Was I in a Cult?

When I tell people about my childhood church, they will usually insist that I was in a cult.  While I strongly suspect that they are correct, I never thought of myself as a cult member. Sure, my church may have shunned the outside world and taught that it alone possessed “the truth” but we never had to swear our undying loyalty to the leaders or live in a compound or drink poison. Should you wish to stop attending the church, you were free to do so, but you had to accept that the members who remained were no longer your brothers in the Lord or even friends; you were automatically disfellowshipped and labeled an apostate.

Most who hear my story (and there is much more to it) shake their heads and tell me how unlucky I was to end up in such an “extremist” church. That is not normal they tell me. Why would your parents go to a church like that?

Frankly, I believe that these types of churches are far more “normal” then people think. Thousands of small independent fundamentalist churches dot the American landscape; you probably drive past a couple every week on your way to church. I know that I do. You don’t know about them because you don’t attend them; you have your own place of worship. But yet, these churches do exist and each one has a story. Granted, not every one has a story like mine – but many do.

“There are churches like that?” I remember a close friend of mine asking me a few months ago after hearing my story. “I’ve never heard of such a thing”. Well of course not. He grew up in a well-structured denominational church that had little contact with these smaller churches. His world was a whole another world.

So is the type of church that I grew up in really a cult? I have struggled with this question for a long time. Which line has to be crossed in order for a church to be categorized as a cult?

In his book The New Cults, the late legendary Walter Martin defined a cult as “a group religious in nature which surrounds a leader, or a group which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrines.” Hmmm. What are the essential biblical doctrines and who defines them? Who is to say if a passage is being misinterpreted? After all, we believed that we were the only church correctly interpreting the Bible. We were unique. Everyone else was cultish or cult like because they subscribed to the “wrong” doctrines. So scratch that definition. I think it just causes more confusion.

For me, the word cult has much more to do with isolation and control than with doctrine. A cult is a group of people who believe that they alone possess “the truth” and that they should isolate themselves from those who disagree with them. The members of a cult are generally expected to conform to a way of living that is consistent with that special truth. And there is always a leader, of course. A leader to guide them deeper and deeper into all that this truth entails.

Thus, a religious cult is not so much about the doctrine itself but rather about how the people guard that doctrine and claim it to be a special divine word from God. In other words, they hold up their interpretation of scripture to be inspired just like the scriptures themselves are.

My church was completely self contained. There was no accountability to any person or entity outside of the church walls.  Over the years, our pastors made unilateral decisions about doctrine and church direction whenever they pleased. If you didn’t like the decisions or disagreed with some aspect of their teachings, you could leave. And many did.

But many stayed in the church, such as my family, and were loyal members for many years. They endured the control and the manipulation because they sincerely believed that no other church in the world had what we had.

So yes, as much as I hate to admit it, I did grow up in a cult. And I believe that many others today are in cults without even realizing it. May their eyes be opened to the reality of their situation and may they be granted the wisdom and boldness to flee like we finally did.

9 thoughts on “Was I in a Cult?

  1. You have a responsibility to read the bible for yourself and if you have a real relationship with Jesus Christ, you are promised that you will know the truth and it will set you free. If you can’t say you have that real relationship with Christ then ask for it in prayer. The church is not a building or denomination, it is a family of believers all over the world — the true family of God. Study to show yourself approved….all things are wroth through prayer…you know this. Read, Pray and Obey. But this is to God, not a man or woman.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Truth===Freedom. There are many who have abrogated their responsibility to search the scriptures in favor of believing everything they hear from a man or woman behind the pulpit.

  2. But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. – 1 Timothy 3:15

  3. I spent most of my youth involved with a group considered a cult by most, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In mid-life I went to college while having a crisis of belief and it was there I found what I believe is the best way of differentiating Cults and sects from legitimate groups though the method is still imperfect. Cults are generally about control, as are some sects and what is generally labeled a denomination I can think about. They generally have the traits of all highly controlling groups and sects.

    The difference is in size and intensity of the control. They isolate members completely from society in general as they focus their worship around the teachings of a single leader or small group whom they believe have the sole authority to define what Truth is. They are small, such as the Mormon cult which arose around Warren Jeffs and the cult run by Koresh. The small size enables greater isolation and control so the leader can prey on those in the group much like the two mentioned did. Some of these cults are very dangerous groups, much like the Yahweh’s, who were suspected in a number of murders of ex-members, were.

    Sects, step up in size and tend to isolate their embers emotionally and intellectually instead of physically. They tend to be highly organized groups and the leaders at all levels often are involved in the abuse and predations. My former group dits best there. Although we lived among Society, in general, we were admonished to keep to ourselves as much as possible and keep our mouths shut when it came to anything which might make the group look bad. So predation on young women by authority figures are pretty much swept under the rug along with other abuse etc.

    These are extreme examples, however, any group with such tendencies are harmful and can not lead one to grow in Christ, to begin with, and should be avoided. It matters not if they are fundamentalist or “progressive” in nature. If they discourage one from doing their Bible research in favor of their rigid interpretations and otherwise hem them in they are a cult if they are a small group.

    1. Hi Dupin,

      Thank you for that insightful comment. What was the process like to leave the JW? Did you have to leave behind family inside the movement?

  4. “Do you think you grew up in a cult?” That’s the question my aged father put to me as we sat at breakfast discussing Mormonism. Using my knowledge of how the word “cult” has many different meanings, I side-stepped the question and moved on.

    My father was a relatively high-profile leader within the religious group he and my mother raised us kids in. I bailed out around the age of 30, became a Christian at 36, and remained mostly estranged from my father for the next 25 years.

    We now live near each other on purpose and are building the relationship we should have had all along, one weekly breakfast at a time. (We both order from the senior menu.) Protecting that relationship was top of mind when I evaded his question, but it set me to thinking in ways I had not done before.

    To be sure, the c-word itself is often a grand opportunity for misunderstanding. Many Christian leaders tend to use it somewhat myopically as with the late Walter Martin – a good man, to be sure, and I have his book, Kingdom of the Cults, in my personal library – only to describe aberrant Christian groups.

    On the other hand, you have Steve Hassan (former Moonie, and author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, also in my library) who covers such a wide range of groups that he no longer tries to be a content specialist, but rather deals with the topic in more general behavioral terms as represented by his BITE model.

    BITE stands for control of Behavior, control of Information, control of Thoughts, and control of Emotions, the key word of course being “control”. But, as a Jewish atheist (last I heard), he applies his model way beyond Christian groups, or even religious groups. It includes the way some businesses are run, especially some multi-level marketing companies, the way some families are run, and more.

    At the time I left the religious group I was raised in, I had no way to evaluate my experience in a larger context; I only knew that it was killing me, and I had to make it stop. I was being groomed for leadership, but learning that speaking my mind led to setbacks, and spouting party line helped move me forward. No thank you.

    It wasn’t until I was free to explore the larger world as it is rather than as I had been programmed to see it, that I began to recognize just how often you run into cult control behaviors once you know what to look for. In-group vs out-group, us vs them, the pride of membership, the phobia indoctrination toward others.

    But in all my studies of groups, Moonies, ICoC, Synanon, MLMs, JWs, Mormons, and more, it had never occurred to me to ask myself if what I experienced in my own formative years could be described as a cult, so the question caught me off guard. There is a certain amount of pride involved; I’m too smart for that.

    Yet so many of the same markers I have come to recognize in others who are former members of their groups, when I get just a little too honest with myself about it, are in me, too. It makes sense. After all, this whole phenomenon is based in human nature, or perhaps I should call it what it is: sinful nature. The insistence on being my own little “g” god vs walking humbly with the one true God. The desire for control, or for the vain promise of certainty and stability that comes with being controlled.

    My Bible reading regimen had me in Galatians this morning. The whole book. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Amen. And I can honestly say that I am living the very best part of my life right now, if you don’t count the frustrations of an aging body. Whether in my work, in lay youth ministry, in grandparenting, in reaching out to those who are trapped in the high control groups, or in the general interactions of life, I am free. I am alive.

    More alive now than I knew was possible back when I first ventured out beyond my prescribed world. So, today, whether the situation I grew up in can be called a cult or not is a moot point. Christ has set me free; He has made me fully alive; and He will take me home to a place where we see His glory face-to-face, and we leave behind all the brokenness of this world, all the brokenness in me. All else is secondary, or irrelevant.

    – – – – –

    By the way, describing Warren Jeffs’ group as “the Mormon cult” is generally true, but not when you get into specifics. It would be more accurate to describe him as the leader of one of the Mormon Fundamentalist splinter groups. (In Mormon culture, that word “Fundamentalist” implies polygamy.)

    There are somewhere around 80-100 splinter groups of Mormonism which was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr. But by far the largest and richest of them is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Think Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

    There. I corrected someone today. I feel better. I’m in control. Blech.

    1. Thank you for your fascinating post. Like the person who posted before you (formerly involved in the JW), the Lord allowed you to be set free and be made fully alive. That is a beautiful testimony, especially the part about reestablishing a relationship with your father.

      Do these splinter groups that you speak of have any contact or fellowship? Are they “in communion” with each other or are they cut off from the main LDS one?

      1. To be clear, I was never Mormon. In my post I do not give the name of my former group. Nor will I. But as a Mormonism affected person — my grandson has Mormon grandparents, and it’s actually way more complicated than that — I have devoted WAY too much time and energy into my study of that religion. More than a thousand hours easily, and three due diligence trips to Utah.

        In answer to your question, there is no fellowship between groups that I know of, but it’s complicated. The main LDS church is “the one true restored church of Jesus Christ on the earth today”, so, no they are not in fellowship with any of the others, nor with any non-Mormon churches. The RLDS — reorganized latter day saints — now called the Community of Christ, and based in Independence Missouri, has in recent decades shed its Mormon roots and is much like any ultra-liberal Christian denomination. They’re wiling to be in fellowship with anyone and everyone who believes in anything or everything. The main divide is between the polygamists and the LDS. I have friends who are RLDS, LDS, plygs, former-LDS, and former-plygs. It’s like having to know all five dialects of an already obscure language, such as Klingon.

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