Ask any Bible-believing, church-attending evangelical Christian that question, and most likely they’ll respond to it with horror, shock, outrage and be utterly offended: “Evangelicalism is NOT a cult, by any stretch of the imagination! Other groups are cults — like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Moonies, Scientologists — but we are absolutely not a cult. No way. Not possible, since we represent the one true God, and the Truth — as found in the inspired and inerrant Word of God.”
But of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Ask any member of the other religions mentioned above if their belief system is a cult. They’d say basically the same thing — “We’re absolutely not a cult!” Obviously, for many followers of that particular religion or belief system, while they’re in it, and plugged in to the group and its message, they’ll have a hard time thinking critically and objectively about what they’re actually getting involved in. Operating within “the bubble” of the group, people have a very difficult time viewing it objectively for what it may, in fact, be.
Comparing Evangelicalism & Cults
On the face of it, evangelicalism cannot be considered a “cult” in the classic definition of the word, as understood by psychiatrists, sociologists of cults, or cult experts. Virtually every cult has a single leader or governing body who controls the agenda, flow of information, behavior and beliefs for the followers of the group. As a much more general movement, evangelicalism does not fit that criteria for at least two reasons.
First of all, evangelicalism is not a monolith; there are far too many denominations, traditions, and variations of beliefs across the evangelical spectrum. No two churches are exactly alike; although their buildings may be literally next to each other, both may claim the label “evangelical.” For example, both Baptists and Pentecostals disagree violently on certain theological points, but would both consider themselves to be evangelical — Bible-believing Christians with a missional (evangelistic) focus on outreach to the wider world.
Secondly, in addition to it not being a monolith, evangelicalism does not have a single leader, like David Miscavige of Scientology, or even a governing body like the Watchtower organization. Within evangelical and mainstream churches alike, there is a wide diversity of church governance models, from single-pastor, independent churches, to worldwide denominations with synods, national and international governing bodies. Furthermore, depending on the church polity, there are either greater or lesser degrees of accountability for leaders; some churches can vote leaders in or out of their office, which can be more or less democratic and therefore more transparent. In other words, members may have more say in the running of the place, whereas in cults, this is typically far from the case.
Is Evangelicalism Cult-Like?
Having said all of that, however, I submit that evangelical churches (and even mainstream denominations too) can certainly exhibit a great many markers and signs of cults. Moreover, the psychological damage and religious trauma that results from the use of such practices can be tremendously damaging to their followers.
My argument is this: that evangelical churches and leaders often make use of the same psychological tactics of mind control, coercion, manipulation and indoctrination just as cults do. Additionally, many churches exhibit shocking degrees of sexual abuse of members, which is another classic marker of cults. All of these result in religious and other forms of trauma in ex-members, all of which must be carefully worked through with the help of therapists, support groups and so forth, after leaving the church behind.
Markers of Cults: The Leader
What would lead me to suggest that many an evangelical (or even mainstream church) might be cult-like? First of all, let’s start by taking a close look at the person of the leader. Many a pastor exhibits one or more of the classic troubling personality characteristics of cult leaders: narcissistic, authoritarian, sociopathic, and charismatic. Cults exist to serve the needs of the leader — be it financial, emotional, or sexual, or a combination of one or more of all three. In the case of many a televangelist, or mega-church pastor, for example, their lavish lifestyles (mansions, private jets, etc.), would lead one to suspect that they’re largely in it for the money and celebrity prestige status.
The most salient feature of cult leaders is a person who essentially becomes an object of worship, the “defining element” of the group and the heart of the movement. The leader is seen as an inspiring person who is able to help others in their lives. What better place than the pastorate to be in such a position, and ultimately become idolized? Pastors not only can “correctly” interpret the Bible, they can explain it engagingly— and even apply it to the lives of the listeners in practical ways. Grateful followers can in turn put him up on a pedestal, worshiping him for his charismatic communication skills and dynamic leadership abilities.
Examples of evangelical celebrity pastors who display cult-leader personalities include Mark Driscoll of the now-defunct Mars Hill megachurch phenomenon based out of Seattle, Washington. Driscoll exhibited many of those traits when he was the head of the organization. For example, he was often accused of a bullying, authoritarian, macho-style leadership model that infiltrated down through the organization and established a very dysfunctional culture.
Driscoll also allegedly misappropriated church funds to promote one of his books on the New York Times bestseller list. In the end, Mars Hill became a “cult of personality” centered on Driscoll’s charismatic and engaging preaching style, complete with “satellite churches” in the Northwest that simulcast his sermons on the big screen to throngs of adoring listeners.
Additionally, there have been many high-profile evangelical mega-church pastors or leaders that have used and abused their status, and lack of accountability, to engage in sexual abuse of members, or indulge in illicit sexual encounters. The list is very long indeed: J.D. Greear, Bill Gothard, Ted Haggard, Andy Savage, Bill Hybels, Brian Houston, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and more. According to a 2018 study by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, hundreds of men and women have accused pastors of independent fundamentalist Baptist churches of sexual abuse. Also, the Southern Baptist Convention is likewise reeling from the fallout of multiple revelations of sexual abuse of members by its pastors. Celebrity pastor status, combined with a lack of general accountability, often results in men abusing their position and taking advantage of their followers.
While all of these horrific realities of sexual abuse and celebrity status don’t necessarily automatically mean that every evangelical pastor is a cult leader, in my opinion there are a great many parallels and overlaps between the two worlds. There are simply far too many troubling stories that have come out of evangelicalism of pastors who abuse their power and position, revel in their exalted status as celebrities, and use their position to enrich themselves personally — and abuse their followers. Perhaps even more troubling are the sycophants around them who, by their silence, not only enable the abuse to continue, they suppress questions and doubts by congregants, and attempt to cover up the abusive behavior and exploitation by the leader.
Markers of Cults: The Milieu
If evangelicalism isn’t a cult, then why do so many of the markers of cults fit a great number of the exact same psychological tactics that cults use? And why do ex-evangelicals who’ve left it behind have virtually identical stories of trauma, abuse and psychological coercion by those in leadership?
For many ex-evangelicals who’ve walked away from it all, the recovery and reconstruction process is remarkably similar to the journey many an ex-cultist embarks upon after leaving the cult. That this is not a coincidence leads me to suggest that those psychological tactics of manipulation, coercion and control used by many an evangelical church result in doing the exact same types of mental (and possibly physical) damage to followers that ex-cultists report.
When a non-believer enters an evangelical church for the first time in her life, having never experienced the strange world of evangelicalism, she is confronted with what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls milieu control. (Lifton expounds in much more detail on this in his excellent 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Chapter 22; and his 1981 article, “Cult Formation.”).
Returning to our example of the woman in the church for the first time, although the worship service appears to be spontaneous and free-flowing “in the Spirit,” the reality is that what is going on here is milieu control. Specifically, Lifton refers to this aspect of the milieu control as mystical manipulation, or “planned spontaneity.” The entire flow of worship songs, from the beginning of the set (faster, upbeat songs), to the end just before the sermon (slower, more contemplative songs) has been carefully planned ahead of time and managed by those in charge.
Even the lighting can change to reflect the mood of the individual song. The result of all this mystical manipulation is intended to take participants on an emotional journey — and it also prepares them to receive the doctrinal message within the sermon, which immediately follows the worship set. Following the sermon, there’s another few songs to “raise the mood” as the members exit the building. Moreover, the feeling of community and communal worship is a powerful influence upon our new visitor also. Surely all these people around her can’t be wrong — they all seem so fervent!
Some churches encourage chanting of liturgy, dancing, repetitive singing of certain songs, or speaking in tongues. Again, these are examples of mystical manipulation, or what Lifton refers to as “the psychology of the pawn.” They not only provide an initially powerful emotional experience for the participant, they also serve three additional purposes. One, those intense emotions can become addictive; we want to return next Sunday to experience that “emotional high” again (although it’s difficult to replicate). That doesn’t stop people from coming back week in and week out to try and “catch that high again,” however.
Two, such addictive, powerful experiences makes it more and more difficult to leave. The church is my home where I experience a huge emotional uplift every week! It makes it very hard to walk away from such a powerful experience. Three, mystical manipulation serves to close down doubts and concerns that one may have about the theology of the church, the leadership, the way the church is being run, etc. In other words, if you’re overpowered by deep emotions, you’re less likely to be harboring doubts about the truth of what the preacher is up there saying from the pulpit.
Speaking of which, returning to the example of the evangelical service, following the worship experience, now comes the sermon. The milieu control of the church extends to the psychological pressure our visitor feels upon being confronted with the “reality” (all new to her, of course) that she is not only a sinner, she was born in sin and is therefore justly condemned by God to the flames of Hell.
The preacher informs the audience not to take his word for it; this is God’s truth, straight from the inspired and inerrant Word of God! Who are we mere mortals to question the almighty God and his infallible Word? But what is happening here is what Lifton calls “sacred science” — the milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its dogmas. It becomes the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence and the afterlife. In this context, reverence is demanded not only for the sacred Word itself, but also for the bearers of the Word — the person of the preacher.
Seeking a way out of this threat of annihilation, as a means of relief to the the existential fear and guilt she is now experiencing, she may indeed take the proffered salvation extended by the preacher at the conclusion of his evangelistic sermon. Thankfully, there’s a reprieve that is offered as a means to end the existential threat of an eternity spent in the flames of Hell. Thus, she comes to see that the “conversion experience” she undergoes provides a worthwhile and safe path for her eternal future. The conversion experience in many ways becomes a huge emotional breakthrough; people “see the light” and come to Jesus with tears and a thankful heart.
Looking closer at the actual psychology of the conversion, however, there’s much more to it. Not only does this experience do great damage to her sense of self-image (“I’m a sinner, I’m apparently a terrible person who has committed crimes against God”), but it also means that in order to accept the offer of salvation, she has to suppress her true, original, identity. This results in what Lifton refers to as “doubling” — essentially, it’s the psychological creation of a “second self” to help one to fit into the group. Influenced by the milieu control, this dramatic change of personality becomes essentially the formation of this second self that lives side-by-side with one’s original self.
Dr. G.A. Bradshaw, in an article entitled “15 Minutes of Shame” in Psychology Today, explains that “Doubling falls within the same category as dissociation, splitting, and numbing that are mental methods to have your cake and eat it too…Split-world living is accomplished by creating two functioning, interdependent wholes within our self. These twin selves are independent, yet connected…With doubling, the two selves live like conjoined twins in their respective environments, neatly housed in the same person.”
Returning to our newly-converted visitor, she has come up against the concept of “social proof.” Unsure of how to act and what to think, she looks to the behavior of the people around her for cues. Since she is the only one who is out of step with the rest of the group, and desires to fit in and be accepted, the “psychological doubling” occurs so that she will feel at ease, both within herself and within the group that now accepts her as a true believer who has seen the light and repented.
Now a good Christian in good standing with the church, she can embark on the lifelong process of sanctification. This involves joining “accountability groups” where she learns from the group around her to confess her sins and have the others hold her accountable to live a successful Christian life. On the face of it, this seems like a good thing in which to become involved; but there again, we come up against another marker of cults identified by Lifton: a cult of confession.
Confession works by tapping into people’s shame and guilt mechanisms, where they are much more easily controlled and manipulated. If I know your deepest, darkest secrets, I can later use those against you as a weapon of emotional blackmail. Either that, or I can share them with others, and thus demean your standing within the group. In some extreme cases, some churches go so far as to have an “offending” member who has broken a rule sit in front of the church, confessing his or her “sins” and being accused of additional ones by the others in the group. All of these practices within the cult of confession are obviously highly traumatic.
What happens if our Christian woman has doubts or concerns about her faith? She learns that the answer is to be found in “Christianese” — what Lifton refers to as “loaded language,” or thought-terminating cliches. Short, pithy, and easily memorizable phrases like “God is in control,” or “All things work together for the good,” or “God’s ways are simply a mystery,” Christianese works to simplify complexities of life and reduce them to platitudes. They are designed to stop doubts and critical thinking, and this also means that the identity that she suppressed experiences further damage.
Rather than trusting in her intuition, critical thinking and sense of self, she learns to block all of that and use loaded language instead. And what exactly makes it “loaded”? It is loaded with the ideology, and theology, of the particular church or denomination. Thus, rather than entertaining doubts, criticisms or questions, she learns to deny and suppress her critical thinking, and find a sense of cognitive consonance to quell any dissonance she may be feeling. She’s a “happy Christian” — as long as she learns to play the part, much like an actor playing a role.
As she matures and grows as a Christian, she may even become a proselytizing missionary, motivated to evangelize non-believing friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers. What is her message now? Although she wouldn’t see it this way at all, she now seeks to help the organization of which she has become a solid member to recruit and coerce people exactly like herself. Manipulated by the preacher’s messages of shame and guilt to “go out into the world and preach the gospel,” she now seeks to do to others exactly the same thing that she experienced.
But after all, since she experienced such existential terror and guilt upon finding out that she was a sinner condemned to Hell, why shouldn’t she help others who are in the exact same position in which she was initially?
Is evangelicalism a cult? As I stated at the beginning, although it’s too broad of a movement, and lacks a central leader or governing body, the various psychological tactics many an evangelical church uses are virtually identical to those used by cults. Just like many an ex-cult member, when the weight of the cognitive dissonance becomes simply too much to continue dealing with, they finally differentiate and begin the painful process of undergoing a deconversion.
Experiencing a crisis of faith, many ex-evangelicals then struggle first of all to express their concerns and doubts, and to inform their friends and family members still in the system that they no longer believe. As they are deconstructing their former beliefs, this is an incredibly difficult and painful journey. They may not feel free to express what they are going through to others in the church for fear of reprisals, or loss of their immediate community and social networks.
And here we have a final marker of cults: the resulting social cost that many an ex-evangelical pays upon leaving. Many cults practice forms of shunning of ex-members, and evangelicalism can be no different. Those of us who have left the church behind often report that we felt a deep sense of betrayal: that those who taught us “the Truth” didn’t do their due diligence. Some, or all, of what we were taught turned out to be…not true.
But we trusted them, and they (wittingly or not) led us down a particular path of beliefs that we accepted as true. They, in turn, feel betrayed by our leaving, and will oftentimes have a deep emotional investment in winning us back, or at least pushing us back into line. Shunning of ex-members is a powerful tool that can manipulate ex-evangelicals to come back to the community, upon seeing how much of their community and supportive relationship network has been now lost to them.
Ironically, one may, in fact, be lucky simply to be shunned, or written out of their family’s lives; others report cruel manipulation, punishment, or passive-aggressive actions designed to force the ex-evangelical back into the fold, on the part of friends and family members. The ex-evangelical may indeed have to end certain toxic relationships and start again by forming a new tribe.
There’s also the issue of working through the variety of religious trauma, and possibly other forms of abuse and psychological coercion, that the ex-evangelical may have experienced during their time in the church. One may need to find an experienced therapist who understands what is going on, and can help the person to process through the hurt, grief, pain, deep sense of betrayal, and resulting loss of relationships.
If you’ve left the church behind, but are unsure where to go next, I encourage you to listen to a recent podcast I did with Keith Davis, formerly of the Pilgrims and Prodigals podcast. Keith and I discuss in more detail how evangelical churches make use of cult-like tactics to indoctrinate, manipulate and control their members, and also how we have been able to come out of that and find a new and positive life on the other side. This is the link on iTunes: