As discussed in this post, most groups have leaders of some sort; cities, churches, businesses, and one-on-one relationships will have rules or expectations of behavior for everyone. As said in that post, this isn’t always a bad thing. Rules are needed for organization and order, and people in a relationship have the right to expect fidelity, cooperation in decisions, and so on.
Also, the entire purpose of many religions is to interpret holy books and communicate supposed expectations from god, which then results in guidelines, counsel, and outright rules for congregants.
Since rules and expectations are part of any relationship or group, how do you know when those rules cross the line into being overly controlling and abusive? When do rules turn an otherwise harmless religion into an actual cult?
As always, there are no easy answers to those questions, but one sign is when leaders of a religion act as if they’re the adult, and the rules they make put other people in the position of a child. This can happen in religions, abusive relationships, and even families!
opinions versus right and wrong
You might immediately assume that all rules in a religion or elsewhere treat adults like children; that once a person becomes an adult, they shouldn’t need to follow anyone else’s rules, or so you might think.
This can be true to a certain extent, but not always. To understand this point, consider a relationship; expectations between two people don’t necessarily treat either one like a child. In healthy relationships, both agree to the rules, and both are treated equally when it comes to expectations, decisions, and so on.
For example, both parties might agree to fidelity, about how the money will be handled between them, about time they will spend together versus with friends, etc. If one person agrees to a compromise in a situation, they know that the other person will compromise in other situations.
In such a healthy relationship, there may be certain expectations and even outright rules, but each partner will have equal say and consideration in those rules. In turn, those rules and expectations don’t simply serve one person’s benefit over the other. Each is allowed their opinion on a matter, without one person always being “wrong.”
In an abusive relationship, however, one partner decides that they know better than the other. They decide on how the money will be spent, the schedules they will keep, and how much time each one is allowed to spend with outside friends and family. If the other partner disagrees, they are “wrong.”
Of course, in any relationship, partners may disagree and perhaps even strongly. However, when the relationship is healthy, one person won’t always be made to feel as if their opinion is “wrong,” and that they then need correcting, and to have decisions made for them.
As an example, a husband might have an opinion about a shade of lipstick or hairstyle his wife chooses, and he is certainly allowed that opinion. Yet, if he says his wife is “wrong” to wear her makeup or hair a certain way, or if he decides for her that her clothes or personal style is immodest and needs to be changed, he is treating her like a child. These are decisions a parent might make for a child, not something one adult decides for another adult.
A husband or wife is allowed opinions and preferences, but deciding that the other person is wrong, that their opinions are wrong, degrades the other partner to the position of a child. In these cases, the “errant” husband or wife is not an adult who can decide on things, including personal matters, themselves.
This is also how a cult works. The leader or elders or deacons or others in authority decide on certain rules and practices. If the congregant disagrees, they are wrong. Period. They have no say in these matters, which reduces them to the position of a child.
A church leader’s or elder’s opinion is valued as being right and the best thing for church members, but the opinions of members are wrong, always. The leader is the adult, and the congregant is then a child.
rules, rules, rules
Next, consider rules in religions and other such organizations themselves, and how those rules often treat congregants like children. While most religions will make some rules for congregants, when the religion’s leaders dictate matters that an adult should be able to decide on their own, this puts the congregants in the position of children.
As an example, a religion might quote a scripture in their holy book that says that members should dress “modestly.” There is certainly nothing wrong with this guidance, but a cult often goes one step further by making detailed rules for members, perhaps saying that women should always wear long skirts or some type of head covering, or not wear cosmetics or the color red, expose their shoulders or knees, and so on. The religion might say that men shouldn’t have hair past a certain length, wear certain clothing colors, or certain types of underwear.
In turn, those members are now reduced to the position of children. They are not adults, able to decide how to dress in a “modest” way and make up their own minds about what that word means; instead, they have specific rules dictated to them, as parents do with children.
This type of overly demanding, demeaning practice can extend to the lives of the cult’s members and congregants in many ways. A cult may demand money, and certainly many religions, political parties, and even your alma mater may do the same.
However, when the religion makes specific demands about donations, or chastises members who spend money on themselves or leave money to family rather than the religion, this also puts those congregants in the position of children. They are not adults, able to decide how much money they should donate or how they should spend money in general. Instead, they are treated like children who can’t manage their finances, as if their salary is an allowance that the religion should control.
This rule-making and decision-making can be extended to other areas when it comes to cult adherents. Religious leaders may dictate what a congregant can do for a living, how they should raise their children, how they should spend their free time, what forms of entertainment are acceptable, and so on.
The religion’s leaders may lecture or chastise congregants who make their own decisions in these areas; again, this treats those members like children who cannot be trusted to make their own decisions on matters.
These are all signs of a potential cult. An opinion from religious leaders is fine, guidance can be appropriate, but making detailed rules without respecting the other person’s intellect and abilities as an adult crosses the line into cult-like territory.
Along with making detailed rules for congregants, and lecturing or chastising people when they don’t follow those rules, a cult leader may also assume that they are in a position to “punish” someone who doesn’t obey them. This also happens in an abusive relationship; one person might say that the other didn’t do what was demanded so they need to be “taught a lesson.” Whatever the extent of this “punishment,” whether it’s abuse or the silent treatment or anything in between, this puts one person in the position of the adult, raising and training the other, as you would a child.
Cults and overly controlling religions may do the same; a cult’s deacons, bishops, elders, priests, or others with authority might punish members who don’t follow strict, even inappropriate rules. This punishment can include loss of privileges, public announcements of counseling, instructions to other members to avoid socializing with the errant congregant, and even verbal or physical abuse.
This punishing behavior also makes one person, or a small group of persons, the adult in the religion, and congregants the equivalent of children, being raised and trained. As an adult, you should have a large measure of respect from others and should be able to decide on your own behavior, even when it comes to what’s acceptable to god if those are your beliefs. Having every tiny decision doled out to, with punishments for not following someone else’s rules, makes you a child.
If you belong to a religion that uses punishments as a way to control behavior, ask yourself why you feel they have the right to do this. Why do you feel that you should suffer a public announcement of supposed sinful behavior rather than having things handled in private, if they need addressing at all? Why do you feel that your religious leaders have the right to tell other people to avoid you, simply because you made a decision they didn’t like?
Why do you feel those religious leaders have the right to make decisions about how you dress or cut your hair, the job you should have, or how to raise your children? What makes them better able to make those decisions than you?
Ask yourself, when it comes to religious leaders, are they not individuals just like you, with the same strengths and weaknesses, faults and failings, and positive and negative personality traits? If you gave those leaders an honest evaluation, looked at their own life, intellect, and abilities, you would no doubt see that they are only human and no more special than anyone else in your religion or congregation, including you.
Very often a person with low self-esteem will struggle with this situation as they might not think of themselves as a capable, competent adult, and may assume that they are somehow less intelligent, less experienced, and less mature than another person. It is true that each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, but if you find yourself in a religion or church or any such organization where you are always being lectured, chastised, corrected, or punished, consider if you need to improve your own self-image.
In turn, you can then look objectively at how you’re being treated and note if you perhaps deserve more respect. Questioning this type of treatment and doing a thorough evaluation of your self-image can help you to be more aware of this “adult versus child” approach to church members that is typical of controlling and abusive cults. You can set healthy boundaries, or know when it might be time to rethink your religion altogether and find one that treats you like an adult to be respected versus a child to be raised.