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.

6 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.

  5. Hi Stephen: I will find my definition of a Cult : I went to my most GIFTED apostolic friend /researcher and YEARS ago asked that same question. Then, when gave me the Definition which fit on 1/2 page; I had to go you have to explain it to me in lay terms (it was spot on). One time I Googled: The Definition of a Cult and also are the Assemblies of God a Cult; funny item those 1, 2, 3 square boxes and then next at bottom of the page=when you get to #12, 21 they tie in Sociopath with Cult definition (which I would have considered one of the Pastor’s that was so narcissism, total hitler/napoleon complex such abuse to the people=so sad; how many are like that=way too many). Anyone read: People in Glass Houses by Tanya Levin? Thieves by Trey Smith, The Fleecing of Christianity by Jackie Alnor?
    Behavioral Science Department of a College is Doing a Survey regarding Pastoral Abuse, anyone want to participate?

    1. I think focussing on God & scripture to fill your spirit with the essentials for realizing Gods mighty Holy Spirit power for the counter the enemy with Hoky Ghost authority. Jesus gave His servants that command to tread on serpents scorpians & all the power of the enemy. we need to be prayer warriors outfitted with the scripture deep within our spirits. we need Christ to arm us and prepare us then send us out equipped in God’s fullness. God instructs us for His purposes in His perfect plan & timing. we Christians are to weak in the spitit. Jesus said the words he spoke were Soirit &truth. we are a spirit in a body with a mind,will & emotions. It’s been way too long that the true christians and those who ate willing to change can mount up on wings like Eagles and be God’s army fitted for true recolutionary spiritual battle. No one,not demons nor fake church leaders,nor politicians,nor tanks or horses,or weaponary of any kind can defeat a true Gid directed mive of humble, spirit led Christians dressed for battle armed like David defending God HIS name and taking the enemy by storm in the name of the Lord God Almighty. they couldnt take Jesus nir Paul nor any ubless it was Gods timing for more glory being lifted up to God. Remember Steven. Realize God in a deeper richer way. Become trained in your spirit where nothing God asks will be answered with a yes God your my Great and mighty leader and I am youurs and your banner over me is love. pray &worship & spend quiet time listening. tell God im listening speak Lord. God asks ua to daily take up the cross & follow Him. God makes a way when there is no way. we humbly serve Hin at His good pleasure. prayer was Jesus main thing. He did all nighters and was obedient to God at all times. The Bible says He learned obedience by the things He suffered. Any mighty move of God breaks forth fom the prayer & praise room. If we will make room for God He is our leader. praise God be blessed in your endeavors in Christ. God is able to do abundantly above what we can think. Isnt it good and just and right that He is still ruler yet. we must remember that Fod is seperating the sheep from the fake sheep.it willbecome more apparent as we ready ourselves and arise. we all have some portion of our heart that isn’t soft towards God. Jesus disciples ecen had hard heart areas. we nust keeo seejing God asking for more of Him and knocking. We need to fix our eyes on God and let God arise and the enemy be scattered.Our focus must be God alone. We must be Calebs. send copy of memo to BBG she will forward. STEPHEN AM ADDING TO MEMO THIS IS DEBORAH/JAEL TYPE WIDOW WOMAN. I.PULLED UP YR WEBSITE FOR HER. TKS

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