Friday, January 2, 2009

A Synopsis of Terminology Pertaining to Cults and Spiritual Abuse


There are many definitions of what is meant by the term "cult." One must define which terms are being used. Within Christianity, the term is generally not considered to be a pejorative but describes a specific set of conditions.



Definitions of the Term "Cult"

Dictionary (Oxford):
1.) System of religious worship

2.) Strange group
- Religious
and/or

- Exercises excessive control over members

3.) Something popular in a subculture



Christian Theological:
A theology or a group that follows a theology that denies the Deity of Christ

Social Psychology:
  • A group that manifests a very specific/distinct set of coercive and manipulative practices and behaviors
  • Followers have no awareness of the manipulation, that certain techniques are being used and that their thoughts, emotions and behaviors are being influenced by the group.
  • Group members are made to believe that their decisions are free and independent of the group and do not realize that they are being coerced and manipulated through intellectual, emotional and social pressure.
  • The group or group leadership may knowingly/deliberately employ these techniques to achieve their ends, or they may unknowingly/ignorantly use these techniques because they’ve either learned or have been taught that they are effective for managing a group.
  • At some point in the process, the lofty and idealistic goals of the group serve to justify the means that the group uses to achieve them.
  • The very specific/distinct set of coercive and manipulative practices and behaviors of the group are those consistent with the eight characteristics of thought reform or mind control, first defined by Robert J. Lifton

Bible-based Cult (a term used within social psychology):
Any religious group that
  • manifests the surreptitious practices of thought reform
  • to manipulate their members through a set of what are usually unwritten rules and mores for the group
  • while also professing to be based only on the Bible

The ideology of the group is defined by the Bible, but the behaviors, practices and employment of Scripture (how Scripture is applied) conform to Lifton’s thought reform criteria.


Note that there are several models of thought reform in addition to Lifton, but Lifton’s criteria define the primary standard:


Alternate Definitions of "Cult" Applied Within Christianity


When describing these characteristics as they are found in evangelical Christianity, many people find that the application of the term “cult” or even “cultic” to another group of Christians disturbing when describing the behaviors of coercive manipulation that manifest in these otherwise sound Christian groups. This is even true of some countercult Christian apologetics groups. For that reason, they choose to employ different language and terminology to describe the same dynamics that Lifton used to describe thought reform, or what he called ideological totalism. Some of the terms used are noted below.


Spiritual Abuse:


- Describes the process by which religious leadership manipulates religious followers and at the follower’s expense in order to benefit the group or the group leadership for some advantage or desired end.

- Though there are several models of spiritual abuse, one of the first was put forth by David Henke, identifying five characteristics of spiritually abusive systems
  • Authoritarian
  • Image Conscious
  • Suppresses Criticism
  • Perfectionistic
  • Unbalanced/(elitist)


Aberrant Christian Group:


Oxford definition of "aberrant":
departing from an accepted standard or normal type

One example of many possible definitions used within Christianity to describe spiritually abusive Christian groups or authoritarian minded groups with an unbalanced focus on a peripheral or fringe doctrine, often neglecting some important aspect of essential Christian doctrine:


New England Institute of Religious Research’s
Formal List of Eight Criteria


  • Scripture Twisting
  • Controlling Leader/Leadership
  • Separation/Isolation of the Membership
  • The Chosen Few (elitist)
  • Uniformity of Lifestyle
  • No Dissent
  • Traumatic Departure
  • In Transition (Doctrines and practices tend to mutate further and further from healthy belief and expressions.)