I’ve been doing some more research on authoritarian religions, both classic “cults” and Christian groups that utilize “cultic” practices. While there are notable, and welcome, exceptions, so many of the resources available are from people (some as part of organizations and some as not) who have left these authoritarian groups and have decided to reject (sometimes quite angrily) all religion (or at least theistic, organized religion).
One would assume (naively?) that religious people would be deeply concerned about groups that harm their membership, and have at least as much concern, if not more, for members of such groups. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
Why might this be. I don’t know. Let me suggest a few possible reasons:
1. It may be easy for churches and church members to oppose some of the classically weird cults… but it is awkward to challenge churches or denominations that are doctrinely closer to home, while still utilizing authoritarian (cultic) methodologies. It is often easier to ignore, denigrate from a distance, or (and I have seen this remarkably) act as if such groups don’t exist.
2. Christians/Christian groups that do challenge such groups tend to be more focused on apologetics then people. (At least it seems so to me).
3. There is a greater focus among many Christians on conversion (sudden change) rather than nurture, reconciliation, healing, sustaining, and liberation (typically much slower processes).
4. Related to #3, Christians like to focus on “low hanging fruits.” We want people for whom we can evangelize and then (perhaps) disciple. But people from authoritarian cults, as well as Christian-based authoritarian groups, are difficult to convert since they are taught not to listen to “deceivers.” And those who leave cults are often turned off to religion and God in general.
5. Christians (like most people) have trouble applying the Great Commandment. We are to love all people (including enemies). Members of groups that are hostile are easy to label as “the enemy.” Those that leave these groups often connect to groups that are (not surprisingly) anti-religious. As such they still seem like enemies. It is easier to hate or ignore enemies.
But what a shame! Those who are abused spiritually (religious abuse or other spiritual abuse) are certainly those in great need of help… of liberation. When we fail to do this, it is hardly surprising that such people (and the broader public) tend to label Christians with the same brush applied to authoritarian groups.
Of course, we need to be careful with labels anyway. Using the term “cult” for every group that we have issues with, can build barriers with both groups and their members. Additionally, I was raised in a church that described itself as “Fundamentalist” but wasn’t authoritarian (despite the fact that Fundamentalism is often described as being, by definition, authoritarian). There is a danger with being too quick to label, and an equal danger of applying characteristics carelessly to labels.
Demonstrating genuine love and care for all people regardless of the group they are with (whether that group is “for us” or “against us”) is a good start in helping people in need.