There are words Christians use from time to time that are spoken with an intended outcome. These words seem to have lost their original meaning, for some using them appear to not know what they actually mean. They may however, in a highly redacted or christianese sense understand their general usage. Two such words are cult and heretic.
They are not difficult words, but yet are thrown around haphazardly and slapped as labels on anything/anyone deemed appropriate by “someone”. Has anyone stopped to question what is actually being communicated; is there perhaps a greater purpose with their use than just the definitions themselves? Said another way, could it be that these words have become the agents of threat and/or scare tactics? Who wants to be a participant in a “cult” or be labeled as a “heretic”? In that case, you had better “walk a straight line”, and not deviate from the “truth”. What is truth? That which Orthodox Church dogmatism and history has delivered? Which brand? What era? Which leader? Everyone is a heretic to someone else. The only one to whom it matters if you are a heretic is God. But of course in that logic, those who are against us (in our own mind), are also against God; God despises all those we do, because we are in the right, the bearers of truth. Every group thinks they are right, and quite Biblically so. When you are convinced that “one group” or “leader” has it together and judge all others by those standards, you have been “set-up”.
It was my pleasure to make the acquaintance of a “gentleman” this year who has not only studied this subject in great detail, but has also walked it as a habitual and howbeit painful path in the past years. He is an English chap named Raymond Faircloth. I attended a conference where he was one of the speakers. His entire talk revolved around the aspects of a cult; this bloke knows cult more than most, and for good reason. He was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 36 years, even in leadership as an elder and ministerial student.
During his time among the JWs, he would at times come across doctrinal issues which he filed subtly in the back of his mind (also for which he had good reason). Raymond noticed that the Watchtower Society (the formal title of the JWs) was increasingly gaining more control over the people and that loyalty to “God's organization” was more adamantly being emphasized whereas loyalty to Jesus was not spoken of at all. Because of events that transpired with his separation from this group, Ray has suffered greatly. Two of his three daughters no longer speak to him (JWs practice an extreme form of shunning, like so many other groups); he is not even welcome to know his grandchildren etc. I will not recount his entire story here, but to those interested it may be found here or in this podcast part 1 and part 2.
There are those of whom I have encountered and observed first-hand (I am not referring to a merely stereotypical group, nor am I alluding to one or two distinct people/groups) who are under the distinct impression - by their use of it - that cult refers to some small, large or obscure group of people who have a strange belief system (differing from their own, e.g. Rosicrucianism is a cult or snake handling Baptists are cultish). I had honestly never given this much consideration. This was helpful to me. What’s more, many who are quick to point and scream “cult” are unknowingly participating in organizations/institutions “cult” more accurately depicts.
Just because a group of people may have a belief system outside that which you can condone does not make them a “cult”. Because someone’s doctrinal allegiance (or lack thereof) is something you or your specific brand of Christianity maintains to be blasphemous and erroneous does not make them heretics in the sight of God on those premises alone. You of course, have your little stack of verses that you feel adequately and sufficiently provides evidence for your point of view (which you may even feel reflects historical reality), but guess what, your “opponents” have their stack of verses as well. Their stack may even be higher than yours. Would that matter; would it persuade you? Probably not, because most of the time, it’s not about truth, but rather pride and control. It’s always been about control.
The following content is the result of much research and personal experience of Mr. Faircloth:
“The dictionary definitions for the word “cult” are quite broad, and show that not all cults have bad effects on their members. However, there comes a point where a ‘denomination’ may move to an extreme position and so becomes an extreme cult. This kind of cult really does damage its membership psychologically, socially and perhaps even physically. On this The Oxford English Dictionary gives us an additional dimension to the word ‘cult’ ‘as imposing excessive control over members.’ The two main researchers on mind-control in religious organizations are Robert Lifton and Steve Hassan…Steve Hassan in his book Releasing the Bonds, explains what is called The Bite Model which shows the way cults operate. These consist in broad terms of:
1. Behavior Control; ‘the essence of mind control is that it encourages dependence and conformity, and discourages autonomy and individually…[it seeks] to undermine an individual’s integrity in making his own decisions’ ~ Steve Hassan.
2. Information Control;
A. Use of deception
1. Deliberate withholding of information
2. Distorting of information by misquotations to lead to the ‘correct’ conclusions.
B. Access to non-organization sources of religious information is strongly discouraged.
1. Books, magazines, articles, radio, TV and internet.
2. Discussion with former members.
C. Propaganda – propaganda differs from education inasmuch as the propagandist attempts to make the person reach the propagandist’s conclusions, but discourages any research into the relevant subject. The worst of propagandists use unethical tactics so as to mislead people with half truths and a withholding of relevant information [I have personally observed this phenomenon with leaders in the area’s dealings with their congregants in order to maintain]…also the use of stereotypes.
3. Thought Control; the shutting down of ‘reality testing’ by the stopping of negative thoughts through, denial, rationalization, or justification. The rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, or any constructive criticism.
4. Emotional Control
A. By the use of ‘loaded language’. These are special words, phrases or clichés used as an appeal to the emotions [such terms as heretic, blasphemy or cult]. These terms have strong emotional implications for the members.
B. By the use of Guilt e.g. not living up to what is expected.
C. By the use of unreasonable fears (phobias):
1. Fear of thinking independently.
2. Fear of the ‘outside world’
3. Fear of losing one’s salvation
4. Fear that one could never be happy outside the group
The following list…shows how these four aspects of control are evident in extreme religious cults according to the experts on this subject:1. The leadership of the group/cult view the group as superior to all other groups, makes claims of being the only channel of communication between God and mankind, and having unique knowledge that makes them special. Phrases like ‘the one true church’, or ‘God’s only true organization’ are used.
2. There is an ‘Us-vs.-them’ mentality, so that no outside group is recognized as godly or having any real value. But the group’s members are made to feel elite – because they are told, either that they have been specially chosen by God for future eternal life, or they know more about the Bible than anyone else does. [e.g. John MacArthur’s words in relation to the Charismatic movement - “If reformed leaders who know the Word of God don't police this movement, the spiritual terrorists will dominate.” JM at the Strange Fire Conference 10/18/13]
3. Often with a smile, the leadership tends to be actually authoritarian, control-oriented, and very demanding – requiring rigid lifestyles and with overwhelming service requirements, but at the same time making itself appear to be reasonable.
4. The rank and file members are required to render absolute obedience to their superiors. They must trust the group leaders absolutely, rather than using their own mental abilities. So the focus is on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority so that members are forbidden to think negative thoughts about the group or its leadership.
5. The doctrines of the group form the basis of all thought, feeling, and action and are proclaimed to be ‘the truth’.
6. At times significant doctrine may be changed by the leadership to fit the needs of their varying situations; yet it is still the ‘truth’ and members must conform to these doctrines of the group even if they don’t agree with them or even understand them.
7. Members must project a facade of happiness, although some members can actually be emotionally ‘in pain,’ because they are hiding their real feelings of disagreement with the religious organization.
8. There is a steady loss of focus on God or Jesus, with a refocusing on the church or organization and its rules.
9. Independent thinking about biblical doctrines or the group’s policies is forbidden to the rank and file members, and so there is no allowance for any different interpretation of or deviation from even minor points of doctrine. This fosters an unhealthy dependence in the church organization.
10. There is a closed communication system: information is viewed as only valid if it comes from the top of the religious organization. So all other religious information, and even secular education are often viewed as damaging to the members or unnecessary.
11. The leaders emphasize that any waver of support for the organization or church is evidence of a wavering of one’s faith in God, so that one is viewed as spiritually weak. The members must believe that the group is always right, even if it contradicts itself in major ways.
12. The leadership causes the members to become extremely dependant on it for spiritual support: thereby creating a sense of powerlessness in its members and a dread of losing the group’s support.
13. Members are kept extremely busy with indoctrinating material to read and duties to perform, so that more and more time is spent under the direction of the group leadership.
14. The group often uses guilt, shame, fear and scare tactics; to control and motivate its members.
15. Disagreement with the leadership, or doubts about its teachings are always seen as the fault of the member, due to the member’s lack of faith in the organization.
16. Members are indoctrinated with the belief that there is never a legitimate reason for leaving the group and that if they do ever leave they will never find biblical truth elsewhere; they are misled into thinking that the only safety is within their religious organization.
17. If ever a member leaves the group, the love that was formerly shown to them turns into anger, hatred, and ridicule [isn’t that the truth, although is often dubbed “tough love” or “we love you enough to…”]. So leaving the religious system is often painful, difficult, and with total loss of friends and family.
18. Friendships in the group tend to be shallow; the only real allegiance is to the leader/leadership.
Those who do not conform to the group’s doctrinal and policy requirements finally will be expelled, and current members are forbidden to have contact with the former members, especially if they were expelled from the group.”