1. The leadership is opposed to critical thinking or independent behavior
(if you’re not with us, you’re against us)
The greatest threat to power are followers who have the will to follow their own thoughts and instincts. In order for a cult leader to have the ability to keep a grip on the cult he or she must be able to disseminate instructions without being questioned. In many cults any type of questioning of authority gets presented as the questioner being possessed by demons or that they are purposefully trying to cause division. This drastic method is taken against the free thinker because the entire basis of having a cult requires followers who are willing to do just about anything for the leadership. Without this power, the “group think” can slowly drift away from the leader and the group could completely leave as a whole. This is often how cults start to begin with, group think.
Group think is a psychological phenomenon where people who are part of a group tend to come to agreement on issues in order to prevent conflict or cause a stir. Group think is powerful in cults because most cult members feel as though the cult is where they find meaning or belonging. As a result, one is willing to go with the will of the group in order to prevent being seen as a dissenter of the group. Due to this phenomenon, it is important that independent thinkers are isolated so that the group does not adopt thoughts of someone deemed evil by the cult leadership.
As we move on you will see that some of the following points reinforce this first point.
2. Presenting the cult/church as a family or your place to belong
One thing that all humans need is a place to belong or to feel at home. We desire to be loved and to be understood. We desire to bond with other humans and to find people that we can share life with. For many this is our immediate family or people that we connect with in school or even work. However, this can also be our church. There is a bit of a blurry line between a church and a cult when it comes to feeling like you belong. A church says “you have a place to belong here.” A cult says “your only place to belong is here.” See the difference?
One sign that your church is actually a cult is if they present themselves as the only place you can go to get your needs met. All other churches are sub-par. No other place can make you feel at home like the cult does. They want you to feel as though you are loosing a family if you leave. This is how many of the cults in the 60’s and 70’s presented themselves. The Manson family was one such cult. Another was the Jesus People. There are still cults today that include the term family in their names. While use of family terminology is not a sign by itself that your church is a cult, it should be a red flag at least.
3. Elevation of leader to unrealistic standards
For some people the attraction to a cult is not the members but the leader. This was the case of a testimony I recently heard concerning the cult at Ernest Angley’s Grace Cathedral. This member packed up his bags at 19 and moved from SC to Ohio just to be a part of this church where he thought the leader was the most pure and disciplined leader in all the churches. This type of thinking is common. Many people want to follow someone that they can trust, or someone that they can look up to. Sadly, this admiration can quickly turn into an unhealthy view of the leader, where the leader can be placed on such a high pedestal that no once can ever touch them.
Once a leader has followers who believe that they are untouchable, then members dare not question the judgment of that leader. No one wants to go toe to toe with a leader that people view as prophetic or other-worldly. Moreover, once a cult leader can obtain this status it will be difficult for any outside information to affect the people. Anything that contradicts the leader of the cult is viewed an uninformed or evil. The leader alone has the right answers and the solutions to all the problems that ail them.
Before long, the leader is freely given control over people’s lives so that the divine wisdom of the leader can lead and guide their lives in a way that they cannot do themselves, or at least in a way that they believe cannot be lived or accomplished themselves.
4. Leader has alternate rules, opposed to what is expected of the congregation
(do as I say, not as I do)
Once a leader is given a divine status or even a slightly elevated status it will become an excuse for them to live by an alternative set of rules. For example, if you have a church rule that men cannot be alone with women but for some reason the male pastor always is. It is assumed that the leader is exempt from this rule because somehow they are more capable of resisting temptation or that whatever happens must be ordained by God because the leader is God’s prophet. Another common instance of this issue is if the congregation is encouraged to remain single or celibate but the leader is not. The rules are also usually rigged in such a way that it benefits the leader, not the members.
If the church has any type of rules that are rejected by the leader then those rules are in place to control your behavior, not because it’s God’s will. The rules are needed to have a dividing line between who’s in and who’s out. To make people understand that a loyal follower has certain marks to make them worthy of being in the group. The rules are not there to instruct people in the way of godliness.
5. Demonization of anyone opposed to the rules or the leader
If you have a group that you wish to exert control over, you need rules and those rule have consequences. Failure to maintain the rules needs to be addressed by either punishment or public humiliation. The preferred way for cult leaders to enforce the rule is to make an example out of anyone who breaks the rules, opposes any rule, or questions the leader. The congregation will see that they are safe from the wrath of the leadership as long as they follow the rules. Anyone outside of the rules can find themselves kicked out of the cult and facing all kinds of slander.
6. Expectation of an abnormal amount time spent doing church related activities
There is an old saying about idle time;
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece. (Proverbs 17:27)
If your leader or church is really a cult, you having idle time can be a problem. Idle time gives people an opportunity to do things that are not church related. It gives people an opportunity to go into their own thoughts or their own desires. This is dangerous to the cult because they want outside influence and thinking to be just that; outside. This tactic has one purpose in mind; keeping people from outside influences and assist in the indoctrination.
The indoctrination occurs when a person spends so much of their time with a group that they being to think and behave like the rest of the group. Forcing the members of the cult to spend all their time only with the cult reinforces group think and prevents independent thought.
7. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
Church goers want to sit under a teacher that has all the answers. They want to believe that their leader is smarter and wiser than the others. One way to provide this false perspective is to have special doctrines that are outside of mainstream teaching. The idea is to convince the congregation that they can only get the true teachings of Christ by attending the cult teachings. Every other church is still in darkness.
Once a congregation is comfortable with a leader that bucks the mainstream teaching, the leader can now easily introduce progressively more extreme doctrines. It always starts out small but eventually it moves into new “special revelations” from God. Revelations that no one else has. These special revelations are usually just a mechanism to move the congregation further into the control of the leader.
8. A constant emphasis on the end times
The vast majority of cults have an especially strong opinion on end times issues and they have entire systems of doctrines about the end times. While most church goers just find the end times to be an interesting topic, cult leaders use this interest to create an obsession, in order to make people “prepare” for the end times. This results in a congregation that spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about purification or wanting to live holy in order to be deemed worthy of the rapture or the resurrection at the end.
Of course the cult leader is just using this as a method of control. A congregation that is preoccupied with fear and preparing for the end times is a congregation that is too fearful and busy to venture outside the church to get alternative views.
The cult leader also needs to convince people that the only way to survive the 2nd coming is to be part of the cult. It is not just good enough to know when the world will end. The church members must be warned that failing to participate in this particular church would result in them missing out on the kingdom of God, once it comes.
Many times the cult leader will have made up titles for themselves to emphasize this feature. Here is a brief list of some you might know.
Third Eagle of the Apocalypse (William Tapley)
God’s Prophet of the End Time (Ernest Angley)
Michael [the Archangel] (Wayne Bent/Michael Travesser)
Father Divine & The Messenger (George Baker)
The Final Prophet & the Son of God, the Lamb (David Koresh)
There are many more that can be added to the list but you get the idea.
9. The use of military terms and monikers
If I asked the common person what types of descriptions come to mind when I mention the military they might respond with “respect”, “honor”, or “service”. These are great things because we want the people to respect the military. They are risking their lives for the welfare of the nation. However, cult leaders know how to use militaristic imagery to lift themselves up and to shift the congregation into a mindset of loyalty and service to the group or the leader.
In churches that use military imagery, the leader is usually the commander or some other high ranking official, with the congregants as the privates and in full service to the commander; do not be fooled. The cult leader is not trying to bring honor and respect to the church. They are trying to make sure that the members are “enlisted” into service of the leader and those who run the cult. In the military there is a chain of command and the instructions are from the top only. Privates are to be obedient to the commands. Any type of dissent or disobedience can be punished. This aspect will get emphasized in the cult.
In the cults with military thinking (like Sea Org) they emphasize also the disciplinary aspect of the military in order to enforce control, obedience, and loyalty to the cult or it’s leader. Disobedience is often punished by isolating the offending members or making them spend an extreme amount of time doing work for the church as a punishment. In addition, the members are usually chastised in front of the congregation to make the discipline more extreme.
One modern example of this type of military moniker brainwashing can be seen in the methods of David C. Pack who pastored the Restored Church of God. He gave himself the title of “Pastor General”. Other, even more serious military cults have been around but they usually do not last very long. Perhaps the most strict cult in the line of cults is the Aggressive Christian Missionary Training Corps. (ACMTC). They have an entire structure from the top down that mirrors the military and of course the leader of the cult is called General. Many Christians have been allegedly abused in this particular “ministry”.
10. An emphasis on separation from the world
Christianity is a religion that teaches we aught to not follow the ways of the world. However, “the world” is a tricky term to nail down. Cult leaders love to redefine what it means to not be part of the world. Usually they lead people to think it means anything outside of the church. By emphasizing the exclusion of the world a cult leader can get the cult members to abandon nearly anything that threatens the survival of the cult.
In many cults people have been pressed to leave their jobs, their families, and even their spouses. Obviously, this is used to isolate the church members from anything that can get in the way of the hold that the cult has on the members. This was especially true in the Jim Jones cult where members who encouraged to violence towards their families and the government.