“When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you’ve ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you’ve ever met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true it probably is too good to be true! Don’t give up your education, your hopes and ambitions, to follow a rainbow.”
The late Jeannie Mills wrote the above in her book, “Six Years with God” (A&W Publishers: New York, 1979) after she left the infamous cult “The Peoples’ Temple” in South America where more than 900 people took their lives under the direction of cult leader Rev. Jim Jones.
When I read her quote, I shivered. I could have written a similar quote to describe my initial experience in a cainistic church. At first you are “love-bombed.” This practice is a deliberate show of affection, attention and friendship by an individual or group with the purpose to recruit, lure and influence you. It will seem like the most joyous place on earth. No where else have you experienced this kind of love from total strangers.
Rich Damiani in his paper, “Spiritual Abuse within the Church: its Damage and Recovery Process” shares that he was involved in a cult-like church for 19 years, climbing the ladder to leadership before he realized he had been deceived. He refers to it as a “cult of legalism and man-centeredness.”
The question is, how do people like Damiani and me allow ourselves to be deceived and follow blindly? How do cainistic leaders cultivate and maintain this level of abusive power for years or decades? How do the followers in a cainistic church often become co-abusers with Cain and the other leaders? Why don’t people see through the deceit?
The boiling frog story is one explanation. If a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it fails to perceive the danger and will cook to death. At first the practices in a cainistic church feel comforting, almost euphoric. But like the frog, the abuse happens slowly over time so the attendees fail to recognize the abuse. They actually become one with it. That is, until something drastic happens that shocks them or awakens them into seeing the deceit and destruction.
Another reason, points out Damani, is the lust for power in these cainistic, cult-like churches. Blend that with pride, insecurity and an obsessive need to control and a cultist church begins to surface.
When we think of cults, we think of groups that do not claim a Biblical foundation, such as, “The Peoples Temple” with Jim Jones, “Heaven’s Gate” with Marshall Applewhite or the “David Koresh Compound”. I remember how angry my cainistic minister became when someone suggested our Bible-based church was a cult. He was livid and spoke of it with anger from the pulpit, denying it’s truth.
But cults are identified by the use of mind control to recruit and retain their members not on whether they follow the Bible. Christian churches can be cult-obsessed merely by who leads it. Or it can cease to be cult-like if the cainistic leader leaves. According to Damiani, cult-like churches and groups possess the following 6 characteristics:
- 1. An over-emphatic and blind allegiance to a person. That characteristic was so prevalent in my church, that followers actually referred to the church as the minister’s church rather than their own church. He called all the shots and people asked “How high?” when he said “Jump.”
- 2. Thought Reform otherwise known as “Brainwashing” & “Coercive Persuasion.” Thought reform, explains Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D. is the consistent deployment of psychological and social influence in an organized way within a managed environment. In short, it’s the frog story. Your attitudes and behavior are changed incrementally one step at a time according to a specific plan by those leading the church or group.Science supports “thought reform” as unhealthy.
The Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association cites “thought reform” as a contributing factor to “Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” (a diagnosis frequently given to former cult members).
Over 900 people in “The People’s Temple” drank poison because one person—Rev. Jim Jones—told them to.
Abel, in the biblical story of Cain and Abel, was very concerned that his sacrifice be special to God. He didn’t question the request. He gave his prized possession because it was important to him to do what God had asked. That’s what Enablers do in a cainistic church. Foolishly, they give their best because Cain asks for it. Likewise, they are easily influenced by “thought reform” and do what they’ve been subtly programmed to do.
Of course, any one of them will tell you that’s not true, that they alone make their own decisions. But speaking from experience, I can assure you that people in a cainistic church are so caught up in pleasing Cain and being part of a group that feels like a family, they are oblivious to all the ways they are being masterminded to do what Cain wants of them.
- 3. A boundless dependency on the leader or leaders of the group. Obedience to the leader is like obedience to God. Enraptured by Cain’s charismatic personality and caught up in the high energy needs of the group, you defend your allegiance to the church and leaders if anyone dares to speak negatively about it.
- 4. The church has all the answers. The group’s truth is the only way and everything else is dispensable. Whenever a cainistic administrator from my church visited another church, for example, if they went on vacation, they would come back and tell us “They don’t have what we have here.” We were bombarded with the idea that we had the market on truth. For that matter, on everything. All other groups and churches were inferior. A cult-like church is an arrogant place to be. If something doesn’t fit with the principles, the baby is tossed out with the bath water to make it appear that the church has all the answers.
- 5. Fear of leaving the group. Cain decides who emotionally lives and dies within the church. If you break the unspoken rules, you will be emotionally assassinated and shunned by the members. Shame is the ruling force that keeps you in line. The church often prompted us to share very personal information in classes and groups. If you leave, what you told in confidence will be broken. You’re afraid if you leave, your reputation will be smeared or obliterated. Fear usually keeps people in a cainistic, cult-obsessed church or group. “Almost no language is too strong and no amount of anger too great in condemning those who dare to question the group or leave,” points out Damiani.
- 6. Legalism is the way of the church. According to Merriam-Webster online Dictionary, legalism is defined as: strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law , or to a religious or moral code which restricts free choice.This means there is an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct which takes precedence over the Grace of God. Instead, the emphasis is on performance. You are barraged with sermons about giving of your tithes, time, services and gifts.
In my cainistic church, we were told that we would be blessed tenfold when we gave. The more you tithed or gave, the more you were blessed. A favorite line was, “You can’t outgive God.” All of which left attendees feeling that they would not be blessed unless they tithed and performed. Or if they didn’t believe that fully, they suffered anxiety about its possibility. Could it be true? Will God not bless me? You can never rest in God and feel content that God loves you just because you exist. You must always prove your worth. As Rev. Richard L. Dowhower, writes in Recovery From Cults, (W.W. Norton and Company), “Cults view money as an end or as a means toward achieving power or the selfish goals of the leader.”
And, of course if you break the laws, punishment will follow. The biblical Cain was punished for his disobedience. The modern-day cainistic leader, like the Old Testament God, is only to eager to sit with a big stick, waiting to hit you if you mess up. Legalism, points out Damiani, “is one of the clearest and the most damaging aspects of a cultic Christian group.” Sooner or later your emotions will be pulverized in this kind of unhealthy setting,
Damani suffered through 3 years of deep depression, nine months of them suicidal after leaving his cult-like church. His family went through various stages of recovery and blackness. He writes: “My entire world collapsed and I was emotionally ruined. Even now, flashbacks of that time are deeply distressing. In one sense one never fully recovers for there is a part of our lives that can never be recaptured.”
And sadly, because cult-obsessed groups are controlled by cainistic leaders who lack empathy, your emotional pain means absolutely nothing to them. They absolutely have no feeling about it unless you confront them about their lack of emotion and then they show anger as a way to threaten, control and manipulate you to drop the subject.
But healing and hope can return. Remember, those legalistic laws are not God’s laws. They were created and dispersed to control you by a power-hungry leadership with an insatiable appetite for greed and authority. Now, you must find a church that is very different from your old cainistic church. One that does not require you to perform but believes that God loves you just as you are. You can once again find a church or group that brings joy and peace into your life. Remember, scripture tells us that God’s work is to be accomplished “not by might nor by power but by my Spirit” (Zech. 4:6).