Thursday, 27 April 2017

Trapped in a cult

How I escaped the ICOC

By: Henry Badenhorst

27 April 2017


From 1999 until 2004 I was caught in the clutches of a cult, the ICOC, aka the Churches of Christ or the Boston Movement. I still suffer the effects of the brainwashing and consequent trauma I was exposed to over this period. It was not an obvious cult but made use of very subtle techniques of deception. It lured professionals and university students, who are intellectually smart into its web of very subtle deceit. I ‘fell away’ from the church, because I could no longer live up to the extreme legalistic standards set by church leadership and the movement in general. I ended up in a mental institute for a while and not much later lived like a pagan, the extreme opposite of what the church represented, just to break away. Before I share my story, I would like to look at the characteristics of a cult from the research I conducted in 2016. Up to that point, I was still convinced in my heart of hearts that the problem lied with me; that I did not deny myself sufficiently enough to be part of such a progressive movement that wanted to win the world for Christ. Based on your interests, YouTube suggests or recommends videos to watch. As I’m a fan of documentaries, YouTube suggested that I watch videos on different cults such as Scientology, the FLDS, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidians, the Unification Church, and Peoples Temple. 

As I watched these videos, I became aware of the characteristics that were shared by these groups. It made me reflect upon my own experiences in the ICOC and I slowly became aware of its similarities to these groups. This, in turn, led me to watch documentaries made about the ICOC over different periods of its existence, produced by 3 major news agencies (Fox, ABC & CBC), who wanted to explore whether the ICOC was indeed a cult or not. I realized that, even though these characteristics were not as visible and in your face in the ICOC, compared to some of the previously mentioned cults, it did exist and it adversely affects the lives of its members. I recognized the fact that the deception was not initiated by or visible to 99.9% of the members but limited to ICOC top leadership. We were all victims of an elaborate marketing scheme that brought in financial rewards for a selected few. In this essay, I would like to define a cult, look at its characteristics, apply these characteristics to the ICOC to assess whether it is indeed a cult, discuss the effects of cult membership on ex-members, and lastly share my story and experience with you, and the long road to healing I’m still walking after nearly a decade and a half.

Mind control

What is a cult?

Webster defines a cult as: “A system of religious worship or ritual … devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle, etc. (Deffinbaugh, 2004: online). The Cambridge Dictionary (online) defines a cult as a “religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people”. West & Langone (in CIFS, 2006: online) probably gives the best definition: “A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.” The urban dictionary gives a less formal and to the point definition and description of a cult: “group, often times though not always religious or spiritual in nature, that is led by a single or small group of leader(s), where members are often recruited or by some means persuaded to join, rarely, if ever, knowing how destructive and harmful a cult can be, rarely knowing that it is a cult. 

Though they usually come off as being generous, caring and in the best interests of their members, cults are inherently based on furthering the desires of cult leaders. Cult leaders commonly use thought reform or "brainwashing", in conjunction with other methods, to slowly and deliberately reel in more control of said members. In many cases, members may eventually forsake their friends and family (non-members are viewed as "wrong" or "bad") and give up their careers, homes and/or money to the leader” (Urban Dictionary: online). Michael Langone (in CIFS, 2006: online) states that the following three characteristics help to distinguish cults from other communities or groups, namely: 1) Members are expected to be excessively zealous and unquestioning in their commitment to the identity and leadership of the group. They must replace their own beliefs and values with those of the group; 2) Members are manipulated and exploited, and may give up their education, career, and families to work excessively long hours at group-directed tasks; 3) Harm, or the threat of harm, may come to members, their families, and/or society due to inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, psychological and physical abuse, sleep deprivation, criminal activities, etc.

In a Christian context, the definition of a cult is, “a religious group that denies one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth” ( online). “A cult is a group that teaches doctrines that, if believed, will cause a person to remain unsaved. A cult claims to be part of a religion, yet it denies essential truth(s) of that religion” ( online). A Christian cult will deny one or more of the fundamental truths of Christianity, while still claiming to be Christian. The two most common teachings of Christian cults are: 1) that Jesus was not God and that 2) salvation is not by faith alone. The denial of the deity of Christ results in the view that Jesus’ death was insufficient to pay for our sins. A denial of salvation by faith alone results in the teaching that salvation is achieved by our own works. The two most well-known examples of cults today are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Both these groups claim to be Christian, yet both deny the deity of Christ and salvation by faith alone. Even though Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons believe many things that are in agreement with or similar to what the Bible teaches, is the fact that they deny the deity of Christ and preach a salvation by works, the reason that they are classified as cults ( online).

Interesting facts and figures about cults

Singer (in CIFS, 2006: online), has identified the following types of cults: Eastern Religious, Christian, Satanic, Occult/Witchcraft/Voodoo, Spiritualist, Racist, Zen and Sino/Japanese Philosophical-Mystical, Flying Saucer and Outer Space, Psychotherapy, Mass Therapy or Transformational Training, Political, New Age, Commercial and Communal/Self-Help. Who Joins a Cult? Singer (in CIFS, 2006: online), notes that despite the myth that normal people don’t get sucked into cults, research shows that approximately two-thirds of adolescents and adults in cults come from normal, functioning families and were demonstrating age-appropriate behavior around the time they entered the cult. Of the remaining one-third, only five to six percent had serious psychological difficulties prior to joining. The remaining portion had depression relating to loss, or age-related sexual and career dilemmas. What are the factors that make people vulnerable enough to get involved in a cult? 

Vulnerability factors to joining cultic groups may include: feeling overwhelmed by the ambiguity of life, the number of choices one needs to make, the complexity of the world, and the conflict associated with life. When feeling overwhelmed, joining a cult can be attractive as they offer “instant, simplistic, and focussed solutions to life’s problems” Further predisposing factors, as highlighted by Lalich and Tobias (in CIFS, 2006: online) include: a desire to belong, unassertiveness, gullibility, cultural disillusionment, idealism, a lack of self-confidence, a desire for spiritual meaning and ignorance of how groups can manipulate individuals (Singer, in CIFS, 2006: online). I joined because I got acceptance from a group of people who shared my desire to belong and to make a difference in the world.


Characteristics of a cult

In his paper: Cult Formation in the early 1980s, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, delineated three primary characteristics, which are the most common features shared by destructive cults. 1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group loses power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority; 2. A process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called "brainwashing"]. The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader; and 3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie. The destructiveness of groups called cults varies by degree, from labor violations, child abuse, medical neglect to, in some extreme and isolated situations, calls for violence or mass suicide (Ross, 2009: online).

According to Lalich & Langone (2006: online) are there several social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments. The list may serve as a checklist for people who may be concerned that they are in a cult. The list includes the following ‘characteristics’: 1) The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law; 2) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished; 3) Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s); 4)The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth); 5)The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity); 6) The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society; 7) The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations); 8) The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities); 9) The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion; 10) Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group; 11) The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members; 12) The group is preoccupied with making money; 13) Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities; 14) Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members; 15) The most loyal members (the ‘true believers’) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.


Naselli (2011: online) lists several sociological characteristics of cults or aspects of cultic mentality, namely: 1) Authoritarian Leadership: Authoritarianism involves the acceptance of an authority figure who exercises excessive control on cult members. As a prophet or founder, this leader’s word is considered ultimate and final. Often this authoritarianism involves legalistic submission to the rules and regulations of the group as established by the cult leader (or, as in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, submission to the Watchtower Society). Cult members are fully expected to submit, even if they do not agree with the requirements. Unquestioning obedience is compulsory. 2) Exclusivism: Cults often believe that they alone have the truth. The cult views itself as the single means of salvation on earth; to leave the group is to endanger one’s soul. 3) Isolationism: The more extreme cults sometimes create fortified boundaries, often precipitating tragic endings (e.g. the tragedies in Waco and Jonestown). Some cults require members to renounce and break off associations with parents and siblings. 4) Opposition to Independent Thinking: Some cultic groups discourage members from thinking independently. The “thinking,” as it were, has already been done for them by the cult leadership; the proper response is merely to submit. 5) Fear of Being “Disfellowshipped”: It is not uncommon in cults that people are urged to remain faithful to avoid being “disfellowshipped,” or disbarred, from the group. (e.g the  Jehovah’s Witnesses, where a person can be disfellowshipped merely for questioning a Watchtower doctrine; and 6) Threats of Satanic Attack: Finally, some cults use fear and intimidation to keep members in line. Members may be told that something awful will happen to them should they choose to leave the group. Others may be told that Satan will attack them and may even kill them, for they will have committed the unpardonable sin. Such fear tactics are designed to induce submission. Even when people do muster enough courage to leave the group, they may endure psychological consequences and emotional baggage for years to come.

According to the Christian Research Institute (2009: online), there are four common characteristics, shared by cults, namely: 1) Scripture Twisting: Cults manipulate Scripture. They twist the Bible to fit the leader or group’s interpretation. Private interpretations are forbidden because the leader of the cult is the only one, of course, who is able to understand God’s voice properly. Their teachings distort the historic, orthodox claims of Christianity; 2) Mental Manipulation: Cults manipulate people’s minds. There is little concern for individual thought and development. Education is usually discouraged while the convert is bombarded with the cult’s doctrine and literature. Members are called to leave or neglect their old family and lifestyle for a brand new one; 3) Time Manipulation: A third characteristic is the manipulation of time. Since salvation comes exclusively from the teachings of the group, cult members spend much of their time working for their organization. Family, school, leisure, sleep, and even food are most often neglected; 4) Manipulating Reality: Finally, cults typically manipulate reality. They tend to have an exclusive “us”/“them” mentality in which society and old associates are all out to get them. Anyone outside of the group is suspect.

Trauma caused by cults

The ICOC as a cult

Based on the characteristics mentioned above, is the ICOC a cult? The first main characteristic of cults mentioned above is, A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group loses power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority (Ross, 2009: online). The ICOC had a charismatic founder and leader, named Kip McKean, who had godlike status. He was promoted as the primary example of Discipleship. He was prescribed to all new recruits as the example of discipleship and to standing members as the standard and ultimate goal, the goal to become like Kip. He was considered the ultimate preacher. Members dreamed of meeting him and church leaders who met him at world leader conferences, could not stop singing his praises. Who is Kip McKean? According to Wikipedia, is Thomas Wayne "Kip" McKean II (born May 31, 1954) a former minister of the International Churches of Christ and a current minister of the City of Angels International Christian Church and World Missions Evangelist of the International Christian Churches, also known as the "Portland/Sold-Out Discipling Movement".

What was his role in the establishment of the ICOC? In the mid-1980s, McKean became the leader of both Boston and Crossroads Movements, eventually splitting from mainstream Churches of Christ, to become the International Church of Christ (ICOC). The movement was first recognized as an independent religious group in 1992 when John Vaughn, a church growth specialist at Fuller Theological Seminary, listed them as a separate entity. Time magazine ran a full-page story on the movement in 1992 calling them "one of the world's fastest-growing and most innovative bands of Bible thumpers" that had grown into "a global empire of 103 congregations from California to Cairo with total Sunday attendance of 50,000", and which also raised concerns about authoritarian leadership, pressure placed on members, and whether the group should be considered a cult. 

A formal break was made from the mainline Churches of Christ in 1993 when the movement organized under the name "International Churches of Christ." This new designation formalized a division that was already in existence between those involved with the Crossroads/Boston Movement and "mainline" Churches of Christ. In 1990, the McKean’s moved to Los Angeles to lead the Los Angeles International Church of Christ, where they presided through the 1990s. Beginning in the late 1990s, McKean's moral authority as the leader of the movement came into question. Expectations for continued numerical growth and the pressure to sacrifice financially to support missionary efforts took its toll. Added to this was the loss of local leaders to new planting projects. In some areas, decreases in membership began to occur. At the same time, the realization was growing that the accumulated cost of his leadership style and associated advantages were outweighing the cost. In 2001, McKean was asked by a group of long-standing elders in the ICOC to take a sabbatical from overall leadership of the ICOC (Wikipedia, 2017: online).  

On 12 November 2001, McKean wrote that he had decided to take a sabbatical from his role as the leader of the International Churches of Christ. One year later, In November of 2002, McKean announced his resignations from his roles as World Missions Evangelist and leader of the world sector leaders. He cited ongoing family problems, apologized for his own arrogance and said that his sins "have weakened and embittered many in our churches", and "these sins have surfaced in my family as well as the church.” A year earlier one of his children had left the church. Referring to this event, McKean said: "This, along with my leadership sins of arrogance, and not protecting the weak caused uncertainty in my leadership among some of the World Sector Leaders." His resignation was acknowledged by a letter from the elders the following day. After a period leading an ICOC congregation in Portland, Oregon, he started a new movement separated from the ICOC. This movement was named International Christian Church by him. The period following McKean's resignation from leadership and departure was followed by a number of changes in the ICOC (Wikipedia, 2017: online). 

Henry Kriete, a high-level Evangelist in London, wrote a lengthy letter, admitting to abuses, problems, and areas needed for change, vindicating what numerous former church members and critics had been saying for 2 decades.  This led to many members ‘falling away’ from the ICOC and radical changes in the churches most affected by the controlling legalistic practices, such as the London and New York Churches. By then the damage was done and most walked away. During my early years in the ICOC, I would say that he had very little meaningful accountability and was a very definite defining element of the ICOC and its source of power and authority, more so than in other church denominations. He was synonymous with the ICOC and even though church elders served as a check and balance measure, one would have to ask the question what his power was over them, and how much he manipulated and brainwashed them in the first instance to support his fanatic ideas.

Charismatic leadership

The second main characteristic of a cult is the presence of a process of indoctrination or education in use that can be seen as coercive persuasion or thought reform or commonly called "brainwashing". The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader (Ross, 2009: online). In the ICOC, I was conditioned to deny myself, like the Bible teaches, in every facet and at every level of my life. The church, discipleship, and church members were my first priority and I had to swear ultimate allegiance to the church and its cause. I had to ‘divorce’ my blood relatives to an extent, like Jesus, who told his disciples that everyone who believed in Him was his brothers and sisters. His own family opposed His teachings, so his disciples became his new family. It is not what He meant us to do. Even if those closest to us do not follow Christ, we still need to love and respect them and they remain a priority in our lives. 

At that time I was doing my articles as an attorney and faced severe pressure at work. Still, I had to be involved with church activities to the maximum prescribed by the church. Apart from regular Sunday service, there were Bible talks, mid-week services, Evangelism and outreach activities, discipling times, etc. So even if you wanted to connect with relatives, there was no time. Once relatives express their unwillingness to become disciples, they were to be treated less than church members. Instead, disciples have to go out and form friendships with those outside the church in order to recruit them to become disciples. Disciples make disciples. These ‘friendships’ were meant to last only if that person joined the church and became a disciple him or herself. Once a person chooses not to join, you were encouraged to move along and target the next person. People are perceptive and they can see and read your motivations. If you only reach out and love someone in order to recruit him or her, chances are you lose him or her anyway. 

Only the desperate for love and acceptance fall for the ‘marketing’ trick. I include myself here, as I experienced many years of rejection from both family and friends. I was fresh for the plucking. The church calls it ‘love bombing’. A potential disciple would be overwhelmed with friendship, love, and acceptance by members of the church in order to get that person to trust them. After a friendship has been forged, is a potential disciple asked to do a series of Bible Studies with a member of the church. The doctrines of God’s word as final authority, discipleship equals Christianity, Repentance of sins, Baptism, and Discipleship as keys to the Kingdom, absolute purity, evangelism, being fruitful and making disciples, etc. are conveyed. The one study follows another, and if a person does not agree, he cannot continue to the next ‘level’. Once he has completed the studies successfully, will he or she be asked to make Jesus Lord and be baptized. Only at that point does a person get saved, once baptized (Acts 2:38).

The third main characteristic of a cult is the Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie. The destructiveness of groups called cults varies by degree, from labor violations, child abuse, medical neglect to, in some extreme and isolated situations, calls for violence or mass suicide (Ross, 2009: online). The financial mismanagement or misappropriation of funds is another characteristic common to cults and evident in the ICOC. During his time as the leader of the Los Angeles Church of Christ, Kip McKean was purportedly living in an 800 000 US$ condo in Los Angeles with his family. His kids could go to the best colleges and they even bragged about his kids getting private tennis lessons on the ICOC channel KNN. 

Those in the ‘singles ministry’ of the ICOC were asked to live together in apartments, in order to save money, which would enable them to contribute larger amounts towards ‘contributions’ and ‘special contributions’, which would then be used for missions and church plantings. The official policy was that churches were not built, but that venues were rented instead so that more money would be available for missions. Church leaders were however set in comfort, whilst ordinary members were asked to give sacrificially. One instance is of a testimony of an ex-member in the US who said that she lost her job and informed her ‘discipler’ that she could not make a contribution. She was asked to use her credit card to make a contribution. One has to ask whether the money was actually used for the purposes that members were told. In 2005/2006 the Johannesburg Church of Christ broke that policy and built a monstrosity of a mega church, for a very large sum of money.

Financial exploitation

I would like to use the Lalich & Langone checklist to determine whether the ICOC possessed certain social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments.

1) The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, and as law.

One of the leaders of the ICOC reportedly said: “And again to those who believe that I, like countless others in a ‘manmade movement’ am blindly following Kip McKean, then know this. With eyes wide open I’m following Kip McKean: Consciously, intentionally, thankfully. I guess I’m just not as strong as some folks and I need help in following Jesus. And so far, I’ve found no better help, no better leader, no more righteous a man – no better friend than Kip.” Kip McKean is at the top of the cult’s pyramid control structure called “discipling”. Each person has a discipler – someone who has authority over them, who has the right to tell his or her disciple what to do. Ultimately everyone is being discipled by McKean, and hence following him (Vrankovich, 2001: online). Before his resignation in 2002, Kip McKean was, according to the cult, the “greatest living treasure that God has given the Kingdom on the face of the earth today”. 

Those in the cult are instructed to imitate their discipler who is above them – which they do, even in voice inflection and facial hair. (At one stage almost all of the men in the Central Auckland Church of Christ were wearing goatees because the then leader of that branch had a goatee.) Of course, this means that ultimately they are imitating Kip McKean. This is especially noticeable in preaching style. This is what two other ICC leaders said on this subject: “The person who discipled me in the Lord is Kip McKean, the evangelist of the Boston Church. I want to be just like him. When he tells me things to do, you better believe I listen. And as I think back on the course of my relationships with Kip, I can tell you honestly, there are few times that I bucked Kip. And I can tell you honestly that I did wrong every time. It was not right to be arrogant, to be proud, and to be rebellious… I want the guys who I am discipling to want to be like me.” “It would suit me just fine if I could leave this place and say you know – I just want to be exactly like Kip. I just want to be exactly like Kip. That would be enough.” “I want to be able to imitate Kip McKean. I want to preach like him. I want to think like him. I want to talk like him.” The average ICC member is convinced they are trying to follow Jesus, but the reality is that they are following McKean (Vrankovich, 2001: online).

2) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Questioning was allowed. One was always referred back to the Bible. Discipling sessions were geared at quenching doubts. The group dynamic was also used to dispel doubts. I could not understand why we could say we are saved and others outside the church are not. I was told that it is not us who judge a person, only God’s Word. If others did not strictly adhere to Biblical prescriptions with regards to salvation, it is the Word that judges them. The ICOC doctrine was strict Biblical. I don’t have a problem with that, but one cannot have a mentality of ‘we are right and everybody else is wrong’. 

One cannot judge the salvation of others. It is by grace through faith that we are saved, by His blood. Even though the ICOC preached grace, they had no real understanding of it, neither did they practice it. I was baptized twice in the church because I doubted my salvation. Throughout my time in the ICOC I doubted my salvation regularly because I was not ‘fruitful’ in terms what the ICOC considers fruitfulness. I spoke about seeking and following advice from your disciple, and that non-adherence to this doctrine brought about rebukes and other forms of punishments. One of the ex-members came to a mid-week service once to share what he learned in another church (after he ‘fell away’), to testify about the work of the Holy Spirit. He was asked to leave the service and was forcefully bundled out. Even though the Holy Spirit was preached and taught academically and Biblically, the reality and heart behind the person of the Holy Spirit were denied. The ICOC teach a false man-centered Gospel of Works where the power and reliance on the Holy Spirit is unnecessary (Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, 2014: online).


3) Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

Prayer was used to get people to control their own thoughts. Disciples had to confess every doubt they had to their disciplers. They were not allowed to think negative thoughts about the group. Anything that made them doubt (think) was avoided, which often meant cutting off friendships with people who were not part of the group, not spending time with peers in the group that they enjoyed, because if they become friends naturally, they might agree with each other’s doubts and not confess them up (that’s also emotional control). Disciples were made to fast in order to be broken before God (which means willing to do whatever your leaders tell you) (Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, 2014: online). I remembered that I fasted so much and so frequently that at one point I weighed only 67 Kg. I’m a decent size Afrikaner man, and that was definitely anorexic for me. I fasted whilst having to perform in a high pressured work situation. Looking back, I had to be brainwashed in order to have been so stupid.

The ICOC furthermore, laid a lot of emphasis on ‘quiet time’ and that without it your day would be spent without God’s provision and presence. It was a legalistic regulation that one was encouraged strongly to follow, otherwise, your day would be a mess. One was made to feel guilty if one did not do it. It meant getting up at 4 or 5 in the mornings, sometimes meeting fellow brothers to go and pray on mountain tops. It is right to connect with God as much as possible but to set it as a condition of His love and presence, and to make you feel guilty and miserable if you didn’t or couldn’t, contradicts the Word of God. God is love and HE loves us because that is who HE is, it’s His nature to love. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-39). Another mind altering practice was debilitating work routines. As previously mentioned, we had to be involved with evangelism, discipling and attending services and Bible talks, when we were not working or studying. Time for yourself and family did not exist. The only exposure to others was of other church members, who had the same doctrine and beliefs. The only time one could really spend with others outside the church was with potential disciples who were in the process of being recruited. This isolated one from the outside world to an extent and the norm of the church became your norm.

The ‘marketing and recruitment’ strategy functioned like that of a corporation. Every week a member had to give his ‘stats’ to his disciple, who would pass it on to the Bible talk leader, who would pass it up to ministry staff. Stats included: How many people did you share your faith with? How many people did you invite to come to church? Who did you invite to the Bible talk? How many people are you currently studying the Bible with? Who is ready to be baptized? How is your purity? Which sins do or did you struggle with? How much are you planning to give to Contribution or Special Contribution? etc. These stats were passed up the ladder to the higher echelons of the church. You were discipled based on your 'stat' results: If you weren’t the example disciple, you were ‘encouraged’ or rebuked, made to feel guilty that you are not being fruitful and that God spits out the luke-warm. “The group will make you put the kingdom (that is the group) first in your life, above your own dreams, ambitions, desires, family, friends, and self, and ultimately, above God. The people are very sincere and all under mind control themselves. The sincerity makes it seem more credible because they are not lying because they actually believe what they are telling you” (Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, 2014: online).

4) The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

This is very true of the ICOC. How to dress, whom you can date/marry is determined by the church. Members must get permission for major and minor life decisions, e.g. to date someone, where you can live, whom you can talk to and about, which movies to watch, how to spend your time, etc. Permission is called advice to make it seem benign. Members were at times forced to map out their schedules from 5 am to midnight and account for every moment and repent of any amount of time wasted not glorifying God by recruiting, fundraising, or activities related to building up the group. Members had to attend every meeting of the body which means, Sunday service, Wednesday service, Bible-talk, discipling time, and many more events e.g. sharing faith, benevolence, mandatory fun and prayer and leaders meetings if you are a leader, etc. It all may seem like people are fully committed and excited, but members are not allowed to refuse to attend these events. Any event a member cannot attend, requires permission. If a member was dating, he or she were not allowed to have any sexual contact. This was enforced by a woman and man not being allowed to be alone in a room together, because that would give a hint of impurity. Double dating was practiced, so no one would be tempted. All sexual sins, lust, masturbation had to be confessed to the member’s discipler. Members who were married, were told how often to have sex (usually at least 3 times a week - or probably whatever their disciplers thought was a good amount). The wife could not say no, nor the husband. 

There was no such thing as autonomy or boundaries in marriage. Married members were responsible for making sure their spouses do not struggle with lust, and, since no masturbation is allowed, that meant making themselves available. Numerous former members have noted a lack of ability to make their own decisions or diminished critical thinking skills. Obeying your leaders was equated with obeying God (Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, 2014: online). One-over-one discipling, rather than one-on-one discipling was the reality. The discipler had the right to tell the disciple to do anything, including what to wear, where to work, and who to marry (Vrankovich, 2001: online).

The church doctrine was absolute purity. The first-century church was the standard to which the ICOC aspired to: community, love, helping each other, continuous fellowship and getting together, etc.  Peter says: “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). The ICOC for the sake of purity prescribed hugging instead, but a sideways hug, so that no temptation or impropriety could take place. One could only marry a fellow member of the church, as everybody else, outside the ICOC, was not considered a believer. Brothers and sisters could go on dates, but not alone and had to be accompanied by fellow disciples to chaperone, in order to ensure nothing improper takes place. No holding of hands or kissing was allowed. One could be punished for breaking these regulations. One of the ministry team members slept with a sister in the church after a date. His punishment was to publicly confess his sin in front of the church and to leave the full-time ministry. 

Mixed race marriages were encouraged as this would greatly improve the image of the church as the only multi-racial, multi-cultural church in South Africa. The dating and marriage lives of disciples were controlled by his or her disciple. They determined who you could date. Permission had to be asked from a disciple, who in turn had to ask his or her disciple. A hierarchy exists in the church and each member has a disciple he or she has to give account to and or a person he or she has to disciple. Nothing happens without seeking or asking ‘advice’ from your disciple and getting his or her ‘blessing’ or ‘permission’.  One can incur punishment for not following these ‘guidelines’. One couple, against advice from the church, decided to get married, and they were excommunicated. Whether sexual exploitation took place, is something I’m not privy to. To my knowledge, it did not take place.

Control Control Control

5)The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

This is very true of the ICOC. The ICOC claimed to be the key-holders to the kingdom of God. They are the chosen ones to reveal this secret to the world. It makes one feel honored to be part of such a selected group of ‘movers and shakers’ who are sold out for God, and who are radically winning the world for God. The ICOC believed that there is no salvation outside the group. However, they didn’t tell a prospective member that, until the person are very far along in the recruitment process, and they have befriended him or her and made him or her feel special (Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, 2014: online).

6) The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

You are told that those outside the church do not follow the salvation ‘recipe’ found in Acts 2:38, and therefore it is doubtful that they are saved. It created a divide, an ‘us versus them’. Therefore it was your duty and right to go out into the world and try to persuade people to become a disciple of the ICOC. ‘They are wrong and you are right’. It puts you above others in the sense that you alone have the secret and that you are God’s gift to mankind. You were told that denominationalism is wrong and there is only one church or kingdom of God, and since the ICOC is the only known church preaching the true keys to the kingdom, we are right and everybody else wrong. ‘We are going to heaven, and they to hell’. 

Furthermore, the doctrine of once saved and always saved was made to be false. You had to continuously work out your salvation with fear and trembling. This entailed a continuous process of inviting people to church, studying the Bible with them, baptizing them, in order to be fruitful, otherwise, God will cut you from His vine. The fear of being unfruitful was so drilled into your head that you were willing to deny your own physical, social, and mental needs to go around like a crazy person, non-stop performing, until you burn-out. The definition of being fruitful is limited to the works mentioned above, it excludes fruits of the Spirit. If you are not being fruitful within the ‘box’ of the definition, you are fruitless and stood a chance to be cut away from the vine. This drove me to into depression. I could not complete my articles in the end and ended up in a mental institution, diagnosed with bi-polar and depression. The ICOC also claimed to be the only church really following the Bible, however its practices such as ICOC discipling and their method of taking “contribution”, is not found in the Bible (Vrankovich, 2001: online).

7) The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

Up to the point of his resignation, it is uncertain to what extent McKean was accountable to the executive leadership of the ICOC. Eventually, he resigned and started his own movement again, even more, radical in legalism and control than the previous one.

8) The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

Here the practice of Special Contribution is of special note. Disciples had to go to great lengths to ensure that they were able to contribute the amount they promised. People made debt to do so as previously mentioned. During my internship or articles as an attorney, I was earning a slave’s wage of R 1 500 per month. In order to fulfill my pledge for special contribution, I decided to go on a fundraising walk in Mpumalanga province. I was sponsored an amount for every kilometer I walked. I walked 200 km with a full backpack over 6 days. There was no concern for my safety by the church. They thus ‘inspired’ you to take risks and do radical things that one would not even think of in normal life. Recruitment of members also took place with a certain amount of deception as previously mentioned. We were told to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). To lure potential members in, they were ‘love-bombed’ with friendship and acceptance. People who had experienced rejection in the past (I include myself) were especially prone to fall for these recruitment tactics.

Losing yourself

9) The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

This was also very true of the ICOC. Emotional control played a big role. Relationships were controlled completely by the group. Members were told who their discipler’s would be (that’s your new best friend) and which Bible talk they had to attend. This relationship could be changed at any time and was often changed (so that loyalty remained to the group). Affection was withdrawn if a member was in sin (which meant any behavior that the group didn’t like), and much praise was given to those who were fruitful – who brought people to church and baptizing new recruits (rewards and punishments). Shame and guilt: members were humiliated in leaders meetings if they didn’t have any visitors. People were made to stand up in large groups if they didn’t bring any visitors in X amount of time. Members were told that God is displeased and will cut off every tree that does not bear fruit, and that God is going to spit them out of his mouth, that their luke-warmness made God want to vomit. Members were told that their sins killed Jesus, they killed Jesus, their sins meant that they deserve death, and that they will go to hell if they leave the group. They will lose all their relationships if they leave the group, they will become mentally ill, fall away from God, go to Hell, etc. People were berated, made to fast, in order to get them to agree. Because members must confess every sin, including sexual sin, lust, and masturbation, people were constantly made to feel shame and guilt and this motivated members to fear losing their salvation. It kept the person dependent and obedient (Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, 2014: online).

I volunteered for a mission to Somali-land with the NGO arm of the church, HOPE Worldwide, in 2002. I saw the ‘fruit’ of my team members and once out of guilt, I decided to walk away from the compound into the desert and like Elijah die under a tree. The Somali police came to fetch me and took me back. This is the consequence of being continuously burdened with legalistic prescriptions, which is impossible to fulfill, to keep up with the pace and seeing others being able to comply and excel, whilst you ‘fail’ all the time. God made us all unique beings with different gifts and abilities. The church cannot classify everybody into the same box. Some are bound to fail, because their gifting is denied and asked instead to display the gifting of somebody else, which God did not intend. The scripture that started to make me think was Galatians 5: 1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” I was in a yoke of slavery, burdened by legalism, beyond what I was being able to bear, and I literally cracked under pressure, too scared that if I leave the church, I fall away from God. It was a no-win situation, and God allowed me a period of time in the world, so that I would actually understand that it is by grace that we are saved through faith in Jesus. Now, I know, that my good works or fruit cannot save me, neither does baptism, it is by HIS blood only.

10) Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

As previously mentioned, one had to ‘divorce’ blood relatives, if they were not members of the ICOC themselves. The ICOC members were your new family and had to be given priority above yourself and family. The church and its mission was your one and only priority. To disobey or not obey the church was to stray from Gods good graces and could result in condemnation. Numerous members did cut ties with former friends and families even if the friends and family were devout Christians (Freedom of Mind Resource Centre, 2014: online). Disciples’ first priority is to go out and form friendships with those outside the church in order to recruit them to become disciples. Disciples make disciples. These ‘friendships’ were meant to last only if that person joined the church and became a disciple him or herself. Once a person chose not to join, you were encouraged to move along and target the next person. Members were kept so busy with church activities, that even if they wanted to connect with relatives, there was no time, as members were required to attend all church activities.

11) The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Wanting to get a branch in every major city (with more than 100,000 people) by the year 2000, the group was very evangelistic, using church plantings to start new branches. As an example of how this works, the original Boston branch planted the London, England branch, who started the Sydney, Australia branch, who planted the Auckland, New Zealand branch (which resulted in Cult watch being started). The Central Auckland Church of Christ then planted the Christchurch branch. However, this rapid expansion led to members burning out – sometimes after just a few months (Vrankovich, 2001: online). The burdens placed on disciples to perform and recruit was so severe that many people couldn’t keep up, with a high cost to themselves and their families. If you fall away from the ICOC, you fall away from God, so people who left the church did so with the belief that they have messed up their salvation, that God had rejected them and that they were going to hell, so why bother going to any other church. They went back into the world and lived as they please. 

God is not an ‘in the box’ gift-giver; He gave to each member of the church a different gift to support, maintain and encourage its members, prophets, evangelists, healers, encouragers, etc. The ICOC limited discipleship, salvation, and fruitfulness to evangelism only. If you are not successful at discipleship (=recruitment), God will remove you from His church. Other gifts were acknowledged but not equated to fruitfulness. Hence, people who had to excel at ‘marketing’ and ‘recruitment’, but whose personality types did not fit that ability, had to endure countless sessions of rebuking and admonitions for not being able to function within the ‘box’ of the ICOC. I count myself as one of these. I struggled so much with evangelism, as it is not my natural gifting, and was never able to successfully baptize someone. I was thus counted as a fruitless disciple. Most sermons were aimed at making people market and recruit new disciples. Those who succeeded were praised and mentioned, those who showed no results were rebuked, being made to feel guilty or to fear God cutting them from His kingdom. It drove me to insanity. Countless times, driven by fear and guilt, I literally walked away during sermons, because I felt that I was not worthy.

12) The group is preoccupied with making money.

Members are required to give money for missions and church planting. Members are forced into debt. In order to become a member one must give at least 10% (mandatory) of your gross income, but most members give towards 15%, with an expectation that once a year one must give an additional 15-20 times their weekly contribution to special missions’ contribution. Members were held accountable for giving their weekly pledge which they are forced to make.

Financial gain

13) Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

As already mentioned, this also applies to the ICOC. Every spare moment that one is not working or studying, one had to be involved with church activities, Evangelism, Discipling, etc. This led to burn-out for many. Chronic fatigue was a huge issue among many disciples.

14) Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

As already discussed, one could only spend time with one’s church family. Relationships with relatives who were not disciples, were discouraged. The only exception was when and during outreaches to people outside the church in order to recruit them. The recruitment strategy allowed for disciples to build friendships with possible recruits in order to ‘love-bomb’ them into the church. There was thus an ulterior motive to friendship. Love bombing occurred within group settings, so disciples could rarely spend time with non-members outside that group setting.  

15) The most loyal members (the ‘true believers’) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

This is true to a large extent in the ICOC. Members are made to believe that salvation is only within the ICOC. If one leaves the church, one ‘falls away’ and loses one’s salvation. That fear was imprinted onto the minds of members to the extent that they would remain a member even if their lives, relationships, health, and finances are systematically destroyed. Members who had been in the church for decades did not have relationships in the outside world and feared the adjustment should they leave. All their friends were members. Discipling control had furthermore robbed them of opinions and own analytical independent thinking. They have been told for years what to think, what to do and what to decide. They will face an extreme challenge to function in the outside world. 

Hassan (in CIFS, 2006:10) states that those who are most deeply affected are castaways (those who have been kicked out) as most of them dedicated their whole lives to the group, handing over their bank accounts and property when they joined. Then after some years, despite the promise they would be looked after for the rest of their lives, they were told to leave. These people, “phobic toward the world outside their cults, have been cast into what they view as utter darkness”. Similarly, Lalich and Tobias (in CIFS, 2006:10) note that unless castaways receive counseling, many are prone to suffer an extreme sense of loss and isolation, which may, in turn, lead to deep depression and push some to the brink of suicide. Thus, exit counseling is such a crucial factor for the successful exit of the ICOC. Yet few get treatment. 

The effects of leaving a cult

After exiting a cult, an individual may experience a period of intense and often conflicting emotions. She or he may feel relief to be out of the group, but also may feel grief over the loss of positive elements in the cult, such as friendships, a sense of belonging or the feeling of personal worth generated by the group's stated ideals or mission (Singer, 1979: online).  The emotional upheaval of the period is often characterized by "post-cult trauma syndrome", which includes:
  • spontaneous crying
  • sense of loss
  • depression & suicidal thoughts
  • fear that not obeying the cult's wishes will result in God's wrath or loss of salvation
  • alienation from family, friends
  • a sense of isolation, loneliness due to being surrounded by people who have no basis for understanding cult life
  • fear of evil spirits taking over one's life outside the cult
  • scrupulosity, excessive rigidity about rules of minor importance
  • panic disproportionate to one's circumstances
  • fear of going insane
  • confusion about right and wrong
  •  sexual conflicts
  •  unwarranted guilt
  • The period of exiting from a cult is usually a traumatic experience and, like any great change in a person's life, involves passing through stages of accommodation to the change.
  • Disbelief/denial: "This can't be happening. It couldn't have been that bad."
  • Anger/hostility: "How could they/I be so wrong?" (hate feelings)
  • Self-pity/depression: "Why me? I can't do this."
  • Fear/bargaining: "I don't know if I can live without my group. Maybe I can still associate with it on a limited basis, if I do what they want."
  • Reassessment: "Maybe I was wrong about the group's being so wonderful."
  • Accommodation/acceptance: "I can move beyond this experience and choose new directions for my life" or...
  • Re-involvement: "I think I will re-join the group."

Passing through these stages is seldom a smooth progression. It is fairly typical to bounce back and forth between different stages. Not everyone achieves the stage of accommodation/acceptance. Some return to cult life. But for those who do not, the following may be experienced for a period of several months:

  • flashbacks to cult life
  • simplistic black-white thinking
  • sense of unreality
  • disassociation (spacing out)
  • feeling "out of it"
  • "Stockholm Syndrome": knee-jerk impulses to defend the cult when it is criticized, even if the cult hurt the person
  • difficulty concentrating
  • incapacity to make decisions
  • hostility reactions, either toward anyone who criticizes the cult or toward the cult itself
  • mental confusion
  • low self-esteem
  • a dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake
  • loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks
  • a dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult
  • hang-overs of habitual cult behaviors like chanting
  • difficulty managing time
  • trouble holding down a job
 (Singer, 1979: online)

Research conducted by Martin, Langone, Dole and Wiltrout in 1992 to assess the psychological status of 111 former cultists, found that this sample of former members could be characterized as having abnormal levels of distress in several of the personality and clinical symptom scales (including the Milton Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, the Beck Depression Inventory, and the Hopkins Symptom Checklist). Their findings showed that a significant number of former members of cults suffered from chronic depression (CIFS, 2006:7). The most common symptoms former members experiences are depression and suicidal tendencies, feelings of loss and loneliness, anxiety and panic attacks, anger, guilt, symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) such as nightmares, dissociative symptoms such as "floating" and family related issues. According to Lalich, Tobias and Hassan do the majority of former members experience symptoms of depression. Grief and mourning, in particular when combined with despair, world-weariness, anxiety, self-blame, and shame, can lead to debilitating depression, with symptoms including sadness, disinterest, feeling lost, and physical symptoms such as personality changes and changes in appetite and sleep patterns (Lalich & Tobias, in CIFS, 2006:9). It may take former members one to two years “to return to their former level of adaptation, while some may have psychological breakdowns or remain psychologically scarred for years” (CIFS, 2006: 9).

Research conducted in Belgium by Saroglou, Christians, Buxant, and Casa Fiore in 2006, with a sample of 471 current and former members, shows that leaving a cult constitutes a dramatic experience which leaves long-lasting marks on a person. The researchers concluded that for many leaving a group constitutes a serious moment of breakdown marked by loneliness, few contacts and relationships, and a feeling of failure. Similarly, a study by Goski (1994) with a sample of 80 found that nearly all respondents had experienced the first two years out of the group as causing tremendous distress. The study identified the following five aspects of loss as the most pertinent: 84% experienced a loss of innocence (the result of feeling that one had been spiritually “raped, used, betrayed”); 71 % experienced grief over the years “lost” in the group; 71 % experienced grief regarding “what could have been . . .”; 69 % experienced loss of meaning/purpose in life; and 68 % experienced loss of trust in religion (CIFS, 2006: 11). Singer (in CIFS, 2006: 11-12) explains that it is common for former cult members to experience panic attacks and other panic disorders, especially by those coming out of groups that focus on stimulating fear and guilt. Panic attacks can be defined as periods of intense fear or discomfort in which a number of the following symptoms develop and reach a peak within about ten minutes: pounding heart, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, feeling of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint, 12 fear of losing control or going crazy, fear of dying, numbness, tingling, and hot and cold flashes.


Anger is furthermore commonly experienced by former members. This, according to Lalich and Tobias (in CIFS, 2006: 13) is a healthy, first sign of recovery. They explain anger as an appropriate response to abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, they argue that the suppression of anger while in the group may have contributed to depression and a sense of hopelessness. Another symptom or emotions experienced by ex-cult members are guilt, shame, and fear. It is common for former members to struggle with feelings of guilt (Lalich & Tobias, in CIFS, 2006: 13). Former members who may be especially prone to experiencing guilt and shame may have participated in cult actions and activities that in normal life they would never have considered, such as acts that are morally reprehensible. For example, they may have hurt their family, recruited friends, witnessed abuse (that they did not stop or try to prevent), or participated in cult activities that went against their own sense of integrity (such as lying, stealing, spying on friends, etc. Many former members struggle with guilt over neglecting and/or abusing their children while in the cult. (Goldberg, in CIFS, 2006: 13).

Cult members who are exposed to medium to long-term traumatic events, is at high risk to develop PTSD. When a traumatic event occurs that corresponds to nothing like the security of past events, and the individual’s mind is unable to successfully answer basic questions of how and why it occurred, and what it means, a crisis follows. This crisis, in turn, may lead to the development of PTSD (James & Gilliland, in CIFS, 2006: 14). PTSD involves the re-experiencing of a traumatic event through memories (including flashbacks) and nightmares. Sufferers avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma, they display restriction or numbing of emotional responsiveness and may be unable to remember certain aspects of the event. In addition, victims are typically over-aroused, easily startled and quick to anger (CIFS, 2006: 14). Regarding the potential development of PTSD, concerns for cult involvement have been expressed by former RAF psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon Turnbull, who debriefed Beirut hostages, Terry Waite, and John McCarthy. Dr. Turnbull saw great similarities between hostages who had been kidnapped and rescued, and cult victims who were re-emerging into ‘normal’ life. The main similarities were in their efforts to regain control and responsibility (Newsnight report on cults, BBC 2 16th July 1993, in CIFS, 2006: 14).

Patrick Ryan, an Exist Counsellor and ex-member of a cult himself, in his article entitled: “Post-Cult Problems: An Exit Counsellor’s Perspective” lists some of the recovery issues that keep recurring in his work with ex-cult members. These issues include: 
  • A sense of purposelessness, of being disconnected. They left a group that had a powerful purpose and intense drive; they miss the peak experiences produced from the intensity and the group dynamics.
  • Depression.
  • Grieving for other group members, for a sense of loss in their life.
  • Guilt. Former members will feel guilty for having gotten involved in the first place, for the people they recruited into the group, and for the things they did while in the group.
  • Anger. This will be felt toward the group and/or the leaders. At times this anger is misdirected toward themselves.
  • Alienation. They will feel alienation from the group, often from old friends (that is, those who were friends prior to their cult involvement), and sometimes from family.
  •  Isolation. To ex-cult members, no one “out there” seems to understand what they’re going through, especially their families.
  •  Distrust. This extends to group situations, and often to organized religion (if they were in a religious cult) or organizations in general (depending on the type of cult they were in). There is also a general distrust of their own ability to discern when or if they are being manipulated again. This dissipates after they learn more about mind control and begin to listen to their own inner voice again.
  • Fear of going crazy. This is especially common after “floating” experiences (see point 18 below for an explanation of floating).
  • Fear that what the cult said would happen to them if they left actually might happen.
  • The tendency to think in terms of black and white, as conditioned by the cult. They need to practice looking for grey areas.
  • Spiritualizing everything. This residual sometimes lasts for quite a while. Former members need to be encouraged to look for logical reasons why things happen and to deal with reality, to let go of their magical thinking.
  • Inability to make decisions. This characteristic reflects the dependency that was fostered by the cult.
  • Low self-esteem. This generally comes from those experiences common to most cults, where time and again members are told that they are worthless.
  • Embarrassment. This is an expression of the inability to talk about their experience, to explain how or why they got involved or what they had done during that time. It is often manifested by an intense feeling of being ill-at-ease in both social and work situations. Also, often there is a feeling of being out of sync with everyone else, of going through culture shock, from having lived in a closed environment and having been deprived of participating in everyday culture.
  • Employment and/or career problems. Former members face the dilemma of what to put on a resume to cover the blank years of cult membership.
  • Dissociation. This also has been fostered by the cult. Either active or passive, it is a period of not being in touch with reality or those around them, an inability to communicate.
  • Floating. These are flashbacks into the cult mindset. It can also take on the effect of an intense emotional reaction that is inappropriate to the particular stimuli.
  • Nightmares. Some people also experience hallucinations or hearing voices. A small percentage of former members need hospitalization due to this type of residual.
  • Family issues.
  • Dependency issues.
  • Sexuality issues.
  • Spiritual (or philosophical) issues. Former members often face difficult questions: Where can I go to have my spiritual (or belief) needs met? What do I believe in now? What is there to believe in, trust in?
  • Inability to concentrate, short-term memory loss.
  • Re-emergence of pre-cult emotional or psychological issues
  • Impatience with the recovery process.


Escaping the cult

After I left the ICOC, I fell into absolute paganism and worldliness, committing most sins listed in the Bible. I wanted to break out of the restrictive mold and trap of the cult. My pendulum swung to the other extreme, to compensate for the trauma I had to endure. I can identify with most of the after-effects listed by Singer. In the US there are exit therapy clinics where they treat ex-members of fanatic, legalist Bible Based church groups. About 80 % of the patient group are ex-members of the ICOC, who receive exit counseling for the trauma they endured. Their brains literally have to be re-programmed with statements of truth. I never knew of this. Only 13 years later, when I came across the different videos on YouTube about cults, I started to draw the line through to my own experiences. 

It took me 13 years to realize that I was in a cult. I never knew I had a problem and trauma, so I never thought I needed therapy. God had a different therapy in mind for me. My pendulum had to swing to the other side of the coin, so that I may realize one thing: Salvation is not found in a church or a doctrine, but found in the precious blood of the Lamb, by grace through faith in Jesus. That is all. Nothing that you do can save you. Making disciples is something we are commissioned to do, but it does not save us, and our salvation does not depend upon us doing it or not. If we do something it is because we have received salvation and have a relationship with God. Then we do it out of gratitude. We should not do good works to earn salvation. That is the fallacy I fell for and it ruined my life for a long time. It destroyed my relationships with my family who still thinks that I’m crazy. They don’t trust my Spiritual convictions and Theology now, based upon what I believed in the past. They too paid a price, and only God can repair that.


Cults are a reality and a lot more people fall into their trap than what we think. No-one is immune against their wiles and schemes. They target the lonely, the rejected, the disillusioned with promises of friendship and family, a place to belong. They suck you dry emotionally, spiritually, financially and physically. They bring you into their fold with small lies and once you are in take you captive by isolating you from family and the rest of the world. They make you feel superior and special, that you are now a part of a small elite of people who are carriers of the truth. Everybody outside lives a lie and it’s your job to tell them the truth. You are better than the rest. They will manipulate you, control you and bully you, with nothing more than high school peer pressure. They will put a living fear into you that there is no salvation outside the group, that if you leave, you will die, that God will spit you out. 

They will persuade you with out of context Biblical dogma, rules and standards that they as ‘Pharisees’ heap up onto your shoulders, but they themselves struggle to keep. They will burn you out. They will take up your time, you won’t even have time for yourself or family. They will push you beyond what you can bear, because your salvation depends on it, they say. They will take your hard-earned money. Church leaders will live in luxury, while you go into debt to stay afloat. The dangers are multiple. It is an elaborate marketing and recruitment scheme that is based on the Pyramid scams. The more members they add, the more access they have to financial resources. They will tell you to deny yourself, while they won’t do it. They target intellectuals and professionals, since they have money and influence. They target you especially when you are at university or college, when you are still impressionable. Cults are destructive.

I can tick almost every symptom described earlier that are experienced by ex-cult members. The first step in the healing process for me only came 13 years later, upon my realization and conviction that the ICOC was indeed a cult. The normal steps of recovery of righteous anger and forgiveness can follow. Time is a healer in the end. I am angry at how many things the ICOC destroyed in my life. It destroyed my career as an attorney, which I had to abandon due to stress and depression, it destroyed my relationships and credibility with people, it forced me into the world to do shameful things, it left me with constant feelings of anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame. Later, when I got married to my wife who was never a member, it caused trauma and pain in our relationship due to feelings and experiences that have not been resolved yet. 

My hope is that those who read this may realize what cultic behavior is and that, if they are caught into the system of mind and emotional control, they will realize there is a way out. If you are a Christian, you must realize that you are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. No amount of good works or performance can save you. If you are being whipped into submission by a system or organization that makes you fear and force you to do things out of guilt, you need to get out of Dodge as soon as possible. There is hope of healing. It may take time, it will be painful, but a new life of freedom awaits. Jesus is your best friend. No church can replace that. No church can set the terms and conditions of your salvation. Don’t let people destroy your relationship with God. Refused to be ‘boxed’ into their religious ideologies. 

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!


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