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.