(b) “uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, or socialize member (i.e.: to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices)” Jesus says that as his followers, we are called to “ be transformed by the renewing of our minds: (Ro. 12.1) We are called to live beyond our own tendencies of negative, sinful, self focused attitudes. Paul says to think on “whatsoever is lovely, praiseworthy, kind, gentle, etc.” (Phil. 4.8-9) So thought reform is also part of the normal Christian followers' growth curve. Although I would agree that controlling others by controlling their thoughts, through emotional coercion begins to cross a line between healthy churches and unhealthy ones. Some organizations, secular and sacred, have leaders who have the best interests of their flock at heart and some have leaders who are focused on their own reputations. But this definition has nothing to do with defining a cult. Cults use coercion and thought control, but it's not what makes them a cult. Coercion is the ropes to keep members in the pen, because they don't look to a good Shepherd that their disciples willingly follow.
(c) “systematically induces states of psychological dependence in members.” Now I would agree with the Duncan's that cults tend to treat their people in this way, but so does the US military. The armed services (a metaphor I will visit again later) intentionally breaks down their members self-will in order to teach enlisted men and women to follow the directions of their commanding officers. Ultimately this learned skill may make the difference between life and death. Sports teams use the same technique to build a team mentality, which leads toward the success of the entire organization. The question “Is this type of behavior and leadership style fitting in a church or religious organization” is a valid question. But the answer to that question isn't “cult” or “no cult.”
(d) “exploit’s members to advance the leadership’s goals” The apostles all died for their faith. Does this mean that they were so influenced by Jesus that they were exploited for the purpose of spreading the Christian faith? I was recently employed by a company that exploited us. They broke the law and refused to pay us according to federal law. When we complained they said “Well, there's the door if you don't like it” I had to bring money home, so I stayed. Was I exploited? Yes, but I made the choice and stayed rather than finding another job. Again, what does this statement have to do with the definition of a cult? Do cults exploit their members? Yes, some do. But that's not what makes them a cult. The relationship between HA leaders and their interns, and the culture of HA is a topic I will visit later.
(e) “causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community.” My dad was an alcoholic. What I thought was normal growing up was, in reality, psychologically harmful. I'm 50 years old, and still wrestle with the consequences of his choices. So during my life, the authority over me created personal psychological harm. But then I couldn't leave. It wasn't like I could have moved out @ 11 yrs old, and made my own way in the world. Teen mania interns are there voluntarily. They don't have to stay. Interns pay their own tuition as they work in the ministry. So, what level of control and harm can the staff hold over the interns? If I think I'm being harmed, I would go home. Teen Mania interns have the same opportunity.
Here is the first point of this installment of my response to the RA bloggers. The behaviors listed by the Duncan's have nothing to do with the definition of a cult. These organizational behaviors are signs of healthy or unhealthy relationships. These relationships are measured on a continuum. At the unhealthy and destructive end of the scale are behaviors that are often present in cults, but they have nothing to do with the definition of a cult. I am saddened that professionals with the Duncan's credentials would mis-apply the term “cult” to any organization, especially when they failed to make an opportunity to interview the leadership at Teen Mania.
The problem with using overly broad definitions is that you create a perception that is separate from reality. The Duncan's premature, unfounded assertion reinforces the opinion of the ones they interviewed, rather than serving the body of Christ by a diligent search for truth. Their assertion reminds me of a dictionary that defined a dog as a furry, four legged animal with pointed ears and a tail. This definition is correct for every dog, but also fits cats, horses, donkeys, giraffes, etc. When we're talking about critically evaluating a ministry, an overly wide brush is more than a bit irresponsible.
My words here are not directed at demeaning the Duncans personally or professionally. However their choices, definitions, research methods, and the words they used without personal communication with Teen Mania's leaders lacks integrity, and accuracy. The Duncan's finished with this assertion: “It is clear to us that Teen Mania meets both the doctrinal and behavioral definitions of a cult.” I'm confused. In their entire discussion, the Duncans failed to discuss any doctrine. The definition of a Cult only has meaning when it is based in doctrine, based on truth or a lie, based on pursuing God, or swallowing Satan's lies.
To adapt a line from the climax of William Golding's Lord of the Flies; “I would have expected more from professional researchers and educated psychologists” I believe that God expects more from his children too. We are personally responsible for the labels we affix to others with the glue of our professional reputation.
In my next post, I'll outline a biblical rather than personal and cultural definition of a cult.