#64 Cult or Not?

Editors: This post by Tik, written in September 2017, focuses on the criteria developed, by Dr. Jay Lifton, for identifying sociological cults.

Cult or not?

In 2009-10, after publication of my original blog, I found myself vigorously (or not so vigorously) defending my use of the word cult when describing Maranatha Ministries.

The question, of course, boils down to how one defines the word cult.

Some former MCM members use the argument that, “Any religious group different from the norm can be described as a cult.”

In fact, this is a true statement.

For example, the Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ (the Mormons) was once classified as a cult in Walter Martin’s classic The Kingdom of the Cults.

Today, I daresay, hardly anyone would classify the Mormons as cultic, especially since Mitt Romney’s bid for high office. And, to that point, most serious religious scholars of are of the mind that early Christianity was considered nothing more than a splinter cult of Judaism by the ruling Romans.

Thus my use of the terms authoritarian group, or sociological cult, rather than just the pre-fix cult when describing MCM.

Theology, as I wrote, matters not as to whether a group is a sociological cult, except as a mechanism for controlling members. Theology does NOT decide whether a group is an authoritarian or a sociological cult.

If theology is not the key the differentiator then how do we define whether a group is a sociological cult?

Dr. Jay Lifton, a respected researcher on sociological cults, writing in the Harvard Mental Newsletter, stated sociological cults have three characteristics;

  • a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
  • a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
  • economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

It is important to remember that neither intelligence or socio-economic status marks one as being at risk for sociological cult membership. Rather it is psychological needs that help these groups in their recruiting efforts.

Although I put MCM to the test in this post these criteria can, of course, be applied to any group to determine their true nature.

Charismatic Leadership that demands obedience 

It is clear that although members never worshipped Bob Weiner, or Joe Smith, MCM considered them as God’s apostles  and gave them both financial and social privileges that far exceeded those of the average member.

In MCM’s framework Joe and Bob were God’s anointed and their words came straight from God, ex-cathedra.

I personally know of at least three earnest young men whose lives were financially and emotionally ruined because of Joe Smith’s false Words. The few defenders of MCM argue that, “We all prophesy in part,” and this scripture should apply to Joe. But that defense of Joe Smith is actually no defense at all.

For this argument ignores the fact Joe acted as if he prophesied in whole. Those who saw him give Words would testify that he did it as calmly as someone who looked out of a window and, seeing rain, declares that, “Yes it is raining.”

Joe, should NEVER had said, “Thus saith the Lord,” if he were prophesying in part, or imperfectly. Yes, perhaps, just perhaps Joe was prophesying in part. But most who saw him in action would admit that Joe gave every sign that he prophesied in full without any hesitation or doubt.

But, in truth, Joe’s words were false in total, not in part.

Because of this Joe ruined many lives. He used his power for self-aggrandizement at a great cost to the group’s followers, clearly meeting Dr. Lifton’s first criteria discussed above.

The MCM teaching of Touch not God’s anointed was invoked countless times in the defense of the leadership.  Bob and Rose’s inane and costly schemes, that ate up so much of the member’s time and money, were explained away with the phrase, “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” Any pushback by the local pastors/elders to these schemes was professional suicide. The testimony of Mike and Missy Caulk makes it clear how even very successful local leaders risked everything in confronting the leadership.

Incredibly years after MCM imploded comments on my original blog announced that, “My life would be cursed,” because I was violating this Biblical stricture of “touching God’s anointed”.

Of course the assumption embedded in these comments were that these men were God’s anointed.

These leaders were not God’s anointed. Their actions and attitudes marked them as classic sociological cult leaders.

Coercive thought control

Many accounts of MCM, including the 1984 CRI report, detail how the group convinced new members to change their process of thinking under a barrage of teachings that decried the spirit of intellectualism.

This teaching was, “Check your brain at the door and judgement at the door.” Any logic that argued against the will of the leadership was called by MCM the “Spirit of the Age.”

And if one continued to utter aloud anything contrary to the will of the leadership a member would face immediate punishment. The example of my friend Peter’s shunning was but one example of that. Peter spoke his mind and he was expelled. My lucky break was that my agnostic worldly college advisor, ruthless in his application of logic to my situation, helped me stay in school despite MCM’s and my best efforts to flunk out. I am still thankful for his use of the “Spirit of the Age.”

Although the harried activities, in which all members participated, helped bring money and converts into the ministry; they also served another purpose. This activity kept the members so busy and tired that there was little time, or inclination, for reflective thought. This helped keep complaints and challenges to leadership at a minimum. Idle minds with time for reflective thought were the devils workshop, or so it seemed at MCM.

Whether implemented consciously or not all these measures served to control the thoughts of the members and bend their wills to that of the leadership.

The clearly coercive nature of MCM’s control of members thoughts meets the second criteria of a sociological cult given by Dr. Lifton

Economic and financial exploitation of the membership

MCM exploited its poor college students both physically , and economically,