Isolation – the Warning Signs:
The seed of extremism exists wherever a group demands all the free time of a member, insisting he be in church every time the doors are open and calling him to account if he isn’t, is critical or disapproving of involvements with friends and family outside the group, encourages secrecy by asking that members not share what they have seen or heard in meetings or about church affairs with outsiders, is openly, publicly, and repeatedly critical of other churches or groups (especially if the group claims to be the only one which speaks for God), is critical when members attend conferences, workshops or services at other churches, checks up on members in any way; i. e., to determine that the reason they gave for missing a meeting was valid, or makes attendance at all church functions mandatory for participating in church ministry or enjoying other benefits of church fellowship.
Once a member stops interacting openly with others, the group’s influence is all that matters. He is bombarded with group values and information and there is no one outside the group with whom to share thoughts or who will offer reinforcement or affirmation if the members disagrees with or doubts the values of the group. The process of isolation and the self-doubt it creates allow the group and its leaders to gain power over the members. Leaders may criticize major and minor flaws of members, sometimes publicly, or remind them of present or past sins. They may call members names, insult them or ignore them, or practice a combination of ignoring members at some times and receiving them warmly at others, thus maintaining a position of power (i. e., the leaders call the shots).
The sense of humiliation makes members feel they deserve the poor treatment they are receiving and may cause them to allow themselves to be subjected to any and all indignities out of gratefulness that one as unworthy as they feel is allowed to participate in the group at all. When leaders treat the member well occasionally, they accept any and all crumbs gratefully. Eventually, awareness of how dependent they are on the group and gratitude for the smallest attention contributes to an increasing sense of shame and degradation on the part of the members, who begin to abuse themselves with “litanies of self-blame”; i. e., “No matter what they do to me, I deserve it, as sinful and wretched as I am. I deserve no better. I have no rights but to go to hell [lake of fire]. I should be grateful for everything I receive, even punishment.”
Monopolization of Perception – the Warning Signs:
Preoccupation with trivial demands of daily life, demanding strict compliance with standards of appearance, dress codes, what foods are or are not to be eaten and when, schedules, threats of God’s wrath if group rules re not obeyed, a feeling of being monitored, watched constantly by those in the group or by leaders. In other words, what the church wants, believes and thinks its members should do becomes everything, and you feel preoccupied with making sure you re meeting the standards. It no longer matters whether you agree that the standards are correct, only that you follow them and thus keep the peace and in the good graces of leaders.
Induced Debility and Exhaustion – the Warning Signs:
Feelings of being overwhelmed by demands, close to tears, guilty if one says no to a request or goes against a church standard. Being intimidated or pressured into volunteering for church duties and subjected to scorn or ridicule when one does not “volunteer.” Being rebuked or reproved when family or work responsibilities intrude on church responsibilities.
Occasional Indulgences – the Warning Signs:
Be concerned if you have had an ongoing desire to leave a church or group you believe may be abusive, but find yourself repeatedly drawn back in just at the moment you are ready to leave, by a call, a comment or moment of compassion. These moments infrequent as they may be, are enough to keep hope in change alive and thus you sacrifice years and years to an abusive group.
Devaluing the Individual – the Warning Signs:
Unwillingness to allow members to use their gifts. Establishing rigid boot camp-like requirements for the sake of proving commitment to the group before gifts may be exercised. Repeatedly criticizing natural giftedness by reminding members they must die to their natural gifts, that Paul, after all, said, “When I’m weak, I’m strong” [Scripture twisting], and that they should expect God to use them in areas other than their areas of giftedness. Emphasizing helps or service to the group as a prerequisite to church ministry. This might take the form of requiring that anyone wanting to serve in any way first have the responsibility of cleaning toilets or cleaning the church for a specified time, that anyone wanting to sing in the worship band [or choir] must first sing to the children in Sunday School, or that before exercising any gifts at all, members must demonstrate loyalty to the group by faithful attendance at all functions and such things as tithing.
No consideration is given to the length of time a new member has been a Christian or to his age or station in life or his unique talents or abilities. The rules apply to everyone alike. This has the effect of reducing everyone to some kind of lowest common denominator where no one’s gifts or natural abilities are valued or appreciated, where the individual is not cherished for the unique blessing he or she is to the body of Christ, where what is most highly valued is service, obedience, submission to authority, and performance without regard to gifts or abilities or, for that matter, individual limitations.
~Adapted from Biderman’s Chart of Coercion
Note by ESN: In the controlling Herbert Armstrong offshoots, loyalty must be demonstrated to the “government of God.” (Read: Why do members emphasize the government of God?)