Since leaving a cult, I have delved into studying, writing, reading, talking and coping with the very real, sometimes hidden, but obvious affects cults and their teachings have on lives. Most certainly the very word ‘cult’ conjures up the worst horrors to hit the news headlines, like Jonestown, or Waco, TX, but the majority of cults are far less obvious, and insidiously covert, and right next door.
The most common question I am asked, the top concern and hurt I see through my YouTube channel, this blog, interviews and online groups, is ‘How do I cope with the pain of all those I loved who now reject me, simply because I no longer go to church there?’
This series on Coping with the Cults will be focused on addressing the real and emotional outcomes that are a result of being a member of, or being affected by someone who is in a cult. But before we move on, I want to address the word cult and what I mean when I say it.
What is a cult?
1. The word itself has a few different social meanings. We have heard the phrase ‘cult following’ around a brand, a product, even a movie. Even Netflix has a section called Cult Sci-Fi & Fantasy. That is to say, these movies have a large fan base. Products like Apple can be referred to as the Apple Cult.
In this sense of the word, cult simply means something that is loved and/or adored by others.
2. The second most common definition of cult is a religion. Christianity, from its very beginning was considered to be a cult by Judaism and the Romans who occupied Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. That is to say, a religious cult is a religious movement or organization that differs dramatically from the social normative of religion in the time and environment the group was formed in.
Christianity of its time was considered to be a cult.
3. Today’s most common understanding of the word cult, and what I mean when I say it, is a religious organization that exhibits the following major characteristics at the very foundation of the belief structure:
- Exclusive – They are the only ones ‘with the truth’, and often use phrases such as ‘coming into the truth’, or ‘leaving the truth’. You must be in their organization and share exactly their beliefs in order to gain salvation, and leaving the organization is often hard, painful and doing so labels you as apostate.
- Secretive – These groups will internally teach doctrines, beliefs and practices that they do not share publicly, knowing that the knowledge would create ridicule and scare away new converts before indoctrination and take away the shock of the beliefs. They may also have sacred texts or writings that only upper echelon member are privy too.
- Authoritarian – The biggest and most insidious aspect to religious organizations known as cults is their practice of gathering around a single, often charismatic human leader who through indoctrination, brain washing and often outright demands, requires absolute and unwavering loyalty and obedience by his/her followers. This is often displayed by members becoming aggravated and potentially violent towards any who oppose the leaders teachings.
This third example is the type of church I attended for fifteen years and what I, and the majority of the world that studies cults, would define as a cult.
A young man from the very same church I left asked the pastor there if he could marry a young lady in the church. Because this young man had been asking questions about the doctrines of the church, the pastor told him no. He was told;
“Until I feel your unwavering loyalty, I will not give you one of my girls.”
This is a cult. One in which your privileges in life are at the permission of the leader. An organization that makes you believe that you must cut off family, friends and other associations in order to be in right standing with them. A belief system that makes you guard what you tell people about it, is most definitely a cult.
What happens when you leave a cult? Separation
Disfellowshipped, cast aside as chaff, purged wickedness. Separation.
If you decide of your own volition to leave a cult, you are one of the few. And if you are told you had to leave the church, the result is the same. As a matter of fact, this is so important to some religious organizations that follow this definition of a cult, they have entire web pages dedicated to teaching their followers how to cope with Disfellowshipping their own children.
The Jehovah’s Witness organization is one such group that fits this mold and puts a lot of effort, like the Mormon faith, into teaching their followers the art of separating from those who no longer believe ‘the faith’, or as little as ‘break the rules’.
This article, entitled God’s Love – How to treat disfellowshipped people?, goes on to declare that strict avoidance and abandonment of a disfellowshipped person is necessary to prove ones loyalty to God, even if it is your children.
In this article, Why Disfellowshipping Is a Loving Provision, they try to show how Julian dealt with the Church declaring his son an outlaw, disfellowshipped and to be shunned. His Son.
“What Jehovah expects of us is reasonable and is a protection for us. For example, we all want to live among peaceful, decent, and honest people, and that is what we experience among our spiritual brothers and sisters. Why are they this way? Because they dedicated themselves to Jehovah and promised to live by what he says in the Bible.
How stark a contrast these teachings are to the power of love given to us by Christ.
John 8:7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
John 8:10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
John 8:11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
What a different story! The example from the Jehovah’s Witness web page, and my old Oneness Apostolic Pentecostal cult said, ‘get right, perfect yourself, cleanse the sin, and then we will accept you!’. But Jesus said, “I’ve already accepted you in your sin, and I do not judge or condemn you, let that be the reason you cleanse yourself from sin.”
But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8, KJV
How to cope with separation?
This is for most, the hardest and most crucial moment in escaping from a cult, and retaining their faith in a loving God. It would be all too easy to say, ‘Why would God allow something like this to happen?’ and abandon faith. To let the pendulum swing to the other extreme.
We’ve probably all heard someone say, and maybe the preacher, ‘Would God allow us to have growth and revival if HE wasn’t in what we are doing?’ as if that proved the validity of their systems. To that I would ask, why is the Muslim faith the fastest growing religious organization on the planet? Is God in it?
In the book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, it ends with something I wasn’t expecting when I first read it, fresh after leaving the cult. The authors, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, said leaving a spiritually abusive system was like leaving a physically abusive relationship, or leaving a drug addiction. It would take recovery.
Recovery? I shuddered. I left it, what did I have to recover from?
Bitterness for sure. To have the sudden realization that those whom you called friend, and even loved ones, turned from you simply because you decided to no longer attend a church. Not that you left God, became a robber and a murderer, or blasphemed God, you just left that address, or building. Can friendship be that cheap? Their responses will be, ‘You’re the one who left.’
Fear daily. What if they were right? What if the curses of God are about to crash down on me? Did I make a mistake? Will they ever talk to me again? I don’t have any friends now. What will my family say about me?
Anger at the system. Anger at those who follow the system. Mostly, angry at yourself for being so gullible and stupid. How could I have been so weak and stupid to let them control me like that?
When I read this I nearly broke out in tears. It was true. I was really angry, and I could easily take it out on others, but I was really angry with myself. That I would allow another human being with no gun to my head to control me so utterly. I felt like my manhood was ripped away. Really small, you know?
And then they said, this is how a drug addict feels. That small pill, the little bottle. The tiny droplet, or small pile of white powder. It had absolute control over them. And they felt stupid.
In the book Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, they describe spiritual abuse like physical abuse, in that humanity tends to cling to the abuse if it is all they have known, because the unknown somehow seems more painful.
What a vicious cycle it is, and I believe God alone has judgement for the propagators of this hate.
The only way to Cope with the Cults, and the separation that follows, is to get help!
Consider this list of the top five steps you must take after a marital separation and see how it applies to Coping with the Cults.
- Recognize that it’s OK to have different feelings
- Give yourself a break
- Don’t go through this alone
- Take care of yourself emotionally and physically
- Avoid power struggles and arguments with your ex-church fellowship
#5 originally read, “Avoid power struggles and arguments with your spouse or former spouse.”
This is poignant because when you buy in to a cult, you are marrying the system. You are not just someone who attends, but you are a member. You have committed to being one with the organization; you are, in all intents and purposes, betrothed. And separation from that is painful and has long term tremors.
You can, and you will recover! You will find support, and new friends, a fresh start, the life God intended you to live. It may take months, and in some cases, there are those who have been out for years that still face the struggle.
But God has better plans for you! You can Cope with the Cult that dogs you in the shadows of your mind, because God is not the author of confusion. Life was never intended to be a closet society on the fringe edge of normality.
You did escape, and you can escape, and you will recover, if you realize you were NOT STUPID, you are human. You are OK to have different feelings. You will not be hard on yourself for the past, and you most certainly will not do this alone. You will take care of yourself, free from the judgementalism of your past, and you, not in the spirit of separation, but in the spirit of love and recovery, will not endanger yourself by becoming embroiled in arguments and power struggles with those who would condemn you.
Remember the words of Christ as you go on in victory, Coping with the Cults.
Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.