• johned@aibi.ph

An Attempt At Defining Cults And Abusive Religion

Tarleton Ware (click here to contact the author)

My experience with abusive religion is painful. Unfortunately, my experience with abusive religion is not unusual. When first sitting down to write these essays, I had planned to discuss abusive religion in detail. I had hoped to consider the hallmarks of abusive religion, and how to distinguish the same from orthodox Christianity. However, as I pondered the idea, I realized that this subject had been explored by much better minds than mine, and to add to their work would be fruitless. How could I hope to improve on the work of Ron Enroth, Ken Blue, Lalich, Singer,or any of the other fine Christian researchers who have been at the forefront of what I will call the "New Awakening?" There have also been an array of articles published by lesser known contributors, all of whom shed light on a subject that has been left in our collective closets far too long.

Abusive religion has been a plague of sorts, reaching into our consciousness and snatching parts of our souls. In a sense, we are all guilty, but of different crimes. The perpetrators are certainly guilty of perpetrating destructive doctrine. The watchers are guilty of watching passively, offering no viable intervention or alternatives. And the participants are guilty of participating in faith practices designed to erode, not build. In a strange sort of sense, the victims become guilty of being victims, for to remain so is commonly at the expense of others.

But where does that leave us? During the course of this series, I will suggest that, while abusive doctrine is insidious and hateful, we must move past the carnage and into the restoring grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We must know that if anything he taught us is true, then we are obligated to respond to the redemptive call of the Gospels. We must move toward that perfect love that is at once so elusive, yet always close at hand for those that believe. I will not explore the many and varied recovery options for victims of this type of abuse. That is better left to others more qualified than I. Nor will I explore specific cases and details of religious abuse. No, my purpose is to look at the phenomenon from a broader perspective. I will work toward establishing useful definitions pertinent to this emotional topic. I will show that the problem of religious abuse, especially in the Christian community, is the responsibility of us all, like it or not. And finally, I will show that, while there may be regrets, they will fade into the goodness of our Father. I will discuss what I call "The New Awakening," not from a doctrinal perspective, but from a redemptive perspective.

There is no shame for the spiritually abused. You are not alone. The God of mercy will keep you. I hope that as we all respond to some of the questions that arise while considering this emotional topic, we can come a little closer to understanding the providence of our heavenly Father. Maybe, just maybe, we will see beyond the present turmoil and into eternity.


Before continuing, I would like to consider a term that is thrown around loosely in common culture, usually at the whim of the user. CULT. What is a cult? The American Heritage Dictionary defines "cult" as: 1. A system or community of religious worship and ritual, especially one focusing upon a single deity or spirit. 2. Obsessive devotion or veneration for a person, principle, or ideal. There are other definitions, but, for my purpose, that will suffice. By definition then, I would suggest that all of Christendom fits the description. We are all "cultists," of sorts.

If we are all cultists, then how can Christians possibly identify less desirable groups as cults? German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein greatly influenced the development of philosophical analysis in England, where he worked after fleeing Hitler's Germany. Wittgenstein explored linguistic analysis, a summary of which is difficult at best. Here I will defer to Bertrand Russell's description of Wittgenstein's basic philosophic theory. Russell boiled it down to this; " The meaning of a word is its use." An oversimplification, perhaps, but one that I feel to be solid. If we accept Wittgenstein's postulate, then we see that "cult" has as many meanings as it has uses. Those outside of religion may view all Christians as cultists. Those outside of Roman Catholicism may consider all Catholics as cultists. Catholic and orthodox Christians may feel that most independent Christians are cultist. Evangelical Christians have identified certain groups as pseudo-Christian cults, and so on, and so on.

As we can see, attempting to establish a working definition of "cult" is difficult at best. Based on Wittgenstein I would suggest, somewhat tongue in cheek, that a cult is any group that we find offensive. There are those who seem to have arrived at a definition, and many books that authoritatively described the marks of a cult. But I would suggest that, until a new standard emerges, the term is rendered useless. So, "cult" is a word which I will avoid for now, leaving its fate to more learned linguists. I'll let them slog it out for a few decades.

So much for cults. Abusive religion, however, is another animal altogether, and it is to her that I now turn. As I stated earlier, I will not attempt to improve on the work of those who came before me. To them I owe the deepest gratitude, for they had the courage to shine light on one of the darkest areas in Christian culture. For in abusive religion we stand in direct defiance of the Gospels. In abusive religion we cause the weak to stumble and the blind to remain blind. In abusive religion we risk eternal damnation, if anything that we profess to be true, is indeed true.

As I have addressed the issue of popular usage of the word cult, I shall now take liberty with our current subject. In order to discuss abusive religion as a topic, a working definition needs to be established. For purposes of this discussion, I will define abusive religion as:1. Any exercise of religious authority , personal power, or position for personal and/or corporate gain, either material, spiritual, or physical. 2. The exercise of religious doctrine at the expense of others, especially when such action is in direct contradiction to the tenets of a particular faith.

My definition is broad by design, as I believe religious abuse to cover considerable territory. I realize that the reader may feel that modifications are in order, and I would welcome discussion of the same. But for now, I think the definition will do.

The Hidden Room

I believe that abusive religion crosses all sectarian lines, and can be found in any faith. It is the priest who molests, and the knowing parishioner who remains silent. It is the pastor who rebukes on tithing while ignoring the neediest members. It is the husband who demeans his wife, and the wife who allows it. It is the brother who has no time for his unbelieving neighbor. It is the select of the elect, not humbly serving, but arrogantly bragging. It is elders, ignoring their responsibility because the people have "no understanding." It is vestries, more concerned with the bottom line than the welfare of the people they represent. It is congregations, more intent on maintaining sectarian boundaries than spiritual unity. It is those that know, yet offer no alternatives. It is those that say, "I told you so." It is stone throwers. It is all of us. We are all victims. We are all perpetrators.

As I stated earlier, I believe that abuse of spiritual power occurs in all faiths. I, however, am Christian, and the balance of my discussion will focus on Christian perspectives and imperatives as I view them. I realize that many readers will be of differing views concerning some issues that I raise. I simply ask that criticism be thoughtful and well reasoned, as I am attempting to be likewise.

Physical and sexual abuse is a secret terror stalking even the most well educated of families. It is a hidden malady, one in which we keep victims quarantined at nearly all costs. But not for the safety of those outside. Simply for reputation's sake. We keep doors closed to avoid confronting the monsters within. This, while knowing that the first step toward a cure is light. It is not ultimately a question of economics, intelligence, or education. It is a sickness. It is a contagious, destructive plague that, once started, is nearly impossible to stop.

So likewise is spiritual abuse.

We must open the doors. We must let in light.


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