Research * Examine * Verify * Educate * Assist * Liberate
International Churches of Christ (ICC) * Boston Movement * Crossroads Movement

REVEAL: The Crisis Line

What is a Cult?

We use the term "cult" to refer to any group (religious, political, psychological, or otherwise) which exercises a significant level of control over the thoughts, feelings, and actions of its members by use of deception and manipulation, without the knowledge or consent of its members. We also often use the term "psychologically abusive" to describe a cult because this term encompasses mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse.

A more complete definition of the type of group we are referring to when we use the word "cult" is found in a book titled, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, by Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich.

Cult: A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility or subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency upon the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.

This understanding of what a cult is and how it behaves is derived primarily from Robert J. Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, a complete copy of which is posted in the REVEAL Library, and Margaret Singer's Six Conditions for Thought Reform, a complete copy of which is also posted in the REVEAL library. These are the standard tools used in psychology for determining whether an individual or group is practicing thought reform (also called "mind control").

Many other individuals and organizations use the term "cult" differently than we do. In the newspapers and in casual conversation, "cult" means an off-beat religious group, one whose beliefs and/or public behavior are seen as kooky or socially unacceptable. In all too many cases, a theological or ideological dispute within a church will lead to certain factions being accused of being "cults" simply as a scare tactic and for shock value, when the faction may lack most or any of the common traits of a thought reform group. This casual and often nearly meaningless use of the term has led to some commentators defining a cult as, "any religious group which I do not like."

It is important to realize that psychologists such as Lifton and Singer do not use the term "cult" in this way. This is also not what we mean by a cult -- plenty of new religious groups look (and may be) kooky, but do not routinely lie to or deceive their members about their beliefs and practices.

It is also important to recognize that any determination of whether a particular group is "abusive" or not will require a judgment call, after all the evidence is assessed. For this reason, it is extremely important in each individual situation to look at the actual behavior patterns, specific events, and actual feelings of the individuals involved, and to avoid "reading in" information from other sources which may not be appropriate to the situation at hand. "Reading in" outside information is called "transference" by psychologists, and while they admit it will happen, they also recognize that they must work to keep it to a minimum.

To start with, you need to know what a cult is and how one functions.

First, cults lie to and manipulate people -- their own members and outsiders -- in order to further their own ends, which are rarely the same as their publicly-stated reasons for existing. A cult will almost always lie about what they believe when they think you will react negatively to the information. In a non-abusive religious group, finding out what the group believes is not difficult -- you ask them and they tell you. (In some cases, they may refuse to discuss certain private rituals or other information with outsiders, but they will not lie about the fact that there is such information that they will not discuss.)

A cult will try to hide what they believe until they feel you are "ready to hear it." Potential recruits are led through a scripted, spin-doctored process that presents information about the group only when the group feels that the person will not walk out when they realize what is going on.

The ICC has a series of studies, the First Principles, which it takes potential recruits through. These studies come with a "leader's manual" of instructions and suggestions about how to handle the recruit, and when to present certain information, both to avoid driving off someone who might convert and to avoid wasting time with someone who probably won't.

A cult will frequently also lie about or avoid discussing how they are organized, who is in control, and where the money goes. Psychologically abusive groups rarely keep their members informed about the group's finances, or problems within the group, let alone making this information public. Members who leave either become non-persons or are demonized. ("Brother Harry had a bad heart and it finally caught up with him.") This goes beyond any normal organization's hesitation to wash dirty laundry in public -- supposedly trusted members often find out, on leaving, that they knew less about their own group than their family members and friends did.

Most ICC churches do hand out "financial statements" to their membership annually. These statements, however, are usually vague, heavily summarized, and incomplete. Members who ask to see the unedited books or who ask specific questions about expenditures are almost never given straight answers or the access they requested. The bylaws of the Boston Church of Christ, the founding ICC congregation, specifically state that only members of the board of directors and the trustees are permitted to see the books. Members in Los Angeles are required to fill out papers explaining what they want to see and why, and have their request approved, to get access to specific records. Their requests can be refused, and in any event they are not permitted open access to the records. Yet, from the pulpit ICC evangelists have stated repeatedly that their books were open to anyone.

There have also been several instances of ICC churches and country- wide leadership breaking laws, violating local tax codes, or engaging in questionable accounting practices for which the local governments have held them accountable. The most notable of these cases were in London in the early 1990s, in Sydney, Australia in the mid-1990s, and in Kenya last year.

Although most outsiders see this type of behavior as clearly dishonest, most ICC members don't see what they're doing as deceitful. Like most abusive groups, the ICC views its own ends as the ultimate good, so most members can justify to themselves that their group and they engage in lying, manipulation and breaking the law because they believe they are trying to save people from hell. They also refer to the Apostle Peter's refusal, in Acts 5, to obey the Sanhedrin and quit preaching about Jesus Christ. They believe that the ends justify the means.

For more information, please look at About the ICC and in the REVEAL Library.

Previous Section | Table of Contents | Next Section


©1996-2002 by REVEAL. All rights reserved.

Home Page | REVEAL Autoresponder | REVEAL Webmaster