This is the fourth 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 fourth symptom of religious brainwashing is the so-called “cult of confession.” While healthy Christian groups encourage open-hearted lives and therapeutic sharing, unhealthy groups turn confession of sin into a means of manipulation and abuse.
Here’s how they do it.
1.) Exploitation of Weakness
Religious brainwashing is all about control. A person in a place of power misuses their position to meet their own needs instead of tending the people entrusted to their care. Very often, the people under their care are emotionally or intellectually fragile. The abusive spiritual leader controls them by exploiting that weakness to manipulate their actions.
Mandated “sharing” is the first step to brainwash someone in regard to the cult of confession. Unhealthy religious groups take a verse such as James 5:16 and put a twist on it. The verse says “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” In its context, this verse refers to people who have fallen ill as a result of sin.
Cult leaders take this verse out of context and use it as leverage to make people in their congregation confess sins publicly. The format can resemble something more like a public interrogation than a willing confession. Doing this exposes a person’s flaws or weaknesses to an entire group. This makes that person nakedly susceptible to the leader’s supposed solutions of greater effort and purity. Dr. Robert Lifton says that such forced confession “becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace.”
My former pastor did this, probably without realizing what he was doing. He would frequently stand members in front of the congregation during an evening “church family” service. He would then have them share with the whole church about some hidden sin they had committed, in order that everything would be brought “to the light” and they could find forgiveness and healing.
The problem with this was that the sharing was usually coerced—not voluntary—and it was an invasion of privacy with an ulterior motive. Since at one time or another almost every member of the congregation had stood sobbing before everyone else, there was a culture in our church of extreme vulnerability and a sense that nothing in life was private—nothing at all. This leads to the next step.
2.) Degradation Instead of Restoration
When my pastor coerced church members to publicly confess sins in front of the entire congregation, the stated purpose was so that the offender could find healing and restoration. Yet the effect of coerced confession was actually public humiliation and a degradation of the person in front of their friends and family. Restoration places balm on a wound; degradation keeps ripping off the scab.
In healthy churches, members may sometimes feel led by the Holy Spirit to confess sins publicly in order to repudiate the sin, break down demonic bondages, and receive prayer support and encouragement. However, in my former church such confessions were often coerced and were derived from private pastoral counseling sessions where the person had poured out their heart and soul to the pastor. The pastor then turned around and used this private information as public coin, breaching confidence. The ultimate effect was to degrade the confessing church member in the eyes of those closest to him or her, and to make the entire congregation think even more highly of the purity of the pastor.
The Bible knows nothing of this.
Instead, biblical confession primarily involves confessing sins to God (1 John 1:9) who then forgives and cleanses the sinner. At times—especially if the sin is against another person—it is appropriate to confess the sin to that person (Matt 5:23-24), perhaps in the presence of another safe person if the interaction warrants it. And in some instances a person may be led by the Spirit to confess a sin publicly in order to receive prayer and intercession. But unhealthy religious groups skip these steps and add a twist, jumping right into public coerced confession. The purpose is to keep all members degraded and humiliated, while the leader comes off smelling like a rose.
“The goal of the totalist leadership in the exposure process,” says Stephen Martin, “is to eliminate any confidentiality about personal matters… If you were ever to gain victory over that problem, the leaders would suffer a huge loss of control over you.”
And they don’t want that to happen.
3.) Perpetual Accusation Machine
Unhealthy religious leaders can keep their followers brainwashed by subjecting them to a continual state of accusation. Instead of promoting growth and maturity in Jesus Christ, group leaders foster spiritual infantilism by keeping members in a perpetual state of gloom and penitence. Followers are so busy analyzing themselves for peccadilloes and responding to accusations from the group leader(s) that they never feel capable of progressing spiritually. They live like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, always under a personal cloud of gloom. This keeps them heavily dependent on the group leader to instruct them in the way of salvation.
It is no accident that the word “Satan” means “accuser.” The Devil launches a continual stream of accusations against Christ-followers in an effort to discourage them and to make them inefficient and ineffective in the Christian life. Leaders of unhealthy religious groups often mimic this style of relating to people, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Indeed, the Apostle Paul seems to encourage such a lifestyle of accusation when he confesses his struggle with sin in Romans 7.
Yet the best antidote against a lifestyle of accusation—for Paul or for you and me—is Romans 8. In this chapter, Paul reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit delivers us from bondage to sin. He then encourages believers by saying that those God has called are destined for glory and nothing on earth can condemn them. Instead, “In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through him who loved us… nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:37, 39).
That’s good news—that’s the true gospel.
4.) The Seductive Tyranny of Worm Theology
Ironically, one of the most attractive lures of an unhealthy religious group is the appearance that group members enjoy a high level of intimacy as a result of their public confessions. Newcomers to the group may see such openness as a sign of health, when in fact it may be a symptom of disease. As Stephen Martin notes, “A totalist group assumes to have a type of ownership of a person’s inner self. The member, consequently, views confession as a means of oneness with the group and as a necessary means toward betterment of himself or herself.”
“Confession as a means of oneness with the group.” Sound strange? It sounded normal to me. For example, when I went to college for the first time—at a small Christian university in the Midwest—I bemoaned the apparent lack of genuine self-disclosure among my fellow students. This was because I had been trained from an early age in my church to interpret normal healthy boundaries as a lack of honesty and openness. The problem was actually with me, not with my fellow students.
If you read my journal from those days, you would encounter page after page full of self-accusation and self-loathing, as well as plenty of judgmental comments directed toward my classmates. It was as if I couldn’t make it through a day without beating myself up about how worthless I was and how little I did right. I longed to return to my home church where I could receive a weekly dose of public confessions, sharing of “struggles” which never seemed to improve, and the warm intimacy of shared humiliation.
Religious scholars describe this unhealthy attitude of perpetual struggle, self-flagellation, and self-loathing as “worm theology.” It originated with John Calvin and was made popular by the Isaac Watts hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed?” where one line runs, “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”
The problem with this theology is that it is half-true. Apart from Christ, all people are hopeless sinners. Yet worm theology is also half-false, because believers are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ and are made in the image of God, giving them great value. This is not a mushy bowl of elementary-school self-esteem training; it is the clear biblical reality which trumpets the worth and value of human beings.
By teaching only one-half of the truth about believers—that we are sinners—leaders of unhealthy religious groups miss the tension that we are also moving from glory to glory in Christ and that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Instead, they promote a culture of depression and dependence which makes their followers susceptible to mindless devotion to the leader.
The solution to all of these problems is to hold in tension a clear-eyed view of sin with a healthy sense of biblical self-worth in Christ. By disavowing simplistic extremes, religious leaders and followers can walk in grace and truth and avoid the cult of confession.