I’m in a few groups on Facebook that are for surviving cult members or various similar topics. One friend posted a link to this article and asked us: “To what degree would you say [your group] manifests “the three perfect-storm characteristics of a religious authoritarian culture: They have a strict, social hierarchy; they are unusually fearful; and they are socially separatist?””
Janet Heimlich goes on to describe the culture as: “Members tend not to be just casual worshipers. Rather, they strongly identify themselves by their faith.”
I’ve always identified Master’s Commission (MC) as operating as authoritarian, but most specifically the extreme version of it: totalitarian. While this term is usually applied to governments and political movements, I think a case can be made for MC. Totalitarianism is a system ran by strict authority, but instead of having an unlikeable figure-head, there’s a leader who is very charasmatic and likeable. A cult of personality, as Wikipedia describes it:
Personality cults were first described in relation to totalitarian regimes that sought to radically alter or transform society according to radical ideas. Often, a single leader became associated with this revolutionary transformation, and came to be treated as a benevolent “guide” for the nation without whom the transformation to a better future couldn’t occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies of the 20th century, such as those of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
Insert “church” for “nation” and you’ve got MC. If you have ever been in Master’s Commission or a group like it, you probably got a “check in your spirit” (just kidding!) about the line “radically alter or transform society according to radical ideas.” Wasn’t that what we were all about? We were the elite! The chosen by God. The ones who were going to take back this world for Jesus.
Again, from Wikipedia:
The term ‘an authoritarian regime‘ denotes a state in which the single power holder – an individual ‘dictator‘, a committee or a junta or an otherwise small group of political elite – monopolizes political power. However, a totalitarian regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of the social life including economy, education, art, science, private life and morals of citizens. “The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens .”
“Control the thoughts and actions of its citizens.” There’s really no other explanation needed, for if you’ve lived in something like MC, you know exactly what I mean. Thoughts were controlled by many different ways:
- Accountability partnerships: These were strategically set up relationships where an “intern” (called First Year student, Second Year student, etc.) would meet with a same-gendered staff member for the purposes of confessing sins. Sins weren’t just actions, they were also thoughts, habits, patterns of behavior thought to be harmful in pursuing God’s purpose.
- Regular Behavior Reports: Each staff member was told they had to report all accountability communication to the Director of the program on a regular basis (weekly reports typically; although if there was an urgent sin or a sin that was impairing growth in the group, it was reported right away).
- Peer Police: Peers were encouraged to police the behaviors of other students/interns and report them into staff members or the Director as soon as they saw something that disobeyed the explicit and implicit rules.
- Public Humiliation/Confessions: When “sins” were at a level when the Director thought they were harmful to the group, he would call everyone into a meeting, or take advantage of a group prayer time and proceed to call out people on their sins, or asking us to pray out loud to God confessing our sins (often using a microphone so everyone could hear our “sins”).
What group/movement/cult/church were you in? Did they operate with a totalitarian leader? How did that leader line up with the traits listed above? Was there thought control in your group? How were thoughts controlled?