Naming it: Of Cults and Narcissists, Part One

After leaving an unhealthy church in 1996, which I later understood to be abusive, and then later understood to be a Christian cult, I came to a point where I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and start helping others who were in unhealthy/abusive/cultic churches and Christian groups. I started speaking more of spiritual abuse in my preaching, writing a few blog posts about it, and earned a doctorate writing about spiritual abuse in Christian churches. I also joined the International Cultic Studies Association for access to their extensive research library, cult recovery experts, and support of former members of such groups. Along the way, I noticed a couple of very important conversations that are occurring among church leaders, counselors, academics and survivors regarding the use of the words cult to describe an abusive group (like my old church), and the use of the word narcissist to describe abusive pastors.

The cult conversation is the most active. Formerly, a cult was simply a destructive, aberrant religious group that abused and damaged its members through its totalist control of their lives. Christian churches that held to an historical understand of the Christian faith (e.g., deity of Christ, presence of miracles, inspiration of Scripture, resurrection of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc.) really felt that it was quite impossible to ever be rightly called a cult. They reasoned that since their doctrines were orthodox, historic, and held by the most renown, legitimate churches, denominations, and seminaries, and most importantly, were “biblical,” cult was simply a description that could never be applied to them. However, recent studies, writings, and dialogue within cult-recovery groups, ministries, and writers has challenge that thinking, even within Christianity.

The word cult itself derives from the Latin word, cultus, which describes the care and service of deities, temples, and shrines. It was simply a word related to the traditions, habits, and disciplines of any of the many religions found in the Roman Empire. So, it didn’t describe harmful, abusive behavior, but simply the particular behaviors and rituals of religious systems. However, with the growth of the Christian church, and its eventual totalist control over the Roman empire itself, these other religions, and their cultic traditions, beliefs, behaviors, etc., were declared illegal, and were stigmatized and (eventually) largely abandoned. The Christian church, experienced in being declared an illegitimate, illegal religion in its early years, proceeded to inflict the same experience on its former rivals. I’m certain there is much more to the story than how I have just described it—but we can at least say, it wasn’t our finest hour when Christians decided to use the power of the government (which they now controlled) to harm non-Christian religions!

In time, the word cult came to describe any sect, group, church, movement, etc., that did not hold to the orthodox, historic beliefs of the Christian faith, especially its beliefs about the nature, identity and significance of Jesus Christ, or, its Christology. And here’s the catch—under that understanding of the word, any church with the correct belief system, especially the correct beliefs regarding Jesus Christ—simply could not be called a cult! It could act terribly, ruining the lives of its members through its manipulation, theft, abuse, control and punishments. It could separate families, ruin marriages, steal money, abuse children, refuse to allow members to seek proper medical care, withdraw from neighbors, cover over crimes, and act as if it were a law unto itself. No matter, if the church had a correct Christology, it simply could not be a cult. That’s where all that I’ve written begins to intersect with my personal experience. I joined a church with all the “right” doctrines, and most of the right practices of a normal, healthy Christian church. But in time, although the church stood solidly on its doctrines, its behaviors, especially in its pastors, violated every behavioral expectation and instruction of Christianity. Under the domineering leadership of its pastors, the church started hurting its members, deceiving them, ruining them, and stealing their money, time, and in some cases, their bodies, through sexual abuse.

And never, at any time, would we have agreed that we were a cult. All because of our dearly held, rarely applied doctrines. I imagine our true, applied Christology made Jesus weep.

Today, I think we are wise to wean ourselves off the word, or at least the ways we have used it. I have often heard it used in a malicious, critical way, to cast aspersion on another person, or that person’s church, so that the listener won’t be fair-minded and generous, but will be well-warned of the moral-spiritual depravity of the church in question. That’s not right. That’s how abusive churches talk about other people and groups and religions and churches.

If you are going to use the word (and I often do—old habits, you know. . . ) it is best to use it to describe a harmful, controlling religious group (be it Christian or not) whose leaders employ any number of the well-known devices and methods of coercion and manipulation to control people, and to gain control of their wealth, energy, loyalty, families, marriages, and even their bodies. If you simply follow the money, sex, and power footprints in any such group, you’ll invariably find the leader of the group. (Perhaps leaders, plural—but in my experience, most of the time it is a leader, singular. Bad guys rarely share power, at least not equally.)

My point is writing this piece is this: Christians coming out of abusive churches—ones that were just about as controlling, horrible, and damaging as can be, they have a hard time describing these abusive churches as cults. Their beliefs were orthodox, they believed what all healthy churches believe, at least on paper. To throw the cult designation onto them is like forcing them to wear an old, heavy, wet coat in the summer. It doesn’t fit, isn’t comfortable, and isn’t the right time to wear it, anyway. Asking survivors to call their abusive churches cults is often premature, unnecessary, and can even lead to a sort of bullying-by-expert. It is difficult for survivors to even think of themselves as survivors or victims, let alone former cult-members. For years, I did not research cult-recovery resources, simply because I did not believe I’d left a cult.

So, when I slip, and use the word cult in relation to a church or Christian group, what I mean is an abusive, unhealthy, coercive group (in my line of work, that group is usually a Christian church), that, while it may very well possess orthodox, historic, accepted beliefs regarding the Christian faith, abuses, mistreats, and infiltrates its members’ lives, seeking absolute, total control over every last cent, minute, decision, and idea, and relationship.

The word cult has impeded people from seeking help as quickly as they should, so I’m doing my small part to more carefully qualify my use of the word, or at least to broaden its meaning a bit.

Next. . . Naming it: Narcissism