One of the most common misconceptions that people hold about cultic groups or aberrant Christianity surrounds the motives and character of those who get involved with them. The negative connotation of term of “cult,” especially concerning Bible-based groups, tends to suggest that such groups and their leadership are unpleasant people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quite often, people get involved with groups and ministries because the leaders are often very charming and idealistic. They are impassioned individuals that seek to make a great difference in the world for the better and for God's purposes. They are usually inspiring and highly charismatic. Good, considerate, and thoughtful people who wish to make a difference in the world are attracted to these leaders, and they become the workers and followers of the organizations founded by such leaders.
I found myself thinking about this aspect of Hank Hanegraaff's comment about the Teen Mania documentary on MSNBC. He concludes his statement with the following disclaimer:
Finally, on a personal note, I have been acquainted with Ron Luce and TMM for over 20 years. I have found Ron to be a passionate father, husband and ministry leader. Indeed, I still remember how impressed I was upon initially meeting one of his daughters. Since then I have recognized him to be thoughtful, teachable and thoroughly committed to the essentials of historic Christianity.
While I strongly disagree with Ron on various secondary matters, I stand shoulder to shoulder with him on the doctrines that form the line of demarcation between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the cults. It is likewise noteworthy that TMM is a member in good standing with the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability (ECFA) and operates under the oversight of a credible board of directors, which includes Paul Nelson, former director of ECFA.
I'm very sure that Ron Luce is one of the nicest guys on the planet, and part of why he's involved in ministry stems from the fact that he is a “passionate father, husband and ministry leader.” The people you will meet at cultic Christian churches are some of the friendliest and nicest people you could ever want to meet. While I so appreciate Hanegraaff's efforts to affirm Luce's goodness despite the fact that the two do not share the same perspective on intramural issues of the Christian faith, I don't quite understand why it is significant or how it argues that Luce and his organization did not follow cultic or spiritually and physically abusive patterns of behavior.
Many also hold a false assumption that people who run such ministries could have only started out with some deliberate and conscious intent to harm people or use others for personal gain. I believe that in many cases, Christian groups that get off course and fall into patterns of spiritual abuse and thought reform do so because of the trappings of human nature as opposed to any deliberate choice to do harm or to be covertly manipulative. Those who have great aspirations very likely have great and lofty goals which are dripping with goodness and virtue. The problem is not one of intent or even in the desired end. The problem becomes one of the means one uses to achieve the desired end.
Over time and in zeal and ambition, quite often, people and groups fall into the pattern of allowing the lofty end to justify less than wise means. We are imperfect creatures, and we can loose perspective, especially over time. As human beings, we so often take for granted that can loose sight of a realistic picture of ourselves. I believe that many groups take on bad practices incrementally and over time, and the changes are gradual enough that they are not recognized as such. Biderman's Chart of Coercion talks about such gradual changes, and in that sense, many leaders who fall into bad practices and doctrines become just as deceived by the system as followers do. (Read more here.) Over time, people begin to serve the system that has developed, and all becomes sacrificed to preserve the system, but people loose touch with the degree of burden placed upon the individuals who agree to serve the mission of the group. The end begins to justify the means, and then the flawed means become the norm. Robert Lifton wrote about aspects of this process of losing perspectve in his book, The Nazi Doctors.
I find myself thinking of a man at a church I once attended an an exaggerated example of how disparagement between harm and intent can develop. He drove a delivery truck and had a perfect record. He was kind and compassionate, and he had a troop of granchildren that he loved dearly, and they loved him. He was a Christian man of great character. On a routine day at work, a child ran out into the street, and he hit this child and killed them. It was terribly devastating, as you can imagine, but despite how good of a man he was and the fine intentions that he had, he was the regretful and causative factor in a chain of events that resulted in a child's death. The good intent of this man can do nothing to revive that child or undo the trauma suffered by the child's family. It would not be appropriate for this man to go to the family, asking for understanding and clemency based upon his intent. The family can choose, in time, to forgive this man for the unintended harm he has done, but I don't believe that anyone would believe that the family was obligated to reconcile with this man in any way.
I think of Hanegraaff's inclusion of his personal opinion of the character of Ron Luce in much the same way, as if a good person could not be capable of an error in judgment or just an accident because they would never intend such harm or heartache. Most people in demanding groups are very tolerant and cooperative, and they rally around those in the group who are favored and in good standing (especially the model citizens) when they go through troubling times. It is part of the milieu control and the system of control built into the group. In that respect, Bible-based groups and cultic Christian systems do remarkably well at this aspect of loving one another.
And as Carol Boltz notes, “No, Teen Mania is not all bad.”
Concerning those who become involved in aberrant religion, I've written this in my Note to New or Disgruntled Readers:
Sometimes people express concern that I suggest that those who follow patriarchy “are not good people.” Also, some assume that I must believe that those in patriarchy (1) have not thought about their beliefs, (2) are perhaps simpletons, or (3) lack good conscience. To the contrary, I believe that they show fine character and good conscience out of their earnest and fervent desire to honor God, identifying patriarchy as the wisest way to pursue these admirable ends. I do believe, however, that they have been surreptitiously manipulated by a system that seems to be virtuous but uses less than virtuous means (including exploitation of its own followers) to accomplish its objectives. I believe that those who follow the system aspire to do the right things selflessly for the right reasons but do not realize that they’ve been deceived.
We can all be deceived and fall into error, and we can do that though we have good character and the best of intentions.
In a recent post, I referred to Walter Martin's statement that the Christian should have two kinds of fruit in their life: the fruit of the life lived and the fruit of the doctrine preached. We would not be Christians at all if we did not intend to live a virtuous life and to follow the Golden Rule. Yet, we are fallen people who are redeemed and justified through faith, but the process of making us holy and perfect as we are transformed into all that God intends for us takes time. We work out our salvation in fear and trembling. We study to show ourselves approved over time as well, and we must work at bringing every thought captive to Christ.
As imperfect people, we should hope to be continually improving our doctrine and the practice of our faith as we mortify our flesh and die to ourselves daily. If we had all of that mastered before we started ministering to others, we would never get started. We work it out over time as God works in us and as we yield to him, more and more. Our intent to do God's work to perfection does not make that process magical and mystically easy, nor does it make the product or the process perfect. Our virtuous intent and our desires do not insure that we will not make mistakes along the way and that we will not be wounded in the house of our friends or that we will not end up wounding our own.
Harriet Braiker's book, Who's Pulling Your Strings, notes additional aspects of manipulation. Thought reform is quite difficult to recognize in many cases because it is so covert and insidious. The mechanisms and trappings are subtle at first, and the fact that there are so many good elements within these types of systems make the process that much more difficult to recognize and transcend.
Confusion About the Manipulator's True Motives, (Pg 159 – 161)
The confusion that develops in the victim about the manipulator’s motives is often an integral part of the manipulative control… The victim’s confusion is magnified many times over when the manipulation occurs in the context of a family/marital/romantic relationship. In such relationships, there is a general expectation that love and altruism will prevail over the self-centered goals of manipulation. You may not expect those who say they love you to manipulate and exploit you, so you are likely to use the defense mechanism of denial to protect yourself from painful – although ultimately necessary – realizations…
Sometimes the victim’s confusion lies with the manipulator’s carefully disguised motives. Other times the victim’s own denial and fear keep him from recognizing the manipulative methods being used to control him…
Confusion about what the manipulator “really wants” or “truly wants” is the inevitable result of maintaining the silent contract to keep the manipulative agenda hidden or obscured. When direct communication – especially about the power and control dynamics of the relationship – is avoided, the most effective tactic for clarification and for ending or reducing confusion is crippled…
And in closing, I will leave you with these words of wisdom concerning con artists who may not even realize consciously themselves that they are, in effect, con artists. They just happen to be effective and do things that get results. They may learn quite innocently that by behaving certain ways, they work, so they repeat them. I don't know Ron Luce, and this is not a specific personal commentary about him, but I mention it here as a reminder that bad things often come in good packages. Many good people with the best intentions and the seemingly best character can end up producing fruit that they never did or would intend. We would have little ongoing need for a Savior if our intentions insured the nature of what we produce and achieve.
Between a Good Con Artist and a Great One?
Some people believe that all con artists have blatant, hard-sell, overtly sleazy personalities. That they have scarred faces, beady eyes, and flashy clothes. This is a misconception. There are no visual cues to tip a good con artist’s hand. Each time I’ve been asked to pull cons for the camera, I have been surprised at the feedback from my victims after I’ve revealed who I really am. “But you looked so nice,” they say. Or, “You didn’t look like a con artist.” That’s just the point: no con artist looks like a con artist.
Good con artists never seem to get caught. But the outstanding con artists are so good that their scams are rarely even reported. Some swindlers pull off such perfect con jobs that their victims don’t even realize that they’ve been scammed.