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Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing: The Cult of Confession (Part 4 of 8)

This is the fourth 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.

The fourth symptom of religious brainwashing is the so-called “cult of confession.” While healthy Christian groups encourage open-hearted lives and therapeutic sharing, unhealthy groups turn confession of sin into a means of manipulation and abuse.

Here’s how they do it.

1.)    Exploitation of Weakness

Religious brainwashing is all about control. A person in a place of power misuses their position to meet their own needs instead of tending the people entrusted to their care. Very often, the people under their care are emotionally or intellectually fragile. The abusive spiritual leader controls them by exploiting that weakness to manipulate their actions.

Mandated “sharing” is the first step to brainwash someone in regard to the cult of confession. Unhealthy religious groups take a verse such as James 5:16 and put a twist on it. The verse says “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” In its context, this verse refers to people who have fallen ill as a result of sin.

Cult leaders take this verse out of context and use it as leverage to make people in their congregation confess sins publicly. The format can resemble something more like a public interrogation than a willing confession. Doing this exposes a person’s flaws or weaknesses to an entire group. This makes that person nakedly susceptible to the leader’s supposed solutions of greater effort and purity. Dr. Robert Lifton says that such forced confession “becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace.”

My former pastor did this, probably without realizing what he was doing. He would frequently stand members in front of the congregation during an evening “church family” service. He would then have them share with the whole church about some hidden sin they had committed, in order that everything would be brought “to the light” and they could find forgiveness and healing.

The problem with this was that the sharing was usually coerced—not voluntary—and it was an invasion of privacy with an ulterior motive. Since at one time or another almost every member of the congregation had stood sobbing before everyone else, there was a culture in our church of extreme vulnerability and a sense that nothing in life was private—nothing at all. This leads to the next step.

2.)    Degradation Instead of Restoration

When my pastor coerced church members to publicly confess sins in front of the entire congregation, the stated purpose was so that the offender could find healing and restoration. Yet the effect of coerced confession was actually public humiliation and a degradation of the person in front of their friends and family. Restoration places balm on a wound; degradation keeps ripping off the scab.

In healthy churches, members may sometimes feel led by the Holy Spirit to confess sins publicly in order to repudiate the sin, break down demonic bondages, and receive prayer support and encouragement. However, in my former church such confessions were often coerced and were derived from private pastoral counseling sessions where the person had poured out their heart and soul to the pastor. The pastor then turned around and used this private information as public coin, breaching confidence. The ultimate effect was to degrade the confessing church member in the eyes of those closest to him or her, and to make the entire congregation think even more highly of the purity of the pastor.

The Bible knows nothing of this.

Instead, biblical confession primarily involves confessing sins to God (1 John 1:9) who then forgives and cleanses the sinner. At times—especially if the sin is against another person—it is appropriate to confess the sin to that person (Matt 5:23-24), perhaps in the presence of another safe person if the interaction warrants it. And in some instances a person may be led by the Spirit to confess a sin publicly in order to receive prayer and intercession. But unhealthy religious groups skip these steps and add a twist, jumping right into public coerced confession. The purpose is to keep all members degraded and humiliated, while the leader comes off smelling like a rose.

“The goal of the totalist leadership in the exposure process,” says Stephen Martin, “is to eliminate any confidentiality about personal matters… If you were ever to gain victory over that problem, the leaders would suffer a huge loss of control over you.”

And they don’t want that to happen.

3.)    Perpetual Accusation Machine

Unhealthy religious leaders can keep their followers brainwashed by subjecting them to a continual state of accusation. Instead of promoting growth and maturity in Jesus Christ, group leaders foster spiritual infantilism by keeping members in a perpetual state of gloom and penitence. Followers are so busy analyzing themselves for peccadilloes and responding to accusations from the group leader(s) that they never feel capable of progressing spiritually. They live like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, always under a personal cloud of gloom. This keeps them heavily dependent on the group leader to instruct them in the way of salvation.

It is no accident that the word “Satan” means “accuser.” The Devil launches a continual stream of accusations against Christ-followers in an effort to discourage them and to make them inefficient and ineffective in the Christian life. Leaders of unhealthy religious groups often mimic this style of relating to people, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Indeed, the Apostle Paul seems to encourage such a lifestyle of accusation when he confesses his struggle with sin in Romans 7.

Yet the best antidote against a lifestyle of accusation—for Paul or for you and me—is Romans 8. In this chapter, Paul reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit delivers us from bondage to sin. He then encourages believers by saying that those God has called are destined for glory and nothing on earth can condemn them. Instead, “In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through him who loved us… nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:37, 39).

That’s good news—that’s the true gospel.

4.)    The Seductive Tyranny of Worm Theology

Ironically, one of the most attractive lures of an unhealthy religious group is the appearance that group members enjoy a high level of intimacy as a result of their public confessions. Newcomers to the group may see such openness as a sign of health, when in fact it may be a symptom of disease. As Stephen Martin notes, “A totalist group assumes to have a type of ownership of a person’s inner self. The member, consequently, views confession as a means of oneness with the group and as a necessary means toward betterment of himself or herself.”

“Confession as a means of oneness with the group.” Sound strange? It sounded normal to me. For example, when I went to college for the first time—at a small Christian university in the Midwest—I bemoaned the apparent lack of genuine self-disclosure among my fellow students. This was because I had been trained from an early age in my church to interpret normal healthy boundaries as a lack of honesty and openness. The problem was actually with me, not with my fellow students.

If you read my journal from those days, you would encounter page after page full of self-accusation and self-loathing, as well as plenty of judgmental comments directed toward my classmates. It was as if I couldn’t make it through a day without beating myself up about how worthless I was and how little I did right. I longed to return to my home church where I could receive a weekly dose of public confessions, sharing of “struggles” which never seemed to improve, and the warm intimacy of shared humiliation.

Afghan Shiites perform self-flagellation in 2009.

Religious scholars describe this unhealthy attitude of perpetual struggle, self-flagellation, and self-loathing as “worm theology.” It originated with John Calvin and was made popular by the Isaac Watts hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed?” where one line runs, “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”

The problem with this theology is that it is half-true. Apart from Christ, all people are hopeless sinners. Yet worm theology is also half-false, because believers are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ and are made in the image of God, giving them great value. This is not a mushy bowl of elementary-school self-esteem training; it is the clear biblical reality which trumpets the worth and value of human beings.

By teaching only one-half of the truth about believers—that we are sinners—leaders of unhealthy religious groups miss the tension that we are also moving from glory to glory in Christ and that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Instead, they promote a culture of depression and dependence which makes their followers susceptible to mindless devotion to the leader.

The solution to all of these problems is to hold in tension a clear-eyed view of sin with a healthy sense of biblical self-worth in Christ. By disavowing simplistic extremes, religious leaders and followers can walk in grace and truth and avoid the cult of confession.

Related Post: One Who Got Away: Libby Phelps Alvarez, Religious Brainwashing, and the Westboro Baptist Church

23 comments on “Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing: The Cult of Confession (Part 4 of 8)

  1. I’m not getting “worm” theology as a descendant from Calvin’s/Augustine’s notion of total depravity. I go to a pretty straight Calvinist Presbyterian church in Oklahoma, and we “roll” pretty much how you say in your last paragraph

    • Thanks for your comment, Jay. You make a good point. I think the connection is probably better made by saying that “worm theology” stems from a lack of balance between the Calvinist points of total depravity and unmerited favor. If someone only focuses on total depravity, they slip into “worm theology.” I wish I had made that more clear–I don’t intend to knock John Calvin or Presbyterians. That’s why it is so important to do theology in community–so that people like you can help people like me =) I’d appreciate your thoughtful comments on future posts.

      • Adding you to my blogroll! I’m a novice “lay” theologian at best…but our church did host all 6 classes of Michael Patton’s theology Program (Michael is a DTS grad, IIRC). and was taught by our pastor, himself a definite “heavyweight” on matters of Greek and Hebrew translation.

        As they say: In essentials, unity, in nonessentials, liberty, and in all things, charity.

      • and we can all also help god love us all

  2. We don’t speak in terms of “total depravity”.

    We realize that we are very mixed bags and are capable of a great deal of good in this world. It is for righteousness sake that we say, along with Scripture, that “all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.”

    Great post.

    Thanks.

    • Agreed, Steve…I tend to think that the T in TULIP tends to sound a bit scary to our modern ears until we understand that all it basically means we are incapable in our “natural” state of salvation. Maybe that’s an oversimplification.

  3. Thank you for these helpful posts. Looking forward to the next one!

  4. [...] 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 [...]

  5. [...] Part Four: The Cult of Confession – The fourth symptom of religious brainwashing is the so-called “cult of confession.” [...]

  6. Hi, I am completely beat up right now, both emotionally and spiritually. I feel lost and at a loss of what to do. I am in a church where the councelling sessions are made puplic in services, whithout my name mentioned. My issues are brought out and I am left to deel with them alone. I am made to feel depressed, and felt to be lead by the pastor. whom I think is so far in sin, that he does not even realize it. I can not follow my husband which follows this pastor. I try so hard to find good, but I can not, my marriage is slipping away, and I am in the process of looking for a new church. But I am so confused right now, I am not sure if I am in sin or if he is in sin. We have a billboard and on this billboard was our name, but the Baptist was taken out of the name. I did thank you cards and asked how to sign them. I was told by my husband that the pastor was thinking about going non-denominational and moving away from the Baptist name. I said ok, and proceeded. In conversation about a bulletin board we have that had the whole name on it, I proceeded to talk with the Associate pastors wife about the Baptist part, and she did not know of the change. When her husband took it to the pastor by way of the proof given, the pastor turned it around and said no he was not thinking about doing that. Then he proceeded to tell my husband that two other people were involved which were not and I appologized to the two people and they had no idea what I was talking about. Conspiracy after conspiracy. So I think, but I could be so far in sin, that I do not even realize it. I have been told that I am in sin and that I should repent from my ways. I am having a hard time giving in to peer pressure here. Please help, I dont know what to do anymore. If you tell me that I am in sin, I think that I will believe you!! Thank you and God Bless!!

    • Dear Kelley,

      I am so sorry that these things have happened to you =( Spiritual abuse grieves God’s heart. Without knowing more about your church, I can’t say exactly what is going on, but it does sound like the pastor has hurt you and is providing unwise, boundary-less leadership. That means that he oversteps his God-given responsibilities, misuses his authority, and hurts the sheep under his care in order to accomplish his own goals and ambitions. Dear woman, who am I to say whether you are in sin? I do not condemn you. Rather, it sounds like–based on what you’ve told me–that the pastor is off-base and is sinning.

      I know several good Christian counselors who you can consult with. Hope for the Heart in Plano, Texas has counselors you can call on the phone for free. I worked there–they are good people. Check out this page: http://www.hopefortheheart.org/ministries/hope-care-center/hope-biblical-counseling-services/ to find out how to contact them.

      Another person you could talk to who could give you good advice is Brandon Santan, a Christian counselor in Tennessee who helps people who are involved in churches where spiritual abuse has happened (or is happening). You can reach him by checking out this link: http://www.theravive.com/therapists/brandon-santan.aspx

      Please contact one of these sources soon, okay? They will be able to listen to your story and help you know what steps to take.

      Grace and peace to you.

      – Steve

  7. I am thinking through Lifton’s eight techniques of brain washing. Your examples and life experience increase my understanding. Thank you. It is people like you that revive my trust in Christianity.

  8. […] within mainstream Christianity – and not just on the cultic fringes. I found the article ‘Cult of Confession’ quite helpful on […]

  9. “Yet worm theology is also half-false, because believers are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ and are made in the image of God, giving them great value.” – This is true, except that most Christians somehow have this dilusion that by “believing”, a magic wand is suddenly waved and *then* they become of “great value” to God. That is utter nonsense. Yeshua said to the crowd that they were more valuable than many sparrows. He didn’t say, “If you believe in me, you are more valuable…”. Your value in God’s eyes has nothing to do with you believing or not believing. What you wrote has absolutely no scriptural basis.

    • Hi Polaris, I think you misunderstood what I was saying. A sentence later, I said “This is not a mushy bowl of elementary-school self-esteem training; it is the clear biblical reality which trumpets the worth and value of human beings.” You are correct: all people are made in the image of their Creator and have infinite value.

  10. Thanks for the article. I am encouraged by your message! I came over to Liberty for Captives looking for the meaning of confession of sin.

    In the Bible, I see confession as something done with the mouth and belief as something pertaining to the inward soul, or heart. At the very least confession involves words.

    So how would it be possible to make a confession inwardly without the expression of words? Same with prayer. If prayer is “talking to God,” then by definition, it cannot be done inwardly. We wouldn’t say that we talk inside of ourselves. Likewise, I don’t see how leaders can expect people to make a confession within themselves without words. Do you understand the difference I’m drawing?

    • Hi Brian, thanks for your question. I’m actually unsure if I’m getting exactly what you mean. Can you clarify a little more? In this article I’m not opposing outward confession — nor public confession — but rather coerced confession used to shame and control people. Does that help? If you can help me understand your question a little better, I can hopefully more directly answer your question. Thanks!

    • What I meant was, the article’s topic was different than the search I was doing. I understand the article and I could relate a little bit with some things mentioned and I sign on to what you are saying. But my question is what people mean when they talk about some kind of a “confession” that is *not* made with the mouth (or in writing). For something to be a confession, how could it be something that is merely internal, as a thought or a memory, that is, something inward that is nonverbal? We don’t think in a language/words. Wouldn’t you agree that for something to be a confession it would have to be something external that is observable (speaking words or words on paper), even a confession to God?

      For example, at a meeting of the church I attended this past week, before communion, the elder said to “confess” any unconfessed sins before partaking of the elements. But we are all seated in a public place. We’re not going to speak aloud with people near us. But merely *remembering*, or calling to mind before God, something we have done displeasing to God, to me, does not constitute a *confession* at all. Do you agree?

      Thank you for asking for clarification.

      • Hi Brian,

        I think verbal confession has great merit, and is sometimes commanded in the Bible. I think that confession will therefore often involve speaking to others about our sin, or confessing verbally before God, or writing down our sins. However, just as we can pray silently in our minds and hearts to God, so I believe we can also confess sin silently to God. He knows our thoughts and the deepest parts of us. Before a word is on our lips he knows it. Because of this, I think believers have freedom to confess their sin at times silently before the Lord, and at other times verbally before others. That’s about the best I can do on this topic, which is outside my realm of expertise.

        Blessings, Steve

        On Tue, May 6, 2014 at 4:16 PM, Liberty for Captives wrote:

        >

      • Thank you. I will continue to pursue an understanding of what so-called “silent confession” means, as I hear what you are saying and am glad you tied it to prayer (“silent prayer”), but I am still having a very hard time understanding what people mean by this, other than “God knows our (nonverbal) thoughts.”

        In any case, this thing is inward and there seems to be little deliberate action we can take inwardly to affect what happens on the inside at a moment we might choose. At the center of my quest is whether one has the ability to do such a thing. And if people do have the ability, why that ability is not coming so naturally to me or why an understanding of it would be so difficult for one person when everybody else naturally understands the concept. Thanks for listening.

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