Coming out of any cult - be it the Mormons, Moonies, Jehovah's Witnesses, or the new Polyggamy Cults can be, and is usually, a traumatic experience for those who are adjusting to a life in Christ. When you talk of 'polygamy cult' it is usually the fundamentalist Mormons who spring to mind because of the 'Mormon' label. It never seems to occur to people, however, that cultism can appear anywhere, and especially in circles which use the name of 'Christian'. Who in the polygamy community would entertain the thought that there are 'Christian' polygamists who are cultists? We should not forget, though, that the Moonies, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses all call themselves 'Christians'. Yes, cultism is alive and well amongst 'Christian' polygamists, and it is spreading fast, as I prophesied it would.
I recently learned that the leader one of the biggest polygamy ministries in the USA offered the estranged wife of a disillusioned and exiting member of his group a 'temporary marriage' which she could end whenever she wanted to when she was able to find 'true love'. I couldn't believe my ears. And yet similar things used to occur amongst the early Utah Mormons. 'Wife transfers' could be demanded by those in higher authority - thus a Mormon Bishop could demand the wife of a man holding a lesser LDS priesthood authority on the ground that he could offer her a greater glory in the next life ... glory being predicated on his rank and the size of his household. Though offering someone a 'temporary marriage' is not nearly as evil as a 'wife transfer', it is wicked enough, for a marriage contract is at the very minimum for life.
These 'Christian' and 'Messianic' polygamy cults are, moreover, imitating some of the barbaric practices of some of the more extreme fundamentalist Mormon sects. Wives are beaten and have no recourse to justice, because the wife-beaters are protected by the cult. Men are marrying wives, not for love, but for power and glory. And though I know of no polygamy ministry approving of men marrying mothers and their daughters (from previous marriages), I know of families indulging in this anti-Torah abomination. It grieves me that innocent women are being lured into these cults by the label 'Christian/Messianic'. They don't check them out thoroughly enough and are mesmerised by the common cultic tactic of 'love-bombing'. Once drawn in, the net comes down.
These cults and their adherents have, moreover, singled out this ministry for their most bitter attacks and, not surprisingly, have levelled the same 'cultism' accusation back at us using as their basis the fact that we are not completely 'orthodox', i.e. we don't necessarily adhere to all the theological conclusions of the majority. Because there is a tendency to bandy this word back and forth as simply a way of attacking someone, I thought I would share the thoughts of an expert in the cults - Janis Hutchinson - and get her view on what the essence of, and problems with, cultism actually are. Her angle is an examination of those who are ex-cultists and the personal struggles they go through.
By Janis Hutchinson
In an explosion of emotion a former cultist suddenly burst out: 'If I had known what I was going to go through in adjusting to Christianity, I never would have left the Mormon Church!'
Her statement should come as no surprise. Over and over again, ex-cultists express the same distress. Whether they are ex-Mormons, ex-Moonies, or ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, it makes no difference -- all former ex-cultists experience the same difficulties. Plagued with intense anxieties and bewildering disorientation, they find themselves hurled into an unexpected world of pain for up to 3 to 8 years after they come to Christ.
To those who have never been in a cult, the problematic transition into Christianity is impossible to comprehend. Why, after they have come to Christ, should ex-cultists have problems at all?
Surprisingly, the former cultist is not the one to ask. This is because while in the midst of their trauma they have no idea why. In a feeble way they can describe their symptoms, but that's all. Some researchers report that all ex-cultists can do is make such statements as 'I never knew such bewilderment, pain, and feeling on the brink of insanity,' or 'I cried all the time.' As they suffer through untold stress for months, even years, after they come to Christ, many former cultists feel they are 'cracking up'.
What are their problems?
New converts grapple with disorientation, religious culture shock; suicidal tendencies; and are tormented with the idea that their cult's success proves a divine origin. In addition, they are plagued with 'what if' questions ('What if Rev. Moon is really the Messiah?' 'What if the Book of Mormon is really true?'), all of which convinces them they should return to the cult.
In addition, they suffer numerous losses such as, the cult's extra-biblical revelation, their leader's claim to supernatural contact with God; friendships; community; cult goals; absolute answers; sacred myths, elite status; all of which convinced them they belonged to God's only true church. More problematic, they enter a Christian church expecting the pastor to be a substitute for the cult leader and hope to find in the church what they had in the cult. These unforeseen losses effect a critical sense of tragedy as new believers undergo one psychological crisis after another.
Further, they experience anxiety attacks; most deal with the misconceptions of Christians who believe ex-cultists' problems occur before conversion, not after; hide problems from those working with them, thinking they will be criticized for not overcoming problems sooner; float in and out of altered states; have recurrent nightmares; fear cult retaliation; wonder if it was a mistake to leave the cult; and lay awake at night agonizing over the emotional tug-of-war between their desire to harbor cult beliefs yet embrace Christianity.
They also go through the seven stages of grief, similar to a widow(er) losing a spouse. Hurled into a state of bereavement, they suffer the death of their cult identity, self-image, basic needs, securities, cult leader as father/mother, strong causes, heavenly rewards, and living prophets -- all in one fell swoop. It is an intense, turbulent, and critical time.
To add to all this, ex-cultists must, in the midst of their trauma, develop graciousness towards family and friends who do not understand their personal crisis; struggle with an inability to identify their own problems; acquire tolerance for Christians who belittle their former cult membership; persevere in the face of emotional struggles; show bravery in stepping forth into a strange new culture; and continue in the Christian walk when no one seems to understand -- not even other believers.
The seriousness of their situation is that until their problems are identified and resolved, they are unable to devote themselves fully to God or their church. If they don't receive the help and support they need, they will do one of four things:
How can Christians help?
- Continue to suffer but stay in the church.
- Start church hopping.
- Drop out of church altogether; or, worse yet,
- Return to the cult.
Perceive the trauma associated with departure from a cult. Acquire a special sensitivity which recognizes that the cultist's first defecting step causes a severe crisis. The sympathetic Christian can then say to the new convert, 'I realize you have given up everything you once held near and dear and you're going through a difficult trial. But I also recognize that God has led you here. He won't let you down -- neither will I. I'm here for you, and we'll get through it together.'
Remember, the new believer does not understand his own problems. He needs someone to identify and define them for him, and explain why he is going through them.
Don't leave the new believer to fend for himself. He or she needs a dedicated Christian to stick with him before, as well as after, his conversion. Say to them, 'My home is open to you any time of the day or night.' This is because problems often become magnified in the dark and new converts wake up many nights in desperate fear. They need someone they can call upon.
Explain to former cultists that emotional turmoil is normal and that certain stages are necessary for all converts from cults to work through. It takes a long time to give up old beliefs and it won't happen overnight. Affirm that as traumatic as these various stages are, they will pass, and the truth will eventually set them free.
Perseverance, and more ...
Working with ex-cultists requires perseverance, dedication, and patience. The emotional problems of these new believers can become so severe that Christian workers may feel like giving up. Paul's counsel is, therefore, imperative: "Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12). This is exactly what it will take when working with former cultists. If these attributes can be maintained, it will provide a window into the collapsing world of the new believer as he or she struggles to undo cult baggage and overcome personal losses. It will aid in gaining a deeper comprehension into the pain of what it means to be a former cultist and provide insight on how to respond to deeply felt needs.
When Christians can educate themselves about ex-cultists' post-conversion problems and become committed to this kind of ministry, new converts will gain confidence, acquire stability, and move toward full maturity.
Reproduced with thanks. Janis Hutchinson is author of Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and Encouraging Ex-cultists (Kregel Pub.). Also, The Mormon Missionaries: An Inside Look at Their Real Message and Methods (Kregel Pub.).
Many enter cults 'primed', as it were, for the cultic milieu. Cults typically attract those from dysfunctional backgrounds (abuse victims, for example) or those going through trauma (like widows and divorcees). Sad to say, many of the women attracted to polygamy can be those who have major mental, emotional and spiritual problems. Whereas such women need loving Christian/Messianic ministry, they sometimes find themselves in the midst of a polygamy cult which is more interested in pushing them into polygamous marriage than in helping them over their problems. Many of the polygamy cults view polygamous marriage as a kind of 'sanitarium' for unstable women whom they believe can be helped in such an environment, but the result of which is often more trauma. Polygamy is not for the unstable! This belief that polygamy can help psychologically unwell women may be honest and sincere on the part of many who genuinely wish to charitably open up their families (with the consent of the wives) to embrace such hurting persons, and on occasion they may indeed be able to help such. But on the whole I would say that such an arrangement is at best unwise, and at worse desitined to lead to catastrophe. What the leaders of polygamy groups need to understand is that even for the emotionally and mentally stable, new polygamous marriages frequently generate initial stresses whilst readjustments are made to the new lifestyle which, though perfectly manageable for the well balanced, can provoke a psychological crisis in those who are not.
To preclude such tragedies happening, there really must be a consistent policy of careful ministry to single, hurting people (and that goes for men too) by Christian/Messianic polygamy leaders. That means never pressurising a single woman into polygamy because of the bogus doctrines that she must be 'covered' at all costs by a husband to be rendered spiritually safe, or that being temporarily single is a sin. Whilst a husband certainly does provide this cover, there are other covers for single women which include godly fathers, pastors, and the prayers of believers generally (see my article, Polymania, Patriarchal Covering, and The Cattle Market Revisited).
It has to be said also that sometimes people have bad experiences in churches/assemblies or groups which are not themselves cultic. These experiences are the result of unstable and often hurting people having problems forming stable relationships with anyone, in or outside of marriage, monogamous or polygamous. Thus you will find some people calling anything Christian 'cultic', anything they happen to disagree with, or blaming the group for the person's own dysfunctionality. Properly discerning such people, who are the bearers of lurid stories of 'cultism' which derive from their own fantasies, fears and insecurities, must also be sought. In addition to the real victims of cults (polygamous or otherwise) there are those who possess hidden agendas stemming from personal problems who simply wish evil on good people, and are willing to slander them in order to justify themselves. We must never forget that Christ Himself was accused by His enemies of being demon-possessed and (by implication) sympathetic to whoredom and drunkenness. Those with such agendas usually expose themselves eventually but only after much damage has been done to the reputations of innocents. Listening to 'gossip' is never prudent and we all know who the originator of such activity is.
The exiting and exited victims of polygamy cults undertandably and frequently have an aversion to polygamy afterwards, just as those who have been through a psuedo-Christian/Messianic cult come to be supicious of, or even openly hostile to, Christianity. The only way to tackle such people is by patience, long-suffering, non-compulsion, and generosity of love. It may be that some of them allow themselves to be caught up in such a negative spirit that giving them time and space to cool off alone is needed, even if this may be interpreted to be 'non-loving'. I remember learning this lesson as a young Pastor many years ago when I devoted an inordinate amount of time to a man with severe problems. At the time I was (rightly) criticised even though I thought I was demonstrating Christian/Messianic charity. It was pointed out to me that not only was this man not repenting in any discernable way but because I was using so much time on him I was neglecting my family and flock. When I finally did say 'enough is enough' I was was accused of being uncaring, unloving and partial. But the truth was the man was unwilling to make any spiritual movement whatsoever and Satan successfully wasted my time. And in the course of many years in the ministry I have had to sometimes tell such people that I can be of no practical help to them anymore and simply move on whilst continuing to uphold them in prayer.
The leaders of polygamy ministries or chuches/assemblies have to be prepared to be unpopular, as must all pastors. However, there are always two kinds of unpopularity - that which stems from abusing people because of either ignorance or rebellion against Yahweh, and that which stems from the ungodly themselves who are dominated by self-serving and destructive railing spirits. As believers we will always have reputations for good and evil, and anyone who tries to constantly be seen as 'good' and 'loving' will at some point be tripped up by the spirit of compromise.
We do, of course, look up to fathers, pastors, husbands and other leaders and expect perfection of them. Often they disappoint us, not because they aren't necessarily trying, but because they are human. And we must always make compassionate allowances for that. However, there is most certainly a line which if these men cross, some kind of demonstration of disapproval does need to be made, and in the proper Christian spirit. Again, we must be careful that we don't artifically draw such lines to accommodate our own personal perceived rightness: 'Brother X believes in a post-tribulation rapture! Heretic! Cultist!' I have met many a soul who has done this and who is so consumed by a spirit of hatred that he mistakes the devil within himself to be the righteous zeal of the Lord of Hosts. Such souls are truly in danger of losing their souls.
Coming out of the Polygamy Cults
I meet many men and women coming out of the polygamy cults who go through much trauma. Many manage to readjust, many don't. At this ministry we try to provide a listening ear and balanced counsel for those who seek our help. At the heart of our ministry to the victims of cults are the following thoughts:
Many victims of abuse launch into personal crusades not only against their abusers but also their beliefs even if these beliefs are correct but have simply been misapplied. When a soul is in distress - and particularly when it is angry - it is all too easy to fall into the hand of the devil who knows how to exploit a grievance. A person whose only aim is the destruction or humiliation of the cultist becomes no better than the cultist him- or herself. Always our goal must be to minister salvation - and if we are not stable enough to do it ourselves, to find those who are and who can help. Even cultists can be saved. And when they are, many others are often saved in the process. The earliest missionaries of the Gospel in Europe knew that if they could convert a King or a Prince to Christ that others would naturally follow. This is an objective well worth having in mind. Convert a husband and he will likely teach his whole household - convert a King and the Kingdom will likely be converted too. Convert a minister and the ministry, and most of those under its influence, will likely be converted too.
- 1. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater - try to distinguish between true principles and false men and women who abuse them;
- 2. Keep your eye on Christ and the virtues of love that Paul so beautifully writes about in 1 Corinthians 13;
- 3. Give yourself time to work out the hurts, frustrations and confusion;
- 4. Make sure you repent of your own sins and not shift all blame onto everyone else - be blameless in thought and deed;
- 5. Keep in fellowship with other believers.
In dealing with the polygamy cults we must always be redemptively-minded. Sometimes, to be sure, strong and unapologetic rubuke followed by constructive counsel is needed (rebuke alone is useless), but it must always be by the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. In short, it is the Spirit that must lead. "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says Yahweh" (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30).
Authors: SBSK & JS