Dispelling the Myths
by Dr. Paul R. Martin (Wellspring Retreat)
For over seven years Jennifer was a successful missionary with a well-respected missions organization. Still a faithful servant to God's Word she returned to the States and joined what seemed to be a good evangelical church. Gradually she and the rest of the church were put under the spell of their dynamic pastor. Over time she began to believe and practice things that previously would have been morally unthinkable to her. Although she claimed to be happy, inwardly she was filled with anxiety, guilt and fear. No amount of persuasion could convince her that her group was in error too. It literally took a miracle for her to see the errors of her church's distorted teaching on relationships and spiritual growth. Although much better, she is now into her second year of therapy with a (Christian) counselor. It will most likely take even further time to sort through what this so-called "church" did to her and to the other members of that congregation.
Randy, a sophomore at a major Midwestern university, and a truly converted Christian, sought a fellowship that was "on fire for the Lord." Having found the "perfect church" Randy was quite happy and content. Then problems arose. Randy fell in love with one of the women in the church. There was only one problem -- his church forbade dating. Before Randy knew it, his casual and circumspect encounters with this girl were viewed as "disobedience and faction." Randy was excommunicated. The experience was so stunning for him that his life was never the same. Randy respected the elders and so he accepted the change of faction and of having a wicked heart as being true. Although he tried to make amends with the church, he never seemed able to satisfy the elders. Randy remained an outcast for some ten years, even believing he was an outcast from God himself. Any attempt to work or return to school was short-lived. He was haunted by his feelings of rejection. In desperation, his parents sought many forms of help. Even some of the finest psychiatrists in the country found it difficult to reverse the damage done. Still as a middle-aged man, Randy struggles with confusion, despair, occupational uncertainty and dating difficulties.
Michael was a preacher's kid, raised in a fine evangelical home. He attended a Christian high school and college. Being well-adjusted, bright and energetic, he had a deep yearning to know God and serve him fully. He joined a group that promised to reach the world for Christ in one generation. Michael became a leader in the group but slowly saw personal hypocrisy in the national leader and a spirit of elitism develop. Methods became more important than the message. Somehow Michael could never do enough. While in the group, he often spent eighteen hours a day in Bible study, evangelism, teaching and counseling but could not quell the lingering doubts of having a "lukewarm spirit" or feeling he was not totally "sold out for the Lord." Finally he left the group but he took a lot of the group's mind set with him. It took years to overcome his guilt about living a less radical lifestyle and not striving to reach the world every minute of the day. He could have used help -- professional help -- but he didn't know he needed it. He may have resisted such help even if it was offered. Michael blamed himself. His eventual healings came from two sources: 1) talking to other people who had also been disillusioned in such groups and had left -- yet were going on with their lives, and 2) rediscovering the gospel of God's unconditional grace.
Surprisingly, Jennifer, Randy and Michael showed the same symptoms of disillusionment, depression, confusion and despair as many of the young people who had once been captive to the well-known groups such as Mormonism, the Unification Church ("Moonies") or The Way International. Yet how could it be? These three persons were all professing Christians and they were all involved in so-called Christian groups. Unfortunately, there are simply too many cases like these that many pastors, counselors and I, as a licensed psychologist, have seen. The problems simply cannot be ignored. However, in my own case I was slow to face and recognize the problems because, like many others, I accepted some erroneous assumptions concerning the cultic phenomena. These erroneous assumptions effectively created in me a sense of denial concerning these hurting people. It is these widely-accepted myths concerning the cultic phenomena on which I wish to elaborate in the rest of this article.
Ex-Cult Members Do Not Have Psychological Problems. They're Problems Are Wholly Spiritual
In many respects, myth #1 is a variation of the error committed by the "health and wealth" gospel (i.e., if you are obedient and a good steward, God will cause you to prosper materially, physically and emotionally). So, problems are assumed to be due to disobedience, weak faith and/or lack of faithfulness. Correspondingly, ex-cultists perceive that the difficulties they face are because of their spiritual failings. First of all, myth #1 is simply not true. As a result of extensive research with some 3000 ex- cultists Dr. Margaret Singer observed significant instances of depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, over-dependence, confusion, inability to concentrate, somatic complaints and, at times, psychosis.1 In addition to Singer's authoritative research, there are many articles and books that describe the psychological distress of the ex-cultists. (Many of these findings will be expanded upon in the body of this report.) Lori (a girl I treated after she left an aberrational church group) presents a typical example of the over-dependence and insecurity of a former cultist. She asked me, "Is it okay to have cold cereal for breakfast?" "Can I listen to the radio?" It was as though Lori was a little child needing approval and guidance for her every move. Her response to receiving permission to have cold cereal and listen to the radio seemed almost more joyful than the wonder and excitement of young children on Christmas morning. Debbie, another former client, is a typical example of depression. Leaving her athletically- oriented group was like a death to her soul. The two most precious things in her life were now gone -- the group and her athletic outlet. Her loss was clearly evident in her expressionless face. Her life at that point was just a matter of gong through the motions of living. Gradually Debbie began to see that athletics were not "sinful" after all. The more she saw the possibility of life beyond the cult, the more life returned to her soul and began to radiate from her face. However, it wasn't easy helping Debbie as she was like a wounded animal -- afraid if someone came too close. It took a lot of caring concern for her to trust again. Mental health professionals also propagate the first part of myth #1. Dr. Saul Levine, department head of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Medical Center in Toronto, while not endorsing cult membership, asserts that the experience can be "therapeutic" and that "a reassuring majority have not been damaged. Though I do not totally doubt the accuracy of his findings I am troubled that he wrote his material after the horrors of Jonestown. He makes no reference to the countless tales of woe related by thousands of former cult members. A large part of the difference between Levine's findings and those of researchers who recognize problems among ex-cultists could be due to the populations sampled. Levine studied people who were generally in groups for short periods and who volunteered to be interviewed. It is doubtful whether some members of "utopian" cults would volunteer to talk to a psychiatrist if they were having real doubts about the group. The members' fear and guild as well as distrust at the psychiatric profession would perhaps be too great. Plus, Levine admitted that even his sample of cultists experienced "severe emotional upheaval in the first few months" after returning home.3
Researchers who report problems usually have dealt with people who have left on their own, or were counseled to leave, and who want help. For them the problems were real and the hurt very apparent. Researchers, however, have not settled the issue of differential rates of induced pathology in these groups. Nor have they shown who will be detrimentally affected by cultic involvement. Levine also contends that the "damage" incurred by cult involvement may be due to the traumatic so called "deprogramming" process itself. However, in my own research on ex-cult members, I found no statistical difference between those who were involuntarily extricated from cults and those who left via voluntary means. In fact the mean score on the clinical scales for the voluntary group was higher.
Concerning the spiritual problems experienced by cultists, it is true that these can be present in addition to the emotional distress. However, these spiritual problems originate with the group's teachings and not necessarily endemic to the individual's relationship with God. It has been my experience that almost all former members of religious cults or extremist sects (Bible-based or not) are confused about such things as the grace of God, the nature of God, submission to authority, and self-denial. It is surprising that groups with widely varying doctrinal stances -- from the Hare Krishnas to Jehovah's witnesses -- uniformly distort God's grace and character.
Ex-Cult Members Do Have Psychological Disorders, But These People Have Come from Clearly Non-Christian Cults
Myth #2 is really saying two things. First, it may assume that there are only non-Christian cults. Or second, it may assume that genuine Christians never have psychological problems. However, contrary to the first assumption, my personal experience as well as considerable research by others shows that there are Christian groups that are cultic in nature. Further, in opposition to the second assumption, many well-known Christian theologians and psychologists are on record as sating that true Christians do suffer psychologically. The late Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer, for example, wrote;
Let us be clear about this. All men since the fall have had some psychological problems. It is utter nonsense, a romanticism that has nothing to do with biblical Christianity, to say that a Christian never has a psychological problem. All men have psychological problems. They differ in degree and they differ in kind, but since the fall all men have more or less a problem psychologically. And dealing with this, too, is part of the present aspect of the gospel and of the finished work of Christ on Calvary's cross. Who can know perfectly what he knows about himself, as man now is? This is true even at our best moments, and it is doubly true when psychological problems and storms break over us as they surely will break over all people, including Christians.5
This being the case, abusive Christian groups frequently exacerbate previously existing psychological disorders relating to the individual's personality, family, occupation, etc., or may actually produce such disorders where they are not already present. A number of recent studies have shown that psychological distresses are experienced by members in both Bible-based (and even doctrinally orthodox) groups and non-Bible based groups. In fact, the psychological problems are similar. Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr. reports that a certain type of group- induced personality distortion contributes to guilt, low self-esteem, frustration, depression, serious emotional problems, over-dependence and irrational behaviors in a number of well-known religious organizations.7 Of the groups he studied, the following indicated objectively measured signs of personality distortion: The Boston Church of Christ, The Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, Maranatha Campus Ministries, the Children of God (now called the Family of Love), the Unification Church and The Way International. Now Maranatha and the Boston Church of Christ are clearly Bible-based ministries. Maranatha is an orthodox, fundamental, charismatic sect that has been criticized at times for authoritarian excesses, among other things. Likewise, the Boston Church of Christ and its many sister campus churches all over the U.S. has been roundly criticized for excessive authoritarianism and coercive persuasion techniques. Both of these groups would contain "born again" members. But what is alarming about these findings is that groups which are clearly Christian are potentially producing very similar psychological harm as the non-Bible-based cults produce. All of these groups were found to be molding their members into a composite personality that included judging and extroversion. Judgers relate to the world either by being very objective and analytical (relying more on critical thinking) or by a more subjective process of deciding between what is valued and not valued (based more on feeling). Extroverts are primarily more outgoing and derive their vitality through association with others. But not all people are by nature extroverts or judger- type personalities. Some people are by nature introverts and perceiver-types. Introverts are primarily more reflective and tend to derive their vitality from within themselves. Perceivers are those who relate to the world more by sensing or intuiting. Sensers are more physically oriented, practical, and conscious of detail. Intuitors see the world mostly through memory and associations. They take in the big picture and may overlook details. In contrast to judgers, perceivers tend to view the world in a more descriptive mode while judgers tend to form conclusions based on their observations. There can also be introverted judger types as well as extroverted perceiver types. All people possess all the above qualities and can vary from time to time from extroversion to introversion. To change personality type is to invite disaster in the form of neurosis and other emotional difficulties. Yeakley also tested members of the mainline churches of Christ denomination (not associated with the shepherding/discipling movement), as well as members of the Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. In these groups, he did not find any evidence of group-induced personality distortion that would lead to psychological distress. Sadly, orthodoxy, per se, as commonly understood, is no guarantee that harm will not occur within a Christian doctrinal framework. My own research (with several hundred ex-cultists and with about 50 on an intensive basis totaling about 2000 hours) indicates that the severity of problems suffered by those in the extremist evangelical sects may be equal to or greater than that experienced by members of the better known groups such as ISKCON, Church of Scientology, the "Moonies", The Divine Light Mission or the Way.8
Both Christian and Non-Chrisitian Groups Can Produce Problems, But the People Involved Must Have Had Prior Psychological Hang-ups That Would Have Surfaced Regardless of What Group They Joined
I encounter this myth regularly among my fellow Christian psychologists and among my secular colleagues. I suspect that this myth will achieve a status of near-immortality. It seems that no amount of contradictory evidence can persuade some that "normal" people can get involved. Sometimes my reminding my colleagues about Nazi Germany helps to dispel this myth from their thinking. I ask, "Were all the Germans suffering from individual pathology that made them vulnerable to the Nazi religion?" Or I ask, "How about Iran and the Ayatollah? Are all of his followers crazy, sick people, or were they fairly normal people who got crazy and sick because of following him?" There are more than a few illustrations from history to underscore the falsity of myth #3. My own clinical research along with a number of other studies shows that not all cult members had prior psychological problems. In fact, the proportion of those with prior problems (about 1/3) to those without is only slightly above the general population (about 1/4). Levine, Singer, Maron, Clark, Goldberg & Goldberg have all shown in separate studies that family or pre-existing psychological factors do not necessarily predict who will end up in a cult.9 And of course their findings concerning who joins 12 groups would be consistent with the dynamics of large social movements such as the Nazis, the fanatical Muslims, or Communism. Simply put, individual psychopathology does not adequately explain the phenomena of large fanatical mass movements. Yet there are a few variables that do predict who will join a cult or cult-like group. For example, Singer, Maron and a number of other researchers have spelled out several of these factors, some of which are: 1) a stressful event within the last year; 2) a transition phase in life, i.e., a. between family and independence b. between school and career c. between dating relationships; 3) a longing for community and caring friends; 4) a desire to serve a great cause and be part of a movement that will change society. Now, for those with pre-existing problems cultic life can be extremely dangerous. At least on this point most researchers seem to be in substantial agreement. For those with pre-existing emotional problems cultic involvement may produce dissociation, inability to think or concentrate, psychosis, hallucinations or extreme suggestibility.10 Yet the intense structure of cultic life is frequently viewed as a haven for the emotionally unstable. The strict regime and lifestyle provided by the cult can give them the external structures and controls that they lack within themselves. When such people leave there is a good likelihood that they will eventually desire to return to cultic life.11 The prognosis for these individuals is only fair.
It is Possible for Normal People to Get Involved with Christian and Non-Christian Cults or Sects, But These People Were Probably No Believers Originally. If They were Truly Born-Again, They Would Not Have Gotten Involved, and Even if They Did Their Involvement Would Not Have Affected Them So Negatively
Myth #4 is perhaps the most dangerous of all as it prevents the provision of help to those who are really hurting. It is also an old myth, but is has been challenged as early as Old Testament times. Ezekial warned that God's sheep could be abused by wicked shepherds (Ezek 34:305). And St. Augustine said:
The defects of the sheep are widespread. There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are solidly sustained by the food of truth, and few that enjoy the good pasture God gives them. But the wicked shepherds do not spare such sheep. It is not enough that they neglect those that are ill and weak, those that go astray and are lost. They even try, so far as it is in their power, to kill the strong and healthy. . But what sort of shepherds are they that not only fail to prepare the sheep for temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to the world. On the contrary God foretold hardship in this world until the end of time.12
So it is obvious that God's sheep can be damaged by bad shepherds. No more obvious examples of "wicked shepherds" could be given than the leaders of destructive cults and extremist aberrational religious movements.
Myth #4 is particularly dangerous to the Christian community because it ignores the fact that a sizable proportion of those involved in cults or extremist groups come from some type of evangelical church base.13 Further, my personal observations indicate that of the cultists I have worked with approximately 25% came from evangelical or fundamental churches and over 40% had backgrounds in the large, more liberal Protestant denominations.
Christians Can and Do Get Involved in These Aberrational Groups and They can Get Hurt Emotionally. But All they Really Need Is Some Good Bible Teaching and a Warm, Caring Christian Fellowship and They Will Be Fine
There is a certainly a lot of truth to this statement. Unfortunately, half-truths are often the worst form of lies. Myth #5 is false for the following reasons. First, many persons who have left cults do not want Bible teaching or Christian fellowship.14 They are "once burned, twice shy." Secondly, Bible study was not even listed as an important factor in their recovery, according to a recently published article by Conway and Siegelman. In their survey of about 300 ex-cultists they discovered the following characteristics to be very important for rehabilitation:
-love and support of parents and family members - 64% -insight and support of former cult members - 59% -professional mental health counseling - 14% -acting to recover lost money, possessions, etc. - 9% -going back to school or college - 25% -finding a job and establishing a new career - 36% -helping others emerge or recover from cults - 39% -establishing new friends unrelated to cults - 50% -getting as far away from cults as possible - 29%
Nevertheless, many members of the extremist Christian groups often return to evangelical churches, but they continue to suffer. These members will typically seek a church that is very similar to the one they left. Such people have left their former group but still believe many of its tenets. Often they were disillusioned with their previous group and found themselves incapable of submitting to the cult's demands.16 For these former members life can be a nightmare -- they feel they have left "the apple of God's eye" because they were, in their own terms, "too fleshly," "too worldly," to keep up the pace. For them the rigors of cultic life had produced all the symptoms of burnout -- a state of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Yet their world is explained so totally in theological terms they cannot even conceive any such term as burnout. For them they wrongly concluded that they were not spiritual enough, that they failed and that God had somehow rejected them. Unfortunately, I don't often see these people; usually friends tell me about them. These ex-cultists are too ashamed to return to the cultic group fearing they would only fail again. They continue to believe the cultic world-view and get involved in a local church in the hopes of replacing what they lost in leaving the group. These people need help and, I suspect, there are several hundred thousand of them. Still others who have left often find it hard to tie in with another group. They want to be involved with new groups, friends, a new religious organization or whatever, yet they often complain, "I fear being controlled, being told what to do all the time," or "I don't know if I can trust church leaders again," or "I'm afraid of opening up about myself, for fear of being rejected again. Perhaps the majority of these ex-members want to go on with their Christian life but they can't read parts of the Bible anymore without strong reactions. Verses such as "He who comes after me must first of all deny self. . ." now bring strong reaction from the ex-member. Portions of scriptures like "forgetting what lies behind," or "be teachable," all produce confusion and resentment. Former members of shepherding groups have asked, "Where do you draw the line? Where is the balance in all of these commands?'1 Sometimes when a former member hears someone say, "The Lord would have so and so . . .," he may respond with strong reactions of disgust, incredulity, anger and sometimes even fear. Too many memories of group events and conflicts centering on those phrases trigger negative reactions and flashbacks. For these people evangelical fellowship is not a panacea or perfect healing balm. Clearly, something more is needed. Another problem concerning myth #5 is that some pastors and Christian counselors do not know or give sufficient consideration to the fact that former members or cults or fringe churches have been conditioned to stop or cancel certain biblical thoughts that contradict the dogmas of their particular group. For those who engage in thought-stopping procedures, a Bible study may likely be ignored or dismissed by some cliché they learned while in their group. These people would require some type of professionally supervised and non-coercive form of "exit counseling" before Bible study per se would be beneficial. Similarly, even verses dealing with faction and slander, as well as the fear of even mentally entertaining such thoughts can have a though-stopping effect that prevents the hurting Christian from hearing Bible teaching and counsel that would free his mind from the guild-inducing teachings of the group.17 It is clear that the erroneous teachings which serve as subtle control mechanisms are easily overlooked or misunderstood. In certain fringe Christian groups control mechanisms are frequently contained in their teaching on faction, slander, submission or confession.18 It is necessary, then, for the helper to be able systematically to refute a particular group's teaching on faction, slander, submission or confession, for instance. This will allow the ex-member an opportunity to open up his/her mind and entertain thought that may have been hitherto viewed as "slander" but now can be viewed as "sound doctrine" or even "reproof." I cannot underscore enough the importance of getting these ex-members to think and to think critically.
Perhaps the Best Way for These Ex-members to Receive Help Is to See a Professional Therapist Such as a Psychologist, Psychiatrist or Mental Health Counselor
As with Myth #5, Myth #6 is only half true and therefore also particularly dangerous. Being a professional therapist does not automatically confer expertise regarding the cultic phenomena. Some therapists may be prone to subscribe to Myth #3. Therapists who operate according to Myth #3 may inadvertently play the "blame the victim" game; or they are maybe guilty of committing what social psychologists call the "attribution error. 19 (i.e. the problem lies within the person and not within the group.) Such therapy can make the ex-member even worse. A few professional therapists can also view religious interest per se to be unhealthy, and will seek to help the ex-cultists look at life more "realistically." For example, Brandon declares the Christian beliefs of sin and self-sacrifice to be "as monstrous an injustice, as profound a perversion of morality as the human mind can conceive. 20 He encourages counselors to help their clients get free of such destructive doctrines. Ellis views the concept of sin as the direct and indirect cause of virtually all neurotic disturbances.22 Little comment is needed to point out the potentially disastrous effect of sending an ex-cultist to a therapist subscribing to such views. Counseling from such therapists could create a double sense of loss: i.e. 1) from the cultic group, and 2) from religious beliefs per se. The resulting confusion and spiritual disillusionment can last for years. There is sufficient literature and research showing the deleterious effects of cultic or extremist experience to forewarn those seeking counsel to be cautious when choosing a therapist who subscribes to the "benign" view of cultic involvement, or to view that conservative Christianity is a source of pathology.23
What then is needed to help former members of these extremist groups?
1) Most importantly, find a helper that does not subscribes to these six myths and who knows how to counter them properly. 2) Understand that cultic involvement is an intensely personal experience.
Correspondingly, therapy must be intense and personal. The therapist, counselor or pastor must be able to relate to the ex-member's emotional needs for acceptance, belonging, friendship, and love.24 Harold Bussell notes that he never saw an Evangelical who entered a cultic group for doctrinal reasons. Among the things he describes as factors which make a group attractive is the cult's emphasis on "group sharing ... community and caring..."25 In this connection a few notes of caution should be sounded when working with the ex-member. First, the time-honored and effective method of doing a sound intellectual and theological refutation of the group's teachings is only one of the several crucial elements in the former member's recovery. Second, in addition to theological and intellectual exposes, the groups ethics, e.g., its use of money, methods of thought reform and practice of deception, need to be thoroughly examined.26 Third, the ethics and theology of the group needs to be contextualized with the person's psychological needs. In recovering from cultic life, the issue that takes longest to resolve is typically the gnawing search for the love, fellowship and caring experienced while in the group. Fourthly, it is extremely important that a trusting relationship be established. The helper must work hard. One study showed that only one-half of cult members who sought help were able to engage in a successful relationship with a counselor.27 The counselor, pastor and church must provide warmth and care to the former member, but they should not try to become a substitute or imitation of the intense "social high" experienced by the ex-member in the group. The tremendous fellowship and warmth that the ex-member longs for is often an "artificial high." Yes, the group experience felt great, but was it true and was it always produced by the Holy Spirit or something more on the order of a drug-induced euphoria? True, the addict maintains there is no greater feeling in the world. But look at the result -- a most pitiable addiction that wrecks lives, health, careers and often kills. While the group member was on a "high" he may have, at the same time, unknowingly repressed or dissociated emotional pain, doubts, and the tell-tale signs that his health was being neglected. Such "highs" (which are not unique to Christianity) are psychologically and spiritually unhealthy.28 The experience for the most part produces in the cults a strong sense of dependence on the group and its leaders, consequently, the counselor must be very careful not to foster dependency towards himself. Dependency conflicts are typically a major concern for the ex- member. Good rehabilitation will seek to achieve that balance between dependency and group support.
3) Most people who join cults have a powerful and highly commendable desire to serve God and their fellow man. Sadly, it has been my experience that the cults get the "best" of our youth. The recovery process must enable these individuals to see the possibility of a life of dedication to God free of cultic confines. Churches need to show these people there are valid, exciting and stimulating opportunities to serve God in a highly intense, demanding and yet non-cultic setting. At the appropriate time in their recovery process summer team mission programs offered by several different church groups may just be the ticket for the ex-member. However, some ex-cultists are fairly gun-shy and can react adversely to any program in the church that reminds them of their group. Often these people make valiant attempts to rejoin a church but drop out because the pain and memories are too great. Here churches could establish support groups for ex-cultists and develop a ministry to them. In such a ministry it may be advisable that church attendance and engagement in church activities not be recommended or encouraged initially. These people need reassurance from the pastor and congregation that they need not feel guilty if they do not frequent the confines of a sanctuary. 4) The ex-cult member has almost invariably suffered some rupture in family relations. Family counseling is essential to produce healthy reintegration. The typical concerns of the other family members are:
a) the tension between the ex-member's desire for independence (especially if the ex-member is between 18 and 25 years) and the parents' desire to protect; b) gaining information about the group; c) how to reestablish communication with the ex-member; d) fear that their family member is and may be seriously permanently damaged by his cultic involvement; e) guilt that somehow the parents were responsible for their child's entering the extremist organization.
The nature of family concerns suggest that the pastor and/or counselor need to provide information, be supportive and lend assistance in finding other families with members in cultic groups 31
5) In attempting to understand what has happened to the ex-cultist it is quite helpful to employ the victim or trauma model.
According to his model victimization and the resulting distress is due to the shattering of three basic assumptions the victim held about the world and himself. These assumptions are: "the belief in personal invulnerability, the perception of the world as meaningful, and the perception of oneself as positive."32 The ex-cultist has been traumatized, deceived, conned, used, and often emotionally and mentally abused while serving the group and/or a leader of the group. Like other victims (criminal acts, war atrocities, rape, serious illness, etc.), ex-cultists often re-experience the painful memories of their group involvement. They also lose interest in the outside world, feel detached and may show limited emotions.33
Therapy must focus on helping these people regain beliefs about the world and themselves that are not so unsettling. Most of the stress symptoms then can be attributed to the victims lack of belief in a meaningful world where they see themselves as positive and somewhat invulnerable. The cultic experience is often a "crisis of faith." At the bottom of many ex-cultists' beliefs is "How could God allow this to happen to me?" or "I must be horrible since I failed God and his plan for my life." Their belief in a "just world" is shattered. They can no longer say "It won't happen to me." A question for meaning among those people is paramount. The victim must be helpful to regain a belief in self and the world that allows room for "bad things happening to good people." Also, he may need to talk out and relive the trauma again and again as do the victims of other types of crises.34 Sadly, the process of talking about the trauma is sometimes short-circuited by well-intended helpers who view such rumination as "unedifying" or "focusing too much on the past." Effective therapy must be very supportive and reaffirming, as self-esteem needs to be re-built. Victims need to be freed from the view that they were somehow solely responsible for their plight. This task is especially problematic for those who had strongly believed in a version of "prosperity" teaching. Nevertheless, meaning must be achieved and theological reconstruction is often most helpful if they can see the event in view of a benevolent God who truly loves them.35 Although it has been my experience that the majority of persons join and remain in cults for genuinely sincere reasons, this is not to deny that for others the motives of power, pride, greed, and sex, may have enticed and sustained their cultic involvement. In these cases effective rehabilitation must include an honest acknowledgment and forsaking of such piacular inclinations. These individuals most often do not recognize the unrighteous nature of their cultic involvement until after they have become disillusioned with the group. Especially for them it is vital that they see the God who "has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities . . . for . . He is mindful that we are but dust" (Ps 103:10, 14b). Behavior change is also very helpful. Pastors who work with these ex-cultists should know that the chances for and speed of the ex-members recovery may in part depend on how similar the church's and pastor's style is to that of the extremist group. If there is a marked similarity between the former group and the present church then there will be a greater probability the church setting will trigger traumatic memories. Consequently, the ex-member should seriously consider buying a new Bible translation, finding a pastor unlike his past leader in personality or teaching style and a church or fellowship providing a welcome contrast to the cultic milieu. Far too often ex-cult members drop out of good churches because they remind them too much of their group. What is tragic is that these people are sometimes viewed more as "back sliders" than as victims. However, a support group or professional counseling can go a long way in helping by giving the ex-member strategies that will enable him to avoid future victimization by manipulative people. This allows the victim to regain some sense of his own strength and self-esteem. As with other victims, finding and talking with of their former members (preferably from the same cultic group) is an essential step to recovery. Often through this process former members become close friends. This is a process similar to the "war buddies" phenomenon or the plethora of support groups that have arisen in recent years to help those who are victims of drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, cancer or the like.
6) The recovery process takes time. Although many will recover on their own, it is unwise to prolong the recovery process.
I believe that one hour per week with a pastor or counselor is not the best approach. There are simply too many issues facing the ex-member than can be dealt with effectively on a one-hour- per-week basis. What has been spelled out in this article hopefully underscores the need for special programs designed to aid the recovering member. Education and support groups are essential. Dr. Ronald Enroth has emphasized the need for half-way houses or rehabilitation centers to treat the excultists.36 I can certainly underscore the need for and effectiveness of such programs, but for various reasons some individuals find them either inconvenient or unworkable. For those not entering a rehabilitation center, then a program consisting of education, group support and counseling would be most effective.
7) For those coming from aberrational Christian groups it is essential for them to rediscover the gospel. It is my experience that all cults distort the gospel.
This includes those that call themselves orthodox Christian as well. What is horrifying is that many of these cultic groups could, with a clear conscience, subscribe to a most orthodox, fundamental, and evangelical statement of faith. But phenomenolopically and practically they are living a subtle but deadly religion of works righteousness, at least in regard to sanctification, if not justification. For this reason it is very liberating for them to study the letter to the Galatians in a step-by-step fashion and contrast St. Paul's message with their group's practices. Through the gospel meaning to live is restored and self-esteem is regained. They can see as Joseph did that, "God meant it for good." It has also been Harold Bussell's experience that a clear understanding of the gospel is the single most important issue in a cultist's recovery and future immunity from further cultic involvement.37
In conclusion, cultic involvement certainly entails more than theological aberrations. The existing published research demonstrates that psychological harm also occurs and that Christians are not immune. It is likely that there are several hundred thousand people in churches today who were once members of cults or other extremist organizations. This may be one of the largest unrecognized problems in the church today. It is recommended that specialized programs be established that can more effectively identify and help these individuals.
1 Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., "Coming Out of the Cults," Psychologv
Today, January 1979, 72-82.
2 Saul V. Levine, "Radical Departures," Psychology Today, August 1984, 27.
3 Levine, 27.
4 These findings were based on an analysis of the MCMI (Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory) profiles using the composite of the three highest clinical scales (anxiety, somatization and dysthymia) of 46 ex-cultists. t = .95 p > .10, df 44, nl, (deprogramed group) = 16, n2 (voluntary group) = 30, x1 = 76, x2 = 83.
5 Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton, IL:Tyndale House Publishers, 1971), 132- 133. See all of chapter 10, "Substantial Healing of Psychological Problems," 123-133.
6 Ronald M. Enroth, "The Power Abusers," Eternity, October 1979; Enroth, The Lure of the Cults and New Religions (InterVarsity Press); Enroth, "Churches on the Fringe," Eternity, October 1986.
7 Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Co., 1987), 23-28.
8 See also Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, "Information Disease: Have Cults Created a New Mental Illness?" Science Digest, January 1982, 86-92; and Flo Conway, James H. Siegelman, Carl W. Carmichael, and John Coggins, "Information Disease: Effects of Covert Induction and Deprogramming," Update, Vol. 10, No. 2, June 1986, 45-57, and Update, Vol. 10, No. 3, September 1986, 63-65.
9 Levine, 1984; Singer, 1979; Neil Maron, "Family Environment as a Factor in Vulnerability to Cult Involvement," Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1988, 23-43; John G. Clark, M.D., "Cults," Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 242, No. 3, 279-280; Lorna Goldberg and William Goldberg, "Group Work with Former Cultists," Social Work, Vol. 27, No. 2, March 1982, 165-170. See also Mark L. Sirkin and Bruce A. Grellong, "Cult vs. Non-cult Jewish Families: Factors Influencing Conversion," Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1988, 2-22; Willa Appel, Cults In America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), 55.
10 Singer, 1979; John G. Clark, MD, Testimony to Vermont Senate on Cults (Pittsburgh: PAIF, 1979); Goldberg and Goldberg, 1982
11 Goldberg and Goldberg, 1982.
12 Augustine of Hippo, Sermons on the Old Testament, Number 46, "On Pastors," excerpt entitled "Shepherds Who Kill Their Sheep" reprinted in Pastoral Renewal, Vol. 13, No. 4, January/February 1989, 23-24.
13 See Dave Breese, "How to Spot a Religious Quack," Moody Monthly, June 1975, 57-60; J. L. Williams, Identifying and Dealing with the Cults (Burlington, NC: New Directions Evangelistic Association), 2; Harold Bussell, "Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Cults," Moodv Monthly, March 1985, 111-113.
14 Ned Berube, "Burned Christians," Pastoral Renewal, July/August 1987, 9-11.
15 Conway, Siegelman, Carmichael, and Coggins, 64.
16 Singer, 1979.
17 A major component of thought reform is "loading the language." This is a technique widely used by those engaged in mind control to counter effectively thoughts contrary to the doctrines or "science" of the group (see Robert Jay Lifton, Thouaht Reform and the Psychology of Totalism(New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1969), 429-430.) An example of how loaded language is used to "manage the conflict associated with grievances and non-conformity" within a contemporary Christian Extremist sect can be found in Jerry Paul MacDonald, "Reject the Wicked Man--Coercive Persuasion and Deviance Production: A Study of Conflict Management," Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1988, 59-121. In this article the author describes how a sect called OASIS (a pseudonym for Great Commission International) utilizes excommunication to maintain a rigid conformity. In the course of his research MacDonald studied 274 ex-communicants.
18 MacDonald, 1988; John A. Lynn, unpublished letter to members of The Way International, 30 March, 1988.
19 E. E. Jones, "How Do People Perceive the Causes of Behavior?" American Scientist, Vol. 64, 1976, 300-305; E. Jones and R. E. Nisbett, The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior (Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1971); K. Shaver, An Introduction to Attribution Processes (Cambridge, MA: Winthrop, 1975).
20 N. Brandon, Honoring the Self (New York: Bantam Books, 1983), cited in P. J. Watson, Ronald J. Morris, and Ralph W. Hood, Jr., "Sin and Self-functioning, Part 2: Grace, Guilt, and Psychological Adjustment," Journal of Psvchologv and Theology, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1988, 270.
21 Brandon, The Psychology of Self-esteem (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), cited in Watson, et al, 1988.
22 A. Ellis, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1962) cited in Watson, et al, "Sin and Self-functioning, Part 1: Grace, Guilt, and Self-Consciousness, "Journal of Psychology and Theology, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1988, 255.
23 An excellent discussion of these issues can be found in Stephen K. Ash, Psy. D., 11A Response to Robbins' Critique of My Extremist Cult Definition and View of Cult Induced Impairment," Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall/Winter 1984, 127-135. See also Singer, 1979; Enroth, 1979; Enroth, 1987; Conway and Siegelman, 1982; Conway et al., 1986; Sirkin and Grellong, 1988; Maron, 1988; Appel, 1983; Goldberg and Goldberg, 1982; Jones, 1976; Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Kind Control (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1988); David A. Halperin, ed., Psychodynamic Perspectives on Religion. Sect and Cult (Boston: John Wright-- PSG Inc., 1983) 295-382; M. Halevi Spero, "Some Pre- and Post-Treatment Characteristics of Cult Devotees" Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 58, 1984, 749-750; K. Addis, J. Schulman- Miller and K. Lightman, "The Cult Clinic Helps Families in Crisis," Social Casework, November 1984, 515-522; J. Hochman, "Introgenic Symptoms Associated with a Therapy Cult: Examination of an Extinct 'New Psychotherapy' with Respect to Psychiatric Deterioration and 'Brainwashing," Psvchiatry, Vol. 47, 1984, 366-377; Lee A. Kirkpatrick, "Fundamentalists Anonymous: Perspectives from Social Psychology and the Empirical Psychology of Religion," paper presented as part of a symposium entitled "Does Fundamentalism Cause Emotional Problems?" (G. Hartz, Chair) at the Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York, August 1987.
24 Cultic involvement can produce serious psychological problems, though the problems of ex- cultists may not all be cult-related. Pastors are well-advised to seek mental health consultation if they desire to treat these people.
25 Bussell, 1985.
26 See for example 2 Cor. 4:2; Eph. 5:11; Ps. 24:3-4.
27 Lawrence Bennett Sullivan, Ph.D., "Counseling and Involvements in New Religious Groups," Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall/Winter 1984, 178-195.
28 Ash, 1984.
29 Goldberg and Goldberg, 1982.
30 Sullivan, 1984.
31 Sullivan, 1984.
32 Ronnie Janof f-Bulman, "The Aftermath of Victimization: Rebuilding Shattered Assumptions," in Charles R. Figley, Ph.D., ed., Trauma and Its Wake: The Study and Treatment of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (New York: Brunner/Kazel, Publishers, 1985).
33 Janoff-Bulman, 1985.
34 M. J. Horowitz, "Psychological Response to Serious Life Events," in V. Hamilton and D. Warburton, eds., Human Stress and Cognition (New York:Wiley, 1980), cited in Janoff-Bulman, 1985, 23.
35 Research shows that non-teleological explanations are also helpful. See Janof f-Bulman, 1985, 26.
36 Ronald K. Enroth and J. Gordon Melton, Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1985), 98-99.
37 Harold Bussell, A Studv on Justification. Christian Fullness. and Super Believers, unpublished paper; see also Dr. Walter Martin, Essential Christianity (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1980), 71- 81.