A certain Rest Ministries page was a Geocities site with very valuable information on spiritual abuse that I couldn't find anywhere else. In October of 2009, when I realized that Geocities was going to close down its sites, I copied this one to preserve it. The original was created, I believe, by Ron Henzel of Rest Ministries.
• An artificially loving, sometimes selective recruitment process.
• Black-and-white thinking.
• An esoteric approach to truth.
• Scripture Twisting.
• A hidden agenda.
• Group leveraging.
• The Emotional Roller-Coaster.
The above-listed manipulative techniques are remarkably effective, but they are not unique to cults or other spiritual abusers, except that in the context of Spiritual Abuse they are practiced in the name of God. Dealing with a person who is skilled in these methods can be a very intense experience, leaving victims disoriented, damaged, and isolated, leading to a very painful recovery process, and long-term difficulties in trusting other Christians in the future.
Manipulation in God's name -- even within churches -- is not new. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote of its power:
Thus there is such a thing as human absorption. It appears in all the forms of conversion wherever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person. He has been overpowered ...
[Life Together, p. 33.]
Although obviously not everyone is victimized in this way, each of us goes through periods of weakness in our lives when we are potentially susceptible to being drawn into the personal vortex of a spiritual abuser. In my case, I had just experienced a very disappointing career setback, and was involved in some personal struggles at the time that a spiritually abusive person stepped into my life claiming he had the answer to my problems. Other people join abusive groups right after moving away to college, going through a divorce, experiencing the death of a loved one, or as part of a desperate attempt to deal with depression, or the depression of a family member. Many very stressful events can make us vulnerable to manipulative people. At such times our normal, healthy, God-given suspicion of such confidence-artists has been dulled by the blows of life, and our resistance is low. It could happen to anyone.
Whether they perceive themselves as noble, or realize that they are not, spiritual abusers know what they are doing. The leader of our group had a degree in psychology. He knew what he was doing. Others learned the tricks from mentors. Still others seem to have a natural gift for it. The similarities between the techniques employed by groups all over the world are simply amazing. From the beginning of the spiritual abuse process to the end, all of these people are experts in manipulation.
An artificially loving, sometimes selective recruitment process.
In a spiritually abusive group, the manipulation begins the moment you set foot in the door. Newcomers are treated differently from those who are already enmeshed in the group. New people receive either more attention, or a different kind of attention, which often seems so nice and loving -- even wonderful! But the new person does not realize that this level of treatment is special. He or she is frequently led to believe that this is how everyone in the group is treated. And this encourages him or her to have the mistaken expectation that such flattery will continue.
In the field of cult studies, this is referred to as "love bombing," so-named because some cults truly go overboard in showering new members with attention and affection. (Some have even offered free sex to new members.) Love bombing has proven to be a very effective method of recruiting new members, accelerating their assimilation into the group, and securing a deep level of commitment. After all, who does not want to be loved? Who would want to lose a truly loving community of people once they found it? And which one of us would not be prepared to make personal sacrifices in order to keep it?
Another technique used with great effectiveness has been selective recruitment. In many groups, not just anyone can join. A newcomer must first meet with some level of group leadership, who will determine whether the prospective new recruit is "serious enough" to be admitted. What is actually happening is that the individual is being evaluated for his or her level of compliance. Can this person be controlled? Will we be able to mold this person into one of us -- someone who will submit to our agenda? Of course, they don't actually speak, or even always think, in these terms. The leadership may themselves be self-deceived enough to believe that all they are really looking for is "Christian commitment." In a spiritually abusive environment, however, subsequent events will demonstrate otherwise, and will show that the real goal was control all along.
When a person makes it through this process and is allowed to join, it can be almost as flattering as "love bombing." It gives a person a feeling of having "made the cut." It also increases the perception that the person has found others who really understand him or her, especially the desire to truly follow God. And finally, it helps the leadership to erect a wall of secrecy around the group. Not "just anyone" is able to join, so therefore not "just anyone" can really know what goes on inside. The mutual understanding from the very beginning is almost always that outsiders cannot and will not understand the inner workings of the group, so the screening process protects the group from the outside world, while simultaneously initiating new members into its culture of secrecy.
This culture of secrecy is presented as entirely benign. Members are told that it exists only for their own "protection." But the only thing it protects members from is the truth, and this is a very dangerous sort of "protection."
For example, in some groups, when people are kicked out, the whole ordeal is very "hush-hush." One day an entire family might be part of the group; the next day they're gone. Questions are not encouraged. Members are told not to contact the former members. If they want to know anything, they are told to ask the leader, who has all the information and can slant it any way he pleases. But to question the leader is to risk one's own ostracism, so few members ever do. The former members' pain over being forced out is compounded by the pain of isolation that is produced by the secrecy.
In one semi-communal group I know, whole families have to pack their belongings and move out of the apartment building when the leader orders them to. Everyone in the apartment complex can see what's going on. Far from "protecting" these people's reputations, these humiliating rituals only confirm in the minds of those who remain that something must be wrong with these people, or they wouldn't have been asked to leave.
When you see people in a religious system being secretive--watch out. People don't hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.
One reason spiritually abusive families and churches are secretive is because they are so image conscious. ...
Another reason for secrecy in a church is that the leadership has a condescending, negative view of the laity. This results in conspiracies on the leadership level. They tell themselves, "People are not mature enough to handle truth." This is patronizing at best. ...
[David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 78.]
I was introduced to my spiritually abusive group in 1987 after an extensive screening process. It involved several weeks of phone calls with the leader before I was allowed to attend the first meeting. Since I eventually joined on the premise that I was coming to a "Christian therapy" group (although over time the leader tried to evolve it into a "church"), and I had never attended that kind of group before (so I didn't know what to expect), the fact that there was a screening process didn't seem all that strange to me.
I have since learned of other groups, however, which claim right up-front to be churches, and yet employ a similar screening process with the same effect. New members feel specially selected, rather than merely "settled for."
Given the highly confrontational brand of "therapy" that the leader practiced, it was not too long before I witnessed harrowing scenes in our "therapy" group meetings. But because I was being treated special, and because I was impressed with the leader's seeming competence in psychology (which later turned out to be a charade), I did not consider what I was observing to be "abuse." I thought, "Surely the leader knows these people better than I do, and surely he knows what he's doing!" The artificially-loving recruitment process was keeping me in line from the very beginning.
Because secrets were being kept in the name of "protection," I was less suspicious of the leader's hidden agenda than I should have been. When this agenda finally became obvious, I realized that we had all been tricked into placing blind trust in a man who really did not have the training, experience, or personal integrity to practice therapy, or any other kind of counseling. We had all been seduced into placing our trust in him through a carefully-orchestrated process, patiently carried out over weeks and months, beginning with our initiation into the group.
We all need an anchor for our souls. We all need to know that there are some things that are really true, that we can really count on, and on which we can truly base our lives. God has given each of us a need for stability in our lives, and He has also provided a solid foundation on which we can rest our souls.
This is why the Bible teaches that there are things that are always right, and there are things that are always wrong. Moral absolutes do exist; of this we can be sure.
And there are things that are always true, and things that are always false. Absolute truth also exists. The same God who created the need for these things within us has also met this need in His word.
Now, the spiritual abuser also knows that people need a strong foundation for their lives, and so he is quick to offer one, too. The problem is that the foundation that the spiritual abuser lays is different from the one found in the Bible.
The foundation that God lays for us in the Bible is simple: it is Christ Himself (1 Cor. 3:11). If anyone lays any other foundation, such as the foundation of one's own authority, or one's own "prophecies," or one's own opinions, or one's own preferences, he or she has laid a false foundation.
The foundation that God lays allows for personal freedom in lifestyle choices. It does not lay restrictions on what people eat, or what they drink, or what they wear, or tell them what holy days to observe or not to observe (Rom. 14:1-6).
Therefore, while God's foundation acknowledges that there are absolutes, not everything is an absolute. While some things are always right and some things are always wrong, not everything is always either one or the other. God does not treat his people like little children, giving them detailed instructions for every little decision in life. He treats us like adults, expecting us to make many decisions on our own.
Thus there are "gray areas." There are "disputable matters," and you have no right to dictate your own personal decisions on these matters to me, nor I to you.
But in a spiritually abusive group, many, many things in the gray areas are pigeon-holed as either "right" or "wrong," either "good" or "evil," and many disputable matters are classified as either "black" or "white." No allowance is made for "middle ground" in these areas. This is sometimes also referred to as "polarized" thinking, because nearly every issue is interpreted as having only two possible answers, both of which are polar opposites of each other. Spiritually abusive groups leave very little room in between the two extremes, thus crowding out both personal freedom and the operation of God's Spirit in the life of the individual.
Since most people can see through the faulty logic of this approach, this "black-and-white" mentality has to be foisted on group members gradually, even seductively, over a period of time. In the beginning, new members are impressed with the "brave stands" that the leadership takes on certain issues. Usually an explanation is given that certain things must be forbidden to group members, not because they are necessarily evil in and of themselves, but because they "might cause members to stumble." They have "evil potential," therefore they must be avoided.
Other times the leadership manages to persuade the members that these things really are evil in and of themselves, but only the leadership is "spiritually mature" enough to "discern" the evil.
Very often prohibitions are "customized" for various individuals in the group. For example, the leadership may "discern" that a particular member has a "spiritual problem." This "spiritual problem" may supposedly have something to do with watching certain TV shows. So the leader bans the person from watching any TV. Or it may have something to do with shopping, so the leader requires the person's spouse to do all the shopping from now on. There have even been cases of leaders who order married couples to stop having sex.
One time a member of my group requested help managing his personal finances, and our leader assigned me the job of helping him. I met with this young man, helped him put together a budget, and then dutifully reported back to the leader.
I informed him that this young man's budget allocated about 10% per month for the purpose of paying off his credit card debt, and another 10% for savings.
"Why didn't you allocate all 20% to pay off the credit card?" the leader asked.
"Because I was taught that when you budget, you need to save, as well as re-pay your debts," I replied.
"Don't you realize what you just told him?" he asked.
"You just told him he can live however he pleases!" the leader retorted, glaring at me in disapproval.
The leader's sudden, forceful, left-hand-turn in logic left me speechless. It was a move designed to knock me off-balance. It wasn't true, but it accomplished his purpose of disorienting me and giving him the upper hand. (And it was an example of another manipulative ploy: "turning-the-tables.")
In the black-and-white, polarized thinking of our group, all debt was totally evil, and members were expected to pay off all loans and charge accounts as quickly as possible. Scripture verses were twisted out of their contexts in order to support this teaching.
Thus my leader felt justified in accusing me of giving this young man a license to go out and sin, even though I was helping him pay off his credit card and save money. In a black-and-white system of thinking, there can be no middle ground. My action must have either been totally good, or totally evil, and he chose the latter.
Perhaps you can think of examples of extremely polarized thinking in your abusive group. We Christians are especially vulnerable to this, because we believe in moral absolutes. We feel alienated as we make our way through a world which believes that morals (if they exist at all) are relative, and "right" and "wrong" can change with each situation. We naturally gravitate toward those who agree with us. Spiritual abusers come offering us relief from the onslaught of moral relativism. They offer to eliminate confusing gray areas, and simplify our choices for us. They draw hard-and-fast boundaries for us to help us make sure that we always "color inside the lines." They sound like the good guys. But they're not.
An esoteric approach to truth.
I am indebted to my good friend, Wheaton College Professor Emeritus Dr. Morris Inch for bringing this manipulative technique to my attention. Even though it is one of the more obvious features of both cults and spiritual abuse, this one is often difficult for people to describe. "Esoteric" can mean either "intended for or understood by only a chosen few, as an inner group of disciples or initiates (said of ideas, doctrines, literature, etc.)" or "beyond the understanding or knowledge of most people" (Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1988, p. 464). The latter definition is virtually synonymous with the meaning of "mystical," and many spiritually abusive groups are mystical, but it is the former definition that applies most frequently.
Spiritually abusive groups have their own doctrines and their own in-house jargon which they claim can only be truly understood by those who "truly belong." Such people are the only ones who are "true Christians."
These groups love to quote the Apostle Paul's words:
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
[1 Corinthians 2:14, NASB]
So if you don't understand what the group teaches, you must be "a natural man" (literally, "an unspiritual man," NASB margin; or a "man without the Spirit," NIV). It must be because you do not have God's Holy Spirit. Therefore, you must not be a Christian.
The only problem with using that verse this way is that it is not what Paul meant. Anyone who reads the whole chapter through from the beginning will quickly realize that "the things of the Spirit of God" do not refer to just any teaching, much less the peculiar teachings of a spiritually abusive group. In the context of 1 Corinthians 2, "the things of the Spirit of God" refers specifically to the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- the Good News of His death on the cross for our sins.
The reason that "the things of the Spirit of God" concerning the cross of Christ are "foolishness" to the "natural man" is because he rejects them, and refuses to appraise them from God's point of view -- not because they are intellectually unintelligible to everyone except believers.
This is what Paul is actually saying in the context. But spiritually abusive groups will never encourage you to read the surrounding context of the verses they quote, because if you did, you would figure out that they are twisting the Scriptures.
In my group, the leader would cloak his meaning in buzz-words from pop-psychology.
Other groups usually confuse new members with spiritual-sounding clichés. And no matter how long you are a member, you never seem to really master the in-house jargon. This is often because the leadership is careful never to give fully-understandable definitions of the terms it uses. This way it can always keep you off-balance, so that if you ever step out of line, it can always quote verses like 1 Corinthians 2:14 in order to frighten you back into submission.
Sometimes leaders will also appeal to the fact that Jesus spoke in parables. But they don't mention that Jesus also explained His parables to His disciples. He clarified their meaning. Why don't spiritual abusers do the same? Because while Jesus was concerned with teaching people, spiritual abusers are concerned with controlling people, and one method of controlling is to keep them confused.
But it goes beyond the mere use of jargon. These groups have an esoteric approach to "truth" in general. Unlike the authors of the Bible, who go out of their way to make things clear to their readers, spiritual abusers make things unclear and confusing. In these groups, true understanding always seems just slightly out of your reach. Others in the group pretend to understand, and perhaps you pretend as well. But eventually you figure out that they are just as perplexed as you are, even though they will never say so as long as they wish to remain members.
I already gave examples of how spiritually abusive groups twist the Scriptures in my discussions of their black-and-white thinking and their esoteric approach to truth. But I should also point out that the twisting of Scripture is a manipulative technique in its own right, and it is especially prominent in spiritually abusive groups.
Unlike full-blown cults, whose members are not usually classified as "Christians" in the Biblical sense (because they deny the core doctrines of Christianity), spiritually abusive groups tend to be composed primarily of Christians. And since Christians usually require a Biblical basis for what they believe and practice, spiritual abusers must find some means to provide one, even if that means is illegitimate.
In his book Scripture Twisting, James W. Sire has helpfully catalogued the top-20 ways that cults misread the Bible, and I have seen nearly every one of those methods used in spiritually abusive groups that were supposedly Christian.
In the group that I was involved with for 5-1/2 years, loved to quote the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34-37:
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'
"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
[Matthew 10:34-37, NIV]
The only problem is, the leader used these verses in order to separate us from our families! Following the instructions of our leader, who persuaded me that I needed to break off contact from my family because I needed to "recover" from their "corruption," I spent three years totally separated from my family, all of whom lived within a few miles of me.
During that time, I missed the births of nieces and nephews, and I missed the funerals of relatives. I refused to come to any birthday or holiday celebrations. I had allowed myself to be totally cut off from them -- interrupted only by the occasional surprise phone call or unannounced visit from one of my brothers -- for three years.
I had forgotten a simple principle of biblical interpretation: always compare Scripture with Scripture. Never take one verse and read it outside of the context of the entire Bible. For it was Jesus who also said:
And he [Jesus] said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother,' and, `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."
[Mark 10:9-13, NIV; see also Matthew 15:3-6]
Jesus was referring to a way in which the Pharisees had manipulated a legitimate part of God's Law through their teachings so that it allowed people to disobey one of God's most basic commandments: to honor mother and father. Likewise, the leader of our group had manipulated Jesus' teaching in Matthew 10:34-37 -- which simply taught that we should love God above all others -- into virtually the same error that the Pharisees had committed!
Whenever spiritual abusers misuse, misrepresent, or otherwise misinterpret the Bible, 90% of the time you can cut through all their confusing rhetoric and twisted reasoning by asking three simple questions:
1. What was the original author actually saying to his audience?
2. What was this author, who was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saying to all believers?
3. What is God saying to us through this text?
If the Scriptures are being interpreted correctly, the answers to all three of these questions will be consistent with each other. There will be no "mysterious underlying meaning." It will all make perfect sense.
If someone comes to your house and claims that you must "meditate" in order to "go far deeper" than the surface-meaning of the text, and that they themselves have come up with unique understandings of particular verses "through prayer and fasting" -- I'd be sure to count the silverware after they left. They probably lie about other things, too.
A hidden agenda
The hidden agenda of every spiritually abusive group is always the same: the glorification of the leadership. The leadership will invariably deny this. They will always point to God's will, or God's glory, or God's word, or the needs of God's people, or some other lofty, spiritual goal as being the true object of their "ministry."
Because these noble ideals are not the true goals of the spiritually abusive group, inconsistency and hypocrisy abounds within it. And because this is the case, information control becomes necessary. The group is governed by unspoken rules -- hidden "landmines" which unfortunate newcomers and long-standing members alike occasionally stumble upon, thus incurring the wrath of the leadership. The common feature of all these "landmines" is that they protect the leader from careful scrutiny.
In our group, one landmine was something called "rescuing behavior." If the leader was attacking or accusing a member of the group, and someone stepped up to defend that person, he was labeled a "rescuer." A "rescuer" was someone who protected other people who were guilty of the same sins that he or she was guilty of.
So let's say that you witnessed an event in which the leader started verbally assaulting someone for something which did not appear to be a sin. If you stepped in and defended that person in this situation, the leader would say, "You are rescuing him (or her) because you are guilty of the same sin. You want to get that person 'off the hook' so you can be 'off the hook,' and avoid accountability in your own life." You might respond, "I don't see how I'm guilty of that, any more than that person is!" "I know," the leader would answer, "I expect someone as spiritually immature as you are to be blind to his own sin." And all the other group members would nod knowingly in agreement. This "landmine" prevents members from defending others because to do so means coming under automatic suspicion. The accused are guilty, and anyone who tries to defend their innocence are also guilty.
When current or former members try to call the leadership into account, it is labeled "slander," or "an attack." Information that would prove damaging to the leader is only allowed to be aired in a setting that is controlled by the leader, who will usually quote Scripture verses and cite "Biblical principles" to justify his control.
The most powerful of all unspoken rules in the abusive system is what we have already termed the "can't-talk" rule. The "can't-talk" has this thinking behind it: "The real problem cannot be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack). If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem.
Those people who do speak out are most often told, "We didn't have all these problems until you started shooting your mouth off. Everything was fine before you started stirring things up." Or else, to make it sound really spiritual, "You were angry--you didn't confront the matter in a 'loving' way. So it proves you weren't handling the matter in a mature, Christian manner." ...
The "can't-talk" rule ... blames the person who talks, and the ensuing punishments pressure questioners into silence.
[David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 68.]
Little did I know that our group had one "can't talk" rule from the very beginning. When people left the group, the first thing the leader did was call them on the phone and tell them not to communicate with any of the remaining group members. I learned about this after I had been in the group for a few years, and it was confirmed to me by people who left very early during my involvement.
But one "can't talk" rule tends to breed more, and eventually we had "can't talk" rules that covered a variety of both general and special situation. For example: during my final year in the group, the leader prohibited my wife and I from having any serious discussions outside of the group meetings. We could discuss the weather, the groceries, and so on, but nothing deeper.
Groups that are run by hidden agendas are invariably dependent on information control, because you can't keep the true agenda hidden unless you control what the members know. Depending upon the nature of the leader's agenda, this control can extend to all sorts of reading material, television, and communication with family and friends.
The leader will claim that group members are totally free to read or think what they want, and this is true -- as long as they do not wish to remain members, and do not mind losing their friends in the group.
Being caught with the "wrong" material will, at the very minimum, arouse suspicion and possible accusation against the "guilty" member's motives. Sometimes members are forbidden to read certain newspaper articles, or are told not to read or listen to any of the news media. Books on Spiritual Abuse are almost always off-limits. The leader of my group was enraged to learn that I had read Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. He admitted that he, himself, had never read it, had only read reviews of it, but he nevertheless labeled it "a dangerous book." He even freely admitted that our group practiced the things that Enroth described. Did he think that by somehow hiding the fact that outsiders considered his practices to be abusive we would never catch on? It would seem so.
But one way or another, the true nature of the group, and the true agenda of the leader eventually becomes obvious to any outsider, or any insider who is willing to see it.
It becomes obvious in the way the leadership is made the center of attention. Many spiritual abusers are too clever to allow their followers to praise them to their faces. That would make the cult-like nature of the group (which is at the very minimum a personality cult centered around the leader) obvious to all. Sometimes the leader may even issue a showy rebuke to a member who adores him too openly.
An astute spiritual abuser instead prefers to be content in the knowledge that while he is present, he is in charge of what happens in the group, and when he is absent, the group pays verbal homage to him by quoting his pearls of wisdom and by asking themselves the question, "What would our leader say or do if he were here?"
It also becomes obvious in the way that the failures of the leader are inevitably blamed on someone else. When people are crushed by the Spiritual Abuse, it is blamed on them. "If you were not so spiritually immature, I would not have to treat you this way," he might say.
Or if the leader is truly expert at manipulation, he can train others to defend him without even having to remind them. If the leader commits a particularly atrocious outburst, someone might say, "He was right to lose his temper at you!" or, "I used to get angry at him when he did that to me, but then I realized he was right." Others in the group often nod in agreement. Few people can stand when a whole group of people is arrayed against them.
When the leader fails to fulfill some promise, he can always say, "I would have done what I said, but then God showed me that you were not ready for it. So now I can't." It always helps the spiritual abuser's case if he can blame God for his own failure. After all, who is going to question the Almighty?
The true agenda further becomes obvious in the way that the leader handles undeniable failures -- i.e., failures that he can't pawn off on someone else. Even if he is caught in the act of some sin that disqualifies him from the ministry, he will cling tenaciously to their position of "authority," as if he was the only person that God could use to accomplish His purpose ... or as if he is exempt from the penalties he himself may have pronounced upon others.
When he is caught, he will sometimes tell his followers to ignore the evidence. It is amazing how many will! But even if he admits that he is guilty of sins far greater than what he may have condemned others for (and such admissions, though rare, do happen), he will always find some loophole that keeps him in control. He will present the case for retaining his position in compelling tones, or with dire warnings, or with feigned mourning, as he strives to retain his hold over as many people as possible.
But if God's will, or God's glory, or God's word, or any other high calling was the real purpose then the leadership would be more than willing to relinquish his or her supposed "authority." In fact, if it was God's interests, rather than his own, that he was promoting, he would have followed Christ's example by doing whatever was necessary to humble himself a long time ago.
By the time you have experienced the artificially loving recruitment process, and the black-and-white thinking, and the esoteric approach to truth, and the hidden agenda -- by the time you have experienced all that -- perhaps the phrase "bait-and-switch" comes to your mind. In the bait-and-switch, the manipulator baits you with something he knows that you want, but when it comes time to give it to you, he switches it with something else. This is a classic (if unethical) sales technique.
Merchants have been known to advertise a sale on a very popular product even though they don't actually have it in stock. When customers come looking for it, the salesman is instructed to say something like, "I'm sorry, we just sold out on that item, but we have something just like it over here." And then he directs the customer's attention to a less-popular "equivalent" item, knowing that a certain percentage of customers will fall for it after getting their hopes up and taking the trouble to come in.
People fall for the bait-and-switch all the time, even though they are disappointed over not getting their first choice. A classic example of this is found in the Bible (Genesis 29). Jacob, the son of Isaac, fell in love with Rachel, and agreed to work seven years for her father Laban if Laban would allow him to marry Rachel. Laban agreed, and Jacob proceeded to put in his seven years' work. Seven years later, when it came time for the wedding, Laban switched Rachel with his older and less-attractive daughter, Leah, indicating that he had to follow custom and marry-off his older daughter first.
But if Jacob would just agree to work another seven years, he could have Rachel, too. As a bonus, he would let Jacob have Rachel right after he finished his honeymoon with Leah. Having invested so much time, energy and emotional anticipation, Jacob gave in.
And that's exactly what manipulators who use the bait-and-switch are counting on: that you have so much invested in getting what you want, that you will settle for less (or in Jacob's case, something other than what he wanted -- two wives instead of the one he loved) rather than walk away empty-handed. Spiritual abusers are counting on your desire to experience the spiritual benefits you've been looking for to keep you following them, even though they keep switching them with something "less than," or something "other than."
This is a game that has been played by con-artists for centuries without number. It is the one major skill of the quick-change artist. It is the stock in trade of many corrupt salesmen. And it is the primary active ingredient in Spiritual Abuse. Each one of the manipulative techniques we have so far described involves baiting a person with something he or she desires, and then substitutes it with something that achieves the goal of the spiritual abuser. The core of Spiritual Abuse's manipulation is nothing other than the classic "bait-and-switch."
Manipulation itself is a bait-and-switch. The manipulator baits you with his or her apparent concern for your best interests. If the person is very skillful, it is only much later that you realize that your interests were perhaps very far from the manipulator's mind.
I was once fooled by a quick-change artist. I was a teller in a bank downtown in Chicago's Loop, and I was very young (this happened nearly 20 years ago as I write this).
There are two prime times when a quick-change artist likes to work: when the bank is very slow, or when the bank is very busy. When the bank is slow, a teller's guard is more likely to be down, and he or she is more likely to make the error of being overly-trusting. At those times, the quick-changer will play it smooth, with sheepish innocence, and very fast hands. He works at keeping the trust of the teller for as long as possible.
But when the bank is busy, a teller's actions tend to become mechanically repetitive, and they're more likely to act before thinking something through in order to get to the next customer as efficiently as possible. Then the quick-changer will act impatient, perhaps complaining about the long wait in line, trying to rush the teller. His goal then becomes to keep the teller off-balanced and unsure of himself for as long as possible, and fearful of upsetting the "customer."
It happened to me on a busy day. The line of customers was relentless. The quick-changer asked for change for a $50 bill. Before I'd known what happened, he'd taken me for $45. In the middle of the "transaction," I hesitated. Something didn't seem right. I should have closed down my window right then, pressed the hidden-camera button, and balanced my drawer. But the line was long and the quick-changer played his role perfectly.
Not wanting an unpleasant scene at my window, I gave him what he came for, and as he walked away he cast an offended sneer at me over his shoulder, as if accusing me of trying to rip him off! This was a totally by-the-book quick-change, down to the final manipulative sneer. He wanted to keep me off-balance for as long as possible, making as sure as he could that I wouldn't suspect anything until after he was outside, and could blend into the crowd.
The manipulation of Spiritual Abuse is nearly identical to this in many respects. Just as in the case of the quick-change artist, the spiritual abuser is able to adapt himself to the situation. He can be smooth, or he can be intimidating.
As it is with the quick-change artist, so it is with the spiritual abuser: he tries to catch you when your guard is down. When you're vulnerable to his manipulation. For many victims, this happens around the time of a major life-change, crisis or depression.
As with the quick-changer, the spiritual abuser is also able to make the switch between what he said he would give you, and what he ends up giving you, very quickly.
And as with the quick-changer, the spiritual abuser needs to keep you questioning yourself for as long as possible after the fraud has been committed. As you are leaving a spiritually abusive group (or getting kicked out), the leader will do all he or she can to keep you thinking that they are right and you are wrong. This serves two purposes: 1.) it makes it harder for you to leave, so that perhaps you will stay, and 2.) if you do end up leaving, it keeps you from being quick to tell others about your spiritual abuse experience.
The reason that so many do not open up to others for a while is because the departure experience was so traumatic, that for quite some time after they leave they are still questioning themselves. "Were they right after all? Was I wrong to leave?" Echoes of the many condemning things they said to them fill their heads for months after your departure. The memories of all those faces of people believing the leader, and accusing them of being a "backslider," or a "rebel," or an "apostate," are burned into their minds. It was quite a while before I opened up to anyone about my experience.
When the spiritual abuse victim finally realizes that he or she really was deceived, the pain of the embarrassment is often enough to keep the person quiet for quite a while longer. And then when the victim does get the courage to open up to someone, he runs the risk of being accused of "gossip," "slander," "backbiting," etc., by the spiritual abuser, which adds to the victim's suffering. A person who has never experienced this pain should not glibly comment on it.
A spiritually healthy pastor would give you the freedom to disagree and leave. A spiritually healthy pastor would not keep trying to convince you that you are wrong once it becomes clear that differences are irreconcilable. He would realize that such an approach would only lead to a quarrel, and spiritual leaders must not be quarrelsome (1 Tim. 3:2-3). Provided that you are not guilty and unrepentant of some sin that is obvious to all, the true pastor will do all he can to ensure that your departure is peaceful.
Should you choose to go on reading about the other characteristics of spiritual abuse, you might notice the particular bait-and-switch that is involved with each of them:
• Spiritual abusers bait you with "authority," and switch it with authoritarianism.
• They bait you with "righteousness," or some other form of spiritual accomplishment, and switch it with elitism.
• They bait you with "the leading of God's spirit," and switch it with spiritual intimidation.
• They bait you with "spirituality," or "victory over sin," and switch it with legalism.
• They bait you with "unity," and switch it with uniformity.
• They bait you with "honesty," and switch it with abusive denunciations.
• They bait you with "spiritual discipline," and switch it with excessive church discipline.
• They bait you with "transparency," and "openness," and switch it with coercive confession.
• They bait you with "freedom," and switch it with a painful exit process.
We often live by the old adage, "There is safety in numbers." We act as though being part of a group can somehow protect us from things that might go wrong. And there is some truth in this. When it is functioning correctly, the group we call "the family" can serve as a cushion that softens the various hard knocks we experience in life. Our friends can look out for us, protect us from lonliness, and give us advice when we need it.
For centuries, communities have effectively banded together to protect their common interests, and support groups for various problems and issues have sprung up all over the world in order to help people deal with difficulties. The drive toward safety in numbers is as old as humanity itself.
Spiritual abusers know that people gravitate toward groups for a sense of security and protection. They also know that this sense of protection we derive from groups is very often misguided. People who depend on a group, or some kind of group-process, to help them avoid problems are often in for a rude awakening:
"How could we have been so stupid?" President John F. Kennedy asked after he and a close group of advisors had blundered into the Bay of Pigs invasion. ...
Stupidity is certainly not the explanation. The men who participated in the making of the Bay of Pigs decision, for instance, comprised one of the greatest arrays of intellectual talent in the history of American Government--Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Douglas Dillon, Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Allen Dulles and others.
[Irving L. Janis, "Groupthink," reprinted from Psychology Today Magazine, 1971, in Decision-Making Group Interaction, by Bobby R. Patton and Kim Giffin, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978), p. 243.]
Perhaps because they provide people with a sense of security, groups also have an inherent tendency toward harmony and self-preservation. Any group can only withstand so much internal dissent before it falls apart, and so to some extent, every group we belong to -- whether it's our family, our group of friends, our place of employment, our government, or our local church -- has its own formal or informal system for monitoring dissenters and dealing with them.
Most group members want to keep their group, and do not want some "troublemaker" to ruin it for them. Thus every group has its own way of letting members know when they should keep their complaints and disagreements to ourselves if they want to continue enjoying the group's company.
These tendencies help to keep groups together, but they also tend to stifle individuality. But usually that's okay, because if we have a strong enough desire to belong to a group, and if the group is relatively healthy, we can shut up when we're supposed to without sacrificing too much of our individuality. In such cases, silence in the face of occasional rudeness, or stupidity, or an overbearing, dominating individual is more often an indication of personal graciousness than weakness. People have to edit their words in any group. This does not necessarily make a group abusive. So when does it cross the line into abuse?
Groups become abusive when any disagreement or dissent, or when an unreasonably low threshold of disagreement, is punished -- when conformity to the leader's opinion, or the party-line, is not an option for membership-in-good-standing, but a requirement. All spiritually abusive groups claim to allow a diversity of views, even if only on some issues. But upon examination, it turns out that they have various ways of punishing expressions of disagreement, even when they are supposed to be allowable. The hidden agenda of the group requires it!
Psychologists have taught us a great deal by studying how even well-meaning groups can go wrong, and describing these dynamics for us. Irving Janis coined the Orwellian term "Groupthink" in 1971 to name the set of negative tendencies that often lead groups astray. These dynamics have been helpfully summarized for us.
"Groupthink" happens when --
1. The group shares an illusion of invulnerability;
2. The group engages in collective rationalization to discount dissonant information;
3. The group comes to believe in the inherent morality of what it wants to do;
4. The group develops stereotypes of other groups and of dissenters which protects it from accurate analysis;
5. The group puts direct pressure on dissenters in order to silence them;
6. Group members begin to censor their own thought, especially doubts they may have about the wisdom of proposed courses of action;
7. The group comes to believe in its unanimity because of lack of dissent and the belief that "silence means consent;"
8. Some members of the group come to function in the role of "mindguards" -- watchmen who "protect" the leaders from dissenting views by actively discouraging such dissenters from expressing their disagreement.
[From Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Psychology, 3rd edition, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980), p. 169; based on I.L. Janis and L. Mann, Decision Making, (New York: Free Press, 1977).]
The spiritual abuser knows how to manipulate his group in order to make Groupthink more likely to occur. Even in a non-abusive, well-meaning group, if Groupthink's dynamics are present, the group's capacity for providing checks and balances in the decision-making process is seriously impaired. Instead of preventing a disaster, the group of highly intelligent and experienced men that John F. Kennedy had gathered around him succumbed to these dynamics, and together they blundered into the worst American political tragedy of the Kennedy administration.
But in spiritually abusive groups, it isn't a matter of "blundering into" a tragedy. The tragedy is guaranteed by the leader's agenda. The illusion of invulnerability derives directly from the rhetoric of the leader, who claims to be doing God's will.
The leader actually teaches the group how to collectively rationalize away any dissonant information that might sway the group in a direction the leader does not want it to go. The leader also, through constant reminders, impresses upon his group that his agenda for them is inherently moral. And so on, down Janis's list of eight "Groupthink" dynamics.
Every one of them is deliberately encouraged by the spiritually abusive leader.
Especially frightening is dynamic #6: "Group members begin to censor their own thought ..." As with all of the features of Groupthink, I remember this one well in my own spiritually abusive group. All of us can probably remember a time when we should have spoken up and objected to something, but we didn't. At times such as these, we are probably weigh many factors simultaneously -- the different personalities in the room; the different relationships they represent; our own place in the group; our own agenda; etc. -- before deciding to just sit back and not say anything. Sometimes it is a wise decision. Other times we regret it.
In a spiritually abusive group, where the negative dynamics of Groupthink are actually encouraged by the leadership, the pressures on each individual are so great that inappropriate self-censorship occurs all the time. This is demonstrated by the fact that, in an abusive group, overt abuse is frequently taking place, and yet few if any stand up to oppose it. Could all of these people be so "out-to-lunch" that they cannot recognize abuse when they see it? No. In almost any other setting, they probably would stand up and oppose it, or leave.
But here they have been manipulated into deferring to the leader's "wisdom." And if the leader says that what he is doing does not constitute abuse, then, in a Groupthink mode, the members will censor their own inner objections, and others in the group will assume from their silence that they must agree with the leader.
Some who are reading this -- particularly some Christians -- might be dismayed by one possible implication of Groupthink: i.e., that the idea of Groupthink might be used to downplay personal responsibility for one's actions. While it is true that Irving Janis used the phrase "victims of Groupthink," he did not necessarily intend for that idea to be an excuse. He published his research years before the popular trend toward denying personal responsibility through a "victim status."
When we think of ourselves as "victims," that thought naturally causes us to direct our blame and anger outward, toward those whom we perceive have victimized us. But people who have actually experienced Groupthink, especially those who did not realize it at the time, tend to blame themselves:
"In the months after the Bay of Pigs I bitterly reproached myself for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions in the cabinet room," Schlesinger writes in A Thousand Days. "I can only explain my failure to do more than raise a few timid questions by reporting that one's impulse to blow the whistle on this nonsense was simply undone by the circumstances of the discussion."
[Quoted in Decision-Making Group Interaction, by Bobby R. Patton and Kim Giffin, p. 250.]
The answer to the question of just how much a "victim of Groupthink" should blame him- or herself really depends upon the situation. Each person has to answer out of his or her own conscience before God. If it happened to you, you need to take a long, serious look at the things you did while under this manipulative influence. To what extent were you totally fooled, and to what extent did you go along because the leader told you something that you wanted to hear? The issues can be confusing and painful, and it may take a long time before you get to the bottom of them, so you will need to be patient with yourself while you work on sorting it out in your mind.
As for me, the Groupthink of my spiritually abusive environment led me to break off contact with my family for three years. It was a very cruel and unbiblical thing to do. There was no justification for it. I had not been abused by my family, even though, after months of manipulation, my leader had persuaded me that I had.
He also persuaded everyone else in the group that they had come from abusive, "dysfunctional" families. One-by-one, members started writing letters to their parents, cutting off ties with their families. The pressure to conform to this group trend was enormous. But in the final analysis, I made a choice for which I was responsible.
So some time after I escaped from the group, I apologized face-to-face to my parents, and hand-wrote personal letters of apology to my three brothers.
True, I had been fooled. Yes, I had been manipulated. But as far as I was concerned, I still had to take personal responsibility for my actions.
As Christians, we need to strive for a Biblical balance in understanding. Even if we have been victimized in the past, we still need to think about those experiences from a Christian point-of-view. The world thinks in terms of blame, anger, hatred, and revenge. We are called to a higher standard, and part of that standard involves taking responsibility for our own foolish choices.
On the other hand, we should not minimize the role the manipulator played in getting us to do those things we should not have done. We are to be blamed for listening to the manipulator, just as our first parents were to be blamed for listening to the serpent (Gen. 3). But that does not get the manipulator off the hook! It is appropriate to have a righteous anger toward him or her (Eph. 4:26). And if we minimize that person's role, we are likely to be manipulated again.
By employing the principles of Groupthink, a spiritual abuser is able to exercise something I call "indirect persuasion." Indirect persuasion is "state-of-the-art" manipulation. It happens when the manipulator gets you, and/or the people in the group, to think that his idea is actually yours. It creates the illusion that your choices and decisions arise only from within you, and are strictly voluntary in the purest sense. That is to say: Groupthink is both an extension of, and a camouflage for, the very real pressure and psychological duress that the leader is exerting on the members.
Times without number I can remember hearing our spiritual abuser say in an accusatory tone, "Aren't you the one who said [this or that]?" or "Didn't you publically agree with me on [this or that]?" The only possible answer was, "Yes, I did say those things." In front of other people he would throw my own words back in my face, carefully overlooking the possibility that I may have said those things because of group pressures, and ignoring my right to change my mind.
This was yet another manipulation of the group, designed to reinforce in their minds that he was right, and leverage group pressure to influence my thinking as well. Since I had not caught on the manipulative nature of all this by that time, I had no really good answer. Even after I left, he kept using this technique through harrassing letters he wrote to me.
When this type of spiritual abuse is successful, members will begin to mistake the leader-encouraged Groupthink for "the leading of the Holy Spirit." After seeing others in the group, one after the other, make certain choices, eventually they, too -- after wrestling long in prayer -- will feel "prompted" to do what the rest of the group is doing. Either that, or they will be forced out of the group, or they will leave on their own.
All the while, the leader is carefully covering his tracks, trying to keep his role in all of this hidden from view, keeping current and former members very confused.
By God's grace, he does not always succeed. You will recall that my spiritual abuser used Groupthink to manipulate nearly everyone in the group into estrangement from their families. For the most part, he was careful never to directly advise us to do this. But one time he slipped up. In a private, one-to-one meeting I had with him in the summer of 1988, he suggested to me that it was God's will for me to separate from my family.
He had been successfully manipulating several others in the group to do the same. He obviously thought that I had been influenced enough by the rest of the group that his suggestion was a timely one. Around six months later, I followed through on his suggestion.
In 1994, a group of offended family members arranged to meet with this man, in an effort to hold him accountable for creating strife in their family. In the middle of the meeting he declared, "I never told any of these people to separate from their families!"
By this time, I had been out of the group for two years. I could remember not only the time he advised me to separate from my family, but also times that he exerted great pressure on others to do the same. The man had told a bold-faced lie!
Even so, during that 1994 meeting, other group members were present who had also separated from their families, and they all nodded in agreement with their leader. Couldn't they remember? Was I the only one who could?
But at least I could remember, and for me, this was an example of God's grace. Even two full years after my involvement, I was still confused by my ex-leader's skillful use of Groupthink. He had managed to keep me in self-doubt long after I left, thinking that maybe God was leading me while I was in the group, and perhaps I shouldn't have left. But God graciously allowed me to see his manipulation for what it was all along: a lie. And now I was no longer confused.
Have you ever had the experience of trying to confront someone with something they said or did, which you found offensive, and instead of providing a reasonable explanation, or simply apologizing, that person found a way to turn it around and make it into an accusation against you? Most of us have been in heated arguments where something like this happened. It's normal for people to get defensive, even when being confronted with the truth. And often, when we are defensive, we lash out at the one we perceive to be attacking us.
But it's usually considered at least somewhat of an irrational act to turn a basically honest confrontation around and use it against the confronter. Being defensive is one thing. Being belligerent is another.
In the 1992 movie, "A Few Good Men," there is a very confrontational scene in which the character played by Tom Cruise demands the truth from the character played by Jack Nicholson. At that point, Nicholson gritted his teeth, and in character, he responded, "You can't handle the truth!"
This is an example of "turning-the-tables."
A few years ago, at a conference for professional academics, one of the speakers opened up the floor for questions. Someone in the audience asked a question, based on clear facts, but which challenged one of the speaker's main statements. Rather than replying to the question, the speaker said, "I don't appreciate the tone of your question." He refused to answer the question, and continued taking questions from those who were more amenable to his viewpoint.
This is another example of "turning-the-tables"
One time a Christian was showing a Jehovah's Witness evidence that the New Testament teaches the Deity of Christ. The Jehovah's Witness appealed to the original manuscripts of the New Testament, which were written in Greek. So the Christian, who was aware of the issues involved with the Greek New Testament, produced a scholarly work which backed up his point: that the New Testament does teach the Deity of Christ.
At first, the Jehovah's Witness did not respond. But when the Christian kept asking him why he would not listen to what the Greek textbook was saying, the Jehovah's Witness replied, "Of course the book says that -- it was written by a pagan!"
This is still another example of "turning-the tables."
When someone turns-the-tables, he deflects any real or potential criticism of himself with an accusation against the person doing the criticizing. He is living by the philosophy, "The best defense is a good offense."
Normally, a person who develops a reputation for this sort of behavior will eventually have either his honesty or his rationality called into question. At the very least, he will be someone most people tend to avoid.
On the other hand, when a person limits his use of this technique to strategic times, it can be a very effective tool for manipulation. A "successful" spiritual abuser is thus too intelligent to use this technique all the time. If he did, too many people would catch on, and he would quickly lose his following. It would become obvious to the group that this person is not really interested in the truth, nor in the well-being of the group, but only in winning, and remaining on top.
So the spiritual abuser makes a careful study of your weaknesses, and of the situation. He is very tuned-in to the political dynamics of the group, and only uses this tool when he thinks it is necessary.
However, if there is one thing that the spiritual abuser cannot tolerate, it is allowing his authority or credibility to be challenged. And depending on how sensitive or paranoid the abuser is, there may be many occasions on which he thinks people are challenging him. As time went on in our group, the leader became more and more sensitive to even minor disagreements with his opinions, and he increasingly used them as opportunities for turning-the-tables on the hapless person who made the mistake of questioning something he said or did.
Spiritually abusive leaders and groups feed on the guilt of their members. They also continually recycle it, and even create it where it did not previously exist.
We are all guilty. None of us is without sin. All of us have at least one or two secrets that we do not want anyone else to know about. Once we become Christians, our awareness of personal guilt is sharpened and deepened. As we progress in Christian maturity, the persistent power of sin becomes more obvious to us. We come to realize what a difficult struggle it is to overcome a sinful habit or tendency, and this causes us to long for freedom from the things that are holding us back.
All of this means that Christians devote a tremendous amount of spiritual energy to dealing with sin and guilt -- by trying to avoid actions which lead to sin and guilt, and by seeking forgiveness and strength from God in the battle against sin and guilt. Spiritual abusers are experts at tapping into this spiritual drive that all Christians have and manipulating it for their own purposes.
What Steven Hassan writes concerning cult members is also a far too accurate portrayal of many people in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches and fellowships:
The cult member comes to live within a narrow corridor of fear, guilt, and shame. Problems are always the fault of the member, and are due to his weak faith, his lack of understanding, "bad ancestors," evil spirits, and so forth. He perpetually feels guilty for not meeting standards. ...
[Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, p. 82.]
Most of us relate to guilt primarily as a feeling -- a very unpleasant feeling. Webster's second definition for guilt is: "a painful feeling of self-reproach resulting from a belief that one has done something wrong or immoral" (New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1988, p. 600). Of course, plain old objective guilt is "the state of having done a wrong or committed an offense" (ibid.), and that can exist whether or not it produces a painful feeling within us.
We can be objectively guilty and not feel anything, because of spiritual dullness, or what Scripture calls a "seared conscience." And we can also be not guilty, but feel as though we are. This called "false guilt."
Knowing this, the spiritual abuser seeks to inflict the feeling of guilt as often as possible on his followers, regardless of whether they are actually guilty of anything. This is done in a variety of ways:
• The leader accuses members of improper attitudes.
• The leader accuses members of false motives.
• The leader accuses members of sins of omission.
What these three types of accusation have in common is that they are difficult to defend against. How do you prove that you do not harbor ain improper attitude, a false motive, or that you did everything you could have done to avoid a sin of omission? Sometimes it is impossible to prove; usually it is very difficult.
In addition, if a spiritual abuser is good at quoting Scripture, he will most likely use Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (KJV) He will try to get you to admit that you cannot even "know" your own heart, and to persuade you that -- given his "spiritual authority," or "spiritual gifts," or "spiritual discernment" (or whatever he calls it) -- he knows your heart better than you do.
In this way, the abuser uses guilt to manipulate you, but not only you, but the people around you who hear the accusation against you as well.
To accuse someone in front of others takes a lot of nerve. Many of us mistake this nerve for something called "guts." While often we can barely tolerate people who "have a lot of nerve," we tend to respect people with "guts." If someone in our midst decides to go out on a limb and accuse another person in our midst of something, a typical reaction on the part of others in the group would be to sit back and see how it plays out.
If the accuser can get the other person to back down, then the accuser often gains the respect of the group. Spiritual abusers are usually good enough at manipulation that the number of times they get others to back down is impressive.
They are also good at teaching their followers to use the same accusatory methods, as one victim testified:
"Community adults would decide what my sin was, [and] then just lay into me … I wasn't allowed to speak to my father when he phoned; they told me it was the Lord's will that I not speak with him. … The way I was making beds looked 'rebellious' to them, so I was assigned to scrub the bathrooms. Each day I'd get yelled at and forced to scrub them again."
[By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians, by Harold Bussell. (New York: McCracken Press, 1993), p. 52. Previously published as Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, (Zondervan, 1983).]
This description is remarkably similar to the experiences my wife and I had in our ex-group.
When a so-called Christian leader works to ensure that the atmosphere of his group is constantly riddled with guilt, his purpose is not to help anyone spiritually, but to control people. As Stephen Shoemaker has said:
Cult religion traffics in guilt and shame. It preys upon people with heavy guilt and shame and offers a false solution: total commitment to the cult. Guilt and shame, when healthy, move us to life-changing behavior which leads us to a happier and healthier life. But they can be manipulated to promote unhealthy allegiance to a leader or group.
[From the sermon, "Ten Marks of Cult Religion," by Dr. Stephen Shoemaker.]
People can be manipulated into responding out of guilt feelings either because they have residual guilt feelings from past sins, or because their consciences have been made overly sensitive by false guilt. Either way, as Ken Blue points out in his description of "Guilt Manipulation," there is no shortage of guilt-feelings among Christians:
Rob and Bev were only seventeen years old when they got married. They wedded young because Bev was pregnant. Both sets of parents supported their marriage but felt shamed by it too. They expressed their disapointment with rebuke: "How could you treat us like this? After all, we trusted you." Bev and Rob worked hard to succeed in their marriage, partly (they admitted) to make it up to their disappointed parents.
In their early twenties, Rob and Bev joined a family-oriented fundamentalist church. They quickly caught the attention of the pastor, who, over time, offered them leadership roles in the Sunday school and the maintenance of the church buildings. The young couple eagerly responded to the pastor's expression of trust in them and threw themselves into their ministries.
But as the extent of their responsibilities became apparent to them, they realized they had taken on too much. They were each spending more than twenty-five hours per week on church-related business. This was clearly more than the young couple and their now three children could afford.
Their ministries gave them status and made them feel like responsible adults, so giving up one or both of their positions was difficult to consider. Nevertheless, they made an appointment with their pastor to discuss their dilemma. After hearing their story, the pastor slumped disappointedly in his chair and said, "How could you let me down like this? I trusted you."
Stricken by these words--the same they had heard from their parents--Bev and Rob vowed to rededicate themselves to their ministries. They will most likely burn out in a few months and then have a second major failure to live down.
In many churches guilt manipulation is less obvious than this, but its purpose is the same--the control of vulnerable people. ...
[Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, pp. 54-55.]
This story leads naturally into a description of one particular brand of guilt trip that spiritual abusers commonly use which would be comical if it were not so devastatingly effective. I call it the "Leader-as-Martyr" technique. It was a favorite ploy of the leader of my former group.
At strategic moments our leader would inform us of all the sacrifices he had made to provide this "ministry" for us.
"You people don't realize what I gave up to do this for you," he would say. "I could have made big money out in the world!"
When a woman in the group could no longer take the abusive treatment she was receiving from him, the leader pulled out a long list of all the things he had done for her. Some of the things on the list were actually impressive. He had treated this woman rather special, which alone should have raised questions in our minds. But now these favors became weapons in his hands. "Look at all the time, all the money, all the effort I spent on you!" he whined.
When people questioned him, the leader accused them of "attacking" him. He would use the most extreme language to describe those who crossed him in any way. "My blood is all over this room!" he would shout. "Look at how you're killing me!" People who responded in anger to his abuse were characterized as "violent." (He liked to use a lot of extreme, metaphorical language.)
People who spend a lot of time pointing out the sacrifices and hardships they have endured on your behalf, and respond bitterly when you confront them with their sins, really have only one goal: to control you. Consider the following quote from just such a self-appointed martyr:
In these three decades only love for my people and loyalty to my people have guided me in all my thoughts, actions, and life. They gave me the strength to make the most difficult decisions, such as no mortal has yet had to face. I have exhausted my time, my working energy, and my health in these three decades.
Wow! What an amazing example of selfless sacrifice! Right? Three decades of utterly devoted service, facing "difficult decisions, such as no mortal has yet had to face!" And all for the love of his people! What an example for us to follow!
The source of these inspiring words for us to live by?
Adolph Hitler. (Quoted in Nasty People, by Jay Carter, (New York: Dorset Press, 1979), p. 17.)
The Emotional Roller-Coaster
Anyone who has been sucked deeply in to a spiritually abusive group is all-too-familiar with the extreme emotional ups-and-downs that these kinds of groups foster. While it is not always the same in every detail, it is still quite similar to the same dynamic in hard-core cults:
Life in a cult is a roller-coaster ride. A member swings between the extreme happiness of experiencing the "truth" with an insider elite, and the crushing weight of guilt, fear, and shame. Problems are always due to his inadequacies, not the group's. He perpetually feels guilty for not meeting standards. If he raises objections, he is likely to get the "silent treatment" or be transferred to another part of the group.
These extremes take a heavy toll on a person's ability to function. When members are "high," they can convert their zeal into great productivity and persuasiveness. But when they crash they can become completely dysfunctional.
Most groups don't allow the "lows" to last very long. They typcially send the member back through reindoctrination to charge him up again. It is not uncommon for someone to receive a formal reindoctrination several times a year. Some long-term members do burn out without actually quitting. These people can no longer take the burden or pressure of performance. They start to point out inconsistencies in group policy. They may be permanently reassigned to manual labor in out-of-the-way places, where they are expected to remain for the rest of their lives, or if they become a burden, they are asked (or told) to leave. One man I counseled had been sent home to his family after ten years of cult membership because he started to demand more sleep and better treatment.
[Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, pp. 82-83.]
The goal is control, and this cannot be accomplished without wearing down and breaking the individual's will. If the member can be kept dependent on the leader for the experience of positive emotions, then control has been established.
Our group started out as a Christian therapy group. It was supposed to be a place where troubled Christians could come, get better and leave -- not like with those other counselors and groups, where people kept attending year after year and never got better. No, we would be a "Biblical counseling" group.
At least, this is the way it was sold to us. The reality proved far different.
Five and one-half years after I joined, I found myself just barely able to walk away. I had lost 20 pounds in two months, I was in continual fear that God had finally rejected me, that my salvation had proven to be false, and that I would spend eternity in Hell. Even though my leader knew he was inflicting all of this on me, he was less concerned with the impact of his abuse than he was with keeping me at his heel.
Spiritually abusive leaders keep their members on emotional roller-coaster rides because it tends to keep them dependent upon them for stability.
In our group, the leader was the guru who knew all the psychological answers to our problems. In more church-like groups, the leader is the pastor who knows what the Holy Spirit is "trying to say" to members.
But in all spiritually abusive groups, the leader is far more than any of this. He is also the dispenser of approval and disapproval, and as members are persuaded over time to believe in the leader's special claims concerning his spiritual "authority," even the slightest nod of approval can send a member to incredible heights of bliss, while the slightest frown of disapproval can result in days or weeks of emotional torment, depending on how long the leader allows it to last.
The only problem for the abuser is that it sometimes backfires. As Steven Hassan points out, many people eventually rebel under the pressure. In my case, I eventually worked up the courage to leave. But I expect that the experience will be something that stays with me for many, many years.
My wife had not been attending our group meetings consistently for a while. She would come one week, then skip a couple of weeks; come the next couple of weeks, and then skip a week or two again.
You should keep in mind that, at that time, our group did not claim to be a church. It presented itself as a Christian therapy group. Only later, after it had succeeded in separating virtually all of its members from their friends, families and former churches, did it begin to claim to be a "fellowship."
In any case, one night, in front of the rest of the group (which violated Matthew 18:15), our leader confronted my wife about her inconsistent attendance.
He told her that he wanted her to commit to coming every week, from that point on. She said she was not sure that she wanted to make that commitment.
"Well then I think you should leave," he told her.
Humiliated before the entire group, she left the room. When she reached the outside door to the building, her anger caught up with her, and she slammed the door behind her.
Months later, when she wanted to come back, she first had to confess her "sin" of anger.
Someone once cynically observed that war is simply diplomacy by other means. In similar fashion, coercion is manipulation by other means.
Actually, it is manipulation in its most raw form. To "coerce," according to Webster, is "1 to restrain or constrain by force, esp. by legal authority; curb 2 to compel to do something by the use of power, intimidation, or threats 3 to bring about by using force; enforce" (New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1988, p. 270). Harold Bussell writes:
... avoid making major decisions when you are under stress or confused, particularly in the presence of the person who has triggered the emotional reaction. Tell them you'll decide later.
[By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians, by Harold Bussell. (New York: McCracken Press, 1993), p. 126. Previously published as Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, (Zondervan, 1983).]
Of course, in a spiritually abusive group, telling them that "you'll decide later" in such a situation is usually your quickest ticket out of the group! And this fact alone demonstrates that it has been nothing but a game of manipulation all along, because overt coercion is what abusers use when covert techniques have failed.
When the spiritual abuser becomes frustrated in his efforts to get you to conform, and he has run out of more subtle manipulative ploys, he can always threaten.
• He can start by employing Spiritual Intimidation -- threatening you with Hell, or some other judgment from God.
• He can implement Excessive Discipline.
• He can turn the group against you so that they shun you, making you a pariah, an outcast, totally isolated.
• If he has found out secrets about you through Coercive Confession, he can threaten to expose them to others.
• If your spouse is also a member of the group, he can turn him or her against you, making your home life extremely difficult, even threatening to remove that person from your life.
• If you have turned over all your possessions to his control, and moved into his commune (assuming the group has this arrangement), he can threaten to put you out on the street.
And most likely he will.
Except for the example involving the commune, I have had all these things happen to me. I know what they are like. (Ironically, our leader did talk about the possibility of moving us into a communal setting at the time I was leaving. If I had stayed any longer -- who knows?)
The shock of suddenly realizing just how much control you have given over to another person comes crashing through at times when the spiritual abuser starts "pulling out all the stops" and utilizing his most coercive techniques against you.
Why does he do it? Why would someone treat another human being this way? The answer is simple: fear.
Notice that each of the above-listed coercive techniques has one of two primary goals:
1. To get you to question yourself, your decision to leave, your own judgment; or
2. To get others to question your credibility.
Only someone who is afraid of what you might say to outsiders would put this kind of pressure on you. You know what really goes on inside the group. You know how the leader treats people. You can testify to the abuse. Therefore, the leadership feels compelled to do everything it can to discredit you, both in your own mind (through self-doubt), and in the minds of others (through attacking your reputation).
The leader will invariably claim that he's coercing you because of some higher motive, but when that claim is closely examined, it does not match any "higher motive" that the could be supported from the Bible.
In my case, all the while the leader claimed he was doing these things because he "loved" me. And yet, after I left, he actually went through with some of his threats. As my wife remained in the group, my home life became a living hell -- and, of course, it was "all my fault."
The leader also carried through on his threats to betray my confidence: he divulged personal information he obtained through Coercive Confession. (I later learned that, because this man held himself out as a "therapist," he was actually violating the laws of our state by doing this.)
Spiritual abusers realize that threats are not very useful unless they are backed up with action at least some of the time. You should therefore take what such a person says seriously, and carefully weigh the consequences before "calling his bluff." It may not be a bluff.
Rebuilding trust for the victim of spiritual abuse is no easy thing. I don't mean to offend anyone here -- and please don't take this personally -- but Christians who like to spout out facile "answers" to victims about how they should just learn from the experience, and move on with their lives, really ought to consider sticking a sock in their mouths when that temptation comes over them.