Must-Have Power

As David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen state in their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, leaders in an abusive religious system “spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well.”[i] Those with true spiritual power walk their talk. Their life is their message. Cain’s life is a lie, a sham, a charade. He must spend all his time telling you how great and powerful he is to cover up the farce.

The control issues in my cainistic church grew stronger and increasingly more destructive over the years. For example, before a person could teach classes in this church, it was mandatory that they complete a two year program to become a licensed instructor. One day Cain boldly announced to all the teachers that starting immediately it was mandatory that they attend every Sunday service, and if their attendance was not in agreement with his new ruling, he would revoke their privilege to teach classes at the church. Everyone must come underneath Cain.

That was the day my friend, Pam (name has been changed to protect her privacy), walked out. Although she had been a member and a licensed instructor for decades, she dropped out of the church never to return.  She did not quibble or protest but prudently walked out of the mire of control and misuse. There would have been no advantage in talking to Cain about his decree because once he made a decision, there was no turning back. Furthermore, nobody questions Cain without paying for it, and he never forgets a dissenter. Even if Pam believed God called her to be a teacher, Cain determined the conditions of that calling. If the instructors taught classes at the church, then they must pay the price of listening to his sermons each and every Sunday.

Likewise, the staff at the cainistic church was overworked and underpaid due to his autocratic leadership. He demanded long hours without complaints. Both burnout and turnover were vast. When fiscal deficit hit the roof, we learned that the staff had received one 3 percent raise in 5 years while the cainistic minister had received a 10 percent raise every year. The monies were unquestionably appropriated to the minister first, and the staff was considered if there was money left over. He also made sure he had a contract, not a salary—all of which exposed his lack of empathy. There was no feeling for others, only for him.

As long as the church board did nothing to prevent this distortion and unfairness, he got away with it. There were nine board members that made business assessments and decisions with Cain. Where were they during all this staff abuse? Why did they blindly follow his dictates without daring to go against his decisions? In short, they complied to avoid being shamed. The shame Cain doled out was so vindictive and nasty at times, it was akin to an emotional crucifixion.

While I was there, the cainistic minister harassed and lost six worship assistants in seven years. One of his dirty little control tricks was to ask where his assistant was during the middle of a Sunday service as if he suddenly needed her to check the thermostat or get him a bottle of water because his throat was dry and he was having trouble speaking.

If she was not in the sanctuary at that moment he called out her name, she caught hell later. I suspected he usually did that after he had already watched her leave the room. He was that devious. Destructive, malignant Cains find enjoyment in seeing others suffer. They are extremely mean-spirited and diabolical, always looking for a reason to lord their power over an Enabler and punish her. After one of the assistants quit, she quietly told me that nothing was ever good enough for him. No matter how hard she tried, he always criticized something about her.

I watched him move from assistant to assistant, heaping spiteful mistreatment on his targets who had once believed in him like I had believed in him, but who turned into nothing more than his battered toys. He picked at their flaws and just before they smacked the proverbial wall, he withdrew the abuse, feigning that he didn’t know what he had done to upset them. They must be supersensitive, he decided. He was always so blameless, so innocent of any wrongdoing.

If he did not know his crime, then he could not be held responsible for it, could he? Like the story of Cain and Abel, even when God tried to show Cain his mistakes by letting the straw smolder rather that burn, Cain refused to admit he made a mistake. Instead, he made one last attempt to deny everything. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he retorted to God. Heaven forbid that he should stand up and accept responsibility for killing Abel.

Hundreds of demoralized staff, speechless board members, disgruntled congregation and attendees fled when they caught on to the hypocrisy. I asked administration and board members, who were incessantly talking about “building the numbers” (which meant adding more members to the rolls) why they did not talk with the people who left to find out why they had left. It fell on deaf ears. When I left for almost a year, not one person ever contacted me to say they missed me or ask me why I had left the church. Cain knew why, and his administration and followers knew, too. As you might imagine, the numbers dwindled and the door was always swinging.

Volunteers were treated with the same perfunctory manner.  If the minister felt threatened by a volunteer, he would schedule a mandatory meetings at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning when a volunteer, who was lovingly and willingly giving free time, might have personal activities scheduled or want to sleep in. I once retorted, “You’d think we worked here the way they treat us.”  There are no such thing as personal boundaries when Cain abuses his authority; They are routinely ignored or trampled on.

[i] Johnson, David, VanVonderen Jeff. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Bethany House Publishers. MN 1991


Cult-Like Obsession in a Cainistic Church

“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.”
  • Over 900 people in “The People’s Temple” drank poison because one person—Rev. Jim Jones—told them to.

  • 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).

  • 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).