While I understand that being a cult leader isn’t something to which most people aspire, it seems to me that there are always a number of folks out there (especially religious folks) who are about two steps away from acquiring this infamous distinction; they just don’t know it yet. Or maybe they’ve tried hard and just haven’t had the breaks. Whatever the case, I’m going to help you out by sharing the skinny on what it takes to exercise mind control over other people.
(BTW, this article is a satire that contains a serious point stated in an entertaining style. Just have to say that for all my readers who are oblivious to subtleties! 😉 )
Now when I use the term “Cult Leader,” I’m certainly meaning in the classic sense of guys like Jim Jones, David Koresh, etc., but I’m not limiting it to that. The bully tactics described in this essay can also be applied (in a general but lesser extent) to other relationships, utilized by spouses, parents, employers, ministry leaders, or even just controlling friends. Here are the seven strategies you need to develop:
Have a Persuasive, Charismatic Personality
To begin with you have to be persuasive. People achieve this in different ways. Some use a winsome charm to seduce followers into trusting them. Others use the more enigmatic approach. For example, if you are a man, growing a really long beard and refusing to smile often gives you a certain kind of austere distance that intimidates people into fearing you a bit, and making them suppose you are really wise at the same time (after all, the heavy dudes in the Bible all had beards, right?). It is not uncommon for cult leaders to be a bit eccentric in their style, mannerisms, dress and customs, so don’t be afraid to have a flair for the uncommon and avant-garde. Keeping a bit of a relational distance from your followers, especially at strategic times, can help to create a mystique that is useful.
Surround Yourself With “Yes Men”
The next big thing is to make sure that nobody in your sphere is ever going to challenge you or call you out. Most healthy Christians will make sure that there is someone in their life who can look them in the eye and tell them they are wrong. However, cult leaders avoid accountability like the plague. They will quickly shun, discredit, slander or dismiss anyone who will challenge their authority. You are top dog. Make sure everyone beneath you knows it! Remind them if you need to! “Touch NOT the Lord’s anointed!” If someone leaves your influence, have the propaganda machine greased and ready to run an undermining smear campaign on them that will make them rue the day they ever spoke up or dared to leave.
Emphasize Extra-Biblical Revelation
People aren’t inclined to listen to you, because they assume that their opinion is just as good as yours. UNLESS, you have God on your side. Now there are two ways to have God on your side. The first is to simply tell them what the Bible says. This is what every Bible teacher worth his salt does every Sunday. But that doesn’t tend to nurture cult-like followers. You see, people will just follow God, based on what He says, but they aren’t really following YOU for what YOU say. This is where extra-Biblical revelation comes in. If you take something that has its roots (in some way, no matter how stretched) in the Scriptures, you can then come up with your own unique twist and some people will inevitably believe you. If you can convince them that God has spoken to you directly, in a unique way, and that you have an enlightened vision on the future, or on life’s principles, or on deeper spirituality, and that you (and your followers) get this, and no one else does, you create an inside track, and people, who love being special, will often follow you. As a side note, beware of people who use run-on sentences with too many commas. They are also suspect (but for different reasons).
Special words of prophecy, regarding specific decisions or life choices of another person are often effective. A few I’ve heard employed by others are: “God told me that He wants you to sell your house and move closer to our community,” or “God is telling you that He is setting you free from the bondage of your current marriage (so you can sleep with me of course!).”
Build Them Up, Isolate them, and Tear Them Down
Speaking of being special, cult leaders often look for people who are on the fringes of society. One of the reasons some of these folks are on the fringes is because they are zealous and wholehearted. Many people have become tired of just doing the church bit. They don’t want to just play Christianity, they want reality. They are often attracted to others who are in 100%. Many cult leaders then bring them in with open arms, accepting them (often when no one else would) and building them up. Once the person feels loved and accepted, the tearing down begins. The cult leader usually then systematically tears a person down and makes them feel very small and worthless, apart from the leader. Isolation is often a key component of success here. Keeping people away from their family members, friends from other persuasions, or other churches is vital. They need to get all of their information, and have all of their social interaction, center around you and your group.
Tell Others What to Do and Give Ultimatums
A good cult leader is never content to govern his or her own affairs. He needs to run everyone else’s life too! Now, granted, there are spheres where people need to exert proper, responsible authority over others: Parents over young children, the civil magistrate over criminals, employers over employees, etc. Without structure, chaos reigns and anarchy ensues. Proper jurisdiction of authority isn’t what I’m discussing here, however. I’m talking about you taking your place as the head-honcho, the grand poobah, the big cheese, the mighty kahuna in every sphere that moves. You need to have a definite opinion about the decisions of others, and then give them some kind of serious ultimatum if they violate your wishes. The ultimatum can range from verbal abuse, to cutting off relationship, to the silent treatment, to imprecatory prayers…get creative. There are lots of workable options for shunning and punishing those who question your authority.
Create Tests of Loyalty
Every so often, you need to create a scenario that enables people to demonstrate how far they will go to be loyal to you and to your cause. You have to weed out the weak and unwilling. Master cult leaders all know that they need to “boil the frog slowly,” by developing this loyalty through intimidation and scare tactics over the long haul. You can’t create an unquestioning follower overnight, so work it over time. Crossing boundaries of sexual propriety and/or other areas of personal space (life decisions) is usually met with resistance, but some people will cross even these boundaries if they believe God requires it of them (or they want to please their cult leader / group).
Make Sure You Mediate Their Relationship with God
One of the worst possible mistakes you could make is to encourage your followers to read widely, study Scripture for themselves (without your unique twist on it), hear from God on their own, fellowship with others outside of your little circle, and think that they can have a relationship with God that doesn’t involve you in some substantive way. They need to see that their relationship with God (if not their very salvation) hinges on their relationship with YOU! After all, they were nothing before they found you, and apart from you, they will be nothing again. You hear from God, they don’t (can’t) apart from you. This is a linchpin to your success.
Well, there you go! Seven steps to creating your new cult leader persona. Of course, it takes the right kind of people to enable you, which can be a bit difficult to find, but they are out there, you just have to keep looking. There are always those who, rather than thinking for themselves, will put their blind hope and faith in a person, and allow themselves to be consumed with pleasing that individual (or that group) at all cost (even the cost of their health, their sanity, or in some cases, their very lives).
Note: Lest you think I have been flippant here about these issues, please rest assured that I AM NOT! I care deeply for people who have been, or currently are, or may become influenced by someone with cult-like tendencies. I sincerely hope that this article, even with its entertaining back-handed style, will help individuals and families avoid being entrapped in a harmful and oppressive situation (or becoming over-bearing and abusive in their relationships with others).
Please remember that GOD LOVES YOU!!! You are precious to Him, and His approval of you is not linked to the approval of a person. There is, of course, the blessing of proper church authority, and godly church discipline is there for our good, if we are living in clear sin. However, when the church (or an individual) reaches across the line and begins exerting authority on matters that are not clearly outlined as sinful in the Bible, that church is becoming cultic, and you need to beware (and preferably leave).
This may sound cliche (and is certainly easier said than done) but seek out a church that believes and teaches the entire Word of God, is theologically sound, and has humble servant-leaders. Find a healthy community of believers with whom you can walk together in your spiritual journey. If you have been victimized by a cult-like experience, don’t be afraid to seek out Biblical Counseling from a trained, certified Biblical counselor from ACBC (NANC) at www.BiblicalCounseling.com. You need people who will encourage and lovingly disciple you, without tearing you down. And most importantly, be studying the Word of God for yourself daily, so you will know what the Bible really teaches, and you will be less likely to be drawn into error. May God richly bless you as you seek to live for Him!
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Photo credit: kevin dooley / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)