I never met Jim Jones, but I remember his story very clearly. My wife and I were barely back from our honeymoon in 1978 when he forced hundreds of faithful People’s Temple followers to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Soldiers from the US armed forces cleaned up the mess and found his body with the rest. He had promised his followers that they would regroup in the next world, where unfriendly governments would not hinder them.
More recently, Roch Theriault, the former doomsday leader of the “Ant Hill Kids” cult in Ontario was murdered in his prison cell – a fitting end to a life that left many innocent people scarred for life.
Perhaps one can hardly call adult followers of Jim Jones and Roch Theriault innocent, but the children they took with them in their deception certainly were. We would hardly want to describe on paper the immoral life style that these two men forced on their followers. Both of them are now in the hands of God, who will judge them with a righteous judgment.
Why do people join cults?
Cults appeal to people who are looking for security. Since cults do the thinking for their members, it means that they do not have to make choices for themselves. Most cults believe that obedience and submission are the doors to eternal life. They do not want members thinking for themselves: obedience is a virtue, but analysis is not. This process appeals to insecure people who are trying to please God. It relieves them of responsibility.
Some people believe the cult’s teaching, and join because they agree with them. Others join because they can be part of something important, or because the cult will meet their financial needs in return for their submission. Some join because of the charisma of a revered leader in the cult. And finally, some join because they have been deceived.
Why do people stay in cults?
Some people actually believe what the cult is teaching. They are dedicated members, passing out the cult propaganda to “unbelievers” and trying to convert them. These are the people who tend to become leaders and teachers within the group. They would not consider leaving for the same reason that Theriault’s wives kept visiting him in prison – they believed in their messiah and would not forsake him.
Many people stay within the cult because that is the easiest thing for them to do. This is one reason that cults keep their people isolated. The cult is the only thing they are familiar with. Other environments are uncomfortable; it is easier to simply stick with what they know. After all, even if they don’t care for their environment, the unfamiliar one might be even worse. So why take a chance?
Even cult members who no longer agree with the teachings of their cult will often stick around because they are afraid that maybe they will be lost if they leave. They have been taught for years that their salvation depends on being part of the cult, and while they don’t really think that this is true, they can’t make themselves take the chance.
There are many ways to keep people from defecting besides using force. And most cults are experts at using emotional pressures such as guilt and humiliation to keep people under control. Even people who finally break free often suffer emotionally for years afterwards.
What are the characteristics of a cult?
Scholars have identified four basic characteristics of a cult, all of which have to do with personal control.
1. Behavior control, i.e monitoring of where members go and what they do.
2. Information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group, or other information which would place the authority of the group at risk.
3. Thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. This, along with the second one, controls members by controlling their minds and keeping them from doubting or resisting the teaching of the group.
4. Emotional control—using humiliation or guilt to keep members from rebelling against the cult leaders or the control of the group.
Along with these, you will find that most cults control the finances of their people, and almost all have an extreme and dictatorial leadership. (Often the cult is centered around the charisma of a particularly appealing leader.) And finally, cults tend to be secretive, restricting outside knowledge of what goes on within the group. As part of this process, they make it very difficult for members to leave the group.
Most cults would defend these controls as being for the good of their people. Almost all believe that the eternal salvation of their people depends on their support of the group and its controls.
What can we learn from this?
I am not trying to insinuate that Conservative Mennonites are a cult, or that we fall into the same slot as the People’s Temple or the Ant Hill Kids. However, structured, leadership oriented groups can slide into a cult-like rut if they aren’t careful.
For instance, our churches are bishop controlled. We believe in regulating behavior and appearance. We discourage our members, or even forbid them, to access certain types of news media. We warn against reading books that we feel would turn people against our way of life. Many of our leaders feel threatened if people ask questions about why we do what we do. And many conservative churches feel they have the right to forbid someone to move to another church setting, if they don’t agree with it in some (often minor) way. People who don’t submit without complaint in these areas are excommunicated or treated as if they were.
In many of these points we are simply trying to protect our people from worldly influences. But it is a fine line between asking our people to refrain from doing what would harm them and forbidding them to do it because the action would offend the authority of a leader.
Our churches do practice the four basic controls listed above, to some degree. We don’t apologize for giving guidelines to our people. Some books are wrong to read; some places are wrong to visit; and submission is necessary for everyone at times. But the other point, emotional control, can become a trap for us if we aren’t careful. Talented preachers can easily play on the emotions of their audience. This approach seldom builds solid convictions. In fact it can destroy people with over-sensitive consciences, and in the long run often hardens those who have under-sensitive consciences.
No, our churches aren’t cults. But let’s be sure that we do what we do because it is Biblical, not because we are slipping into a structure based system built on the authority of men.
The devil loves nothing better than to take a temple of God and turn it into a People’s Temple.