Dispelling the MythsFor over seven years Jennifer was a successful missionary with a well-respected mission organization. Still a faithful servant of 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 drawn 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. And yet, no amount of persuasion could convince her that her group was in error.
It literally took a miracle for Jennifer 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 likely take some time still to sort through what this so-called "church" did to her and other members of that congregation.
Randy, a sophomore at a major mid-western university, and a truly converted Christian, sought a fellowship that was "on fire for the Lord." After finding the "perfect church" Randy was quite happy and content for a time. Then he 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 - viewed by the elders as disobedience and faction - resulted in his excommunication. The experience so stunned him that his life was never the same. Randy respected the elders and so he accepted as true the charges of faction and of having a wicked heart. Although he tried to make amends with the church, he never seemed able to satisfy the elders.
For some ten years Randy remained an outcast, even believing he was an outcast from God. Any attempt to work or return to school was short-lived. He was haunted by 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. As a middle-aged man, Randy still 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 aimed to reach the world for Christ in one generation. Michael became a leader in the group, but slowly became aware of personal hypocrisy in the national leader, as well as a growing spirit of elitism. Methods became more important than the message.
Somehow Michael could never do enough to please the leader. While in the group he often eighteen hours a day in Bible study, evangelism, teaching, and counseling, but could not quell the lingering thoughts that he had a "lukewarm spirit" or that he was not totally "sold out for the Lord." Finally he left the group, but 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 professional help, but he didn't know he needed it. He may have resisted such help even if it was offered, blaming himself for his emotional and spiritual tailspin. His eventual healing came through two means: 1) talking to others who had been disillusioned similarly in such groups, had left them, and were going on with their lives; and 2) rediscovering the gospel of God's unconditional grace.
Surprisingly, Jennifer and Randy displayed the same symptoms of disillusionment, depression, confusion, and despair as many of the young people who had once been captive to the well-known cults.
Yet how could this be? These two people were professing Christians, involved in so-called Christian groups. Unfortunately, there are so many cases like these that pastors and counselors (including myself, a licensed psychologist) have seen that the problem simply cannot be ignored. In my own case, I was slow to face and recognize the problem because - like many others - I accepted some erroneous assumptions concerning cultic phenomena. These assumptions effectively created a sense of denial in me concerning these hurting people. In this article I shall elaborate on these widely accepted myths concerning cultic involvement.
Ex-Cult Members Do Not Have Psychological Problems. Their Problems Are Wholly Spiritual.
This myth is similar to an error commonly committed by proponents of the "health and wealth" gospel - if one is faithful and obedient God will shower one with material, physical, and spiritual blessings. Thus, any problems in one's life are assumed to be due to disobedience, insufficient faith, or lack of faithfulness. Many former cult members continue to believe this myth themselves long after their departure from the group.
Although often believed by both Christians and ex-cultists, myth #1 has no basis in reality. As a result of extensive research with some 3,000 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. In addition to Singer's authoritative research, there are many articles and books that describe the psychological distress of ex-cultists. (Many of theses findings will be referred to in the body of this article.)
My own experience verifies the findings of Dr. Singer. 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, was a typical example of someone suffering from depression. Leaving her athletically oriented group was like 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 he expressionless face. Her life at that point was just a matter of going 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 outside 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 to close. It took a lot of compassionate care before she was able to trust again.
Mental health professionals also propagate the first part of myth #1. While not endorsing cult membership, Dr. Saul Levine, department head of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Medical Center in Toronto, 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 Levine's findings, I am troubled that he wrote his material after (and in spite of) 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 cultic groups for short periods and who volunteered to be interviewed. As opposed to this, it is doubtful whether some members of "utopian" or separatist cults would volunteer to talk to a psychiatrist if they were having real doubts about the group. The members' fear and guilt - as well as distrust of the psychiatric profession - would perhaps be too great an obstacle. Additionally, Levine admitted that even his sample of cultists experienced "severe emotional upheaval in the first few months" after returning home.
Researchers who report problems usually have dealt with people who have left on their own, were counseled to leave, have been deprogrammed, and who help. In such cases the problems were real and the hurt very apparent. Researchers, however, have not settled the issue of what percentage of people in these groups suffer psychological harm. Nor have they shown what personality types will be detrimentally affected by cultic involvement.
Levine also contends that the "damage" incurred by cult involvement may be due to the traumatic 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 actually higher.
Concerning the spiritual problems experienced by cultists, it is true that these are often present in addition to the emotional distress. These spiritual problems, however, generally originate with the group's unbiblical teachings rather than having their source in the individual's own relationship with God. It has been my experience that almost all former members of religious cults or extremist sects (including those which claim to be evangelical) are confused about such things as the grace of God, the nature of God, submission to authority, and self-denial. It is noteworthy that groups with widely varying doctrinal stances 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 assuming one of two things. First it may assume that genuine Christians never have psychological problems. However, many well-known Christian theologians and psychologists are on record as stating 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 psychological problems. 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.
Second, Myth #2 may presume that there are only non-Christian cults. And yet my personal experience (which has been verified by the considerable research of others) has been that some Christian groups are cultic in practice. This being the case, abusive Christian groups can and frequently do exacerbate previously existing psychological disorders relating to the individual's personality, family, occupation, etc., and can even 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 has contributed to guilt, low self-esteem, frustration, depression, serious emotional problems, over-dependence, and irrational behaviors in a number of well-known religious organizations. Of the groups he studied, the following indicated objectively measured signs of personality distortion: the Boston Church of Christ (now known as the International Churches of Christ), the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, Maranatha Campus Ministries (now defunct as a movement), the Children of God (now called the Family), the Unification Church, and The Way International.
Now, Maranatha and the Boston Church of Christ are/were clearly Bible-based ministries. Maranatha was a fundamental, charismatic sect (advocating "dominion" or "kingdom theology") that has been criticized frequently for authoritarian excesses, among other things. Likewise, the Boston Church of Christ and its many sister churches all over the U.S. and abroad have been roundly criticized for authoritarianism and coercive persuasion techniques. Both of these groups would contain "born-again" members.
What is alarming about these findings is that groups which are at the very least marginally Christian are producing psychological harm quite similar to that produced by non-Bible-based cults. All of these groups were found to be molding their members into a composite personality that included judging (i.e., relating to the world in terms of value judgments) and extroversion. But not all people are by nature extroverts or judger-type personalities. Some people are by nature introverts and perceiver-types (i.e., those who relate to the world in a more descriptive manner without needing to draw conclusions based on their observations). To attempt an alteration of 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/discipleship movement, as is the Boston church) 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.
Unfortunately, orthodoxy per se, is no guarantee that harm will not occur. My own research (with several hundred ex-cultists and about 50 on an intensive basis totaling about 2,000 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 cults.
Both Christian and non-Christian groups can produce problems, but all of 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 both Christian and secular psychologists. I suspect that it will achieve a status of near immortality. It seems that no amount of contradictory evidence can persuade some that "normal" people can get involved in such groups. Sometimes reminding my colleagues about Nazi Germany helps to dispel this myth from their thinking. I ask, "Were all those 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 fanatical, sick people, or were they fairly normal people who got fanatical and sick because of following him?" There are more than a few illustrations from history which 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, and Goldberg and Goldberg have all shown in separate studies that family or otherwise pre-existing psychological factors do not necessarily predict who will end up in a cult. And, of course, their findings concerning who joins cults 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.
Nonetheless, there are a few variables that do help predict who will join a cult or cult-like group. 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 past year; 2) a transition phase in life (between family and independence, between school and career, or between dating relationships); 3) a longing for community and caring friends; and 4) a desire to serve a great cause and be part of a movement that will change society.
Now, for those who do have 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. Yet the intense structure of cultic life frequently leads the emotionally unstable to view cults as havens. The strict regime and lifestyle provided by the cult can give them the external structure and controls that they lack within themselves. When such people leave their cult there is a good likelihood that they will eventually long to return to that structure. The prognosis for such people is not encouraging.
While normal unbelievers may get involved with cults, born-again believers will not. And even if they did, their involvement would not affect them so negatively.
Myth #4 is perhaps the most dangerous of all because it hinders the provision of help who are really hurting. It is also an old myth, and was challenged as early as Old Testament times. Ezekiel warned that God's sheep could be abused by wicked shepherds (Ezek. 34:1-7). Regarding this, St. Augustine said: "The defects of the sheep are widespread. There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that solidly sustained by the food of truth, and few that enjoy the good pasture God dives 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"
So it is obvious that God's sheep can be damaged by bad shepherds, and no more obvious examples of "wicked shepherds" could be given than the leaders of destructive cults and aberrational religious movements.
Myth #4 is particularly dangerous to the Christian community because it ignores the fact, pointed out by several Christian cult watchers, that a sizeable proportion of those involved in cults or extremist groups come from some type of evangelical church base. Of the cultists I have personally worked with, approximately 25% came from evangelical or fundamentalist 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 certainly a lot of truth to this statement. Unfortunately, half-truths are often the worst form of error. Myth #5 is false for the following reasons: First, many persons who have left cults do not want Bible teaching or Christian fellowship. They are "once burned, twice shy."
Second, according to a 1986 survey of about 300 ex-cultists by Conway and Siegelman, the following essentially nonreligious activities proved 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% 
Although many members of the extremist Christian groups return to evangelical churches, they often continue to suffer. These members will typical seek a church that is very similar to the one they left. Such people have left the former group because they were disillusioned with it and/or were incapable of submitting to its demands, but they still believe many of its tenets.
For these people life can be a nightmare - they fell they have left "the apple of God's eye" because they were, in their own terms, "too fleshly" or "too worldly" to keep up the pace. The rigor of cultic life had produced in them all the symptoms of burnout - a state of spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. Yet in their own minds the world is explained so totally in theological terms that they cannot even conceive of any such term as burnout. Instead they wrongly conclude that they were not spiritual enough, that they failed and God has 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 involve themselves 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, and a new religious organization. Yet they often complain, "I fear being controlled, being told what to do all the time"; or "I don't know if I can ever trust church leaders again"; or "I'm afraid that if I open up about myself I'll be rejected again."
Perhaps the majority of these ex-members of extremist groups want to go on with their Christian lives but they are unable to read parts of the Bible anymore without eliciting negative associations. Verses such as "He who comes after me must first of all deny himself..." now produce strong reactions in the ex-member. Scriptural exhortations to "forget... 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 these commands?" Sometimes when a former member hears someone say, "The Lord would have so and so...," he or she may respond with strong feelings of disgust, incredulity, anger, and sometimes even fear. Too many negative memories or flashbacks of group events and conflicts are triggered by these phrases. 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 are largely unaware of the fact that former members of 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 processes, a Bible study may likely be ignored or dismissed by some cliche they learned while in their group. These people would require a professionally supervised and non-coercive form of "deprogramming" or "exit counseling" before Bible study per se would be beneficial.
Similarly, verses dealing with faction and slander - as well as the conditioned fear of even mentally entertaining such thoughts - can have a thought-stopping effect. This prevents the hurting Christian from hearing Bible teaching and counsel that would free his or her mind from the guilt-inducing teachings of the group. It is clear that Christian helpers often overlook or misunderstand the erroneous teachings which serve as subtle control mechanisms. In certain fringe Christian groups, control mechanisms are frequently contained in their teaching on faction, slander, submission, or confession.
It is necessary, then, for the helper to be able systematically to refute a particular group's teaching on, for instance, faction, slander, submission, or confession. This will allow the ex-member an opportunity to open up his or her mind and entertain thoughts 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 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 may commit what social psychologists call the "attribution error" (i.e., the problem lies within the person and not within the group). Such therapy can make the ex-member even worse.
There is sufficient literature and research showing the deleterious effects of cultic or extremist group experience to forewarn those seeking counsel to be cautious when choosing a therapist who subscribes to the "benign" view of cultic involvement.
A small percentage of professional therapists, on the other hand, not only consider cultic involvement but also religious interest per se to be unhealthy, and will seek to help the ex-cultists look at life more "realistically." Others are explicitly hostile toward Christianity. For example, N. Brandon declares that the Christian beliefs of sin and self-sacrifice are "as monstrous an injustice, as profound a perversion of morality as the human mind can conceive." He encourages counselors to help their clients get free of such destructive doctrines. A. Ellis views the concept of sin as the direct and indirect cause of virtually all neurotic disturbances. 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: 1) from the cultic group, and 2) from religious beliefs per se. The resulting confusion and spiritual disillusionment could last for years (not to mention the potentially eternal consequences of such counseling for the ex-cultist's soul).
Seven Steps to Recovery
Given the abounding misconceptions, what is needed to help former members of these extremist groups?
Step one: Most importantly, find a helper who does not subscribe to these six myths and who knows how to counter them properly.
Step two: 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. Harold Busse'll 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...." In this connection a few notes of caution should be sounded when working with the ex-member.
To begin with, the time-honored and effective method of doing a sound intellectual and theological refutation of the group's teachings is only one of several crucial elements in the former member's recovery. In addition to theological and intellectual expose's, the group's ethics (i.e., its use of money, methods of thought reform, and practice of deception) need to be thoroughly examined (2 Cor. 4:2; Eph. 5:11; Ps. 24:3-4).
Furthermore, the ethics and theology need to be viewed in the context of the person's psychological needs (i.e., what was it about the group's teaching that drew him or her into it?). In recovering from cultic life, the issue that takes the longest to resolve is typically the gnawing search for love, fellowship, and caring experienced while in the group.
It is extremely important that a trusting relationship be established. The helper must work hard to accomplish this. One study showed that only one-half of cult members who sought help were able to engage in a successful relationship with a counselor.
Although the counselor, pastor, and church must provide warmth and care to the former member, they should not try to become a substitute or imitation of the intense "social high" experienced 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 grounded in truth? Was it always produced by the Holy Spirit, or might it have been more on the order of a drug-induced euphoria? True, the addict maintains there is no better 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 or she may have - at the same time - unknowingly repressed or dissociated emotional pain, doubts, and the tell-tale signs that his or her health was being neglected. Such "highs" (which are not unique to professedly Christian groups) are psychologically and spiritually unhealthy. 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 him or herself. Dependency conflicts are typically a major concern for the ex-member. Good rehabilitation will seek to avoid unhealthy dependency while providing healthy group support.
Step three: 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 often 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 challenging, exciting, and fulfilling opportunities to serve God in a valid, non-cultic setting. At the appropriate time in his or her recovery process, summer team mission programs offered by several different church groups may be "just the ticket" for the ex-member.
Some ex-cultists, however, are fairly "gun-shy" and can react adversely to any program in the church that reminds them of their groups. Often these people make valiant attempts to rejoin a church but drop out because the painful memories are too strong. Here churches could establish support groups outside the church for ex-cultists and develop a ministry to them. In such a ministry it may be advisable that church attendance and involvement 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.
Step four: 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:
- 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;
- gaining information about the group;
- how to establish communication with the ex-member;
- fear that their family member is seriously and/or permanently damaged by his or her cultic involvement;
- guilt that somehow the parents were responsible for their child's entering the extremist organization.
The nature of family concerns suggests that the pastor and/or counselor need to provide information, be supportive, and lend assistance in finding other families with members in cultic groups.
Step five: In attempting to understand what has happened to the ex-cultist it is quite helpful to employ the victim or trauma model. According to this model, victimization and the resulting distress are due to the shattering of three basic assumptions the victim held about the world and himself: "the belief in personal invulnerability, the perception of the world as meaningful, and the perception of oneself as positive." The ex-cultist has been traumatized, deceived, conned, used, and often emotionally and mentally abused while serving the group and/or leader of the group. Like other victims (e.g., of 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. Therapy must focus on helping these people regain beliefs about the world and themselves that are not so unsettling.
The cultic experience often results in a "crisis of faith." Many ex-cultists ask, "How could God allow this to happen to me?" They often think, "I must be horrible since I failed God and His plan for my life." The ex-cultist's belief in a "just world" is shattered. He or she can no longer say, "It won't happen to me." A need for meaning among these people is paramount. The victim must be helped to regain a belief in self and the world that allows room for "bad things happening to good people."
He or she may also need to talk out and relive the trauma again and again, as do the victims of other types of crises. Unfortunately, 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 rebuilt.
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. Thus, theological reconstruction is often most helpful. For a sense of meaning to be restored victims must be helped to see their cultic experience in view of a benevolent God who truly loves them.
Although it has been my experience that the majority of persons join and remain in cults for sincere reasons, my recommendation of the cult victim model 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 sinful inclinations.
Behavior change is also very helpful. Pastors who work with ex-cultists should know that the chances for (and speed of) the ex-member's recovery may in part depend on 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, there will be a great probability that the church setting will trigger traumatic memories. Consequently, the ex-member should seriously consider buying a different translation of the Bible and finding a pastor unlike his or her past leader in personality or teaching style. Along these lines, he or she would do well to seek out 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. It is tragic that these people are sometimes viewed more as "backsliders" than as victims.
A support group or professional counseling can go a long way in helping by giving the ex-member strategies that will enable him or her to avoid future victimization by manipulative people. This allows the victim to regain some sense of his or her own strength and self-esteem. As with other victims, finding and talking with other 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.
Step six: Education and support groups are essential. The recovery process inevitably takes time. But, although many will eventually recover on their own, it is unwise to prolong the 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 such a basis. What has been spelled out in this article hopefully underscores the need for special programs designed to aid the recovering member.
Dr. Ronald Enroth has emphasized the need for half-way houses or rehabilitation centers to treat ex-cultists. After hundreds of successful rehabilitations at our Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, I can certainly attest to 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 local program consisting of education, group support, and counseling would be most desirable.
Step seven: It is essential to help those coming from aberrational Christian groups to rediscover the gospel. It is my experience that all cultic or aberrant groups distort the gospel. This includes those that call themselves orthodox Christian as well. What is particularly disturbing is that many of these groups could, with a clear conscience, subscribe to the most orthodox, fundamental, and evangelical statement of faith. But 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 former members 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 life is restored and self-esteem is regained. Ex-cultists can see, as Joseph did, that "God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20). It has also been Harold Busse'll'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.
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.
Paul R. Martin, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist, directs the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, near Athens, Ohio. Wellspring's mission is to help former cultists overcome the harmful effects of their experience. A version of this article was originally published in the Christian Research Journal, issue of winter/spring 1989.
1. Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., "Coming Out of the Cults," Psychology Today, January 1979, 72-82.
2. Saul V. Levine, "Radical Departures," Psychology Today, August 1984, 27.
4. Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1971), 132-133. See all of chapter 10, "Substantial Healing of Psychological Problems."
5. Ronald M. Enroth, "The Power Abusers," Eternity, October 1979; Enroth, The Lure of the Cults and New Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1987); Enroth, "Churches on the Fringe," Eternity, October 1986.
6. Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Co., 1987), 23-28.
7. See also Flo Conway, James H. Siegelman, Carl W. Carmichael, and John Coggins, "Information Disease: Effects of Covert Induction and Deprogramming (parts one and two)," Update 10 (June 1986): 45-57, and Update 10 (September 1986): 63-65.
8. Levine; Singer; Neil Maron, "Family Environment as a Factor in Vulnerability to Cult Involvement," Cultic Studies Journal 5, 1 (1988): 23-43; John G. Clark, M.D., "Cults," Journal of the American Medical Association 242, 3: 279-80; Lorna Goldberg and William Goldberg, "Group Work with Former Cultists," Social Work 27 (March 1982).
9. Singer; John G. Clark, M.D., Testimony to Vermont Senate on Cults (Pittsburgh: PAIF, 1979); Goldberg and Goldberg.
10. Goldberg and Goldberg. 1982.
11. Augustine of Hippo, Sermons on the Old Testament, no. 46, "On Pastors," excerpt entitled "Shepherds Who Kill Their Sheep" reprinted in Pastoral Renewal, January/February 1989, 23-24.
12. See, for example, 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 Busse'll, "Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Cults," Moody Monthly, March 1985, 111-113.
13. Ned Berube, "Burned Christians." Pastoral Renewal, July/August 1987, 9-11.
14. Conway, Siegelman, Carmichael, and Coggins, 64.
15. Singer, 1979.
16. See Jerry Paul MacDonald, "'Reject the Wicked Man' - Coercive Persuasion and Deviance Production: A Study of Conflict Management," Cultic Studies Journal 5 (1988): 59-121.
17. See K. Shaver, An Introduction to Attribution Processes (Cambridge, MA: Winthrop, 1975).
18. 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, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961; republished by University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 429-430. An extreme 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, 5, 1, 1988, 59-121. In this article the author describes how a sect called OASIS (a pseudonym for Great Commission International) utilized excommunication to maintain a rigid authority. In the course of his research MacDonald studied 274 excommicants.
19. An excellent discussion of these issues can be found in Stephen M. Ash, Psy. D., "A Response to Robbins' Critique of My Extremist Cult Definition and View of Cult Induced Impairment," Cultic Studies Journal 1 (Fall/Winter 1984): 127-35. See also Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1988).
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 Psychology and Theology 16 (Fall 1988): 270.
21. Brandon, The Psychology of Self-esteem (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), cited in Watson, et al., 1988.
22. An excellent discussion of this issue can be found in Stephen M. Ash, "A Response to Robbins' Critique of My Extremist Cult Definition and View of Cult Induced Impairment," Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 1, No.2, Fall/Winter 1984, 127-135. See also Singer, 1979; and Conway and Siegelman, 1982; Conway et al., 1986; Goldberg and Goldberg, 1982; Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1988); David A. Halperin, ed., Psycho-dynamic 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; M. Addis, J. Schulman-Miller and M. Lightman, "The Cult Clinic Helps Families in Crisis," Social Casework, November 1984,515-522; J. Hochman, "Iatrogenic Symptoms Associated with a Therapy Cult: Examination of an Extinct 'New Psychotherapy' with Respect to Psychiatric Deterioration and 'Brainwashing,' " Psychiatry, Vol. 47, 1984, 366-377; Paul R. Martin, Cult Proofing Your Kids, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 13.
23. 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 16 (Fall 1988): 255.
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.
26. See Ash.
28. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, "The Aftermath of Victimization: Rebuilding Shattered Assumptions," in Trauma and Its Wake: The Study and Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ed. Charles R. Figley, Ph.D. (New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1985).
30. M.J. Horowitz, "Psychological Response to Serious Life Events," in Human Stress and Cognition, ed. V. Hamilton and D. Warburton (New York: Wiley, 1980), cited in Janoff-Bulman, 23.
31. Research shows that non-teleological explanations (i.e., those which do not invoke some divine purpose) can also be helpful. See Janoff-Bulman, 26.
32. Ronald M. Enroth and J. Gordon Melton, Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1985), 98-99.
33. Harold Busse'll, A Study on Justification, Christian Fullness, and Super Believers, unpublished paper; see also Walter Martin, Essential Christianity (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1980), 71-81.