How Double Binds keep us in Sects and Cults


This morning I was searching for an online Church of Christ service so I could put a screenshot of an online service into my blog. I came across a Lord’s Supper prayer (you’re supposed to take the Lord’s Supper at home during Coronavirus, while everyone else watching the service takes it, so you’re taking it together). In the prayer I heard the familiar phrase: “Lord, help us to examine ourselves to see if we are worthy to partake of this Supper.” This is a misapplication/misquote from I Corinthians 11: 27

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.

The apostle Paul wrote this to the church at Corinth because they were engaging in competitive picnicking as communion/eucharist. The apostle Paul said this was the opposite of the purpose of remembering Christ’s death. But the Churches of Christ I grew up in use the passage to make everyone feel guilty for taking the Lord’s Supper. If I have committed even one sin, then I am unworthy to take the Lord’s Supper. Which is also the opposite of why Jesus instituted communion: feeling forgiven by God.

So the Churches of Christ I grew up in required us to take the Lord’s Supper every Sunday (because the only example we have of the Lord’s Supper is on a Sunday, and Sunday comes every week, Acts 20:7). If you didn’t take it you had sinned  (like a mortal sin in the Catholic Church, in danger of hellfire damnation). If you take it in an unworthy manner (or as misquoted: if you are unworthy of taking it–as everyone is) then you have also committed a sin (in danger of hellfire damnation).

So a nice neat double bind: one of the requirements of all sects and cults. If you take away all of the coercion in a sect, and just keep the tight community and wonderful singing, then it all falls apart. The Catch-22, No-Wins are the foundation of sects and cults. 

The Jehovah’s Witnesses put out an edition of the Watchtower pamphlet every 2 weeks. Every member is expected to study it and answer questions about it at the next Bible Study. Every month or so a pamphlet will offer a slightly new interpretation of the Bible, not too radical from previous doctrines, but definitely a slightly new angle than they have taken before, or a new prophecy of when the Kingdom will come on earth. If you question the pamphlet, you are disciplined, and if you don’t accept the discipline you are kicked out. So the pamphlet insures that each member is toeing the line. You have a monthly eradication of all dissidents, the kingdom remains pure. A double-bind: I have to accept the previous doctrines, and then I have to accept changes to doctrines without questioning.

Double-binds keep us feeling helpless. The doctrines in the Churches of Christ I grew up in kept me in constant doubt about myself: Was I worthy? Of course not. Well then, why was I taking the communion? But what if I stop taking the communion? Several preachers would speak up and loudly proclaim that we had gotten that verse wrong and to stop using that phrase in our Lord’s Supper prayers, but the poor deacons kept using the phrase, and really, they were the ones who knew the true doctrines of the Churches of Christ, not the radical preachers: You are never allowed to know you are saved, you have to remain always in doubt. That is the most holy feeling: guilt and fear.

It is mostly empowered people who leave sects and cults, so keep the people disempowered. It is not poor destitute people who go on strike, it is the ones who have the most rights and the most empowerment who go on strike. It is seldom slaves who riot, it is slaves who have had a taste of freedom.

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The End of Fundamentalist Sects

COVID-19 is going to end Fundamentalist Sects in the USA. Several states have banned church services. Once people get used to not going to church, the threats of hellfire won’t be enough to bring them back to church.

Why do people go to fundamentalist sects?

  •  born into the sect
  •  believe what they are taught
  •  fear of eternal damnation and hellfire
  •  tight community
  •  safety net wherever they go
  •  the singing is great!

Now that their sectarian community has dissipated to online communication during the virus, they have lost their tight community. They have only their tradition and their fear of hellfire to keep them in line. Each week they don’t attend, and don’t eat the bread and drink the grape juice, the hypnotic hold lessens it’s grip on their heart. They find other ways to cope with life. Their sect helped them cope with life by being a tight community, instant friends if they moved to a new city, just show up at the local gathering of the sect, easy job networking. That support is no longer there. They are resorting to all manner of other supports now. And the support of the sect becomes less and less important.

If the virus lasts for 18 months, as many scientists are warning, they may find that once real church services recommence, they will allow a week to go by without attending, and another.

Currently they are tuning in to the twice a week church services, but nobody is checking to see if they are there or not. Nobody is watching. So they can tune in, and just walk around the house in their PJs, and eat brunch while the service goes on. The singing is awful: because there is a 2 second delay, nobody can sing along and be heard, you have to mute your mic in order to sing along. You can’t really see anybody else worshiping. During the sermon you can answer emails, or read the news, post on Facebook,

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Centerville Church of Christ online worship service during the virus 2020

turning the volume down if it gets boring. The group pressure to conform is less and less.

Some sects have adapted. They have small Zoom Bible studies every week. Each participant is quizzed and nobody can mute the Bible study and pretend they are there. Those groups will survive. But most sects don’t adapt. They are populated by

  • traditional,
  • reactionary,
  • scared people.

They want things to remain the same, and they want things to be safe. This virus has upended those and made them diametrically opposed. Nobody can attend church the same as always and be safe.

Once people find a new way of coping, it will be difficult for them to go back to the old sect.

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Instrumental Music: An imagined conversation between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

The Churches of Christ (acapella) have a tradition of singing only, with no instrumental accompaniment. The hard line Churches of Christ believe it is a matter of salvation: anyone who worships with instrumental music is not saved. What if we could have been in the room when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were discussing outlawing instrumental music in the New Testament church? [click on the link to see the video]

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Instrumental Music in the Churches of Christ acappella

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Trump and the Evangelical Family

The role of Patriarchy in the Election

Recently Mark Galli, the editor in chief of Christianity Today Magazine wrote an editorial endorsing the impeachment of President Trump.

In an interview with NPR when asked why it had taken so long for the editor to speak up against President Trump, the editor said it was like a woman who has an abusive husband. He’s been a good provider and a good father, but now he has started to hit her.

Rabbi Amitai Adler pointed out (and bemoaned) how patriarchal that remark is.

But that’s just the point: Evangelicals voted for President Trump because he supported  patriarchy. 

When you confront evangelicals with the fact that Trump is not a good role model as a family man: he is an unrepentant adulterer, twice divorced; evangelicals see a man who made huge mistakes, but always aimed for one ideal: a nuclear family where the man is the head of the family, the breadwinner and Provider, and the woman is the homemaker and child rearer.

The most popular evangelical para church ministry of the 1980s and 1990s was Focus on the Family. And Family was defined as a husband who is the head of the family (the patriarch) and the woman who supports him emotionally and as the homemaker, with 2 to 6 children, preferable homeschooled (by the mother) so the children would not be contaminated by anti-patriarchy espoused by the education system. They don’t want gay teachers, trans teachers, atheist teachers, and teachers who approve and enforce tolerating those practices, teaching their children.

Evangelicals have not so much found patriarchy in the Bible (it’s there, not hard to find) as much as they have insisted that their Christian faith incorporate an idealized nostalgic version of the Patriarchal Family.

And President Trump has delivered in that regard: He has nominated a supreme court judge who will carry patriarchal values into the highest court in the land. And carlo-allegri-donald-trump-lgbt-flag-2016-presidential-electionTrump has made it okay to trash talk anyone who threatens patriarchal values.

Obama was a pariah to evangelicals, not because he was black, but because he tore down the patriarchal view of the family, actively encouraging gay and trans Americans to stand up and be heard, and pushing the women’s movement forward.

The editor of Christianity Today is saying: Yes, we like President Trump supporting our patriarchal values, but he has gone too far with his behavior this time.

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Echoes of Past Sins at Liberty U

I remember doing some reading about the Pearlygates scandal when I was doing research in graduate school. During the mid-1980s four prominent televangelists were embroiled in lurid scandals:


Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker on the PTL Club in 1986

  • Jim Bakker and to a lesser extent, his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, who together had hosted the PTL Club, were exposed by the press and then by Jerry Falwell, Sr. (a Baptist mega-church preacher and founder of Liberty University). The Bakkers were accused of greed, illegal sales of time shares, drug addiction and sexual misconduct with employees.

Recently the late Jerry Falwell Sr’s son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his daughter-in-law, Becki Falwell, and grandson, Trey Falwell have been reported to have engaged in greedy practices at Liberty University, favoring friends and relatives instead of putting jobs out for bids, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. They have also been reported to have been engaged in helping one of their employees, John Gauger, Chief Information Officer of Liberty U, to start an IT business, Redfinch, LLC, by giving them $120,000 per year of business to recruit students, in addition to Gauger’s salary as the CIO of Liberty. Gauger’s Redfinch company was hired by Michael Cohen to rig a CNBC online poll to encourage Trump to enter the presidential race. Gauger programmed a computer to vote repeatedly for Trump in the online poll. Cohen testified that he hired Redfinch to rig the poll at the instruction of Trump.

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Falwell’s family in the oval office.

Jerry Falwell, Jr and his son, Trey, have also been reported to be engaged in covering up relatively innocent photos from a nightclub. The coverup became necessary because students at Liberty U can be expelled for drinking alcohol or visiting a nightclub or a dance.

I remember Jerry Falwell, Sr. in the 1980s on television reading aloud the requests of the Bakkers for their retirement severance package after the scandals broke. Fallwell, with a smile, pronounced their requests “unmitigated greed”. The Bakkers responded in a televised interview that they had been responsible for bringing in a million dollars a day in donations to the PTL Club, and their severance requests were in line with that kind of fund raising history. Bakker went on to spend time in prison, sentenced to 45 years for the illegal and impossible promises he made to purchasers of  time shares in his Christian retreat center.

Now coming almost full circle, the late Jerry Falwell Sr. has his own son being accused of similar greed at Liberty U. Jerry Falwell, Jr’s wife, Becki, was instrumental in having an employee fired within a few hours after she posted a comment on a social media site that the University did not have enough parking.

The Liberty University Board members complain that they are not consulted when huge money favors are extended to friends of Jerry Falwell, Jr., or to Trey, his son. They are simply told in emails what the decision already is.

Some Christians have lamented that these are not typical of evangelical Christianity, just anomalies. But my theory is that these kinds of abuses are part of evangelical Christianity, inseparable from the way evangelicals construct their world view:

James Fowler built his theory of Stages of Faith onto Kohlberg’s stages of Moral Development.

  1. Stage One: Literal and direct agency of God. Elders in the religion are the carriers of the faith. I project onto God what is in my head.
  2. Stage Two: Pre-Conventional Faith: The stories of the religious tradition are of utmost importance and they are taken literally. A feeling that God will scratch my back if I scratch his back. The elders of the tradition hold the faith.
  3. Stage Three: Conventional Faith: Of utmost concern is that I look reputable to those above me and to my peers. Obedience to those in authority, and loyalty to my religion. My church holds my faith. I am not concerned about figuring it out for myself, I want my church to do that for me. I am fiercely loyal to my in-group and fiercely hostile to any out-groups.
  4. Stage Four: Unconventional Faith: I want my faith to make sense to me. Inconsistency will make me argue and argue with those in authority. I cannot let go of my church, but I cannot let them stay inconsistent and hypocritical. I confront the community like a teenager.
  5. Stage Five: Post-conventional Faith: I want everyone to be treated equally regardless of whether they are in my group or not. I have my own faith that lives inside me. I do not need others to agree with me. I follow my own conscience. I love the old symbols of my faith: Baptism, hymns, ceremonies. I am curious about others’ faith. I have less and less answers and more and more questions.
  6. Stage Six: I think only of those in need. I have no thoughts about my own needs, only those who are downtrodden.

Most people are in Stage 3, regardless of whether they are religious or not, and regardless of what religion they belong to. This is why when you get into a political debate with someone they don’t listen to logic. They are in Stage 3, they are fiercely loyal to their in-group, and fiercely hostile to their out-group. This is necessary for the psychological stage of development they have reached. They do not have a clear identity inside themselves, so they latch onto a particular group to hold their identity secure. They are equivalent to a 10 year old, who is loyal to his friends and his school and his scout troop.

So of course any leader in this group that is the least bit narcissistic is going to slip into abusive practices that favor him- or herself. This is endemic to evangelical Christianity, with its hierarchical view of authority. Evangelical Christianity attracts Stage 3 believers, and ejects Stage 4 believers. So these scandals are destined to repeat themselves ad nauseum.


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Scandals that Change our World View

Why Fundamentalist churches cannot survive Postmodernism

House of cardsPostmodern movies are dystopian: they show a negative outcome for the world. The Wire is a postmodern TV show, showing the corruption of the Baltimore narcotics, police and mayoral office. After watching that show we can no longer approach politics and government institutions expecting Truth, Justice and the American Way, as the Superman TV shows announced each week in the 1950s.

Postmodernism grew out of the abundance of information. Just as the Enlightenment grew out of the invention of the European printing press. Postmodernism grew out of the invention of the radio, the TV, the computer and finally the internet. Suddenly information was abundant like never before.

WW2 was the good guys against the bad guys, the opposite of postmodernism, and we could not see much corruption, because we were far away, and there wasn’t enough alternate information, just lots of confirmation that we were the good guys.

In Germany, however, postmodernism took root among artists and musicians. They had lost the war in 1945 after killing 6 million Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and developmentally delayed. They could clearly see the contrast between the propaganda they had received from the government and the truth they could see out their windows. However mainstream German society was caught up in moralistic strictures to keep Nazism from coming back, and focused on good vs evil.

Japan, after experiencing Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, jumped both feet into postmodernism.

water cannonIn America the Civil Rights struggle was televised in the 1950s and 60s. We saw water cannon knocking over black people wearing their Sunday clothes and marching and singing peacefully, just because they wanted to register to vote.

But it was not until the Viet Nam war in the 1960s that postmodernism took root in America. We were able to see on TV every night the awful carnage going on. We weren’t freeing concentration camps and defeating Nazis in Viet Nam.

Young people welcomed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s, eager to tear down the old and build new.

Then Nixon’s corruption was exposed in newspapers and on TV in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Finally sexual abuse began to be exposed. Women’s rights were rising. Sexual abuse by priests hit the newspapers in Boston in the 1980s.

The explosion of the computer and the internet has created a WaterWorld effect in our society. Now nobody gets a newspaper delivered to their door, and very few people watch TV with ads anymore. Most of our information and news comes through social media.

TV shows like House of Cards revealed what Americans think of their presidency. And then the Me-Too Movement toppled the star of House of Cards.

Currently the death of Epstein, connected to two presidents in his sex trade of underage girls, has further exposed corruption. It could never have happened until we, the American public, were ready to hear it.

So how can fundamentalist churches survive? The attitude of postmodernism is everywhere in all media:

  • Question the viewpoint of any writer or speaker. What is their motivation?
  • Question the facts. How much evidence do they have?
  • Who benefits from these facts?
  • Who suffers from these facts?

So now when a 25 year old faithful fundamentalist church member, also steeped in postmodern internet culture, listens to a sermon at his church, he asks more questions than his parents or grandparents. He is more skeptical.

When he reads the Bible he is more skeptical as well. He wants to know the political and social background of the people talking and the people being affected.

Ten years ago a speaker was talking to our church plant about the 200 Philistine foreskins that David paid King Saul for his daughter. The Philistines were a tribe that had not been conquered by Joshua and the Israelites when they conquered Canaan 200 years earlier. The Israelites hated the Philistines, who were not circumcised like the Israelites. She said, “Imagine how Saul felt when David, whom he hated, arrived with the 200 Philistine foreskins he had demanded.” I said, “Imagine how the Philistines felt.” Everyone laughed. I wasn’t laughing.

That question wouldn’t have been asked if I hadn’t actually talked to a Palestinian at a liberal Mennonite church I had attended for 6 months. He said, “We are the direct descendants of the Philistines. The word Palestinian is the same as the word Philistine. Just take out the H.” Information is dangerous to fundamentalism.

So who benefits from that story? Who loses from that story? These are postmodern questions that unravel fundamentalism and traditional evangelicalism.

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