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Identifying Religious Brainwashing: Doctrine Over Person (Part 7 of 8)

This is the seventh 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.

“Hey there Spike!” my pastor said as I walked tentatively into his office. Outside of the church the air was cool, but now I felt my cheeks burn. I was 19, and for several years I had worn my hair tousled with hair gel as the fashion went. I may not have been Jason Priestly, but the hairstyle felt comfortable. It fit.

Jason Priestly set the trends when I was in high school.

“Steve,” my pastor continued, “I’ve noticed that you favor a trendy hairstyle and designer glasses. The Lord wants you to know that he frowns on such trendiness. You don’t see me with spiked hair, do you?”

“No,” I whispered.

“Right. And that’s because God’s servants are outside of time and are not to be influenced by fashion trends,” Ferris* said. “See, God wants you to look more like me. I’m a mature man, and he wants you to model my behavior and appearance. You obviously have a hard time doing this on your own, so God has told me to help you.” He smiled.

I flinched. “What help?”

“Steve, God has directed me to give you $500 for new clothes that look more like mine [here he suggested several brand names] and he also wants you to go to my barber on Main Street. Tell him that you want your hair cut just like Ferris, okay?” He grinned paternally. “We’ll make a pastor out of you yet!”

“Doctrine Over Person” means that a group leader puts his or her interpretation of scripture above the needs of the people in the group. While this may sound good at first—after all, God’s Word should be our highest priority, shouldn’t it?—in reality this practice is harmful because the leader’s interpretation is not the same as scripture. The result is a cloning of the leader’s personality and opinions.

Leaders who emphasize “Doctrine Over Person” usually have dominant personalities and rigidly interpret biblical commands. Thus, while their language sounds spiritual, in fact they merely enforce their own preferences about how to live life. The Pharisees were skilled at changing God’s commands into man-made rules (cf. Mark 7:7). Cult leaders also have this dubious talent.

How do they create a congregation of clones?

1.)    Fitting the Mold

Turn over a pack of Crayons or a pair of swimming goggles or your newest i-thingy. What does it say? Made in Taiwan, or China, or USA, right? These items are mass-produced in factories by machines tooled to very fine margins of error. The result is that every Crayon or goggle or i-thing looks exactly alike. And for textiles or electronics that’s good.

The problem is when leaders of unhealthy religious groups try to mass-produce people to look just like themselves. Leaders of such groups often have personality pathologies such as narcissism or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (we’ll talk about these in a future post) which prevent them from seeing the harm they cause others when they try to fit them into their own mold.

For example, my former pastor used to say, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” a quote from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1. So far so good. But my pastor interpreted this to mean that since he was enormously spiritual, every person in the congregation should dress the way he dressed, talk the way he talked, and enjoy the same things he enjoyed.

The result was that our entire congregation turned to cardboard. We affected certain ways of speaking, froze our faces into acceptable forms of expression during worship, and bought clothes with the same brand-names as everyone else in the church. You could pick us out of a crowd. We all had a family-resemblance, but instead of looking like Christ we just looked like our pastor. When Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” he meant to imitate his maturity and godly character, not his own personality or gifting.

God never designed people to look the same or act the same. Instead, he created a Body (Romans 12; 1 Cor 12 and 14; Eph 4) where each person represents a different part, with different gifts and talents. Not everyone is an eye, a hand, or a mouth. Even my identical twin brother and I possess different gifts and interests. He was a Marine infantry officer who mastered weapons and tactics. I’m lucky if I hit center-mass on a paper target at 15 yards. My brother is a mouth, a brain, and a bicep; I’m more like a thalamus. We may look the same, but it would be a mistake to fit us into a common mold.

2.)    Redefining Your Emotions and Conscience

Leaders of unhealthy religious groups are experts at manufacturing emotions. For example, in some unhealthy groups people are told that if they don’t experience ecstatic utterances or swooning emotions they are less than spiritual. New members—especially those who are introverts—may feel little emotional ecstasy during worship times, but they fake a response in order to fit in with the crowd. Eventually, they may convince themselves that their manufactured emotions are real. The point of this example is not to criticize charismatic groups, but rather to point out the dangers of mandating a certain emotional response for each person.

In a similar way, a domineering leader may also redefine your conscience to fit his or her interpretation of life. A popular method of controlling a congregation is for the leader to redefine feelings of guilt. He or she does this by labeling certain normal activities as “wrong” or “fleshly,” thus creating guilt in the minds of followers. Such followers develop overly-active consciences and experience low-level false-guilt all the time.

The result of this is that group members feel guilty and ashamed for indulging in everyday pleasures which God designed for their enjoyment, and they lose sight of the wrong things the leader does. By redefining their emotions and consciences, the leader has thrown out a decoy level of living which distracts his or her followers from evaluating the leader’s own misbehavior.

Stephen Martin describes the two sides to this sword:

“Reinterpreting of one’s conscience is a major theme of brainwashing or thought reform, not only creating guilt for normal enjoyments, but reinterpreting one’s conscience and feelings about legitimate concerns in regard to what the controller is doing and teaching, and in regard to happenings in the group.”

3.)    Redefining Your History

A third area of “Doctrine Over Person” is the reinterpretation of group members’ personal histories. Totalitarian leaders attempt to make a black-or-white canvas of a person’s life. Prior to joining the group, members are told, their lives were filled with sin and darkness. Upon joining the group, they have seen the light of life and are walking in the truth. Even if their life prior to joining the group wasn’t too bad–especially if they were already a Christian–they are called to focus on their most blatant sins and self-flagellate until they feel despondent over their previous way of life. Then they are told to think about how wonderful life in the group is and where would they be if God had not called them to follow the humble example of the group leader.

While it is easy for an outsider to see how simplistic this approach is—after all, most of us can recall happy times prior to joining our current church, and we can identify struggles in our current life as a Christian—members of unhealthy religious groups are unable to maintain such a nuanced perspective.

The Bible does talk about a clear demarcation from living life “dead in our sins and trespasses” to “entering the kingdom of light.” Yet the reason for this demarcation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our life and not because we joined a particular church or followed a particular religious leader. The problem with unhealthy religious groups is that the emphasis is shifted from what Jesus has done to what the group can do for you. And that is idolatry.

4.)    The “Botox” Effect: Denial and Suppression

Earlier we said that unhealthy religious groups brainwash followers by redefining their emotions and consciences. But that’s not all. Cult leaders also cultivate emotion-denial and suppression in order to make their followers conform to certain standards of “acceptable” expression and behavior. They say that to express anger, doubt, or depression shows a lack of faith. Sound familiar?

I call this the “Botox” effect. Do you know about Botox? It’s a toxin that plastic surgeons inject into a person’s facial muscles to paralyze them and thus smooth out wrinkles. In a similar way, leaders of unhealthy religious groups inject a constant dose of verbal “Botox” into their followers by saying that certain emotions are “wrinkly,” i.e., unacceptable. These “wrinkly” emotions often include anger, disappointment, sadness, frustration, or depression. The result is a congregation of smiling people with flat affect and paralyzed emotions. Indeed, people in these groups may seem almost too happy! And they are: they’re in denial.

The Bible knows nothing of suppressing or denying emotions. God himself is called a jealous God (Ex. 20:5) who expresses anger towards sin (like when Jesus made a whip of cords and turned over the money-changing tables in the temple, cf. Jn 2:13-17) and hypocrisy (cf. Matthew 23). The whole book of Psalms is an expression of the full gamut of healthy emotions, which sometimes include despair (Ps. 88), anger and doubt (Psalm 55), and sadness (Psalm 137). Suppression or denial of these emotions is a simplistic strategy of control which harms people from experiencing God’s answers to their true needs.

5.)    Bring in the Clones!

Finally, controlling leaders often try to make each follower forsake their own gifting and talents in order to become more like the leader. Instead of acknowledging God-given differences in personality and calling, such leaders impose their own standards and preferences on other people. The result is a clone-like environment where everyone becomes more and more like the leader in appearance, utterance, and thinking.

In my former church, our pastor decided that it was God’s will for every young man to aspire to full-time Christian ministry. It sounded reasonable at the time—what could be better than serving God full-time? But there was a two-fold problem: First, our pastor made an unbiblical distinction between serving God in secular ministry and serving him in sacred ministry. In reality, God wants all of our work to be sacred. And second, in order to do this, each young man was supposed to follow the exact same route to pastoral ministry as our pastor had: a history major and Greek minor in undergrad, a seminary education focusing on the biblical languages (preferably at his own alma mater), and eventually full-time ministry.

Problematic with this, of course, was that God had gifted each young man differently and had put different career goals in their minds. Unswayed by arguments to the contrary, our pastor decreed that any young man who chose anything other than full-time Christian ministry was out of God’s will. He tried to fit every person into a narrow mold which would make them look like him.

God loves diversity. He has created an infinite variety of people who help express his own multi-faceted personality and perfect range of gifts. Embrace your own giftedness and use your personality and talents to serve God wherever you are.

Only Satan makes clones.

*Not his real name.

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

3 comments on “Identifying Religious Brainwashing: Doctrine Over Person (Part 7 of 8)

  1. [...] Part Seven: Doctrine Over Person – “Doctrine Over Person” means that a group leader puts his or her interpretation of scripture [...]

  2. [...] Suppression of negative emotions such as anger, fear, or [...]

  3. […] Suppression of negative emotions such as anger, fear, or […]

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