latter takes his leader as a model, and so on, until the cult leader himself ultimately becomes the top model.
Hassan also says that even an ordinary outsider can see that the behavior, mannerisms, dress, and way of speaking of cult members are remarkably consistent. What this outsider sees is the personality and behavior of the leader, as copied by the ranks (Hassan, 1988:81). There is probably no clearer example of this than the dress and behavior of the Hare Krishnas. Finally, mention should also be made of the uniform behavior of cult members towards critical outsiders and former members. These people are seen, in the words of the Chinese communists, as “nonpeople” (Lifton, 1961:433). Therefore, it is not wrong to lie to these “enemies of God,” to hate them, and to avoid them at all costs. From personal experience, the author knows that friendly cult members, with whom appointments for discussions have been made, will treat you very coldly after hearing that the organization has labeled you as an enemy and therefore forbidden them from talking to you. They may even slam the door in your face or angrily say that they don’t want to talk to you further. When asked why they are now behaving differently, their answer is often very vague. It is clear that the cults control their behavior.
MANAGING EMOTIONS / FEELINGS:
FEAR plays a significant role in controlling cults over their people. Their literature is usually riddled with impending doom that is coming upon humanity. All that can save humanity from this calamity is the Organization. The fear can be so intense that cult members may harm themselves, even commit suicide (like “Peoples Temple”), to escape what they are afraid of. Anything can be the enemy – from medicine and blood transfusions to the impending judgment. By maintaining this constant underlying sense of fear, members are kept loyal and busy.
FEAR is also used in other ways. To prevent members from contacting critics, a deadly fear of the devil and his efforts to use others (even friends) to lead them astray is created (as Watters, 1968:1 suggests). (The negative reaction of family and friends when someone joins a cult naturally reinforces the feeling that the devil is trying to pull them away from the right path.) Hassan (1988:82) says that every cult he has dealt with has a devil waiting around every corner, waiting for a member to make a misstep and be lost forever. The more terrible this devil is portrayed, the greater the fear and solidarity it generates within the group. Lifton (1961:434) points out that the human FEAR is to be without meaning (nothingness). The cult member is convinced that a meaningful life can only be lived within the bounds and boundaries of the organization. His fear of meaninglessness is thus overcome by his membership in the cults. This fear becomes evident again when one proves to them that their organization definitely does not have “Divine authority,” but is full of lies and false teachings. Like clockwork, the question then arises: “Where else can one go?” Their fear of meaninglessness and having nothing to hold onto becomes clear when someone is convinced their organization is false and then says to you: “Please don’t abandon me now.” Hassan (1988:44-46) goes so far as to describe FEAR (phobias) as the power that deprives cult members of their freedom. A phobia is an intense fear reaction that a person has for something or someone, usually the result of a traumatic experience. Cults create phobias in their members about the possibility of ever leaving the group. Some groups convince their members that if they ever leave the group, something terrible will happen to them or their loved ones (almost like the fear a chain letter creates that something very bad will happen to you if you don’t pass it on).
All groups constantly paint an extremely bleak picture of everything outside the group (e.g., Christian churches, the state, and the company), which also creates a fear reaction in members of ever leaving the group. By controlling the emotion of fear, cults gain control over their members, and members lose their ability to make decisions for themselves because what the organization offers is the only way to survive. They believe there is no other way for them to grow spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally. Thus, they become nothing more than slaves to their organization. Cults are also masters at controlling their members through GUILT FEELINGS. It is a fact that even the best person cannot live 100 percent of the time. Members feel guilty and ashamed in the presence of the organization. In the organization, the member finds forgiveness (the organization has the power to forgive), and he or she now wants to compensate for his wrongdoing through hard work for the group. It is logical that someone who has gone through such a process will find it difficult to leave the cult. Watters (1986:1) points out that a terrible guilt complex is placed on a person who wants to leave the organization. It is the worst thing a member can do to betray “God’s organization.” As a result, even if a person leaves, he or she must fight against these feelings, and it often happens that (if such a person does not receive proper help and support) he or she later rejoins the cult just to find peace of mind. Another feeling that cults exploit masterfully is the feeling that those who speak out against them are persecuting the cult. One can call this PERSECUTION-MANIA. It has already been pointed out how this idea led members of Jim Jones’ “Peoples Temple” to commit suicide, just to escape from what they perceived as persecution. When one tries to bring the gospel to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Old Apostles, and so on, the question of your bona fides almost always arises in the form of: “Why are you persecuting us?” They go out to members of Christian churches to convince them that the Christian churches are wrong, and their doctrines are correct, but they do not see it as persecution but as a favor.
Martin (1968:30) points out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief system contains the view that Christians will want to persecute them. Therefore, the moment there is a negative reference to Russell or Rutherford, their doctrines, the Watchtower organization, or a member, the Jehovah’s Witness takes on a martyr or persecution attitude. (Surely anyone who works with these people can testify to this.) The Jehovah’s Witness surely feels like a hero, standing up to the persecuting forces of the “devil’s organization” (the Watchtower’s definition of Christianity). This naturally encourages them to continue and makes it much more difficult to get someone to think differently. (How can one expect someone to voluntarily take what they believe is poison?) Precisely because of the so-called persecution by those who differ from them and because of the so-called deception with which they deceive people, another emotion is aroused in cult members towards outsiders – the emotion HATE. The more one deals with cults, the more one realizes how hateful they feel towards those outside their circle. Thus, Rutherford instructs his Jehovah’s Witness followers (Reconciliation, 1928:85-125) to hate Christians and especially office bearers with the purest hatred.4 Regarding the negative feelings that cults arouse among their members, Dr. Walter Martin (1968:25) says that personal antagonism towards Christians has become a feature of the cultic belief system. Almost always, members transfer the negative feelings they have about the doctrines of Christianity onto the person advocating those doctrines. This feeling is linked to the closedness of cults and makes it very difficult to reach cult members. It helps if, at first, you can genuinely break through the person’s negative feelings towards you as a Christian before discussing doctrinal differences. Unfortunately, it is not always possible, because even on close family members like parents, children, and spouses, negative feelings are projected.
Most people react very negatively when they hear that a friend or family member has been drawn into a cult. Unfortunately, this reaction only drives the person further into the arms of the cults because there they receive LOVE and encouragement to persevere on their chosen path. Hassan (1988:81) says that in the love new members receive at the beginning of the cults, it seems so unconditional and boundless that the person is swept off his feet by all the attention and praises. It literally feels to the person as if they have stepped into a utopia where everyone cares about them and is interested in them. But as the person becomes more and more part of the group, the attention and flattery of the group turn away from them to newcomers. Now the person must learn that receiving love in the group is not unconditional.
MANAGING INFORMATION AND ENVIRONMENT:
One makes decisions based on the information available to them. Therefore, cults ensure that only selected information is provided to their members. The people you interact with and are drawn to have a significant influence on how you perceive things. Hence, it is important for cults that their members do not move in “dangerous” environments that could change their minds. Hassan (1988:65) says that ‘information’ is the fuel the mind needs to function properly. Deprive a person of the information they need to make a good assessment of a matter, and you can be sure of a poor assessment. People stay trapped in cults because they may not have access to certain essential information, and because the cults control the mechanism for obtaining and evaluating information. Lifton (1961:420) sees control of someone’s environment as the first characteristic of a group that wants to gain control over that person’s thinking. Within the environment, the crucial thing to control is a person’s communication – both with other people and with themselves. What a person sees, hears, reads, and writes, experiences, and describes – even what they say to themselves – must be controlled.
In a Chinese communist prison and revolutionary university, controlling the environment and information that American prisoners received was not difficult. However, cults must achieve this kind of control by getting members to place themselves in a “prison,” deciding for themselves that they will withdraw from environments and information that could be “harmful” to them. So, a person can still live in self-imposed isolation, even when working every day among other people, according to their organization’s prescriptions. The member only needs to be convinced that it is “better this way” not to share certain information or engage with certain individuals. This control over information and environment by cults brings great frustration to those who work with cult members. Just when it seems like progress is being made with someone, they are prohibited from having any further contact with you. Cult members with whom appointments are made repeatedly fail to keep their appointments, probably because they have learned from their organization that you are a “dangerous” person. After the author visited two elders at Bethel (the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Southern Africa) a few times, he was called by one of the senior members of the organization and told that he was banned from their property and would not be allowed back. Watters (1986:1) outlines a variety of measures that cults use to ensure that their members do not ingest the “poison” of people who differ from them or gain a broader perspective on matters:
– Prohibit reading material from other religious groups, especially any critical material or pieces from former members.
– Make people fearful of how the devil uses other people (even their friends and family) to pull them away from “the truth.”
– Maintain a daily or weekly indoctrination program to keep the cult’s unique life and worldview constantly reinforced on the member.
– Keep the member too busy to read or consider other viewpoints. Hassan (1988:65) concurs with this. He states that many cults keep their members so busy that they have little time to read things not from the cult itself or even to watch television or listen to the radio. If members do still read, it is primarily material and propaganda from the cult itself, which is highly one-sided in order to keep members’ attention focused on the “right” things.
People who break away from a cult group pose a significant threat to that group. If such a person can have the opportunity to talk to their former comrades, they may also bring them to the same insights about the group. Thus, cults prohibit their members from having any contact with former members. Watters (1986:2) points out that cults do everything in their power to place a stigma on people who criticize the group, especially former members. In the case of these people, skeletons are sought that can be dug up for their members, so that they can “realize” that they should have nothing to do with such individuals. Former members are described as apostates who have fallen in love with the world and have therefore left “God’s” organization. They are depicted so negatively that members want nothing to do with them and shy away from ever leaving the organization themselves. In the above and other ways, cults succeed in controlling the information and environment of their members and thus keeping their members part of their organization.
Martin (1980:21) says that every cult has its own vocabulary. These may be familiar terms given a different meaning, or they may be entirely created terms. For example, the “Children of God” refer to “FFing” when they are talking about paying for sex or prostitution. Hassan (1988:61, 62) also highlights the so-called “loaded language” found in cults. Since language provides us with the vocabulary to think, thinking can be controlled to some extent by controlling the vocabulary. Many groups have expressions for certain complex situations, which help members think in line with the teachings of the cult. For example, the Moonies talk about a “Cain-Abel problem” when a member has issues with another member who is higher or lower in the hierarchy. The senior member is always the Abel figure, and the junior one is the Cain figure, who should not rebel against their brother like Cain. Thus, any dispute is already resolved through this expression. You can also mention the term “apostate” used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is given to former members. If someone is described as an “apostate” (even if they are not a former member), members know to have nothing to do with that person. Case closed. To label a dangerous person with a negative term significantly reduces their danger to the cult’s control over its people.
Hassan further points out that this cult-specific language creates an invisible barrier between members and outsiders. The language makes members feel special and more informed than the general public. It also makes newcomers wonder what is being talked about and encourages them to study harder to “understand the truth.” By making this language part of them, however, people learn not to think but to believe according to these clichés. A characteristic of cults is also that they give their own content to familiar words and phrases. Gradually, new meanings are conveyed to the person. In politics, this process is well-known. For example, the Chinese communists gave the word “people” the meaning of all people who are part of their group (compare Lifton, 1961:433). This means that when power is handed over to the “people” or the “nation,” it is actually handed over to the communist party. The Moonies, for example, always publicly state in America that they are “pro-America,” “pro-democracy,” and “pro-family ties” because they know that these are things Americans like to hear. In reality, according to Hassan (1988:66), they mean by “pro-America” that they want the best for America, namely a theocracy under the rule of Moon; with pro-democracy, a theocratic dictatorship of the Unification Church; and with “pro-family ties,” that everyone should be part of Moon’s family, his wife, and his spiritual children. Their teachings have not changed that America should be subordinated to Korea, that democracy is a flawed system “God is phasing out,” and that people should leave their families if they
CONTROL OF NORMS:
Because the leaders of cults claim to act with divine authority, in the eyes of their members, they also have the power to dictate what is right and wrong. If Rajnees says that raising money for their group through drug trafficking is right, then the members do it enthusiastically as if they are doing it for God himself. If the members of the “Children of God” are taught that the bond of love among the ‘children of God’ is expressed through sexual intercourse with each other, then the members will do it zealously. According to Watters (Mar-Apr. 1990:11), the members’ entire view of what is good and bad depends on the relationship that the matter has with the teachings and practices of the cults. According to the interests and perspectives of the cults, the entire world is divided into black and white, with little room for personal decision-making. Hassan (1988:79) suggests that even the most complex cult doctrines ultimately divide the world into two poles: good versus evil. No group outside the organization can truly be good because it would threaten the cults’ monopoly on “the truth.” There is also no room for differences in interpretation. Typical of cults is that there is a whole list of musts and must-nots that members must incorporate into their own moral system. For example, the use of coffee is forbidden among the Mormons, and smoking, celebrating holidays, and birthdays are considered sins by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, when the doctrines and regulations do not provide a direct answer on a matter, Hassan (1988:79) states that the rule is to ask the leader.
Martin (1980:28-30) says that in the newer cults of this century, there is a strange combination of subjectivism and absolutes. While most newer cults rebel against the rules and taboos of society, parents, and the church, they also have their own set of absolute rules that members must adhere to. Compared to the more revolutionary approach of the newer cults, older cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, according to Hoekema (1963:376), tend to strive for perfection. Among the members of the cults, there is a clear sense of moral superiority, especially towards people in Christian churches. You will often hear comments like, “Look at how we live compared to you.” This ethical sense of superiority is fueled by the cults to ensure that no one ever wants to break away from their organization.
Therefore, the publications of the cults are filled with references to how badly people outside their group behave and how well the members of the organization live. In “Doctrines of Salvation, 1” (19:236), Joseph Fielding Smith states that as Mormons, despite their weaknesses, they are the best people in the world. He says that the evidence is there for everyone to see, as they are morally pure and in many respects much better than anyone else. Similarly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they are more obedient to God than regular churchgoers because they engage in extensive door-to-door witnessing. While the cults claim that the church is full of hypocrites and nominal Christians, they see themselves as a group of dedicated saints willing to make sacrifices as God (or, in reality, the organization) commands. Because what is considered good and bad is measured by how it relates to the interests of the cults, we find a means-justifies-the-end approach in some respects with the cults.
For example, older cults today attempt to gain more credibility by convincing their members and outsiders that many scientists cannot help but agree with their views and doctrines. These scientists and their work are then cited as proof. In the process, Watters (Nov-Dec. 1986:3) points out that the cults have no qualms about quoting these individuals out of context and even inaccurately. In one of the latest publications of the Watchtower against the Trinity, there are numerous examples of this (which will be discussed later). As long as lies are deemed necessary for the well-being of the organization, the end justifies the means, and it is considered good. Hassan points out that some cults even give their members permission and encourage them to lie to non-members (1988:96). The many rules and regulations for a holy way of life in the cults keep their members so busy that they do not have time to think critically about them. For every aspect of life (even your sexual life within your marriage – Hassan, 1988:64), there are various casuistic rules and regulations outlined. Veldhuizen (1980) points out that with all this striving for perfection and holiness, the cults forget that they cannot pay for their own salvation, but that Christ has already paid for our sins, that we have nothing to boast of ourselves, and that He must become more in our lives and we less.
CONTROL OF HISTORY:
Under the heading “doctrine over person,” Lifton (1961:430-432) points out that cults adapt history to fit their teachings. This also applies to a member’s own past because what they have experienced is now colored by how the cult makes them think about it. Focused on religious cults as an example, we can see that even the smallest negative incident that may have occurred earlier in a member’s life as a member of a Christian church is greatly exaggerated, while memories of all the positive experiences are forgotten. Most recruited cult members tend to talk about these negative “experiences” from their past in a very one-sided way when you talk to them, as if they are trying to convince themselves that they are so much better off now. According to Hassan (1988:83), cults change their members’ attitudes toward their own past, present, and future. The member looks back on their pre-cult past with a distorted memory that colors everything darkly. Their present is manipulated so that they constantly feel a sense of urgency because the end of the world is said to be approaching (as with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been saying that “Armageddon” will begin at any moment for more than a century). In contrast, the future brings the cult member the reward for all their hard work for the organization (a paradise on earth for Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Because cults believe that they are the only true Christian “church” today, they must be able to trace their history back to the early Christian communities in the New Testament period. However, the problem they face is that for 18 or 19 centuries after that – until their own founding – they have no church history. The way out is basically to claim that during this time, no true church existed because Satan had led God’s church astray. The founding of their group in this or the previous century was seen as God’s intervention in history and a restoration of His “church.” Thus, their group, with a break of many centuries, is still seen as the continuation of the true church, and they can trace the history of their church back to Adam and Eve (or even earlier, as in the case of the Mormons, who trace their history back to “God” and “His predecessors,” who were all originally good “Mormons” on other planets). Hoekema (1963:374-375) points out that the above simplifies church history for the cults. Nothing of significance happened from the time of Christ until the time when the founder of the cult began the organization that is now the only true believers. In the eyes of the cults, this makes them the continuation of the true church and allows them to trace their church history all the way back to Adam and Eve (or even further, as in the case of the Mormons, who trace their history back to “God” and “His predecessors,” who were all originally good “Mormons” on other planets).
Hoekema continues to say that this differs from Christian churches that have split from each other but still maintain the line that Christ has preserved His church throughout the centuries (as He promised in Mt. 16:18 and 28:20) and lament the divisions in the body of Christ. In contrast, the identity of the cults lies in their separation because they alone possess the truth and are the “church.” Watters (Nov-Dec. 1986:1) points out that when cults are asked whether their teachings are true when they are first introduced (e.g., stories from the Book of Mormon), they say that their teachings have always been true but that, for some reason, the church did not see this “light” for 1,900 years. The cults go even further by not only changing their members’ view of the past but also changing the past itself. This is especially evident in the prophecies of the cults that did not come true. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses have rewritten their predictions for 1914 to fit what did happen. They now tell their members that “world conditions foretold for this period have been occurring since 1914 exactly as foretold” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985:264). The facts, however, show that what the organization predicted for 1914 – the end of Christianity, of all earthly governments, and of the great war – did not come true. But cults rewrite history books to fit their teachings (e.g., regarding 1914) and their wishful thinking. One can also refer in this context to how Moon’s failed prophecy about the end of the world and the takeover of the Moonies in 1960 and 1967, or the outbreak of the third world war in 1977 (Hassan, 1988:83) was “modified.”
How cults control history can also be seen in the fact that Mormons believe that the “early history of America” – as described in the Book of Mormon – is true, even though none of it can be confirmed by archaeological excavations. By controlling a person’s history and their perception of it, the cults find it much easier to control their present and future – their entire life.
CONTROL OF GOD:
The cults teach that God is in control of their organization – that it is “God’s organization” and that He uses this organization to fulfill His purpose on Earth. But in reality, it’s the other way around. In reality, the cults “control” God. What they decide, God supposedly decides. What they do is what God supposedly wants them to do. What they prophesy is supposedly what God prophesies – even if it doesn’t come true. What they teach is supposedly “new revelations” (“new light”) from God. They even “control” God’s “choice” of them as an organization, the reasons why He would “choose” them, and the time at which He “chose” them. Lifton (1961:422) describes the above with the term “mystical manipulation.” God is “manipulated” to serve as a stamp of approval on everything the organization is and conceives. So, if a person resigns from such an organization or is kicked out, they can expect “God’s punishment” and eternal damnation. For the faithful (says Watters, Mar-Apr. 1990:11), there are angels ready to help them in the cults. Stories are even spread of the wonderful things God is doing in, for, and through the organization because they are “in the truth.”
Watters (Nov-Dec. 1986:1) sees this as the most important characteristic of cults, that they claim to be God’s exclusive channel to this world. To be a member, you must see the leader(s) as the modern-day spokesman for God. You must agree with certain (self-invented) doctrines of the leader(s) because it is “new light” that “God has given.” Even though Christianity never taught this, members must believe that the “new interpretations of the Bible by the cults have brought them to this ‘truth.'” Because the leader(s) claim that it all comes from God, they cannot be contradicted and are considered “infallible” for all practical purposes (even though they usually deny it).
Martin (1968:25-26) rightly says that the cultic belief systems all have a kind of institutional dogmatism (their organization and doctrines are from God and of utmost importance). This leads to a pronounced intolerance toward any viewpoint outside their own. They believe their views are supernaturally grounded and have absolute authority. Their intolerance of other religious groups is related to this “institutional dogmatism.” Groups like the Old and New Apostles go so far as to say that the Bible is not the Word of God but that what comes from the mouths of their respective apostles is the Word of God. The Mormons also attribute divine authority to what their living apostle says, just as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do to what their governing body proclaims. This claim of God for themselves logically (as Hoekema, 1963:374, also points out) creates a sharp break with (“apostate”) Christianity. The “new light” they acquire makes the teachings of Christianity more and more “wrong.” For example, the teachings of the Watchtower in their early years had much more in common with Christianity than they do today (people had to do military service and worship Jesus, celebrate Christmas, and so on). It is clear that the cults claim God for themselves. In their case, it’s not about what God wants but what they want. God is then just the stamp they use to mark their teachings and practices as authoritative. Even in the eyes of their followers, what their leaders say is what God says. Their redemption and restored relationship with God depend on their relationship with the “divine” organization. What could be more blasphemous than trying to make God your servant and stamp – trying to “control” God?
CONTROL OF REDEMPTION:
This logically brings us to the next point – that the cults believe they control the eternal redemption of their members (actually of the whole world). Cults decide who will inherit eternal life (according to their own definition of it, whether it’s a paradise on Earth like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or ruling over their own planet like the Mormons). Cults ensure that their members will make an effort to recruit new members because it reinforces the idea among members that God is truly working with their organization. To make sure their members will put effort into recruiting new members, “evangelism” – actually more like proselytizing – has become a requirement for their salvation and blessedness in many cults. Members are taught that “evangelism” is the mark of a true devoted member and that God loves the member who is faithful and successful in this regard.
Because the cults believe that eternal redemption and blessedness are possible only through their organization, this gives the cults absolute control over their members – because they don’t want to be eternally lost. By controlling their members’ redemption, the cults control their members’ lives.
CONTROL THROUGH CONFESSION:
In addition to their own redemption through the channels of the organization, many cults have what Lifton (1961:425-427) describes as the “cult of confession.” Many cults place a strong emphasis on personal confession. The purpose of this confession for the cults is to further solidify their control over their members. Confession of the members before the group serves as a kind of personality cleansing for them. It also symbolizes self-sacrifice and a willingness to expose oneself completely to the group. It serves as proof that you are one with the group, that even your most intimate matters are known to the group, and that you truly belong to it. It also allows members to confess things from their past, obtaining relief from suppressed feelings of guilt. They feel closer to these people who know their deepest secrets. However, Lifton points out that in practice, members often say certain things and hide other things (things that the group might view very negatively). Old secrets may be revealed, but new ones, like negative feelings toward and doubts about the organization, are suppressed. The member is then left with the confusing struggle of saying enough to sound honest without saying too much. Ultimately, the boundary between what is known and what is still private becomes uncertain to him. A sense of inferiority to the other members who know so much about him is also often the result.
Hassan (1988:64) warns that this confession before the group is a powerful tool that cults use to control members’ emotions. After a member confesses his sins to the group, his sins are not forgiven and forgotten. The moment a person goes out of step with the rest, it is called up and used to push the person back. Anything said in a confession session at a cult can and will be used against you. It can even lead to extortion afterward. It becomes (in the words of Watters, Mar-Apr. 1990:11) a whip in the hands of leaders to drive the rebellious and stubborn. One characteristic of cults is that a lot of time is spent on recruiting new members. The growth obtained through this strengthens the idea among members that God is truly working with their organization. To make sure that their members will indeed make an effort to recruit new members, “evangelism” (actually more like proselytizing) has become a requirement for their salvation and blessedness. So, while the Bible teaches us that if we truly believe in Christ, we can know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:20), cult members cannot be sure that they have made it. For example, when asked “Are you saved,” a Jehovah’s Witness is taught to answer, “To date, yes.” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985:347). The saving power of Christ and the work of conversion by God the Holy Spirit are thereby denied. In the cults, you find a degradation of the Person of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Obedience to the leaders of the cults and perseverance in good works become the determining factor for salvation. Hutten (1957:34) sees the rejection of the doctrine of justification by grace alone (sola gratia) as the most basic characteristic of a cult. Grace is not seen as the free gift of God to an unworthy sinner but as a reward earned by faithful adherence to various conditions and requirements. In contrast, the Bible teaches us that even faith in the heart of man is a gift of God, and salvation is not from man but from God, so man has no reason to be proud of himself (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Hoekema (1963:380) points out that by nature, man wants to be lord and master, especially concerning his salvation. He wants to keep his future in his own hands rather than being dependent on God for it. He agrees with Hutten that the fundamental human motive behind the cults’ protest against the church is this. Hoekema (1963:380-382) then gives examples such as the Mormons and Christian Science, which unashamedly reject the doctrine of “by grace alone.” The Mormons see this doctrine as the cause of the “apostasy” of the church. According to them, every person’s position in eternity is judged according to their own deeds. The Christian Scientists, on the other hand, believe that one obtains salvation from sin by ceasing to sin or by ceasing to believe that there is such a thing as sin. Again, the solution lies in what humans achieve, not in the grace of God. Hoekema then points out that cults, through their works-righteousness and their consequent rejection of the “sola gratia” principle, are diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Bible, as found, for example, in Romans 11:6, Galatians 5:4, and Titus 3:5-7. Perhaps the way in which cults have gained absolute control over their members’ salvation can best be summarized with the proverb: “They make a mountain out of a molehill.” Hoekema (1963:375-376) says that cults typically take something peripheral and give it much more prominence than it deserves, while important matters take a back seat. The result is that these peripheral issues that should be minor come to dominate the cults’ teachings and thus skew their beliefs.
MANAGEMENT OF SCRIPTURE INTERPRETATION:
What stands out in many cults is that it seems like they know the Bible and take its study seriously. Members of the so-called “Israel Vision” and the “World Wide Church of God” by Herbert Armstrong (who publishes the well-known “Plain Truth”) can spend hours flipping through the Bible from one genealogy to another to prove that only pure-blooded Israelites (including the so-called ten lost tribes) can inherit eternal life. The Old and New Apostles can bring you to verses that show the power that God gave to the apostles. The Jehovah’s Witnesses can take you from one verse to another in an attempt to prove that Jesus is a creature and not truly God. This way of handling the Bible creates the impression among the people they speak to that these cult members truly “know the Bible.” What they don’t realize is that people don’t truly know the Bible so well, but rather their organization’s defense of their false positions from the Bible. There’s an expression in Afrikaans that says, “Every heretic has his letter” – meaning every false doctrine has its Bible verses it wants to use to support its case.
Quoting someone out of context is unethical. Quoting God out of context is blasphemous. Therefore, a basic requirement for interpreting the Bible is that texts must be read in the context in which they are found, in conjunction with all the other passages in the Bible that deal with the same issue, and with consideration of the genre (one reads poetic material like the Psalms differently from historical material like the Gospels). Watters (Nov-Dec. 1986:1) says that it is typical of cults that they want to “simplify” the Bible to make its message more understandable for the rational person. This allows them to disregard anything that doesn’t align with their thinking. Part of this is to ignore apparent paradoxes or antinomies in Scripture by accepting one part of it and rejecting the other. For example, the deity of Jesus might be rejected to make His humanity more acceptable, or vice versa. The more understandable love of God may make the existence of hell impossible for them. Here, one can also add that the Old Testament description of Israel as the people of God is carried through to today at the expense of the broader meaning it acquired in New Testament times, and so on. Watters further points out that the cults create a different basis for interpreting the Bible. The basic method of Scripture interpretation based on grammar, the ongoing historical line, and context is rejected because it would lead them to the same conclusions as Christianity. The solution is to change their members’ way of looking at the Bible. Outside-Biblical revelations are then provided by the leaders of the cults, who shed “new light” on the interpretation of Biblical truths. Rarely is any indication given of a consistent method of interpreting the Bible. Each cult leader believes that he (or they) is God’s communication channel to humanity and what he proclaims IS absolutely the “truth.”
Martin (1968:33) rightly states that the so-called “new insights” of the cults are nothing more than old heresy with new faces. These are presented under the “divine” authority of leaders like Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, Herbert W. Armstrong, Pastor Russell, Rajneesh, Maharaj Ji, L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, Swami Prabhupada (founder of Hare Krishnas), and so on. This authority they have is attributed to a personal revelation from a divine person or a personal appointment or appointment by a deity (Martin, 1980:17-18). Tucker (1989:12) suggests that this is one of the essential differences between Christians and the so-called Christian (but essentially anti-Christian) cults. Christian churches will accept the doctrines of their predecessors like Luther, Calvin, or Wesley, only insofar as they align with the Bible. These people also didn’t claim outside-Biblical revelations or authoritative writings from their pens. In contrast, cult leaders (in defiance of Revelation 22:18-19) claim special revelations from God. Tucker then refers to Joseph Smith as an example who based a significant portion of Mormon doctrines (including the entire Book of Mormon) on special revelations to him. It is precisely the so-called appearance of divine figures to him that his followers see as evidence of these extra revelations.
Martin (1980:19) points out that most cult leaders have had little or no theological education. Werner Erhard (of “est” and “The Forum”) worked to sell used cars and encyclopedias; Carl Stevens (of “The Bible Speaks”) was a truck driver for a bakery; L. Ron Hubbard (of “Scientology”) was a science fiction writer; and someone like Victor Paul Weirwille (of “The Way International”) obtained his Ph.D. degree in theology through a mail-order degree provider. To compensate for the lack of scientific background of their leaders, many cults tend to seek recognized scientists who appear to agree with them on some point. These people are often quoted out of context or even incorrectly to convince members that their teachings are scientifically sound. Watters (Nov-Dec. 1986:2-3) calls this “the scholastic dishonesty of the cult.” When cult leaders are accused of making interpretive mistakes, such as misunderstanding biblical language or getting their historical facts wrong (like the date of the fall of Jerusalem, which the Jehovah’s Witnesses base their calculations of 1914 on), they will typically ignore these accusations (or label them as slander).
When enough debate arises on the issue, they are forced to provide an acceptable response to their members. They do this either by misrepresenting the issue at hand – creating a strawman argument that can be easily torn down – or by searching for well-known scholars who agree with them on a particular point. Since they usually fail in this regard as well, they turn to liberal or eccentric thinkers and pretend that they are respected experts. When real experts are cited, their statements are often quoted only partially and out of context. In this way, they often get away with it because few scholars have the time, money, or inclination to engage in a legal battle over the matter. Members of cults readily accept all these “evidences.” They are also not supposed to study the books of these scholars. Hassan (1988:98-99) suggests that most leaders of cults believe that they are sent by God or are divine themselves. Many of these leaders present themselves as recognizing God and the Bible as authority above themselves; HOWEVER, THEY USE THEIR INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE AND GOD’S WILL to manipulate and control their followers. The cults do not have a specific method of interpretation. Veldhuizen (1980:18-19) points out that the Bible is often used by these groups in a bibliistic and fundamentalist manner. By this, he means that the Bible is read and studied by them without considering the context of the texts, the unique style and intent of the biblical writers, the time of origin of a particular biblical book, the historical background, and so on. For fundamentalists, the language of the Book of Revelation, for example, is the same as that of the Book of Genesis or Exodus or Psalms. He then points out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses take the number 144,000 in Revelation literally
. One can add here that they use verses from Ecclesiastes to argue that there is no existence after death, without considering that the Preacher looks at things from the perspective of man without God (seen “under the sun”) and signifies the futility of such a view of the world. Veldhuizen says that this bibliistic and fundamentalist method of interpretation appears biblical, but it’s not because it doesn’t do justice to the purpose of Scripture. It takes God out of context.
Yet, the cults don’t stick to these methods of interpretation. When it suits them, for example, in their calculations about the end of the world or the return of Christ, they’ll say that “one day” shouldn’t be taken literally but is a description of a thousand years, and so on. They use the interpretive method (or lack thereof) that fits their doctrines. How a matter or text should be interpreted depends on how the organization explains it in their publications. Watters (Nov-Dec. 1986:2) rightly says that the publications of the cults are their methods of interpretation. The interpretations a cult provides today may differ from what was considered absolute truth in the past. For example, at one point, The Watchtower taught that “vaccination is a flagrant violation of the eternal law of God,” but later described vaccination as something good. Watters (Nov-Dec. 1986:2) states that cults attribute their doctrinal changes to God progressively revealing everything to them. Accusations that they made doctrinal changes are answered by saying that they were just “clarifications” of matters. In all of this, it’s important to realize that a characteristic of cults is that they all have AUTHORITATIVE LITERATURE that supplements or replaces the Bible as the Word of God.
Hoekema (1963:378-379) cites the “extra-Biblical authority source” as the very first and outstanding characteristic of a cult. He then refers to the “Swedenborgians” who stand with the Bible in one hand and one of Swedenborg’s books in the other. He, along with Hutten, concludes that all cults have an additional book or books alongside the Bible. He also refers to the Mormons, for whom the Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price carry more authority than the Bible. Although the “Christian Scientists” read from the Bible during their Sunday services, it’s Eddy’s book, “Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures,” that provides the authoritative interpretation. He also points to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim that only the Bible is authoritative, but simultaneously state that it may only be understood as their leaders interpret it in their publications. In contrast, the Bible (in Martin’s words, 1980:15) is the final arbiter for Christianity against the challenges of the cults.
The Bible teaches us that certain articles of the Christian faith are essential for our salvation, namely:
– The nature and essence of God.
– The person and work of Christ.
– His sacrificial death on the cross and bodily resurrection.
– Man’s sinful nature and the way to salvation.
– Christ’s ultimate return and eternal life.
The cults offer their own human explanations for all these matters and try to make the Bible puppet their ideas. By “controlling” the interpretation of the Bible, cults convince their members that only they are truly “God’s Organization.”
CONTROL OF DOCTRINES:
It is logical for any religious organization to have control over its doctrines. People need to know what is being taught and what it is based on. The difference between Christian churches and so-called Christian cults lies in the source of authority. For churches, the Bible has the highest authority, so everything that is taught is continually measured against it. In contrast, cults subordinate the authority of the Bible to the “new light” that their leaders have received regarding certain doctrines and their “explanation” from Scripture. Strictly speaking, churches do not control their doctrines; it is merely a summary of what the Scripture says and must be constantly tested against it. However, cults control their doctrines so completely that they can change them as they wish and then claim that it is part of God’s ongoing revelation. In churches, critical examination of doctrines based on what the Scripture says is possible. In cults, members are not allowed to question the doctrines because they are considered revelations from God.
Lifton (1961:427-429) describes the absolute control that cults exercise over their doctrines with the term “sacred science.” The totalistic community exudes an aura of sanctity around its basic doctrines, especially in the case of religious cults that consider their doctrines to be revealed by God Himself. This sanctity is evident in the prohibition of members from questioning the basic doctrines, the reverence they must have for their leaders as channels of God, and the scriptures in which the teachings are laid out. It is not taught that man is God, but rather that his ideas are God’s. Alongside sanctity, cults claim that their doctrines are absolutely logical and worked out with scientific precision. Any opposition to the doctrines is considered not only immoral but also illogical. This provides not only security and peace of mind but also hinders members from seeking more knowledge. In the name of scientific accuracy, members are prevented from gathering all relevant data about a doctrine, as a true scientist would. Part of this “unscientific” approach is that cult members, according to Hassan (1988:78-79), are also not allowed to view their doctrines as theories or as a way to interpret reality. For the cult member, the doctrine is reality. Some groups even go so far as to teach that the entire material world is an illusion, and that all thoughts, desires, and actions (except those prescribed by the cults) do not really exist. The most effective doctrines are those that are not evaluable or verifiable. Because the doctrines are considered absolute and incontrovertible “truth,” anything that appears illogical or inconsistent is seen as a result of the member’s own lack of understanding. Members are expected to work hard to understand it.
When cults are compelled to make changes to their doctrines, they present them as “new light” or “ongoing revelations.” This is not seen by members as a result of critical, intrusive discussion but rather as coming from a supernatural source. God is believed to ensure the “correctness” of the cults’ doctrines; members do not need to worry about this. Furthermore, it has already been pointed out that the “new light” on doctrines in cults is not genuinely new but old heresies with new faces. An important characteristic of cults is that they pretend to be Christian while differing from basic Christian doctrines. To determine whether a group is a “pseudo-Christian” cult, its doctrines must be examined thoroughly. To establish the basic Christian doctrines against which so-called cult groups can be measured, it is not so simple. Probably the best approach is to rely on the doctrines contained in the earliest creeds of the Christian Church, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. To determine if a group is genuinely Christian, one must, according to Martin (1980:15), at least believe in the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and the equality of the three Persons as one God.
Tucker (1989:400-406) agrees with Martin’s perspective. To distinguish whether a group is truly Christian, one should examine their doctrines concerning:
– Their beliefs about God: Do they believe in the Trinity, as well as in the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the equality of the three Persons as one God?
– Their beliefs about Christ: Do they believe that He is truly God and truly man?
– Their beliefs about humanity and sin: Do they believe that humans are created in the image of God but corrupted by the fall, making them sinners?
– Their beliefs about salvation: Do they believe that salvation occurs through Christ’s atoning work?
– Their beliefs about the church: Do they distinguish between the visible and invisible Church of God, or do they view their organization as the only true believers?
– Their beliefs about Scripture: Do they believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that nothing should be added or taken away from it?
– Their beliefs about eschatology: Do they believe that Jesus Christ will return visibly for judgment (no reincarnation) and that the time for this event is unknown (no date-setting or prophesying)?
Tucker then rightly points out that the above are basic Christian doctrines based on Scripture, which are seen as fundamental by all three branches of Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox). Over the centuries, various church councils, creeds, and the works of great theologians have established the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. What is striking is that there has been unanimity on basic Christian doctrine over these centuries, so cults and alternative religions are, in most cases, easily recognized as outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. The confusion that cults have brought into some circles today can be eliminated by paying attention to similar debates that have taken place in the past regarding heretics and the fundamental truths of Scripture that have consistently been affirmed.
Martin (1980:1) succinctly addresses the control that cults exercise over their doctrines with the words: “They take biblical Christianity and change it into a clever counterfeit of the real thing.” Therefore, a cult is by no means Christian, no matter how it may appear on the surface. Essentially, a cult is anti-Christian.
CONTROL OF MEMBERSHIP:
Hassan (1988:99-104) views membership as the last and most important criterion for determining whether a group is a cult or not. He divides his discussion of membership into three parts: recruitment, group retention, and the freedom to leave.
The basic characteristic of RECRUITMENT of new members in most cults, according to Hassan, is deception. Deception is not seen as wrong by cults because it is done in the best interest of these people. Thus, the group initially presents itself as “very similar” to the rest of Christianity, gradually introducing new members to the full doctrines of the cult. In this regard, it is noteworthy how the book used by Jehovah’s Witnesses for “Bible study” with potential members (“You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth”) begins with things that do not sound so strange to a Christian’s ears, such as “Eternal life is not just a dream” and “Your religion does matter.” Later, they delve into the actual teachings about the organization, with topics like “How to become a subject of God’s government,” “How to recognize the true religion,” and “God’s visible organization.” Finally, on the last page, they summarize the essence of everything they have said: “You must be a
part of Jehovah’s organization and do God’s will to receive eternal life” (1982:255). Hassan (1988:41-44) describes how cults recruit people to achieve as much success as possible. Contrary to common belief, cults prefer to recruit intelligent, talented, and successful individuals – people who can, in turn, become effective persuaders and sellers of their cult to others. These “salespeople” are well trained in how to present only the best aspects of the organization to others, hide their negative feelings and disapproval, and always have a smile ready to make them appear happy.
What is noticeable about members of various cults is that they are well-trained in persuasive communication. They usually know how to assess their “prey,” engage them, and make them feel good. Hassan says that the Moonies are specifically trained to handle people of different personality types differently. They categorize people into thinkers, feelers, doers, and believers. Thinkers are approached intellectually, feelers with love and interest, doers with the work the cult is doing to make the world a better place, and believers are approached to believe that God placed this cult member on their path. Contrary to what one might think, most people do not fall into the “believers” category but rather into the “feelers” and “doers” categories. Hassan also points out that the average person doesn’t stand a chance against the well-developed approach of cults. People don’t truly realize that this “gifted person” is plotting an attack on their entire existence. Moreover, people believe “this won’t happen to me.” It is precisely this weakness, the belief that they are in control of their lives and won’t fall for anything wrong, that cult members exploit in recruiting people. In this regard, we can add that people, for example, may begin a “Bible study” with Jehovah’s Witnesses, believing that they won’t be convinced by these people (see case studies). Furthermore, no one thinks as they think, but needs such as love, friendship, attention, acceptance, and so on play an important role in our lives.
The second matter that Hassan addresses among the typical features of cult membership is GROUP RETENTION. This is achieved by organizing cult activities in such a way that they harm the new member’s family and friendship relationships. As long as friends and family are potential targets (“raw meat” is the term used by the Church of Scientology), newcomers may spend time with them in order to work on them. However, if they indicate that they will never join and express concern about their involvement, the new member is discouraged by their cult leaders from spending more time with the “unbelievers.” Cults cannot tolerate opposition. New members must learn that those who do not agree with them are the enemy.
Martin (1980:18) points out in this context that cults have strict standards for membership that a person must meet to be a member. Those who dare to deviate from what is expected of them by their cult are immediately confronted, and if things do not change very soon, they are suspended – along with all the soul-searching and social problems that this brings to the former member. The third typical feature of cult membership concerns the LACK OF FREEDOM TO LEAVE.
People are free to join a cult but not free to leave. In the eyes of cults, there is no legitimate reason to leave. Therefore, members who leave are usually suspended because leaving is a “sin” that requires the severest punishment: suspension from “God’s organization.” While some groups simply forbid their members from contacting former members and smear them greatly, in other cult groups, there are examples of physical persecution of former members. Hassan refers to a few such incidents, such as a former member of the Hare Krishnas, Stephen Bryant, who was shot and killed by a member of the group under the orders of one of the cult’s leaders after his departure. Watters (Nov-Dec 1986:2) points out the high price that someone must pay for leaving a cult, as it involves losing both spiritual and literal family members who are still in the cult. This happens because cults prohibit their members from speaking to former members. A member who does keep in contact with former members is also in danger of being expelled. In addition to losing the circle of friends they built in the cult, Martin (1980:18) notes that a person who leaves also loses his “purpose in life” and “sense of meaningfulness,” as well as the “approval” of God. From this, we can conclude that if such a former member is not drawn into another interested community (such as the community of a Christian church), the lack of friends and a sense of purpose can lead the person to return to the cult – and probably never dare to try to leave again.
Watters (Nov-Dec 1986:3) highlights the terrible truth that a cult, which may have been persecuted and smeared in its early days, later becomes a persecutor itself. Where they were a group that broke away from Christianity in the beginning, they are later the ones from whom many others are breaking away. Because their members are their source of power and income, they cannot tolerate this – hence, they even instruct their members to hate those who leave and not even greet them, but to avoid them as much as possible. While smaller emerging cults may not be too strict with their members, Watters (Nov-Dec 1986:7-8) points out that Jehovah’s Witnesses today prefer to expel anyone from the organization (even their top leaders like Raymond Franz) if the person says things in public or private that conflict with the organization’s teachings. This means that there is a considerable turnover of members in Jehovah’s Witnesses, as in most other cults. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses make up for those who leave through new members recruited by their door-to-door activities and who can be drawn in by these friendly people pretending to be “in the truth.” The sadness is that those who do manage to leave cults often carry many aftereffects. Swanepoel (1991:81) points out that people who leave cults often “believe in nothing anymore.” Watters (Nov-Dec 1986:3) speaks of “the silent victims.” Few things are as heartbreaking as someone who has wasted X number of years of their time and energy in a false religion. Watters then points out that this often makes former members very suspicious of all religions. For many years, they received only malicious information about all other religions. Now it is extremely difficult to trust any of them again. Moreover, they fear becoming a slave again, that the church will also control their lives as the cult did.
HOW DO I RESPOND TO SOMEONE FROM A CULT?
We must remember that there are certain similarities between the True Church and cults. They are aware of these similarities and will seek to exploit them to try to persuade others to their faith.
The first Christian church was initially seen as a cult by the Jews because they followed one Man; they were also seen as a “secret” church because they hid from persecution. Furthermore, the Christian Scriptures were not seen as canon. The New Testament is still not recognized as part of the Jewish canon. Like members of cults, Christians were also very dedicated and gathered in groups with prayer. The first church was also fiercely persecuted and denounced as “heretics.” Cults experience the same opposition.
This raises the following questions:
Who says these cults are not the beginning of the true church again? Didn’t the “old” churches also decline as the Jewish churches declined? Why can we say that the cults are wrong? Where does one get the right to judge someone else? Should one oppose someone who also works for the Lord?
We give the following answer:
No one can take the place of Jesus Christ. He is God, the incarnate Word who has accomplished perfect reconciliation for all our sins. Nowhere is there any indication that He will appear again before His second coming. On the contrary, the Bible teaches us that the Antichrist will rise and present himself as Christ. In the true church, it is about the pure ministry of God’s Word. Sola scriptura. No individual, church, or organization can have any interpretation of Scripture. Scriptural authority lies in Scripture. The whole Scripture. Sacraments must be administered purely. Discipline must be administered purely. We must not allow man to promote the work of the Antichrist.
What do we learn from cults?
Their dedication is surely one of their strongest points. They spare no effort, time, or energy to propagate what they believe. We, who have the full grace of God, must do the same. Study the dogma and proclaim it! Their mutual love, koinonia, is something we could have more of. Although their motives for this community are not always clear, it is one of the aspects they use to make themselves more attractive to members of the “dead” churches. Perhaps we tolerate each other – but do we really love each other so much that we are willing to live with everyone? We must not doubt our own dogma. We must conduct a thorough study of our own dogma so that we not only know WHAT we teach but also WHY we teach it and what the Scriptural grounds for the dogma are. We must also know exactly what the place of dogma in the church is in order to be able to answer their misconception of the church. This urges us to better Scriptural knowledge. Most people think that cults have very good knowledge of Scripture. However, one must know from Scripture the full counsel and all aspects of God’s work of salvation to provide an answer. Their seriousness with evangelization makes us stand in the shadow of cults. We see their zeal, but we are not willing to do something similar ourselves. As a result, more and more people listen to their preaching, and the true church is disgraced because it is not doing its work.
Attitude towards cults
1 Peter 3:15: Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who demands an explanation of the hope that is in you. Few of them have the certainty of Biblical hope. If they stray, they are lost. We know our Savior lives. In the light of Heidelberg Catechism Sunday 33, always flee from sin and Satan, straight into the arms of our heavenly Father.
Do not be hostile. Do not slam the door in their face. They are taught that encountering resistance is a sign that Satan is at work in this house. It is, in fact, confirmation of the “truth” they believe. Do not argue with hatred. They perceive this resistance as the same as above and only become more convinced that they are right. Furthermore, you won’t make much progress with logical arguments because they experience their religion with so much emotion. Do not say that they are wrong. They have been taught that their own dogma is the truth based on the Word of God. Present to them the real message of the Bible – that’s what they need to hear. Do not be anxious. Then you are the easiest prey imaginable. They will focus all their energy on you until you eventually give in. You have the truth of God’s word. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. You cannot tackle them alone. Ask intelligent questions and provide intelligent answers.
Show the gift of patience: Even if their reasoning makes no sense and their arguments sound silly – they are convinced of their cause. You are also convinced of your cause. Impatience has no place in the conversation because it emphasizes your own inability. Show understanding for their interpretation of Scripture. They don’t really realize what their mistake is and must be approached very subtly to see the error. Remember that their doctrines are as important to them as our confessions are to us. Just as we feel when they criticize it, they feel the same when we say their confessions are wrong. By proclaiming to them the true love of Christ and acting in this way, you attract them more than with many words. The love of the cults binds, the love of Christ sets free. If this love can be presented to them without them feeling threatened, it will become more attractive to them, and they may come to see their own mistakes.
1 The English term “sect” is translated as “sekte” in Afrikaans, and “occult” as “okkulte.” To avoid confusion with other meanings of the word “kultus,” which is sometimes used to translate the word “cult,” it is better to simply add an “-e” to “cult” to make it “kulte” (similar to how “sect” becomes “sektes” in the plural form).
2 That others also perceive this problem is evident in the translated version of Dr. Walter Martin’s book, “The New Age Cult.” Struik published this book in Afrikaans (1989) under the title “Die Nuwe Era Kultus.”
3 This is not accurate. Calvin emphasized that the Holy Scripture is its own interpreter. It is, therefore, about the Bible – that is, God’s interpretation of the Bible.
4 This was repeatedly the reaction of South African individuals who left the Jehovah’s Witnesses (compare case studies).
5 Through their own leader, the Jehovah’s Witnesses can be typified as “anti-Christians.”
6 This is also the reason why groups that proclaim a salvation by works, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have trouble determining which Christian denomination is the “right” one to join.
7 Nevertheless, groups that preach a salvation by works, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, also acknowledge that “a person does not earn salvation through his works” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985:347). In this context, also consider what Hoekema says (1963:279-285 & 381).
8 Evangelism is, of course, very important for Christian churches as well. However, its purpose is not to “recruit members” but to bring people to salvation in Christ. Also, the eternal life of the members does not depend on whether they engage in evangelism, but on their partaking in Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.
9 The Jehovah’s Witnesses do provide certain guidelines for the translation of the Bible but do not adhere to them when it does not suit them, as will be shown later.
10 In this regard, consider the entire chapter that Barnard (1971:14-19) dedicates to the “old errors” presented as new and wonderful “discoveries” by cults.
11 One can clearly see the “scientific superiority” when, in a conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you say you believe in the Trinity, and they laugh superiorly at you and wink at each other – as if you had told them you believe in the tooth fairy or that the earth is flat.
12 Van Baalen (1975:379-388) delves into the basics of Christian doctrine compared to what groups like cults teach. He also concludes that if the confessions of different Christian denominations are examined, a remarkable agreement is found among them regarding the basic teachings of Christianity.
13 When walking around the headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Africa, Bethel, it is striking how everyone smiles at you and looks happy.
14 Hassan points out that cults expect their members to spy on each other and immediately report anything that another member says or does that goes against the organization’s rules – even if it involves household family members (1988:65).