The Cultic Family, Part III
It can be argued that some traits are necessary for godly families, such as separation from the world and the pursuit of holiness. As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the way, the truth, and the life. We confess our trespasses to one another, and pray for one another. (James 5:16) These views can certainly be pulled right out of cult criteria and appear to be forms of elitism, of “us versus them,” of confession and purity. Taking Lifton’s characteristics and some of the spiritual abuse hallmarks noted in part one, let’s look at Scripture and how it relates to faith and family.
Biblically Refuting Cultic Criteria
(click on links for Scriptural passages)
The best way to understand milieu control is “total life micromanagement,” although even that doesn’t suggest the toxic levels present within high demand, closed groups. Biblically, we are to be self-controlled. This is actually one of the fruits of the Spirit. When a child receives the Holy Spirit through salvation, a parent should trust God with their child and appropriately give Him space to work and produce fruit. This doesn’t mean that a parent won’t still have influence, or even the “final word” in many cases. But God has provided the home as a safe place for a child to learn vital lessons about life and spirituality, but when parents endeavor to control every aspect of life—physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually—they actually quench the Spirit by fulfilling the role of God in someone else’s life. In this case, home becomes unsafe, and stumbling blocks occur. While there are times, of course, when controlling another person is necessary, such as legal restraint of criminals or those who intend to inflict harm on themselves or others, this only becomes necessary after they have ceased to control themselves.
Jesus preached humility. Through His life we have an example decidedly anti-authoritarian, whether we are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, pastors, teachers, or government officials. He who is the eternal I AM “..made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:7,8) He did not come to be served, but to serve, to pour out His life. Godly leaders will pattern themselves after the One who knelt before His followers. “…having loved His own who were in the world,” writes John, “He loved them to the end.”
Jesus concerned Himself with truth, not with the appearance of evil. He sat among sinners and even defended His actions. He wasn’t afraid of associating with prostitutes, nor of allowing them to touch Him. And our perfect, holy Lord offers Himself as our example.
God is not afraid of questions. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5) (emphasis mine) He will not annihilate your soul for coming boldly to the throne. ‘Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’ (Jer. 33:3) He remembers our frame, and can take our questions, our rages, our criticism, our doubts.
Our God is merciful. He is patient and suffers long. We make mistakes, but He still loves us. Shall we sin, that grace abounds? Certainly not, but as Paul reminds us, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” And in Christ there is no condemnation. He is both our Priest and our sacrifice, who “always lives to make intercession” for us. He calls us to be holy, but He is the one who makes us holy.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace…” (Heb. 13:8-9) In Christ we have stability. God does not change. “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” (James 1:16-17) This means we can trust Him. He has proven Himself faithful.
Mystical: Through manipulation, one seeks his own glory. God is not manipulative. While He is a jealous God and seeks His glory, He seeks it because He is true and knows that glory belongs to Him. The false humility we often encounter in ourselves and others is not truth. God recognizes the truth of who we are and the truth of who He is. And He is our Creator who loves us and freely gives us all things. “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Mt. 7:11) Sometimes this means that He operates supernaturally in our lives. Emotional: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He doesn’t love us only when we behave, when we perform to standard. Not only do we love Him because He first loved us, but it is His goodness that leads us to repentance. He doesn’t play with our hearts; He doesn’t dangle a carrot before us. He didn’t wait to see if we’d accept Him as Lord before He went to the cross. He did it; and “it is finished”, He said.
God is Truth. Mixed messages lead to confusion, and God is not the author of confusion but of peace. We can trust the One who cannot lie, who will not deceive us. Sometimes we experience the natural consequences of our actions, and even then, God can use them for good. When there is something we do not understand, we can come boldly unto His throne, and He will teach us.
Separatism, or Demand for Purity—
Separation from the world, purity, and God’s command to “Be holy, for I am holy” are key tenets within many families and churches—both healthy ones, and cultic ones. It is important to recognize that separation, or to be “set apart”, means sanctification—something done by God. “But know that the LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly; The LORD will hear when I call to Him.” (Ps. 4:3, also: John 17:17, Eph. 5:26-27, 2 Thess. 2:13, Heb. 13:12) He is the one who justifies us, who makes us holy, and saves us, and not we ourselves.
Cultic environments reek of secrecy and lack of trust, but note the difference with Jesus:
“No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) Love rejoices in the truth. In a trusting environment—a godly environment, for God is safe and trustworthy—we can confess our trespasses and find non-shaming encouragement, support, and comfort.
Loading the Language—
As we worship the Lord, we might have intimate language, like that between lovers or friends, but in context of a closed group, special, inner language serves to feed elitism. As we are called to evangelize, what good is it if we cannot speak in a way others understand? Even within our own culture—and for some, this is limited to family—we are called to be missionaries. We have a unique example through the experience of Paul in Acts 17: Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you…” Through Paul’s entire dialogue, we see that: he met them on their level—intellectually and culturally equipped to relate to them; he reasoned with them with their own language: that of philosopher; he involved himself in community and their daily life; he made himself visible, willing, and available; he was observant and relevant; he engaged the culture where he found himself, even able to quote a poet of their own—all without sinning, without being snared by the world.
The Truth of God is absolute, but it is available for all who call upon the name of the Lord. It isn’t limited to gender or role. Many cultic families and groups teach that wives and daughters can only hear from God through their husbands or fathers, but consider the woman who approached Jesus herself: But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:33-35) We are all responsible for seeking both the knowledge of God and the voice of God. Look at another verse that uses the words ‘fear and trembling’: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13) This is not exclusive ~ this means to anyone, man, woman, child, slave, free, Jew, Greek, Gentile . . .
Doctrine over person—
While cultic groups, familial or otherwise, elevate doctrine above individuals, Jesus came to challenge this by His very existence on earth. Jesus shows us person over doctrine, valuing souls, hearts and bodies above religious practice. “And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?” (Luke 13:11-15) The Way came to die for people, not for a way of life. The Truth came to serve people, with humility, not to be served. The Life came to pour out His own so that people, not doctrine, would have it for eternity.
Dispensing of existence—
Jesus did not reject anyone. Even the Pharisees, whom He loudly and often corrected, were loved. While hanging on the cross, He pleaded with God to forgive those who crucified Him, “for they know not what they do.” To reject those who do not prescribe to group ideology, especially in the name of God, counters Christ’s example of sacrificial love. Communicating that others are “dead to me”, as some proclaim, or that others are less than, or don’t matter, denies the gospel—especially when they are members of one’s family.
“Cultic” is a distasteful, loaded, even offensive term for many. In our context, in it’s basic form, it describes a culture that utilizes non-Christlike means of getting something—even something good and godly—while trying to change, manipulate, control, or coerce someone else Those who perpetuate this generally mean well, want only the best for their families, and don’t realize what happens until it seems too late. But it is never too late. God is great and can restore the years. Even if a lack of faith has led parents to take desperate steps, God can strengthen and restore it.
Recovering from a cultic environment takes time and continually searching for truth and wisdom. But anyone can do this. We do not have to be naturally strong, naturally good Christians, naturally perfect. Sometimes we need professional assistance. We need those who can help us, support us, pray for us, encourage us, listen to us repeat the same thing over and over until it is spent. It can be hard, for over the course of life it will involve pain, anger, grief, and forgiveness. But Jesus said that “difficult is the way that leads to life.” Yet He also says “…I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In cases when one has a pre-cult identity, trying to remember the past is only a step towards healing—but it is a step of faith and will help you find the right path. Those who do not have this can find their identity in Christ, who Himself is the Way, Truth, and Life. Because healing is a journey, and if it is taken with Christ, the soul will find rest.