#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, burdening poor college students with demands for one sacrifice after another.

Mike Caulk, and other full timers, recounted the countless times  these, “Stupid college kids,” were harried for money. “Stupid college kids,” was a phrase used by Bob Weiner repeatedly, according to Mike Caulk.

As I related in my original blog the average MCM member, in 2006 dollars, probably did not have an income of over $25,000. My analysis shows that Bob was pulling in over $ 300,000/year, drove a Mercedes E-Class Sedan (a $ 50,000 car in 2006 equivalent dollars), flew the country in a private plane with a slave waged pilot (member of the ministry)and stayed at nice hotels. This while  MCM college students sacrificed their health, time, and money for the ministry.

There is no doubt that many of the dollars flowing into MCM came out of the pockets of struggling college students.

In addition the membership provided countless free hours of service to MCM leadership, above and beyond the busy work of Bible studies and witnessing.

Most every leader (male) had a personal male assistant an aide-camp or unpaid valet to do errands as mundane as fueling and washing their car or helping with yard work. The women leaders (all married to male leaders) inevitably had a hand maiden who was basically an unpaid nanny, cook, cleaner and errand girl. These handmaidens, pastors wives in training, served a double purpose. The handmaidens provided free labor to the female leaders. Observed at close quarters, and measured for their loyalty and devotion to MCM, they would then get the privilege of marrying, and watching over a pastor. It was another way for MCM to exert control over the local leadership.

Clearly MCM and its leadership exploited it membership for its own purposes. In fairness as much as Bob tried to make each campus ministry uniform in its zeal there was much variation in compliance to MCM ideals. I make clear in my blog that Auburn was neither the most lenient ministry nor was it the most zealous. But regardless of how much the local pastors tried to ameliorate the exploitation of members by MCM it still occurred.


Cult or not?

MCM, given the definitions given by Dr. Lifton, was an abusive sociological cult.

We can argue whether it was as bad as some other abusive groups or better than others. Any good done must be weighed against the trauma, spiritually, emotionally and physically the group inflicted on people. For a Christian group the ends are as important as the means. But for MCM leadership the ends justified the means.

No one wakes up one morning and announces, “Hey I think I will join a cult  and hand over my entire life and means of support  to ruthless leaders?” It is a hard truth to face for many ex-MCMers that they did exactly that.

But for those who are willing to face the true nature of MCM will find it will lead to liberation.


6 thoughts on “#64 Cult or Not?”

  1. In the Northwest fellowships, as you indicated, there was a lot less compliance. No leader had a personal assistant, no pastor’s wife had a handmaiden, to my knowledge. There was less anti-educational sentiment– it just wouldn’t have gone over in this part of the country. But a lot of the abuses were present.

    A couple of things: Even if Weiner & co. had been “God’s anointed”– as I’m sure you know, that verse simply doesn’t mean “never question or confront leadership.” If it had, Nathan would have been wrong to confront David! No, it was written in a specific historical context and meant “Don’t physically attack or attempt to harm a prophet of God.”

    Secondly, sociological cults have evolved, and some of them now exercise their coercive techniques without having an up-front, visible leader. The Quiverfull movement is a huge example of this. In fact, the leaders largely lead from behind the scenes, and use this as a reason to deny they’re a coercive, spiritually abusive cult– which they are. I just thought you might want to be aware of this trend.

    1. Hi Kristen
      Finally able to read through the published blog (life has been a bit hectic for me) and see your comments here. You make an excellent point about David and Nathan. Actually I am not familiar with the Quiverfull movement- but have closely watched the growth of groups such as SGM and other supposedly “orthodox” churches that are, in truth, sociological cults. I am going to need to review the Quiverfull movement. The growth of the “Calvinist” authoritarian churches prove, to me at least, that theology really does not matter with regards to a cult, any more than MCM almost Pelagian like theology mattered (by the time I was leaving it was veering towards Calvinist/ Theonomy). Thank you for the reply- and I plan on reading through your website this week.

  2. Another good post. I am glad that Tikie is making some new blog posts.

    Though Maranatha may have used the bible, in a lot of their teachings they were selective with what passages they chose. A number of passages were used for control while other passages that would even contradict what they taught were ignored.

    Kristen you make a good point about Nathan confronting David and also how like the Quiverfull movement has more behind the scenes leadership.

  3. Tikie mentions Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults.

    At the time “Christian Cult Expert” Martin wrote it, Christianese cult-sniffer groups defined “cult” entirely by THEOLOGY, NOT REPEAT NOT ABUSIVE CONTROLLING BEHAVIOR. While the Cult-sniffers were parsing Theology literally letter-by-letter, Theologically Correct abusive groups kept abusing their pewpeons without letup, often citing their Not-a-Cult Clean Bill of Theological Health as another weapon to beat down their people. (These groups — like the shepherding Fellowship(TM) that got me for a while — had exactly the same base Theology as the Cult-sniffers: Pre-Trib Altar Call Fundagelical; think Jack Chick + Hal Lindsay.)

    1. Quite right. Maranatha was theologically orthodox, and by that definition they were not a cult. “Cult” at that time really did mean a heterodox “fringe” group (including Mormons, who are hardly a small enough group to be considered “fringe” really). It wasn’t until later, in the mid-90s I think, that the definition of “cult” changed to mean a spiritually abusive group, orthodox or not.

    2. Hi HUG
      As mentioned to Kristen I had time this weekend to read through what the Editors here published and ran across your comments. You are correct, back them, to my immense irritation, the CRI was poking only at theology, or so it seemed. We should judge groups first by their behavior…. then take a look at theology.

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