Safe and Unsafe Groups and Some of their Practices. An Extract from a study on High-Control Groups or Cults
Although written from a humanistic perspective (The 25 Signs you’re in a High-Control Group or Cult by Anastasia Somerville-Wong, February 24, 2020), I can recognise quite a few of these dysfunctional traits in some of the (church) fellowships I belonged to in the past.
My most explicit memory that something wasn’t quite right occurred one day, on a “time away” trip, in the hills of Mullumbimby, Northern New South Wales (Australia). There, it became clear that the church group I belonged to had a “them and us” approach regarding outsiders of our group.
Later, I learned that the term for this was “group think”, one of the signs of cultish thinking!
Since then, I have experienced various other behaviours in the groups I belonged to, such as the following, listed in the above-mentioned extensive article.
I need to explain that I am still a committed believer in Christ (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed_(ECUSA_Book_of_Common_Prayer) and attend a Baptist church (I am aware that many variant groups now call themselves “Christian”, so have chosen to define what “brand” of Christianity I belong to. Of course, even adherence to a defined creed, without genuine faith is still not the true definition of a Christian, better known as a “follower of Christ”. Christ nailed it by stating that those who loved him could prove it by their obedience to his commands https://biblia.com/bible/esv/1-john/5/2-3).
Nevertheless, these traits, which Anastasia identifies as belonging to unsafe groups, are frequently found in the groups I care most about; in Christian churches! The more “religious” a church tries to be (by “religious” I mean relying on human effort to be “right with God”, rather than on the finished work of Jesus Christ. This is also called “law versus grace”), frequently prone to the practices listed below.
Exposing such attitudes is the right thing to do, and I have no qualms about doing so in this article!
Let’s start with one of the traits which I (and others I talked to) just recently, but also in the past have experienced (I quote from the article mentioned above):
*Members who leave are no longer trusted and personal contact is avoided.
High-control groups often impose some kind of shunning to shame former members and prevent them from ‘infecting’ other members with their ideas.
*Potentially unsafe groups or leaders come across as very nice at first.
They may even affirm your autonomy and intelligence and massage your ego. They often target vulnerable people who are looking for answers or are lonely and are very good at making people feel they really care about them and even love them. This practice is known as “love-bombing”.
Some group members may even have deceived themselves into thinking they really do love the people they are targeting, by trying hard to engineer the feeling over time. Only later do their actions, or lack of them, betray the shallowness or falseness of that emotion.
There is often a steep decline in interest in and care for new members once they have been converted.
Many members go through a troubled period when they find all that love is mostly replaced with judgment or indifference (my emphasis).
Safe groups have realistic goals and sensible plans to achieve them.
Members do not show more interest in and affection for others than they really feel; they treat strangers with respect and compassion but understand that it is only when you take the trouble to get to know another individual as your equal, with their own beliefs and experiences, that you have the potential to feel more deeply for them. In other words, safe groups and safe group leaders are authentic in the way they treat you – they have nothing to hide!
*Self-deception is very widespread in high-control groups.
Many fundamentalist religious and political extremists believe that they truly love humanity. They see themselves as good and kind people, when the reality is, that the more fundamentalist people get about their group dogma, the less empathy they have with wider humanity since fundamentalism separates us from others both physically and mentally and prevents such people from understanding the experiences and perspectives of others.
While it may look from the outside as though there is a lot of fellowship, loving care and comradery between members of high-control and cult groups (something people often find attractive about them), their dogmatic commitment to abstract dogma, group priorities and group leaders creates distance between individuals and decreases empathy and trust among members, just as it does between members and outsiders.
Often members become suspicious and afraid of each other. Relationships between members, even those in the same family, are often strained, complex and unhappy beneath the veneer of closeness.
(I notice that the writer uses the word “Fundamentalism”. She seems to mean strict, dogmatic adherence to a set of credos or dogmas, whether political, religious or otherwise. It is and has often been labelled at Christians who use the Scriptures as their standard of truth. This is commended in the Scriptures. I personally believe that it is essential for a steady faith walk. It is the spirit in which the Scriptures’ truth is applied to everyday living that determines mere “religious” adherence. Just like the Sadducees and Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus’ time, not commend by him due to their “hardness of heart”; which is the main trait of a mere “religious orientation”, without the presence of His Spirit).
(On the subject of healthy and respectful boundaries, the following two deceptions I experienced and even participated in in the early and not so early days of my Christian walk. I didn’t wake up to their underhandedness until later. They subscribe to the false dogma that “the end justifies the means”, which I now consider highly unethical!)
*1) Events are advertised in misleading ways, which cover up a proselytising agenda.
For example, guests are led to believe they are attending a cultural, recreational or social event or excursion and find themselves instead being preached to for most of the time, or they find themselves taking part in a service or other religious ritual!
*2) Intercessory prayer meetings for specific people, such as those targeted by the group for conversion, are held in secret, without asking those people for their consent.
People’s private lives and personal issues, originally disclosed with the expectation of confidentiality, are shared and discussed at these meetings behind their backs.
*Only the elite or ‘inner circle’ of the group holds meetings to discuss the dogma, theology and practice of the group and its overall direction.
In safe groups, the leadership is democratic, and decision-making is shared with members. Leaders are subject to rules, accountability, transparency and oversight as much as anyone else and can be removed from leadership for serious misdemeanours. The leaders will admit failings and mistakes, accept constructive criticism and seek advice. They will value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas and opinions, including where these relate to their own role and performance.
In safe groups, leaders will work collaboratively and within wider networks of authority, subjecting themselves and their work to inspection and scrutiny. They will be willing to receive external audit and advice and will seek to combine forces with other groups whenever possible to tackle shared problems and meet common goals.
*There is no meaningful financial disclosure and no independent auditor.
A group that refuses to disclose its finances should set all your alarm bells ringing! If you are not allowed to know exactly what the group does with its money, you are in a cult.
A safe group or leader will regularly disclose all the financial information pertaining to the group and will make it easy for members to access this information, including historical statements, by themselves or by request. Their accounts will be made available to all and will be independently audited. Ethical organisations have nothing to hide and will therefore have completely transparent processes, procedures and documentation.
They may make general pleas for donations or ask everyone to contribute a reasonable amount to cover a fixed expense from which they are all benefitting, e.g. to cover an entrance fee or transport for a group trip. However, they will never pressure members to pay more than they are able.
(Sigh! As to the following:)
*Men and women study, learn and work together in safe groups, and both women and men take leadership roles according to their ability and not their gender.
They are only separated where an activity involves undressing or intimacy, and this is in consultation with the whole group. For example, most groups have separate toilet-, changing and washing facilities for men and women. Some groups have therapeutic single-sex meetings on subjects that affect one gender significantly more than the other or which might be difficult to discuss openly in a mixed setting. For example, it is appropriate to have female-only meetings for women who have been abused by men or male-only meetings to discuss experiences of prostate cancer or male suicide.