Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing: Mystical Manipulation (Part 2 of 8)

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

We often circle around an incandescent personality like moths around a flame.

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

Joseph Smith claimed to have received golden plates from the angel Moroni.

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

Circa 390-420 AD, Simeon Stylites lived atop a pillar for decades in his quest for purity.

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

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

19 comments on “Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing: Mystical Manipulation (Part 2 of 8)

  1. Are the “pastors” of the churches in Revelation 2-3 guilty of this? They were given specific insight into what occurred in their churches, as did Paul.

    Or is this a DTS thing, where modern pastors just have to extrapolate what might happen in their modern day churches, not ask questions, not look into the flock as shepherds, not get “special insight” from Jesus, because Jesus isn’t speaking in those ways?

    Serious questions….

    • Hi minimus, thanks for interacting with this post. I’d love to respond to your question. Could you be more specific? Are the “pastors” in Revelation 2-3 guilty of what? I’m confused by what you’re asking. I make six sub-points in this post–to which of them do you refer? As far as I can tell, Revelation 2-3 is a theophany of the glorified Christ who speaks to the angels–the Greek is “angelos”–of the seven churches in Asia Minor. Certainly a unique occurrence. I’m confused as to why you refer to the angels as pastors, and why you cite this passage as opposition to the content of this post. Could you explain?

      I think if you read this post again you will see that I am not against special revelation. The Spirit still speaks. I am against claims of revelation which are used to manipulate and abuse the flock of God. Spiritual abuse is a real problem in some churches today.

      As to whether this is a “DTS thing,” I’m not sure what you mean. Dallas Seminary has 2,000 students and hundreds of faculty. Within this group of believers, the spectrum about which categories of special revelation occur today is wide. It sounds like you may have had a negative experience with the school or someone from it. I’m sorry that happened to you. Hopefully you will encounter other DTS grads who evidence greater humility and grace.

      Grace and peace to you!

  2. Minimus, did you read the About page and this author’s background? Maybe you should take that into consideration of what he is addressing here.

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] 2.) Part Two: Mystical Manipulation – a leader must do more than this (milieu control) 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. […]

  5. I grew up in a Christian Fundamentalist household
    and thanks to a childhood curiosity about the world,
    spent my young days in 2nd hand bookshops and in libraries.
    Kurt Vonnegut and Hermann Hesse spoke far more
    of morality and decency to me than a violent, finger-waving
    “Holy” book.

    Eventually by 16 or 17 I had a gut instinct that I wanted
    nothing to do with my parents’ values or churches. But
    it was a gut instinct that I was not willing to face for many years
    because of the brainwashing. Plus I loved my family and
    didnt want to become the outsider – the “heathen”, the “world”,
    the “them” that needed to be “saved”. But their spiritual, emotional
    and physical abuse finally gave me the push to estrange myself.

    The biggest problem with such people, really, is an unwillingness to take
    responsibility for their actions. To use the words “please for forgive”,
    instead of “sorry but…”, “didnt mean it like that” etc.

    And so it is that while I admire your website greatly as a source
    to understand my sad family and upbringing better, the greatest
    “get out jail free card” of any Christian, is the idea that the other
    kind of Christian is not a real Christian – that such people misinterpreted
    or misunderstood the Bible and that God meant “it” differently.

    The supposed contradictions of the Bible is actually Christianity’s
    strength – no one will ever take responsibility for acts in its name
    – cherry-picking is the name of the game.

    So even though you write “Christians should strive to follow Christ and not
    compare themselves with other believers”, Bible cults/Fundamentalists
    could say the same of you. Its a never-ending cycle and it keeps the
    Bible myths alive.

    The only sane route for me out of that mad entanglement
    was that of atheism. I do feel far “safer” on a page written by a (calmer)
    theologian than a (crazed) Fundamentalist, yet I find it interesting that
    Christopher Hitchens always had a kind of respect for the latter in at least being
    honest that their beliefs are all about faith and not reason, whereas his theologian
    counterparts never could, yet could also not “reason” without the Bible.

    From all those youtube debates, one doesn’t know who to feel
    sorry for the most: the Bible cult preacher or the supposed “rational”
    theologian who couldnt admit that he didnt actually have facts – only faith.

    I hope you do not delete this and I look forward to your reply. Thank
    you once again for a great website.

    • Dear John,

      Welcome to the discussion. I value your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to write about your own background and your reasons for doubt.

      I am so sorry that you were raised in a spiritually abusive home. As a Christian–and as a former member of a legalistic Bible cult–I can only offer my deepest sympathy and apologies. No child or young person should have to endure such a twisted and harmful belief system.

      The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in, either. He is a distorted, misrepresented, sadistic tyrant.

      If I understand your comments correctly, you have decided that a humanistic, atheistic belief system offers you a safer, more solid place to stand. That way you can rely on reason rather than faith. You believe that calm theologians (such as me, thanks for that hat tip = ) are not much different than fundamentalists, since we all judge each other and decry each other as false. But to the fundamentalists’ credit (according to Hitchens), they at least admit their faith rather than mislabeling their belief as based on reason.

      Have I more or less caught the gist of your position?

      I’m wondering in what direction you’d like me to take this conversation. I have some thoughts rolling around in my head, but your comments have raised enough points that it might be better if I just wrote a blog post as I consider them, since I imagine many other readers have similar questions. In fact, I have good friends who struggle with the same concerns.

      With that in mind, I will work away at a response and post it soon. I’d love to have your additional thoughts and comments on this or other posts. Thanks for turning over this rock. Let’s watch together to see what crawls out.

      Best Regards, Steve

  6. […] sweetness is called artificial sweeteners; the induction of a false spiritual experienced is called mystical manipulation. Even though aspartame and neotame and saccharine exist, real sugar exists too. It’s just not […]

  7. […] Part 2: Mystical Manipulation […]

  8. I can relate to ALL of what’s written here. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and left only 2 months ago after 31 years. Im currently being shunned by my entire family and everyone i knew since birth.

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. […] beliefs and values that divides Americans into their individual basics, the label associated with various religions can impact your personal belief system. As you subscribe to the belief system of a specific religion you become indoctrinated into their […]

  11. […] que divide a los estadounidenses en sus principios básicos individuales, la etiqueta asociada con varias religiones puede afectar su sistema de creencias personal . Al suscribirte al sistema de creencias de una religión específica, te vuelves adoctrinado en su […]

  12. Isn’t this pretty much what Paul did? Said he had a vision from God, a secret gospel, mystery kept hidden from the beginning of time, that God, though Paul alone and none of the other 12? And then argued, repeatedly with the other 12 over doctrine? Faith alone vs Faith plus works essentially. Then went on a one man campaign to start churches with “his” new doctrine…the one where women shouldnt talk in church, and speaking in tongues and other “gifts”? Using his version of his past to prove that he was first and biggest beneficiary of his new doctrine. Then, when the churches in Asia didn’t seem to bite, he says they “rejected him”, not the gospel, not Jesus, but him.

    Not to mention the irony of the narcissism in the “fact” that the Christian God is the only true God, and the rest are damned to an eternity of damnation? You are the special ones, the “enlightened” ones, the ones “chosen from the foundations of the earth”? And that is the “truth” because our “holy book” says so and it’s the only “truth” and that you likely have prayed for people to have their eyes opened to this truth, which just happens to be just your truth?

    That doesnt seem totally and completely narcissistic to you? Take away that this is what you believe and look at it clinically…this doesn’t read as a narcissism/cult?

    I’m wrestling with this myself. Grew up in a Christian home and now am thinking I grew up in the standard, run of the mill, middle class America cult of the “apostle” Paul. Not to be confused with the Catholic cult, Mormon cult, LDS cult, JW cults, Lutheran cult. They are alll decieved by Satan. My cult…sorry church… was God’s “chosen” one. Duh. Everyone at my church told me so, and so did all the church literature, pastors, members, & kids, so it MUST be true! They wouldn’t lie! They all couldn’t just be narcissistic trying to feel special, could they? The kind of special believing God singled you out brings? Or that you, and you alone, posses the only truth…so much so that that we pray for others to be shown this same truth? The kind that gives you a secret doctrine from God through Paul, that ironically contradicts Jesus, who claimed to be the living embodiment of God’s flesh (disregard you believe that…what if he wasn’t actually!?! Narcissist?) teachings, and his holy book?

    Narcissism is the shoe. You tell me if our religions foot fits .

  13. No man, you are misunderstanding me. I’m not just some antiChristian looking to troll and argue. I am…er…was…heck, I don’t even know now if i even have a religion! Since I discovered what narcissism is, it has destroyed my once devout Faith. I’m not talking 10 years ago. I’m talking 10 weeks! It’s like the sun is out and I’m watching a snowman I’ve spent my entire life building melt before my eyes and I’m powerless to stop it. It all just seems like a gigantic scam now. Seriously. I’m so upside down with my beliefs, my friends can believe it! Heck! I can’t believe it!

  14. […] 原文出處: Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing: Mystical Manipulation (Part 2 of 8) | Liberty for Cap… […]

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