“Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread…”
“O heads of Jacob, and ye princes of the house of Israel; Is it not for you to know judgment? Who hate the good, and love the evil; who pluck off their skin from off them, and their flesh from off their bones; who also eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them; and they break their bones, and chop them in pieces, as for the pot, and as flesh within the caldron. Then shall they cry unto the Lord, but He will not hear them: He will even hide his face from them…”
“And Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Take heed that no man deceive you.'”
Order of Contents
Many doctrinally orthodox churches exhibit some cultic characteristics and patterns though they would not be seen at face value to be cults.
Cults are not easy to define because of all the forms and variations they may take. The first characteristic usually listed for a Christian cult is significant doctrinal aberration. Thus Christians are often wary to call a church without that a “cult,” frequently out of Christians’ respect for Christ’s Church and her mission.
Yet sin can intertwine into anything. Anything good can be corrupted, good purposes can (without intention) be used in harmful ways and less-than-good purposes can use anything. Often cultic characteristics and tactics, under Biblical and Christian lingo, are used for accomplishing what are taken to be good, Biblical and spiritual goals. Hence churches not fitting the epitomy of a cult, nor trying to be one, fly under the radar, danger to persons connected to them remaining. It’s good to be aware of one’s environment. Rather than “Am I in a cult?” it’s much better to ask, “Does my church have cultic characteristics?”
This Intro and the Cultic Charactistics listed immediately below focus on spiritually, psychologically and sociologically harmful traits and patterns that may pertain to evanglical, conservative and reformed churches. This is in contrast to the articles below which treat of cultic groups more generally, especially the more obvious ones; they have additional valuable insights.
What are Cultic Characteristics?
Cultic characteristics differ from spiritual abuse in that simple spiritual abuse may occur in isolated instances, or come from only one person, but when it, or the traits below, are characteristic of or systemic to a significant part of the church, its culture, its leadership, a group of churches, a presbytery or the denomination, you are dealing with cultic characteristics (though the people in them may have no such intent).
It ought to be emphasized that well-meaning Christians, elders and churches are not perfect, have blind spots, inconsistencies, faults, commit harm unwittingly, are sinners, may do bad things and may have some instances of the traits below in a minor degree, and yet not have cultic characteristics. These things ought to be able to be acknowledged, talked about, be correctable, and not be systemic. If persons are not only oblivious to these matters, but dismiss them, hold them to be positive goods, the only way of doing things, they are not correctable and they are driving numerous other beliefs and practices, you are experiencing cultic characteristics.
Churches with some cultic characteristics are in some ways more dangerous than full-fledged cults. The signs in becoming involved with them are less obvious and acute, the good is often thought to outweigh the bad (and it likely does for some time), you come to have more invested in the church because of this, there are many more well-meaning, enthusiastic supporters of the church and its leaders and the good is harder to leave (which will be used against you, especially as you are dismissed and/or vilified on the way out).
Spiritual manipulators do not equally mistreat people; in fact they treat many or most people outwardly very well, perhaps too well (and they know where and what select-types of persons to make that investment in, depending on their goals). Spiritual abusers most often mistreat persons under them, not their peers or persons over them¹ (if there be any); hence they have many enthusiastic friends and supporters, with power, who are on their side already or will give them the endless benefit of the doubt and endless sympathy, even when they know they’re guilty.
¹ Michael J. Kruger, ‘Key Signs of An Abusive Pastor #2…’ (2021)
Cultic characteristics exist on a continuum of degrees. If you do not think traits below in your church are cultic, they are at least not healthy and are red flags. When they combine together, they may have severe effects.
It’s precisely because persons can coast along that they feel everything is fine, because nothing has happened to them, yet. The most common response of others is, “They haven’t treated me that way.”²
² Kruger, ‘Key Signs of an Abusive Pastor #1…’ (2021)
The Main Cultic Characteristics
Many will consider the characteristics below obviously negative, hardly needing warning, and may have no problem recognizing relevant instances around them in life or church. However then why is persons’ typical response to stay under the systemic, spiritual risk? The below characteristics are here highlighted and expounded, not to persuade you they are bad, but that you are in a church with cultic characteristics, which typically don’t get better with time, but worse.
A pioneering book on spiritual abuse lists as characteristics of the spiritually abusive system:
1. Power Posturing
2. Performance / Preoccupation
3. Unspoken Rules
4. Lack of Balance
6. Misplaced Loyalty
7. Code of Silence
– David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany House, 1991), pp. 187-88
These characteristics are insightfully elaborated on pp. 63-79. There is a chart (pp. 187-88) which pairs each characteristic with the effects the shame-based relationships have on the people, that is, what people in the system tend to experience and think, contributing to their learned powerlessness. Look it over and see if it at all characterizes you or your church.
What is learned powerlessness? Learned powerlessness is a two-sided coin (and can occur in any relationship):
“On one side of the coin is the person who has not learned the skills needed to act capable, competent and strong. This is due to the lack of opportunities and support to do so in their past and present relationship systems. At best, they are survivors, but they do not prosper and grow as individuals…
Have you ever been to the circus and seen how a huge elephant can be restrained by a piece of rope tied to a tiny wooden stake in the ground? This is probably because the elephant was held captive like that as a baby. The rope and stake came to represent a force it could not overcome. Now, even though it has the strength to easily free itself, it remains a hostage to a tiny stick.
This leads us to the second side of ‘the coin,’ and that is when a person becomes accustomed to ‘martyr’ behavior. This is the person who has become skilled at acting less capable, less competent, or weaker than they really are. The reason this occurs is that experiences and messages have taught them to see themselves that way and act accordingly.” Johnson & VanVonderen, Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, pp. 54-55
The Driving Principle of Cultic Characteristics
What is the unifying, driving factor behind the seven cultic characteristics above plus most of those below? It is arguably:
An elitist personality seeking to safeguard his ideals in people.
To explain and argue this a bit: This appears to be the driving principle of both harder and softer cultic groups, making them cultic. Any non-cultic group or Church may take on cultic characteristics by the influence of someone with an elitist personality (not necessarily intending to be elitist) seeking to safeguard his ideals in people. It only takes one (usually a man), by whose influence others are leavened, into leaders or followers.
He isn’t necessarily trying to start a cult, but only seeking to promote what appear to be good ideals (especially religious ones). “Personality” is used above instead of “person” because it may just be a tendency or his default and unconscious personality; the degree to which it is present will influence the degree of the cultic characteristics.
As he is elitist, he doesn’t need other people, which is helpful in starting out and in being a leader (people are often attracted to this). It’s also why there is a self-imposed psychological barrier between him and the people, and why they are expendable (relative to the ideals and the group). Being elitist he tends to seek to preserve his image, power and elite authority, and hence uses power posturing. He (or they) being more enlightened (or knowledgable) than the people, condescend to them, who are not fully capable of understanding. Hence the leaders must protect the people. The elitism encourages learned powerlessness.
Since they are elitist, they have elite ideals, not so commonly held elsewhere. Hence the leaders are “seeking” to instill, or mold these ideals in people, both outside the group and inside the group. People are the commodity precisely because only persons believe ideals, and it is generally better to have more people believe them than less (though that is not absolutely necessary).
The ideals (not just principles) are held to be the defining, formal standard of the group and the cause which trumps all (this also demanding constant performance). The ideals are constantly in danger of being lost both from the risks outside the group and as the relatively ignorant people inside are pliable. Due to these risks (involving fear, paranoia and motivating preoccupation), the ideals must be safeguarded, or protected, in the people. The ideals, being the highest and best, requiring supreme allegiance, are therefore not well qualified by other balancing factors, making the whole rather unnatural. Misplaced loyalty, by the leaders and the people, is all over.
As the elite leaders know what is best for the relatively ignorant people and must protect them, the leaders tend to be controlling and judgmental. As the people don’t fully understand, not having attained that level, so the leaders can’t give full reasons to them, but in consistency with being elite, dictate, expect implicit faith in their wisdom and must use pressure and manipulation. Unwritten rules become a necessity and breed a code of silence: what can be talked about and what can’t. Thus, shame-based relationships seeking approval are encouraged, formed and cemented.
The above is the basic cultic structure, though it is regularly masked by the church’s other good traits, activities, language and ends. It won’t be a suprise the structure characterized Pharisaism (Mt. 23) and molds another hallmark cultic feature: it’s hard to leave.
Just wait until a problem arises (which often occurs unpredictably), perhaps when you (or a family member or friend) out of conscience does what is right when it’s not popular, it cuts against the unspoken rules, the agenda, and the leaders feel their idols are threatened (often their perceived image, the church or the ministry itself). Welcome to the bear-trap (Jer. 5:26-31), all executed in Christ’s name against you.
It’s like a casino: The system is designed so the house always wins. There are lots of reasons and rewards to stay, but the longer you play their game, the more you lose. There are three main characteristics which make a good trap. You will likely only see the second:
1. It’s easy to get in, hard to get out.
2. There are numerous strong reasons (often coming from within you) to stay and inch forward. “Really good bait will occupy the attention of the prey so thoroughly that the danger will go unnoticed.”
3. The more one struggles, the more tired and trapped he or she becomes: the teeth only dig in more. The more it hurts, the more you struggle: the more persons are reduced.
– Ibid., pp. 183-84
The bear-trap (Job 18:10) could be purely psychological and social and/or operating through Church government (of whatever variety); either way it manipulates spiritually and is much deeper than you think: you cannot see the end of it. Years of your life will be eaten up as your sincere good-will, genuiness, trustingness (including but not limited to: that they will eventually do what they’re supposed to) and faith is endlessly taken advantage of and trampled. Being able to see and understand the trap helps you get out.
One example of a spiritual trap is given in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (p. 11):
“She was teary-eyed, anxious. But most of all, I saw fear. What’s more… she was afraid of–me!… it was what I represented. I was a pastor, a figure of authority. And not just any authority–a spiritual authority, a ‘representative of God.’ She was terrified of that…
I realized that she exhibited the characteristics of an abuse victim… her abuse was spiritual. In the context of her Christian home and her evanglical church…
Though Jesus came with ‘good news’ to set us all free, she had been pressed by other Christians to work harder at being ‘a good Christian.’ When she had failed in her honest attempts, she was judged as undisciplined and unwilling–perhaps even unsaved. She tried harder and harder to do all that was prescribed: more Bible reading, more prayer, more financial sacrifice.
Finally, exhausted, she had come seeking help. By then she was so sure I, too, was going to judge her that she nearly could not ask for help from one more ‘spiritual authority.’ The good news had become bad news… until it nearly crushed out her inner spirit.”
For a very insightful example of a spiritual trap involving a woman receiving ‘pastoral counsel’ from her pastor, with an analysis, see pp. 17-20.
Why do People Stay?
Why do people continue taking the spiritual abuse and not just leave? At a fundamental level you may feel like you are leaving what is spiritual, God Himself (things Christians treasure the most), and authorities you respect are telling you that you are in sin, or at least danger, for doing so.
But there are more reasons: Besides being loving, longsuffering, giving the benefit of the doubt, etc. as Christians generally ought to, and seeking to correct misunderstandings about yourself and rectify your good name (suspicions may be raised endlessly and, without proof, assume you’re guilty until proven innocent), another main answer is “equity rescuing”:
You are trying to preseve or rescue the equity, or investment, you already have in the situation, which is likely substantial. If it were simply material you could cut your losses; but invested here is your life, friendships, relationships, good name, calling, identity, even your perceived standing with the Lord (your elders will be posing Bible verses against you; resistence is not only proud, but futile, as they have greater knowledge, holiness and wisdom than you, Job 15:1-18).
“Equity rescuing’ occurs in abusive relationships… You end up far away from normal. You may even be well aware that the situation is abusive and abnormal. So you set up a ‘boundary’… It happens again, but for you to walk away from the situation at this point will feel as if you have been abused for nothing. So you try a little bit harder, and invest a little more of yourself. More serious abuse occurs, so you set up another boundary…
The problem is that most victims assess their present situation only by comparing it to the last adjustment. Compared to all they have invested, this latest violation just isn’t that big of a compromise. They don’t compare it to normal… It’s ironic that the fact that we care so much about our faith is what contributes to our being trapped in unhealthy systems.” Ibid., pp. 185-87
The Effects of Cultic Characteristics
You need someone, maybe a friend who is not in the group, a third party, who is willing to hear you and confirm that you’re not crazy. It will reasonably require at least double the amount of time you suffered to disentangle and heal from the spiritual abuse, if you are able to, which is not guaranteed.
The most dangerous thing in all of this is preciely its spiritual nature, that God’s name, the Bible, Biblical words and spiritual phrases are attached to everything. It’s spiritually disorienting, warping and it engrains distorted ideas about God, the Bible and the spiritual and Christian life into your soul, consciousness, identity, life and long-term memory.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), contrary to popular opinion, can occur from any traumatic stresses: the causative factor is the stress itself. PTSD is a normal response to abnormal situations. Spiritually-related PTSD is real. See if you have any symptoms (Mayo & NIMH).
Confronting Systemic Spiritual Abuse
What are the effects of confronting systemic spiritual abuse? Johnson continues (p. 12):
“…I have consistently endeavored to preach the grace of God as our only hope for spiritual life and power… We consistently confront the pious, pretending of pharisaical legalism. What we have noticed is that wounded people get healed, and religious people get angry.
Whereas Christ has called us to freedom and rest (Hebrews 4), too many in the body of Christ are not encouraging wounded, struggling people to begin their healing by resting in the grace of God, but rather to work harder for the benefits of salvation. And if these ‘formulas’ are questioned, those in spiritual authority often feel threatened. Protecting a doctrine, or their own position, they turn on the very ones who have come seeking help.”
The Truth & Conclusion
Despite such churches having a basic orthodoxy, or a higher than average professed orthodoxy, every unhealthy and cultic trait, despite the Scriptures and spiritual things on their lips, is a deviation from the teaching of God’s Word. Part of the way to discern these matters and recover is to see from Scripture and orthodox, historic theology, reformed according to God’s Word, the truth, which is objective, impartial and can’t be manipulated, in contrast to their errors, partiality and heterodoxy (all of which can be manipulated). For that, see the Doctrinal Help section below. “The truth shall make you free.” Jn. 8:32
This Intro is on the briefer side; the material below is lengthier: persons who need help tend to need more than less. It ought not to make you paranoid, but help you to have a greater, realistic assessment of your situation or that of others; truth is stabilizing. You can respond without reacting. Make your own independent evaluation, with no pressure. If material doesn’t apply to you, be thankful. Particular examples are only that; the general principles you may be able to see in your situation; they will benefit your reflection. Most of the characteristics listed and expounded below are not in a definite order.
Educate yourself and may the Lord be near to you and protect you and yours; and whatever you do, no matter the amount of pressure, do not give up your God-given common sense or your appeals to God’s moral laws. They gave them up a long time ago.
“Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens: and he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute.
Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord.”
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
“Then went Samson down… behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done… And after a time… he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion:
and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion. And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating… And he said unto them, ‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ And they could not in three days expound the riddle.”
Judg. 14:5-9, 14
Order of Cultic Characteristics
Hard to Leave
History of Estrangement
Principles & You are Expendable
Smaller, Celebrity or Personality Culture & Implicit Faith
Pressure to do Uncomfortable Things
Limited Transparency, Dictating & Obstruction
Isolate & Intimidate
Targeting & Shaming
Ecclesiastical Group Identity Politics
Controlling the Narrative
Use Things Against You (Manipulation)
How You Should Think & Respond
Subjective Overrules Objective
Objective Overrules Subjective
Good Ol’ Boys Club
Governance by Innuendo
Going against church is against Christ, questions your salvation
The Church is All, you have No Rights
Golden Hall of Truth
See the Intro above for context to these characteristics.
Hard to Leave
If it was impossible to leave it would be a cult; but it could be hard to leave. It may be easy on paper, but getting out without social repercussions is another story.
Afterall, if the church is seen as the best bucket of ice cream around, putting you on track for the highest reward in Heaven, there is not really a legitimate reason for leaving, because all temporal things are subordinate to the spiritual. That being the case, you probably aren’t spiritual enough, not committed, are sadly missing out, are likely backsliding and probably have a critical attitude. You are leaving for the wilderness, are self-determined and think you can do it on your own. You are not as sacrificial as the leaders and are choosing the pleasures of this world (Gen. 13:8-11) over the purity of God’s truth (which can only be sustained with their influence).
Think of all that they have done for you, your very spiritual fathers, all the times they were there for you: that is all used against you to get you to stay longer (Judg. 19:4-10), lest you’re ungrateful. Forget that God told Jacob in a dream to get up and leave Laban (Gen. 31:13), and justified him in doing it by flight (Gen. 31:24), knowing the manipulation and entangelment that would occur if it was done otherwise (which occured anyway). If you are an elitist elder, and hence judgmental and controlling because you know better than everyone else, hear God: “Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.” (Gen. 31:24)
If suspicions happen to arise when you request to leave, be sure you will be in the meat-grinder for the long-haul (in their eyes). You had no idea they may find you appropriately using the processes of Church government to be warrant for investigating you for scandal.
If the safest way for you to leave is to black-out and have no communication with them, you’re in a cult. If you can’t leave without getting your name slaughtered, you’re in a cult. If you’re in a cult, it’s better to get your name slaughtered and be out than to remain in it.
There is a popular, false (Biblicist) teaching in some conservative, reformed churches that a person can only leave a church in one of three ways: through (1) transfer to another church (which keeps the control with the elders), (2) death, or (3) excommunication. However, as taught by natural law (which Scripture upholds) and historic, reformed theology,¹ a member may justifiably be removed or erased from the rolls without guilt. If your elders don’t believe this, get ready for option (3).
¹ See ‘One may Absent Themselves or Leave a Particular Church without Permission from the Church, Due to the Necessities of Providence’ and ‘That Removing from the Rolls and/or Erasure, in some Cases, is Natural, Biblical & Possible and/or Necessary’.
They have forced your path into a crossroads: fight or flight. The first option will entail the second. Whatever you do, do not take the middle path. Never believe or trust highjackers’ promises. It’s better to be chewed up and spit out than chewed up and trapped.
It being hard to leave is why all the other characteristics below are so bad. Governance apart from your consent, when you have done nothing wrong, is against natural law (and hence Scripture), and is tyrranical and cultic (though they call it “Biblical authority”). God’s natural law is more foundational and obligatory than whatever form of agreement you signed into (which pre-required your consent).
If you leave and all you hear is silence from your former friends and colleagues: be thankful, you dodged a bullet. You can get out of a cult, but you can’t of yourself take the cultic mindset out of the remaining members. They will continue on for some time. Don’t go back to your manipulative and abusive boyfriend, despite his pleading at your door for another chance. You have to move on with your life; thrive doing so.
A History of Estrangement
You likely won’t know going into the church their particular history. Only after continued years of being in it will you begin to hear about past persons and stories, or witness persons coming under discipline. Most of them strangely go silent, and then leave the church, never to be heard much of again. That’s odd.
But that hasn’t happened to you, and whenever you ask the elders about so and so, if anything is forthcoming at all, the problem, usually subjective, is with those that left.
How many people are you estranged to? Probably none, or at best few. Estrangement takes some very significant and traumatic experiences and situations to occur. Many churches with faithful shepherding do not have histories of estrangement.
Why do committed members, who remain professing and upright Christians, fall away silent after meeting behind closed doors a few or several times with the elders? There is more going on there than you realize (likely involving Scripture and obedience being used controllingly, there being dictated expectations with unspoken repercussions, people being silenced, usually through the threat of creating a scandal and then being censured, etc.); it’s in your best interest to find out the other side of the story.
They are Principled & You are Expendable
Persons and churches with cultic characteristics are very principled, and often have the highest and most spiritual principles on their tongues. That is what attracts many people to them: they hold many of the same principles (distinctives) as you, and perhaps better ones.
The principles of principled people often act as horse-blinders. They can only see one principle in a situation, or a few, when there are actually dozens more, or more realistically, hundreds. Following principles can override the natural circumstances, balance, relations and bonds of one’s environment and community, which can be beneficial, or detrimental and devastating.
You have probably felt very bonded and secure to the church for some time, especially as you have come around to their principles (or distinctives), but you also haven’t been in a position to see how things work behind the scenes. If, when you happen to overstep one of the unwritten rules, you find them unusually aroused, speaking to you as if you are expendable: don’t doubt your impressions and instincts. They have submitted their lives to their principles (including the unwritten ones), and expect you to as well. It’s their bond of unity.
When friction and unknowns occur in a fearful environment, persons on a natural level most often and predictably resort by defult to their allegiances, usually which are closest to them and in their interests. That’s what you can expect. Self-preservation teaches so and is a strong inclination. You can be sure the leaders are more attached to their principles and allegiances, which sustain their interests, and that they are closer to each other, than to you, who probably don’t measure up to their principles; and they have lost confidence in you.
You have the choice to get inline and submit to the unspoken pressures and coast along, or leave. What will you do? Don’t wait till the end of the meat-grinder to find out, against your continued trust and belief, that they consider you expendable. They, their church and their presbytery, and their ultimate cause will remain after you are gone.
Johnson and VanVonderen write in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, pp. 56-57:
“Relationships and behaviors are manipulated by very powerful unspoken rules. These rules are seldom, if ever, said out loud. In fact, when spoken out loud many of them sound ridiculous. No one says out loud, ‘What people think about us is more important than what is really happening.’ Yet the unspoken rules communicate these and other shaming messages.
The ‘can’t-talk’ rule keeps people quiet by labeling them as the problem if they notice and confront a problem. Because people feel they cannot talk about an unspoken rule, they learn to talk in ‘code’ to convey what they mean.
Coding is an example of verbal manipulation… Messages are sent through a verbal code that others are supposed to decode… ‘Don’t you think it would be better this way?’ means, ‘I want you to do it this way.’ People also code non-verbally with body language–by giving dirty looks, becoming loud or quiet, or leaving the room in a sullen or disconnected attitude.
Triangling is another way to act manipulative in relationships. This simply means to send a message to someone through another person instead of delivering it directly.
The effects [are]: Great ‘radar’–the ability to pick up tensions in situations and relationships; ability to decode the crooked messages of others; saying things in code instead of saying them straight; talking about people instead of to them; message-carrying for people; expecting others to know your code; difficulty trusting people; reading other meanings into what people say.”
A manifestation of this can be pastoral shepherding and Church government by innuendo, unspoken pressures and unmentionable consequences. They may never tell you what is wrong: you’re supposed to be able to pick it up and be following their example. You never know what you’re guilty of, but you can guess, and you do too much, which makes you hyper-sensitive to your external image and that of your family. You begin to make choices to protect your reputation over other ethical factors and people. Such things are ok for others, but you (and your family) are held to a higher standard (being a church-officer, etc.). You become more dependent on them.
Cults are often Biblicists, and Biblicism may be very powerfully used by persons with cultic characteristics. Biblicism may be defined as an elevation of the Bible to such a high level that it occludes other things needed to be taken into account.
For some Biblicists the mere quoting of a Bible verse, especially with profound emphasis by an elder, settles the issue (especially practical judgments). Yet this ignores that anyone with a computer concordance can easily find numerous verses which may direct to the exact opposite action, precisely because Scripture is a perfect rule of all morals. That is, as Scripture approves and examples in general all right morality, it does not tell us what to do, or the only thing that may be done, in any concrete situation. That involves individual discernment and conscience, which God is the Lord of alone (WCF 20.2).
The necessity of any action comes not only from a moral principle (or many), but also from the circumstances, past history, the prospective future, one’s knowledge base, understanding, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, inclinations. etc. which is different for everyone. If quoting a bible verse, or many, is sufficient to settle any matter and enforce conformity (forget the verses’ contexts and other factors), you can be sure the circumstances and people’s consciences are being trodden over.
Biblicists, while they may give lip-service to natural law, yet often downplay it as to be of near-no relevance. Yet how do you eat cereal in the morning, if not by nature’s light and laws? Nature’s light and law, given of God and upheld by Scripture, is open and available to everyone and factors into our every action; it’s what maintains the proper and ethical balance of everyday life.
Yet Scripture wielded alone, divorced from natural law and the bounds of your real, concrete life, is quite the powerful tool for elders to always be right and force and manipulate believers by. The greatest force against cultic characteristics and persons is Natural Law. Stand upon it, and do not let them side-track you anywhere else; do not move on to the next thing.
Smaller, Celebrity or Personality Culture & Implicit Faith
Pastors by their position are big fish in small fish bowls, even in the biggest churches. Many reformed churches do not just make known from nature’s light or Scripture, but repetitively promote how elders are to be reverenced. Add the hoopla on social media, it’s not hard for pastors and elders to turn into celebrities with many adoring fans, even amongst their colleagues.
Bigger groups or churches, or fanbases, are not as often cultic because it’s harder to control and manipulate a larger group of people, and easier to leave. The smaller the group, church or denomination, the easier it is.
But “celebrity culture” may not be the right word for your lead pastor and the demeanor he sets with the elders. He is highly respected, his way with people is attractive and paradigmatic, as is his philosophy of ministry and role modelling of family life, and, actually, just about everything he does.
Not only does the whole church gravitate to his example, but it has really become the norm, especially for godliness and spirituality. The days when you used to believe there were many examples of differing, fruit-bearing Christians with different traits, mutually complementary to each other on the same playing field, not easily reckoned up into a spiritual heirarchy (1 Cor. 12), are long gone. Outside people and churches sadly don’t have his close influence or spiritual keys for the Christian life.
You have noticed, first from a distance and now a bit more closely, it impinging a bit on your own sphere, his personality-type, ways, manner and takes on doing things have become, from his own statements and expectations, if not rules for behavior, at least a pressure needing to be resolved through gaining his confidence in the matter, lest others’ actions or your own be not morally approved, by him or other people that would agree with him. The elders think likewise.
If you observe in the congregation not just a rational trust in your pastor and elders, but an implicit faith by many in much or most of what they say or do, especially when there is contrary evidence, you are not in a safe position. But elders should be honored and revered, and therefore if there is uncertainty, their determination settles the matter, right? Samuel Rutherford:
“If matters in their expediency be questionable and probable on both sides, the Church’s determination should end the controversy (say the [Aberdeen] Doctors); this is the doctrine of the Jesuits, Suarez, Thomas, Sanchez and Gregory de Valentia [all Romanists]… when a thing is probable and I be resolved in conscience against neither of the sides, and fear the one side be… against God’s commandment, and know that human authority commands the contrary, and am persuaded it is indifferent, and a positive commandment of men, if the Church’s determination be here to sway my conscience, to practice is to me blind obedience, for human authority as it is such, gives no light.” Divine Right of Church Government (1646), Dispute Touching Scandal, Question 4, p. 43
When you seek reasons for what is going on and the only answers you get are of the kind, “The elders have determined…”, “This was the counsel of the presbytery,” “The principal clerk believes…” this is all directing you to trust persons without it being established in God-given reason. Take a cue from common life: persons that insist on you trusting them are the last persons you should trust. Trustworthy persons freely give their reasons precisely because they understand them as the grounds of the rightness of the action. Persons always (silently) trying to gain your confidence, are manipulators.
The church leadership is geared towards being unanimous in their decisions and actions in order to give a united front (notice the disparity here with the people). They may do things unanimously or not at all.
With time, of course, this puts pressure on all the elders to agree, even in situations that aren’t so cut and dry. And if they all do, you should too. “Look, all the elders are unanimous on this.” This is especially compelling under the (pressurized) lingo and mantra of Church unity, which really fits well with cultic characteristics.
Cults thrive on the principle that the leadership’s will is God’s will, just like under the Papacy. In presbyterianism that may fly under the flag of a misinterpreting and mishandling of Mt. 18:18, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.”
Authoritarians tend to have an emphasis on outward unity, even setting up artificial (not natural) displays of outward unity. Which ones do you observe? Why do all the leaders or elders sit together when they don’t need to?: Control of channels of communication and allegiances and to present a united front. People conform so as not to be the odd one out; it’s part of the role.
They will promote these things among themselves “for the strength of the session’s unity,” but what really is driving it, if you are perceptive, is fear (notice the anxiety, which is actually deep-seated paranoia from long before your time). The leader(s) fear divisions in the leadership and everything falling apart, including their cause, which they see as hanging on them (not on Christ, Mt. 16:18, “I will build my Church”). The leadership’s unity must be preserved at near-any-cost.
Fear is a very powerful motivator, and seeks control for perceived safety. Fear and perceived lack of control are significant factors in facilitating anger towards those whose actions pose risk, such as persons out of conformity. Anger towards the unsuspecting and those who have done no wrong but have broken the unwritten rules becomes abuse. If you don’t agree, break some unwritten rules and find out.
You’re not a legalist: you don’t think all rock and roll, dancing, card games, smoking and make-up are absolutely wrong in all cases like some crazy fundamentalists; you can cite 1 Tim. 4:3-5.
Yet you might have very definite ideas about child-training, courting and marriage. Yet the Bible says next to nothing about courtship: the most relevant verses are Mosaic laws; and it has relatively little about child training and marriage. “But the Bible gives general principles for child-rearing and marriage.” True, but your opinions about those things are very particular in the concrete, having a definite look, feel, and even method, and are able to be reduced to a handful of simple principles. This is not only popular at your church, but something people strive towards as the standard has been set by your pastor and elders (something they expect).
The standard by nature, however, may be as complex, nuanced and distinctive as your wife, children and history are (e.g. Gen. 25:27-28; 33:13; Lk. 10:39-42; 1 Pet. 3:7). Your wife never doubted this and thank God the Church’s Governor, Christ, doesn’t deal with us in such a simplistic way (Ps. 139; Rev. 2-3). Simple solutions enforced on complex situations are often harmful and oppressive.
The church’s outward decorum is very distinctive compared not only to the culture, but to most other Christian churches, except perhaps those most closely aligned with you, who share your distinctives. Sometimes the distinctive decorum goes under returning to an ideal culture, transforming culture or having a Biblical culture. Yet doesn’t culture, by its very nature have some variability (which is natural and good)? While a distinction between principles and their applications is acknowledged, a one-to-one connection is made between them, or some of them, and for all practical purposes the applications, or some of them, are just as binding as the principles.
Yet, the decorum is not enforced hard, just softly. The church doesn’t have the civil sword, only the pulpit, unspoken pressure, shame and approval, and spiritual, social and psychological means, the greatest of which is the carrot of gaining the confidence of the leadership and moving up (or not) in the church in posturing to be an officer. As your desire is to be godly, your highest hope and goal is to attain the spiritual privilege of being an officer in the inner circle.
It may take you a bit to think about, but you do know other Christians you respect who hold and practice the same general Scriptural principles, whose families are in order, but who have a very different balance, which bears good fruit (James 3:17-18). If you were to ask, they couldn’t articulate their philosophy into a box, but they do bring out insights and healthy principles and ideas you don’t normally think about. These Christians seem to be genuine, caring and have meaningful relationships.
Holding children, youth and possibly your wife to first-time, cheerful obedience under threat of discipline is (1) not how God treats us (Gen. 4:8-16; 16:6-14; 18:20-21; Hos. 11:1-4; Mt. 21:33-41; Lk. 10:38-42; Rom. 2:4; Rev. 2:4-6, 19-21), (2) is an unnatural and impossible standard that you yourself do not keep, and (3) if sufficient, right reasons for the action are not known by the person, you are exacting and engraining the habit of blind obedience into him, her or them.
Law arises from the circumstances, neither honor (Ex. 20:12) or submission (Eph. 5:21-22, 33) equates to obedience (‘Subjection does not Always Entail Obedience’), a lawful command may not necessarily be lawfully obeyed, not every alternative action is disobedience, not every disobedience is sinful and not every sinful disobedience is rebellion.
If the magnetic pastor believes the parents ought never to let the child “win,” but is willing to step up the force every time, if necessary (forget the child’s conscience, that you might not know something, or be wrong; ignore the possibility of tolerance for the higher good of the child, or seeking an alternate path; don’t consider there may be negative effects in the child’s development from breaking his or her will and always exacting and maintaining this, and forget that a strong willed person directed in the right way may attain unparalleled good), how do you think the elders will treat you when they believe you’re in the wrong? All visible frustration (and it is frustrating) will be disrespect (which will relieve them of any further obligation to you).
You don’t need permission to do good, or, instead of the method, to exercise the fruits of the Spirit with your family (Gal. 5:22-23): “the Law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly…” (1 Tim. 1:9)
Routinely the causes of friction at your church, or problems, especially with youth growing up, are precisely where the rubber hits the road, or doesn’t, with your Biblical, practical methods. This is considered backsliding. What is morally binding though, is not your method, but, in contrast to provoking your children to wrath, to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4)
Yet the distinctive outward form in your church, and maintaining it, is an external benchmark of spirituality and whether one is qualified for the eldership or not (ignore Moses and Job being elders, Ex. 4:29; Job 29:7-11, and the actions of their wives, Ex. 4:25; Job 2:9, not to mention Aaron’s gross moral fault, Ex. 32:1-6; see ‘On the Qualifications of 1 Tim. 3’).
“Always choose the best,” says the fundamentalist teetotaler. Always choose the non-alcoholic drink: you won’t get drunk; all others pose a danger. Why would you stop at one when there’s nothing preventing you from gluttoning yourself? He applies this to clothes, music, friends, finances, hobbies, kids’ school curriculums, etc. You can’t have too much of a good thing, right? (Prov. 25:16) That you can only choose the best (and there is only one best; as it’s objective, it applies to everyone equally), is a driving principle and motivator of legalism.
You likely have never considered there can be a spiritual legalism (not limited to one manifestation).
Your spiritual leader may emphasize we only have one life, we must be as holy as we can (this usually means being other-worldly) and you should always choose what is best spiritually, especially in contrast to what is less spiritual or only of this world. He and the church may be preoccupied with having the best spiritual experiences. This is very attractive to those who take the Bible and the Christian life seriously, as you do.
Naturally this line of thinking trumps every alternative. The all or nothing standard is a secret key to the Christian life. Persons are encouraged to be more consistent with it, though it’s a standard one always falls short of. Those who follow it (it comes out in their decisions and speech) are of an elite Christian character, manifestly different from other Christians, and are set up for the most heavenly return.
Yet doesn’t holiness in large part involve using natural things in a moral way, this glorifying God?
There is an atmosphere of pressure, performance, probably high productivity. Your value lies in being in your place or what you achieve for someone else, which you’re measured by; once the standard is reached, it is changed or moved: it never seems good enough. Assurance of God’s goodwill is dependent on your utmost spiritual exercise (you feel cycles of shame and approval related to this). Yet what about that in the Christian life which is restful, reflective, human, natural and satisfying (Dt. 24:5; 28:1-14; Ps. 23:6; 122:6-9; ch. 128; Eccl. 5:12; 9:9; Isa. 65:21-22; Eze. 28:26; Mic. 4:4-5; Amos 9:14; Mt. 11:28-30; 1 Pet. 3:10) and resting in God’s unconditional love in the Gospel?
With Christian liberty a person is only held guilty if one discernibly, positively transgresses God’s law, or omits doing God’s law in a situation where that specific response could have been the only right action. This is because:
“what God forbids, is at no time to be done (Job 13:7,8; Rom. 3:8; Job 36:21; Heb. 11:25); what He commands, is always our duty (Deut. 4:8,9); and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times (Matt. 12:7).” WLC 99.5
However, with people being held to positive expectations of what they should do (whether external or spiritual), or think, a person, not having transgressed the commandment of God, is guilty for not choosing (out of all the realms of possibilities) the precise positive response the leaders or peer pressure expects, contrary to the natural and Scriptural principle of Westminster’s Catechism above.¹ God alone is the Lord of the conscience (WCF 20.2).
Characteristics of perfectionism include giving up without trying, you can’t rest when you’re tired, them only doing things they’re good at, a high need for the approval of others (they seek it from people they disproportionately look up to and need it from the group) and you can’t have guilt-free fun.
If a leader is constantly pushing (or assuming, or it seems to be implied) that you must have an immediate reference to God and his glory in every precise thought and action, be assured this is severely unnatural and contrary to Scripture (Prov. 21:5; Mt. 1:19-20; Acts 15:38; 2 Cor. 9:5; 1 Thess. 3:1). Rutherford:
“Express and actual reference and intention to every commandment of God, or to God’s glory in every particular action, I do not urge; a habitual reference and intention I conceive is holden forth to us in Scripture: 1 Cor. 10:31.” Divine Right, Intro, Section 4, pp. 73-74
In throwing out the world your leader has also thrown out what is natural. If it feels unnatural, maybe it is? Spirituality and things of this world are not mutually exclusive, as in the rhetoric, but regularly conjoined.
Why does your leader do this? Besides his distorted view of theology, justified by select Bible verses, he’s reacting. Why? From feelings of lacking control and the fear of outside influences. He sees bad influences as stronger than God-promised good ones (which extend beyond the group). Where is the faith here?
It all is a grand and subtle way to eliminate Christian liberty, which is a necessary good. Liberty presumes the end goal is not necessarily the same for everyone (Jn. 21:21-23), and that Christians are, and should be and should develop as different as the varied characteristics, gifts, powers and glories of the animals, fish, birds, sun, moon, planets and stars, “as it has pleased Him” (1 Cor. 15:38-41; ch. 12).
“But the sun has the highest, best and most burningly glorious characteristics of all.” But there are a whole lotta good things it can’t do, which others can; the moon is more elegant, the stars sparkling, the cool wind refreshing and waddling baby skunks are really cute. When there’s no Christian liberty judgmentalism is the norm. Hypocrisies become glaring; straining at gnats is glorified while camels get swallowed. One can’t use the sacred lingo except in approving ways (otherwise it hurts the group’s ideals, image and cause, which is tantamount to sacrilege).
With a bit of time the ideals of the leader are basically the ideals of the group. The very epitomy of the most desirable balance of this best spiritual life is the leader; his godly characteristics are not just a pattern in the church, but the mold. If the leaders don’t see it this way, most of the people do. He doesn’t seem to have any faults; he never mentions any (except for petty faults hardly considered sins).
Any other balance than his is seen as less godly or good. The reason why the expectations never end is because he (or they) are trying to mold you to be like him, or them. The rising leaders are replicas of him, or try to be; you notice similar lingo, mannerisms, choices, imaging, etc. He is pleased they are following the best way (his). The elders always support his ideas. He has persuaded his closer colleagues of his same principles (distinctives). They are either his adoring fans or the same indistinguishable front with him.
If you’re not fully on board with all these choices you probably feel like a bit of a second class citizen, passed over, inferior or a sandbag. What do you make of the Holy Spirit’s words in Eccl. 7:16: “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” They have only ever referenced this verse in a diminuitive way.
Pressure to do what You’re Not Comfortable with
Manipulation is a near-universal characteristic of cultic groups, but it’s not most basic. Why do persons manipulate? To get you to do something you’re not comfortable with.
You see all the fronted reasons they put forth, but they don’t add up. Why all the pressure? They won’t reveal their real reasons, but why not? If you knew them, you wouldn’t do it.
They don’t see natural boundaries (Lk. 11:5-7) themselves and their view of you doesn’t take natural boundaries or your conscience into account (otherwise known as ‘respect’), because they are blinded by their principles. Hence they don’t believe you have a right to these boundaries. That is why the teeth of the bear-trap only dig deeper and further in.
The only justification you need is, “I’m not comfortable with that.” You are not to do things apart from your faith that it’s right and with a sure conscience before the Lord: “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” (Rom. 14:23). For them to pressure you, or counsel, instruct or command you to do it anyway, without satisfying your reasons and conscience to your satisfaction, is to pressure you to sin, which is sinful of them.
If you give your reasons and they minimize or dismiss them without satisfying them, and still pressure you, whatever they want you to do (especially if it means stepping into what may be a bear-trap), do not do it. If this is a pattern of their behavior, you are talking to a cultic person or cult leaders.
If they won’t listen to you but give you the most spiritual reasons for doing what you’re not comfortable with, quoting Scriptures, citing Church authority, the elders’ great wisdom, etc. etc. you are being brainwashed and now know how and why most people around you can go along with this.
The likely reason they won’t give you straight-forward satisfying reasons is because they are keeping from you not only the real reasons, but what will occur if you comply (which you can be sure you will not be comfortable with). They may speak softly, humbly and seek your agreement beforehand; if you backout, you had agreed to it, and their proceedings are legitimized.
Don’t trust people that won’t tell you what they’re doing (especially when they won’t send you ahead of time an outline of what is to be “discussed” at the meeting). If they can have witnesses, but you can’t (“We just want to visit with you alone;” “Sorry but that’s not how we do things;” “There’s no need for that”), you already have years of psychological friendship with abusers, and your default inclination is to stay with them.
If they are always asking you to accommodate and compromise with them, but they never accomodate you, you are already cooperating with and on the path of “equity rescuing” (see the Intro above). If you provide terms upon which you can safely communicate and interact with them, and they dismiss this, still claiming you are obliged to do something you are not comfortable with, they are telling you expressly: “We are a cult.”
Newsflash: per their Confession, Church government must be “ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed,” (WCF 1.6) including the 6th Commandment (see WLC 135-135).
“We just want to find out from you the facts.” This is the equivelant of taking the witness stand in court, which lawyers almost always strongly counsel against, for many legitimate reasons you are not aware of. Once you give them the facts they will interpret them through their perspective, which will be sufficient grounds for charges and, despite your defense and protests, adjudicating guilt, because, “That’s not the way we see it.” Maybe that doesn’t happen, but it will be hanging over your head. If you’ve done something wrong, let them prove it themselves with witnesses. Why do they need you?
If there are implicit (if not explicit) repercussions for not doing as they say, when you have told them it’s against your conscience, this is called extortion under duress, despite the word “citation” in their mailings (do not receive them). You are already in the cult’s bear-trap, and were quite a while ago. “Woe unto you… Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.” (Mt. 23:25)
If you are training for the ministry or are a church officer, do not accept the rest of your life on these terms: you will be paying these dues and more to the end.
Do you think you are the first person they have done this to? (see A History of Estrangement above) Why are they so efficient and good at it? They have it down to a science (as numerous businesses that use “progressive discipline”), not because they are so smart or came up with it necessarily (especially if they are in a denomination), but because it’s part of the larger system which they, by pressure, have conformed to.
That system, as you can see, has been meticulously designed to be watertight, in their interests (not yours). How can an ethical, watertight system entrap an innocent person? Does God’s moral law ever do that? That’s confounding. To give away the secret: their procedural system (under the phrases “Biblical authority” and “Church authority”) is claiming to require blind obedience of you (see WCF 20.2). Remember: They are only requiring of you what they have long submitted to themselves.
As this goes on with time you can see through all the twists, turns, changing of circumstances, narratives and flip-flopping of sides, their (surprisingly) changing from aggressors (when in control) to victims (when not in control), etc. etc. that the only common denominator through it all is their protecting their own interests and authority, and their not doing anything otherwise (their principles and the spiritual-speak on their lips is rearranged accordingly). If this goes on for longer than they’re accustomed (most people give in rather quickly), they will, sadly, wrack and greatly and repeatedly injure themselves, finding it more and more impossible to maintain their spotless image, though they will continue on nonetheless.
They used to be genuine people, but you have seen them lose that over the years. Pull back the curtain: you can be sure they have compromised consciences (which is causing much of the pressure, on you).
Enforcing & Controlling Channels of Communication
When leaders limit the channels of communication you are to use (binding beyond and against natural law and many Scriptural examples), especially when those channels may not be trustworthy (such as through and to themselves alone), this isn’t just a cultic atmosphere: you are already in their bear-trap.
You don’t think they are authoritarian because you don’t see any overt acts of tyranny; they speak strongly against the tyranny of categories of worldly people, especially as those persons put at risk the group’s distinctives and interests. Yet, if you think about it long enough, there are many signals of the leadership posturing power within the group, as is being done here.
They are whittling away your options, from their very first communication to you. That will be a silently recurring theme at every point. It can only occur if dictating is binding: They said words, therefore you have to do them. If you do anything otherwise than what they “instructed” you about, what you (and everyone else outside the group) believe is a significant moral matter, you can be sure they will be using it against you. You, Scripture and normal people do not view acting alternately to elders’ instruction to be grounds for discipline, but they do.
Take a cue from playing chess: the board is confining just like your small group, they already have greater board position and you will be in checkmate faster than you realize.
Information control and filtering is a prime cultic characteristic. Censorship of what is plainly immoral is one thing, of what is not plainly immoral is quite another.
If your elders and their spouses were raised in the (Biblicist) Bill Gothard cult and his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and Advanced Training Institute (ATI),¹ they understand all this as, “Follow the chain of command.” Scripture and reformed theology teach that God’s Law is the ultimate ethical standard, not that of men, authorities or the Church, or their counsel, instruction or dictations (James 4:12).
¹ To recover, see RecoveringGrace.org.
People stay because they think these things are all harmless; they’re not. “But we are in a solid, reformed, confessional church with experimental religion.” You’re in a solid, reformed, confessional church characterized by experimental religion (probably more so than Jesus) that is cultic and has heterodox views of authority, conscience, ethics and church government, not to mention the Pharisaism. Jesus said, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…” (Mt. 16:6)
Limited Transparency, Dictating & Obstruction
If the church had no transparency it would be a cult; but this one has limited transparency. If there are controlling factors going on, which limited transparency can be a breeding ground for, you can be sure what you are allowed to see is selectively controlled. The less transparency, the greater ability there is to cover things up (Jn. 3:20-21).
Lack of transparency may be maintained through the elders dictating their decisions, on their “authority” to do so, not believing they are obliged to give their reasons and grounds, contrary to God’s Word and historic Reformed principle. If the reasons and grounds were given, the ethical weight of the action fundamentally deriving therefrom, that could be examined and might be disputed, which they, by simple procedure, eliminate.
Their reason for this is because otherwise it would faciltate endless debate. What some people abuse is a sufficient reason (in this instance and many others) to take away your natural rights, here to an explanation, from the starting gate. Why do they do this? They don’t trust the people and they already have a bad opinion of you.
They likely believe they are not obligated to give you an explanation, as you are not their authority (apparently your conscience is of no concern to them, nor how the matter affects you or that you are a member of the church). Your conscience only needs that they said it (this is otherwise known as blind faith and obedience). If they interact with you, it will be minimally and anything more will not be welcome, but disrespectful. See Gillespie and Rutherford: ‘A Minimal Reason is Not a Sufficient Ground to a Yet Objecting Conscience’.
The most dangerous thing about benevolent dictators is their benevolence, how attractive it is, which they will be using and pleading. But the problem is not their benevolence, but the dictating. It’s impossible, somehow, for them to conceive separating the two.
Just wait till one of their courts, in reponse to your first, respectful communication, resolves to receive nothing further from you about these or related matters, contrary to morality (obstruction of ecclesiastical justice) and accepted judicial procedure. When elders operate by all sorts of unwritten rules not in their publicly recognized, available and open-to-all-beforehand book of Church order, which then bind your rights, their tools for obstruction are literally endless.
If you can think back and say, “I never signed up for this, and never would have if I had known what I know now,” don’t think you are obligated to stay.
Isolate & Intimidate
In the corporate world your coworker gets called into the boss’s office behind closed doors, going in with all normal, affable body language and comes out looking like he got roughed up, anxious and sweating, and yet he won’t talk about it; he tries with even more of his power to live up to the expectations and image.
Through the influence and expectations of the boss, and time, the employees are competing with each other to earn his approval, which they are finding, despite their best efforts, is never acheivable or lasting.
The natural relations between the employees are cut off by the awkward, pressurized situations. They can’t talk to each other about things; you feel unnaturally isolated, having no support network. When you get called into the boss’s office, he controls the conversation (it would be disrespectful if you didn’t go along). Your opportunity to talk and be heard, if that is given you, is perfunctory and very limited. “It’s like he ignored what I just said and moved on with a predetermined agenda.” You get dictated to with a lot of built up pressure; the conversation is not two-way. The controlling factor is his expectations and you are seen out the door. Your safety is in maintaining his confidence in you. You do the same thing your coworker did.
It’s a little bit different with church elders. That they won’t talk to you except behind closed doors is the same (they may give very low-key reasons for this, and it’s the way they always do things, so it’s not about you), but there are numerous of them in the room, and they, as you find out in the moment, are prepped, loaded and control the narrative from the beginning. You can be sure notes of this session meeting are being recorded (you may hear typing on the phone call), from their perspective. The plurality ensures there are witnesses (which are all on their side, though you don’t have any), if for no other reason than to confirm you were told certain things.
You are in their house; it would be impolite (or disrespectful) for you not to defer to them. You are assured moral law is the standard and you have moral rights, especially with all they say. But they set how things are done or managed going about it, as is their office, and it always seems to go their way. You can’t even explain how you ended up in these circumstances.
To lift the veil: the reason is you trusted them, and still do, and hence are in disbelief at the actual effects. You don’t believe the evidence in front of you because of astonishment and the conflicting signals, not because the evidence is unclear, but because of the personal pressures, ties, narrative, smiling faces, spirituality, authority and psychology of the persons around you.
Why do you seek their approval and that of others? It fulfills a natural need, or void, and at this point it’s an engrained habit, not easy to deviate from.
The path for your greatest good that you can see (your natural relations, support network, options and rights having been whittled away to very little, which you have come to accept as normal), is to quietly and submissively continue in your role and not rock the boat, that is conform, though the expectations tend to increase.
Targeting & Shaming
The Kafka Trap
If you quickly give in, you will experience many Kafka-traps; if you act according to conscience and reason, only one.
“Kafka trap”¹ was coined in 2010 off the book of Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925). The main character is accused of something never specified through the whole book and his every defense and refusal to acknowledge guilt is turned on him to be proof of guilt. He is determined guilty in advance and then, by their power over him, the prosecutors work backwards from their conclusion, seeking out any evidence that will support and confirm it. You being continually accused of being immoral diverts persons from seeing that what the leadership is doing is immoral.
¹ See Life Lessons, ‘Kafka trap’ in ‘7 Linguistic Tricks People Use to Deceive & Manipulate You’ (n.d.); Argumentative Penguin, ‘Verbal Prison: How To Spot & Escape The Kafka Trap’ (2021); L.T. Wright, ‘What Is a Kafka Trap & How Does It Work?’ (2021); Stephen T. Kirschner, ‘How to Refute Popular Talking Points & Avoid Kafka Traps, Part 1’ (2020).
It’s the elders’ meeting (in closed session) that you have been called to (no witnesses but them): They direct it; you are put on the stand (about that see the section on Pressure). They will ask you questions (you can only speak to that specific question), and then opportunity will be given for them to comment afterwards before you are seen out the door. The interview has been limited to the (subjective) “manner” of what you have done, not your action’s content, substance or reasons (ignore that your manner may be informed and justified by your action’s substance).
Their charge is asserted and unfalsifiable, you are already discredited, the arguments are circular, centering back on you, you’re guilty until proven innocent, they’re searching you for information to confirm and you are being detained, with connections cut off, and silenced while intimidated, harrassed and condemned.
You answer their questions and they gaslight it, using (and blowing up) the information against you; they won’t let you go into the circumstances (they know the truth would condemn them; they are covering it up) but interrupt, cut you off and talk over you with raised voice (law applies to you, not them). Being so emotionally frazzled it’s hard to answer their questions (most of which assume your guilt) and they often won’t let you answer the very questions they ask. They raise suspicions against you (without letting you speak to them); they ask for your motives and impute motives to you. They are literally waiting for you to slip up in what you say, so that it will be on record and they will have brought out the underlying principle of the whole situation (they will say to others) which you will have to repent for, with the whole of it, or face progressive discipline (involving public censure).
They aggress with body language (pointing, turning their back, re-facing you, throwing their hands in the air) and react in opposite manners (e.g. being stern and chuckling; if you see asymmetrical facial expressions, they despise you; you are in danger). If you defend youself they act as martyrs, as if you attacked them, with wide open body language (acting). They appeal to anything and everything against you (even other people’s choices) and repeatedly, point-blank condemn you (this is supposed to persuade you?).
When you try to ask honest, humble questions, they are ignored. If you state things, they are not shy to directly contradict you (the purpose is not to reason, but for show) without giving you opportunity to respond. Instead of giving reasons (if they gave any you could contest them) they act utterly astonished, gaping, that you broke the unwritten rule. “What were you thinking?!” “Why didn’t you come to us first?!” (they never prove the necessity of this). You are left thinking, “I didn’t know that was wrong or I had to come to you first (per natural law and Scripture).” If you defend yourself, even with the Bible (if they finally let you), you are proud,¹ selfish, self-righteous, arrogant and are blame-shifting.
¹ Rutherford: “Pride and contempt are only seen to God: Prelates have no place to punish heart-acts; they are to prove by two witnesses the malice, and pride, and contempt of authority; but this is invisible to men’s eyes.” Divine Right, Intro to Doctrine of Scandal, p. 655
They don’t have to cite specific evidence because “Everyone knows it,” “The problem is you,” you won’t take responsibility for your sin, do you think you’re greater than they, “What about us? You knew that would reflect on us” (they just gave away their real motivation, as most people do if you listen closely). “Must I not do what is right before the Lord, even when it may reflect on my friends?” [Silence, redirecting the interrogation.]
You are told forcefully and repeatedly, “You should be silent and listen to your elders.” You remain silent without responding, and the verbal abuse continues. Any slip of facial expression or body posture and you are condemned for not listening as the hour and a half goes by, or you are being “disrespectful to a Gospel minister.” They reroute the “conversation,” endlessly, till they are repeating the same thing over and over and then find this grounds for calling time. Is the moderator (with the obvious conflict of interest) doing his job? Why not?
What was the point of all that? To extract from you a confession for the purpose of scapegoating, clearing themselves, to shame you, discredit you (lest anyone follow you in this cause) and reduce you into conformity. It was a non-repeatable step in the process, before the next one. Your being warned and not being cooperative is on file.
The only way to stop the social, psychological, verbal and spiritual abuse from your spiritual authorities is to admit you’re guilty, repent, surrender to them and conform to the unwritten rules. Repentance is hard because you have to find some way what you did was wrong. But it will be easier next time. If your elders are keen on experimental religion, they will be looking for (judging) the fruits of your repentance, expressed over time to their satisfaction. If you give in to this, your wife at home should rebuke you.
The official record only says they intended to have a friendly interview with you, and made a sufficient inquest. You can be sure they selectively recorded everything else (official notes were being taken the whole time), but that is not available to you or others, or at best may be requested (and denied or otherwise limited at their dictation) through them. But this is presbyterianism, you can appeal, right? No: they never issued a determination; there’s nothing to appeal: it was an interview. You could petition the higher court (possibly made up of largely the same people) regarding their demeanor towards you, if you don’t mind spending months or the next year doing it, but they are quite adept at the ecclesiastical machine and have many ways to turn this down with unwritten traditions, or they may simply witness against you. How will they rule and who will people believe, you or them?
The Kafka trap hinges on: power posturing, shaming, learned powerlessness (see the Intro), the united front, implicit faith in the authorities, group-psychology, social pressure (being done by your friends), politeness, your trusting of them, emotions, manipulation, confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), self-preservation (the strongest inclination), equity rescuing (Intro), a predetermined end (which you are not aware of), there being no power of neutral appeal and the ability to cover it up.
The best way to counteract the Kafka trap is not to step foot into it or allow yourself to be in a position where you could be put into one. If you must enter it, bring a recorder of some sort and look up your laws about such. Remember, God sees and records everything. If you find yourself in a Kafka trap:
– Keep your composure as best as possible (they will use even this against you), knowing it will eventually be over and you will then have better opportunity to assess and plan as time goes on. Take a long term approach. Don’t be provoked and don’t make a mistake.
– You’re not going to win by defending yourself or reasoning with them. They make the rules, play referee and are the umpires. It will likely be better in the long run to be mostly silent and take the unfair abuse for the higher good (which does not imply your consent). Though your silence will be used against you (contary to natural, Biblical and civil law), it looks more outwardly in conformity to their desires and the alternative is worse.
– Your immediate goal is to get through the meeting. Do not be provoked; remember to breathe, slowly.
– What to do in the meeting: The temptation is to use obejective language (conveying truth), but subjective language is harder (for them) to argue with and will be of stronger force to anyone who actually reads the official notes. The presence of the note-taker can be your friend (though the moderator may likely be of no help: he’s in on it). Say things like the following (even though it will still be used against you: they will gaff at it: “You say this, when you…!”):
– I feel like I’m being interrupted and cut off.
– I feel like what I say is being used against me.
– I feel intimidated, like I am being condemned.
– I don’t know why there is so much pressure.
– I don’t feel comfortable answering from the way you asked.
– Why are you pointing at me and elders have their arms crossed?
– Can I give my reasons from the Bible? (You might have to ask this many times)
If you are given the opportunity for any last words, say: “I feel like I have not been allowed to speak freely.”
– Afterwards, as soon as possible, record factually everything you can that took place in neutral language (it removes the suspicion of bias on your part and persons can easily see what is going on, forming their own objective judgment about it). Send it (time-stamped) to close, safe friends.
– Your best counsel for the time is to sit on it, do nothing, recover and take your time. If others pressure you to do this or that (attend another meeting or if another is already scheduled, etc.), resolve and communicate that you will not be making any major decision or attending any meetings¹ for the foreseeable future (probably a month or two), until you are ready, of yourself, to do so. If they don’t respect this, you are in a cult, but that has already been evidenced.
– Don’t make emotional or reactionary decisions. Make decisions based on objective data that you will not regret later. Write out the data and the many reasons for your decision. Later when you forget many of the details and are tempted to rethink your decision (due to other people’s input, even in reconciling, etc.), go back to your written reasons to see that it was a good decision, and the only right one.
– Do not think this will not happen again. You trust them: that is the problem. You are already guilty in their eyes, under them and in their bear-trap. Your best decision, likely, is to flee by blacking out on all communication. If you want to fight, do that after getting out and attaining safe ground.
– If you’re a wife and can’t get out: Make your resolutions very clear to your husband (who should be on your side, not against you), that they weaponize the Bible, and you and your children will not have anything to do with them.† If he does not quickly respect this (it will, at best, be difficult for him), you are at liberty to call the police² or other women’s abuse organizations and you may without any guilt whatsoever (it’s their actions, not yours) speak the truth, of your being entrapped with spiritual, psychological, social and/or verbal abuse by a group with cultic characteristics. Say that you are scared, need help, and provide them your documentation. Do not listen to the cult members, do not let them distort reality or bring up other things, read over the facts again and again, and only make decisions from that or safe, third-party persons you trust.
† This is a legitimate application of the Biblical and reformed doctrine of the lesser magistrate, that the wife, in justifiable circumstances, may use her natural and Biblical authority for the good of her children, contrary to an ill-governing husband.
² See Gillespie & Rutherford affirm the principle: ‘When Complaint may be made to the Magistrate about a Church’s Ruling’
Kafka traps are used as power-plays for the moment (and to conform the future), but they have really bad side-effects that aren’t usually considered or desired. Besides losing ability for good-faith discourse:
“Slowly a group moves from a moderate position to a radical one, throwing more and more Kafka Traps out into the world. The traps getting ever more detailed and complex. The most extreme voices rise to the top, persecuting the less evangelical as they ascend to their exalted positions… Almost anywhere you find an extreme position you’ll find the Kafka Trap keeping their adherents in line.
What begins as a seemingly valuable push along a subjective noble path fast becomes a contradictory mess and descends into ideological stupidity. Adherents use traps on each other with reckless abandon, empowered by their apparent success elsewhere in society. And so the groups fraction further and further.” Argumentative Penguin, ‘Verbal Prison’
“I just find it hard to believe my loving and trusted pastor and elders would Kafka trap me.” All the seven cultic characteristics listed in the Intro and most of the ones being expounded here are tellingly exampled and characteristic of the unfolding story of Kafka’s The Trial. You are already in a Kafka trap.
Your psychological bond, sympathy and working for your captors’ benefit is called the Stockholm syndrome, which is characteristic of abusive relationships.
Every person has an innate tendency to cover up what is shameful: “every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved,” (Jn. 3:20); it’s no wonder that it can happen in any church. The remedy is to confess it (to God and the people affected and put at risk by it) and forsake it (Prov. 28:13).
But when the cover up happens predictably, systematically, people are lying, obstructing and deceiving to cover it up, scapegoats are being targeted and the righteous gagged, everyone is put at risk by the cultic, sinful characteristics this massive cover-up is driving. And what will happen in the future? More of the same.
Elders have many more powerful reasons to cover up glaring sins than regular people (David Murray, “Why do Churches Cover Up Sin?”†), especially when the idols are at stake: image, influence, reputation, the church, the brand name, etc. What gets really sick are the spiritual reasons used to cover up the public scandals and currently believed lies and keep the injured and people affected or at risk in the dark, communicating no repentance to them, or the truth: for the sake of the Gospel ministry’s influence, the minister’s reputation, to prevent unnecessary scandal, “We forgave him,”‡ keep perversion in the closet, for the good and preservation of the presbytery, etc.
† Murray lists as answers: Genuine belief in innocence, Management approach, Gifted offender, Personal blessing, Friendship, Lack of friendship, Loss of reputation, Financial loss, Loss of career, Stalled agenda, Ignorance of effects, ‘Weak’ accuser, The accuser’s supporters, The judges’ pasts, Dug into a hole, False view of sovereignty, Abusing grace and peace, Intimidation, Inexperience and Fear of condemning the innocent.
Victim’s rights have been turned into perpetrator’s rights because of position and close connections. In a matter of investigating and establishing guilt (even in Church judicatories, before the mode or degree of spiritual discipline is decided or repentance ascertained) mercy to the perpetrator is cruelty to the victims.
When you get gag-orders, of any variety, over a significant moral issue involving harm, not to mention the new risk created by the elders’ actions, you may respond, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Eph. 5:11, ESV) Do not worry who will be offended in speaking the truth, worry about who will be misled, deceived and destroyed if you don’t.
If you are confused amidst signs of people covering things up (i.e. persons not being open, transparent, not willing to talk, not answering your questions, answering questions you don’t ask, communication channels are limited, there’s a code of silence, “We don’t talk about it,” code language is used, with intermediaries, explanations are not forthcoming or satisfying, obvious conflicts of interest exist, they say non-principal parties don’t have a place in the matter, contrary to the natural and Biblical doctrine of scandal, etc.),¹ here is a sure-fire way to know who is telling the truth:
“But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” (Jn. 3:21) The one who has nothing to hide and has suffered the most severly for the truth wants everything to be known. It’s easy to find those person(s) because they have been blackballed.
One problem with never doing what’s right is: when are you going to start doing what’s right? People, especially in perceived positions of influence, who, when there are suspicious signs, exhort, “Don’t be suspicious,” or “Oaths are unnecessary; let a person’s ‘yea’ be ‘yea’,” are the last people you should trust, especially when this is coming from the pulpit.
Ecclesiastical Group Identity Politics
Doctrinal Help: Webpages & Sections at RBO
Order of Categories
Against Separatism 12
Church Attendance 11
God’s Laws 12
Human Laws 6
Authority & Obedience 13
Blind Faith & Obedience 12
Family Obedience 4
Church Government 14
Church Discipline 12
Resistance to Tyranny 22
Right of Continued Protest unto Truth 10
On Vows & Covenants
On Church Attendance
On God’s Laws
On Human Laws
On Authority & Obedience
Mere Will & Determination of Authorities: Insufficient Grounds of Faith & Obedience, & Authorities are Not to Act or Require Something without Sufficient Natural, Moral or Spiritual Reasons, Manifest to Consciences
On Blind Faith & Obedience
On Family Obedience
How Church Government is Supposed to Work
On Scandal & Offense
On Church Discipline
Defending Yourself & Resistence to Tyranny
On the Right of the Continued Protest unto the Truth
‘Cults! An Outline Analysis’ (2008) at CARM
The outline sketches:
1. What is a cult?
2. Who is vulnerable to joining a cult?
3. Recruitment techniques.
4. Why would someone join?
5. How are they kept in the cult?
6. How do you get them out?
‘What are Some Signs & Practices of a Cult?’ (2014) at CARM
Signs and practices include:
3. Persecution complex
6. Love bombing
7. Special knowledge
9. Salvation maintained through group
11. Cognitive dissonance
13. Gender roles
14. Appearance standards
Langone, Michael D. – ‘Characteristics Associated With Cultic Groups’ (2015) 15 characteristics at Spiritual Abuse Resources
Spiritual Abuse Resources does not appear to be Christian, but it has some helpful, professional resources.
Characteristics associated with cultic groups:
– 1. Excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to the leader
– 2. Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or punished.
– 3. Mind-altering practices are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leaders
– 4. Leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (e.g. must get permission to date, change jobs, marry, prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, etc.)
– 5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leaders and its members (it may be on a mission to save humanity).
– 6. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality
– 7. The leader is not accountable to any authorities
– 8. It teaches or implies that its exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary
– 9. Leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
– 10. Subservience to the group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter their personal goals and activities
– 11. It is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
– 12. It is preoccupied with making money.
– 13. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and its activities
– 14. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other members.
– 15. The most loyal members (“true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group
* Sam & Tanner – ’10 Signs You’re Probably in a Cult’ (2018) at Medium
Signs you’re probably in a cult:
1. The leader is the ultimate authority
2. The group suppresses skepticism
3. It delegitimizes former members
4. Its paranoid about the outside world
5. It relies on shame cycles
6. The leader is above the law
7. The group uses “thought reform” methods
8. It is elitist
9. There is no financial transparency
10. The group performs secret rites
Trueman, Carl – ‘On [Theological] Professors & the Cult of Personality’ (2018) 18 paragraphs
Trueman has been a theological professor at Westminster Seminary East. Here he gives his many reasons why he declined the offer to meet with a group of students at a bar or restaurant every two weeks to talk theology.
Carter, Paul – ‘Is the Church I’m Going To “A Cult”?’ (2021) at TGC
Carter lists as cultic characteristics:
– Opposing critical thinking
– Isolating and punishing dissenting or departing members
– Emphasizing doctrines rooted in extra-Biblical sources
– Requiring inappropriate demonstrations of loyalty to leaders
– Encouraging breaking ties with outside family members
– Engaging practices that contradict biblical behavioural norms
– The church isolates itself from the wider Body of Christ
How to Leave a Group with Systemic Spiritual Abuse or Cultic Characteristics
See also the cultic characteristic, Kafka Trap above.
Johnson, David & Jeff VanVonderen – The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany House, 1991)
Part III: Post-Abuse Recovery
How to Help Others Get Out of Churches with Cultic Characteristics
In addition to what is below: Do not call the group a cult, because the members don’t see it that way and will become more defensive and polarized. Rather, if you can get them to recognize and admit that the church has numerous of the characteristics above, then the relative degree of danger and red flags will become more apparent.
Also show persons whom communication is still open with the internal inconsistencies, from their own principles, in the church’s thought, leaders and practices, especially with questions. You want the remaining members to internalize these things and see them for themselves. That understandably takes time and may be a slow process, because people are human. You only need to encourage the ball to get rolling. People are often most warm to ideas they think they came up with.
The strength of the church with cultic characteristics is likely a united, homogenous front. Seek to make fissures. Fissures can almost always be made in anything with time and pressure, at weak points. The most powerful thing about internal fissures is that the group, slowly at first, becomes at odds with itself; that is your best ally (which will occur without your knowledge). One can expect, perhaps, about three years of such pressures before visible ruptures begin appearing in the leadership; at that point the ruptures are much deeper than what shows externally.
Remember that your job is not to destroy (it has never been your intent), but to walk righteously; you genuinely desire them to be reformed to the Word of God, which does not change or move. “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)
The Word does the work, especially for those remaining members who see it as an authority and still seek to be in conformity with it, and still have a conscience left. They will either humble themselves under it, or be broken upon it: “…whosoever shall fall on this Stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.” Mt. 21:44
“Is not my Word like… a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”
“For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.”
1 Jn. 3:8
“I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out. And I brake the jaws of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth.”
‘Cults! An Outline Analysis’ (2008) at CARM
“How do you get them out?
1. The best thing is to try not to let them get trapped in the
. first place.
2. If you are a Christian, then pray.
3. But, to get a person out of a cult takes:
. 1. Time, energy, and support.
4. Teach them the truth.
. 1. Give them a true replacement for their aberrant
. belief system.
. 2. Show the cult group’s philosophic
. 3. Study the group and learn its history seeking
. clues and information.
5. Try and get them physically away from the cult group.
6. Give them the support they need emotionally.
7. Alleviate the threat that if they leave the group they are
. doomed or in danger.
8. Generally, don’t attack the leader of the group…that
. comes later.
9. Converts often feel a loyalty and respect for the
. founder of the group.
10. Confront them when needed.”
“Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.”
“For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”
1 Cor. 11:19
“When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour…”