How To Recognize a Religious Sect

By Sophia Christiaan

“And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. Such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests. By smooth talk and glowing words they deceive innocent people.” Romans 16:17-18 NLT

Just like we distinguish different kinds of animals within one species by describing the difference in length, width, type of legs, wings, color, and so on, so it is also by distinguishing characteristics of other things, that we find out what exactly something is.

In this second article in the series of articles on sects and cults, I want to share what a religious sect is and how to know when you’ve bumped into one. This list will ring true to the many who have already had some experience with cultic or secteric activity, and it will be a reference list for those who haven’t.

A sect is actually a word that merely describes a group of people who have separated themselves from society to devote themselves to practicing a certain belief. This doesn’t have to be dangerous in itself, but when control enters the mix, things do tend to get ugly. Usually, that is exactly what happens to most sects that start out with idealistic zeal to live in a certain way that is controversial to society.

Here are some things that characterize a religious sect:

A religious sect has one strong leader, who is increasingly adored and revered by every member. Usually, this leader has had some kind of profound life-changing effect on the member, who has become devoted to the leader in return for whatever the leader has given the member, whether it be purpose with life, a certain value system, rescue from bad circumstances, a sense of belonging to a group, or this leader’s love and support.

In a religious sect, the sect leader plays the biggest part of the members’ everyday life. All instructions for the sect and for the individual member are passed down from the leader and the leadership. Over time, the sect leader establishes him or herself as a spokesperson of God, and usually elevates his or her influence to a higher divine position, including calling him or herself God, Jesus Christ, the Bride of Christ, the spouse of Christ or God, a highly enlightened spiritual being, a God-like character, a special apostle of God, a special prophet of God, a messenger of God, the Messiah, a reincarnated God, or more of the likes. Sect members come to accept whatever the leader professes to be and finds confirmation in the common belief of the other sect members.

In a religious sect, there will be use of Bible teaching in some way. Usually, there will be an emphasis on scriptures that confirm the leader’s personal doctrine and repetitive studying leads to a member’s conviction. Usually, a sect leader has little problem persuading people of his/her doctrine, because people are already in awe of the leader and will accept anything he or she preaches.

In a religious sect, it is very dangerous to be a critical thinker and voice those opinions. There is a systematic breakdown taking place of the individual’s previous beliefs, to the point that every member must abandon his own rationalization and become unified with every belief of the sect. If the member fails to submit to the surrendering of his individuality and independence, he will receive correction by the leadership until he agrees to replace his previous ideals with those of the leader’s. This is a process each new member enters into, almost like a kind of boot camp, and he is cheered on by other members to complete the surrendering process.

For outsider’s, who have never experienced the kind of pressure there is to change within a sect, it can be hard to understand how an intelligent person can agree to leave his previously held beliefs for the sake of another’s. It’s quite another situation, though, for the person inside the sect who is faced with the challenge, because he will constantly be influenced by his surrounding friends and circumstances that all tell him how successful and happy he will be as soon as he gives in. He will look around him and see smiling, content, relaxed people, who all claim they have gone through the same process and are now free.

After the initial surrender, more of the same breaking down is taking place. The member is now ready for the real brainwash and will be subjected to personal coaching and indoctrination. He will be challenged in all areas of life to embrace his new lifestyle and mindset. He will receive instructions on what to wear and no longer wear, how to speak, how to behave, and who to marry. Furthermore, he will be required to turn over his personal assets in the form of money, possessions, and income for the leadership to control.

If the member has any questions or is considered rebellious or uncooperative, he will be strongly corrected and/or punished by the leadership and his personal mentor, who is set to closely watch over his progress. He is continuously told that he must submit to whatever the leaders decide, whether he agrees or not. If he continues to disagree and show a contrary attitude, he will be reprimanded further, and more psychological force will be utilized to make him submit to his leaders. After many counseling sessions, a member will start feeling doubtful about his own standpoint, and he will start to agree with the disciplining he is under and accept that the leadership knows better than he does. He will doubt himself so much that it becomes easier to give in than to hold on.

When a member has finished his initiation process, he will start to blossom in his new belief and environment. He will worship the leader like the other members do, and he will start to find great satisfaction in being a devoted member. At this point, he has figured out what is smart and what works, and he will start becoming a player of the game. He will seek to outdo others in radical devotion to the leader and to the sect, and he will seek to be an example by following protocol to the tee, and by reporting on others when he sees the same rebellious behavior he used to have.

By now, he has become a devout member, who will always defend and protect his leader. He will crack down hard on any negativity or critical statements, and at this point, he has most likely also cut all ties with family members and his previous network of friends and colleagues and other associations. He has accepted that he is now committed to spending his life with the sect in whatever location that may be. His highest purpose is to please his sect leader, who is now showing him a favor he never enjoyed before he reached this level of commitment.

He is promoted within the sect to a higher position of influence, he is in training to become someone else’s coach and mentor, and he enjoys a great amount of time close to the sect leader and the inner core. If his development continues, he even has a chance of being accepted into the inner core group of the sect leaders’ personal advisers.

Some of the methods a sect uses to gain control over individuals include forcing them to confess sins. This includes not only sins already committed, but also thoughts that are considered sinful. Thoughts count as much as actions in a religious sect, because the leaders know that behavior and attitudes come from the mind. If they can gain control over not only actions but also the mind, they have the key to take complete control over an individual. The sect’s goal is to make everyone think and act uniformly and erase any critical thinking in a member that might cause other members to start doubting the sect leader and the way of life within the sect, thus threatening the absolute power of the sect leader.

Another method of control is to always subject the member to a lifestyle of complete openness. A member’s privacy is subject to invasion at any moment, and all his assets are considered the property of everyone. A member is often moved around in different sleeping quarters in the community housing, and he learns to live simply and transparently. It is also required that a member practices militaristic obedience to the sect leaders. If there is the slightest hesitation on his part, he will be subjected to strong correction or punishment. If that’s the case, he will also most likely be accused of having demons, which will need to be exorcised. Depending on the sect, they will operate with various demon-exorcism programs where some include blasting, which is a practice where the individual gets surrounded by other members for about an hour, who scream at the top of their lungs at the member in the middle, who then gradually breaks down under the pressure. When the member allows himself to be blasted, which is a tremendously boundary crossing violation, it only puts him even more into a place that leads to the complete annihilation of his self-respect, self-esteem, dignity, and sense of self-worth.

Other methods seen used by religious sects are the constant use of psychological scare tactics to get control over members, including warning people that they will go to Hell if they disobey their authorities, telling people that God is angry with them, telling people how sinful and dirty they are, calling them names, convincing members they are demon possessed, threatening with ex-communication from the sect if they don’t submit, forcing members to be grateful for all the sect leader has done for them, using members for manual labor to keep them activated and not thinking, and having public humiliation ceremonies where a person’s wrong doings are exposed and displayed for all members.

Many religious sects move to suburban or remote areas, where they can isolate members further from the inflow of information from the outside world. Members are disallowed from listening to secular music, visiting stores that play secular music, going places that are considered a secular influence like restaurants, cafes and malls. The way they prohibit the members is usually not by saying “You are not allowed to do such and such,” but they will bash and talk so negative about these things, that members not only come to fear this influence, but also develop a strong distaste for whatever it is that is not allowed, sinful, or not considered “from God.” Members must travel in groups when they visit grocery stores or other “outside” places for the sake of supervision. No one is allowed to venture out on his own.

Members are prevented, either psychologically or forcefully, from using personal public communication items like cell phones, computers, Facebook profiles, and email accounts. They are also restricted from watching television, or are only allowed to watch certain programs. They are brainwashed to believe they don’t need to keep up with news or other information about society “outside” or the world. They are encouraged to only read religious books and magazines published by the sect itself that propagate only the viewpoints of the sect. All secular and other religious books are destroyed along with any personal items that remind the individual of their past life, such as decoration items, books, instruments, music, clothing, notebooks, letters, pictures, or any other items that have emotional value to the member.

Side note: Secteric influence in a church can be detected by the pastor or leadership disallowing members to visit other churches or home groups or conferences, telling the people they need to be faithful in their own church. In a church like that, the pastor believes he “owns” the members of the church, also called “sheep,” because they have committed to being part of the church and serve and receive under this particular pastor, also called “Shepherd.” He will also control the people further by demanding their faithful giving of tithes and money offerings. He will do anything to make sure his “sheep” don’t go to other churches and see other ministers and get tempted to leave the church or give their money there instead of to his church.

In a religious sect you will find the mentality that they believe they are the only group on earth that is right and will go to Heaven, and everyone else is wrong, belong to Satan, and will go to Hell. Many sects have an over-emphasis on the apocalyptic end times of the world that is said to come. The sect leader extorts the fear the members have of going astray and believing in the Anti-Christ, or missing out on the so-called “Second coming” of Christ, and use this fear to make the group strong from within. Also, as the sect gradually isolates itself from the outside communities, the sect leaders will demonize the outside society, and create a sense of survival mentality within the sect. This survival mode actually strengthens the group from within because of the perceived idea that their value system is in danger of being attacked by others.

A religious sect will always prey on a member’s desire to serve God and will convince the member that they are serving God by serving the leader. In this way, there is nothing a member would not do for a leader, even things that would normally be considered a sin or inappropriate, like for instance, believing God speaks through the leader and everything he or she says is straight from God’s own mouth and God’s will, which can lead to all kinds of manipulation of the member that he would normally not accept. If a member really believes God speaks when the leader speaks, he can do anything the sect leader would request, such as having a sexual relationship with the sect leader, giving money and assets, working to clean and cook for the leader, running errands and doing special favors for the sect leader, and investing his whole life into doing what the leader says, all the while believing he is doing it for God.

Copyright©2012 Edwin & Sophia Christiaan