How to talk to someone living inside an abusive church/cult group

When people told me I was living inside a cult, I bristled with righteous indignation. And I was hurt. I just couldn't imagine how something as good and holy as my church could be associated with such a foul, dirty word like "cult." It seemed slanderous.

Part of the problem is that the word "cult" gets thrown around a lot and it conjures up lots of negative connotations. It's a loaded word and it evokes a horrified reaction.

It took me several years on the outside before I could finally identify the unhealthy, oppressive traits of my childhood church. Even then it was terribly difficult to admit that yes, by most definitions we were a cult-ish group. At least, for those of us living in the inner circle.

This is why if you're going to talk to someone still ensnared in an oppressive religious system, try not to use the word "cult." Most people living inside a cult-like group don't consider their group a cult and they will probably take offense to you calling it that. Also, it will put them on guard and the whole point of befriending them is to put them at ease.

It's sorta like being trapped inside the Matrix. Nobody realizes they're in the Matrix until Neo sets them free, right?

And here's the second misconception: cult-members aren't weak or stupid. They're just indoctrinated. It's really difficult for folks on the outside to understand why someone stays in an oppressive religious system. I mean, this is America, right? Just leave already!

Here's the thing: it has to get really bad on the inside before a committed cult-member (especially someone in the inner circle) decides to leave. The truth is, there are many benefits to living inside a controlling church group. It's not all bad.

For one thing, there's a powerful sense of community. I have found that it's nearly impossible to replicate the same depth of personal relationships "on the outside." 

There is a special bond forged through multi-generational loyalty, intermarrying and shared history that creates a particular, unique identity. It is a compelling reason to stay and it's a bond not easily broken.

If your family and your church are part of this group, the outside world seems like a harsh, lonely place to be. Of course, inside the cult, there is a price to pay for the uniquely intimate communal lifestyle–but it's just not monetary.

You pay for it by sacrificing your very own self. Your own personhood.

And herein lies the crack in the armor of cult-like groups. Inside a group like this, there is no personhood. The individual means nothing (or very little). The community is everything. In fact, taking care of one's own interest is considered selfish. 

Committed members are accustomed to forsaking all for the sake of 'the ministry,' 'the mission,' the 'work of the Lord.' And by forsake I mean: giving up good jobs, homes, livelihoods, family ties, social networks–anything that hinders full, absolute surrender to their higher calling.

This is why acknowledging the personhood of the individual is a powerful antidote to the soul-crushing machinations of an oppressive religious system.

So, when people "on the outside" treated me as an individual and vaidated my thoughts and words through respectful understanding–I was powerfully moved. Simple kindness was much stronger than someone trying to convince me that I was being victimized. People who listened to me–without always trying to correct my thoughts–set me free.

For a very long time I didn't even know how to think for myself because all my thoughts flowed toward the common good. I tried to reconcile every thought and feeling with the party-line of my church. I didn't even really know how to be intellectually honest because I had such a vested interest in convincing myself that what I believed about my church was, in fact, true.

I routinely squashed my gut instincts in order to become more conformed to the image of my grandparents' expectations.

It was a vicious cycle. 

But those who appreciated me for being me finally gave me the courage to draw my own conclusions–without fear of repercussion or judgment.

So, here's my last, tiny bit of advice. It's very simple (but don't underestimate it's power).

Be a listening ear. Be a safe person to confide in.

You just might save a life.

  • Michelle aka Catholic Lady

    I just keep feeling drawn to your blog. You’re an excellent writer and it seems you have quite a story to tell.

  • Fae

    I have been reading your blog for some time but have never commented. I can tell from your words that you have been deeply hurt. The word cult is such a powerful word because in my mind it brings up pictures about Jim Jones massacre or the David Koresh massacre in Waco, Texas. Both these cults used religion to get started and then distorted it. My husband (who is Jewish) irritated me to death when he compared all religions including the Christian religion to a cult.

  • Tammy@If Meadows Speak….

    Thank you so much for sharing how you were drawn away from an oppressive church. This is alot to think about and I appreciate your insight!

  • Aimee

    every word of this post is so true. anyone who tried to convince me that I was in a cult immediately became the enemy. being a kind, accepting, listening, and non-judgmental ear is exactly what people need who are in those closed system. And you are so right about the powerful sense of community and how hard it is to leave the “inner circle”…when I left the group I was in, the depression was so deep that I would never replace the depth of bonds that I had felt…and on the other hand, NEVER wanted to have the depth of those bonds again!!! I so appreciate your being able to clearly communicate your wisdom.

  • Camille Lewis

    OH! Wonderful!! A friend passed this along to me, and in a lot of ways, Elizabeth, it sounds like we are on parallel journeys. It always helps me to find another person who’s trying to express the same thing but in a different vocabulary. I hate the word “cult” (as accurate as that label might be) because I don’t think it works. You’re expressing why. And that’s a very helpful thing.

    I can identify particular “personhood acknowledgers” in my life. My parents and family were regular and consistent ones. Several friends too. I’m so thankful for them.

    I’m just feeling very appreciative these days.

  • Jocelyn Zichterman

    Camille and I would disagree here.;) We usually agree on most things…so disagreeing every once in a while is probably a good thing since we are no longer controlled by “group think.”:)

    But the word CULT is THE very word that woke my husband and I up out of our mind-numbing stupor. Maybe it doesn’t work for some and of course people don’t “like it.” Of course. Who likes to be told *that*? Noone. Maybe it is a personality thing. I’m thinking it most likely is. Or, maybe it is a “timing” issue for people. But I don’t think people in cults need to be “patty-caked” or that the truth should be cushioned for them. Sometimes hearing the hard, right truth, wakes them up to their error and what they have become susceptible to. I know this was the TRUTH for my husband and I. And yes, at first, we were thinking the people saying it were, “All wrong.” But acknowledging *that very thing* was the FIRST step in our path to freedom. Of course, this was OUR journey and no two journeys are the same. So, like I said, maybe certain people need one thing, while others need something 100% different.

    I have many letters from people who left their toxic group BECAUSE someone told them they were in a “cult” and others who are just all riled about the WORD cult.

    Anyway, the rest of the article from my opinion (which probably means little anyway;) is SPOT ON. Very well written and excellent thoughts here! This is *only* something a person can write if they have been through some DEEP waters of toxic faith. Thanks Camille for sharing this on your wall and thanks to the author for a good read. You have excellent insights into the long term consequences. I’d love to see your perspective on leaving a cult and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  • Civilla

    Yes, this was good advice. My husband and I joined a Southern fundamentalist sect that we later realized was a borderline-cult, when we were newly married and stationed overseas in Germany. These Americans of this sect from the base met off-base in the building belonging to the German congregation of this sect that had been started by American missionaries (no, this was not Mormon or Jehovah’s Witnesses).

    Sometimes, I think that WE OURSELVES made this sect into a cult because of our neediness — we were young and overseas without family, etc. Easy prey. We were love-bombed and found it irresistable. We had no strong Bible background as children. I was raised Catholic and went to school with the nuns for 7 years, but knew nothing about the Bible, so these people really impressed me, and my husband, too, who only went to Sunday School as a child in an independent calvinistic Bible church, with their Bible knowledge.

    The warm-fuzzy feel we got for the first couple of years was indescribable. Like we were finally part of a family. We got stationed back in the States and started going to one of their Christian colleges and everything began to crumble. The churches of that sect there were not as personal as the one overseas.

    Yes, they mess with your person-hood. They couldn’t handle it that we were from the North instead of the South, first off. Pretty soon we started asking questions and thinking for ourselves and that didn’t go over big. You must be in lock-step in these groups or you pay for it.

    In the end, a terrible crisis propelled us out of this group because knowing the peculiar whys and wherefores of this sect and why they did the things they did, did not help us to get through this crisis. We got really saved through this crisis.

    The Lord has never again allowed us to bond or identify ourselves with any other group again, not in the same way. We miss the warm-fuzzy feeling of being in an exclusive family, and the illusion of being taken care of, but we had to mature.

    We ended up being hurt by people in other groups after that. Wounded bleeding animals are usually finshed off by another animal, and after leaving the borderline cult, we ended up in a real cult, again overseas, and got messed up, even though we were saved by then. God rescued us.

    Oh, well, people will always hurt. There’s probably not a religious group out there that hasn’t hurt somebody (I won’t tell you about the nuns in Catholic school — all the horror stories you have ever heard are true!).

    Still, Elizabeth Esther, very good advice and good post.

    I have charted my spiritual journey on a secondary blog that I have: You go to my sidebar and to “My Testimony and Spiritual Journey” and scroll down to #1. I believe I have done about 40 posts so far on that subject (too many, and too long, I know).

    We are still on a journey. We are still fundamentalist Bible-believers, but now minister inter-denominationally (but we are not ecumenical) trying to help people in various main-line denominations to see that they can trust the Bible. We presently pastor a Baptist church.

    Sorry for the book. This is an important topic.

  • Civilla

    Yes, I agree with the previous commenter, Jocelyn, that it would be good to see you do a post about post-traumatic stress after leaving a cult. I know that I personally had nightmares after we left our borderline-cult that Jesus had come back but I hadn’t returned to that church and couldn’t go to heaven. Stuff like that.

    Also, I think that some people are very cult-prone: they are lonely, or young, or not knowledgable about the Bible, or have a need to belong to “the only true group” or whatever for reasons of pride.

    With our group of people, I think they meant well, and would be hurt at being called even a borderline-cult. Not everything they did was wrong, either. We did get some good from being with them. You just can’t let groups do your thinking for you. A terrible crisis woke us up.

  • Anna Kia

    Well said. God made you to be YOU, and He likes it that way. People enslaved in “groupthink” need compassion, not resentment. Love you!

  • Katie S.

    I am also drawn to your story. Thank you for sharing your journey. And thank you for this information. I know just where to put it to use.

    Blessings to you all.

  • Elizabeth Esther

    Jocelyn: Thanks for your input. I think it’s fair to say that different approaches work for different people and some folks really might need the “straight-shooter”/lay-it-all-on-the-table approach. Either way, like Anna Kia said, I think the key is compassion.

    Also, there is a difference between talking with people who enter these churches as adults vs. talking to people who have been born into these groups. I was born into the church. It was all I knew. The “straight-shooter” approach just wouldn’t have worked with me.

    However, I agree with you that for some folks, this is necessary. Thank you for pointing that out. I really appreciated your input.

    And yes, I’ll probably talk about PTSD at some point, too.

  • Charis

    “This is why acknowledging the personhood of the individual is a powerful antidote to the soul-crushing machinations of an oppressive religious system.”

    This is what saved me.

  • Heidi Hess Saxton

    I remember sitting in “Cults” class at Bible school (it was part of a larger self-supporting Christian community)and listening to the teacher rattle off a dozen characteristics of cults: charismatic leader, uniformity of thought, compulsion to do everything possible to convince others to their own way of thinking, etc. I remember thinking, “How is that different from this?”

    Eventually, I became Catholic. But it was a long road. It always intrigues me when I hear former Catholics talk about the nuns, or about growing up in a parish school. I had one just the other day — in her seventies — insist she wasn’t a Christian until she left. “Don’t you know you had everything you needed, including the sacraments, right where you were — you just needed to make an adult profession of faith?”

    Clearly, she didn’t. So many don’t. They think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

    Thanks for writing this article, to show the other side.

  • Hillary

    Healing words.
    Love you!

  • Hillary

    One other thing ~ One trait of cults is “doctrine over person” ~ Jesus’ entire ministry was and is devoted to “person over doctrine” . . .

    There is an often overlooked phrase that is one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible. In the story of the rich young ruler, the writer says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” That is our God ~ One who looks and loves.

  • Sisterlisa

    I agree with you. We need to be peaceable so they know they can come to us when they figure it out.

  • joanna

    I really, really like your insight here about appreciating and loving each _individual_. It makes me think too that in the same way it can draw us out of oppressive communities, it is also a powerful way to draw those who don’t believe at all to Jesus – as opposed to preaching at them till we’re blue in the face!

  • Civilla

    Yes, children growing up in church, whatever church, must eventually have their own faith.

  • Debra

    As Jocelyn pointed out..I’ve read that some people didn’t realize they were being abused until they saw a checklist of abusive symptoms. I have friends who might be involved in a cult. I think presenting the traits of spiritual abuse and saying “I don’t know if this is happening to you or not, and if it’s not, then great! But if so, please know you can talk to me about it” might be a good way to broach the subject.

  • Nathanael

    Excellent article Elizabeth. As an ex-member of a fundamentalist Christian cult one of the biggest things I think people on the “outside” can do to help is to just show that they’re not the enemy, they’re not what the cult makes them out to be.

    It serves two purposes; first it shows in a passive and non-confrontational way that the descriptions of the “sinners” and people outside the church is inaccurate, thus creating a leverage point that those inside cults can then exploit at will to discover the truth.

    Secondly, it makes those inside the cult feel like they have a soft place to land when they leave.

    When I left my cult in 2008 I braced myself to hit the ground hard. I cut myself off from my family and virtually all my friends and I was expecting to be very lonely, very depressed. It wasn’t like that at all.

    So I think if those inside cults know they don’t have far to fall (in fact, it’s not falling at all – it’s stepping up) then they will be more willing to make that move.

  • Ashleigh (Heart and Home)

    I’m quite intrigued by Hillary’s mention of “doctrine over person” vs. “person over doctrine.” I always knew there was something wrong with that thinking, but couldn’t put my finger on it… reading that comment flipped the switch. I love these discussions!

  • Solia

    Thank you for this post. I too was raised in a cult-like church. I’m free of it now, but still adjusting to this reality. People don’t understand that I actually grew up in another world in one way – I’m used to seeing everything from the church-perspective and discovering that I can make up my own opinions about things is still exhilarating for me.

  • Wendy J. Duncan

    Great article, Elizabeth. It is so hard for people who have never experienced cultic or spiritual abuse to understand this phenomenon. When my husband and I left a Bible-based cult, Christians would say things like,”Well, it just makes the point about how important it is to know the Scripture.” I was a graduate of a conservative theological seminary…I knew the Bible. That wasn’t enough to inoculate me from the powerful lure of a charismatic leader.

    I understand that people don’t like to use the word “cult,” but part of one’s recovery is accepting the fact and realizing that everyone is vulnerable.

    Thanks for sharing your journey.

    Wendy J. Duncan
    Author: I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult

  • Eric

    A little late to the party here, but thanks for the good words. I’ll be sharing them.

  • Timothy Riches

    Thank you for this post! VERY instructive!

    I would like everyone reading this comment to consider that ALL religions are, in fact, cults.:
    - They all instill an ‘us VS them” mentality, even if ‘them’ are merely Satan and his demons.
    - Love bombing is an ubiquitous behavior.
    - Members are told what and how to think, even if it comes in the form of mild persuasion to adhere to basic doctrine.
    - There are sanctions, both mild and severe for non-conformance.
    - There are consequences after death for non-conformance.
    - Demonization, or at least ostracism toward members of other religions is a given.
    - There is always a person or persons that constitute an authority over the rest of ‘the flock.’
    - Gaining new members is a primary duty of current members.
    - They all involve discounting or dismissing established knowledge when it comes into conflict with their holy book(s).
    - Members anxiously await ‘the end’ (and would see a silver lining in a mushroom cloud)
    - Faith is a demand.
    - New members are ‘slowly enlightened’ on the more disconcerting aspects of the faith.
    - Fear and guilt are espoused as positive attributes.
    - Cognitive dissonance: one must simultaneously love and fear the chief deity.
    - The chief deity ‘knows what you think’ and can convict you of ‘thought-crime’
    - Financial contributions are explicitly sought.
    - There is no physical proof of their claims, yet they insist they are true.

    “If it never has been before, the universe is now a living, thinking, self-aware being. We need to accept that we are the intelligence of the universe itself and decide what we’re going to do with that role.”

  • Kitty

    @ Timothy: I think it would be fair to say of Orthodoxy, Catholicism (Roman *and* Eastern), evangelical Protestantism, and fundamentalist Protestantism, but I don’t believe mainline Protestantism, or Buddhism(!), would fall in that category. Interesting thoughts, nonetheless.

  • Falfie4

    I really appreciate your comment about how it’s not all bad and the sense of community.  I left a cult about 6 years ago and have had a constant feeling of loneliness ever since.  Although my life is wonderful and I’ve been blessed with great, healthy friends and husband, nothing compares to the intimacy I experienced in the cult.  As someone who came from an abusive home with parents who were not capable of meeting my emotional needs, I found a great deal of healing in the cult from these wounds.