Some time in the late 1960s, my husband George and I both read the popular book by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer. Hoffer had done an extensive study on the methods used by mass movements to make and keep converts. His book shared his conclusion that most of them, both secular and religious, use many of the same tactics.
George and I were both amazed at the wealth of insight and wisdom flowing from the pen of this self-taught former longshoreman. He made it clear just what in the psyche of the potential Communist Party Member, or the potential religious cult member, led them to get involved, and stay involved, with groups which most thinking folks would see right away were dangerous or outlandish at worst, and unreasonable and controlling at best. He seemed able to spot much of the foolishness out there in the marketplace of ideas, and label it for what it was. Except, of course, for the one marketplace idea near and dear to our own hearts. Although the religious group we had become involved with as young university students sure seemed to have many of the questionable characteristics that he brought out in the book, we figured that we were the exception that proved the rule.
Time went by. In 1974, I returned to Michigan State University to do some graduate work in the fields of education, social science, and psychology. In my “Social Psychology of Social Movements” class I met Hoffer’s writings once again.
They were joined by another classic in the field of Social Psychology, When Prophecy Fails. This book explored the history of groups that had predicted/prophesied “the End” to come in their own time in history, and how the members responded when the prophecy failed. (For details on the conclusions in that book, see the When Prophecy Fails section of my Field Guide website .) I shared the book’s information with George. Once again we were both amazed how closely the facts in the book lined up with our real-world experiences with the group we belonged to. Indeed, a date had been set by the leader of our group related to the events of the End Times, and that date had come and gone with no fulfillment. And the reactions of most in the group, including us, had been exactly what the book said they would be. So did we apply the rest of the author’s evaluation and commentary to our own experiences?
Of course not. Because, you see, the groups covered in the book were all false movements and churches. We, on the other hand, were absolutely sure that we were members of the “Only True Church of God on Earth Today.” Once again, we were, in our own minds, the exception that proves the rule!
Proving the Exception
It was many years after the incidents described above before we were able fully to face our own folly … and realize we had merely avoided making some hard, painful judgments. (For more details on our personal spiritual journey, see the About the Webauthor section of the Field Guide.)
We realize now that there really are some solid signs that a religious group or teacher is attracting and keeping followers through humanly coercive methods, rather than through biblical methods blessed by God, and through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. If a few, some, many, or all of the factors below seem to apply to a group you are involved with, or considering involvement with, you can save yourself a lot of grief by facing reality and taking steps to get free now. If you choose, as we did, to remain in irrational denial, you may find some day that you wasted much of your life in bondage to mere men rather than in true service to God.
Signs of trouble
Demand the exclusive loyalty of followers?
Condemn any serious questioning of the integrity of the leadership, even if followers have access to strong evidence of irregularities in matters of finance, morals, or ethics?
Condemn any serious questioning of the policies or tactics of the leadership, even when such policies or tactics have been clearly shown to lead to emotional, mental, spiritual, or perhaps even physical suffering of followers?
Forbid anyone with even minor questions or concerns about the leadership from expressing them to others in the group?
Insist any questioning of the leadership is tantamount to questioning God, and is an affront to Him personally?
Twist scriptures regarding authority, particularly in the Old Testament (e.g., “the rebellion of Korah”), to make it appear that there is a direct correlation to contemporary circumstances, and that God’s wrath will be felt once again by those who reject authority within the group?
Make grandiose claims to such biblical roles as prophet or apostle, with nothing more than self-aggrandizement to establish the validity of such claims?
Insist that the average person is unable to understand the Bible through independent study, but instead should rely entirely on the interpretations and explanations of the leader or group?
Make extremely excessive demands on the time and financial resources of followers, to the point of physical or financial exhaustion?
Insist or strongly imply that there is a direct correlation between financial contributions to the group and God’s blessings and protection on the donor?
Threaten that God will withhold blessings from—or perhaps even inflict His wrath upon—those who resist the leader’s or group’s demand for sacrificial giving beyond even the “prescribed” amount (such as the tithe)?
Forbid or strongly discourage followers from reading or listening to material produced by any outside source?
Encourage or demand that followers seriously reduce, or cut off entirely, relationships with family members outside the group?
Discourage or forbid the development of relationships with friends who are not part of the group?
Make decisions to expel members through a secret process not open to the observation of the average member?
Encourage or demand that followers cut off all contact with former group members, even though such ex-members have not been found guilty of, or even publicly charged with, any flagrant violation of biblical standards of morality or ethics?
Few groups display all the characteristics above. If someone suddenly realized that the group they were involved with did have all of these characteristics, I would recommend that they run, not walk, to the nearest exit, and never look back!
But even if one recognized only two or three of these problem areas in a group, that should raise some very bright red flags. Quite frequently, new followers do not realize that many more of these conditions may exist within a group than are obvious on the surface. Only as they become more deeply involved than just getting some literature, or visiting group meetings a few times, will the “rest of the story” become clear. The time to look for danger signals is before one has invested so much time, effort, emotions, and resources into involvement that it becomes almost impossible to disengage without significant trauma.
The truth of the Bible will remain the truth, and remain accessible to you, even if you find you must withdraw from support of the person or group that first pointed out that truth to you. There are no scriptures that put you into bondage to a human group or a human leader, no matter how persuasively some group or teacher may have tried to convince you that there are.