In CT’s coverage of the Korea-based sect Shincheonji, sources touched on the difficulty that family and friends often face when trying to help loved ones see the truth about the high-control religious groups they’ve joined and when helping them to get out. Once participants do leave such groups, it’s still a long journey to rebuild their lives and—for those who come from Christian backgrounds—to repair their faith.
CT talked to Tore Klevjer, a Christian counselor based in Wollongong, Australia, and president of Cult Information and Family Support, about his own experience in the Children of God group, how he counsels former members of high-control religious groups, and how churches and Christians can better help people coming out of those environments.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity:
CT: Not only are you a specialist in cult-related counseling but you also have had personal experience in a new religious movement. Can you share more about that?
Klevjer: I grew up in a Christian home in Byron Bay, Australia. After my mother passed away, I was traveling around Europe when my girlfriend broke up with me and married someone else. I felt depressed and developed an ever-increasing dread of going back to Australia, where I felt a life of nothingness awaited me. At the time, I was vulnerable and disillusioned with life. It was then that I was recruited into the Children of God, a group geared toward hippies that received lots of media coverage as a “sex cult” for some of its practices.
I met them in Amsterdam while hitchhiking through Europe. Their happiness, zeal, and apparent freedom from the norms of society sucked me in. I felt a strange nagging feeling that something was wrong, yet was unable to pinpoint exactly what it was. It felt like the movie The Stepford Wives, where I had stepped into a surreal world of seeming perfection, which I have since realized can only be achieved through extreme control.
Over time, they taught me to smuggle goods across borders, exchange currency on the black market, and misrepresent myself to businesses and churches to gain their support. If I ever balked at my deceptive practices, I was asked, “Don’t you have the faith for it?” Sin became totally subjective.
We were told to renounce families and former friends because “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt. 10:36). I changed my name to Abel and wrote a letter to my father telling him that I had only one father now, and that was God. It broke his heart.
When the group announced a push into Asia, we went to India and spent four years teaching religious education in schools and colleges there.
When did you start to realize something was off, and how did you leave the group?
In my final year in the group, they introduced a new phase of retraining where we were belittled, scrutinized, criticized, and exorcized. In my frustration, I turned more and more to my Bible and less and less to the group’s writings for comfort. This caused me to question the Children of God until the group kicked me, my wife, and our five children out.
After returning to Australia, recovery was intense. I had been institutionalized by Children of God for 11 years and now had no idea of how society worked and had very little money. At the same time, I slowly realized that I had been duped and had wasted some of the best years of my life. I was drinking heavily, my marriage was on the brink of disaster, and I was in such an emotional state that I would cry uncontrollably whenever we sang hymns at church.
I eventually built a faith I could call my own from the ground up. It’s now been 39 years since I left the cult.
After leaving the group, I wanted to examine how people can be led down a system of belief where they end up betraying their own moral compasses and are duped into believing ridiculous fabrications. I devoured many books on the topic of healthy and unhealthy belief systems and formalized these studies with a counseling degree.
Over the years, I have counseled many distraught families who have lost loved ones to cults of various religions and assisted many ex-members toward recovery.
Evangelicals often think of the term cult as a group that deviates from biblical orthodox Christianity (like a group that denies the divinity of Jesus). What is your approach?
Most of us working in this area prefer a more sociological definition that defines a cult as a group that controls, coerces, or abuses a person’s rights and freedoms. This kind of control can also happen within orthodox belief. For example, a church can be doctrinally correct while still controlling members legalistically using guilt and fear.
To understand this topic, it is helpful to look at other high-control systems such as domestic abuse. In an abusive relationship, a person’s sense of self is systematically undermined until they become totally reliant on and compliant to their abuser. They become participants in their own abuse, feeling they cannot function outside of the system. They are cut off from outside influence, and their behavior, information, thoughts, and emotional responses are controlled. Individuals remain in religious controlling environments for the same reasons that a person remains in an abusive relationship.
Why do you think it’s important for Christians to think of the term cult sociologically rather than theologically?
First, many churches think that if their congregation is taught good theology, they will not fall prey to a cult. My dad used to say, “Stick to the Bible, son. It hasn’t deceived anybody yet!” While that may be true, people can use the Bible in very deceptive ways. If members or ex-members are willing to examine good methodical teaching around some central doctrines, it can go a long way in dispelling the myths they are taught. However, there is much more than doctrinal beliefs that leads someone into a cult, such as the process of gradual coercion and the withholding of controversial information.
Second, if a person leaves a cult, a church’s priority is often to restore good theology. They don’t recognize that we are dealing with a person who has been spiritually abused and manipulated and needs time to heal. Often the former members feel as though they don’t fit in, they have issues with authority figures (which may include counselors or pastors), and they rebel against structure. They need to be accepted and shown tolerance as they process all they are going through.
It’s important that Christians don’t try to do their thinking for them, but rather present various ideas for discussion, allowing the ex-members to come to their own conclusions. Bible teaching needs to be approached with great sensitivity, allowing for questions, discussion, and disagreement.
In your counseling practice, what are your first words to a former member of a high-control group?
“It’s not your fault. You’re not stupid to have joined.”
There is usually a lot of shame around having been led up the garden path, and when they look back at the crazy things they once believed to be true, they can think that only people who are slightly insane or gullible could have not only swallowed such nonsense but taught it to others. Recognizing the recruiting process and learning how they were actively set up and targeted is a great initial reset and foundation to grow from. The science around our human need to belong and experiments in the area of social compliance tell us that anyone can be vulnerable given the right circumstances.
Walk us through the process of counseling someone who’s been involved in a high-control group.
There are many issues that arise, including relationship issues with loved ones, boundaries and how to say no, critical thinking, loss of identity, and loss of meaning and purpose.
Assessing their physical needs and mental health is a good starting point. Do they have food, a roof over their head, and a family network? Or are they alone with no support? Do they need medical intervention?
I have spoken to many people who have attended therapy after being in a cult who said, “The psychologist didn’t get me!” Secular counselors tend to either downplay the cult experience and focus on childhood issues, or they expect the client to educate them on their cult experience. The client comes away feeling as though they have just paid good money to educate the therapist. To be effective in this area, a counselor needs to “get it.” Explaining how mind control happens and what cults have in common is a great place to begin. This helps a client to normalize what has happened to them and not to feel isolated and alone.
A helpful biblical principle to remember is that God’s initial purpose was to create us with free will. A controlling cult takes that away. So if I can bring a person back to a point where they are able to think for themselves and guide them in a good direction without imposing my own worldview, I call it a success. True conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit after all.
In cases when the client is from a Christian background, when and how do you bring up faith and the church?
I never assume that I should discuss theology. Sharing the gospel with someone who is recovering from having a so-called “gospel” shared with them can be very triggering. Sometimes I will ask a client how they see their faith after leaving, and that is met with mixed responses. Mostly the client will want to wait and see, then reassess it at a later date. Sometimes they will have specific questions relating to Bible interpretations or twisted Scriptures from the cult. There are often phobias instilled in them that if they leave “God’s highest will,” he will judge them, so it becomes important to identify and dispel irrational fears.
If a client is still reading their Bible, I would recommend that they change to a different translation than the one the cult used. This helps them to read it with new eyes and not automatically see the cult’s interpretation. It can also be helpful to give a client permission not to read their Bible for a time until things settle, and to rather focus on other spiritual disciplines or to reflect on God’s creation and his attributes of love and mercy.
Remember that this person has been hurt spiritually and has trusted someone who said they had the truth. They are not ready to have someone else tell them the same thing. They need love and care and space to heal at their own pace. Church attendance may never feel comfortable for them, and if they attend at all, they may just want to be a part of a small group fellowship. It is important that they learn to make their own decisions and think things through for themselves. Things like prophesies, “words of knowledge,” and over-spiritualizing experiences can all be very triggering to a person who has been manipulated.
If we discover that a loved one is part of a high-control group, what should we do?
Try to maintain the relationship and communication at all costs. Making direct statements like “You’re in a cult!” or “You’re deceived!” are not helpful. Cult members have often been warned that “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt. 10:36), so to confront their group will be to fulfill prophecies given to them by their leaders and further prove the group to be correct. It’s important not to drive them further into the group.
Ask yourself what need the group is fulfilling in your loved one’s life. Is it the need for acceptance and community? Are there broken relationships? Addiction issues? A dominant or controlling parent? Sometimes there are family issues that need to be addressed for the person to want to be a part of home life again.
Get in touch with someone well-versed in how cults operate for some specific coaching on your situation—there is good information available on ways to relate to a cult member. This is seldom an issue that can be fixed with a logical approach.
How can the church be better prepared to protect its sheep from high-control religious groups?
Churches can look inward and remember that cult-like control exists on a sliding scale. Ask yourself if your church is legalistically controlling its congregation. We must remember that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day lived moral but extremely legalistic lives, placing laws and expectations on the backs of others while at the same time not seeing their own need and poverty of spirit.
Also, cults disciple their members—they teach them and make them teach others. They memorize Scripture on key topics. It grieves me to see Christians being entertained at youth groups with things like pie-eating competitions while neglecting good apologetic-based teaching that they can understand and use to articulate their own beliefs. Biblical teaching around the signs of the second coming of Christ could prepare them to identify false prophets.
Churches are also letting down our youth by not educating them on the topic of cults and deception. Perhaps they assume that if they are taught the Bible, they will be safe. Education around manipulation, coercion, and social compliance are helpful, as well as identifying personal vulnerabilities that could be exploited: uncertainty about the future, a lack of good friendships, or a transitional time of life such as college.
It has been said that “a fence at the top of a cliff is far more effective than a hospital at the bottom.” We need awareness in our churches and more teaching in our youth groups. Young people who are in the process of figuring out their lives are especially vulnerable.