Tucson: no one starts and no one joins a cult

"Love Trap" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“Love Trap” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

[Get a print of this HERE!]

People don’t start and people don’t join cults.

People start communities and people join them. Usually, the first thing that draws people in is a sense of family, belonging, community. In a word: love.

Other things are thrown in too, like a sense of meaning and purpose, finding the truth, being prepared for the end, radical service, self-development, you name it. But the real initial attraction is usually love. In the article, one ex-member recalls being “love-bombed” by leaders on the first day. She was probably hooked at that moment.

When I read the story of Faith Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona, that is being investigated because some believe it is a cult, I wasn’t alarmed by any one of the accusations.

One ex-member says, ““The best word I can think of is ‘insidious.’ It starts off subtle.” That’s true for almost all cults. In fact, I would argue this is true for many churches that aren’t even under investigation for being a cult.

Here’s a list of concerns mentioned in the article:

  • how they discipline children
  • financial coercion
  • alienation from family
  • public shaming of members
  • silencing questioning of leaders
  • shunning those who leave

Some have expressed alarm at Dan Busby of the Evangelical Council and his responses to the accusations. He seems to minimize and even dismiss the accusations. I’m not alarmed at all because I think he’s right: many of these characteristics are not unusual, but normal for many religious groups.

I’ve belonged to Christian communities that manifest these qualities. In fact, many people belong to Christian churches that manifest all of these qualities. It might be at different levels of intensity, but they are there.

  • Parents want help raising their kids.
  • People love giving generously to something they believe in.
  • Once you find a true family your biological one doesn’t matter as much.
  • You feel you deserved to be ashamed if you sin and disappoint the community.
  • Anointed leaders should not be questioned.
  • If someone leaves, they deserve to be forgotten. That’s what they want!

I speak from experience. It was never meant to come to this. Many leaders are controlling. Many church members cooperate with the control. It begins with a period of mutual infatuation. Then there’s the marriage. Then there’s the honeymoon. Then there’s the longterm commitment. With more commitment is expected more commitment. The deeper into the relationship you go, the more is expected. The closer to the center of the circle you get, the more is required of you. With greater reward comes greater responsibility and obligation. To many people, this is a given.

I claim that this not only happens in cults. This happens in a lot of churches. It happens in a lot of businesses too. It happens wherever people collect or gather because where people gather there will be those who desire to control them. They may mean well, but in the end it is about control.

So I am convinced that the leaders of this so-called cult never intended to start a cult. I also believe that those who joined it never meant to join a cult. They joined a community of love that eventually became a trap and, for some, a trap they are happy with.

We talk about this kind of stuff all the time at The Lasting Supper. Please accept my invitation to join us!


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20 Responses

  1. david L says:

    Hi all,

    The author is correct in stating that many churches and denominations have cultic characteristics. When I left the group I was involved with,I like many others went looking for answers. Here is a long article or short book about authoritarian leaders that was very helpful to me.

  2. Jill says:

    David, help me understand better why you believe the cult leaders didn’t mean to create a cult. You don’t see this as yet another bait and switch?

  3. I am a weird mixture of pessimist and optimist when it comes to human nature. I think we are capable of unimaginable evil. But I also think we are unaware of this and naively and sincerely think we are doing good while committing this evil. I don’t think most spiritual leaders intend to control people so intensely, but they do. However, they establish so many buffers to the actual feeling of control that they don’t nor do their victims realize it. It is often subtle, which is why it is so insidious and creeps up on us.

  4. Jill says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I admit I’ve done a fair amount of villifying those that do this kind of thing. Mind and heart control is, to me, the most cruel and horrifying of abuses. It removes agency and possibility. But I’m aware of what a personal trigger it is for me as well .

    My pessimism can trump my optimism at times, so it is good for me to weigh other viewpoints. I like to say my glass is often half empty, but that doesn’t stop me from refilling it frequently. 🙂

  5. I think the church is in quite a bit of danger because it seems to self-unaware. And it is self-unaware because, generally, people are self-unaware. We all do subtle things to control others but we would never realize it unless it was pointed out to us. Most of us are shocked by the negative affects we have on people when we meant well. This is how controlling and codependent relationships start.

  6. I’ve known Steve Hall since the late 1980’s and he actually takes credit for helping to expose Maratha in Florida. I would agree with you that a lot of groups don’t intentionally start out to be a cult but rather a community that desires to be different.

    The problem is there is are underlying issues based on the idea that people need to be ‘instructed’ and ‘taught’ what is right and wrong. That people, especially young people, need strong guidance and it’s the leadership’s job to provide that. From there things rapidly go south.

    I was a part of the shepherding movement in the 1970’s and experienced this to a large degree and unfortunately bought into the idea for a while. Yikes!

  7. Jill says:

    You’re right. I’ll use impatience to keep people in my life from treating me as a doormat. People who don’t mean to use me see my enthusiasm for being part of a team, but fail to see my needs too. Rather than a drag-out fight, I’ll become short, clipped, distant. If I found instead the words to say I feel used, the people will likely stop then ask me what I need.

    But I’m not good at voicing my needs in a calm way. So I shut down, and then I compound hurt through distancing myself from those that would want to be there for me. Argh… we are a confused bunch!

    And the church does nothing to face its own ignorance. It can be easy to see what the church is good at, like feeding homeless people, and completely miss the elephant that sits right in front of the lecturn.

  8. Pat Pope says:

    And those seeking to control aren’t always the leaders. Plenty of people sitting in churches unwilling to do anything differently if it conflicts with the way they want it and they will often stop at nothing to make sure it happens their way. So, I think there’s enough blame to go around, really.

  9. That’s true Pat. The entire culture participates.

  10. Tom Wilson says:

    I agree that no one intends to start or join a cult. However, that doesn’t mean they are not cults from the very beginning. I’ve met many Pastors over the years where a red flags went up all over the place in my first conversation with them. In many of these places you do not get exposed to their cultist practice and teaching as long as you only attend their general assemblies. The last church I was part of had a Pastor who was very charismatic, but in my first private meeting with him red flags went up all over and I made the mistake staying even after questioning him on his obvious exaggerated opinion of his own leadership ability and understanding of scripture. The crazy thing is though as typical Sunday Services in a Charismatic Church and the preaching was excellent. However, this man surrounded himself with people whom he could control and therefore he hated me. If you became part of his inner circle or some small elite group he was leading that’s when the perverted practices and teaching came out. He was like a day walking vampire when in public he looked normal, but in private and small settings the fangs came out and he used them to control and suck the lifeblood from anyone who let him. By some unfortunate alignment of the stars even though he hated me I was invited to be part of a weekly small instruction groups too, but I only went a couple times, because all it ended up being was him berating everyone present for not conforming perfectly to him and his false teaching. Isn’t corruption what happens though when you mix the true and the false a person doesn’t just suddenly wake up one day and start being a narcissist and manipulator they were always that, but they just keep getting bolder and bolder the more people begin to worship them.

  11. I totally agree Tom. The recipe for a cult is all there. It just needs to cook.

  12. Sabio Lantz says:

    Great points and fun cartoon.
    I wrote a bit on the word “cult” here that may be interesting to some.

  13. Dedreic says:

    NakedPastor. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of people who are unaware! The Church is in its Laodicean stage ie. Naked and Blind but not perceiving themselves as such.

  14. xuemei says:

    Telling the truth: gospel as a tragedy (Frederick Buechner)! Here is surely the gospel!

    Intellectualizing, rationalizing, reasoning, …a painful process, to avoid the pain too. What a tragedy.

    Church is a human institution, family system applies. But I do believe “the holy catholic church” as recited in the creed.

    Oh, super-rational, super-natural God, come quick!

  15. George says:

    As a man who struggled for years to find and accept god, I’m going to raise a HUGE personal rejection of one important point.
    All leaders, regardless the source of their authority, are human, fallible and MUST BE QUESTIONED. God didn’t give us functioning brains and the ability to think independently so we could discard that gift and become mindless followers

  16. nexar says:

    David, I’ve been reading your blog daily for a while now, mostly in silence. However as my exposure to your writing increased I started to think that what you were describing as ‘Church’ related problems were in fact fundamental characteristics of human nature. Hence they are present in any ‘group’ from couples upwards.

    In many ways I’m glad that you’ve acknowledged that with this post.

  17. Thanks Nexar. Yes. It’s a dawning realization that this is indeed a human problem and not a religious one, although religion is a perfect culture for this to occur.

  18. Michaela says:

    Here are two books, now available for FREE, by Dr. Ronald Enroth who has researched and written about abusive, controlling, authoritarian religious groups and cults:

    1. Churches That Abuse by Ronald Enroth
    here: http://www.ccel.us/churches.toc.html

    2. Recovering from Churches that Abuse by Ronald Enroth
    here: http://www.ccel.us/churchesrec.toc.html

    Other good books:

    3. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen

    4. Healing Spiritual Abuse by Ken Blue

    5. Soul Repair by Jeff VanVonderen and Dale & Juanita Ryan

    6. Wounded by God’s People by Anne Graham Lotz (Rev. Billy Graham’s daughter)


    7. I am sure there are other good books and helpful resources.

  19. Gary W says:

    It may be that what we call church is more often than not the formal “Christian” expression of those gangs and cliques that form on elementary school playgrounds. We desperately need love, and think to find it in the form of acceptance into whatever in-crowd beckons to us. What we call the in-crowd or inner circle C.S. Lewis christened the Inner Ring (you can Google it). In this connection I suggest that it is significant that the word we translate “church” is ekklesia, or called out assembly, as opposed to synagogue, or gathered together assembly. Where there is ekklesia we come together in the freedom Love. Where “church” is actually synagogue we are bound together by rules and expectations, both stated and unstated, that are the price of admission to the inner circle. Rules must be enforced. Manipulation and other forms of abuse are the weapons of such enforcement. As Christians we are called out of every Inner Ring, including those synagogues that pretend to be ekklesia.