Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Spiritual Recovery and Religious Freedom

In my opinion, it may be not so easy to clearly define what is spiritual recovery and what person can be considered as spiritually recovered.

I live in Russia. Although according to Russian Constitution there is no state religion and all the religions are equal, it is not really so. There is so called traditional religion for Russians which is Russian Orthodox Church. Most religious people in Russia (more than 75 percent) belong to this church. There is a very strong pressure in society that "if you are Russian, you have to be a member of Russian Orthodox Church" (or an atheist, but not a member of any other religious group).

In Russia, there are a number of rehabilitation centers for former members of cults that have a purpose to convert them into Russian Orthodox Church. In these centers, priests of Russian Orthodox Church and some psychologists work together to do so. According to their definition, a recovered ex-member of a cult is the one who is an active member of Russian Orthodox Church.

Since, as far as I know, most readers of my blog are not members of Russian Orthodox Church, they will disagree with this definition. I disagree as well. Actually, I never wanted to be a member of that church. I preferred and prefer evangelicalism. However, there are not so many evangelicals in Russia, only about 1 percent of the total population. They are definitely a religious minority.

Some national minorities in Russia are ethnic Muslims. So, there are about 10 to 15 percents Muslims among the population of Russia. For example, Islam is traditional religion for Chechens. Actually, as far as I know, there is even more heavy pressure on Chechens to become Muslims than on Russians to become members of Russian Orthodox Church. In Chechnya, people are required to keep some Muslim rules. Once, in a Chechen forum, I wrote about my Chechen ancestors. The first question they asked me was: "Are you a Muslim?" Again, there is the same principle of traditional religion: "If you are Chechen, you should be a Muslim."

I guess that most readers of my blog will agree that, having a mixed Russian and Chechen background, I do not need to become either a member of Russian Orthodox Church or a Muslim in order to be considered recovered from a cult and that I can be an evangelical. However, the problem is that a number of evangelicals consider that a person who is recovered from a cult, at least, from a Bible-based cult (a cult of Christianity or an abusive church), should be an evangelical. By the way, many Russian evangelicals think this way as well.

I think here there is some conflict between spiritual recovery and religious freedom. Well, I am completely for religious freedom. I believe that anyone can choose any religion or be an atheist. Can an ex-member of a cult make this choice or is he/she limited in his/her choice? I think an ex-member of a cult as well as any other person can choose any religion or atheism. This means that he or she can choose any other religion and leave Christianity completely or he/she can choose to be an atheist.

There is also another question. Does an ex-member of a cult need to come back to the same religious system that he or she had before joining a cult? For example, a person was a Christian. Then, he or she joined a cult. Does he or she need to become a Christian after leaving or he/she can become, for example, a Buddhist or an atheist? I think this person has a right to become a Buddhist or an atheist.

Then, there is a problem what is spiritual recovery at all. In my opinion, spiritual recovery is getting rid of the spiritual problems that are caused by the cult involvement and that frustrate spiritual quest and spiritual progress. For example, an ex-member of a cult may reject God because he or she was spiritually abused. He/she may still feel a need in God, but turn away from God because of memory of spiritual abuse. On the other hand, an ex-member may get rid of all the negative feeling toward God, but because of some philosophical reasons decide to choose atheism. These two situations are different, though they may look similar outwardly. I think that the first person needs spiritual recovery while the second one does not need.

The point is that not all the people who change their belief system, do that because of mind control or spiritual abuse. People do that because of various reasons, and these reasons may be completely philosophical and have nothing to do with any abuse or trauma.

For example, once, I read about a German who was a Christian, then, became a Jew, and later became a Muslim. As far as I understand, she was not in any cult. Just, being a Christian, she did not agree with the Christian concept of God (the Trinity). She became a Jew, but she did not like that Jews reject Jesus. Then, she contacted her neighbors Muslims and came to conclusion that Islam matches her concept of God (Muslims consider Jesus as a prophet and believe in one God, but deny the Trinity). So, her reasons of changing religions were philosophical. They were not caused by some experience of abuse.

So, I think a person needs spiritual recovery if he or she has some spiritual problems caused by the cult involvement that frustrate his/her spiritual life. However, any person, including an ex-member of a cult, may choose any religion or atheism and may change his/her religious system at any time. I think this is a distinction between spiritual recovery and religious freedom.

Distinction between Psychological and Spiritual Recovery

In the matter of post-cult recovery, I prefer to make a distinction of psychological recovery and spiritual recovery, though I know that many people do not make this distinction. The purpose of the psychological recovery is to get rid of the psychological damage caused by the cult involvement, while the purpose of the spiritual recovery is to get rid of the spiritual damage caused by the cult involvement.

To some extent, they interrelated. For example, an ex-member of a Bible-based cult left after traumatic experience. On the one hand, he or she may have (or may not have) depression or other symptoms of trauma. This is psychological damage that requires psychological recovery, for example, psychological counseling. On the other hand, the same experience may cause this person to completely turn away from God because of the memory of that trauma. This is a spiritual damage and it may require spiritual counseling. Non-Christian therapists will see no problem with a former Christian who became an atheist. The spiritual counseling may be get either from a pastor or from a Christian therapist.

However, since the same experience cause both psychological and spiritual damage, psychological and spiritual recovery will affect one another. When the memory of trauma fades, it can also cause two results. On the one hand, the person will be less depressed. On the other hand, he or she may become more positive to God. In this case, psychological and spiritual recovery may go together. There are also other cases, fore example, distrust to God and people as the result of feeling betrayed.

However, I think it is still better to distinguish psychological and spiritual recovery. For example, a former member of a Bible-based cult may have no psychological problems and thus be recovered psychologically. However, he or she still may reject God and be angry at God, though he or she was a Christian before joining a cult. Thus, this person is not recovered spiritually. On the other hand, an ex-member of a Bible-based cult may be a devoted Christian, that is, be recovered spiritually, but still have psychological problems, that is, be not recovered psychologically.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Some Aspects of the Spiritual Recovery

In Recovering from Churches that Abuse, chapter 3, (pp. 32,33) Ronald Enroth describes Wellspring program. As far as I understand, most part of this description is based on Paul R. Martin, Cult-Proofing Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), though Enroth also quotes Peter Sommer, "High Pressure Christian Groups: The Broken Promise," unpublished paper, 1992 and personal correspondence with Stephen Martin. In my opinion, it is also interesting to compare it with Paul R. Martin, "Post-Cult Recovery: Assessment and Rehabilitation," in Recovery from Cults, ed. Michael D. Langone (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993) because there Paul Martin describes Wellspring program in a more detailed way.

Wellspring program is a combination of psychological and spiritual counselings. In this post, I am going to consider only the spiritual side of this program.

In Recovering from Churches that Abuse, chapter 3, (pp. 32,33) Ronald Enroth writes:
The first stage also must address the doctrines of the abusive church. It is important to examine and carefully refute any unorthodox teachings. Most of the churches mentioned in this book are theologically orthodox, although nearly all would be guilty of distorting the Bible's message in some way. Peter Sommer observes, "These groups are rarely heretical in theory. They don't deny Christian basics; they tend to brush by them. Instead they focus on what makes them different from other churches or groups. They have lots of teaching, but it tends to be on such themes as commitment, submission, and prophecy."

Stephen Martin, a staff member at Wellspring, considers instruction in sound study methods and the interpretation of the Bible important. In abusive groups, twisted hermeneutics are often used to instill fear and guilt and thus become a form of spiritual intimidation. "Since leaders of abusive churches typically twist the Scriptures, education in hermeneutics would help the ex-member gain the right perspective on Scripture passages. In talking with former members at Wellspring, I have found a number of them who have difficulty with or even an aversion to reading the Bible because it has been misused by the group to abuse them. Learning the proper application and interpretation of Scripture goes a long way toward healing the wounds of abuse."

Sommer advises, "It may be wise not to read Scriptures that the group has emphasized; their interpretation may be deeply grooved into your thinking. Read instead the many texts that they did not teach you." I suggest that these people attempt to rediscover God's Word through the Psalms because those writings validate a person's individual spiritual life. Paul Martin feels it is wise for victims to use a different translation of the Bible from that commonly used in the group.

This section mainly deals with doctrinal matters and the Bible. It contains several recommendations:
1. Ex-members should "examine and carefully refute any unorthodox teachings." These unorthodox teachings are focused "on such themes as commitment, submission, and prophecy."
2. Ex-members should learn "sound study methods and the interpretation of the Bible."
3. Ex-members should avoid reading the texts that the group emphasized and use a different translation of the Bible.

Then, regarding the second stage, Enroth writes:
The abusive church experience is often a crisis of faith, as Paul Martin and others have pointed out. Victims must be able not only to rebuild self-esteem and purpose in life, but also renew a personal relationship with God. That can be difficult for those who have yet to resolve the tough question, "Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely seeking him?" As Rachel, one former church member, puts it, "I had been taught that nothing was ever God's fault. The problem was that I was a true, believing Christian, but when I asked God for spiritual bread and water, look what I got. Was I praying to the wrong God? Was I dishonest? Secretly evil? Was I demonic, like the church kept telling me I was? How could an honest, sincere believer get tricked like this? How could God let this happen?"

People like Colleen and Rachel need the assurance that it is possible to have a rich relationship with God. In Sommer's words, the victim must be turned "to faith in the living God from faith in a distorted image of him. Your break with the group is a step of obedience to the first commandment: No graven images!"

This section deals with the restoration of personal relationship with God. Here, there are two main points:
1. Ex-member should 'resolve the tough question, "Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely seeking him?"'
2. Ex-member should 'be turned "to faith in the living God from faith in a distorted image of him."'

Abusive churches have a distorted image of God because they actually present Him as a very cruel and harsh God, not a loving and merciful God from the Bible. In my opinion, the turning from the distorted image of God follows refutation of specific abusive teachings of the abusive church. However, the question, "Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely seeking him?" may not be so easy to answer. Actually, this question involves the theological problem called Theodicy.

Mainly, this is the question why God allows the evil things to exist. This question can be put into the following way:
1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is loving.
3. There is evil in the world.
4. If God is omnipotent, He is able to destroy evil. However, He does not.
5. If God is loving, He does not want people to suffer. However, people suffer.
6. So, proposed logical solution is that either God is not omnipotent or He is not loving.

Actually, this question cannot be completely solved in the logical way, though there were many attempts to solve it. I think the main reason for that is that God is much higher than a human being and there are many things about God that we cannot fully understand. Some other examples are the Trinity (God is one and three in the same time) and also God's predestination and human free will.

Regarding the question, "Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely seeking him?" I think everyone should seek his or her own answer to it. My personal answer to this question is that through the cult experience we can learn something and then, after our own recovery and learning about what happened with us, we gain ability to understand others who had similar experience, sympathize with them, and help them.

Since I do not have English version of Recovery from Cults, I will just retell what Paul Martin writes there about spiritual recovery. There, he puts the main points of spiritual recovery into steps 2 and 3 of the recovery.

1. Requests for information
Ex-members have many questions regarding their group, the Bible, religion, and philosophy. However, if the new church or pastor reminds them their old church or pastor, it can be traumatic for them. So, Paul Martin advices to use another translation of the Bible and find the pastor and the church that contrast the previous ones.

2. Re-opening the gospel
Ex-members should re-open the gospel of the New Testament. Abusive churches tend to somehow distort some aspects of the gospel. These groups tend to consider themselves as genuine Christians, but their definition of what it means to be a Christian is not adequate. Then, Paul Martin gives his definition of what it means to be a Christian. According to his definition, Christian groups recognize, clearly express and demonstrate the gospel of Jesus Christ. They hold the main teaching of the church and believe in the authority of the Bible. However, cultic groups lose something regarding recognition, clear expression and demonstration the Gospel.

Many of these groups publicly declare sound doctrines and the most part of distortion is done in the inner circle. Here the leader reveals his own understanding and practice that he is able to justify because he says that the world is unable to understand them, but due to his own spiritual progress he is able to understand and apply these hidden mysteries. In this way, the leader tells the members that they can become a part of this inner circle of more enlightened and more spiritual people.

Some groups like ICC do not have obvious doctrinal deviations, but their authority structure emphasizes unquestioned submission to the leaders in all the areas of life that goes beyond commonly accepted biblical authority.

Many cultic groups believe in most of orthodox, fundamental, and evangelical doctrines. However, they live according to unbiblical standards imposed by the leader. These standards are often changed that creates destabilized environment and makes members more dependent on their leader.

Through the biblical gospel, ex-members regain the meaning of their life and self-respect. Paul Martin concludes this section, repeating the words of H. Bussel and Walter Martin that the clear understanding of the gospel is the most important point in ex-cultist recovery and immunity against getting involved in cults in the future.

I agree with Paul Martin that Bible-based cults distort the Bible in some ways (for example, teaching about submission to the leaders, consecration to the group, and separation from the world) and that ex-members should learn what the Bible really teaches. However, I do not agree with two points here. First, his definition that "Christian groups recognize, clearly express and demonstrate the gospel of Jesus Christ" is actually quite vague and disputed. Many Bible-based cults may say that they do the same.

Second, I do not agree that "the clear understanding of the gospel is the most important point in ex-cultist recovery and immunity against getting involved in cults in the future." The problem is that there are Christians who get involved into Bible-based cults even after getting a degree in theology and having an experience of Christian ministry. Cults use deception in recruiting and in the beginning they teach only the orthodox doctrines. Also, many groups do not have obviously deviant doctrines. Martin himself writes about that in this section. So, just the knowledge of the orthodox doctrines is not sufficient. It is necessary to know how cults recruit and keep their members - the methods of mind control and deception.

3. Personality and religion
Cults often teach black and white thinking, emphasizing the Christ's commandments to "deny yourself" and "reject everything." For many recovering ex-members, the understanding of Christ's words is an urgent need. Ex-members who want to be Christians may ask whether God really requires limited version of our "selves". Why did He create us with all the rich talents, interests, and temperaments only to tell us that this all is evil? Is it impossible that they can be used for God's glory and kingdom? Is it possible for us to be received by God on the basis of our good works? Is it possible for us to reject everything, deny ourselves, take the cross, and have higher righteousness than Pharisees by fulfilling strict requirements? A recovering ex-cultist may ask like Peter after the rich man left: "Who then can be saved?" Christ answered: "It is impossible with men, but everything is possible with God."

The healthy spiritual life is distorted without realization of the two things. First, it is impossible to reconcile with God without His eternal unconditional love and His desire. Second, we should acknowledge ourselves. God does not require us to lose our talents and personalities in order to be accepted by Him. The act of mercy creates two miracles: love toward God and love toward oneself. Clarification of what is "self" and that God receives and strengthens people helps to focus on career, education, and problems of one's own identity.

I think it is a very good point.

How to Distinguish between Healthy and Unhealthy Churches

Rereading Ronald Enroth's Recovering from Churches that Abuse, I found an interesting material in chapter 1 (pp. 13-15) on how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy churches. The questions are from LaVonne Neff, "Evaluating Cults and New Religions," in A Guide to Cults and New Religions, ed. Ron Enroth et al (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1983). The comments were written by Enroth. I added my own comments after his comments.

1. Does a member's personality generally become stronger, happier, more confident as a result of contact with the group?

In an abusive church, the use of guilt, fear, and intimidation to control members is likely to produce members who have a low self-image, who feel beaten down by legalism, who have been taught that asserting oneself is not spiritual. A leader in one group mentioned in this book used to tell members, "God never meant for you to be happy in this life." This is not to say that all members of authoritarian churches are unhappy, guilt-ridden people. However, one of the first disturbing characteristics to be reported by relatives and friends of members of these churches is a noticeable change in personality, usually in a negative direction.

I agree that cults and abusive churches use guilt, fear, and intimidation and that the members lose their self-confidence. However, they still can feel quite happy because they believe that they were specially chosen by God, they are a part of "elite" and have a great mission in their life. Also, since cults use some emotional manipulations and trance-inductive techniques, members can feel very happy at some times.

2. Do members of the group seek to strengthen their family commitments?

Nearly all unhealthy churches attempt to minimize commitments to family, especially parents. Young people may be told that they now have a new "spiritual" family, complete with leaders who will "re-parent" them. Church loyalty is seen as paramount, and family commitments are discouraged or viewed as impediments to spiritual advancement.

There are cults and abusive churches that attempt to minimize commitment and contacts with family. However, there are also cults that have a goal to recruit the whole families. Then, they, of course, pretend that they care for members' families - in order to recruit them.

3. Does the group encourage independent thinking and the development of discernment skills?

Control-oriented leaders attempt to dictate what members think, although the process is so spiritualized that members usually do not realize what is going on. A pastor or leader is viewed as God's mouthpiece, and in varying degrees a member's decision making and ability to think for oneself are swallowed up by the group. Pressure to conform and low tolerance for questioning make it difficult to be truly discerning.

Cults and abusive churches suppress independent thinking. In religious groups, of course, the leaders use spiritual terminology to promote submission and conformity. In non-religious groups, they use different ways. However, the result is similar.

4. Does the group allow for individual differences of belief and behavior, particularly on issues of secondary importance?

A legalistic emphasis on keeping rules and a focus on the need to stay within prescribed boundaries is always present in unhealthy spiritual environments. Lifestyle rigidity in such groups increases a member's guilt feelings and contributes to spiritual bondage. This rigidity is often coupled with an emphasis on beliefs that would not receive great attention in mainstream evangelicalism.

Cults and abusive churches require conformity to the group rules and do not tolerate any differences of belief and behavior.

5. Does the group encourage high moral standards both among members and between members and nonmembers?

In intense, legalistic churches and religious organizations, the official, public proclamations usually place special value on high moral standards. In some instances, however, there is a double standard between those in leadership and those in the rank-and-file membership. For example, abusive churches tend to have incidents of sexual misconduct more often than most conventional churches; leaders sometimes exhibit an obsessive interest in sexuality. Unhealthy relationships and confused thinking often result for the members.

Double standards are quite common in cults and abusive churches. For example, usually, leaders expect members to be honest with them, but encourage them to lie to potential recruits about their group.

6. Does the group's leadership invite dialogue, advice, and evaluation from outside its immediate circle?

Authoritarian pastors are usually threatened by any expression of diverse opinions, whether from inside or outside the group. Displaying an attitude of spiritual superiority, they will reject any invitation to genuine dialogue and will often make a conscious effort to limit influence from outside the church. When outside speakers are given access to the pulpit, they are carefully selected to minimize any threat to the leadership's agenda. Coercive pastors are fiercely independent and do not function well in a structure of accountability. For the sake of public relations, they may boast that they are accountable to a board of some sort, when in actuality the board is composed of "yes-men" who do not question the leader's authority.

Leaders of cults and abusive churches usually attempt to restrict the members' access to critical information about their group. Instead of an open dialogue with the outward critics, they attempt to suppress the criticism. The same is true when a member expresses disagreements. The leaders make them feel that there is something wrong with the critics, not with the leaders or the group. Also, the leaders try to isolate inside critics from other members, for example, through excommunication of critics and prohibition for other members to contact them.

7. Does the group allow for development in theological beliefs?

Another hallmark of an authoritarian church is its intolerance of any belief system different from its own. I am not referring to clearly heretical teachings and doctrines that contradict the historic Christian faith as it is expressed, for example, in the Apostles' Creed. Indeed, abusive churches are usually very orthodox in their basic beliefs. The problem is that pastors in such groups are likely to denounce and discredit other Christians' beliefs and their expression of them. Authoritarian pastors tend to be spiritually ethnocentric-that is, they tend to measure and evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own carefully prescribed system, adopting an "us-versus-them" mentality.

Bible-based abusive groups may be either quite orthodox or have deviations from orthodox Christian doctrines. However, probably, the common point is their "us-versus-them" mentality. They consider their group to be a kind of spiritual "elite" and blame other Christian churches for the lack of spirituality.

8. Are group members encouraged to ask hard questions of any kind?

A cardinal rule of abusive systems is "Don't ask questions, don't make waves." A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions. In an unhealthy church, disagreement with the pastor is considered disloyalty and is tantamount to disobeying God. People who repeatedly question the system are labeled rebellious, unteachable, or disharmonious to the body of Christ. Persistent questioners may face sanctions of some kind such as being publicly ridiculed, shunned, shamed, humiliated, or disfellowshiped.

Cult leaders hate hard questions. Instead of answering questions, they make people who ask them feel that their questions indicate that there is something wrong with them.

9. Do members appreciate truth wherever it is found, even if it is outside their group?

Whether they admit it or not, abusive churches tend to view themselves as spiritually superior to other Christian groups. This religious elitism allows little room for outside influences. There can be no compromise with external sources, who, the leadership will really don't understand what is going on in the ministry anyway. The only way to succeed in an abusive organization is to go along with the agenda, support the leadership, ignore or remove troublemakers, and scorn detractors and other outside critics who seek to attack the ministry.

Bible-based cult leaders require their members to separate themselves from other churches. They do not want any outward influence on their group, especially, other teachings.

10. Is the group honest in dealing with nonmembers, especially as it tries to win them to the group?

Sometimes abusive groups illustrate what I call "split-level religion." There is one level for public presentation and another for the inner circle of membership. The former is a carefully crafted public relations effort, the latter a reality level experienced only by the "true believers." Recruitment tactics are usually intense; even if they are not actually deceptive or fraudulent, they can be manipulative or exploitive. Sometimes high-pressure religious groups are evasive about their true identity: "We really don't have a name; we're just Christians." A healthy Christian group should have no qualms about revealing who it is and what its intentions are.

This is quite remarkable that many abusive groups say: "We really don't have a name; we're just Christians." This is a way to hide their real identity.

11. Does the group foster relationships and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?

Sometimes it is difficult to discern the motives of a pastor or church group upon the first encounter. As in all of life, first impressions are not always correct. Sustained contact with an unhealthy church, however, will usually reveal a pattern that is consistent with the characteristics we have identified. Members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection, appear designed to maintain the system and serve the needs of the leadership. Abusive churches thrive on creative tactics that promote dependency. Emphasizing obedience and submission to leaders, these churches often require a level of service that is overwhelming to members, resulting in emotional turmoil and spiritual breakdowns. Instead of serving God and their neighbors, members are robbed of relationships with family and friends, which hinders rather than nurtures their emotional and spiritual development.

In Bible-based cults, members may believe that they genuinely serve God. However, they are required to be fully obedient and submissive to the leaders in their service. This point indicated that they actually serve the leaders and not God.