Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Ministering to Cult Members
From the February 2011 E-Block. This is a transcript of a talk I gave at my home church on the general subject of cults. The audience was a group of counselors who needed some prep on how to deal with clients who were cult members, but you can use this presentation for just about anyone.
I’ve been asked to speak generally on the subject of cults and how to deal with someone in a cult. For many of us, the word “cult” brings to mind some pretty powerful and disturbing images – of people dancing around a fire making funny noises, or sacrificing chickens or lizards in the moonlight, or of members who commit mass suicide at the command of a dictatorial leader.
But these popular images don’t tell the full story, and are mainly the result of the media making as much of a sensation out of religious deviancy as they can.
Originally the word “cult” simply meant, according to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, “a body of religious beliefs and practices associated with a particular god or set of gods, or even an individual saint or spiritually enlightened person, that constitutes a specialized part of the religious institutions of a society.” In other words, a “cult” was not at first considered something strange or abnormal, but was any religious group that was part of a larger one, but had some sort of specialized concern that made them slightly different than the rest of the larger group. By this definition, your Sunday School class might have been called a “cult” if they decided to use a different curriculum than the other classes.
In 1932, a social scientist named Howard Becker used the word “cult” to refer to the same kind of groups, but used it, as the Encyclopedia says, “stressing the private, personal character of the adherents' beliefs and the amorphous (that is constantly changing) nature of the organization.” So the definition of a cult narrowed somewhat to stress the deviancy of the group from the norm of a larger group, and the fact that the group was in a stage where its beliefs were not entirely set in stone and were subject to change. This is why it is not appropriate to refer to world religions like Islam as cults.
These days, no one is quite sure what a “cult” is, although one thing everyone agrees on is that they aren’t one, and they don’t want to be called one. In general it becomes safer to use the term to refer to a group the more deviant they appear to be – say if they dress strangely, or if they have someone in charge who exerts control over the members to the point where they won’t even use the bathroom unless they ask him first.
One of the things I was asked to talk about was to answer the question, “What constitutes a cult?” Based on these last few comments, you can see that this is an easy question to answer – as long as you aren’t worried about offending anyone.
Many apologetics ministries devote themselves entirely to ministry to cults. For my ministry in particular, it’s not the main focus, but it is one of my concerns. So let me answer that question of what constitutes a cult, first by issuing some cautions.
The first is that “cult” is a four letter word. If you want to shut off conversation with someone who you think may be in a cult, the easiest way to do so is to use the word “cult.” Indeed, some groups, particularly the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have trained themselves and their members to immediately shut their ears once that word comes out of someone else’s mouth.
When people are trained to be offended by such things, it is done as a way to keep them from hearing more – which ironically enough, is said to be one of the characteristics of a cult: They do all they can to insulate members from other points of view.
Since the word “cult” has become so offensive, therefore, I usually counsel others not to use it, and instead deal in the broader category of whether what someone believes is right or wrong. Bottom line is, you can think “cult” all you want, but unless you want to stop a conversation, avoid saying “cult”.
Second, because of the historical definitions of the word “cult” have changed so much, it has become easier to define a cult by way of typical characteristics. Frequently, ministries to cults will look for one or more of the following in a group as a way to define them as a cult.
A claim to have some sort of special revelation, especially a revelation that contradicts a former revelation, such as the Bible.
A claim to have some special means to interpret the Bible or some other religious text, that is not available to anyone who is not a member of the group.
As mentioned, the presence of a charismatic and frequently dictatorial leader to whom members defer in even the smallest things.
Also as mentioned, some special and unique mode of dress or behavior that is required for membership in the group.
A claim that there is some impending disaster ahead from which only they will be rescued.
Now you might be nodding your head and thinking that sounds pretty good and sounds like some cults you know. But the problem is that if you twist your head enough, some of those might sound like even – Christianity. I know of atheists who call Christianity a cult because of that last one: “A claim that there is some impending disaster ahead from which only they will be rescued.” They say, “Oh, well that Rapture stuff!”
So once again, we end up with it being simpler just to decide on beliefs to a group being right or wrong, rather than trying to work up a definition of what characterizes a cult.
About all we can say, again, is that the more deviant a group is, the more clear it is that the can be called a cult.
In the end, the answer to the question, “What constitutes a cult?” is very similar to the answer Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave when he was asked if he could define hard-core pornography. In answer to that question, he said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” And maybe that’s the best we can do as well, given the history and usage of the word “cult.”
I was also asked to discuss how to show others the way out of a cult – and as counselors, this is something that your training will already give you a lot of your instinct to do, for the process is in many ways little different than leading someone out of any erroneous conclusion – you have to find the evidence for the truth – in the Bible, in some educational resources, or what have you – and find a way to present it to a client in a way that will convince them of a need to change.
This is where it gets kind of tough, though, because there are so many cults out there with so many different beliefs that if you as a counselor get hit with a really way out there one, you’ll find it harder to engage the person you’re counseling.
I want to say first: Don’t be discouraged if this happens. When Pastor ___ first came here, there was this group making the rounds that has a strange belief that there is a Heavenly Mother, or Momma god. He had never heard of these people before and wrote me about them asking what I knew. I had never heard of them either. I had to go look up some of their material and tell him what I found. So, if you have someone who comes to you and they’re either part of, or considering joining, the First People’s Holy Solar Order Temple of the Steel Belted Radial – don’t despair if you have no idea what that group is or what they believe. Even those of us who have been doing work on cults for years miss some of them and have to hit the books to know what we’re talking about.
Now that leads to the question of what exactly you can do when you have someone to deal with who is in a cult. You have two broad choices. One is to call in the cavalry, meaning someone who is in ministry who knows more about cults, and ask for advice. When I get done here I’ll suggest some resources if that’s the route you choose.
The other choice is to try to handle it yourself. If you know your Bible well, this is a good option. You’ll need to be familiar with what passages are used as a basis for the elemental doctrines of Christianity. This will involve becoming so familiar with the Bible that you can either quote or turn to those passages quickly, and know what they mean. Now if that’s the option you take, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that many cult members will say to you, “Oh, I agree with the Bible.” How can they do that?
Well, they may have no idea what it really says. Or in some cases, they may have their own “version” of it that is adjusted by the cult to reflect what they want to see in it. Or, most often, they may simply reinterpret passages so that they say what they want them to mean. Any of those three actions means you’re going to have to be familiar with the Bible AND how to interpret it in order to have a discussion.
As counselors, by the way, you’ll already be aware that something like this can easily disintegrate into an argument, and I won’t assume to advise you on that. Presumably when it comes to counseling, you have some people who want to hear the truth and others who don’t, and that holds for any topic, so I’m sure you have certain strategies to deal with each situation.
A second thing to keep in mind is that some cults simply dispense with the Bible altogether – they may say it has been superseded by some other revelation by their cult leader. Or they may say that the Bible was changed by evil church leaders, like the 4th century emperor Constantine – he’s kind of like a Darth Vader figure for some cults. If you have someone like that, you’re getting even deeper into what I’d call hardcore apologetics.
Bottom line: If your client has a respect for the Bible, it may be possible to gently lead them to see the error of a cult by appealing to certain proof texts. But that will require you to know your Bible like the back of your hand. You can then go through texts one at a time, discussing their meaning and their relationship to what the cult believes. As an apologist, when I have a willing dialogue partner, I often find that a Socratic approach – where I ask the other person questions as a way of leading them to the truth – is most helpful.
I’ll close with reference to some resources you can turn to, and then I want to open up for questions. We haven’t talked about specific cults here tonight, because ministry people like me can and have done entire seminars on specific cults. I just did one on Mormonism back in December here at _____, and it took about an hour and a half just to give some basic explanations of what Mormons believe. Don’t hesitate to call on other ministries as resources if you need help understanding a cult.
Posted by J. P Holding at 12:54 PM