This is the second 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.* You can see the first post here.
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 Two: Mystical Manipulation
In part one of this series, we learned that the first step to controlling another person’s mind is by controlling their environment–what Lifton calls “Milieu Control.” By determining which people and what information a person has access to, a cult leader can shape that person’s perceptions of the world.
But a leader must do more than this to fully control a person’s mind. He or she must also cultivate a sense of awe and enthusiasm for
themselves and their ministry. To do this, the group leader manipulates circumstances or information to create an impression of supernatural wisdom or divine favor.
By setting themselves up on a pedestal as an incandescent personality, a cult leader attracts followers as moths to a flame.
This occurs too often in today’s churches. Indeed, Jesus said that “false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24); and Paul warned that “…evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13).
Here are six steps to explain how “Mystical Manipulation” works. They are based off of Stephen Martin’s steps in The Heresy of Mind Control.
1.) Visions and Revelations:Most cult leaders or leaders of unhealthy religious groups claim that God reveals himself to them in special ways. They also may appear to perform miracles of knowledge or miracles of healing used to enhance their own power or wealth. For example, a group leader might say, “God spoke to me last night and said that it is his will for everybody in this church to
sell all of their possessions and give the money to the church.” He may then use relevant scriptures in the book of Acts to “confirm” this revelation from God.
Biblical Refutation: While all believers should pray to God, seek guidance from his Spirit, and be prudently open to divine visions and revelations (1 Cor 12:31; 1 Thess 5:20), no believer should ever use visions or revelations as a means to manipulate others. This is spiritual abuse. In Colossians 2:18, Paul writes, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind.” Church leaders who claim special access to God as a way to manipulate their flock into fearful obedience and a sense of awe have put themselves on a pedestal. They have made themselves the mediator between God and men. But the Bible says that there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5).
2.) Stories and Revisionist History. Cult leaders often make up stories about their past in order to prove that God has chosen them as a special servant who people must follow. They may claim to have heard revelations, seen visions, or spoken to angels who revealed special truth to them. Through this special anointing, they claim to have authority over other people.
Biblical Refutation: While God’s servants really do have wonderful testimonies about God calling them out of darkness into light, those testimonies are meant to glorify God, not men. They should never be used to manipulate other people to follow. The Apostle Peter warns against exploiting other people with false words or stories (2 Pet 2:3). Biblical qualifications for church leadership have everything to do with truthful, trustworthy character and little to do with a person’s testimony or past life (cf. Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3; 1 Peter 5).
3.) Higher Purpose/Elitism.This is the hinge of the door. The first two steps had more to do with the leader; these last four have more to do with the follower. In this step, followers subscribe to the claims and visions of the group leader and rally to his or her flag. They do this to gain a privileged part in God’s plan, or to become
special agents of God, or to become the chosen few who have discovered hidden truth. By doing this, they climb on top of a pedestal with the group leader(s). Like Simeon Stylites, they live somewhere between heaven and earth; less than God, but greater than other people.
Biblical Refutation: The Bible never advocates a spiritually stratified church. Instead, it says that all believers are royalty in the sense that they are sons and daughters of God. Christians should strive to follow Christ and not compare themselves with other believers. Indeed, those who think they are better than others are usually the ones most in need of saving grace (Luke 18:9-14; Matt 20:16). Paul writes in Romans 12:3, “For through the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.”
4.) Misguided Devotion to the Leader. All cults are ultimately a cult of personality. When followers accept a leader’s claims to a special anointing, they give that person undue power. Leaders of unhealthy groups promote themselves as the center of the group. Followers learn to speak highly of the leader, rationalize away their faults or outright deception, and white-wash their motivations and personalities. They may defend the leader even in the face of catastrophic circumstances caused by the leader’s sin or poor judgment.
Biblical Refutation: The Bible states qualifications for church leaders which are based on their possession of the truth and their trustworthy character. Never in the Bible are Christians commanded to devote themselves to their leaders at the expense of the truth. Christians should forgive sins, but they also must exercise special discernment in regard to leaders. If there is one thing God dislikes in his church, it is to have cults of personality. Paul addresses this matter extensively in his first epistle to the Corinthians (cf. 1:12-15; 2:1-5; 3:4-5, 21). Our allegiance is to Christ, not to a particular cult of personality.
5.) Submitting to abuse. Once a cult leader has garnered total devotion from his or her followers, abuse becomes likely. This is because the group leader places his or her mission above the needs of the people. As Stephen Martin writes, the group members “eventually accept and endorse the ‘importance’ of the mission as their own, even coming to the point where they feel it is necessary to submit to pain and abuse by the leader or by his commands in order to fulfill the ‘higher purpose.’” To the member, this higher purpose likely includes his or her own salvation. They feel that the stakes of submission to the leader are ultimate.
The great paradox of unhealthy religious groups is that they make their followers believe that abuse is just one necessary part of living a disciplined life and “taking up their cross” to follow Christ. Lifton, in a marvelous phrase, calls this “the psychology of the pawn.” The pawn. A throw-away piece on the chess board. One of little value.
Biblical Refutation: Paul speaks directly to this matter in 2 Corinthians 11:20 when he rebukes the church: “For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face.” Rather, believers should know their own worth in God’s sight and not willingly submit to abuse from church leaders. Church leaders, for their part, must not “lord it over the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
6.) Submitting to Exploitation. The final step of the “Mystical Manipulation” cycle is when followers submit to exploitation with the idea that they are doing good. Leaders of cults or other destructive groups convince members that they must give 100% of everything they have to the Lord in order to be considered a true disciple. The problem here—catch this—is that the group itself is equated with the Kingdom of God. The idea that time, money, and effort could be given to other things outside of the group is rarely considered, since the group represents the purest form of God’s work in the world. Salvation is thus reduced to the quantity of cash given to the ministry (“The more you give, the more you love Christ”); the amount of time devoted to church activities; and the amount of effort devoted to submitting to the leader(s).
Biblical Refutation: The Bible always advocates generosity with finances, but with the caveat that money should be given cheerfully and not under compulsion (cf.2 Cor 9:7; 1 Tim 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7). It is up to the individual believer to determine how his or her money is spent. In terms of time commitment, while the Bible does command believers not to forsake the assembling together of the saints (Heb 10:25), the Greek word for “forsake” means total abandonment, not merely missing a church service or going on vacation and missing several church activities. Church leaders who use this verse as a means to enforce 100% attendance at every church activity have misrepresented God’s heart.
Stephen Martin provides a wonderful summary of the process of “Mystical Manipulation”:
“What begins as a deceptively awe-inspiring group and leader, leading the participants to believe that they are in an elite group, turns insidiously toward abusive manipulation and a loss of freedom. All of the above factors combine to make the member fearful of leaving the group because the member has been deceived into believing that his or her salvation depends on it. The deceived members are led to believe that to leave the group is to abandon God’s work, and thus to abandon God.”
Nothing mystical about it.
Next post in this series—Part Three: The Demand for Purity