The Metamorphosis of the Term “Cult”
The people of Japan will long remember March 21, 1995, as the day when they first heard the word “cult.”1 At approximately 8:00 a.m., six members of a radical Buddhist group called “Aum Supreme Truth” boarded a Tokyo subway, each man toting plastic bags filled with lethal nerve gas. Moving with clockwork precision, the men carefully sifted their way through the crowded train and deposited their deadly luggage at the end of the car. Quick thrusts from a sharply-pointed umbrella was all that was then needed to poke small holes in each bag and cause the invisible nerve gas to begin to slowly fill the commuter train.
The Aum band was long gone before anyone realized what was happening. Suddenly pandemonium erupted as hundreds of commuters began to choke and pass out. Victims were carried up and laid out on the street to await transportation to local hospitals, but confusion reigned there as well because doctors had no idea of what they were dealing with. It was hours before proper treatment was made available for the victims. In the meantime, thirteen people died and over five thousand suffered varying symptoms of gas poisoning.
Subsequent police investigations revealed that the Aum group was producing large amounts of nerve gas and had plans to diffuse it over wide areas of metropolitan Tokyo. Hand guns were also being manufactured at a number of secret factories. The head of the Aum Shinrikyo, Mr. Shouko Asahara, was well known for prophecies about Armaggedon and the end of the world. Apparently he had decided to try and bring about the fulfillment of those predictions.
The word “cult,” along with “culture” and “cultivate,” originally comes from the Latin word “colere” which means “to till.”2 Medieval society was centered around agriculture. Cultivation of the soil and all activities connected to it helped form the basis for the culture of the Middle Ages. With the growth of the Christian church, religious activity also began to influence culture and play a major role in the life of the average person. A system of religious worship or ritual subsequently began to be referred to as a “cult.” In Germany and England “cult” still retains its original meaning and has no negative implications whatsoever.
In America, however, the word went through a trans-formation of major proportions. “Cult” was conveniently used to identify a small, unusual religious group with unorthodox views and beliefs. However, when the 1970s produced a rash of violent incidents that left a trail of blood leading to certain religious organizations, secular scholars and Christian leaders began to refer to such groups as “cults.”
The Modern Definition of a Cult
During the past twenty years numerous groups have endeavored to refine the definition of a cult and provide the general public with useful data about cults and their unethical recruitment techniques. One such group which has taken the lead in this work is the American Family Foundation (AFF), a nonprofit, educational organization. At an AFF conference of scholars and policy makers in 1985, the following definition was adopted:
Cult: A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management,
suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.3
This definition has been accepted widely by many scholars and cult researchers. It continues to be the standard by which cults are distinguished from other communities or groups.
Characteristics of a Cult
As outlined in the definition above, cult groups are distinguished by certain characteristics, which may be present to a greater or lesser degree. It is also conceivable that a certain religious organization, even a Protestant church, may carry some of the marks of a cult but not actually be considered a true cult group. The key issue is whether members are being manipulated and exploited to the point where they can cause harm to themselves, their families, or the community.
Devotion to the Leader or Organization
As pointed out by the AFF, cults are known for their excessive devotion to a person, idea, or thing. Normally the leader or the organization itself becomes the object of the members’ veneration. In the eyes of the average faithful follower, the cult leader is someone with a special gift from God striving to fulfill a special mission in life.4 The leader is said to be God’s prophet, God’s messenger for this hour, God’s mouthpiece, God’s only channel of communication with the human race, etc.
Support for these bold assertions is drawn from the charisma of the leader himself, the growth and activity of the group, a unique sense of comradery among the members, and a system of theology that claims to be Bible-based, but in reality distorts the basic message of Scripture. Every effort is made to create and maintain a picture of uniqueness and an aura of spiritual authority. The leader must always be represented as the one who has reached the unattainable heights of true spiritual maturity, has been entrusted with the keys to spiritual knowledge, or has been given divine authority to safely guide souls along the path to life.
The Leader Exalted to Equality with Christ
Exaltation of the cult head inevitably leads to a form of deification. Though a cult may expound on the importance of a personal relationship with God, in reality emphasis is placed upon obedience and faith in the leader or the group. Simply trusting in Christ is not enough for salvation. Maintaining membership in the organization, obedience to the commands of the leader, and working diligently for the advancement of the group’s goals are all essential for obtaining God’s blessing and approval. Disobeying the leader is regarded as a flagrant violation of God’s law, while laboring for the group is considered “doing the will of God.” Leaving the group is equivalent with turning one’s back on God; remaining by the leader’s side ensures that the cult member will remain under the protection of God.
Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church, cult exit-counselor, and author of the best-selling book, Combatting Mind Control, states that in his experience, most cult leaders “believe they are ‘God,’ or the ‘Messiah,’or an enlightened leader.”5 Hassan also declares that, “Absolute obedience to superiors is one of the most universal themes in cults.”6
Cult leaders are quick to quote Scriptures that admonish obedience to spiritual authority. However, while obedience may be a scriptural principle, the Bible does not condone totalitarian control. Nor do the Scriptures encourage dependency on a human being. In fact, numerous passages give a stern warning to any who put their trust in man.7 Spiritual leaders who seek to follow the teaching of Scripture will never draw attention to themselves but always point people to Christ.8 He or she will continually stress the gospel message that, whoever believes in Christ will not be disappointed.9 This leader will not “lord it over” the flock of God but rather work to be an example.10
Doctrine Exalted to Equality with Scripture
Just as cults deny the sufficiency of faith in Christ, they also deny the sufficiency of Scripture. Cults claim no one can hope to understand the message of the Bible without the help of “God’s chosen messenger.” This “help” comes in the form of sermons (lectures) and publications.
Cult doctrine always requires that the individual distrust his or her own self. Doctrine is to be accepted, not understood.11 Here again, dependency on the leader is nurtured and the promises of Scripture are negated. Jesus, however, stated clearly that the “Spirit of truth” would guide believers into all truth.12
As outlined in the American Family Foundation’s definition of a cult, cult groups use “unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control. . . designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders.” Cults are well known for their impressive work ethic. It is not unusual to see cult members work fifteen to eighteen hour days without any form of remuneration. This sacrificial lifestyle is made possible by maintaining an elitist mentality. In the words of Steven Hassan,
As a community, they feel they have been chosen. . . to lead mankind out of darkness into a new age of enlightenment. Cult members have a great sense not only of mission but of their special place in history they will be recognized for their greatness for generations to come. . . . This feeling of elitism and destiny, however, carries a heavy burden of responsibility. Members are told that if they do not fully perform their duties, they are failing all of mankind.13
Another incentive used to spur members on to sacrificial labor for the group is the teaching of salvation by works. Believers must always demonstrate their worthiness, establish their own righteousness, and prove their loyalty to God and His “servant.” Only those who “pass the test” will enter God’s kingdom; the dropouts will be rejected.14
Still another powerful weapon of manipulation is prophecy warning of the imminent end of the world. Most cult members are told frequently and forcefully that Armaggedon is just around the corner. These warnings of doom cause loyal followers to reconsider their list of priorities in life. If the end is near, they reason, then seeking higher education, a full-time job, a home, or a family is a selfish endeavor. One’s time should be spent working for God’s organization and warning people of the disaster that awaits them if they do not accept God’s prophet.
One of the tragic realities of cult life lies in the fact that unsuspecting people are turned into slaves.15 The will of the group always takes precedence over the will of the individual. “Self purpose” is sacrificed for the “whole purpose.”16
Unethical Techniques of Persuasion and Control
Mind control17 is an expression frequently used to describe the recruitment and educational techniques of a cult. It refers to a state of extreme dependency in which members need someone (inevitably the leader, “God’s messenger”) to tell them what to think, say, feel, and do. Dependence and conformity are encouraged, while autonomy and individuality are discouraged. All former beliefs and values are replaced by those of the group.
Mind control frequently produces a sudden and dramatic personality change. Individuals often change their clothing style, speech patterns, and behavioral patterns. Previous interests, hobbies, and goals are abandoned because they are no longer important. A totally new identity is assumed.
The unethical aspect of mind control lies in the deception used in the recruiting and educational process. Deception can include outright lying, leaving out important information, or distorting information. Cult leaders reserve the right to determine what members should or should not know. They also think nothing of lying to further the plan of God.
The destructive nature of cult groups came to light dramatically in the Jonestown massacre of 1978. Jim Jones, leader of the “People’s Temple” group, took his followers to Guyana, South America, and founded the village of “Jonestown” in the middle of a remote jungle. Even in spite of the seclusion, however, reports concerning violations of human rights began to filter in to the United States Congress, prompting Senator Leo Ryan to personally initiate an investigation.
The investigation produced undeniable evidence of numerous unethical practices, but before Senator Ryan could board his plane to return to America, he was shot and killed dead by several People’s Temple followers. Jim Jones then proceeded to order his faithful following to drink a mixture of Kool-aid laced with a deadly poison. More than nine hundred people, including three hundred children, sacrificed their lives in blind obedience to their egotistical leader. Destruction in a cult can mean more than just loss of life. Countless homes have broken up due to cult-related problems. Many have witnessed their life savings go up in flames. Young people have seen their dreams for the future wither and die. Numerous others have experienced the trauma of witnessing the destruction of their identities and personalities.
The Apostle Peter, writing nearly nineteen hundred years ago, identifies clearly the most tragic characteristic of a cult group: destruction.
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them bringing swift destruction on themselves. (2 Pet 2:1)
Is the Watchtower a Cult?
One religious organization that has caught the attention of cult researchers is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, usually referred to simply as “The Watchtower.”18 Founded in 1879, this group has experienced phenomenal growth in many countries around the globe. The current world-wide membership is estimated to be over five and a half million.19
The Watchtower organization is well known for its evangelistic activities, its unique system of theology,20 its predictions of the end of the world, and its separation from many other religious and secular organizations. Believers work diligently to present the image of a clean, godly, and happy body of Christians striving to obey the teaching of the Bible. Many cult researchers, however, cite specific problem areas that would seem to clearly brand the Watchtower as a cult.
Devotion to the Organization
Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to support, obey, and believe the Watchtower organization as a condition to receiving God’s favor. The following quotes from Watchtower literature, spanning a forty year period (1957-1996), will suffice in demonstrating this point.
If we are to walk in the light of truth we must recognize not only Jehovah God as our Father but his organization as our mother. 21
Respond to the directions of the organization as you would the voice of God.22
Put faith in a victorious organization!23
But Jehovah God has also provided his visible organization, his ‘faithful and discreet slave,’ made up of spirit-annointed ones, to help Christians in all nations to understand and apply properly the Bible in their lives. Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using, we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do.24
Jehovah is using only one organization today to accomplish his will. To receive everlasting life in the earthly Paradise we must identify that organization and serve God as part of it.25
Today, a ‘faithful and discreet slave’ has been appointed . . . . Jehovah, by his spirit, reveals deep scriptural truths by means of this loyal slave.26
Loyalty requires that we. . . loyally uphold the Bible teachings found in the Watchtower and Awake! magazines as well as all other spiritual food provided by the Watch Tower Society.27
. . . being loyal to Jehovah’s visible organization . . . Thereby we will win his favor and will receive the prize of everlasting life.28
. . . how unsound it is to rely on human reasoning. . . stay by the faithful organization. How else can one get Jehovah’s favor and blessing? 29
Obviously the Watchtower society and its leaders have put themselves in the place of Christ. The loyalty, faith, and obedience that they demand of their followers can only be placed under the category of idol worship. This form of religion has no basis in Scripture, though Watchtower leaders do not hesitate to quote from the Bible in order to undergird their authority.
One passage frequently referred to in Watchtower literature is found in Acts 8:30-31.
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
In this well-known story, Philip is led by the Spirit of God to speak with an Ethiopian eunuch. The man was reading from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, a prophetic passage which speaks about the suffering Messiah, but he was not able to comprehend its meaning. “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” he appeals to Philip. The Watchtower Society jumps upon this anguished cry of the Ethiopian eunuch and then proceeds to apply it to every human being who has ever attempted to read the Bible. “Just as the Ethiopian eunuch needed Philip’s help, you need someone to explain the Scriptures to you,” they declare, as they conveniently produce the latest edition of their Watchtower literature.
A careful examination of this passage, however, will reveal that the Watchtower has ignored the most important aspect of the story. The reason why the eunuch could not understand the Old Testament prophecy was because he did not have a copy of the New Testament in his possession. In other words, he had not yet heard that the prophecy had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the eunuch readily understood and confessed faith in Christ. One may therefore conclude that the words of the eunuch, “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” apply only to those who have never read the New Testament.
Manipulation of the Faithful
Watchtower history is dotted with several prophecies concerning the end of the world. 1914, 1918, 1925, 1941, and 1975 are all dates which the organization predicted would usher in the Millennium. With the introduction of each new prophecy, Jehovah’s Witnesses were strongly encouraged to focus their energies on the work of evangelism and not the matters of this world.
In 1966 the Watchtower published the book Life Everlasting–In Freedom of the Sons of God. This volume assured Jehovah’s Witnesses that the end of the world would come in the fall of 1975. This prophecy was repeated numerous times in subsequent editions of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines. There was also specific advice for faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the “end times.”
Of course, there may be a tempting offer of higher education or of getting into some field of work that promises material rewards. However, Jehovah God holds out to you young folks many marvelous privileges of service in his organization. Which will you decide to take up? In view of the short time left, a decision to pursue a career in this system of things is not only unwise but extremely dangerous. . . . Many young brothers and sisters were offered scholarships or employment that promised fine pay. However, they turned them down and put spiritual interests first.30
Yes, the end of this system is so very near! Is that not the reason to increase our activity? . . . . Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the world’s wicked end.31
Today there is a great crowd of people who are confident that a destruction of even greater magnitude is now imminent. The evidence is that Jesus’ prophecy will shortly have a major fulfillment, upon this entire system of things. This has been a major factor in influencing many couples to decide not to have children at this time. They have chosen to remain childless so that they would be less encumbered to carry out the instructions of Jesus Christ to preach the good news of God’s kingdom earth wide before the end of this system comes.32
When 1975 came and went without any fulfillment of the Watchtower’s prophecy, many Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the painful realization that they had been manipulated. That realization moved one million believers to leave the organization. For the ones that remained, the Watchtower offered the following words of comfort.
However, say that you are one who counted heavily on a date, and, commendably, set your attention more strictly on the urgency of the times and the need of people to hear. And say you now, temporarily, feel somewhat disappointed; are you really the loser? Are you really hurt? We believe you can say that you have gained and profited by taking this conscientious course. Also, you have been enabled to get a really mature, more reasonable viewpoint.33
Loss of Life
The cover of the May 22, 1994 edition of the “Awake!” magazine features pictures of twenty-five attractive youth. Underneath the photographs are the words, “Youths Who Put God First.” Only upon opening the magazine do readers discover that the appealing photos represent young people who died in obedience to the Watchtower Society’s ban on blood transfusions.
In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtrooms, with blood transfusions the issue.34
From a Scriptural point of view, it might be possible to applaud these youths as heroes if they had died as martyrs who were faithful to Christ and His Word. However, a careful examination of the Scriptures and the Watchtower track record on various medical issues will soon reveal that the organization’s policy did not originate from divine wisdom.
Past Watchtower Teaching on Medical Issues
Blood transfusions are not the first medical treat-ment banned by the Watchtower. From 1931 until 1952 Jehovah’s Witnesses were forbidden to accept vaccinations, the reason being that they are “a direct violation of the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood.”35 From 1967 until 1980, organ transplants were forbidden, having been designated as “cannibalism” by the Watchtower author-ities.36 At the present time, both vaccinations and organ transplants are allowed.
In addition to vacillating positions on life and death medical issues, the Watchtower has, in the past, published articles that exhibit a profound ignorance of medical science. The following are actual quotes from Watchtower literature.
Moreover, recent medical research has indicated in a realistic way how blood transfusions may damage the individual’s personality. According to one authority: ‘The blood in any person is in reality the person himself. It contains all the peculiarities of the individual from whence it comes. This includes hereditary traits, disease susceptibilities, poisons due to personal living, eating and drinking habits.’ Transfusing blood, then, may amount to transfusing tainted personality traits. How great the danger may become if the blood is taken from blood banks to which criminals and other derelicts of society have contributed!37
Some say blood transfusions are harmless. Do you believe that? For 40 years Robert Khoury was known as an honest man. Then he was given a blood transfusion after a fall. ‘I learned the donor was a thief,’ Khoury told police. ‘When I recovered I found I had a terrible desire to steal.’ And steal he did. He confessed to stealing ‘10,000 in six robberies in three months. Khoury threatened to sue the doctor who arranged the transfusion, if he receives a severe sentence for his thievery.38
It has long been known that heart-transplant patients have a higher-than-average amount of postoperative psychiatric problems. But it seems that the same is true with regard to some other vital organ transplants, such as kidney transplants. . . . A peculiar factor sometimes noted is a so-called ‘personality transplant.’ That is, the recipient in some cases has seemed to adopt certain personality factors of the person from whom the organ came. One young promising woman who received a kidney from her older, conservative, well-behaved sister, at first seemed very upset. Then she began imitating her sister in much of her conduct. Another patient claimed to receive a changed outlook on life after his kidney transplant. Following a transplant, one mild-tempered man became aggressive like the donor.39
The Bible does not speak of a symbolic or spiritual heart in contradistinction to the fleshly or literal heart, just as it does not speak of a symbolic mind, and thus we do not want to make the mistake of viewing the literal heart as merely a fleshly pump as does orthodox physiology today. . . . The heart is a marvelously designed muscular pump, but, more significantly, our emotional and motivating capacities are built within it. Love, hate, desire (good and bad), preference for one thing over another, ambition, fear in effect, all that serves to motivate us in relationship to our affections and desires springs from the heart.40
Anyone who dies as a result of allegiance to Watch-tower policy can hardly be classified as a martyr. “Victim” would be the more appropriate term to describe the tragedy of all those who have offered up their lives on the altar of ever-changing Watchtower doctrine.
Distortion of Scripture
The Watchtower, in support of its ban on blood transfusions, regularly quotes from Old Testament Scriptures that forbid the consumption of blood.41 Reference is also made to a verse in Acts which encourages Gentile believers to “obstain from blood.”42
Quoted in context, however, none of the verses that the Watchtower authorities cite has anything to say about blood transfusions or the use of blood for medical purposes. Like the Pharisees of old, the Watchtower organization has “gone beyond what is written”43 and has fallen into a form of legalism that violates the spirit of love demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus always put first priority on the preservation of human life, even when this appeared to be a transgression of Old Testament law. He allowed His disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, stating that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”44 Christ also healed a man on the Sabbath day, an action which aroused the wrath of the Pharisees. He responded to them by saying, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”45 Biblical Christianity always proclaims a Christ who came “that they may have life, and have it to the full.”46 Cults share a common bond with him who is known in Scripture as “the thief.” Commonly referred to by the name “Satan,” he comes “only to steal and kill and destroy.”47