By Craig Branch –

When asked to give examples of a cult, the average church member usually conjures up the names of groups like MooniesSatanismJonestownScientology, and perhaps the Hare Krishna. Today, undoubtedly, David Koresh and the Branch-Davidians would be a common refrain.

Much less heard would be MormonismJehovah’s WitnessesChristian Science, and the Worldwide Church of God. And even less, many of the churches of Christ or Seventh-Day Adventist churches would be evoked.

Yet all of these are either pseudo-Christian cults, or destructive cults, or both. The difficulty in identifying a cult comes from both a lack of education or information, and the fact that groups have different reference points in their perspective.

Dictionaries basically define a cult as a group of people embracing a form of litergy or worship.

Sociologists usually define cults as a relatively new religion, small in number, and not generally accepted by mainstream culture or religions.

Psychology generally defines a cult in terms of destructive methodology, inflicting psychological harm on an individual as a result of that methodology.

The popular definition of a cult usually reflects what the media portrays – sensationalism, weird, bizarre, and criminal.

Historically though, Christians have defined a cult, or more precisely, pseudo-Christian religion, or non-Christian religion, from a doctrinal perspective. The Bible is a Christian descriptive and prescriptive source of authority.

Every book in the New Testament (and many in the Old Testament), except for Philemon, has something to say about false teachers, false prophets, false gospels, and heresies.

The bottom line of what constitutes a fatal or destructive heresy is a group that presents “another Jesus”, or “another gospel” (2 Peter 2:1-3; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 13-15; Galatians 1:6-9; Acts 20:28-31; Matthew 24:24).

What the Christian community, apologists, cult ministries, etc. have traditionally neglected are the dynamics of mind control and the destructive psychological methodologies. Jonestown began to kindle the interest and now the spectacle at Waco has fanned the flames.

It is mandatory for the Christian community to understand the issues surrounding thought reform or brainwashing techniques as well as the special issues in recovery from that process.

It has become clear that even some Bible-based churches, historically orthodox in doctrine, can be guilty of unethical and destructive manipulation, and mind control. If left unchecked, these individuals and groups will go from cultic to become full-fledged cults.

The following is a description of the kinds of psychologically destructive cults, examples of their ideology and typical techniques of conversion. This information is supplied by a very helpful book,Cults, What Parents Should Know, produced by the American Family Association, a group of experienced mental health and educational professionals in this field.

Destructive cults tend to settle into several categories: eastern meditation (New Age); Bible-based Christian (either pseudo-Christian, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Christian leaders who control, manipulate, and exploit their members); occult or satanist; political terrorist; psychotherapy/human potential (S.A.G.E.); and Commercial (certain multi-level marketing schemes).

Groups may vary in certain respects. For instance, in size, their terminology, their Scripture or prescriptive text, their leader, their lifestyle, and their financial obligations (pp. 20-21). So it is not easy, nor appropriate, to stereotype even a mind-control cult.

Also, the negative effects which a destructive cult may produce is contingent on an individual’s own susceptibility coupled with the number and intensity of the coercive techniques which are operating in the dynamic of a particular group.

Destructive Cult Ideology

  1. Submission to Leadership – Leaders tend to be absolute, prophets of God, God Himself, specially anointed apostle, or just a strong, controlling, manipulative person who demands submission even if changes or conflicts occur in ideology or behavior.
  2. Polarized World View – The group is all that is good; everything outside is bad.
  3. Feeling Over Thought – Emotions, intuitions, mystical insights are promoted as more important than rational conclusions.
  4. Manipulation of Feelings – Techniques designed to stimulate emotions, usually employing group dynamics to influence responses.
  5. Denigration of Critical Thinking – Can go so far as to characterize any independent thought as selfish, and rational use of intellect as evil.
  6. Salvation or Fulfillment can only be realized in the group. 7. End Justifies the Means – Any action or behavior is justifiable as long as it furthers the group’s goals. The group (leader) becomes absolute truth and is above all man-made laws.
  7. Group Over Individual – The group’s concerns supersede an individual’s goals, needs, aspirations, and concerns. Conformity is the key.
  8. Warnings of severe or supernatural sanctions for defection or even criticism of the cult – This can go so far as to apply to negative or critical thought about the group or its leaders.
  9. Severing of Ties with Past, Family, Friends, Goals, and Interests – Especially if they are negative towards or impede the goals of the group.

(pp. 21-22).

Conversion Techniques

Conversion into a cult is usually the result of two interacting dynamics. The first is the personal vulnerability of the potential recruit. This vulnerability may be enhanced by, but not limited to, transitional situations such as divorce, abuse, job or career change, moving away from home or leaving college, an illness, or death of a loved one.

The second dynamic are the tactics used to convert, indoctrinate (brainwash) and hold the members. Some groups attempt a radical and rapid conversion over an intensive week-end or week, such as The Forum or Scientology. Others have a more subtle approach which may take weeks or months, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The following are techniques of unethical thought reform and mind control:

1. A Focus on felt needs, defects, with exaggerated promises of fulfillment.

2. Rigid Control of Time and Activities – Often physically and emotionally draining activities leaving little time for reflection, questioning and privacy.

3. Information Control – Cutting off or denigrating outside sources of information especially if it is critical of the group. This can also include misrepresentation and information overload.

4. Language Manipulation – Ascribing new “inside” meanings in ordinary words or the use of an exclusive vocabulary subtly moving a person to want to become an insider.

5. Discouraging Critical, Rational Thought and Questions – For instance, comments like, “Satan is the cause of all doubt; he wants to keep you from the Truth”, or, “one must move beyond the coquitive left-brain and get in touch with one’s higher self – his right-brain, intuitive self for true knowledge”.

6. Instruction and Repetition in Trance Induction Techniques – These include progressive relaxation, chanting, hypnosis, meditation, trance states, guided imagery or visualization, deep breathing exercises – all of which make a person highly suggestible, often unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and can cause psychopathology such as relaxation induced anxiety.

7. Confession Sessions – Promoting full disclosure of all secret sins, thoughts, temptations which can become a powerful tool to manipulate, blackmail, and emotionally bond you to the leader or group. It is actually a depersonalization or stripping yourself – a submission to the group.

8. Guilt, Fear – Weapons used to maintain group loyalty, suppress questions and defections.

9. Control of Sexuality and Intimacy within the Cult – This may extend to marriage decisions ( Moonies), sexual relations, promiscuity ( Children of God), group sex ( New Age Therapy groups), child sex, adultery, and polygamy ( Branch-Davidians).

10. Excessive Financial Obligations – More and more money is needed to attain higher degrees of spirituality ( Scientology), or complete submission to God requires one to give up everything to the group or leader (pp. 26-29).

The more points of ideology and conversion methodology that are in place, and the degree of intensity of their application is proportionate to the effect and damage of mind control.

These factors tend to make normal evangelism, or even dialogue, much more difficult. Therefore, some people have looked to deprogrammers or exit-counselors to help break the mental head-locks of their loved ones in an attempt to rescue them from the cult.

Deprogramming & Exit-Counseling

Deprogramming and exit-counseling can refer to the same thing, namely the intervention of someone through dialogue and the sharing of information which exposes the deception of the cult and the effects of brainwashing.

But more recently, deprogramming has come to be associated with involuntary or forced interventions. Occasionally, after a failed deprogramming the cult member has filed charges on the family and deprogrammers for kidnapping or unlawful restraint.

So, the more popular term is exit-counseling which refers to a sensitive, voluntary, intensive time of sharing information for the purpose of objective and reflective evaluation. Voluntary exit-counseling is the only approach in which Watchman Fellowship will participate.

Some family members have felt the need to take the risk and resort to an involuntary deprogramming. They felt that the danger to the loved one was so real and imminent that it justified extreme action.

Christians need to be acquainted with the issues of mind control for the purpose of prevention. Pastors, counselors and evangelists need to learn the skills of exit-counseling in order to help victims of cult mind control come to the point of responding to the gospel. There is also the need for Christians and victims of mind control to understand that rehabilitation may be necessary because of the residual damage done by the cult.

Wellspring Counseling and Retreat Center is the only place in the country that offers such rehabilitation and it, thankfully, is operated by Christians.

Wellspring’s number is (614) 698-6277.

Watchman Fellowship recommends the following books for additional resource/research material on cults and the aspects of mind control:

    1. Cult-Proofing Your Kids – Dr. Paul Martin


    1. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse – David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen


    1. Churches that Abuse – Ronald M. Enroth


    1. Breaking Free – David R. Miller


    1. Damaged Disciples – Ron & Vicki Burks


    1. Toxic Faith – Stephen Arterburn & Jack Felton


    1. Influence: The New Psychology of Modern Persuasion – Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.


    1. Cults & Consequences – Ed., Rachel Andres, James R. Lane


  1. Combatting Cult Mind Control – Steven Hassan