How to Stop a Cult, Part 1: Building a Cult

A cult requires two things: one or more leaders–usually one–and a set followers.

If you have those two things, you’ve got the beginnings of what can easily become a cult.

In other words, ANYTHING can become a cult.

It can be a religious group; it can be a club; it can be a company (think multi-level marketing); it can be a gang; it can be a government agency; it can be a head of state.

But how does a cult typically start?

For one, it usually begins with a leader. More often than not, the leader has a substantial amount of charisma. He (in some cases she) is someone who inspires a certain loyalty. He is usually a dynamic speaker, with great people skills to boot. He may appear (or at least initially be) charitable, selfless, kind, devoted, and trustworthy. He may even be humble in his beginning stages.

As he begins his run, the leader is all that and change. He attracts a swath of people, he is likeable, he is providing answers that many people need (and that some people want to hear). The group is growing, people are happy, and some of the growth takes on a momentum of its own.

The problem is, at this stage, there are some critical, subtle switches–both within him and within the hearts of the people in the group–that people flip, and, as they flip those switches, they make fateful choices.

That critical stage where this occurs is early in the process, not later.

The leader may begin to see the devotion of the people around him, and that stokes his ego.

The people may get energized by the growth of their group and the dynamic nature of their leader, and they decide he can do no wrong.

Through that subtle process, the leader goes from a humble servant with charisma to a powerful leader who is never wrong. He starts believing that about himself, and the people in his group become HIS followers. They have made him their god; he has accepted the job.

You now have a cult. It may be large; it may be small. But it is a cult.

If you are in a church setting, here’s what it looks like:

(1) Most of the people come to church just because they like the pastor. They are less-interested in the Christian implications–or even the Biblical veracity–of his message; they are attracted to HIM.

(2) If you dare to question the veracity of anything the pastor says or does, you can count on ending up on the pastor’s–or his lieutenant’s–permanent doo-doo list. At best, you will be ignored for the rest of your time there; at worst, you will be called everything short of Satan himself and run out of town. Come to think of it, if they run you out, they may be doing you a favor…

(3) The pastor becomes very controlling and micromanagy. If he doesn’t think you are giving enough money, you’ll get a visit. If you take any initiative as a teacher, you may find yourself getting grilled by his lieutenants. If you cannot give him undying devotion, you will become persona non grata. If you tell him anything he does not want to hear, you are marked for life.

(4) As a counselor, the pastor becomes very domineering. He makes your decisions for you rather than guide you through the process of making those decisions yourself. (Sometimes, he starts doing that because people WANT him to do that, but–rather than force people to own their responsibilities–he becomes accustomed to that as the default for everyone else, and he begins doing this in ways that work to HIS advantage and not necessarily the best interests of the people involved.)

(5) As a husband, he may be controlling and/or abusive. That abuse may be physical, it may be sexual, it may be overt–or even covert–manipulation. That once charitable, selfless leader is now the most controlling, domineering, pathological mass of flesh that has no resemblance to the Biblical Jesus. At home, his wife and kids see him as a self-serving son of Belial–look that up in 1 Samuel–who puts on a costume every Sunday and Wednesday.

At this point, everyone knows what he is, but they are now afraid to call attention to the large elephant defecating all over the room. They will CRUSH dissenters, even though they know better. At this point, disaster is likely, and a peaceful resolution is close to impossible.

(6) In a worst-case scenario, the pastor starts taking sexual liberties that are not his to take. It may be with another woman; several other women; teenage girls; even members of the same sex. At this point, the disaster is imminent.

The best-case scenario: a nasty church split;

The medium scenario: a sex scandal that rocks the leadership and forces people back to their senses (think Jack Schaap).

The worst-case: mass suicide (think Jim Jones).

16 thoughts on “How to Stop a Cult, Part 1: Building a Cult

  1. Double worst case: Rapidly grow to millions of members including prominent movie stars and political leaders.

    There are many worse things in life than having too much sex with the wrong people.

    Note: Christianity is so vulnerable to cults because the Bible has a whole lot of built-in parts to explain away challenge, adversity and hardship. Everything is a “test”, or “Satan trying to bring us down because he knows we are close to the truth”.

    • Celebrity status–as seen in high-profile “ministries” (Bakker/PTL, Robertson/700 Club, Joel Osteen, etc.)–definitely carries potential fallout all its own.

      Note: Christianity is so vulnerable to cults because the Bible has a whole lot of built-in parts to explain away challenge, adversity and hardship. Everything is a “test”, or “Satan trying to bring us down because he knows we are close to the truth”.

      I’d say that the Bible has a lot of admonitions from which a person can evaluate a minister objectively. There are ways that the Apostles taught and preached and admonished.

      There are ways that they called on men to act; there are ways they called on women to act; there are ways they commanded husbands and wives and parents and children to treat one another; there is particular emphasis in what they preach; there are even admonitions about false teachers and their characteristics.

      The problem, however, is that many people are shockingly ignorant of those things, in spite of the fact that there is no shortage of Biblical study aids and theological education available–for free–to anyone who wants it.

      • Yes. But then the Apostles never tried to build for themselves a large structure with weekly meetings, progarms for children, singles groups, bible studies, Chior and musical accompanyment. The Apostles built communities of believers and never tried to build them only to milk them to increase their own wealth and stature. The Apostles didn’t go to seminary or to get advanced degrees in pastoral counseling. None of the Apostles spend any time every day studying the new Testiment.

        • Yep. Back then, churches were actually smaller in number. And the political situation was such that there was a significant risk of getting bigger, as that would draw too much attention from malevolent powers.

          Pastors generally were of the bivocational variety–they didn’t earn a living from “full-time” ministry. Paul, for example, was a tentmaker.

          And when I mention “theological education”, I’m not so much thinking of seminary as much as I am the availability of Bible translations, translation aids, commentaries, dictionaries, and historical accounts of how certain doctrines were formed and why.

          A lot of people get the idea that only the “really educated” people can learn this stuff. That’s simply not true.

          But one of the biggest takeaways from those items is this: whenever someone comes around and speaks of the Bible’s “hidden codes” or “hidden secrets” or claims to have some “special revelation” or claims to know something that evaded the Church for the last 2,000 years, it is definitely a red flag.

          And while it is true that they didn’t go to seminary, the Apostles–with the exception of Paul–spent three years getting browbeaten by Jesus. They also knew the OT very well, and Paul was probably the equivalent of a double PhD: he was one of the best of the best in terms of understanding the OT, and he was in a unique position to present the OT with respect to Jesus.

          But nope, the church was not a business back then. Contrast that with today…

          • Pastors generally were of the bivocational variety–they didn’t earn a living from “full-time” ministry. Paul, for example, was a tentmaker.

            Not necessarily… Just read a passage today where Paul was saying how pastors are entitled to food and shelter from its congregants…

            “Since we have planted spiritual seed among you, aren’t we entitled to a harvest of physical food and drink?” – 1 Cor 9:11

            Of course, couched in this admonishment of what he is entitled to is the insistence of his generosity by not demanding it of them.

          • Even then, pastors were largely bivocational back then. This was mostly out of financial necessity. That is how the reality worked out.

            Of course, the more financially capable regions–like Laodicaea–probably had some full-timers.

            We all know how that ended…

      • It is amazing to me how just about every letter after Corinthians contains in it a message about False Teachers. Peter, John, James, and almost ever letter by Paul has words of warning on how to identify them.

        Galatians even says we should confront our pastors in cases of false teachings.

        But as PH says, its too bad we aren’t so well versed in it =/

    • There are many worse things in life than having too much sex with the wrong people.

      I agree. That’s why I labeled a sex scandal a medium-case scenario. In the Church, a sex scandal usually results in the fall of the leader. While that is embarrassing and painful for the congregation, it gives them the opportunity to confront the issues that led to the situation.

      (NOTE: Not all churches that experience sex scandals are cults. But such churches are particularly vulnerable to this because the pastor–and sometimes other leaders–get to the point where they think they are above the rules.)

  2. Capital Baptist. We used to attend there Tim. I often think it slipped into a “cultish” click before I left. I’m wondering if you would define it as a cult or just a pathetic church.

    • Ah. Gotcha. I would not categorize it as a cult. It had some dysfunction, but–in my experience–the pastor was a decent counselor. He has some quirks, but he’s always struck me as harmless.

    • OTOH he did have some issues that could have led there. To his credit, though, people did not worship him there. At least not from what I saw. And while he had some idiosyncracies, I didn’t get the third degree for leaving.

  3. I think the main issue is scripture. My concern is that in a lot of evangelical churches, the pastor becomes the infallible interpreter. People are often too lazy to study the Bible for themselves, and the pastor becomes the standard of what is right and what is wrong, rather than a teacher. That is dangerous.

    The problem is that people don’t know how to interpret the Bible anymore. We don’t teach people how to do basic interpretation of the text of scripture, and hence, they are forced to believe whatever their pastor tells them. If he has charisma and is a likeable guy, then that just adds more fuel to the fire.

    What we need to recover is a love of human language, and understand how the language of the Bible works and operates. I have also seen in my own teaching experience, the necessity of giving real life examples from modern English so that people can see that consistency. True, I am an aspie, and Biblical languages and linguistics is my main area, but I would say, if the Bible is allowed to speak, we won’t have the problems of leaders getting to much power, because the Bible will be there to correct them.

    • my late Mentor would always always say to me, “Don’t take my word for it, find it in the Bible … and let the Bible validate itself … find it in three places in the Bible.”

      it takes time to read the Bible and to let God speak to you through what you read. i don’t think people realize that we have the power of Holy God right there, waiting to literally be poured into our hearts and minds and souls and beings … simply by reading it ourselves. either they don’t realize it, or they don’t take the time … or they’d rather read a book to summarize it for them. sad.

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