I spent my first years in ministry helping a small group of people get out of a cult, and then several more years on the much trickier task of getting the cult out of the people. That work, and the subsequent times I’ve been called on to help people recover from cults, has given me an interesting look at how cults operate on their followers.
One of the central dynamics by which such cults flourish is the leader’s secret knowledge, his discernment of things too lofty for the hoi polloi, and especially of dire, dangerous threats too subtle for the hoi polloi to discern.
The dynamic proceeds thus: the congregant thinks Practice (or belief) X is innocuous, perhaps even helpful. The Dear Leader comes along and denounces Practice X, connecting it (by whatever dubious means) to Heresy Y. The People dutifully praise Dear Leader for his wisdom and are confirmed in their conviction that without Dear Leader and his subtle discernment, they would not be able to navigate their spiritual lives.
In the nature of the case, Practice X cannot be something obviously wrong. The people are already avoiding the things that are obviously wrong anyway. It brings no credit to Dear Leader’s discernment to denounce, say, devil worship. But suppose, in a rhetorically dazzling series of sermons titled “What Can Brown Do For Your Soul?”, Dear Leader connects UPS to a worldwide secret cabal of devil worshippers? Well, now you’ve got something. The poor congregants would never have known–why, they’ve been supporting devil worshippers with every Christmas package they send, without knowing it!
The whole point of the exercise is for Dear Leader to highlight a spiritual trap that the congregant would never have been able to discern, the better to demonstrate how much they all need Dear Leader and his spiritual insights. The intended effect of the exercise does not occur unless the People didn’t see the trap. And it works best of all when they couldn’t have seen the trap, because there is no trap to see.
As long as he can convince them after the fact that there is in fact a connection between Practice X and vilest heresy — using whatever rhetorical trickery is at his disposal — the trick works, and his authority is confirmed. The fewer other leaders agree with him, the more he is elevated above the common rabble of pastors — they are confused, clueless, or complicit in the sin themselves. And so betraying his close allies, whom he paints as compromised with various sins and false teachings he alone is able to discern, becomes one of the key ways in which a cult leader can consolidate control of his people.
It’s an ugly business, one that Christians should steer well clear of.
But the ugliest part is the way in which the same dynamic infiltrates groups (both conservative and progressive) that most of us wouldn’t consider cults, although we might allow as how they’re a bit sectarian. In this way, many churches groom their people, especially their young people, in habits of mind that make them easy pickings for cults later in life.