Welcome to Cultspotting, an ongoing guide to determining if you, in fact, could be cult member. Each installment will touch on a different feature of a COG cult, and all cults in general, to better prepare people for the likelihood that they may, in fact, be members of a psychotic doomsday sect.
Just because you pass or fail one the following tests does not necessarily indicate whether you’re in a cult. At the end of the series, we’ll add up your score and display your place on the Cult-o-Meter, after which, you will be prescribed the proper treatments and antidotes to remedy the situation.
Part VI: Is your church isolationist?
There are rougly 1300 different known cults in the world, according to the International Cultic Studies Association. While ICSA counts WCG among them, it has not yet recognized the many different cults that sprung from its ruins, which would propel the estimated number of organizations even higher.
Though, it’s possible they simply view WCG as a placeholder for the greater COG, which is understandable, because they are essentially the same church, their only key difference being who is in control and receiving tithe money.
In fact, most of these cults operate in very similar ways. One of their most prevailing common traits is isolationism.
The ICSA outlines ways to identify and characterize a cult, and speaks at length about isolationism and its effects on members.
Many cults have instilled an active persecution complex in the minds of their members. They have been trained to believe the world hates, fears and misunderstands them. This often results in cults isolating themselves from the outside world.
7. The leader cultivates, and the cult maintains, a sense of “outside” persecution.
Herbert W. Armstrong taught WCG would be persecuted, and even set dates for when that persecution would begin relating to his 1975 apocalyptic predictions. Armstrong and his acolytes kept COG members frightened and constantly looking toward an impending crackdown on their church, similar to the massacre in Waco, Texas in 1993 when their spiritual cousins the Branch Davidians were besieged by federal agents.
Incidents such as these and the constant drumbeat that “secular, godless liberals” are destroying society creates a cohesion of fear where members band together and tend to socialize internally to the exclusion of the outside world. Members are taught to believe everything that happens in the world they disagree with is an affront to their beliefs and values, and thus a direct threat to their community.
This also takes the form of “mean world syndrome,” a term coined by communications professor George Gerber to describe the ways people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, based on mass media portrayals. Cults tend to feed upon this phenomenon by convincing their members the world is a harsh and dangerous place that will erode their values. People outside the cult are viewed as “sinners,” bad influences who will drag them down and threaten their salvation or enlightenment.
This paranoia only fuels cult isolationism.
Many cults expressly forbid its members from being in contact with friends and family outside the fold. The most widely-known example is the Church of Scientology’s Disconnection Policy where members are forced to sever ties with anyone the church deems antagonistic or an enemy. This is enforced to reduce the threat of its members encountering dissenting opinions against their faith and the organization.
WCG had similar policies during the height of its power. Church members who left the fold were seen as “doomed to the Lake of Fire” for “knowing the truth but rejecting it.” Ex-members were seen as irredeemable and therefore their friends and family in the church were instructed to shun them.
In the old days, new members had to interview with WCG ministers before they could even be told where local church services were held, and each new follower was thoroughly vetted. This policy was softened as the cult grew, as larger congregations translated to additional money for the church.
PCG has an active “no contact” policy, where any friends, family members and especially those in other COG cults are seen as interlopers and bad influences. The followers of Gerald Flurry are infamous for falling silent after joining PCG and often are not heard from again for years.
This is a sword that cuts two ways, as PCG’s intolerance of “Satanic influences,” meaning outsiders, often leads to witchhunts against perceived dissenters. PCG has a strict excommunication policy resulting in a very high rate of members being tossed from the church.
COG cults without written no contact and excommunication policies tend to possess them in practice rather than law. Baptized members who leave the church are subject to “call campaigns” by members instructing the congregation to ignore and shun those they view as “misguided traitors” and those who have been “taken by Satan.” Friends and family who no longer see their “prodigal sons” at weekly Sabbath services and the constant stream of church activities tend to grow very distant and eventually lose contact all together. The isolationist culture Armstrong created in WCG lingers very strongly among these splinter sects, rendering written no contact policies unnecessary to achieve similar results.
These policies cause cults to remain small, isolated and intolerant communities with members disconnected from their external support networks.
Restrictions on dating and marriage
Many religions frown upon dating or marrying outside the faith, but only in rare cases is it expressly forbidden among mainstream religious bodies.
In cults, prohibitions against dating and marrying outside the fold are commonplace.
In the COG, it is usually allowed to convert a spouse to the church before marrying them. These occasions are rare, since dating non-believers, even those in mainstream Christian groups, is preached as sinful from cradle to grave.
Teens in the COG are taught at Sabbath School and church camps that dating non-church members is sinful, based on an interpretation of II Cor 6:14, which states:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
Armstrong and his followers taught this scripture as a prohibition against interfaith dating for decades, and it remains a fundamental tenant of belief for many COG sects.
These teachings often restrict the dating pool for members in small congregations, confining them to either long distance relationships with those in other COG congregations, or dooming them to simply not dating or marrying at all.
While most COG sects are fine with intermarrying between organizations with the same Armstrongite beliefs, PCG and other ultraconservative churches forbid this entirely.
By restricting dating and marriage options, members are forced to look even further inward.
Married couples in the COG are encouraged to reproduce quickly and often, and their children are often raised in the isolationist culture of the church and rarely know anything different.
To them, living on this lonely island is normal, especially if their parents partake in homeschooling, a common COG practice that results in their entire education being at the hands of their adherent parents and the ministry.
This results in a situation similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:
Imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their arms and legs held in place, but their heads are also fixed, compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads “including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials”. The prisoners watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.
Socrates suggests the prisoners would take the shadows to be real things and the echoes to be real sounds, not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard. They would praise as clever whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world, and the whole of their society would depend on the shadows on the wall.
Children and teens are taught in Sabbath School and at church camps to avoid making friendships outside the church, and of course from dating non-believers. They are also discouraged from listening to popular music because it’s considered “witchcraft,” and church beliefs in the Sabbath keep them from attending Friday night sporting events or participating in many school activities.
Child-rearing in the COG, save for instances where parents are more progressive, tends to reinforce the isolationist culture as new generations don’t even think to interact with or reach-out to the world. This situation is common in stricter Armstrongite cults, such as PCG, RCG, LCG and others. However, such isolation of children is still found in UCG, COGWA and other more “liberal” COG cults on a case-by-base, congregational basis.
It’s rare for cult members to have many friends outside the fold, even in cases where they aren’t prohibited from outside contact. Their isolated environment prevents them from forming lasting bonds among acquaintances or coworkers. Cult members are often known for being very “nice” and “professional,” but also for keeping people at arm’s length.
COG members frequently trumpet their professional successes for “sticking to their faith” in the workplace. However, unemployment has hit the COG as hard as anyone, and members’ refusal to reach outside the confines of their beliefs to find work (e.g. work on the Sabbath, network with non-church members, engage in travels that might make them miss church activities, etc) has exasperated the problem.
Ambassador College graduates often have kept the same very small and cliquish circle of friends for decades and have lost the ability to forge relationships outside the COG.
This is partially due to the “pearls before swine” effect, based on Matthew 7:6, an exhortation by Jesus Christ not to present valuable “spiritual truths” to heathens who cannot appreciate their value.
To cult members, their beliefs define a large part of who they are and church activities and rituals dominate a large portion of their lives. Their religious beliefs are extremely important to them, and sharing them with outsiders is something few are comfortable with out of fear of being rejected or criticized.
COG prohibitions against traditional holidays they construe as “pagan” only further disconnects them from commonality with their peers.
Members no longer feel they have much in common with their outside acquaintances and coworkers and therefore are hesitant to progress those relationships to deeper levels. It’s part of why those leaving cults have such a difficult time rebuilding their social networks.
Cults closely manage the flow of information both internally and externally. This creates an impenetrable curtain where information can neither escape or infiltrate the group.
Members rely on cult publications, booklets, broadcasts and newsletters for their information about both the church and the outside world. The COG instructs its members to “watch” world events to prepare for the coming Apocalypse, but does everything it can to spin the news to the church’s teachings and favor.
This is to prevent dissenting opinions and information contrary to cult beliefs from entering the member’s mind. It also adds to the atmosphere of paranoia and distrust:
This rigid control over disseminated information extends to all relationships. Members are instructed to spy on each other and report improper activities or comments to leaders. New converts are not permitted to talk to each other without an older member present to chaperone them. Most importantly, people are told to avoid contact with ex-members or critics. Those who could provide the most information are the ones to be especially shunned. Some groups even go so far as to screen members’ letters and phone calls. ~ICSA
WCG ministers were notorious for reporting on members and even each other. The infamous Manpower Papers showcased how closely the ministry scrutinized member beliefs, conversations and personal characteristics. The Kessler Letter describes ministerial wiretapping programs and initiatives to silence whistleblowers.
PCG is well-known to have continued these practices in earnest and has strangled the flow of information within its virtual walls. It doesn’t allow commentary on its websites and doesn’t permit dissenting or different opinions to be expressed at Bible studies or during fellowship.
It is through socialization that the elements of mind control work together to create an environment in which the new recruit is isolated within a particular cultural context so that the cult environment becomes the recruit’s only reality. Strict control is maintained over the amount and the interpretation of information disseminated to the new recruit. Information is revealed selectively according to the rate that the recruit will accept it without disengaging. Open discussions of both new and old members’ doubts or criticisms of the group, doctrine, or leader are discouraged or strictly forbidden by the group’s belief system. ~ICSA
UCG and COGWA tend to blitz their members with media projects, presenting world news through a filter molded to their doctrinal agenda. UCG is also infamous for censoring its Facebook wall and website and even suspends members for expressing differing views online.
The effects isolation has on cult members is profound. They are essentially confined in a world separate from the one their family and friends live in. The COG tries to characterize the practices they use to isolate their members as an attempt to “simulate the Kingdom of God” before Christ’s return.
In reality, the COG is simply exercising further control.
People who claim to be training to “help people” in the Kingdom of God are actually losing touch with humanity and ironically are not qualified to help anyone to understand anything.
According to Professor James House:
The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.
The forced and restricted socialization provided by cults is no substitute for normal, healthy human relationships. These isolationist church cultures create feelings of paranoia, fear, disconnection and entrapment that help to generate the invisible prison bars that confine so many to these cults for life.
Isolationism is a key trait that characterizes a cult. Unfortunately, barring an accident, those within these cults are unlikely to learn this anytime soon.