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Why People in Cults Don’t Think They’re in Cults

I sat in my usual pew and stared at the yellow piece of paper on my lap. Warning Signs of a Cult, it said.

Around me, the rest of the congregation did the same. September sun had warmed the old sanctuary and wasps practiced silent minuets in the rafters. Fall nights are cool in Maine. I waited for the evening breeze to lick through the window screens and wick the sweat from my brow.

“Does everyone have the sheet about cults in front of them?” Pastor Ferris* asked.

I nodded.

“Good. This is a very important night for our church. The Lord has much to teach us tonight about discerning truth from error. I know you all want the truth.”

I nodded again. Indeed, the only response I knew in church was a nod.

“Let’s pray.”

I bowed my head. I guess I knew how to do that, too.

As Ferris prayed, my mind wandered over the events of the last couple of weeks. I had just started my junior year of high school. Then my twin brother, Cornelius*, decided to leave home. He said that our church was too controlling, too oppressive. That the pastor was manipulative. Though I shared some of his concerns, I also believed that it was because I was such a great sinner that I disliked our church. I believed that Ferris taught the truth of God’s Word and that I needed to conform my life to that message whether I liked it or not. I thought that my eternal salvation was at stake.

The results were devastating. Ferris had ordered us to shun Cornelius as one of those who “had gone out from us because they were not one of us” (1 John 2:19). Yes, for if he had been one of us, Scripture said, he would have remained with us. But he went out so that it would be shown that he was not of us.

We who remained, on the other hand, had an anointing from the Holy Spirit and we all knew the truth.

Well, sort of.

Actually, we who remained still lacked the anointing because most of us had come to see that we were not truly saved. We remained in our church because God had promised that if we remained we would eventually be saved. Ferris had said so, and I, for one, believed him. I knew the others did, too.

But not my brother. He had the spirit of the antichrist in him, and so he had left home and then had the temerity to pass on to our family a checklist of warning signs of cults.

He was wrong.

Our church was strict, I thought, but surely we were not a

The Branch Davidian compound burns in Waco, Texas.

cult. Cults were like Jim Jones or the Branch Davidians. Cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and Waco compounds stocked with guns. The ATF dealt with things like cults.

We were not a cult.

So my parents had given the list to Ferris, and now the Holy Spirit wanted Ferris to explain why the checklist was incorrect.

“Amen,” Ferris said.

I started out of my reverie. I had failed to pay attention to Ferris’s prayer. That was a sin, but no one had noticed so I pretended to have heard the whole thing. Lord forgive me, I thought. I pulled my hand from the paper but sweat made it stick and it gave a sharp tearing sound as I drew my hand away. The sanctuary was otherwise silent. I felt my face burn.

“As you all know,” Ferris said, “this checklist was passed on by Cornelius because he thinks that our church is a cult. God wants me to walk through this list to explain each item and why it is wrong. This is a sobering business, but it is important lest someone else in this congregation harbors doubt about what God is doing here.” He looked around meaningfully at the people, about sixty souls, and in the silence I could hear the wasps bumping in the rafters.

Ferris’s eyes shone. “You are all incredibly privileged—incredibly—and God is doing amazing things here. The world doesn’t understand that, because it is spiritually discerned. As the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8, ‘We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’”

I knew he was right. The world had rejected Jesus, and it would continue to reject his true followers through the ages. Only a very few would be saved.

I wanted to be one of them.

From outside the window came the sudden sputter and roar of a lawnmower.

Ferris spoke louder. “Scripture says, ‘Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.…’”

I was having a hard time hearing him. We should close the windows, I thought, and turn the fans on.

“’…But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is judged by no one. For we have the mind of Christ.’”

The mind of Christ.

I wanted that. Yes, I realized, the mind of Christ can judge the world. The mind of Christ will know how to disarm the feeble arguments of natural man. I wished that the mind of Christ could also figure out how to disarm that lawnmower.

The throaty roar continued, reverberating through the chilly night and off of the pine trees. Through the church windows shouldered the stout scent of cut grass.

Ferris paused behind his lectern. “Let’s ask the Lord to make that lawnmower stop,” he said. We bowed our heads and prayed. Close the windows, I thought.

“Lord, please have our neighbor realize that they are disturbing our service,” Ferris prayed. “Please give them the consideration to stop cutting their grass. Amen.”

But the sound didn’t stop. Instead, it continued for a long, long time. Long enough to cut all of the neighbor’s grass.

Long enough to carry us halfway through the following checklist and why it didn’t apply to us:

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader:

  1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
  4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
  5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
  6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
  8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
  9. The group/leader is always right.
  10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Ten warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader:

  1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
  2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.
  3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.
  4. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.
  5. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.
  6. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.
  7. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.
  8. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
  9. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.
  10. Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They cannot be trusted and personal contact is avoided.

(Checklists from Rick Ross, http://www.culteducation.com/warningsigns.html)

*Not his real name.

15 comments on “Why People in Cults Don’t Think They’re in Cults

  1. Well written my friend!

  2. Yet, still hard to understand, from this side of things, why one could ever get so trapped.

    • I agree Carol. I have to admit that I had become complacent, thinking we were “safe”…that it only happened to ‘other people’ not someone who was so well-grounded.

  3. Thanks for sharing Steve. It is a hell no one should have to live through.

  4. The self-effacing honesty of the writing was very powerful. I’m glad you wrote this.

  5. I just stumbled across your blog today and really appreciate the honest, humble writing. None of us are beyond being deceived. What a great reminder to regularly test our leaders and congregations.

  6. This is so helpful to those of us who are living in the trauma of having a family member(s) involved in a cult. Thank you for taking the time to share this and for being transparent about your past. It allows us to feel encouraged.

  7. Thank you so much, really cleared some things up in my mind.

  8. After reading several of your posts I couldn’t help but think that maybe people look for these churches to belong to. They have an expectation for the Preacher/Priest/Rabi, etc , to behave in such a way. Maybe they grew up with this and it is part of the culture. Could it be this is their normal? Seeing beyond the abuse would be impossible.

    Enjoyed reading your blog.

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