Friendships Inside a High-Demand/Cultish Group

In the last few years, I have slowly built a small group of friends. I have made many mistakes in friendship: I am often wary of people's motives (which comes across as judgmental), I assume future rejection and often disappear into my life to pre-empt abandonment (this comes across as me not reciprocating in the relationship), and I have difficulty and anxiety about attending group functions (which comes across as being a party-pooper). Despite my ineptitude, I have friends who continue to love me. And for this, I am deeply grateful.

Many times I still feel like I'm learning a foreign language, trying to figure out how to navigate the rules of relationship that everyone else already seems to just inherently understand.

Growing up in a high-demand group, friendships were not encouraged. Our chief loyalty was to the group, not to individuals or even family. We were also explicitly discouraged from forming special friendships as these were sure to "distract" us from service to God. In fact, we were encouraged NOT to form friendships with people to whom we were naturally attracted as this was not a "spiritual" reason for bonding.

Relationships served one purpose: to bring us closer to God. The general idea was that this was best accomplished by forming attachments with people who would make you holier--not necessarily happier. So, instead of relating to others on an emotional level, we were encouraged to form "spiritual" relationships for our spiritual betterment. And how better to achieve holiness than by actively seeking out difficult people?!

Looking back I can see that one of the most effective ways our church controlled people was by controlling their relationships. If a leader could convince the followers that loyalty to the group was actually loyalty to God, then that leader had the ability to control everything about the followers from something as big as personal relationships to something as small as whether or not they shaved.

One way relationships were controlled was by encouraging members to rat on each other. Of course, this was masked in Scriptural language like, "exhort one another to love and good works." But what it really meant was that there was no confidentiality. This made for guarded friendships, at best. It was simply impossible to build deep, meaningful friendships when I wasn't sure if my "friend" was going to report on me to my grandparents.

All this violation of personal boundaries was justified by our belief that we were literally responsible for each other's souls. If we failed to "stand up for God" in the lives of our brethren (aka, get involved in their personal business), we would answer for that at the judgment seat of Christ.

Fear of God, fear of man, fear of eternal repercussions dictated and motivated much of our relational interactions.

But whenever I'm tempted to fault people who mistreated me inside the church, I try to remember that they, too, were under the oppressive thumb of overbearing leadership. Fear makes even good people do ghastly things they later regret. Perhaps these people did the dirty work only to insure their safety or position within the group, not because they intentionally desired to hurt me personally.

I also try to have empathy for the fact that our group tended to attract a disproportionate number of mentally ill, broken, insecure, needy people. While I don't excuse their behavior (especially as it pertained to the callous treatment of children), I can understand that perhaps they weren't functioning with a full deck of cards.

I'm sure if I met some of these people today and they were cognizant enough to realize the hurtfulness of their actions, they would immediately apologize.

At least, this is what I tell myself. It eases the anger.

I realize I've had a late start in building healthy, meaningful friendships. I'm about 25 years behind. But I'm learning fast, especially as I allow myself to feel and to relate to others on an emotional/heart level.

I'm grateful for my friends who grant me the gentle gift of their patience.