How My Life in a "Cult" Has Helped Me Become Feminist and Progressive

Witch Burning
Witch burning. Illustration from a mid 19th century book.  Photo Credit: Mullica

When I was in my early twenties, I joined a religious fundamentalist group called a "discipleship group." We were soldiers for Christ and our goal was to know Christ and make him known. The religious group I was part of is best described as a fringe group and may even be described as a cult. Needless to say, women's roles weren't very progessive.

One afternoon I sat outside with my pastor, whom I worked for and he discussed what he thought was God's plan for my life.

"Lisa, I think you should be a pastor's wife." He told me.

"I don't want to be a pastor's wife. Maybe I'll be the pastor," I said to him, laughing at my own joke. I knew well enough that he wouldn't let me be a pastor in any of his one hundred planned church plants.

Soon after this conversation with the pastor, I left the church and the ministry I was doing there. Over the years (six and counting) I've had to work through emotions of betrayal, sadness, hurt, distrust and anger. Blogging about it has sort of been my savior. I started My Cult Life in 2010 and it's developed into a community of people recovering from spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is real abuse, but we've labeled it this to distinguish how the abusers have used religion and the authority they've gained in religious organizations to manipulate and oppress others.

To be honest, I'm no longer religious.This has disappointed many of the people I mentored for years, but I've found so much comfort in taking a back seat to "leadership" and am happy to just be myself. No more impossible standards, no more guilt for breaking rules. Just friends and family, my writing and my cats, good conversations and relaxing evenings.

Instead of being religious, I mostly define myself as a feminist and an activist for those who've been forced into silence over the abuse they faced in churches. The abuse ranges from rape to child molestation, to verbal abuse and public humiliation. And sadly, the abuse is widely spread throughout denominations and sects--from Catholic to Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IBF) to discipleship programs (like Teen Mania and Master's Commission) and the Quiverfull movement.

Many of my readers and fellow bloggers are women. As a woman, I look back on my treatment in the group I was in as oppressive. Not all, but many of these fringe groups, treat women as lower-class citizens who should follow a path of heteronormative behavior.

In research I've been doing on women's issues and the history of the oppression of women, I've stumbled across a book called The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England  by Carol F. Karlsen.

It's a Norton Edition written in the late 80's. I'm currently stuck on a chapter called Handmaidens of the Devil, describing religion's role in the witch hunts. Religious rituals and symbols strictly guided gender roles, as they do today in my experience. In Colonial New England, as now in fundamentalist Christian sects, women weren't supposed to dissent or speak up against church leaders. For women to vary away from the norm in their gender roles was to call themselves into suspicion-of witchcraft. If women varied from the norm and challenged the beliefs people held of God, they were suspect--again, of witchcraft and being a "handmaiden of the Devil." Certain factors had to be in place for the accusation--typically the woman was unmarried, usually older and sometimes extremely poor or extremely wealthy.

Ironically, history hasn't changed much in some extremely religious sects. Dissent is incredibly unpopular even if you're speaking up to change abusive behavior, fraud and criminal activity. If you're a woman in some extreme groups, they prefer you to stay silent and serve your husband. My hope is that people who've gone through abuse will find a safe community among myself and other survivors to find healing and wellness. And also a place to share the simple joys in life--family and friends and the good in life.


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