Writer: Joan Schueller I Photographer: Dania Lopez
Humanity’s grotesque obsession with the unique and macabre is a tale as old as time. The American media responds to the call of consumers by saturating movies, TV shows and podcasts with bloody violence, psychological horror, explicit sexual scenes and plots bordering on psychotic. One significant topic that the media has extrapolated on in recent years are cults. The media employs both retrospective and realistic fiction to create the narratives of popular shows such as “Keep Sweet, Pray, and Obey,” “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Midsommar” and much more. Common reactions to this topic include fear, confusion, but most of all interest due to the unique nature of cults. The most humbling realization a consumer may experience is the continual existence of cults and cult like phenomena within modern society. With no sign of slowing, it is pertinent to Christians to understand what cults are, how they function, and how Christians should interact with cult members.
Jeremiah Roberts is the host of the weekly “Cultish” podcast which evaluates the impact of cult-like phenomena through a biblical perspective and encourages listeners to understand the thinking, strategies and consequences cult leaders have had throughout history. Roberts defines cults as a group that polarizes around a figure or organization.
Roberts specifies that cults “will always adhere to Christian terminology but then they’ll… always try and change-up who Jesus is.”
Cults claim superiority over Christianity because they “distort the personhood of Christ” often through a “private revelation… or special insight to the Bible no one else has.” Roberts uses the podcast to debunk the warped image of Christ that cults create with biblical truth and gives listeners practical strategies to evangelize to cult members
Jesus calls his followers to make disciples of every nation. To evangelize with love and compassion to people within cult groups, Christians must learn how cults function. A widely accepted tool that identifies the tenants of a cult is “The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control” developed in 2020 by Steven Hassan. This model represents “behavior, thought, emotional, and information control [which] constitute[s] the four components of mind control” according to Hassan.
Understanding Behavior Control
In the BITE model, two tenants stand out: behavior and emotional control. Behavior control aims to create complete dependance and submission to the group, its doctrine, and its leadership. An example of this can be seen in the doctrine addressing women in Mormonism.
The Evangelical Mormon Interaction club at Biola University aims to equip Biola students to evangelize to Mormons through relationships and discussion both locally and throughout Utah.
Riley Davis, a junior political science major and a leader in the Evangelical Mormon Interaction club, stated the Mormon tradition teaches that “men are really the bridge between women and their salvation… the only way for women to really receive their salvation is through doing these essential ordinances that are ultimately done by men.”
Women within Mormonism depend upon male Mormon leaders in order to experience salvation. Outside of the hierarchy and church, Mormon women cannot experience salvation. The manipulation of behavior within Mormonism warrants the label behavior control.
Understanding Emotional Control
The BITE model concludes with emotional control which can include “love bombing” and “phobia indoctrination.” Upon joining a cult, members are often made to feel special, unconditionally loved, and validated. This initial “love bombing” becomes quickly revoked if the member begins to resist the group or ask problematic questions.
Another common tool is “phobia indoctrination” where cult leaders instill such strong fears into the mind of their members that members cannot imagine ever being happy without the group. Kylie Lindsay, a senior english major and another leader of the Evangelical Mormon Interaction, highlights a form of emotional control over women within the Mormon church.
“The women [of the Mormon faith] that I have spoken to all have a really big fear of never being married,” Lindsay states. “Not only does your exaltation depend on it, but it’s just what you’re expected to do.” The inability to marry is a phobia created by the Mormon doctrine and church to make members further submit to Mormon doctrine.
In understanding what cults are and their tenants of mind control, Christians can start to learn the work of evangelism to cult members. Walter Martin, a pioneer in Christian countercult apologetics and author of “The Kingdom of the Cults,” states the most effective tactics of evangelism to cult members include finding common ground, defining terms, and an attitude of love, tolerance, and perseverance.
To show love, Martin instructs that being patient in making a comfortable environment is key. Martin states that cult members believe they have found “‘the truth,’ and… Often consider the Christian message to be inferior.” Despite frustration that may occur during evangelism with a cultist, Martin encourages that through the Spirit, believers can endure all things for the sake of Christ.
Martin tells Christians to “remember that cultists are precious souls for whom Jesus Christ offered himself.” While holding vastly different doctrines, beliefs, and lifestyles, cult members still need to hear the true Word of God.
Instead of being mere movie plots and media fixations, cult members should be dearly loved, prayed for, and evangelized to by the Christian community.