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The Cultic Family, Part III

In my last two articles (part one here) I addressed characteristics within a cultic family environment and some of the physiological effects they have on adult children. In this conclusion, I'd like to address some important features in light of our Christian faith.

It can be argued that some traits are necessary for godly families, such as separation from the world and the pursuit of holiness. As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the way, the truth, and the life. We confess our trespasses to one another, and pray for one another. (James 5:16) These views can certainly be pulled right out of cult criteria and appear to be forms of elitism, of  "us versus them," of confession and purity. Taking Lifton's characteristics and some of the spiritual abuse hallmarks noted in part one, let's look at Scripture and how it relates to faith and family.

Biblically Refuting Cultic Criteria
(click on links for Scriptural passages)

Milieu Control
The best way to understand milieu control is "total life micromanagement," although even that doesn't suggest the toxic levels present within high demand, closed groups. Biblically, we are to be self-controlled. This is actually one of the fruits of the Spirit. When a child receives the Holy Spirit through salvation, a parent should trust God with their child and appropriately give Him space to work and produce fruit. This doesn't mean that a parent won't still have influence, or even the "final word" in many cases. But God has provided the home as a safe place for a child to learn vital lessons about life and spirituality, but  when parents endeavor to control every aspect of life—physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually—they actually quench the Spirit by fulfilling the role of God in someone else's life. In this case, home becomes unsafe, and stumbling blocks occur. While there are times, of course, when controlling another person is necessary, such as legal restraint of criminals or those who intend to inflict harm on themselves or others, this only becomes necessary after they have ceased to control themselves.

Authoritarian Structure
Jesus preached humility. Through His life we have an example decidedly anti-authoritarian, whether we are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, pastors, teachers, or government officials. He who is the eternal I AM "..made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (Phil. 2:7,8) He did not come to be served, but to serve, to pour out His life. Godly leaders will pattern themselves after the One who knelt before His followers. "...having loved His own who were in the world," writes John, "He loved them to the end."

Image Conscious
Jesus concerned Himself with truth, not with the appearance of evil. He sat among sinners and even defended His actions. He wasn't afraid of associating with prostitutes, nor of allowing them to touch Him. And our perfect, holy Lord offers Himself as our example.

Suppresses Criticism
God is not afraid of questions. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him." (James 1:5) (emphasis mine) He will not annihilate your soul for coming boldly to the throne. ‘Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’ (Jer. 33:3) He remembers our frame, and can take our questions, our rages, our criticism, our doubts.

Our God is merciful. He is patient and suffers long. We make mistakes, but He still loves us. Shall we sin, that grace abounds? Certainly not, but as Paul reminds us, "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me." And in Christ there is no condemnation. He is both our Priest and our sacrifice, who "always lives to make intercession" for us. He calls us to be holy, but He is the one who makes us holy.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace..." (Heb. 13:8-9) In Christ we have stability. God does not change. "Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." (James 1:16-17) This means we can trust Him. He has proven Himself faithful.

Mystical: Through manipulation, one seeks his own glory. God is not manipulative. While He is a jealous God and seeks His glory, He seeks it because He is true and knows that glory belongs to Him. The false humility we often encounter in ourselves and others is not truth. God recognizes the truth of who we are and the truth of who He is. And He is our Creator who loves us and freely gives us all things. "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" (Mt. 7:11) Sometimes this means that He operates supernaturally in our lives. Emotional: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He doesn't love us only when we behave, when we perform to standard. Not only do we love Him because He first loved us, but it is His goodness that leads us to repentance. He doesn't play with our hearts; He doesn't dangle a carrot before us. He didn't wait to see if we'd accept Him as Lord before He went to the cross. He did it; and "it is finished", He said.

Cognitive Dissonance
God is Truth. Mixed messages lead to confusion, and God is not the author of confusion but of peace. We can trust the One who cannot lie, who will not deceive us. Sometimes we experience the natural consequences of our actions, and even then, God can use them for good.  When there is something we do not understand, we can come boldly unto His throne, and He will  teach us.

Separatism, or Demand for Purity
Separation from the world, purity, and God's command to "Be holy, for I am holy" are key tenets within many families and churches—both healthy ones, and cultic ones. It is important to recognize that separation, or to be "set apart", means sanctification—something done by God. "But know that the LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly; The LORD will hear when I call to Him." (Ps. 4:3, also: John 17:17, Eph. 5:26-27, 2 Thess. 2:13, Heb. 13:12) He is the one who justifies us, who makes us holy, and saves us, and not we ourselves. 

Cultic environments reek of secrecy and lack of trust, but note the difference with Jesus:
"No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15) Love rejoices in the truth. In a trusting environment—a godly environment, for God is safe and trustworthy—we can confess our trespasses and find non-shaming encouragement, support, and comfort.

Loading the Language
As we worship the Lord, we might have intimate language, like that between lovers or friends, but in context of a closed group, special, inner language serves to feed elitism. As we are called to evangelize, what good is it if we cannot speak in a way others understand? Even within our own culture—and for some, this is limited to family—we are called to be missionaries. We have a unique example through the experience of Paul in Acts 17: Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you..." Through Paul's entire dialogue, we see that: he met them on their level—intellectually and culturally equipped to relate to them; he reasoned with them with their own language: that of philosopher; he involved himself in community and their daily life; he made himself visible, willing, and available; he was observant and relevant;  he engaged the culture where he found himself, even able to quote a poet of their own—all without sinning, without being snared by the world.

Sacred Science
The Truth of God is absolute, but it is available for all who call upon the name of the Lord. It isn't limited to gender or role. Many cultic families and groups teach that wives and daughters can only hear from God through their husbands or fathers, but consider the woman who approached Jesus herself: But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:33-35) We are all responsible for seeking both the knowledge of God and the voice of God. Look at another verse that uses the words 'fear and trembling': Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13) This is not exclusive ~ this means to anyone, man, woman, child, slave, free, Jew, Greek, Gentile . . .

Doctrine over person
While cultic groups, familial or otherwise, elevate doctrine above individuals, Jesus came to challenge this by His very existence on earth. Jesus shows us person over doctrine, valuing souls, hearts and bodies above religious practice. "And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day." The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?” (Luke 13:11-15) The Way came to die for people, not for a way of life. The Truth came to serve people, with humility, not to be served. The Life came to pour out His own so that people, not doctrine, would have it for eternity.

Dispensing of existence
Jesus did not reject anyone. Even the Pharisees, whom He loudly and often corrected, were loved.  While hanging on the cross, He pleaded with God to forgive those who crucified Him, "for they know not what they do." To reject those who do not prescribe to group ideology, especially in the name of God, counters Christ's example of sacrificial love. Communicating  that others are "dead to me", as some proclaim, or that others are less than, or don't matter, denies the gospel—especially when they are members of one's family.


"Cultic" is a distasteful, loaded, even offensive term for many. In our context, in it's basic form, it describes a culture that utilizes non-Christlike means of getting something—even something good and godly—while trying to change, manipulate, control, or coerce someone else Those who perpetuate this generally mean well, want only the best for their families, and don't realize what happens until it seems too late. But it is never too late. God is great and can restore the years. Even if a lack of faith has led parents to take desperate steps, God can strengthen and restore it.

Recovering from a cultic environment takes time and continually searching for truth and wisdom. But anyone can do this. We do not have to be naturally strong, naturally good Christians, naturally perfect. Sometimes we need professional assistance. We need those who can help us, support us, pray for us, encourage us, listen to us repeat the same thing over and over until it is spent. It can be hard, for over the course of life it will involve pain, anger, grief, and forgiveness. But Jesus said that "difficult is the way that leads to life." Yet He also says "...I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In cases when one has a pre-cult identity, trying to remember the past is only a step towards healing—but it is a step of faith and will help you find the right path. Those who do not have this can find their identity in Christ, who Himself is the Way, Truth, and Life. Because healing is a journey, and if it is taken with Christ, the soul will find rest.


  1. Thank you for this 3rd part to the story. It is so "on target" and so powerful, as the truth turns the light on the evil of control. What a ministry God has birthed in this day, that of walking alongside of wives, moms, single women, teenagers...all suffering from the effects of abuse, from those who were the closest to them. Keep telling the story!! I am trusting God to do a great work in the lives of those who read these words! I appreciate you!!

  2. This is going to sound shallow, but I think you are so cool. I've been reading for a while now, and I love coming back to your site...the word that comes to my mind is "gentle". Those of us from similar backgrounds as yours need gentle. Thank you for sharing your gentleness.

  3. Thank you so much for pointing out the truth, not just what is wrong. I needed to hear it...again. :-)

  4. Thank you for writing this series. My family scored 6 out of the 8 characteristics of a cult. That women and girls could only hear God's will through their father/husband was highly stressed in my family. As you point out that is completely unbibical. The bible is full of examples of strong women. I think the best example and the one that has empowered me the most as someone who was never allowed to make my own decisions, is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Perhaps the most important decision made by a human being in the history of mankind, was made by a single young women without any input from a man. The angel did not go to Mary's father, or to Joseph to ask if they approved of Mary becoming the mother of the the Son of God. Mary did not say, "let me go ask my betrothed" or "let me go ask my father". She simply said "let it be done to me according to Your will."

  5. Oh, my friends! {{hugs}}

    joyinthejourney ~ thank you for your kindness and support!

    peaceofchange ~ that was sooooo not shallow. =) It was beautiful; and if you knew how much I've prayed to have the word gentle describe me . . . I am still learning and still have many non-gentle moments, but your encouragement is priceless.

    Sharon ~ much love.

    Kateri ~ I love that you brought up Mary's story. I use it in my book. What you've said makes such an important point, and so true!

  6. I really love this post. I'm not from one of these families, nor do I belong to one, but in our somewhat rural community I have had contact with many who are. I've seen a lot of damaged souls escaping, and a lot of fresh souls, struggling to figure out what "godly" looks like, who are being seduced by these lifestyles. I certainly understand the appeal, but we must understand that "godly" will look different on everyone, and in order to remain lights to the world, we have to remain in the world. We also, by adopting a "lifestyle" run the risk of converting people not to Christ, but to the sub-culture.

    I, too, am blessed by your blog.

  7. Sorry,
    My husband has been using my computer. That comment above was really from me, Laurie. Let's see if I can't login under my own name and avoid this mixup in the future.

  8. I have a question, as a new momma wanting to get things 'right'. When my daughter (almost 2) doesn't obey she gets a quick time out in her play pen. Is this like withholding love and attention due to behavior that you are talking about? I always kiss her and usually tell her why I put her in time out and that I love her after I get her out. I'm just wondering if this is what you mean or if it's something different. Does the withdrawel of love go one for a long time?


  9. Laurie, thank you for your grace. <3 This means a lot to me, especially coming from you.

    D, thank you for your comment and for the opportunity to clarify. The withholding of love /attention / acceptance /approval based on behavior discussed in this blog refers to older teens and adults who have made choices that parents do not feel they can support. Sometimes they are sinful and sometimes they are godly. And often it's a subtle withdrawal that for many goes on for years, even if the child is truly seeking to follow the Lord. Quite a different picture than loving discipline. May He bless you and your family! Hugs!

  10. Excellent post Hillary! I am so excitedly waiting for your book to hit the stores.

  11. I somehow found your site here early this morning as I am up w. baby. I have been so encouraged to see anything, SOMETHING, that is speaking to these subjects in the homeschooling movement. Keep keeping on. This particular post is so very true. I am in a community that is run by the very people who preach these things and call them godly and have a great following. Those of us who are in this area and have been burned or worked closely in the past know more than we could possibly write in regards to the fact that these current teachings that are so popular in the homeschooling movement are indeed cultic.

    Keep pressing on and seeking the Lord. He does heal - I am in the process as well (as I married into a family that is in this cult and teaches it widely). I praise God anytime I see the truth being written in regards to all this.

    Relationship w/ Jesus is the key. :)

    a. ann~ (resolved2worship on xanga)

  12. Okay, so as I have been reading your blog, (been here off and on today) I was really expecting some very liberal, feel-good theology that says "just do as you feel" and our daughters should too.

    I am a conservative Christian, and I had already commented on another post, but I have got to say that THIS particular post was probably the most thorough, unbiased and biblical post on this subject I have read.

    I also thank you for clarifying to the lady above the difference between loving discipline for a two year old and the way an older daughter is treated.

    I am truly at some crossroads in my own parenting journey now. I desire to encourage purity, femininity, a simple life and old-fashioned values for my family and daughters. The key is for me to be able to inspire my daughters in these ways without turning them into a set of rules and regulations that shackle.

    We are not a patriarch-centered family. I actually tried to influence my husband at one time to be more like this. (Gasp!)

    He told me it sounded like these men just wanted to be control freaks and wasn't interested in that. (Praise God!) My husband is a very conservative pastor, but legalism grates on him like crazy.

    What was I thinking? I'm not sure, except to say that there is a certain type of lifestyle that seems so right on the outside and that in an effort to not be "worldly" we tend to gravitate towards external-ism because in some sense, it is easier and safer than to deal with a messy, sin-ridden world and actually engage it!

    Have a blessed weekend!

  13. I wanted you to know that I just wrote a post on this at my blog with a link to your site!

    God bless!

  14. Michelle,

    Thank you so much for linking to this article and I thank God that it has resonated with you! It's good to hear that you were pleasantly surprised with the content here. I certainly don't consider myself liberal but it's a challenge to write about controversial topics even from a Christian perspective because everyone is liberal (etc) to someone.

    I do write about feelings /emotions in many places, and they are important because God created them (and God Himself is a feeling God!) but it is my hope to write in a balanced, biblical way.

    You know, I hear from many women who tell me that they (or their mothers, respectively) tried to influence their husbands / fathers into a more patriarchal lifestyle. There is a fine line between trying to help or encourage someone to live a godly life and knowing when to step back! I go through this everyday, it seems like. ;-) The amazing thing is that for us as believers (and this applies to your desire to raise your daughters for God's glory) we have the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and direction for each of us. What is right for one Christian family may not be right for yours, or vice versa...and what may be right for one daughter may not be right for another, but God knows, and He desires a living relationship with us and will make known His will for you and your family. This is one of the wonderful ways that He draws us into fellowship with Him. He is so wonderful! It's late and I am rambling now... ;-) Thanks for leaving your thoughts! Have a wonderful weekend (and you might be interested in a post coming out on Monday that kind of goes along with your comment).

  15. I haven't even gotten to the end, I just saw the section on "suppresses criticism" and I had one of those AHA! moments.

    I was JUST talking to my pastor on Sunday about something he said, it wasn't even a major point, but in passing he mentioned the prayers of Godly men in scripture, specifically certain of the Psalms, and prophets, etc. He said in effect that God would rather we pray honest prayers, even if we're mad at Him and don't like what He's doing, than to pray sanctimonious mealy-mouthed prayers acting like nothing's wrong.

    I really really struggled with that for a LONG time. I had heard people say that occasionally, that God is a big boy and He can handle it if you're mad at Him. I used to inwardly recoil at the shocking irreverence. Wasn't that terribly rebellious to even THINK of being mad at God, let alone tell Him so to His face?

    After my son died, and then a few years later one of my siblings committed suicide, I finally reached a place where I was ready to get over my mealy-mouthed fake reverence and just let God have it, all of it, complete honesty. Guess what? He IS big enough to not only handle it, but give me the strength to handle it, that I wasn't ready to receive until I was ready to be real. Mad and all.

    Criticism, questioning, or expressing anything remotely in that vein was never tolerated when I was growing up. From anyone. Period. Not from one parent to the dominant parent. Certainly not from lowly children. Lip service was paid to "If you ever want to talk about anything, or appeal anything, go ahead!" But that "go ahead" was conditional. You just knew IF you ever worked up the guts to do it, it would be explained in excruciating detail why you were wrongheaded, and why things had to be the way they were, and then of course there would be "praying" for your "heart attitudes" that had so tragically led you into questioning authority. Because that was what always happened if someone even THOUGHT you might be THINKING of questioning. Gotta take every though captive, you know.

    I'm not blaming my family background for my own inaccurate views of God's ability to accept me at my lowest lows. That's on me, for not believing what the Bible has always said, and I am thankful that God's not done with me yet. I am saying that recognizing how it started helps SO much in the tedious process of working it out of my thinking.

  16. Thank you for sharing your experience, anonymous. It sounds like you've actually grown more intimate with the Lord through allowing truth to come forth, even if it wasn't as "pretty" as you were taught it "should" be. May He continue to lead and heal you.

    I'm very sorry for the loss of your son. That is a tragedy I can't even imagine. Much love to you.

  17. Thank you so very much for blogging about this very real and scary topic. I come from a family like this. I have been married now for 3 1/2 years, and have 3 beautiful children and one on the way. My husband and I have had to deal with my parents' cultish meddlings since getting married. They want us to discuss ALL decisions we have to make with them before making them; they don't like our beliefs, they don't like the movies we watch, they don't like the clothes I wear, they don't like anything we do. And they make it VERY clear that they don't. We have been summoned to family meetings every single year to discuss all the issues they have with us, and to tell us that if we want a relationship with them, we must conform to their standards. They believe that theirs is the ONLY true, right way to live. My mother even claimed that God reveals special, Biblical truths to her alone, and that God tells her to share them with others! They use guilt to try to get their way; and threaten to end the relationship if we don't comply.

    This afternoon, my father & eldest brother are coming over to discuss yet again, some issues they have with us. My husband and I are fed up with this. We can no longer live our lives without my parents constantly calling us to meetings, or calling us to share their displeasure at us.

    The Lord saved me from my family by bringing my husband along at the perfect time! He is well versed in the Scriptures, and is excellent at discerning true and false doctrine. I also have incredibly awesome in-laws, who aren't controlling or demanding, and who also have a good understanding of Biblical truth. I want my children to grow up knowing and loving God's truth, not being forced to conform to the cultish teachings of their grandparents. I love my family, I just don't want to be a cookie cutter copy of them, like they want us to be. That is NOT God's plan for families....to be exactly the same. He designed each and every family to be uniquely different.

    Thank you, again, for this blog post!

  18. 3_Munchkin_Mama, thank you for your comment and I am SO sorry for the stress and pain I know you are experiencing right now! Thank God for your husband and his family! I hope and pray that in this coming New Year you will be blessed with much peace.

  19. Dear Hillary,

    I like a lot of what this site states in refuting the "Patriarchal Movement"....however, I think we need to be careful that we don't swing the pendulum to the other side creating another lop sided response. I think the quote below is one of these lop-sided responses. The Bible is clear that God is in control of all things and yet He has made us actively part of His plan! He chooses me and yet it is I who exercises faith, He sanctifies me and yet I am called to "work out my Salvation with fear and trembling".......and yes even though...."He works in me both to will and do for His good pleasure"!
    This is somewhat of a mystery and yet I know that I'm not a puppet because there are imperatives through out Scripture calling me to do something and at the same time I clearly know that I can do nothing without Him!! I pray that you see my point and that you take it kindly because much of what is stated on this site is of great benefit to many!

    Love in Christ,

    "Separatism, or Demand for Purity—
    Separation from the world, purity, and God's command to "Be holy, for I am holy" are key tenets within many families and churches—both healthy ones, and cultic ones. It is important to recognize that separation, or to be "set apart", means sanctification—something done by God. "But know that the LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly; The LORD will hear when I call to Him." (Ps. 4:3, also: John 17:17, Eph. 5:26-27, 2 Thess. 2:13, Heb. 13:12) He is the one who justifies us, who makes us holy, and saves us, and not we ourselves."


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