A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Christianity, domestic abuse and cults – what are the parallels?

The dynamics of cults have many parallels with the dynamics of domestic abuse, and studying cults can help us become ‘as wise as serpents’ (Matt. 10:16)  which is essential in the battle against domestic abuse.

How Cults Work gives one of the clearest descriptions of cult dynamics that you might find on the internet. It’s written by the organization Cultwatch.
Here is what they say about Mind Control.

The modern definition of a mind control cult is any group which employs mind control and deceptive recruiting techniques. In other words cults trick people into joining and coerce them into staying. This is the definition that most people would agree with. Except the cults themselves of course!

Mind Control is a suite of psychological techniques that cult leaders attempt to control their members with.

Cultwatch does not consider Mind Control to be some magical device which can take away peoples’ free will. In other words it does not turn people into some sort of remote control robot. Rather we see Mind Control as a dishonest influence placed covertly on cult members by the cult. So instead of Mind Control being some sort of irresistible force like the aliens in the movies that take over peoples minds, rather it is more like a gun. The cult leader points the Mind Control “gun” at a member and says, “if you leave us then you will lose all of your friends and family”, “if you don’t conform then you will go to Hell”, “if you don’t give us money then you will fail in business”.

We have broken Mind Control up into a series of techniques that the cults use. Together these techniques make up Mind Control. The techniques are deception, exclusivism, fear and intimidation, love bombing and relationship control, information control, reporting structure, and time control.

  • Any group which says you must belong to their organization to be saved is almost certainly a cult.
  • Character assassination is a sure sign of a cult.
  • Cult members are usually very fearful of disobeying or disagreeing in any way with their leadership. Healthy organizations however are not threatened by openly debating issues.
  • Beware of instant friends. Remember, true friendships develop over time.
  • Beware of a group that tells you who you can and cannot see.
  • If you are instructed by a group not to read information critical of the group, then that is a sign of a cult.
  • Legitimate groups have nothing to fear from their members reading critical information about them.
  • Is information you expected to be kept confidential reported to leadership? If so then it’s a cult.
  • Never ending compulsory meetings and tasks is a sign of a cult.
  • Be especially eager to surf the net if your leaders have told you not to.

I’m going to rephrase the above quote, to show the parallels to domestic abuse.

A domestic abuser is someone  who employs mind control and deceptive recruiting techniques to obtain and effect control and wreak havoc over members of his own household, primarily his spouse, but also his children. An abuser tricks people into getting into an intimate relationship and coerces them into staying. This is the definition that most people would agree with. Except the abuser himself of course!

Mind Control is a suite of psychological techniques that abusers attempt to control their members with. Mind Control is not some magical device which can take away a person’s free will. In other words it does not turn a person into some sort of remote control robot. Rather, Mind Control is a dishonest influence placed covertly on the target person by the abuser. So instead of Mind Control being some sort of irresistible force like the aliens in the movies that take over peoples minds, it is more like a gun. The abuser points the Mind Control “gun” at his target and says, “if you leave me then you will lose all of your friends and family”, “if you don’t conform then you will go to Hell”, “if you don’t let me keep control of the money, we will be financially ruined.”

The set of techniques that make up Mind Control are the same in both cults and domestic abuse. Deception, exclusivism, fear and intimidation, love bombing and relationship control, information control, and time control are all pretty self-explanatory if you already know a reasonable amount about domestic abuse. The only one that is slightly different is reporting structure, so I’ll explain that a little more. Here is what the Cultwatch website said under the heading ‘Reporting Structure’:

In a mind control cult like in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia you must be careful of what you say and do; “The walls have ears”. Everyone is encouraged to watch out for “struggling” brothers and sisters and report what they see to leadership. Often information given in deepest confidence is automatically reported to leadership. Cult leaders will then use this information to convince their members that they have a supernatural link, the trusting member does not suspect the very natural mechanism behind the supernatural revelations they are given.

People in a mind control cult will also hide their true thoughts and feelings, and instead wear a mask which presents them as a perfect cult member. This mask is a defense against being reported to leadership and being punished for not measuring up (cult members never feel like they measure up to the cult’s ideals, and yet often believe the other members around them do, when in reality the others feel the same as them). Hence cult members are trained not only to deceive outsiders, but also to deceive their fellow cult members. Rarely can close friendships form in cults, and if they do the cult’s leaders may see them as a threat and move those people away from each other. Nothing is allowed that can be more powerful than the cult members’ allegiance to the group and it’s leaders.

Many victims of abuse whose pastors have taken sides with the abusive husband (which includes taking a ‘neutral’ stance, because neutrality is not neutral see here and here)  will have experienced betrayal of their confidentiality to church members who should not have been told details about the marriage. If that’s happened, the church clearly has cult-like characteristics. But what is the parallel to “Reporting Structure’ in the internal family dynamics of domestic abuse?

Quite often, an abuser enlists the children to report to back to him about their mother’s conduct – that’s one way. But there are more subtle ways this dynamic takes place as well, most of which are hidden in the victim’s own mind. Let me rephrase a portion of the quote above, so you see what I mean:

The domestic abuse victim will hide her true thoughts and feelings, and instead wear a mask which presents her as a perfect wife. This mask is a defense against the abuser punishing her for not measuring up. Victims never feel like they measure up to the abuser’s (or God’s) ideal for a good wife, and yet they often believe that other wives do measure up as wives, when in reality, other wives sometimes feel the same as them. Hence, wives of abusers are trained not only to deceive outsiders, but also to deceive themselves, their children, their close family and friends (if they have any left, after the abuser’s ravaging). Rarely can close friendships form or be maintained while you living under abuse, and if they do the abuser sees them as a threat and moves the victim away from those people. Nothing is allowed that can be more powerful than the victim’s allegiance to the abuser.

11 Comments

  1. Helen Hemans

    This is so true! My ex used all the above in our relationship to control me – especially as he was the pastor of a church, and had to keep his family under control. We couldn’t tell anyone what really went on at home, and held the gun to my head that I would come under God’s judgement if I didn’t obey him, and “we’ll lose everything if you tell anyone” and “you and the kids will be out on the street if anyone finds out”. As I had five kids and no job apart from the church it was an effective weapon. I could never be myself and had to put on an act all the time of the perfect pastor’s wife. I am finding that this aspect of the abuse is hard to get free of even though we are now separated. I am still not free of the fear that I am going against God’s will by seeking a divorce. The abuse continues for me as I receive emails condemning me as a wicked woman for leaving, and as he continues to play mind games by denying everything to others. Reading your articles helps to keep me out of the mind control “fog”.

    • Being the wife of a pastor must be the hardest domestic abuse situation, much harder than being an ‘ordinary’ woman in the church being abused by her husband. I admire you for getting out, and I can barely imagine what courage and strength it took, and what the cost might have been.
      You are certainly not going against God’s will by seeking a divorce. You are only going against the Pharisaic teaching of the church which has wrongly interpreted the divorce scriptures for at least two thousand years. I say “at least” because way before Jesus’ time, the Jews were misinterpreting and twisting the divorce texts in the Hebrew Scriptures so that they favored men who wanted legalized wife swapping.

      With the post-separation abuse your are experiencing, if you have got a protection order from the courts you should be able to show those emails from your ex to the police and they can prosecute him for breaching the order. I don’t know the legal situation where you live, but that’s how it works where I live in Victoria Australia. You have to obtain the protection order first. Once you have the order, you then keep records of the denigrating emails and other such breaches of the order (even diary records are considered) and show them to the police. I hope this works for your situation.
      Bless you for coming to our blog, Helen.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Pastors should be “policing” themselves, but it just doesn’t happen much at all. In a denomination, there needs to be an atmosphere that simply is not abuser-friendly but so often it is quite the opposite what with pastors jockeying for status and climbing the career ladder. For myself, I departed from that scene long ago as I couldn’t stand it. Our church is now in a fellowship of churches that has no inner hierarchy to “climb.” I cannot imagine the plight of a woman who is being abused by her pastor-husband while he is busily and successfully putting himself off in the church as a “godly” man. Even a hint of complaint from her would be met most often with a critical look or word – how dare she not realize how privileged she is. Abusers, of course, present themselves as real charmers. They know all the right vocabulary and the Bible becomes their big book, twisted and distorted to serve their ends. In reality, in any church that is pastored by such an evil man, the entire church body is enslaved and duped. Unfortunately, their ignorance is not without culpability. Most of them don’t want to know and will reject the victim if she rocks their boat with the truth.

      Helen – please reject the false guilt you feel regarding divorce. It isn’t from the Lord, but from the enemy. Your choice is right and it is life. If the church and pastors won’t reject him as they should, then at least you can. Of course we realize that all of this in complicated and difficult for you, but we are so glad that you are taking these steps. Also, if this helps, remember that we are conservative, Bible-believing Christians ourselves who hold to the infallibility and inerrancy of the Word. My church, for example, is very conservative in our worship and most of our people home school their children. I say this to encourage you because often what you might hear from your critics is something like “well, those people you are listening to are just a bunch of unbelieving liberals who don’t even believe the Bible is God’s Word.” Tell them to come visit our church some Sunday!

      Blessings in Christ on you, Helen.

    • Angela

      Dear Helen
      I was shocked to read your comment and am so sorry to hear of your situation. Let me encourage you that I have been in a similar situation and that Gods promises will all come to pass in your life. Do not read the emails or listen to condemnation just move on and trust God to restore your soul……….

      • Hi Angela, welcome to the blog 🙂

  2. Barbara, this is another very good article. Have you sent any of your articles to Christian magazines for publication? You and Jeff should consider doing that if you haven’t.

    • Dale, to tell the truth, I used to attempt a few years ago to get articles published in Christian magazines and journals. The bar was so high, the gate keeper mechanisms so chilling. And as a woman, from outside the US, and without any letters after my name, I felt I was always seen as a nobody or as a silly woman with an axe to grind because of her own history.
      I gave up trying.
      But maybe Jeff and I could try together. So little time: so much to do! And that would just add another item to the long list. But thanks for nudging me. I appreciate it.

      More back-story on this: when my book was published I tried hard to get reviews, and obtained quite a few reviews in the UK and Australia, but none in the US, even though I’d sent review copies to all the major US journals. I nearly had a bite from JETS (Journal of Evangelical Theology) but the guy who was going to do the review didn’t get time to write it, so it fell by the wayside (and I get the feeling that the books editor may have breathed a sigh of relief, because my book is such a hot potato).

      Also, Steve Tracy advised me a while ago to spend my energies speaking and writing to those who WANT to hear, not waste them on trying to address those who don’t want to hear. I think that’s been pretty good advice and I’ve mostly followed it, making only occasional forays into the territory of those who have mud in their ears.

      Do you have any suggestions about which mags and journals would be best to try to target? Don’t give too many names, even one to two would be okay. You know the US scene better than I do.

  3. Reblogged this on Speakingtruthinlove's Blog and commented:
    This is a great article that shows the common threads of domestic abuse and cults.

  4. I always felt like I was a terrible wife-I was always fighting a battle to be like all those sweet, docile, submissive wives and I always failed miserably. When I would talk about my struggles, of course he would “say” all the right things, but would still go behind my back and tell people lies about me, and never, ever said anything praiseworthy about me in public-if anyone complimented me in front of him(which almost never happened) he would say nothing and would have no response whatsoever. His silence told me so much more than his words ever could.
    Jodi

  5. Kay

    Very eye opening and from my experience – sounds right on.

  6. Sherry

    I know this is an older post but it is scary how absolutely accurate it is about cult/domestic abuse tactics. I spent 13 years in a “Christian” cult – the Way International. I was love bombed (as a 17 y/o scared college freshman) and then taught that the group was the only place where I could truly learn about God. If I left them, where would I go? My only friends became those who were in the group and if I left the group, my friends would turn their backs on me – which many of them did when I finally grew up and left. Unfortunately I married someone I met while in the group, thankful now that my children were not born until I left the group. But The Way, as many cults, were very mysoginistic, as my husband has been over the years. Almost every marriage of my friends in the group has exploded because no one can live like the group expected us to over many years! it brings too much pain, along with the baggage that originally brought us to the group.

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