This is the third 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 third element that destructive religious groups use to control their followers is the demand for an unreasonable level of purity. I say “unreasonable,” because the Bible does command followers of Christ to strive for holiness (1 Peter 1:15-16) and completeness (Matthew 5:48), yet cult leaders twist these scriptures to mean “perfection.”
How do they do it? They use five methods.
1.) Shame and Guilt
First, cult leaders capitalize on universal feelings of shame and guilt. We are all born into the world as sinners. We all know intuitively that we fail to measure up.
I know that I do. I used to cringe when grade-school teachers called roll at the beginning of class—I dreaded the teacher calling out my name. It was as if the teacher held a red-velvet bag full of names, and when she called other kids’ names it was like pulling out flowers or bunnies, but when she called out my name it was like handling a sea cucumber or a snake. My own name filled me with shame.
The reason I hated my own name, I’ve come to see, is because I viewed myself as inferior. I felt like I was uglier, or stupider, or less competent than everybody else. When my former pastor told me that I could become worthwhile just by measuring up to certain standards of righteousness, it was like putting a T-bone steak in front of a Rottweiler. I spent years chasing that elusive meat while my pastor kept it dangling forever out of reach.
Shame and guilt serve as emotional levers which a group leader can pull to get a reaction of cowed obedience. For example, if a church member wants to go on vacation with their family, the group leader might say, “Well, I suppose you can go if you really feel you need that. I gave up vacations years ago when I decided to follow Christ whole-heartedly. God never goes on vacation, and Christ said that he is always at his work, even as God works every day (John 5:17).”
Do you hear the not-so-subtle manipulation? The follower has just been told that he or she is weak, uncommitted, and essentially sinful for wanting to spend time with family members away from the group. The issue here is not one of purity or sin, but rather of the group leader’s preference which has become a culturally enforced system of perfect attendance. But such reasoning creeps insidiously into a follower’s thinking, giving power and control to the group leader’s preferences.
2.) The Razor Path of Purity
In many unhealthy groups, leaders set up a standard of extreme purity which they say God requires of true believers. In these systems, the narrow path of scripture is sharpened to a razor-edge. Followers teeter precariously on this razor path of purity, cutting their feet to ribbons as they try desperately to avoid falling into chasms of “sin.”
The problem with this system is that “sin” is defined so broadly that “good” becomes an almost impossible thing to attain. Indeed, cult leaders often teach that even a person’s natural desires are evil—love of ice cream, for example, or wanting to spend time with natural family—and that in order to follow God they must crucify such desires. The group leader constructs a polarized system of right and wrong, black and white, with no room for personal preference or natural inclination. People who subscribe to such a system make themselves susceptible to a leader’s manipulation and control, since it is the leader who interprets right or wrong.
We need look no further than the Pharisees in the New Testament to find such a rigorous system and what Jesus thought of it. While God gave the nation of Israel many laws in the Old Testament to set them apart as a people, the Pharisees considered these laws inadequate. Instead, they were so fearful of transgressing the laws of God that they set up “hedges” of additional man-made laws to keep from breaking God’s laws. From the outside, the Pharisees seemed incredibly holy because of their many religious devotions, but on the inside they were proud and fearful.
Jesus spends most of Matthew 23 rebuking the Pharisees for their legalistic, self-serving laws. He gets to the heart of the issue by showing that the Pharisees believed themselves better than other people and enjoyed gaining the praise of men (Matt 23:5-7). Instead, Jesus says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant… and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” And in Colossians 2:8-23, the Bible shows the difference between a rigid man-made system of religion and the gracious reality which is found in Christ.
3.) High Commitment Zombies
Unhealthy religious groups often maintain control over their followers by keeping them exhausted through religious activities such as prayer, Bible study, mandatory fellowship, and long instructional times. While all of these areas can be good when kept in proper balance, they form a crushing burden when linked to salvation and legislated by men.
Such continuous activity serves two purposes: it keeps group members from spending time with people from outside of their group (see milieu control in part one of this series); and it cultivates altered brain patterns and a state of suggestibility through sheer exhaustion. Prisoners in various wars have testified how prison guards sometimes kept them awake for endless hours in attempts to brainwash them or break down their mental and emotional defenses. Cult leaders may not understand this technique officially, but they master it intuitively. Through exhausting activity, they take insecure people and turn them into highly-committed zombies.
For example, a cult leader might quote Hebrews 10:25 to require members to attend every function of the group. If followers miss a meeting, the group leader might question their commitment or even their salvation. Yet while the goals of the group may seem good (a questionable thesis), rest is also a necessary component of a productive life. God himself rested on the seventh day to set an example for all people (Gen 2:3). Group leaders who fill up most weeknights and the majority of the weekend with mandatory group activities have missed the whole concept of Sabbath rest.
In my former church, for example, we spent at least 7-9 hours each Sunday in church, with additional activities often scheduled on Saturdays or weeknights. In addition, our pastor gave us “homework” assignments and required us to listen to sermon tapes during the week. The result for me was an almost catatonic devotion to whatever my pastor said.
Jesus, for his part, recognized the importance of rest. When exhausted by ministry, Jesus took his disciples away with him to a quiet place to rest (Mk 6:31). Elsewhere, Jesus tells people who are exhausted and burdened to come to him for rest (Matt 11:28-30). Jesus’ light yoke contrasts markedly with the heavy burden of the Pharisees which they commanded people to bear. And what was this burden? It was none other than a works-based, man-made system of rules and regulations which kept people fearful and exhausted (cf. Lk 11:46; Mt 23:4).
4.) Sins of Attitude and Immaturity
A fourth method of controlling followers is to catapult attitudinal sins and immaturities to the level of more grievous sins. Cult leaders often focus on followers’ attitudes and rebuke them for apparent “rebelliousness,” “pride,” or “unsubmissiveness.” But what do these words mean, anyway? In a cult, they mean whatever the cult leader wants them to mean.
For example, the leader of an unhealthy group might rebuke a member for asking too many questions, charging them with “intellectual pride.” Or a cult leader might order followers to give large portions of their income to their ministry, saying that they are “selfish” if they refuse. Or they might command women to submit to their husbands—but more especially, to the leader—in everything, no matter what. Such submission might even involve tolerating verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. If a woman speaks up against such behavior, she is labeled as “unsubmissive” and the group leader trots out numerous scriptures to rebuke her. God hates such twisted use of scripture.
In regard to immaturity, cults demand that people change now. Leaders of unhealthy groups often focus on normal immature behavior—not necessarily outright sins—and demand that followers exhibit maturity immediately. Yet what followers really need is the grace, space, and time to grow organically as the Spirit continues to refine them. As Stephen Martin says in The Heresy of Mind Control, “Grace allows for growth (Col. 2:18-19; Eph 2:19-22; 4:14-16; 2 Pet 3:18).” And in Romans 14 and 15 and 1 Corinthians 8, the Bible proclaims a rich theology of growth through personal decision-making in many disputable areas. But to the cult leader, nothing is disputable—everything is either wrong or right.
5.) Human Works vs. God’s Grace
We can subsume all of the previous categories under the umbrella of a works-based system of righteousness. This can look very subtle, so catch this point carefully. While the group may proclaim orthodox theology from the pulpit—namely, that they believe salvation is by grace through faith in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:8-10)—in practice they actually believe that they have to work hard to attain their own salvation. They may deny this endlessly, but the proof is in the pudding—cult members live in a constant state of fear and look to the group leader to tell them whether they are saved.
By focusing so much on fruitfulness—and linking it with a person’s salvation—cult leaders can control a follower’s life. Such people disregard grace as they try harder and harder to measure up to the demands of the group leader. I know that I did. The pronouncements of the group leader become the measure of salvation, and followers live in a constant state of guilt and shame rather than in a secure place of God’s grace.
Do you see the problem? In this system, the cult leader takes on the role of mediator between God and people, since only he or she is allowed to proclaim someone saved based on their apparent fruitfulness. Fruitfulness—rather than grace—then becomes the means (not just the measure) of salvation, and so the cult practices works-based salvation rather than grace-based salvation.
Leaders of unhealthy groups demand perfection as proof of salvation, with themselves as arbiter. Is it any wonder that such a person can exercise almost complete control over their followers? Group members believe that their anointed leader holds the keys of eternal life and death.
The stakes could not be higher.