Cult’s Explained is a 25-minute episode available on Netflix that looks at how cults lure people in and exert control over them. The documentary explains that cults can mean many different things, but the modern definition of a cult has been accepted as groups with authoritarian and charismatic leaders whose members are expected to display absolute devotion and obedience to the leadership. According to this definition, are the Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?
According to the “seven elements of cult indoctrination” established by social scientists as the most common characteristics shared by all cults, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult. Jehovah’s Witnesses have authoritarian leaders who claim to be appointed by God and hold extreme beliefs that are not to be questioned.
This model has some similarities to other models such as Dr. Hassans BITE model, which has been applied to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and brought to light some alarming conclusions. I failed to find any information where these seven elements of indoctrination have been applied to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I took the time out to do a comparison myself. What did I find? Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult according to the documentary “Cults Explained”?
What makes the Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult, according to the Documentary, Cults Explained?
THE TARGETS CROSSROAD, RECRUITMENT, AND A NEW REALITY
Jehovah’s Witnesses also have a formal indoctrination program with a “soft sell” that exploits people when they are most vulnerable – when they are at a “crossroad” in their lives. Once recruited, a Jehovah’s Witnesses is subjected to a new reality where absolute obedience to the leaders is required. This reality includes instilling a distorted doomsday worldview, solidifying “unbelievers” as an external enemy and part of “satans wicked system”.
INFORMATION CONTROL AND BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION
Outside information about the group is forbidden, and former members are cut off from friends and family. Service to the organization is compulsory, and service is monitored through peers and leaders. Discipline is dealt out to those who are lacking in their service.
Members are subjected to entire studies about how they should be supporting the organization through service and financial donations. Elderly ones are told that those “hoping to survive to the end of this system, make sure, by making an appropriate will, that the Kingdom work benefits in the event of their death”.
Even if a Jehovah’s Witness “wakes up”, and starts to have doubts about the legitimacy of the organization and its leaders, it is extremely difficult to leave. For many, it is impossible without being completely cut off from their family, including parents, siblings, and even children, through disfellowshipping (ex-communication).
“Most cults insist they’re not cults, and nobody in a cult realizes they are in a cult. “
So what makes a cult? In short, a cult does what cults do. Social Scientists in the United States have published research attempting to define what cults or destructive groups do, what behaviors they have in common, and settled on three main characteristics.
Let’s look at the three main characteristics that cults manifest, as well as the seven elements of indoctrination used by cults, with the question in mind, “how does this apply to the Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
- Authoritarian leadership, with extreme beliefs, and claiming to be appointed by God.
- An indoctrination program with the following seven elements.
- The crossroad.
- The soft sell.
- A new reality.
- The leaders are the source of salvation, enlightenment, or moral guidance.
- Creation of an external enemy.
- Exploiting peer pressure.
- Subservience to the leadership.
- No escape.
Janja Lalich, an American author and professor of sociology who focuses on cult groups, explains in the documentary that cults are usually led by authoritarian and charismatic leaders with extreme beliefs, demanding obedience as if they are appointed by God himself.
Britannica defines authoritarianism as “the principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action” *. An authoritarian demands blind submission and is opposed to individual freedom of thought and action, where independent thinking is taboo.
An article in the 2013 Watchtower magazine tells their followers that “…direction that we receive from Jehovah’s organization may not appear practical from a human standpoint. All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not“ *. Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to obey the direction of the leadership whether it makes sense to them or not.
The demonization of independent thinking is a common theme in Jehovah’s Witness culture and publications. An article in the January 15th, 1983 Watchtower directs Jehovah’s Witnesses to avoid “questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization” . And a 1962 Watchtower article says that “The student must express himself as he understands the truth. … He cannot have independent thinking.” *
APPOINTED BY GOD
Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite clear that they believe that the leadership [Governing Body], are appointed into their positions of authority by God and that “Jesus has appointed them over all his precious “belongings“. Followers are expected to “respond to the directions of the “slave” [The Governing Body] as we would to the voice of God” *.
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that “It is vital that we appreciate this fact and respond to the directions of the “slave” [The Governing Body] as we would to the voice of God”  and that “Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using, we will not progress along the road to life…” . To Jehovah’s Witnesses, Resisting the organization means to resist Jesus.
Essentially, most cult leaders claim to be God’s Authority. Eugene Spriggs, leader of the cult “The Twelve Tribes” claimed to be God’s authority, and what he said came straight from the mouth of God. Among many other statements to the same effect, a statement in one of the Watchtower study articles blatantly directs followers to respond to direction from the Governing Body as they would to the literal voice of God.
|“To hold to the headship of Christ, it is therefore necessary to obey the organization that he is personally directing. Doing what the organization says is to do what he says. Resisting the organization is to resist him.” |
Watchtower 1959, Attain Completeness in the New World Society [screenshot]
The leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have beliefs that are considered to be extreme by the rest of the world. Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden from accepting a blood transfusion and according to the secret elders book, accepting one means to “disassociate” themselves. That means they will be cut off from their family members, including immediate families such as siblings or parents. Smoking is considered a sin and can result in ex-communication, again, meaning the offender will lose all contact with their loved ones.
Other extreme beliefs include an imminent Armageddon where everyone except Active Jehovah’s Witnesses will be killed along with their infants. An article entitled “Jehovah’s Day of Judgment Is Near!”, in the 2001 Watchtower, says, “Annihilation awaits all who will not listen and who thereby set themselves against rule by God’s Kingdom“. If you do not accept the message brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses, you will be annihilated.
“Worldly” children and babies are also to be killed at Armageddon, as explained in their book, “Reasoning from the Scriptures”, on page 47: “when God destroyed the wicked he likewise destroyed their little ones.”
“Only Jehovah’s Witnesses, those of the anointed remnant and the “great crowd,” as a united organization under the protection of the Supreme Organizer, have any Scriptural hope of surviving the impending end of this doomed system dominated by Satan the Devil.” as stated in an article named “Remaining Organized for Survival Into the Millennium”
2. An indoctrination program with seven specific elements
Cult groups always have some form of indoctrination program. In psychology, this can be referred to as “thought reform”, but is essentially mind control. Amy Bell, a victim of the cult The Children of God, explains that “it was like the operating system was the Bible”. The leader “was putting all of his programs in there on top of it” and “people would accept them because they accepted the Bible, so they shouldn’t question it”.
Social Scientists have defined seven elements that can lead to the indoctrination of an individual into a cult. A crossroads in the target’s life leaves the target vulnerable and open to new ideas. They are then exposed to a “soft sell” that is usually tailored to the circumstances of the target. There is then acceptance and belief of a “new reality”, where a leader has the answers that the target has been looking for and where the outside world becomes an external enemy. The target is exposed to peer pressure to conform to the group’s doctrine and to serve the group. Lastly, fear of the outside world is induced, and dependency is promoted to keep the target from attempting to leave the group.
1. THE CROSSROAD
A transition in the target’s life, more specifically, a difficult one, such as the loss of a job, drastic change of circumstances, a loss of a loved one, a near-death experience, illness, or other types of trauma, is exploited. When the target is in a vulnerable state, they will be more open to accepting new ideas. The target is also off-balance, ready to make a change. Even more importantly, the target will likely be craving acceptance and love.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are well aware that someone going through some type of trauma or heartache is more susceptible to accepting a Bible study. While the approach of sincere rank and file Jehovah’s Witnesses is from a loving point of view, the motive is the same. To recruit a member.
|“One of the reasons why we keep returning to visit people with whom we have already spoken about the good news is that their circumstances and attitudes can and do change. Since our last visit, some may have been affected by serious illness, loss of a job, or the death of a loved one. World events may motivate people to think seriously about their future. Such developments can cause a person who was previously apathetic—or even opposed—to respond favorably.“|
Watchtower, January 2008, “Rightly Disposed” Ones Are Responding.
2. THE SOFT SELL
At first, the target is exposed to less extreme content, often white-washed versions of the group’s beliefs. Material that vulnerable people might find helpful in dealing with challenges they face in daily life. This material is often helpful information widely accepted in society but is tainted with subtle hints of the group’s beliefs.
|The “Soft Sell”.||Actual Doctrine.|
|“… you have made a dedication to Jehovah God himself, not to a work, a cause, other humans, or an organization. Your dedication and baptism are the beginning or a very close friendship with God-an intimate relationship with him.” – What Does the Bible Really Teach||“Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in association with God’s spirit-directed organization?” – Watchtower 1985, Jun 1, p.30|
|“Jehovah’s Witnesses have been targets of false accusations – barefaced lies and twisted presentations of their beliefs… The accusation that numerous children of Jehovah’s Witnesses die each year as a result of refusing blood transfusions is totally unfounded.” – Watchtower 1998 December 1 p.14||“In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtrooms, with blood transfusions the issue.” – Awake! 1994 May 22 p.2|
|“No one should be forced to worship in a way that he finds unacceptable or be made to choose between his beliefs and his family.” – Awake! 2009 July p.29||Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to take part in any form of worship other than what is approved by the leadership. Partaking in any other religious celebration or ceremony can get the individual disfellowshipped and cut off from their family. Opposing any extreme beliefs or practices can also result in disfellowshipping and being cut off from their loved ones. – [Offenses Requiring Judicial Decisions, Shepherd the Flock of God p.64]|
The target’s guard is down, and they are now open to more contact with recruiters. This is when they will be invited to a meeting, a talk, or a Bible study. Once the target takes that first step, recruiters can start inviting them back and earning their trust more. Recruiters and fellow members now work on convincing the target to participate more and more in the group’s activities.
The more the target is exposed to the indoctrination, they will be encouraged to cut off old friends * and instead cultivate friendships with people inside the group. “Love bombing”, acceptance, and a unified purpose attract the target back to the group. Slowly the target’s reality starts to change.
3. THE NEW REALITY
The target now finds himself in a new reality. Where previously the beliefs that were taught were whitewashed, they are now suddenly extreme and blatant. Doctrines can’t be questioned, and absolute obedience is expected. A new reality consists of new behavior and new relationships. Outside information about the group is restricted and only approved sources of information about the group or its teachings are allowed. Only authorized conclusions are accepted, and independent thinking is extremely taboo and could land you in a heap of trouble.
A new view of the outside world starts to develop, and unbelievers are painted in a bad light. Association with opposers must be avoided * at all costs, and the target begins to view the outside world as wicked, and a false dichotomy, that it’s “us versus them”, starts to develop. Recreation for children is not allowed to be with “world youths” a derogatory term for unbelievers.
4. LEADERSHIP BECOMES THE ONLY SOURCE OF SALVATION, ENLIGHTENMENT, AND MORAL GUIDANCE
The target now believes he is in a group that has found the answer, usually described with a simplistic catchphrase like “The Way” or “The Truth”. The target now believes and is taught that there is only one way to salvation or enlightenment, and that is through the group and its leader. The group and its leaders are the only ones who can take you on this path to salvation. The leader’s teachings become the target’s moral guide, and the leader is not to be questioned. Everything else and everyone else is wrong. Loyalty to the group comes before loyalty to their flesh and blood family.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only those that are baptized in good standing with the organization under the direction of the leadership “have any Scriptural hope of surviving the impending end”, and that annihilation awaits all who will not listen and who thereby set themselves against the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witnesses are told that leaving the Watchtower organization means to lose “the hope of life in God’s new world”.
|“To receive everlasting life in the earthly Paradise we must identify that organization and serve God as part of it.”|
The Watchtower, “Stay Awake and Keep Your Senses”
|“Any person who wants to survive into God’s righteous new order urgently needs to come into a right relationship with Jehovah and His earthly organization now.”|
The Watchtower, “Stay Awake and Keep Your Senses”
Read more Watchtower Quotes here: Watchtower Quotes, Salvation only for Jehovah’s Witnesses
|“Jehovah’s organization provides training to show us how to be effective light bearers. If we closely follow the counsel and direction we receive, we will be able to enlighten people of all sorts concerning Kingdom truth.“|
Our Kingdom Ministry, Following Our Exemplar as Light Bearers
|“since 1914 these anointed footstep followers of Jesus, using the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society as their legal and publishing instrument, have continued to enlighten people to the meaning of the momentous happenings of this generation.”|
The Time for God’s Kingdom to Come
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only they hold the “sacred secret”. Without the Watchtower’s guidance and publications, it is impossible to truly know and understand the Bible. In other words, spiritual enlightenment is only possible through the leadership, the Governing Body, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Watchtower teaches that the Bible can’t be understood by anyone outside of the Watchtower organization. They also claim that the Bible is an organizational book that belongs to “God’s Organization”, the Watchtower society.
|“Thus the Bible is an organizational book and belongs to the Christian congregation [of Jehovah’s Witnesses] as an organization, not to individuals, regardless of how sincerely they may believe that they can interpret the Bible. For this reason the Bible cannot be properly understood without Jehovah’s visible organization in mind.”|
The Watchtower, Finding Freedom with Jehovah’s Visible Organization
Jehovah’s Witnesses paint so-called unbelievers with the same brush. These “worldly” people are associated with drunkenness, loose sexual conduct, disease, etc. To a zealous Jehovah’s Witnesses, only those who are in the organization are morally clean. The leadership claims that their interpretation of God’s standards separated them from the rest of the world. They claim that they cultivate love and respect in marriages, while in the rest of the world, moral laziness leads unbelievers to high divorce rates when in reality, the divorce rates among the witnesses are slightly higher than that of the general population*.
Publications also teach that ethical behavior “can be learned through good example, . . . or just ‘being with’ ethical people.”, and that is a “powerful reason to become acquainted with those [Jehovah’s Witnesses] attending your local Kingdom Hall *. Jehovah’s Witnesses are told that without the organization to guide them, Christians can become victimized by their false reasoning and fall into the trap of free-thinking, and “find themselves seduced and duped into a low, wayward course, even associating with others of like thought so as to share their sensualized and meretricious carnalism” *.
|“Let the world go along in its way, reaping its bad fruitage in the form of broken homes, illegitimate births, sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS, and countless other emotional and physical woes.”|
“Breathing This World’s “Air” Is Death-Dealing!”
5. CREATION OF AN EXTERNAL ENEMY
The documentary explains that by this point, the target has severed most of their relationships outside of the group. The target is subjected to fear-inducing statements about the outside world, and that they are either “with them or with us”. The target and the rest of the members are constantly reminded that there is nothing good outside the group, and the world is a dangerous and evil place. The target is expected to avoid all contact with former members of the group, especially those who are critical of the group, including family.
“Worldly people” are wicked
Jehovah’s Witnesses say that those not part of their religion “are not governed by God’s principles” *, and they go as far as to say that “a nice exterior can conceal wicked intents.”. In an article called “Set Apart from the World” published in their Watchtower Magazine, they go on to say that there is little time left in this world and that they should not “associate with it unnecessarily”, by “by hobnobbing with worldlings at office parties” for example.
In a Watchtower article titled “Breathing This World’s “Air” Is Death-Dealing!”, it is explained that they should let the world (everyone outside of the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses), “go along in its way, reaping its bad fruitage in the form of broken homes, illegitimate births, sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS, and countless other emotional and physical woes.”.
The article goes on to explain that while some contact with these “worldly” people is “unavoidable-at work, at school, and otherwise-we must be vigilant so as to keep from being sucked back into the death-dealing atmosphere of this world.”
|“We need not let our guard down by hobnobbing with worldlings at office parties, in outings or in sports groups. Worldly people are not governed by God’s principles, and a “nice” exterior can conceal wicked intents.“|
“Set Apart from the World”
Former members, so-called “Apostates”, are enemies
Former members of the organization who have left because of disagreement with the dogmatic policies, or the questionable doctrine, such as the concealing of child sexual abuse, or the dangerous ban on medical blood transfusions, etc., are labeled as apostates and are to be considered mentally diseased. A Watchtower article dated 15th April 2013, instructs Jehovah’s Witnesses to avoid these former members and to resist their “gangrenous, empty speeches”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that “Apostates quietly bring their ideas into the congregation, like criminals who secretly bring things into a country. Apostates use “counterfeit words.” This means they say things that make their false ideas sound true, like criminals who make false documents look real. They try to get as many people as possible to believe their deceptive teachings”, and reading “apostate literature” is equated to viewing pornography. *
|“It would be a mistake to think that you need to listen to apostates [former members and critics] or to read their writings to refute their arguments. Their twisted, poisonous reasoning can cause spiritual harm and can contaminate your faith like rapidly spreading gangrene.”|
“Fight the Fine Fight of the Faith”
|“If, out of curiosity, we were to read the literature of a known apostate, would that not be the same as inviting this enemy of true worship right into our home to sit down with us and relate his apostate ideas?”|
‘Do Not Be Quickly Shaken From Your Reason’
6. PEER PRESSURE
By now, the target is in a perpetual state of denial of their own reasoning ability. They will always run to the leaders for advice, who in turn further indoctrinates them.
Now that the target is sufficiently indoctrinated, it’s time to scale up the control and decentralize further indoctrination so that it can be done on a larger scale. What better way than have followers indoctrinate and control each other according to the direction put in place by the leaders? The fundamental human desire to be accepted by his group is exploited, and the target’s perception of reality is overridden.
Members are encouraged to keep tabs on each other. If any defection is detected, they should attempt to convince the person to fall back in line and report such to the leadership.
Everyone has a desire to fit in with their peers. This can be exploited to get a “rebellious” individual to comply with the doctrine. Humiliation if one does not comply. Marking talks, reproval, disfellowshipping, and shunning. The ultimate rejection of one’s social network. Not only will the target be rejected by their friends, but also their immediate family.
7. SERVICE TO THE LEADERS
The target is now thoroughly convinced of his “new reality”, and believes that the leader has the answers. They believe that the outside world is set out to get them, and people who oppose the group are viewed as “Enemies of God”, part of a “Wicked System”. The target is now subjected to peer pressure to cultivate his new belief system and do their part by serving the cause.
Service is often voluntary, but behind the scenes, there are disciplinary procedures in place for those who do not give enough of their time to the group.
|“If we stop actively supporting Jehovah’s work, then we start following Satan. There is no middle ground.”|
The Watchtower, Will You Heed Jehovah’s Clear Warnings?
|“The undershepherds look for signs that indicate when some may be faltering spiritually. Any who show signs of discouragement, who become irregular in attending meetings, or who slow down in field service are likely in need of spiritual assistance.”|
Our Kingdom Ministry, “Gifts in Men” Eagerly Shepherd God’s [screenshot]
|“The congregation secretary should alert the Congregation Book Study conductor when a publisher becomes irregular in reporting service activity. “|
Watchtower 1996, Help Them to Serve Again [screenshot]
8. NO ESCAPE
All cults use the same methods of control, and they are incredibly hard to escape. The target is reminded that there is no life outside the group. Threats of death, heartbreak, poverty, and disease are all used to scare members into staying in the group.
|“Annihilation awaits all who will not listen and who thereby set themselves against rule by God’s Kingdom [Jehovah’s Organization].”|
The Watchtower, Jehovah’s Day of Judgment Is Near!
|“if in these last days parents refuse to heed the divine instruction and warning they bring destruction upon themselves and their small children at Armageddon.”|
The Watchtower, Questions From Readers
Where else will they go? Janja Lalich explains “It’s hard to leave a cult because it’s your whole world”. After many years, the idea of leaving the cult and going into the world is terrifying.
|“If we were to draw away from Jehovah’s organization, there would be no place else to go…”|
w93 9/15 p.22 They Compassionately Shepherd the Little Sheep
The victim has lost all of their relationships outside of the cult, and all of their loved ones, friends, and family, are in. For most, leaving the cult means losing everything they know.
|“[Disfellowshipping] serves as a powerful warning example to those in the congregation, since they will be able to see the disastrous consequences of ignoring Jehovah’s laws... [Do] not converse with such one or show him recognition in any way … Walk away from him. In this way he will feel the full import of his sin.”|
The Watchtower, What Disfellowshiping Means
|“Is strict avoidance really necessary? Yes, for several reasons. First, it is a matter of loyalty to God” … “What if a relative is disfellowshipped? In such a case, the close bond between family members can pose a real test of loyalty.” … “do not look for excuses to have dealings with a disfellowshipped relative..”|
How to Treat a Disfellowshipped Person, Remain in God’s Love
Janja Lalich goes on to explain that in a group that qualifies as a cult, there is always some kind of exploitation of the members, including financial. And the groups’ needs are always before the personal needs or the needs of the members’ families.
|“The Society for years has tried to keep all those persons making a covenant with God busy in Kingdom work. It was to this end that we have arranged Watchtower studies, service meetings, book studies, and now the course in Theocratic ministry. Also we have encouraged the brethren to make back-calls, arranging for book studies. If they follow this course of action they will keep out of mischief; they will be busy looking after the King’s business and will have no time for the pleasures of this world.“|
Watchtower 1944 Apr 1 p.112
|“Likewise today, unselfish giving in appreciation for and in support of the work of the earthly part of Jehovah’s organization is a fundamental aspect of worship.”|
“A family may make adjustments as they seek to balance income with expenses or as they consider how to simplify their life and reduce expenses in order to do more for Jehovah.”
The Watchtower, Why Give to the One Who Has Everything?
|“[elderly ones] …though hoping to survive to the end of this system, make sure, by making an appropriate will, that the Kingdom work benefits in the event of their death.”|
“WILLS:…Property or money may be bequeathed to the Watch Tower Society by means of a legally executed will. A copy should be sent to the Society.”
“GIFTS …Property such as real estate, as well as jewelry or other valuables, can also be donated. A brief letter stating that such is an outright donation should accompany these contributions.”
“INSURANCE …The Watch Tower Society may be named as the beneficiary of a life-insurance policy or in a retirement/pension plan. The Society should be informed of any such arrangements.”
The Watchtower, How Shall We Repay Jehovah?