If you dialogue with a spiritually abusive leader or cult member, prepare to enter a mind warp. The rules of sense, reason, and accepted definitions go out the window and are replaced with jargon, double-speak, and circular logic. You step out of reality and stare into a funhouse mirror.
Cult leaders make pronouncements which they declare to be true, even if those statements are flatly contradicted by actual events, undisputed facts, or reliable witnesses. When you try to reason with a cult leader, he or she calls your words false, your criticism slander, and your motives biased.
Spiritually abusive leaders redefine words like “slander,” “faith,” and “salvation” in ways which keep their followers trapped in dependence upon the leader. Words which the followers previously thought they understood become mysterious, harsh, and confusing. The leader’s weird definitions settle like a spider’s web around the followers. This is part of the abusive strategy of brainwashing cult members by redefining reality for them. Once they are brainwashed, no amount of logical argument will convince them that the cult leader is wrong. Not until God opens their blinded eyes or the leader falls into grievous sin will cult members see cracks in the façade.
Need an example?
My Cow vs. Your Cow
Think for a moment of a cow. Any cow will do. Can you picture it? Good.
Now imagine that you and I have a conversation about this cow. The conversation runs something like this:
via b3d_ Creative Commons
Me: “I bought a cow yesterday.”
You: “Cool. How much did it cost?”
You: “$6.99?! I thought cows cost way more than that.”
You: “Because everything I know about cows from movies, books, and farmers says that cows are a pretty expensive investment. I thought cows cost hundreds of dollars.”
Me: “Nope. Mine cost $6.99. I can’t imagine anyone paying more than $15 for one. $20 tops.”
You: “That’s crazy. Where did you get a cow for such a cheap price?”
Me: “The place everyone buys cheap cows, of course: Wal-Mart.”
You: “Wal-Mart?! You can’t buy cows at Wal-Mart!”
Me: “I did.”
You: “Wal-Mart couldn’t possibly sell cows. They do sell hamburger meat, however. Is that what you bought?”
Me: “No, I bought a cow, silly. What does hamburger have to do with that?”
You: “Hamburger comes from cows, of course. You’re not making any sense. I’ve never seen a cow at Wal-Mart.”
Me: “Sure you have. Everyone has. You’re the crazy one. Hamburger from cows? That’s just weird, borderline sinful.”
You: “That’s ridiculous! What aisle are ‘cows’ in?”
Me: “Right next to the hammers.”
You: “Right next to the hammers?”
via cometstarmoon Creative Commons
You: “Okay, what color cow did you get?”
Me: “Silver and orange.”
You: “Cows aren’t silver and orange.”
Me: “Actually, most are. It’s a pretty common color scheme for a cow. Either that or school bus yellow.”
You: “This is completely ridiculous. You’re insane. Show me this aberrant orange cow! This silver bovine monstrosity! Where is it? Prove yourself.”
Me: “Right here in my back pocket.”
You: “In your back pocket? That’s not a cow! That’s a monkey wrench!”
Me: “No, it’s a cow.”
Words Have Meaning
Words have meaning. A word can’t mean whatever we want it to mean.
In the conversation above, you had a mental image of what a cow looks like. You took the word “cow” and created a mental picture of it. Your mental cow might look slightly different than another person’s mental cow—black and white, say, rather than all brown—but all of the mental cows are still just one thing: cows.
Cows, that is, until I throw a monkey wrench into the conversation.
The only way any of us can have a conversation that obeys the laws of logic and reason (and thus corresponds to reality) is to use words in the way in which they are commonly defined. A word may have a range of meaning (semantic range, which depends on accepted usage), but it can’t mean anything we want it to mean. In other words, I can’t secretly redefine a word so that it means something which would violate its semantic range of meaning. I can’t call a monkey wrench a cow.
Does that make sense?
via Brandon C. Long, Creative Commons
We probably all could agree with this principle when we refer to concrete words like “cow,” “apple,” or “car.” But what about abstract words like “hope,” “faith,” “rebellion,” or “salvation”? Don’t these words mean different things to different people? If a cult leader or spiritually abusive person redefines these words to mean something completely other than what you or I mean, who is to say that they are wrong and we are right? Who is to stop them from calling salvation “damnation” or grace “works”?
The answer is that we have to decide who the authority is. Who gets to determine what an abstract word means: Is it the cult leader? Is it you or me? Or is it some authoritative source outside of ourselves like a dictionary or the Bible?
For Christians, in the case of abstract words like “salvation,” “slander,” and “rebel,” we use biblical usage to determine the meaning of these words. The Bible is our authority, not our own mental gymnastics or cleverness. And while even the Bible is open to interpretation and some words have a range of meaning, you know you are dealing with a cult leader when he or she redefines words in terms of their opposite meaning.
For example, cutting off family members becomes “love.” Performing works in order to get saved becomes “faith.” Agreeing with whatever the leader says becomes “righteousness.” And asking any questions or expressing doubt becomes “rebellion.” In a twisted world like this, even God starts to act like Satan.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It all started in a far-off garden when someone redefined reality by whispering, “Did God really say?”
Problems and Answers
The problem, of course, is that most cult leaders claim that the Bible is their authority. But they also say that they alone interpret it correctly. They say that everyone else in the world is wrong—all unbelievers, of course, but also most other professing believers—because only he or she, the cult leader, has accurately divided the word of truth. He will claim that his odd definitions are correct because they are “spiritual,” “heavenly wisdom,” “truths expressed by the Spirit,” or some such appeal to biblical language which is actually a smokescreen for his own narcissism and pride.
You can’t win an argument against such a person.
He is insane.
He has stepped outside the boundaries of reality and your use of logic and reason will never reach him. Your cow will never become his monkey wrench.
But you might reach some of his followers. So feel free to restate what the leader has told you and compare it with actual events:
- When a cult leader calls criticism of his group “slander,” he is only using the word correctly if the statements about his group are untrue and are being said in order to defame the group. If they are true, no one has committed slander. Instead, the cult leader is a liar.
- When a cult leader calls outrage over his heinous behavior “persecution,” he is mistaken. He is not being persecuted; he is being called to account. This is justice.
- When a cult leader says that people can only be saved by moving to his church, repenting of all known sin, and doing works of righteousness, he is defining “salvation” in ways that the Bible never does. He can claim anything he wants, but the Bible says something entirely different. He is preaching a false gospel.
- If a cult leader lets a baby die by withholding medical help, or if he ignores allegations of sexual abuse and then tries to cover it up, and if he then says that he acted in faith and that he is a loving and kind person who can be trusted with other people’s children, he is a liar. His actions do not fit the biblical definition of love, nor any definition of the word used by sane people.
It doesn’t take long to determine when a person is redefining clear terms to make them confusing. He or she is doing so in order to make their bizarre behavior appear acceptable. Stick close to facts and logic. The cult leader will not repent—few (if any) ever do. But at some point the leader’s behavior will fall so far out of agreement with his words that even his followers will see the inconsistency and be troubled in their spirits. It always happens.
So take heart and stick to your cows.