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How to Keep the Law without Joining a Cult

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the ekklessia of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:28 NASB


Virtually all cult psychologists will tell you that there is one thing every cult has in common, and no, it isn’t an appetite for kool-aid. It’s control. Control is the common denominator in all cults and the distinguishing variable that makes them what they are. People categorize others with strange beliefs as cults, but truth be told, simply having a strange belief system doesn’t mean you’re part of a cult (it might make you weird though). However, if you’re trying to decide if a congregation is a cult, look at the control aspect.


Now, you might be wondering, “Jeff, why are you writing about this?” Well, there’s a very simple reason for this, my inquisitive friend. The reason is our Messianic/Pro-Law Movement is having a cult infestation issue. Cults are multiplying in this movement like rabbits, and not the soft and plushy kind of rabbit either, but more like a genetically mutated nightmare rabbit that eats all the vegetables in your garden and then eats all your chickens too. I’ve seen my fair share of people get wrapped up in these groups thinking that these are normal churches or synagogues, and not realizing they’ve been swept up in a full blown cult. There seems to be a lack of discernment, and part of that may be due to a lack of education on the subject. In the end, the people leaving these groups are damaged, traumatized, and some walk away from their faith altogether. I’m writing this in an attempt to assist and educate anyone who may have gotten entangled in a hebrew roots cult or messianic cult.


So now you may be wondering, “how do I know if I’m in a cult?” Let’s walk through a few identifiers to help you determine whether you’re part of one. It’s important to remember that cult identifiers aren’t an all or nothing circumstance. Cult behavior exists on a spectrum. Some cults can be incredibly subtle and seemingly innocuous with their control, and others can be overt and dangerous.


Behaviour Control

This is more than just telling someone, “Stop sinning.” (Seriously though, you should stop sinning.) Encouraging people to turn away from clear sinful behavior is normal Christian practice. There’s nothing cult-like about admonishing people to abstain from destructive behavior. No, we’re talking about intending to control people’s individual and family decisions in a manner that has nothing to do with clear Biblical teaching. Sometimes cult leaders will attempt to convince their followers that the issue is a matter of sin, when in reality this is simply a tactic to assume control over a person’s decision on any given topic. They often obscure texts of Scripture to justify their mandates and to further their agenda. Here are some examples of the kinds of behaviors cult leaders like to control:


  1. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
  2. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
  3. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
  4. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
  5. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
  6. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
  7. Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
  8. Permission required for major decisions
  9. Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
  10. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
  11. Impose rigid rules and regulations
  12. Encourage and engage in corporal punishment
  13. Instill dependency and obedience
  14. Separation of Families
  15. Mandating parents maintain certain disciplinary attitudes and actions for their children
  16. Interrupting a family unit by asserting authority over members of the family
  17. Manipulating or expecting followers to engage in a romantic or sexual relationship


Information Control

One objective cult leaders employ to assume control over their followers is to isolate them from any information that might cause them to question the teachings of the cult. They often strongly discourage or forbid any follower to listen to certain people and certain information. Any outside information is a threat to their ability to control and manipulate those devoted to the official teaching of the cult. Often, this information is substituted with only information approved by the cult or the leader. In many cases, the information presented is a distortion of the facts or a flat lie. Here are examples of the ways a cult leader might be utilizing information to manipulate you:


Deception:

  • Deliberately withhold information
  • Distort information to make it more acceptable
  • Systematically lie to the cult member

Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:

  • Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, media
  • Critical information
  • Former members
  • Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
  • Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking

Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines

  • Ensure that information is not freely accessible
  • Control information at different levels and missions within group
  • Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when

Encourage spying on other members

  • Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
  • Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
  • Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group

Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:

  • Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
  • Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources

Unethical use of confession

  • Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
  • Withholding forgiveness or absolution
  • Manipulation of memory, possible false memories


Thought Control

In a cult, independent thought is greatly discouraged. Conformity to the group is an expectation in a cult, and independent and critical thought is disparaged. Offering explanations of an idea that contradicts the group narrative is frowned upon and is typically discouraged by some form of manipulation. Sometimes the manipulation is overt and egregious such as corporal punishment, but in many cases the manipulation is as subtle as a denigrating remark, silent treatment, social isolation, removal from a position, or simply being treated like a second class member of the cult. Thought control is absolutely essential for a cult to effectively maintain authority over its followers. Here are some methods cults employ to control the thought life of a follower:


Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth

  • Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
  • Instill black and white thinking
  • Decide between good vs. evil
  • Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)

Change person’s name and identity

Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words

Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts

Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member

Memories are manipulated and false memories are created

Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:

  • Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
  • Chanting
  • Meditating
  • Thought-Interrupting Prayers
  • Thought-Interrupting Singing or humming

Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism

Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed

Habitually labeling certain doctrines and people within orthodox systems as illegitimate and evil

Instill new “map of reality”


Emotional Control

This one is sneaky and is hard to spot if the cult leader is effective. Cult leaders and cults often will do very subtle things to manipulate the emotions of its followers. These can come in the form of small remarks and simple actions. The leader knows when to manipulate a follower with joy and excitement, or shame and fear. This manipulation creates lasting damage to the emotional wellbeing of a follower after they have left and can necessitate counseling to undo the emotional programming by the cult. Here’s the kinds of manipulation you ought to be looking for:


Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish

Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt

Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault

Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:

  • Identity guilt
  • You are not living up to your potential
  • Your family is deficient
  • Your past is suspect
  • Your affiliations are unwise
  • Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
  • Social guilt
  • Historical guilt

Instill fear, such as fear of:

  • Thinking independently
  • The outside world
  • Enemies
  • Losing one’s salvation
  • Leaving or being shunned by the group
  • Other’s disapproval
  • Historical guilt

Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner

Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins

Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority

  • No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
  • Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
  • Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
  • Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
  • Threats of harm to ex-member and family


It’s Isn’t Always Jonestown

Cults don’t always slip drugs in your drink when you’re not looking. People have this idea that to be in a cult means you must be in physical danger, and that just isn’t true. The typical hebrew roots cult or messianic cult doesn’t go beyond inflicting mental and emotional damage. The tactics and methods employed by cults aren’t usually threats or displays of physical violence. Cult leaders and members typically manipulate with simple actions and remarks. Whether you feel like you belong there or not will depend on whether you keep towing their line and saying all the things they want to hear. If you step off the line or say something contrary to their narrative, you may be ignored, dismissed, condescended to, or shunned. Their goal is to make you feel out of place and rejected to ensure you don’t cross their boundaries again. If you consider leaving, they will make accusations that you’re “running from God” or you’ll “never find what you have with them” or that “you risk your place in eternity”, and all these are statements made to instill fear and ensure you don’t leave their control. Anyone that does leave is deemed in rebellion against God and his “appointed teacher”.


The Solution

How should we, members of the Messianic/Pro-Law movement, react with this information? The Messianic/Pro-Law movement for too long has been like the Wild West, and we’ve let too many lone cowboys ride into town and shoot up our chapels. We need marshalls. Marshalls that are properly trained and accountable to larger organizations and the people they protect. It’s time we see more organization, more structure, more discipleship, more training, more pastoring, and more accountability for our leaders. We need leaders that understand how to lead people and be sympathetic to their needs, while maintaining healthy God-given boundaries. Only then will these untethered cult leaders go the way of the dodo bird. Pastors, Rabbis, and responsible members of congregations should be mindful of any hebrew roots cult or messianic cult that may reside in their communities. This is for the protection of their congregants, and to be aware of any ex-cult members in search of asylum or rehabilitation. These leaders must be prepared and trained to respond to cults and refugees of cults, which they will inevitably encounter. However, the most important thing we can do is submit ourselves to Yeshua and His revelation through the text of Scripture. Responding to these cults in the manner that the Scriptures intends is absolutely imperative in the struggle against counterfeit pastors and teachers, such as 2 Timothy 4:1-5 and Romans 16:17,18. In the end it is the light of God’s truth that will dispel the darkness, and it is to this end that we are servants.


If you’re interested in learning more about cults and cult rehabilitation, I highly recommend the book Freedom of Mind by Dr. Hassan. Much of the information I’ve written here has been taken from his research. If you think you have gotten entangled in a cult, please, reach out for help and counsel. Anyone from our congregation would be more than happy to speak with you, pray with you, and share resources with you. You can reach us at info@nrfcommunity.org, or reach me personally at jeff.young@nrfcommunity.org.

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