Is The World Mission Society Church Of God A Cult? – Part 2 Lifton

In Part 1 of “Is The World Mission Society Church of God A Cult?”, we compared the World Mission Society Church Of God to Steve Hassan’s BITE Model in order to determine if the organization fits the definition of a cult.  We concluded that all of the components of Hassan’s BITE Model were present within the group.  But will the WMSCOG fit another expert’s definition of a mind control group?

Robert J. Lifton has studied thought reform since the 1950’s and is considered to be a pioneer in the field of Thought Reform.  In his book entitled “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing'”, Lifton develops the eight psychological themes which are present in totalistic groups that employ thought reform on their members.  Are these eight psychological themes present within the WMSCOG?  We will use various former member stories we have received and interviews conducted by our correspondents, as well as our own experience in the analysis below and compare them to the Lifton Model.

Lifton’s Eight Criteria For Thought Reform
1. Milieu Control – (The Control Over Communication)

Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual’s communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads and writes, experiences, and expresses), but also–in its penetration of his inner life–over what we may speak of as his communication with himself…Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth (and having the need to dispel any possible inner doubts of their own), they [the leaders of the group] consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this “truth”.  In order to be the engineers of the human soul, they [the leaders] must first bring it under full observational control.  (p.420-421) 

Former World Mission Society Church of God members have reported experiencing great pressure to spend all of their time outside of work involved in WMSCOG activities like long hours of Bible study, recruiting, cleaning, and various “missions” (church errands).  When a group is successful in cannibalizing all of a person’s free time, a disruption between the self and the outside world occurs.  The member then has little or no time to spend with nonmembers of the group and therefore can become deprived of the external information and internal reflection required to test reality and maintain a separate identity from the group.  By demeaning personal interests, members can be discouraged from participating in the “non-useful” hobbies in order to thwart individuality.  A WMSCOG member once said to me, “If I cannot use my talents for the gospel, then what good are they?”  This sheltered environment can create a “bubble” if you will, void of outside information and influences, where the person is made to separate the group’s ideology from the outside world.

2. Mystical Manipulation – (Justified and Mandatory)

This manipulation assumes a no-holds-barred character, and uses every possible device at the milieu’s command, no matter how bizarre or painful.  Initiated from above, it seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously…they [the leaders] are impelled by a special kind of mystique which not only justifies such manipulations, but makes them mandatory…the pursuit of which must supersede all considerations of decency or of immediate human welfare…even those actions which seem cynical in the extreme can be seen as having ultimate relationship to the “higher purpose”.  (p. 422-423)

A WMSCOG member was told that the strain on his relationship with his wife over his involvement with the WMSCOG, was a test from God and how he handled this test would demonstrate to “father and mother” how much he loved “them”.  Another WMSCOG member stated that she divorced her husband because he tried to stop her from tithing.  I have heard members say that “we have to get rid of our thorns that keep us from coming to God”.  Statements like these imply that the member has to rid themselves of anything or anyone that the group defines as a hindrance to spending time with the group.  Failure to spend additional time with the group can provoke immense guilt, causing the member to give in to the group’s demands rather than turn painfully against himself.  Good examples are made of members who have sacrificed and cut themselves off from their family members, spouses, friends and other group defined “thorns” in order to manipulate other less faithful members to follow suit.  In this way the member is made to participate in the manipulation of others.

3.  The Demand for Purity – (Good vs. Evil)

The outside world is divided into the pure and impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and impure…for by defining and manipulating the criteria for purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame…a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition.  (p.423-424)

As a member of the WMSCOG, there is constant reinforcement of the us vs. them standard.  People outside of the group are labeled as “worldly”, “deceived”, “spiritually blind”, and “spiritually dead”.  A new member soon feels pressure to become the polar opposite of those outside of the group.  The group must define these terms as the negative or evil characteristics that the group wants the individual to change.  This often results in feelings of guilt and in an attempt to relieve guilt, the member denounces the outside influences that cause the guilt in the first place.  For example, to be “worldly” is to be more concerned with enjoying activities outside of the group.  The member will often then denounce whatever activities he used to enjoy prior to being a member.  To be “deceived” is to be a member of another church that is not the WMSCOG, since the WMSCOG believes that all other churches that worship on Sunday are being “deceived” into worshiping the sun god.  I have seen members publicly proclaim being “blessed” now that they know “the truth”.  The “spiritually blind” consist of those that do not believe the WMSCOG doctrine.  Members will publicly (within the group and on various online forums) “thank father and mother for giving us spiritual eyes and ears”.  The “spiritually dead” are those that do not observe the Passover with the WMSCOG.  The member will then often proclaim that he or she is “blessed” to have been one of the “chosen”.

When I was in the WMSCOG, the concept of “changing”, or to further conform, was mentioned frequently during services and group prayers.  There was a constant pressure on the members to strive to become “perfect”, a goal that is unattainable.   The members expected to be “rebuked” or publicly humiliated for any behavior that does not conform to the group standards.  Fear of punishment often resulted in guilt and a sense of timidity within the group.  Often, the more guilt the member felt, the more hatred toward the outside.  Projection might then occur because of feelings of guilt.  The member can begin to project their hatred in the form of insults to those on the outside.  For example, WMSCOG members frequently do not hesitate to call outsiders that do not buy into their doctrine “arrogant” for “refusing to accept the truth”.   The member is now apparently a victim of emotional bondage that constricts him or her to feeling comfortable only within the “fantasy bubble” of the group.

4.  The Cult of Confession – (The Right to Judge)

There is a demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed…In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for, these vulnerabilities…the cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility.  The enthusiastic and aggressive confessor…whose perpetual confession is his means of judging others…”…the more I accuse myself, the more I have the right to judge you“.  The identity of the judge thus becomes a vehicle for taking on some of the environment’s arrogance and sense of omnipotence.  (p. 425-427)

In the WMSCOG, public confessions are encouraged, usually on the Sabbath after the morning service.  The WMSCOG calls this the “fragrance”.  The members get up in front of everyone in the “sanctuary” and confess something about how bad his or her life was before or how he or she was tempted by satan and consequently overcame this evil temptation because of “father and mother”.  A member once confessed that he felt guilty for not being able to make it to the Sabbath because his young child was ill.  Another member confessed that she “hated” when satan would tempt her and make her think about her life before she was “in the truth”.  Lifton argues that public confession becomes the vehicle for the member to feel that he has the right to judge others.  The member then takes on the group’s arrogance and develops an elitist mentality.  Ironically, WMSCOG members frequently call outsiders arrogant, among other names stated earlier.

Another phenomena present within the WMSCOG is the confession to a crime never committed.  The WMSCOG teaches that humans were angels before being cast down to earth for “trying to kill God”.  Once a new member believes this fallacy, he or she can feel eternally guilty and/or subsequently eternally grateful and dedicated to the WMSCOG for the “chance to return to heaven”.  The member can then is vulnerable to becoming putty in the hands of the WMSCOG, riddled with guilt and ever so willing to do whatever the group demands of them.

5.  The “Sacred Science” – (Airtight Logic)

The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence.  The sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself…the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute “scientific” precision.  Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and the man who dares criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also “unscientific”.  (p. 427-428)

In one WMSCOG location, there was a sermon that discussed doubt being a sign of little faith.  If a member is mislead to believe that doubt is a sign of lesser faith, they will be less likely to ask questions and simply disregard any doubts he may have out of fear and guilt.  By suppressing doubts, the member can suppress feelings of guilt.  If a member has questions, then he has doubts and if he has doubts, then he has “little faith”.  Mind control groups also use this tactic in order to discourage critical questions about the doctrine, leaders and/or policies.

The WMSCOG refers to their doctrine as “the truth”, as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other controversial groups, which also impedes critical thinking.  If the member is indoctrinated to believe that everything taught in the group, whether Biblically sound or not, is “the truth” then there is no need to question what they are being told.  The member, in another possible attempt to avoid guilt, might then avoid outside information or ideas that contradict or ignore “the truth”.

6.  Loading the Language – (The Language of Non-Thought)

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché.  The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.  These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis…either “god terms”, representative of  ultimate good; or “devil terms,” representative of the ultimate evil…Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull“the language of nonthought”…the loading may provide an initial sense of insight and security, eventually followed by uneasiness.  This uneasiness may result in a retreat into a rigid orthodoxy in which an individual shouts the ideological jargon all the louder in order to demonstrate his conformity, hide his own dilemma and his despair, and protect himself from the fear and guilt he would feel should he attempt to use words and phrases other than the correct ones.  (p. 429-430)

Anyone who has come in contact with WMSCOG members, whether in shopping malls, on college campuses, or online, and challenged their beliefs will remember phrases like these:

  • “The most important thing is my salvation”
  • “Do you believe the Bible?”
  • “I pray that father and mother give you spiritual eyes and ears”
  • “Our church is the only one that follows the real teachings of God in the Bible”
  • “The Passover is the only way that we can receive God’s promise of eternal life”
  • “If you don’t believe in mother you cannot receive life and go to heaven”
  • “If you do not keep the Sabbath as Jesus kept it you are not following God’s commands”
  • “People who do not belong to the Church of God are spiritually dead”.

For the member, these phrases demonstrate claims of certitude of the doctrine and enable the member to judge and disregard others.  Loading the language proves useful to the group in that it constricts the member to a list of group-defined responses that do not allow the member to think critically about any of the concerns raised by “outsiders”.

7.  Doctrine Over Person – (Coercive “logic”)

This sterile language reflects another characteristic feature of ideological totalism:  the subordination of human experience to the claims of the doctrine…For when the myth becomes fused with the totalist sacred science, the resulting “logic” can be so compelling and coercive that it simply replaces the realities of the individual experience.  Consequently, past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic…the demand that the character and identity be reshaped, not in accordance with one’s special nature or potentialities, but rather to fit the rigid contours of the doctrinal mold.  (p. 430-432)

To admit enjoying anything about the pre-cult life is seen as “worldly” and therefore sinful.

In his book titled “Boast About God”, General Pastor of the WMSCOG, Joo Cheol Kim, writes:

“What is the most urgent thing for human beings who cannot even boast about tomorrow?  It is salvation…So we must not waste our one and only life–a limited time–for our sinful desires but live a faithful life, realizing what our duty is…We should always think about how to truly fear God and keep His commandments fully, and try to live our lives today more faithfully according to the word of God.”  (p. 32)

This might cause a member to reflect on their life before the cult and see it as “sinful”.  The member might then revise their own history in order to conform to the group’s “logic”, and paint previously perceived positive experiences as negative.  Past interests, goals, and priorities might then be labeled meaningless in comparison to the claims of the doctrine.

8.  The Dispensing of Existence – (Ownership of the Right to Exist)

The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to exist can be recognized, and those who possess no such right…Are not men presumptuous to appoint themselves the dispensers of human existence?..Yet one underlying assumption makes this arrogance mandatory:  the conviction that there is just one path to true existence, just one valid mode of being, and that all others are perforce invalid and false.  Totalists thus feel themselves compelled to destroy all possibilities of false existence as a means of furthering the great plan of true existence to which they are committed…one is ever made aware that, should he stray too far along this “erroneous path,” his right to existence may be withdrawn.  (p. 433-435)

The WMSCOG teaches that Christians who worship on Sunday are pagan, eliminating other Christian churches as an option for the member to consider.  According to the WMSCOG, one can not receive salvation unless they observe the Passover.  According to members I have spoken to, other religions that observe the Passover “do not observe it correctly”.  Therefore, the WMSCOG doctrine, in essence makes them the gatekeepers of heaven, allowing entrance only to those that follow the WMSCOG’s list of requirements for admission.  The judgement then, is left to the group and no longer to God.  A believing member will blindly follow the list of requirements in fear of the only forseable alternative; “losing his crown” and “burning in the lake of fire”.

Conclusion

While I do not know how the WMSCOG functions as an official organization, and while I certainly recognize that everyone’s experience is different, I can say that within my own personal experience, all of Lifton’s eight psychological characteristics of thought reform could be clearly identified within the behavior of some WMSCOG members.  The existence of all eight psychological characteristics within an organization can create an environment where individual thoughts, goals, and aspirations can not proliferate, but are instead stifled.  In my opinion, this is certainly a cause of concern for anyone considering joining this group, as are these numerous other contradictions.