Survivors recovering from Bible-based exploitive groups, especially those who either were not exit-counseled or did not educate themselves on what they were in and how mind manipulation methods were used on them, usually have an instinctive suspicion of all churches and mistrust anyone in authority. They are often unconsciously angry with God and confused about the Bible. Survivors of high demand Bible-based groups usually have difficulty reading the Bible for quite awhile after exiting. Some of its words, twisted by the group, perpetuate its control over them even after they are out. In a sense, their faith is hindering their recovery.
What about spirituality formed in a deceptive group?
Every deceptive group offers something positive; otherwise, no one would join. Many abusive Bible-based groups appear to hold very positive and helpful beliefs. Many perform admirable service in their communities, as Jim Jones and The People’s Temple did. The problem is they also claim to have found some “new revelation” and a more “spiritual” way of applying it. Almost always they are simply rehashing some ancient argument settled centuries ago. David Koresh’s views on the Seven Seals were stated in much the same way in the second century by teachers with strikingly similar personalities to Koresh’s. Fraudulent groups based on distortions of the Hebrew Scriptures plagued Judaism before the Christian Era. “New revelation” in cultic groups is never new and never revelation. It is just very sophisticated mind manipulation, no matter how it may be re-packaged.
In a Bible-based exploitive group the Bible itself becomes a means of exercising milieu control, dispensing of existence, suppressing personality, and denying one’s own perception of events, among other things. It is as if spiritual land mines have been planted in the very place where the member had found comfort. Members feel an internal war over the things that once brought peace, A way out must he found. That way has often been through exposing illogical and fraudulent ways exploitive groups use the language and concepts of the Bible to dominate and abuse.
Totalistic groups aggravate the former member’s inner struggle between faith and the group and a free society that believes everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, especially in matters of religious faith. Religion is a private matter. For the survivor, however, freedom of religion is a mockery. A deceptive leader’s “right to freely practice religion” enslaved them. In the free marketplace of ideas deceptive leaders engage in false advertising. Freedom of religion does not give an abusive group the right to represent its views as being in line with the Bible when in fact they are not.
Guilt and shame are always found in abusive systems
Bible-based exploitive groups add a perverted view of God to enforce obedience and silence critical thought. Christendom has never been entirely free of this cultic tendency.
Guilt is a powerful tool for mind manipulation. It is usually understood as “anxiety by reflection on behavior.” Guilt is about what we do. Anything one regrets becomes a debit on the ledger of life. Whatever one manages to do right is an asset. Do your debits outweigh those assets? Are you sure? Follow the rules, keep your nose clean. Obey. Is it enough? Is there more you could do if you were really committed? Guilt keys our behavior in line by putting us in a mental squirrel cage, forever trying harder, yet never quite measuring up.
Guilt is about what we do, shame is about who we are. Humans are portrayed by abusive groups as hapless, inherently evil, and therefore constantly deserving of’ criticism for being who they are. In Bible-based exploitive groups God is presented as capricious, harsh, and abusive. God, according to the group, exposes its for who we are, “shameful, prideful and generally distasteful to him.” When we hear the “truth” about ourselves; we will try harder to obey God (that is, the rules of the group or the whims of the pastor). Shame keeps us in the squirrel cage; guilt makes us run faster and stay longer.
Worse yet, the group leaders will take a few passages in the Bible and twist them to make the member feel that he has committed the “unpardonable sin.” Since he is told that any possibility of salvation is only through staying in the group, the only choices left are stay and be miserable and hopeless in your situation, or leave and fear that you have lost your eternal life.
Aspects of Faith
Many survivors may have no intention of abandoning the God of their faith. Others have a spiritual background that was significant to them before joining the group. Finding a balanced, grace-filled faith is important.
Careful examination of the beliefs and practices of the group is a key to unlocking Bible-based exploitive mind manipulation. While most controlling groups instill in members a respect (if not reverence) for the Bible, they then use the language and concepts of the Bible in fraudulent and illogical ways to dominate, confuse, and abuse, keeping the member from thinking.
With survivors who desire it they may seek out someone to explore passages of the Bible together using standard technical references and methods. They now have the opportunity and means to think and integrate. They often experience permission to lose faith in the shaming God and punishing father of the group. “Atheism” in regard to a distortion of God is no heresy. Mystical manipulation is not faith. God and the Bible are not the problem. The deception is the problem.
Totalistic Groups’ Dishonest Means of Biblical Interpretation
In order to obscure the biblical message of freedom and grace, totalistic groups must depart from historical faith in order to control and abuse their members. They must use dishonest means of biblical interpretation in formulating doctrine, often with the disclaimer, “I didn’t say it, it’s the Word of God.” There’s a joke about a preacher who wrote in the margin of his sermon text: “Logic weak here, use extra volume.” These groups have to use extra volume because their logic is weak.
The most common form of weak logic employed by cults is ignoring the complex literary structure of’ the Bible. The “Sacred Science” of the group is simply gathered from here and there without regard to context. Any idea, no matter how bizarre, can then appear to be “supported by the Bible. This is true of any written communication, including this article!
Two other aspects of context are also ignored, the context of the teacher, and the context of the original author. Best hidden is the context of the teacher. His or her pet doctrines, moods, and attitudes color how he or she interprets a passage. The original intent of the writer and how the passage might have been understood by the initial audience must be taken into account. To understand what a passage is about, the historical setting of the original writing is crucial. Certainly, the authors were saying more than they knew, but we may not ignore what they knew. Of course, it’s much easier to say, “God said this or that to me through this passage.” It’s much easier to be dogmatic than thorough.
Less obvious is the misapplication of principles. Careless, ignorant, or dishonest Bible teachers take a principle illustrated in one passage and apply it at random to another, often making it say the opposite of the writer’s intent. Unconditional submission or unquestioning obedience to a pastor or husband can be made to seem our biblically mandated lot in life when the principle of obedience is applied to texts that are about other topics. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. If you believe the Bible is about authority, you will find it on every page. The same is about health, sex, or money.
Given the right frame of mind, anyone exposed to these and other errors in interpretation, hidden well enough, will believe them. The “witnessing” contacts not made, sin (as defined by the group leader) not confessed, money not given, leaders’ houses not cleaned on time, or lawns not mowed add up to me being a sorry Christian. I then believe I am nothing, worthless, selfish, ”out of the Spirit.” Since I am worthless and the way to Heaven or to the Kingdom of God is through suffering, it makes “perfect sense” to be silent when I am abused by a spiritual leader. For a cultist, it can also make sense to hold my child in one arm and my gun in the other against the forces of the anti-Christ while our house burns down on us.
A Distorted View of Grace
It has been the solemn responsibility of the church as a whole to “rightly divide” the Bible through the ages. Totalistic leaders on the other hand, typically reject the historical understanding of the Scriptures in favor of their own idiosyncratic views.
Grace has historically been associated with what Christians believe. Christianity has historically viewed those who accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as the recipients of grace, the unmerited favor of God.
Totalistic groups maintain control over members by presenting a distorted view of grace. Members who complain about conditions or treatment are castigated for not being more gracious and forgiving toward careless, controlling, and abusive leaders. The message of grace is transformed into more guilt and shame!
Recovery is a Long Process
For survivors of exploitive groups, whether Bible-based or not, recovery is a long process. There is the decision to finally listen to the voices the group warned us about. There is the decision to leave. There are strong emotions to face: anger, fear, betrayal of trust and others. There is confusion,1 doubt, loss, and pain.
It is hard to get out of a exploitive, abusive group. Getting the group out of us is even harder. Our closest relationships, cherished beliefs, our whole way of life goes up in flames. The lush, greenhouse-like intensity of life in the group shrivels to spiritual wasteland. Sensitive relationships and counseling after the intervention enables survivors to sift the ashes for the gold and find streams in the desert.
~Adapted from an article by Ron Burks, M.A.
Footnote by ESN: