What is a cultic group? The dynamics of coercion

During a two-day conference that I have just attended on the topic of the Trinity, someone asked me during a conversation ‘what is a cult?’. I found it impossible to answer the question in a single sentence, so I went away to write something down. I don’t whether the scrappy note about cultic groups I produced in my appalling handwriting will stand up to the light of day. Still less do I know whether it fits in with some of the learned reflections that were being uttered the week before last in the Bordeaux Conference. But I thought that my efforts should be recorded on this blog even though by tomorrow I may remember other essential ideas that have been left out.

I have changed the question I was asked by making the ‘cult’ word an adjective. This in part lets me off the hook in not closely defining the word that provokes much controversy. To say a church or group is cultic allows me to describe in general terms a style of operating rather getting bogged down in technical definitions

In my answer, I made three points. The most important aspect of a group of a cultic kind, I suggested, was that it was led by a charismatic leader. To call a leader charismatic is to suggest that he/she is articulating a vision for the future or the present which inspires followers to join a group. This vision may be secular, for example creating world peace or conquering hunger. Whether it is secular or religious in nature it will resonate with the idealism of a follower. The rewards for a leader of such a group are not inconsiderable. It puts him (normally a him!) at the centre of attention whether his group is half a dozen strong or in the thousands. Previous blog posts have explored the idea that such aggrandisement will, more often than not, be linked into areas of personal neediness such as those associated with narcissism. In the religious cultic group, the adulation given to the leader may resemble a kind of worship. This preacher of God’s Word may in the mind of the followers all too quickly become the only interpreter of God’s will. Such an individual is thus beyond argument or contradiction.

If absolute power is being enjoyed by a cultic leader, there are also rewards for his followers. These apparent benefits for group members form the second of my three points. Just as a leader may be resolving hitherto unmet personal needs through his role, so the followers are rewarded by finding in the relationship with the leader a way of relieving emotional issues from their pasts. Most people, particularly young adults, have issues connected to their own parents. Leaving home is painful and these relationships often result in some level of inner grief. The cultic group promises not just the excitement of a new adventure to change the world, but it also promises a degree of love and acceptance that will pour balm on old brokenness. There is this combination of being brought into a new adventure for life as well as being a member of a new family. The combination of binding up emotional wounds as well as pointing to a new future are the powerful incentives that cultic groups offer to their potential followers.

My third point takes us into the negative territory that cultic groups occupy in the scheme of things. The dynamic that I have described of the leader receiving gratification from being at the centre of attention and the followers finding an outlet for their idealism as well as their need for ‘healing’ from past hurts seems arguably beneficial. The problem is that the flow of energy and power to both parties only ever works when there is a high degree of control. Things like questioning the leader’s authority will upset the harmony of the group. So there has to be in these cultic groups a level of coercion which will stamp out any questioning or challenge to the leader and his vision. The role of an effective all-beneficent father figure is a narrative that only works when everyone agrees with it. The reality behind the image of a beneficent father may be that a leader is struggling fiercely to manipulate and control some of those below him. The successful hiding of this kind of behaviour will require the leader to control the information reaching other followers. So, we find that in most cultic or high-demand groups there is almost inevitably censoring of information. The price to be paid which enables the ‘cultic flow of power’ to operate effectively is often coercion, fear, power abuse as well as the suppression of information.

My three points, which address the issue of the nature of a cultic group, began first with describing the power flows that enables it to operate ‘successfully’. The third point brings out the coercion, the fear and power abuse that seem necessary for this power flow to function as it is intended. My description may help us to understand why, over a period of time, every cultic group becomes corrupted in its exercise of power. No high-demand group, Christian or not, ever seems to be able to maintain its original (possibly innocent) power dynamic without later resorting to the controlling techniques known to totalitarian regimes the world over. What may have begun in an atmosphere of glorious freedom seems inevitably to descend into structured control and coercion. The reason for this use and abuse of power seems to be built into human nature and the institutions that are created by human beings. This is not to say that every institution is corrupt. Most institutions have some checks and balances to protect them from the ‘fallenness’ of human nature but the same is seldom true of independent cultic groups. It is here that we find the most vivid examples of the evils that we associate, along with my questioner, with the groups we describe as cults.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “What is a cultic group? The dynamics of coercion

  1. I’d go for the fear of the outside world and the lies. The “Everyone else is wrong” position is just a few steps away from the former, really. And for the third, the tendency for cults to have some sort of mechanism for throwing people out. “Disfellowshipping”. Which everyone fears. And of course shunning, and telling your family not to talk to you is part of that. Powerful stuff going on at the moment, Stephen. Worth going on, isn’t it?
    My personal news is good. Husband is on the road to recovery.

  2. I used the words ‘coercion’ and ‘control’ which cover in a broad way all the things you mention Athena. The point I wanted to make in this brief presentation is that I don’t believe that the dynamic or flow of power within cultic groups actually works unless you have in functioning order all the awful stuff of which they are accused. Abuse and control are a necessary aspect for this flow of energy to work, apparently benefiting leader and led. Bible-believing ideas which promote the power (control!) of fundamentalist ministers only function effectively as long as no one in the group is allowed to mention biblical criticism or query the inerrantist view. The precise ways in which coercion and control operate has endless permutations and will include ghastly behaviour of all kinds, including shunning and disassociation. This blog cannot be accused of ignoring this particular topic!
    Good to hear good news about your husband.

  3. Oh yes, I agree. You’ve certainly covered it. I was musing on how I would arrange the characteristics in order. How could the average man on the Clapham omnibus recognise cultish behaviour relatively easily? Diagnosis. There’s always a lot of identifiers. This new item involving Matt is, if this is at all the right word, interesting. Most people recognise that abused people often do not report the abuse for years. How can the church create a rule that flies in the face of what most courts do recognise? And if a ten year old is too frightened to report something immediately, how much braver is (s)he going to feel when they are eleven? I’m seriously wondering whether it would stand up in court.

  4. Another abuse, that is difficult to discern, is spiritual abuse where there is no mention of the power and support of the Holy Spirit. Every week there is blinkered Bible based teaching and people feel empty inside. This is happening to many people and if they are young or in the early stages of the Christian life they will not understand what is happening.

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