Just about every group, and especially a religion, will have a leader of some sort. Christian religions will often say that god or Jesus is their leader but, in truth, a human or small group of humans will typically elevate themselves above rank-and-file members and take on a leadership role. This leader, or small group, will decide on doctrine and rules, oversee business practices and the finances of the church, and so on.
Controlling families also may have a clear and defined leader or someone in charge, usually the parent or parents. Obviously parents are rightly in charge of any family, but for insular families and those marked by dominance and control, it may be consistently and adamantly emphasized that the father is “the head of this house!” or that the mother’s rules are final, no questions asked.
Businesses also have leaders, including managers, supervisors, and department heads. Society itself has leaders, or persons in charge, from city mayors to governors, presidents, or monarchs.
Since leadership is so common and typically needed when you organize a group for any reason, why and how does it become the mark of a cult?
invasive and intrusive rules
Along with a leader, an organization or group of any sort will usually have rules for its members; even cities have laws that affect what you can and cannot do on your own property, codes for construction work, and so on. A family will have rules for children and even couples will have “rules,” or certain expectations, for each other.
Rules or guidelines can be a positive thing and are needed in many settings. Without local laws, driving would be chaos, homes and buildings would be unsafe, and your neighbors could play their stereo at any volume with no regard for your comfort. Businesses need rules for workers so that work is done in an organized fashion and to ensure safety in the workplace.
Religious leaders that set up rules for congregants might use this same reasoning, that their rules are for your own good, to create order and ensure your welfare and salvation. To a certain extent, this might be true; church rules against getting drunk, for example, can mean less alcohol-fueled violence or drunk driving accidents.
A sign of a cult, however, is when those rules and requirements, and even simple counsel and advice, become overly controlling, too personal, and downright invasive. When rules seem to serve the needs of the leader and his or her own personality and ego, this is also a sign of a cult.
For example, most religions have rules forbidding sex outside of marriage but when a religious leader begins to tell even married couples what they can and cannot do in the bedroom, this could be considered very invasive and downright inappropriate.
A religion might also ask for monetary pledges from congregants, but this becomes intrusive if leaders of the religion demand to know details of a person’s financial situation, or get between couples when it comes to the money they will donate. Some church leaders might outright demand gifts that are out of a family’s budget, or tell one spouse to ignore the wishes or concerns of the other in the matter.
A religion might allow its deacons, elders, priests, or others to ask intimate, personal questions of congregants, even children, such as wanting to know if they’re sexually active, if they masturbate and how often, and with whom they’ve had sex. These interviews may take place in a private setting with just that church representative and a congregant, alone, without anyone else to monitor the questioning. Male representatives of the church may ask these sexually intimate questions of female members, even teenagers, alone and without anyone else present.
This type of invasive, overly personal control is often overlooked by cult members, even though they may recognize it as inappropriate in other settings. For example, if a schoolteacher were to ask a student whether or not they masturbate, you might immediately recognize this as being grossly inappropriate and abusive. However, a cult member may not think twice about their leader becoming so invasive!
While rules and expectations are needed in a group, society, or relationship, and religions have the right to create moral guidelines for adherents, when leaders step in and put themselves between husbands and wives or parents and children, or intrude into a person’s private affairs, this is a sure sign of a cult, or cult-like abuse. A healthy religion respects privacy and individual boundaries and ensures that its leaders are not dictating, or intruding upon, matters that should not be their concern.
Overlooking this type of invasive involvement in your life can mean that you’re not seeing the signs of being in a cult, or of someone having cult-like control over you. In your mind, you may dismiss this type of inappropriate control because it’s from your church or group leader. It’s being done by him, the rule is from her, from them. Your leader, your reverend, your guru, your instructor, your prophet, your pope, your governing body are the ones making these rules or intruding upon your life, so it’s then somehow okay in your mind.
If anyone else were to come into your bedroom and tell you what you can and cannot do with your spouse, or sit between you and your partner and demand money while telling you to ignore the other person’s concerns, you’d be very angry and resentful at them, and rightly so. You may even get angry at business owners, politicians, or anyone else who intrudes into people’s private lives, in areas that are not their concern.
However, your cult leader is different, in your eyes at least. He or she might do that same exact thing but, to you, they can do no wrong. You don’t look at how controlling and invasive they’re being or at what they’re controlling and asking about, but you accept their inappropriate behavior simply because it’s from them.
Somehow, when your church elders or deacons or pastor, when your bishop or pope or anyone in a position of authority over you in the church oversteps their bounds, you overlook it. They have good reason, you tell yourself. It’s different when they do it. When they do it, it must be a good thing, for good and positive reasons.
This thinking is a sign of cult mentality. You are in a cult when the cult leader can do no wrong.
no questions, please
Another sure sign of being led along by a cult, or a cult-like leader, is that you’re not allowed to question their behavior. This is also a sign of an abusive or unhealthy relationship! In a business, the boss has the right to make decisions without question from his or her employees, because the boss owns the company and doesn’t need to answer to them. In a personal relationship, however, each person should have the right to ask questions about the other’s behavior and their decisions, since neither one is an employee being paid to simply do a job.
While church leaders may not feel impelled to give an answer for every decision or policy, when he or she says outright that adherents must follow them without question, and especially if you’re not allowed to question inappropriate behavior, then lines have been crossed into cult-like control. Religious leaders having secret handbooks they keep from adherents, or secrets about how money is spent and other such practices, is problematic enough. However, cult-like control includes those in authority saying and doing hurtful, even abusive things, and yet the group’s members are not allowed to “call them up on the carpet” for this behavior.
These abuses can include taking financial advantage of congregants, lying to the congregants or outsiders, behaving inappropriately sexually, and the like. Cult leaders often feel that they are justified in, or entitled to, these sorts of behaviors, and that they are not obligated to answer for them.
Cult members blindly go along with this thinking. When it’s demanded that you ignore the wrong that’s been done by someone in authority in your church or other organization, this often means you’re blindly following a cult, or cult-like personality. When a person who is abusive insists that overlook that abuse, then they are probably exercising excessive, cult-like control over you.
being overly defensive
How can you tell when you’ve been trained to think that someone can do no wrong, versus simply overlooking a person’s everyday faults and mistakes? How can you tell when your church elder, spiritual guide, governing body, prophets, or someone else has crossed the line into expecting or even outright demanding that you think they can do no wrong?
There are no hard and fast answers to these questions, but note if outside parties are always pointing out those faults and failings. Friends and family who are not in an organization are probably only looking out for your best interests and they, along with coworkers, neighbors, and other nonmembers, are not entranced with the people in charge. In turn, they may feel freer to speak up about questionable behavior and obvious abuses.
Rather than immediately dismissing these concerns, it’s good to listen. Listening to outside parties when they talk about your religious leaders or other members of your church doesn’t mean you need to immediately agree, but you should honestly evaluate that point of view.
When having such a conversation ask yourself:
- Does this friend or family member have credible reason to think that the leadership of an organization is overly controlling or invasive?
- Is he or she pointing out abuses and hypocrisies, or outright hurtful behaviors, that are beyond simple everyday faults?
- Are their complaints and concerns legitimate and truthful?
- If nonmembers said the same thing about someone else, if you saw those same questionable behaviors in someone else, would you agree that it’s hurtful or abusive?
- If you were to see those same faults and failings in other people, would you recognize them as being inappropriate and outright abusive, but overlook those traits or get defensive when it’s your church leader?
Seeing yourself as being in a cult or any unhealthy church or organization can be difficult as it’s easy to become enchanted with, or a bit fearful of, that group’s leader. However, you do need to consider carefully if you think that person can do no wrong, and especially if it’s obvious that they are doing wrong!
If you feel uncomfortable questioning someone, if you see legitimate accusations piling up against them with no acceptable explanation or defense while they demand you ignore those accusations, or if they demand obedience and loyalty even when they’re abusive, this is often a sign that you are in a cult, or are being controlled in cult-like fashion. The behavior of that leader is not healthy, so stepping back and questioning their traits, whether they like it or not, is needed for you to be healthy.
If you don’t, if you always feel that your leader can do no wrong and especially when he or she has done and is doing wrong, this is a sure sign of a cult!