Bible-Cult Mind Control 101
Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 2, pages 139-150.
First I'd like to thank the American Family Foundation and Denver Seminary for giving me this opportunity to share my experience with you. Some personal background: I have always considered myself to be a Christian. I attended Methodist and Lutheran churches. I was confirmed and learned the basics of my faith. Although I was not initially baptized, I later decided to receive sprinkling baptism in the Methodist Church
Parenthetically, those who have had any experience with Bible cults will understand the significance of immersion and why these groups typically believe that one must be immersed. Almost all of the bible-based cults I have been exposed to in the past twenty three years contend that their organization is the true restoration of the first century/New Testament Christian church. They all require baptism by full immersion. Typically, the group does not accept previous family religious affiliations or non-immersion baptismal experiences as valid. Families are commonly cut off from group members and do not grasp the magnitude of this rite of passage.
My experience with this rite of passage, with baptism by immersion, occurred shortly before I joined my group, The Walk (officially known as the Church of the Living Word). At the time, I still had some involvement with the Jesus Movement, which the group’s leadership frowned upon. They encouraged us to cut off “soulish realm” activity and submit completely to the truly divine order of pyramidal authority they were restoring. I did eventually stop attending Jesus Movement meetings and submitted to group leadership directives.
To help you better understand my cult experience, I need to give a little background information on the Restoration Movement, of which there are two basic categories. First, there was the Restoration Movement of the 1830s, which had a tremendous impact on the United States and the world. Many of the major groups that concern the Christian community today had their beginnings in the Restoration Movement: for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ, and the Mormons. There is considerable Christian effort to deal with the effects of these groups. Indeed, the vast majority of the counter-cult ministries in the evangelical community focus on Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I was exposed to another category of the Restoration Movement, namely, the Latter Rain Movement, which began in the late 1940s. The Jesus Movement, which began in the 1960s, had its roots in the mainstream Pentecostal tradition of mainline Christianity. The Pentecostal and Charismatic experience emphasizes personal direct experience with God, which is much more subjective than the intellectual aspects of mainstream denominations. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the Latter Rain movement began to infiltrate the Jesus Movement.
I graduated high school in 1971 at the height of the “counter-culture” movement, or the “hippie generation” (which by nature was quite anti-establishment and anti-organized religion). My first exposure to the Jesus Movement occurred at a local mall shortly after graduation. I was very responsive to the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s because of its emphasis on a personal relationship with God, which meant a lot to me. I also was introduced - and very open - to many of the first- century concepts that were said to be based in the Bible: for example, speaking in tongues. I also became familiar and comfortable with many practices, such as raising your hands to worship God, that were common in Pentecostal circles, but not in mainstream denominations.
The young man who had approached me at the mall was the son of the director of a coffeehouse that was a part of the Jesus Movement.
I became involved with this coffeehouse and its outreach ministry in the Philadelphia area. Our coffeehouse was modeled on the coffeehouse of Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. In fact, Carl Standard, the local leader of the Philadelphia Jesus People, was a personal friend of Chuck Smith. Moreover, the son of the director of our coffeehouse had gone to California with Carl Standard and had first-hand exposure to the Jesus People and their coffeehouse on the West Coast
As a staff member at the coffeehouse I became very close to the director and his family. In the summer of 1972 we all went to Winona Lake Missionary Conference, a major evangelical center in Winona Lake, Indiana. There we met Ralph, a member of The Walk. This was our first exposure to the teachings of The Walk, which was headed by John Robert Stevens. We knew nothing about the group prior to our meeting with Ralph.
After Winona Lake, Winnie, the coffeehouse director’s wife, became upset because of conflicts between her family and coffeehouse duties. During this time, Ralph invited Winnie to California. We felt the trip to California would be a much-needed break from the stress of her day-to-day life.
She stayed in California for two weeks and learned about The Walk. When she returned to the coffeehouse, we were impressed with dramatic, and what we felt were positive, changes in her personality. She was totally non-critical and emotionally positive with plenty of smiles expressing how her experience with The Walk changed her outlook on life.
The Walk’s Teachings
Winnie introduced us to the basic teachings of The Walk. Initially, we viewed this as a blessing because of the apparently positive impact her brief experience with The Walk had had on her life. The Walk claimed to go beyond the Jesus Movement to the full restoration of New Testament Christianity. The Walk’s restoration emphasis implied a rejection of the old and acceptance of the new. We became open to the notion that God was restoring certain things. As part of the Jesus Movement, we had been fellowshipping with all kinds of Christians and all kinds of denominations that were open to things we were sharing with each other. But The Walk was very different from the Jesus Movement in that regard. Separation was a basic part of what they were about, and it had a lot to do with their concepts of authority.
The Walk put out a series called The First Principles. By the time one got to lesson 33 in The First Principles, the mainstream denominations were basically being presented as Babylon. Babylon was an all-encompassing, loaded term that was used repetitively in the group. It was truly an us-versus-them, polarizing word. Babylon meant denominational, man-made churches used by Satan and not by the true spirit of God. Thus, as non-Walk churches became viewed as part of Babylon, people with whom we used to fellowship were now seen as adversaries. Because of the counter-cultural context in which all of this was occurring, we were very open and vulnerable to this anti-establishment call to reject mainstream institutions.
It's also really interesting to me to consider the conspiracy theory of history that was having a formative impact on many of us at that time. I'm talking about something beyond the John Birch Society of the 1950s and 1960s. We were hearing about Illuminati and the Tri-Lateral Commission, and we were being deluged with all kinds of adversarial material concerning the banking system, the Federal Reserve System, the income tax system, and all kinds of things about history. I assure you, I was no expert about these things, and neither were many of the other young people who were involved at that same time. Fundamentally, those associated with our coffeehouse were recruited into this conspiracy theory mindset. Our ages, for the most part, were in the upper teens and early twenties, and we just did not have the sophistication to deal with what we were being subjected to. But since the group emphasized the end times, its members emphasized certain priorities, including separating from family and friends because they were considered to be of "the world."
There also was a certain mindset that was developed in the writings of Watchman Nee in his book called The Spiritual Man Series, which discussed the body, soul, and spirit. This was a way of breaking down the levels of relationship - there were spiritual relationships, there were soul-issue relationships, and there were physical relationships. And in the context of Eros there was sexuality. So by the breakdown we were given, I eventually perceived that it was spiritually harmful for me to be open with my family because of the group's misuse of passages such as "don't cast your pearls before swine." "Dead man's bones and whited sepulchers" was the attitude that was expressed toward seminary professors, for example. As is the case with other cults, we became very judgmental, taking Bible verses out of context and projecting motives onto other people without actually knowing them. Later, when I went to school, I learned how Bible verses had been grossly misinterpreted and that seminary professors included some of the godliest people that I had ever met.
Being isolated from the outside and from our past was a characteristic of our group members. It wasn't just that I was changing as an individual; it was a group dynamic that was typical of other members as well. Those who consider this matter seriously should understand the nature of that kind of personality change - the cloning factor. Although shared counter-cultural feelings might have initially attracted many of us to the group, the anti-family sentiment we developed resulted from influence processes that occurred after we joined.
Now I would like to touch on how some Biblical passages relate to the selectivity I perceived in my experience in The Walk. There was a selective focus on repetitive themes that had a centering effect on my thinking and cut me off from previous church and life options. For example, there was a constant preoccupation with restoration of the divine pyramidal order. This cut us off from any other church order whatsoever, and our past was denigrated. We would constantly sing, "we shall war against the lie of Babylon." Here were some of the selective texts we used repeatedly, Ephesians 4:11 related to the divine order, Hebrews 13:17, "Obey them that have rule over you," applying to group leaders. With regard to the family, there was Matthew 10:37, "He that loveth Father or Mother more than me is not worthy of me," and Matthew 12:50, "For whosoever shall do the will of my father which is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother." This of course meant that members of the group became our true family.
The Walk taught me a way of looking at the Bible that supported Brother Stevens’s claim to be an apostle, which supported the authority structure of the group. If someone from the group said, "Do you find any New Testament prophets in the church today?" I would respond, "Well, I can't really think of any." The Lutheran Church didn't talk about that, and neither did the Methodists. And the people around the corner or down the street couldn't tell me. But Walk leaders could say, "Well, look, who Agabus was. What do you know about Agabus?” I didn't know about Agabus, who was a New Testament prophet. And while The Walk still didn't clarify the apostle qualification issue, I was nevertheless shown passage after passage after passage in the New Testament in a selective context that gave me the impression that the Restoration of Apostles was part of the restoring of the church.
Another issue in my indoctrination was the amount of material I was subjected to during most of my (approximately) two-year group experience. Five-hour services, Living Word tapes, booklets, manuals, literature - I was completely immersed in the materials of John Robert Stevens to the extent that I did not have the time to digest it, let alone think critically about what was going on. I remember that in some of those long, sensory-bombardment-oriented services we went to, I would become lightheaded.
When I look back now, I conclude that I experienced trance states. I was also exposed to much suggestibility, group dynamics, and reinforcement from those around me, and a repetitive, unified message that The Walk was my authority. In subtle ways, these processes worked together to ensure compliance. One little manipulation, for example, was to be asked, "Do you have a revelation that this is Jesus speaking to you?" The implication here was that if it (some directive from the leaders) was not a revelation to me, God was not talking to me. The guilt thereby elicited made one feel very insecure.
Thus, noncompliance was evidence of a lack of submission, an independent spirit, or rebelliousness. Because I was told that John Robert Stevens's experience was comparable to that of the Apostle Paul, I considered noncompliance to him to be noncompliance to God. I was hoodwinked. I didn’t know enough Greek and Hebrew to distinguish the English terms they were using from the original meaning of those terms in the Greek. “Appearance,” for example, is different from “vision.” Not knowing such distinctions of language made me susceptible to the false premises of the group, such as the notion that Stevens was just like Paul.
The belief that these leaders were oracles of God, and that Stevens himself was the first fruit of the resurrection, had a very powerful mediating influence on members, because they naturally saw the leader as the pipeline to God. The leader was exalted beyond all others. The group would fast for Stevens, for example, for something like two weeks, so he could break through in the spirit realm. Such a level of sacrifice is a very important human element in this kind of situation. The levels of sacrifice that people are willing to make and the perceived benefits that are supposed to come from the sacrifice create a situation of cognitive dissonance that plays an important role in cultic dynamics.
Thus, the issue of authority is foundational and fundamental to a cult structure. The key issue is not only that the mediation is through a human agency, but that there isn’t a higher alternative. The human leader is viewed as having the authority of God.
This inappropriate authority can be easily abused. I remember Dr. Enroth's early article "The Power Abusers" in Eternity Magazine. He lists specific characteristics of those who abuse power. One thing that really stood out to me was when he talked about the authority of Truth versus personal control over the mundane affairs of an individual's life. One of the things you commonly see in a mind-control group that is different from orthodox Biblical scripture is the lack of personal control over mundane affairs: What school are you going to go to? Who are you going to marry? Shall you date this person? One of the things Dr. Enroth pointed out in that particular article was that, according to an authority in Greek that he consulted, exousia does not connote jurisdiction over private areas of your life; rather, it's an authority of Truth. This and many other words, however, are misused in ways that magnify the authority and power of the human leaders.
In The Walk, living with other members also strengthened compliance to the group's norms. So I was encouraged to live with other members, and I eventually moved to Redlands, California. But some critical events preceded this move.
Examples of Submission
In Reynoldsburg, Ohio in 1973 we had our first Walk apostolic meeting. Here we submitted to ministry. We allowed the group’s leaders, who claimed a “directive prophecy,” to decide what our personal ministry was going to be. Winnie, who got us introduced to all this, was coming under fire because she rebelled against the group’s controls over her domestic and family affairs. They labeled her a “rebellious spirit,” and resolved that her rebellious spirit would be broken. This situation caused incredible conflict within her family, because the leaders enlisted her husband and her son in the effort to break her spirit. They had bought into the authority structure of the group and were taking their directives from Stevens, his apostles, and the apostolic company under them, who were controlling the family's affairs.
Let me give you a practical example. The director, a member of The Walk who instructed us to become a New Testament church, would go into Winnie’s bedroom, put a chair up against the door, and make all kinds of long-distance phone calls. When Winnie got the phone bill in her mailbox, she would understandably be rather upset that she was being charged for all these phone calls that she didn't make. But the leaders reframed her understandable anger into a "rebellious attitude," into a spiritual rebellion issue, and came down real hard on her.
Another friend was accused of committing witchcraft. Without any evidence to substantiate this accusation, the leaders within our local group believed the accusation without examining the matter. I was torn personally because the charges didn't fit what I knew of this person's background. There was no evidence for the accusation, and he denied it.
Let me give one more instructive example. A couple I was friendly with said they wanted to become engaged. "Dana," I said, "you need to submit this to the elders. You need to submit this to the apostles." So on their trip to Reynoldsburg, they did that. By the time I got there a day later, Mike and Dana were separated. I looked at Dana and she was in a daze. I asked, "Dana, what happened? I thought you two were planning to get engaged to be married." "No, the apostles broke the bonds of the relationship. And they used Matthew 16:19: 'Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'“ That was the end of their relationship. They never got back together again romantically, even after they left the group. And I was responsible for having them submit to that process. When I look at it now, I gave them bad advice and submitted them to the control of somebody who was not qualified. But, as I said earlier, in this group, the rebellious spirit will be broken.
The authoritarianism was so strong that the personal crisis within Winnie got to the point that she ended up committing suicide. That act had a defining impact on me and on our local group. It was the precipitating factor that broke up the whole group in the Philadelphia area. And I had debates within myself and with other close friends, including Winnie before her death. She felt strongly that I should not go to California for further Walk training because she feared I would undergo the same personality change she and her son went through as a result of their trips to California. But I had growing conflicts within myself about troubling contradictions in the group’s teachings and practices.
After Winnie died, I went to California because I felt I had to see if my doubts were indeed justified. When I got to California, I was deeply troubled by the members’ lack of emotion about Winnie’s death. Even her son showed no emotion about the loss that I could detect. The grieving was lacking. I remember talking to the son’s girlfriend, and she and I were deeply troubled by his lack of emotion. I couldn't understand it in mind-control terms at the time, but I was deeply troubled and disturbed by the lack of emotion. It shook me to the core of my being.
This experience had a tremendous impact on me later on. After I returned to the Philadelphia area, I had friends who were being approached by other groups such as the Forever Family, which is now the Church of Bible Understanding. The Children of God were also actively recruiting. I was exposed to the Unification Church at the University of Pennsylvania and went to some of their meetings in Powellton Village. I met members of The Way International on the New Jersey Turnpike, and got into lengthy discussions about tongues and gifts of the spirit, and the way they teach you how they do it. I was really bothered that to them it was a very mechanistic thing. But what really struck me - I wasn't looking for this, but it emerged as a result of my being exposed to these different groups - were the common themes and experiences that people reported to me.
I was invited to go to Senator Dole's 1976 gathering in Washington. That experience was a defining moment for me, because I ran into families at the Dole gathering, including Rev. George Swope, a Baptist minister, along with other cult afflicted families and former members of other groups. And I heard carbon-copy experiences in terms of the dynamics that were going on in those groups, even though their doctrines varied greatly. Most of the people were young, college age, encouraged to live with other group members, under authoritarian leaders, in isolation from families and friends, financially dependent on the group, and urged to quit whatever job they had and work for the group. I could go through an entire laundry list that would become quite redundant if I just kept repeating the dynamics each time. Here I heard experts for the first time talk about the issue of mind control. I was not looking for mind control explanations when I went to this gathering in Washington D.C. But, when I heard the explanation, it resonated with me in terms of the experience I have just described and the experiences of other cult members. I also saw families who were in crisis over this. This was 1975, a year before I went to seminary. I was being approached by families of young people in the Forever Family because I had debated Stewart Trail, the founding leader of the Forever Family. The families that approached me had concerns that this group was a cult. I debated back and forth with those leaders, on their turf.
Forging a Career
Parents were wondering where their young people were, and they knew that I had traveled around and debated with these people. So they asked if I would be willing to talk to their son or daughter. By 1976, I decided that seminary was appropriate for me. The educational aspect of it was critical in terms of my recovery and critical-thinking abilities. It also was critical to answering many other basic questions that my various attempts had failed to give me. So as I was going to school, I was also learning about mind control. I was exposed to the formative stages of what we know now as the Cult Awareness Network. One thing that really impressed me about the former members and their parents was the level of commitment they had to help those who were really in distress.
But the mind control element was a critical part of why I got involved and why I kept moving in the direction of exit counseling. After my experience with a cult and exposure to other cults, I found there was a tremendous need to communicate to others and educate those victimized by this phenomenon. My knowledge on this issue came the hard way through painful, first-hand experience. Once the process model of mind control became clearer, I tried to reach friends who were still in the cult I had belonged to in my home area. I was one of the first who did voluntary family interventions with Bible-based mind control cults. While I was in seminary, the parents and former cult members were networking into cult awareness support groups that grew out of the Dole gathering in 1976. The mind control issue was just beginning to take hold in the wider culture and I was moving in the direction of full-time intervention work as a profession. Certainly, I had not consciously planned this as a career path. Ideally, I wish I had finished my seminary training (I had only one semester to go). But the need for exit counseling was so compelling at the time - and it still is a compelling need for people who are in crisis concerning this mind-control matter - that I chose to focus on exit counseling. After seminary I became a leading exit counselor and eventually helped form national and professional organizations on this topic and related matters.
Influence of Walter Martin
I would say Walter Martin, who wrote a book called The Kingdom of the Cults, was the most definitive influence on me in terms of the cult phenomenon and my becoming an activist. This book was the first definitive work in that area that I had ever come across. (This was before the Spiritual Counterfeits Project wrote its analysis of The Walk in1976.) Martin's book talks about why cultists are not interested in rational cognitive thinking. One very interesting thing in this book is the chapter on the psychological structure of cultism. Both Martin and Robert J. Lifton, who also influenced me greatly, describe processes of mind control. Both authorities clearly describe brainwashing as a real phenomenon.
A rewriting of history that deeply troubles me concerns the issue of cult mind control and brainwashing in the Christian community. It appears that some people are incorrectly suggesting that the late Dr. Martin did not proclaim the notion of brainwashing. Indeed, the latest edition of The Kingdom of the Cults has been re-edited. There is some controversy involving the late Dr. Martin's family, who apparently is not happy with changes and serious additions related to the subject of brainwashing in the most recent edition of the book.
It is my firm belief that those responsible for this current contemporary change of his views would not have dared to do so during his life. Those who are old enough to know his original and consistent views on this subject, however, are here to challenge them. Walter Martin’s original audiotape series on the new cults, for example, clearly states on quite a few tapes that brainwashing is a reality. Dr. Martin also directly supported and endorsed "biblical deprogramming" as stated in the Colorado Cult conference audiotape of 1988.
Scripture and Mind Control
In addition, there are scripture texts that are relevant to the issues of culpability and responsibility. In Matthew 25:15, for example, Jesus says "Woe unto you the scribes and Pharisees - hypocrites - for ye encompass sea and land to make one proselyte and, when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." Matthew 25:13 says, "But woe unto you, the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye shut up the Kingdom of heaven against men, for either do ye go in yourselves." Ron Enroth talks about 2 Corinthians 4:4, and about the God of this world blinding the minds of them who believe not. And we have the caution of 2 Corinthians 11:3, where the apostle Paul says, "But I fear, lest by any means as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, that your minds should be corrupted from the purity of devotion that is in Christ." That same chapter also states, "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel, for Satan himself transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers be also transformed into ministers of righteousness whose end shall be according to their works."
Thus, according to the Bible deception can be a very insidious thing. It's a matter of internal church issues as well. In Acts 20:30 Paul speaks to the church: "Also of your own selves men shall arise, speaking perverse things, drawing away disciples after themselves." The covert infiltration of which Paul speaks is not just an external matter; it is also internal. I was being perverted that way; I broke away from it, but there was a lot that I did not know when I got involved. Indeed, I think that the lack of informed consent was a big factor in my victimization. If I had known more, my decisions would have been entirely different.
David Clark is a thought reform consultant from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A recipient of the 1985 Cult Awareness Network Hall of Fame Award, Mr. Clark has helped hundreds of families and individuals troubled by cult involvement and has contributed to a chapter on exit counseling in Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse.