Nadine Winocur Craig, M.A., Pepperdine University
Robert Weathers, Ph.D., Pepperdine University
People who join Bible-based cults are sold on the promise that they will be transformed spiritually through their membership. This paper analyzes universal psychological variables of cult induction and organizational dynamics. Human vulnerability to cults is examined from the perspective of Jungian archetypes. The lack of spiritual growth in cult members is explained according to transpersonal development theory. The symbiotic relationship of cult leaders and followers is also explored.
Ironically, the same Bible has also served as a vicious weapon in the arsenals of holy warriors, hate groups, and many others who selectively apply biblical principles, for the most part unconsciously. They fail to espouse key scriptural principles (e.g., love, compassion, and forgiveness) even as they so ardently defend others (e.g., the “closeness” of God’s people, discernment of false spirits, and rejection of evil).
If all Christian groups hold out the promise of personal transcendence via biblical practice within their organization, what is it about the churchly organization itself that does or does not enable this promise to be fulfilled? More emphatically, why is it that the especially dogmatic worship of certain Bible-based cults is so far from delivering on its word (Enroth, 1977, Sire, 1980)? It is curious not only that such rigid use of the Bible would lead to something so far from its own teaching, but that people would be misled into initially believing, as new converts, and into continually deceiving themselves, as members, that they are in fact growing spiritually and realizing their dreams of transcendence.
This paper explores the mechanisms underlying the Bible-based cult’s false transformational promise to the cult member. The paper is exploratory and theoretical, building upon the senior author’s personal experience in the Boston (“Discipling”) Movement within the Churches of Christ and her interactions with approximately 25 families with Bible-based cult members who have requested intervention counseling, in addition to numerous informal interactions with former cult members. Boston Church of Christ leaders’ source material is also a primary resource for this paper, though observations made in this study effectively apply to Bible-based cults which are similar to the Boston Church of Christ.
We describe the Bible-based cult’s appeal to its followers as a manipulative promise to fulfill cult members’ needs in the area of their psychological development. We employ Michael Washburn’s model of transpersonal psychological development, which is based on psychodynamic/developmental theories from psychology (particularly Jung), yet which also remains sympathetic to human spirituality, to discuss how cults induct and repeatedly coerce members according to a methodology geared toward common human vulnerabilities. The personal dynamics of cult leaders and followers are differentiated and their relationship to one another explored in order to determine how leaders exploit followers, even as the latter seek normally-expected social reinforcement from the former.
The Goal and Methodology of the Bible-based Cult
Far from providing assistance to church members in their personal spiritual walk, the cult’s true goal is to induce in the members complete dependence on the church (Enroth, 1979). The cultic church formulates and frequently revises its doctrine to serve this goal, rather than allow members to reach their own understanding of the Bible and pursue their individualized purposes and lifestyles. Thus, Bible-based cults believe themselves in exclusive possession of the truth (Enroth, 1989). They base this claim on their unique Bible interpretation or extra-Biblical revelation. Cultic churches contend that there is only one possible means of living that will pass God’s judgment, namely, to belong to their church. This is in contrast to most non-cultic Christian groups, which give others license to practice their own version of Christianity, so long as it does not contradict Scripture. The cult’s elitist mentality is upheld at the same time that total reliance on the Bible is preached, thus overlooking Scriptures which indicate that only God has the ability or the right to judge who will be saved. It is necessary for cults to judge outsiders so that they can control their own members (Hassan, 1988). Such a doctrinal stance is calculated to leave cult members with no place else to go, and with no choice but to depend on the church’s instructions on how to live a life worthy of salvation.
The cultic church’s methodology works to convince members that the church has complete spiritual authority. Members are led to believe that they have found the only true path to salvation and happiness, even as the church is exploiting them for its own purposes. The process of mind control involves taking ordinary people — who are capable of thinking in shades of gray and competent to make innumerable daily decisions — and influencing them to exchange their belief systems and thought patterns to think only in global and absolutistic terms (Singer, 1986). Members are actively led to look to the church to make all their major daily and life decisions for them. Even from their initial contact with the cult, church members are led to regress: first emotionally, through the group’s befriending them (though amidst authoritarian conditions of worth), and next, cognitively and behaviorally, through comprehensive indoctrination and ongoing regimentation of daily routines (C. Giambalvo, personal communication, February 2, 1990). This process continues until members reach an infantile state of dependence on the church in which they fear social and spiritual condemnation and desperately need affirmation.
The Mother Archetype and Ego Development
The cult systematically zeroes in on areas of emotional susceptibility until it convinces candidates that their deep-seated desires can only be fulfilled through utter devotion to the church. What unconscious desires does the cult prey upon in order to impel converts to desire membership, even though they must sacrifice central characteristics of the self: autonomy, spontaneity, and creativity (Masterson, 1985)? Carl Jung provided one key to this question in his mapping of the unconscious, in which he uncovered the archetypes which mark the path toward maturation of the human soul (Jung, 1912/1967). The church promises fulfillment of the cult member’s archetypal needs by assuming the role in members’ psyches of an all-important archetype, namely, the “Mother.”
The “Mother” archetype is represented externally by our original caretaker, and internally by our unconscious conception of both nurturing and authority, which consequently influences our self-esteem and sense of equality with others. According to Washburn’s model of transpersonal psychological development, the progression from pre-egoic to egoic stages is guided by the driving force of the need to individuate from Mother (Washburn, 1988). Initially in a state of “original embedment,” infants are psychologically embedded in the Mother’s identity. Newborns cannot differentiate between inner and outer realities and are defenselessly open to whatever stimulus joins their reality. Infants are entirely dependent on Mother for meeting their primary needs, and their internal dynamics reflect Mother’s fulfillment, or lack thereof, of the infants’ physical and emotional needs. As Alice Miller points out, this includes “a legitimate narcissistic need to be noticed, understood, taken seriously, and respected by. . .the mother at [their] disposal. . .and to be mirrored by her” (Miller, 1981, p. 32).
Infants experience conflict over their dependence. On the one hand, Mother is generally good at meeting infants’ needs. Moreover, when infants are out of discomfort and in the loving arms of Mother, they experience a paradisiacal exuberance over such well-being. Soon, however, infants begin to experience a frightening sense of vulnerability and defenselessness — to parental neglect or abuse, and to unfulfilling interactions with Mother, i.e., when infants are placed on a feeding schedule and their desires are not readily satiated. Thus, developing infants are engaged in a critical struggle between the desire to continue their passive dependence on Mother, a state of continual receptivity to both her positive and negative aspects, and the desire to individuate, to gain autonomy, and to develop resources for self-validation, a prerequisite for the entire life enterprise (Washburn, 1988).
While the resolution of this conflict differs for everyone, most individuals progress to the egoic stage; that is, they at least develop some degree of autonomy and individual identity. Usually the more conditions Mother places on her love, the more she is viewed as a “Terrible Mother” as opposed to a “Great Mother”; and consequently the stronger, yet often more conflicted, the infant’s perceived need to separate and individuate (Washburn, 1988).
The formation of ego depends primarily on children’s acceptance of their own natural feelings and impulses, and this in turn is conditioned upon Mother’s affirmation of her child’s individual resources (Miller, 1981). To the extent that Mother rejects her children’s attempts to express themselves freely, or does not provide adequate nurturing and mirroring throughout the process of child identity formation, children will lack confidence in their natural impulses and self-worth, and will continue as adults to seek inordinate positive reinforcement from others. While children may try to compensate by developing a firm egoic identity in areas of intellect and achievement, the pre-egoic need for affirmation will haunt them in their relationships with others, and they will develop compensatory behaviors, such as self-denial or manipulation of others, in order to receive this affirmation (Miller, 1981).
The Cult’s Recruitment of New Converts
The Bible-based cult focuses on such universal human vulnerabilities in its recruitment strategies. Converts are promised a radical degree of validation. They are taught that God is granting them forgiveness and salvation, at the same time that they experience “love-bombing,” an intense demonstration of unconditional love from church members. Members aim to attract newcomers by exhibiting what they believe to be “Christ-like” behavior, which they model after their hierarchical superiors. They perceive their own outpouring of love toward newcomers as a reflection of the spiritual growth God is producing within them, a reward for their efforts toward righteousness. From the perspective of transpersonal development, what members are in effect doing is creating the appearance that the church will offer converts the potential for completion of their pre-egoic needs toward developmental growth. A loving environment becomes a means of renegotiating past conflicts over individuation from Mother. In the church, converts may feel they have discovered a resolution of whatever degree of unconscious conflict they continue to experience (or, re-experience as a result of their contact with the cult) in relation to their individuation.
In their dealings with newcomers church members try to give the impression of having achieved spiritual transcendence. For example, members converse primarily about spiritual matters and maintain an exterior of undivided focus and devotion to God. They strain to radiate a “Christ-like” sense of joy and timelessness, and to be unaffected by the usual disappointments of daily life. Visitors might conclude that cult members are not burdened by normal emotional baggage, the kind which magnifies daily upsets and triggers irrational reactions to significant others. With regard to their psychological development, church members have seemingly surpassed the egoic stage and arrived at the “transegoic,” or integrated level of development. According to Washburn, the transegoic stage is reached when the ego no longer feels threatened by the unconscious “dynamic life” from which it emerged, and with which it has heretofore battled for a position of control. Washburn describes the transition beyond the egoic stage as a rare phenomenon, one which involves a dialectical return of the ego back into the “underworld” of dynamic life, which has become very threatening to the ego in its efforts to dominate. The achievement of true psychological (and consequently, spiritual) transcendence is synonymous with the re-emergence of the ego in a new position of subordination and subservience to the dynamic life. When they enter into a contract with the church, then, new members are led to anticipate redevelopment: first a return to pre-egoic embedment in Mother, next, individuation, and ultimately, ego transcendence.
This promise of transformation through redevelopment is expressed in language such as “spiritual growth” and “being made over in the image of Jesus.” New members feel a sense of renewal and new opportunity through the experience of “death” and “rebirth” in conversion. They have entered into a transcendent moral order whose greatness is beyond self, time, and imagination. Their new belief system provides a promise of security and life meaning which “…legitimates the demands made on members by the group” (Enroth, 1977). The work they are required to do to overcome their “sinful” nature (which includes such “sins” as individuality and normal self-esteem) simulates the authentic working through of the ego’s control over the dynamic life.
The Cult Member’s Regression
The period just after conversion is in sharp contrast to the recruitment period; the love-bombing ends and the testing of one’s loyalty begins. As new members strive to live up to the requirements now placed on them, they must suppress critical thoughts, purge themselves of undesirable feelings (often including love for family and friends), and renounce all self-nurturing desires and behaviors. The dynamic life of their unconscious must be deeply repressed while the ego struggles to conform to the group and its cultic mandates. New converts are warned that Satan is on the prowl for them; the analogy to Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the desert is often used to prepare converts for battle. Consequently, converts re-interpret their intrapersonal struggles as Satan tempting them. Those who successfully continue in the church are in this way compelled to allow her, as a surrogate parental figure, to dictate their lifestyle down to the smallest detail.
Eric Hoffer has stated that people in mass movements are not encouraged in “bolstering and advancing a cherished self” (Hoffer, 1951, p. 21). Similarly, members of Bible-based cults are coerced via mind control techniques (Lifton, 1961) to unconsciously desire not to build on their own ego-identity, but rather to return to their original embedment in Mother and pre-egoic means of affective and cognitive functioning. Their original embedment represented an ego-less state; and now, as in earlier psychological development, converts are promised freedom from the burdens of self-defining responsibility. They are promised marvelous satiation.
Initially followers are ecstatic about being bound eternally to the church and its requirements. The highly controlled cultic setting replicates the archetypal Mother, who this time has no opportunity to reject or neglect her children’s needs for validation. New recruits enjoy their status of “baby Christians” or “spiritual children,” as the cults commonly refer to them (Enroth, 1977). Internal discord soon occurs, however, for new converts have also unwittingly agreed to subject themselves to the cult’s “Terrible Mother” side. The cultic church operates according to the hidden agenda of establishing the member’s permanent psychological dependence. The Bible is used as a tool of manipulation to foster regression toward pre-egoic functioning. Scriptures (all Bible citations are from Thompson, 1983) which point to freedom through obedience, such as John 8:31-32 (“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”) and life through death, such as Luke 9:24 (“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it”) are emphasized.
The loss of self increases as converts renounce their past self as sinful and deny their autonomy so that the church may stand as judge over their spiritual status. The church evaluates new members’ performance according to how zealously they try to fit into the role of “true Christian.” This role requires a radical identity change involving members’ entire world of thought. They must passively focus on the church’s doctrine and evangelism. Their time becomes fully occupied by church and religious activity. Their family and friends are replaced by other church members. Their emotional and sexual impulses are highly censured by the introjected voice of the church’s leadership. And their entire frame of reference for perceiving reality becomes the group ethos rather than their own (Hassan, 1988). Thus, members become estranged from themselves.
The Cult Member’s Self-Estrangement
After effecting an enduring estrangement of the self, the cult, through its judicious use of reinforcement and punishment, elicits ever greater sacrifices to the church. Members gain a reassuring sense of security and belonging through their community with others. The daily meetings, worship services, group prayers, Bible discussions, and classes help members feel a oneness with each other and produce a “high,” which members attribute to their “chosen” status. This pre-egoic affect of exuberance actually reflects the loss of egoic boundaries, which occurs as members give in to the church’s reinforcement of group participation and conformity.
Any resistance to the loss of individuality must be denied and repressed if converts are to retain their salvation: “To the degree individuals hold back commitment to the totalist cult, they are evidencing the very problems which need healing” (Zeitlin, 1985). The Bible-based cult emphasizes such Scriptures as Matthew 18:3 (“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”) and Hebrews 13:17 (“Follow your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”), which warn converts to place doubt and blame on themselves and their own ignorance of “correct” Biblical interpretation. The message is to submit to rather than challenge church leadership. Members must continually seek direction from their superiors as to how they might place the needs of others above their own. They are required to “die to themselves,” even with respect to needs for nutrition and sleep (Hassan, 1988). Their submission commonly leads to being victimized by and participating in verbal and physical abuse, including child and sexual abuse (Stetson, as interviewed by Neff, 1984). Members are rebuked and often punished if they express any negative emotions associated with the required self-sacrifice.
Such double binds serve to create a further vilification and alienation of self, along with a distrust in one’s own perceptions and judgment, and a feeling of helplessness toward ever achieving salvation apart from the church. Members are continually pressured into conformity through the fear of being stigmatized as “weak Christians,” “bad-hearted,” “rebellious,” etc. They are threatened with “shunning,” that is, having the affection of others withdrawn from them. The possibility of disfellowship always looms over them (Blood, 1984). Also, through the continual “challenging” of members to increase their own spiritual maturity through greater conformity and sacrifice, they are subjected to ever-changing standards, and their self-esteem is worn down. Since family and other outsiders are depicted as evil, the cult member cannot go to them for support. Thus, with their ego atrophied and with outside opinion invalidated, followers’ only recourse is to accelerate their own self-sacrifice in order to earn praise from within the group. All of this generates the dynamic of a continually intensifying need for validation and a further regression toward pre-egoic developmental capacities. The result is that the potential for authentic spiritual transcendence is lost.
The Cult’s Power Hierarchy
There is a distinct difference between the psychological dynamics of cult followers and their leaders. Bible-based cults are typically founded and led by a particular individual who is viewed as the most righteous among them and is often considered a prophet or the incarnation of God. His (note: the patriarchal line as exemplified in the Bible) authority may be singular, but it is most often partially delegated to a hierarchical structure of leadership, necessitated by the church’s agenda of proliferating membership. Such a structure utilizes the personal overseer system, from which Bible-based cults have gained the name “discipling” or “shepherding” groups. Below the founding leader there are multiple levels of leadership, from the commonly held position of “discipler,” or personal overseer, to positions leading whole ministries within the church. Leadership status is gained by making converts and by keeping others in line.
The discipling system is successful because all members are covertly led toward roles of leadership. Their personalities are manipulated and refashioned in a manner consistent with what the high leaders feel will be most attractive and effective in winning converts, namely, their own (leaders’) personality styles and temperaments. Some members take to their new identity very quickly and rise into leadership positions, while many feel less blessed and either rise slowly or are never rewarded with responsibility over others. The primary author’s experience has been that many of the less-successful members develop neurotic tendencies or more serious pathologies in response to their failure under such constant pressure (Singer, 1986).
Psychological Dynamics of Cult Leaders
One fundamental difference between leaders (those who fit comfortably in their new role) and followers (those who do not) is their means of eliciting affirmation from others. In his book, ÿ…A Sociable Godÿ•, transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber describes the cult member’s relationship with the church as “passive dependence” (Wilber, 1983), i.e., followers are forcibly maintained in a passive, or subordinate role in their means of obtaining affirmation. Leaders, on the other hand, might be described as active dependents, since they actively ensure others’ affirmation of their own self-worth. The natural cult leader has deeply repressed any awareness of his insecurities and is in ceaseless peril of losing his egoic identity to the terrifying reality of his powerful neediness. He must compulsively remind himself that he is worthy, and he manipulates those around him to provide him with the validation he desperately seeks.
Active dependent leaders fixate rigidly in the early egoic stage of ego-development. By refusing to acknowledge their needs and insecurities, their assumption of leadership roles and functions in the cult becomes destructively misguided. Cult members provide active dependent leaders a vulnerable group of people, who can be deceived into making the self-sacrifices demanded by the leaders’ self-serving compulsion. “Their hypocrisy adds to their insecurity and causes them to become even more defensively authoritarian” (McClung, 1988 pp.240-241). Bypassing the necessary remedial work for authentic ego development, these leaders achieve ego-inflation in three ways: (a) by placing themselves in a position of authority, (b) by preserving the power structure of the church, and (c) by increasing their followers’ dependence and self-sacrifice.
Driven by their need for ego-inflation, leaders establish Bible-based cults (or their pre-existing relationship with a congregation turns cultic) premised on the notion that they have some special knowledge or divine revelation, a special position with God, or are themselves divine (Sharff, 1986). Whether these people believe their own claims or not, their position of Spiritual Master, together with their magnetic yet coercive charisma, enables them to gain ultimate control over their followers. While some followers remain passively dependent, some better fit the active dependent personality and the church’s agenda of cloning leaders. These rising leaders serve their superiors in order to gain approbation, higher status, and control over others. Having achieved leadership status, they seek to increase their realm of authority by converting more people into the church, people whose spiritual welfare will be placed either directly or indirectly under themselves.
Leaders preserve the power structure of the church by granting authority only to those in leadership and by controlling the flow of information so as to maintain that authority. Superiors appoint members as leaders; they are not elected. Influence flows from the top down. There is no manipulative power in horizontal unity. Rather, vertical uniformity of thought is demanded of all (Hassan, 1988). According to M. Miles, organizations with highly structured authority systems forbid open investigation of the organization’s structure and process, and develop norms to inhibit reciprocal process observation and commentary, thereby enabling leaders to maintain a position of arbitrary authority (cited in Yalom, 1985). The higher one’s status, the more spiritually mature and holy one is considered: the opinion of lower-status members is insignificant, or “carnal,” by comparison. Disagreement with leadership is branded as “the sin of dissension,” and followers are manipulated through guilt and fear to keep all legitimate questions to themselves (Enroth, 1979).
In addition to the techniques of reinforcement and punishment noted earlier, the leaders “. . .foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focussing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority” (Enroth, 1979). Leaders are responsible for directing the path of their subordinates’ relationship with God; they consequently act as mediator and the voice of God’s Spirit. As mediator, they control the private lives of followers (Enroth, 1979) and gain possession of followers’ resources, in particular their finances, their possessions, and their energies toward evangelism. Such use of authority is not Biblical. Disciples are not asked to obey leaders’ advice subject to their own reasoning and conscience, but under all circumstances without questioning, and in matters of opinion as well as doctrine (Jones, 1989, Enroth 1989).
Perhaps leaders’ most coercive method of increasing followers’ dependence is requiring followers to prove their discipleship by serving as a living extension of the leaders’ own ego. Followers are required to mechanically imitate their immediate superior’s personality, including flaws and quirks (Jones, 1989, Hassan, 1988). Their superiors imitate their own overseers, and all personalities ultimately reflect the persona of the cult’s founder. In his book ÿ…The Discipling Dilemmaÿ•, Yeakley (1988) describes the results of a study in which he administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to over 900 members of the Boston Church of Christ. Participants were asked to respond to the questions according to three sets of criteria: first, as the person they were one year before they encountered the church; second, as their present self; and third, as the person they will be five years from now, assuming they remain faithful to the church. Their answers indicated that, prior to membership, their personalities varied normally, but that their current state showed a grave narrowing of personality types down to the Extroverted-Sensing- Feeling-Judging (ESFJ) category. Their answers to the third set of criteria confirmed that all current members were headed toward this particular personality type; that is, members are being cloned in the likeness of the church’s leaders. His studies of the Unification Church, The Way, Maranatha, and the Children of God showed similar convergence toward a single personality type. Comparable research done on non-cultic churches, however, showed only insignificant, random changes of personality categories for individual subjects over the three test conditions.
Bible-based cults are able to attract members through the use of mind control methodology that exploits legitimate archetypical and developmental needs. Cult leaders usurp the role of Mother in the psyche of followers, which perpetuates the leaders’ own ego-inflation and keeps them fixated in the ego-building stage of transpersonal development. This dynamic in turn regresses followers toward pre-egoic potentials, rendering them self-alienated and permanently dependent, and obstructs their path toward ego-transcendence. Hence, followers are deceived by the cult’s host of unfulfilled promises.
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Nadine Winocur Craig, M.A. is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Psychology program at Pepperdine University, Culver City, California. She is a former member of the Boston Church of Christ and an intervention consultant for Bible-based cults.
Robert Weathers, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University, Culver City, California. He teaches and has published articles dealing with the integration of spirituality and psychology.