I used to think I was too smart to join a cult. I’m not so sure anymore.
Several months ago, I started wondering about the relationship between spiritual abuse (like someone might experience in a traditional church) and cults. Was there an overlap? One of the best ways to understand how a healthy ministry works is to look at the least healthy on the spectrum. A cult fits that “least healthy” metric perfectly. I picked up the book, Combating Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan. He’s an ex-cult member of the Moonies and has studied cults extensively. I wanted to read what he had to say.
The timing was perfect. The book arrived just as I finished binge-listening to the Something Was Wrong podcast. The host hinted that the next season would be about a man who had been in the Jonestown cult. I finished the book this week just as news of the removal of Steve Timmis from his position as CEO of the Acts 29 organization was published in Christianity Today. As I read the article, it was impossible to miss the overlap between what I had just read and the spiritual abuse that was being alleged.
After learning from many ex-cult members and studying the cults themselves, Steven Hassan formulated a model to describe cults. He calls it the BITE model: It includes Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control.
Problems With The Acts 29 Organization
Here’s what I observed from Steve Hassan’s book and how it overlaps with the CT reporting. The text in the gray box is a summary of what I learned from Hassan’s book. The text in the blue box contains examples of things I observed from the CT article reporting on Acts 29 and Steve Timmis.
Summary from Combating Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan.
Observations of Allegations Against the Acts 29 group.
- The group may control where they live or how they behave.
- They are almost always led by an authoritarian leader.
- Members quickly learn that obedience to the leader’s commands is the most important lesson.
- Failing to obey the leader’s commands may result in public shaming.
- “People were afraid of Steve Timmis.”
- “Students in the university town were discouraged from returning home to their families over the summer—it was seen as a sign that they weren’t really committed to the life of the church.”
- “a pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipline, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty.”
- “Demands such high levels of involvement and buy-in”
- Hassan says that “deception is the biggest tool of information control because it robs people of the ability to make informed decisions.”
- The group members are not allowed to talk to each other about anything critical of the leader, doctrine, or organization.
- Members may be asked to spy on each other.
- Even if it’s not explicitly said, group members know they are expected to avoid ex-members and critics.
- “Intensive gospel community.”
- “Rejection of critical feedback.”
- “During a meeting with Chandler and two board members to discuss the letter, all five were fired and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their severance packages.”
- Indoctrinating members to internalize the group manifesto and incorporate new jargon into their vocabulary.
- Doctrine is very black and white. Us v. them. This great place against the toxic outsiders.
- Members are trained to disbelieve criticism.
- To entertain the idea that the group might not be perfect means there is a deficiency in you– not them.
- To be worthy to stay, you can’t have misgivings about the group or the leader.
- They teach you to expect outsiders to misunderstand. Questioning from outsiders just solidifies the idea that outsiders are bad and the group is good.
“If Steve is challenged in any way, which he always takes as a threat, then the tables are turned and the challenger is made out to be the one at fault.”
Members view those who leave as uncommitted troublemakers.
” you would be called to trust him, his experience, and age,” he said. “If you did not, you would be called a law unto yourself.”
- Fear is used by creating an outside enemy persecuting the group.
- Loyalty and devotion are the most highly respected emotions.
- Members are not allowed to feel or express negative emotions, except against outsiders. Former members are often afraid of repercussions and many do not speak out.
- Hassan says, “When cult leaders tell the public, “Members are free to leave any time they want”. . .”they give the impression members have a free will and are choosing to stay.” This is not entirely accurate. The leaders of the group have trained the members to fear leaving. Leaders equate leaving the group with failing in some way. Members feel like they were unable to perform their job or they weren’t good enough. Leaving may also mean risking losing relationships with friends and family in the group.
- Leaders berate people who make plans without permission.
- People who left feel like refugees and many seek counseling.
- People who leave feel like they have failed.
- “Even some people with stories of spiritual abuse under Timmis still see the good he has done through his ministry career. “
“There is such an emphasis on ‘vision’ that if you have issues with that then you are encouraged to leave.”- Michael Tinker, former member of Steve Timmis’ Acts 29 church.
The Difference Between a Healthy Group and A Cult
One of the things that became clear, as I read Hassan’s book was that one prominent difference between a cult and a healthy organization is that the cult requires you to buy into a worldview that is specific to their group. In religious cults, this looks like elevating the importance of the group’s dogma to the same level as Scripture. The extrabiblical rules are promoted as necessary to a flourishing life.
This is sadly illustrated in ministries who have a worthy mission but whose leaders have resorted to using the tactics that fit the BITE model. Any group is susceptible to this because it’s effective.
If you picture Jonestown or Scientology when you think of a cult, you’ll fail to recognize the many other groups that use what Hassan calls “undue influence”. Not every cult looks like Jonestown. Every organization falls somewhere on the continuum of healthy to unhealthy. Hassan writes about a continuum of influence. At the one end, we find helpful influences and at the other end we find influence that is destructive.
Groups in the healthy range of the continuum are led by honest leaders. They are accountable and transparent. Their approach to leading respects the member’s individuality and free will. They welcome feedback. They don’t require you to adopt the group’s identity as your own. You get to keep your own identity.
Groups on the unhealthy spectrum have centralized power. There is little transparency. You must agree with their dogma completely and there is no room for criticism. Followers are often frightened and dependent.
“To go from being inside a highly relational, tight community to being considered an “ungospeled” and rebellious outsider can be traumatic. “We at one point thought it was easier to leave the country than the church.”- Ben Murphy, former member of Steve Timmis’, Acts 29 church.
Cult Characteristics in Christian Culture
I’m concerned that many churches are modeling themselves after the systems of ministries and churches that appear to be thriving based on exterior metrics. Meanwhile, internally, they have adopted many characteristics we see on the unhealthy side of the continuum. The Acts 29 organization is a good example. It’s first leader, Mark Driscoll, was removed from his position of leadership in that organization for spiritually abusive behavior. Several years ago, 5 staff members were fired after bringing their concerns to the board. And we see it most recently in the allegations of spiritual abuse by Steve Timmis. It’s legitimate to ask if this particular system is unhealthy.
Why should we care? What difference does it make if people are happy? Why is this a problem if people are finding God?
A ministry led by a leader who is unable to be questioned does not reflect what we see in Scripture. Modeling a way of leading that is contrary to Scripture is harmful. It’s unusual to see spiritual abuse happen in a vacuum. More often than not, in a place where you find a spiritually abusive leader, you find a system that has also been infected.
Kyle Howard has this to say about the spiritually abusive leader: “[They] no longer see ministry as a privilege and honor [they] are not worthy of and begin to see it as a vocation [they] are entitled to.”
The end results in disciples of the group leader/ministry and not disciples of Jesus. At some point, that leader will fail or leave. In these systems, we have a house of cards built around abusive leaders. It all falls apart when the leader is unmasked. When unconditional loyalty is placed in anyone/thing, people will protect that at all costs. (more on toxic loyalty in my next post) This gives too much power to the leader. It leaves the members vulnerable to abuse.
These systems leave a path of destruction. Former members limp away wounded. People leave questioning their value, their wisdom, and their faith. When former members refer to themselves as refugees and the local therapists see a steady stream of clients from these groups, there can be no denying there’s a problem.
I used to think I was too smart to join a cult. Now I know the truth. We join something else. Maybe we join a Bible study, a community group, a nonprofit, a dance group, a direct sales organization, or a ministry. Most of the time, we choose a relatively healthy place or we leave upon discovering it isn’t. But some of these unhealthy places are toxic in ways that make it difficult to see the truth and even more difficult to leave.