Power and Control: Cults and Institutions

The inherent danger in the all-too-human drive for power and control is a subject I’ve blogged about several times before. It’s been a favorite obsession of mine since about 1985, when People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck opened my eyes to what he viewed as the essential evil. As Peck pointed out, the evils of murder, war and slavery are no more than the exercise of power and control of one person or group over another.  C. S. Lewis saw pride as the essential sin, the first sin, the sin of Satan. Scott Peck saw people’s nefarious need to control one another as the essential sin.

We try to exercise control over the chaos in our lives by controlling others—and thus gain some perceived safety. We even try to control God. Unfortunately, much of prayer is about trying to control God. We think if we say just the right words in the right sequence and top it off with “in Jesus name” we will be granted our request.

I have many faults but generally speaking the need to control others is not one of them. However, rebellion against the controllers of this world has shaped my life to a great extent, and for some odd reason my first thoughts this morning were about this topic. I could think of no reason other than perhaps it being the Holy Spirit telling me I need to write about it again.

Quite obviously, problems with one person exercising power and control over another begins in the family. Also, it’s very apparent that much of this control is for our own safety. As kids we need to be firmly guided. However, for parents with pathological needs for power and control it can lead to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. At the very least it can create a very dependent person who is never allowed to individuate and grow into a mature adult. I see the victims of this all of the time in my counseling practice.

However, in this blog power and control within the family is not what I’m going to be looking at; instead the focus is on the institutions of employment, education, the military and religion. These are all fields with a hierarchy—and having a hierarchy means that those on top can exercise abusive power and control over those under them. Or as one of my more colorful supervisors described it, “The shit-stream flows downhill.”

Employment

In my latter years I’ve been fortunate to be able to be self-employed. However, during my 30-year career in mental health prior to 1998, I had to work for other folks. I had some bosses who were benevolent and allowed a good measure of freedom—believing in your good integrity and seeing the growth that comes from learning by trial and error and facing natural consequences.  However, obsessive, micromanaging jerks were more the norm. Typically, some bosses go way beyond just being obessesive-compulsive about work, they want to own you, and given the chance will control your life beyond the workplace.

And sadly, the uber-controllers of this world seem to find ways to get into positions of leadership. At the very least they are fear driven—worrying that some mistake you might make will affect their career—but at their worst they are narcissists whose personality demands positions of leadership and control.

For whatever reason I seem to be overly sensitive to controlling, obsessive bosses. Leading, or being part of staff rebellions occurred in more than one setting. In several instances the boss got fired and in one I was canned. I found controlling bosses wasted one’s time and emotional energy—energy that should have been spent meeting the needs of the clients, and being an obedient, slavishly meek employee was one of the Apostle Paul’s directives that I couldn’t grasp—perhaps just too much Scottish blood flowing in my veins.

Education

Quoting from page 70 in my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations:

“When I was a student the joy of learning was dampened considerably by teachers and professors with gigantic ego needs. Some seemed to enjoy the power they had over their students far too much. It appeared that some took a positively demonic joy in handing out a bad grade or decorating a term paper with scathing remarks—remarks designed to let you know how much smarter they were than you. It surely takes a twisted power crazed ego for a tenured PhD to have the need to heap invective on a 19 year-old sophomore. Also, some professors, apparently very insecure about the value of their lectures, set arbitrary rules like giving an automatic F to students who missed more than two classes. I once heard of a community college instructor who as a matter of policy never, ever gave an A grade—and then one of his students having a “nervous breakdown” because she couldn’t stand this one imperfection on her transcript.”

I loved learning but generally hated school, and I believe the reason I hated it was because of the power trip that many profs were on. Fortunately, the Lord provided enough good teachers and educational mentors that the effect of the power-mad jerks was compensated for somewhat.

The Military

My rebellious nature also shaped my military career—or lack of same. I was in Army ROTC in college for two years. New Mexico State University was a land-grant institution required to provide officers for the military from its able bodied male students. NMSU took that role very seriously back in the 1960s. We were required to wear our uniforms two days a week and when in uniform we had to follow all military protocol such as saluting officers when we passed them on the way to class, etc.

Two years of ROTC was required. If one signed on for two more years you were then commissioned a 2nd lieutenant and spent four more years in the military as an officer. At the beginning of my ROTC career I seriously considered that option. I’d grown up around military bases and I had career military in my family. I entered Army ROTC with a very positive attitude about the military, but by midway thru the second year that feeling had turned negative. I had decided that I would do all I could to keep my draft deferment.

The change in my attitude had to do with the relish some student officers took in the power and control they were given. My platoon lieutenant decided that I would be the one he would torment. This had nothing to do with making me a better soldier and everything to do with him acting out his issues of insignificance or impotence. Oh, how I hated that little prick—but in retrospect perhaps he saved my life. In the early-1960s Viet Nam was just heating up and that may have been my eventual destination had I continued in Army ROTC.

Organized Religion and Cults

The military is an institution that is all about control—and necessarily so. However, another institution which exerts power and control over whomever it can is organized religion. Draconian denominational control of local churches, and thus individuals, is likely one of the reasons mainstream denominations are dying. Most folks, but particularly Millennials, don’t like to be told what to believe, and so the loosey goosey theology of the nondenominational urban megachurch and consequent church shopping for the right fit is what suits them.

However, a potentially far more pernicious type of control than denominational is that exerted by cults, particularly religious cults. And there are some who classify the “relatively” mainstream churches of LDS (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses and  Seventh Day Adventists as cults.

I write quite a lot about cults in Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations.  In Chapter 4 of the gospels of both Matthew and Luke two of the three temptations the devil presents to Jesus (and us) are those of power and of trust. I write about cults in both of those sections. From pages 127-28 in the section on Trust:

“Cults are typically led by powerful, charismatic leaders. The leader dictates in minute detail how their followers should lead their lives, thus removing any ambiguity in any question of proper behavior or morality. Some people will go to great lengths to avoid thinking, and for those individuals, joining a cult represents a sure-fire solution to having to grapple with life’s many questions. For some it is a relief from life’s stresses to retreat into the safe cocoon of a cult and allow the cult’s “Big Brother” to think and decide for them.

“Cults typically dictate dress and grooming, how one should worship, who one should marry, where one should live, how one should use their worldly goods and money, etc. Some like Bill Gothard’s IBLP and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology even dictate guidelines for what they consider proper medical care. Misleading interpretations of scripture and the cult’s pseudo-scientific belief system take precedence over medical science and years of specialized training.

“Cults range in size from a handful of followers to millions, but they all offer their adherents a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. They offer the lonely and alienated the advantages of a ready-made family and constant fellowship. A sense of belonging is one of our greatest human needs and cults fulfill that yearning to the nth degree. Many cult members are estranged from their family of origin and the cult becomes their surrogate family. It is the fulfilling of the need for belonging that makes exiting a cult so difficult. Even when a member begins to lose faith in the leader, they fear even more losing the fellowship and support of their brothers and sisters in the cult.”

Home/Organic Church

The overly-structured beliefs of a denomination is why I prefer the disorganized religion of home church. We are all in charge and nobody is in charge. It is up to us to make it work. But even in home churches there are dangers due to individuals who will make it all about themselves. They will designates themselves “apostles” or some other title and require you to be under their authority. And just like that a home church/simple church/organic church can become cultish. Being under their authority means they can dictate how you worship, what you are to believe, how you should dress and how you should use your resources, etc.

Misusing Paul

The passages St. Paul wrote about authority and obedience, and thus power and control, have been some of the more misused scriptures in the New Testament (Rom. 13:1-2, Eph. 6:5, Titus 2:9, I Tim. 6:1-2, etc). For one thing they were used as a justification for slavery. Paul was instructing people about living under a draconian hierarchy where slavery was prevalent. He was about building a church and part of that was achieved by living obediently and avoiding the spotlight. Criticism of leaders was not welcome—that’s what got the Old Testament prophets in trouble. In time present, Bill Gothard and his IBLP are the poster children for unrighteous authority. Many years ago I made a critical comment about Benny Hinn and “touch not God’s anointed” (I Chron. 16:22) was quickly laid on me.

A Caveat

This blog is a caveat, a warning to be vigilant for people with inordinate needs for power and control—folks who will use their position in the hierarchy, be it church, school or the workplace, to control you. What they say they are doing for your own good likely has little to do with that and everything to do with them acting out their needs for control. Hitler and the average 5th-grade schoolyard bully are all essentially about the same thing—subjecting your will to theirs.

But an equivalent warning is to be aware of the rebellious spirit within you and to try to seek a righteous balance of the two: rebellion vs. control. A rebellious spirit has unfortunately shaped this writers life. Also, be aware of your own tendency play God and to control others. The 1st Principle of Celebrate Recovery begins: “Realize I’m not God. I admit that I am powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and my life is unmanageable.” How sweet and liberating it is when we realize we are not in control and then to turn that control over to God.

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About diospsytrek

I am a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. I am also the author of four books. The books have to do with coping with depression and other mood disorders, and the nexus of psychological problems and spiritual warfare.
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