Aki Ray, a former child-soldier in Cambodia, is now one of the world’s foremost mine-clearing experts. He walks through the jungle looking for landmines and then defuses them one by one. He’s alive because he knows what to look for in the weeds.
I couldn’t. That’s why I remained in a legalistic Bible-cult for over 25 years.
But now that I’m out of the jungle, I can better read the signs. The purpose of this series is to give you the same eight identifiers so that you never find yourself in the midst of a religious mind-field.
Can a group affirm the Bible and still be a cult?
What makes some groups destructive is not their doctrine but rather their practice. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them,” (cf. Matthew 7:15-20), and destructive groups have a way of twisting scriptures and practicing coercion which results in damaged followers. Ironically, groups like this are often intensely concerned about the fruits of salvation in their followers, yet their own fruit is rotten.
While these groups do not usually intend to coercively control the minds of their followers, that is exactly what they do. And whether intentional or not, the Bible repudiates such mental manipulation, instead calling all Christians to exercise healthy critical thinking (Acts 17:11), a renewed mind which refuses to conform to the destructive standards of this world (Romans 12:2), and to examine everything carefully (I Thess 5:21).
This is the first in an eight-part series on how to identify brainwashing in a destructive group or cult. It is based off of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s “Eight-Point Model of Thought Reform” and borrows from several other authorities on the topic of religious mind-control.*
1.) Part One: Milieu Control
2.) Part Two: Mystical Manipulation
3.) Part Three: The Demand for Purity
4.) Part Four: The Cult of Confession
5.) Part Five: The “Sacred Science”
6.) Part Six: Loading the Language
7.) Part Seven: Doctrine Over Person
8.) Part Eight: The Dispensing of Existence
*Stephen Martin’s book, The Heresy of Mind Control, and Margaret Singer’s Cults in Our Midst.
Part One: Milieu Control
The first step in controlling the mind of a person is to control his or her environment. “Milieu” is just a fancy name for environment. Cults and other destructive groups try to control members’ access to the outside world. They do this by limiting contact with two things: people and information.
1.) First, limiting contact with people. Destructive religious groups have an “us vs. them” mentality and therefore limit communication with people outside of their group. This includes friends, family members, and anyone else not wholeheartedly approving of the group or its leader(s). People outside the group are considered bad, evil, or unenlightened. The leaders discourage free-thinking dialogue. They also promote an unhealthy fear of contamination by outsiders.
Many cults encourage or require members to live communally so that leaders can control their members. Members may have to ask permission to visit family members, make a phone call to a relative, or send a letter to a friend. Leaders may ask to monitor any such conversations or demand to censor correspondence. Members are told that they are not yet wise enough or mature enough to discern between harmful and benign outside influences. Leaders discourage genuine dialogue and instead encourage one-sided proselytizing and scripted, stilted encounters with family members.
For example, in my former church we were told to distinguish between our “spiritual” family and our “natural” family, and to cut off any family member who expressed concerns about the pastor or the church. The pastor also encouraged group members to move closer to the church. Church events—scheduled to the point of exhaustion—were mandatory. In one instance, my pastor forbid me to reply to an email from my twin brother, since my brother had left our church.
Biblical passages cited to support this mentality of cutting off family members or “worldy” influences include James 4:4–“Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”; 2 Corinthians 6:14–“Do not be bound together with unbelievers”; and Luke 14:26–“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”
Biblical refutation of this point: While the Bible does call Christians to live pure lives and avoid contamination from sinful influences, the New Testament also encourages openness to outsiders (John 4:7-10, 39, 40; Acts 10; Acts 17). When the Apostle Peter closed himself off from Gentile believers (“outsiders” in Jewish terms) he was rebuked openly by Paul for his hypocrisy (cf. Gal 2:11-14). Peter accepted the rebuke and later acknowledged Paul’s wisdom as a man who even wrote scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Jesus was so connected with the local community and engaged with “sinners” that he scandalized the Pharisees (Matthew 9:11; Luke 5:30). He understood that God loves the world (John 3:16) and that he wants mercy rather than self-righteous sacrifice (Matthew 9:13).
In regard to family members, Matthew 10:37 shows that the “hate” in Luke 14:26 does not mean to truly hate family members—instead, it is a matter of preference and degree. We should love our parents and relatives, but we must love God to a greater degree. Indeed, the Pharisees tried to use biblical justification to dishonor their parents, but Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (cf. Matthew 15:15ff).
The problem is that cultists define “unbelievers” as everyone outside of their group. This is because, as Stephen Martin says, they too narrowly define “their own group as the only true believers in Jesus. The fact is, cult members will find that there are many true believers in Jesus ‘out there’ if they will just openly and honestly listen to what they say and see what they do.”
This is precisely why cult leaders try to control their members by having them cut off contact with other people. This is a symptom of milieu-control.
2.) Second, limiting information. Cults and destructive religious groups have an obsessive need to restrict “worldly” influences which they define as other religious teachings, negative news reports about the group, or any information passed on to group members by concerned family members. Leaders may prohibit group members from watching the news, getting on the Internet, reading non-religious books, or accepting any resources from people outside of the group. When news reports or family members express concern about the group, group leaders may feel a need to exhaustively discuss the reports to prove to group members why the reports are false or unbiblical. Critical thinking is discouraged, and the interpretation of the leader(s) is exalted as God’s truth on every matter.
As an example, when my former church garnered media attention due to our aberrant practices such as accusations against former members and harmful shunning, our pastor spoke from the pulpit refuting each item in detail. When relatives outside the church expressed concern through books or pamphlets, our pastor confiscated the items and used them as examples of heresy. On one occasion, my pastor made me print for him all of my email correspondence with a college friend. My pastor then read through the stack in detail, discussing with me every word or phrase which proved that my relationship with this friend was “worldy.” Needless to say, my relationship with that friend quickly ended.
Biblical passages cited to support information-control are 1 John 2:15—“Do not love the world or anything in the world”; James 1:27—“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this… to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”; and Matthew 16:6—“Beware the leaven of the Pharisees.”
Biblical refutation for this point: While the Bible does call Christians to avoid corrupting influences and to respect the judgment of true, trustworthy leaders, I Thessalonians 5:21 says that believers should “examine everything carefully.” Acts 17:11 commends the Bereans who listened to Paul and then searched the scriptures diligently to see if what he said was true. And in Galatians, Paul chastises the Galatian believers for putting up with unsound doctrine and allowing false teachers to take them captive with a gospel which was really no gospel at all. In his concern for their lack of critical thinking, Paul exclaims, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” (Gal 3:1).
Bewitch. A fitting term to describe how cult leaders brainwash their followers through milieu-control.