Robert Lifton's Criteria for Thought Reform
Applied to the Geftakys Assemblies
Brian cites many Assembly examples of Lifton's eight
criteria of thought reform, identified in his groundbreaking book,
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. The criteria
are summarized here and
After being in fellowship for two and a half years in the Assembly in
Santa Barbara, I left the Assembly under some unusual circumstances. My
parents had me deprogrammed. I was, in a way, intercepted en route to
Seattle for a Mission Training Team led by Tim Geftakys. The deprogramming
also derailed plans the Assembly had for me to start a campus outreach at
Western Washington University, which was to supplement the formation of a
new Assembly in Lynnwood, near Seattle.
After being deprogrammed I went to a rehabilitation center for victims of
spiritual abuse called Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center. From the
deprogramming and my time spent at Wellspring, I learned about the mechanics
and dynamics of spiritual abuse.
I have tried to analyze assembly practices and beliefs in the context of
the model established by Robert J. Lifton in chapter 22 of his book,
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. By analyzing the
Assemblies in this way I do not intend to detract from the positive aspects
of the group. There I found my Savior Jesus, formed a deep love for God,
respect for His Word, and cultivated some important Christian disciplines.
Nevertheless, there are some serious faults, both in creed and deed, in the
Assemblies. This effort is an attempt to synthesize these faults in a
framework used to analyze other spiritually abusive groups.
Included is a description of Lifton's eight criteria that constitute a
thought reform system of control. Generally, a group tends to be destructive
if at least six of these criteria are present. Also included are assembly
practices and beliefs that, according to my experience, appear to fall under
these criteria. Finally, I include some "red flags" that are separate from
So what is the use of this analysis? Well, if the Assemblies are truly
spiritually abusive, this will serve as documentation for the larger
Christian community. If the Assemblies are, ultimately, an unhealthy
environment, this analysis will be a warning sign to others who are
considering involvement. In the text that follows, each criterion will first
be described, and then its applicability to the Assemblies will be detailed.
My experience, as well as hundreds of other people, shows that the
assemblies meet all criteria identified by Lifton. Lifton’s criteria are as
Demand for Purity
Cult of Confession
Doctrine Over Person
Dispensing of Existence
Other Red Flags
- Control of human communication.
- Totalist environment seeks to control external information
(that which a person sees, hears, reads, writes, experiences, expresses) and
the inner life of a person's thoughts (communication with himself).
- This milieu control can't become absolute, there will
always be "leaks".
- The leaders are considered the source and dispensers of
truth and knowledge so they try to create a rarefied environment in which
only this truth exists.
- To be engineers of the human soul, the leaders must
bring it under full observational control, monitoring information and
- Person is deprived of both external information and
inner reflection, which are crucial for testing realities.
- Strivings toward new info, independent judgment, and
self-expression are thwarted.
- A person who experiences a reality outside of the group
will negate the experience by not considering it legitimate since it is
outside the milieu.
- A hampering in the human quest for that which is true and
relevant within and outside a person.
- Us/them mentality keeps outside information from being
- Person's entire frame of reference becomes the group,
has no independent reality or information against which to test the verity
of the information the group is giving him.
- Separation from family and friends who represent the
- Control of books read, movies seen, music listened to.
- Communal living further controls the milieu.
- Activities are limited because time is dominated by group.
Even if a person wanted to hear another pastor there wouldn't be enough time
to do so.
- Intense indoctrination seminars or retreats.
- Information for making decisions supposed to come from
"seeking counsel" or consultation from leaders.
- Anything that is not the sacred science (see below for
explanation of sacred science) is rejected as evil.
- "Aren't you getting fed here brother? Why do you need to go elsewhere?
Doesn't the Lord provide enough for His sheep here?" The implication is
that George’s ministry alone is sufficient for spiritual information.
Preachers or Pastors from outside of the Assemblies not allowed to speak
- Brothers' and Sisters' and houses of training. Control of the living
environment by "Head Stewards" and/or leading brothers.
appointments", special outreach events, extensive lectures at seminars,
preclude going to another source of spiritual insight by shear
domination of one’s time and energy. An example of full weekly
attendance for students includes: corporate prayer tower, corporate
prayer meeting, campus prayer meeting, two or three book tables on
campus, corporate Bible study, campus Bible study, Coffee House
outreach, corporate tape Meeting, and (of course) "all day for the Lord"
on Sunday. In addition to these regular "Lord’s Appointments" may be
theater/puppet/mime practice, tent meetings, anchor groups.
Anti-denominational stance held by George inhibits members from seeking
outside counsel or fellowship. Though fellowship with other campus
Christian groups was not "officially" forbidden, there nominal true
interaction with them except within the bounds of the Assembly milieu.
Members generally have nonexistent, poor or only shallow relationships
with family or friends outside of the Assemblies unless the relationship
is based on outreach to get a person into the Assembly. This blocks a
supply of non-Assembly views, information, and reference points from
entering the group milieu.
- Specific patterns of behavior that, though provoked from above,
seem to have arisen spontaneously.
- The buzz juice that produces a high or euphoria. It is
addictive and there is a sense that one can only get this "fix" from the
group (i.e. no other group can worship like "us"
- Planned spontaneity that assumes near-mystical qualities.
- The members are special agents chosen to carry out some
- A heavenly/spiritual reason is given to normal
- High emotions and big smiles. A sense that God is in that place in a
special way in which He is in no other.
- If two brothers got up to preach on similar topics it was "proof that
God was working".
- After a meeting, we would ask one another, "Brother, are you
encouraged?" and with an ecstatic look and tone we would describe how
God "spoke to us" from the preaching.
- It was assumed that God always spoke through George’s messages.
- Elation that the Assembly was "the Testimony to Jesus". Though elation
in and of itself is not bad, the sense that such an elation can only,
for all practical purposes, come from the Assembly does contribute to
dependency upon the group.
- After a tent meeting at U. C. Santa
Barbara campus that had dismal attendance, it was still assumed that
"God led us." The thought that the leadership made a poor outreach
decision was not publicly entertained.
- George is "The Lord’s Servant".
- The Assemblies are the "purest expression of the Body of Christ" in a
- World is divided into absolute pure and impure, absolute
good and absolute evil. The good and pure is that which goes along with
group dogma, evil is everything else that is either contrary or even
- Very stern moral judgments.
- All taints, poisons, compromises, "bad attitudes" must
- The underlying assumption is that the absolute pure and
good are attainable and that all should strive with all their energy to
- Anything done in the name of this purity is ultimately
moral. Truly immoral actions are justified.
- Obviously, it is impossible to achieve the ultimate
purity, so the natural result is that an intense system of guilt and shame
is established. Everyone is continually failing to meet the standard so they
experience tremendous shame and guilt.
- This constant shame and guilt calls for constant reform,
- Cultists strive painfully for something that not only
exists but is beyond the realm of possibility.
- One comes to expect punishment and rebuke constantly
since one is always failing.
- Sometimes a person will simulate failure even if there
is no failure, for it is safer.
- The demand for purity is also applied to certain
personality traits. One trait is viewed as absolutely good and is given
excessive virtue, another trait is evil and is strongly condemned.
- This can lead to purges, holy wars, excommunications.
- The sensitivity to complex human morality is destroyed.
- This is the first part of the gerbil wheel.
- Behavior is restricted. This is what the group demands
from the person in exchange for the "benefits" that are extended to the
- "Go to more meetings, pray more, be more of a servant".
- "Higher Life" doctrine.
- Selfer's prayer repeated over and over, much like a mantra.
- To be an overcome "those who have sensed and responded to the higher
call of walking worthy"--Royal Overcomers.
- Bearing a "double yoke".
- Is God on the throne or is self on the throne? (How can self ever be
off the throne?)
- Endless sources for failure in houses of training, resulting in a
constant stream of "consequences" handed down.
- "Feel free" to attend the "Lord’s appointments" this week.
Translation: Go to all the meetings or you are canceling a meeting the
- Only that which is in accord to the "New Testament
Pattern" is acceptable.
- Must be in the center of "God’s Perfect Will". God’s will is a
pin-point members must struggle, with much frustration, to discern.
"The Work is not conducted on the basis of democracy...We have the right
to demand loyalty to The Work...We come into The Work...with a
commitment to The Work." From "Characteristics of a Worker".
- Children must attend all meetings and be quiet "in the presence of the
- In order to be "committed to fellowship" one must attend all meetings,
outreaches or events. Any less is not being "committed to fellowship".
- Acceptance and friendship by "the saints" and leadership is initially
easy to get, but becomes performance-based, conditional and
progressively more difficult to earn and keep as time passes.
- One needs to constantly confess because one is constantly
- This confession creates a strong emotional bond to the one
a person confesses to because it requires a type of intimacy.
- Once one confesses, one feels a sense of relief, and
release which reinforces even more the failure was real even if it wasn't.
If one commits and imaginary sin then one gets a false sense of guilt, but
the relief after confesses is suggests that both the sin and the guilt was
- This is the second half of the gerbil wheel.
- However the confession often is exploited by those who
hear the confession
- Thoughts, words, deeds that violate the purity are to be
- The confession creates an "orgiastic feeling of oneness"
with the group by means of self-disclosure.
- Confession becomes a public performance, a histrionic
display, not a genuine experience.
- Personal secrets are endangered by need for self-exposure.
- There is a battle between self-worth and humility.
Confession can become a means to attain superiority. If one confession to a
large degree, one earns the right to judge others who are less open. One
becomes arrogant through self-abasement.
Cult of Confession in the Assemblies
- Practice of "seeking counsel".
- Before one can be right with God, one must "be right with the
brethren", requiring a confession of sorts and abstaining from the
- The basic dogma is the ultimate and sacred science. It is
the ultimate good for ordering human existence.
- A main tool in maintaining milieu control.
- The basic assumptions of the sacred science cannot be
- Originators of the sacred science and dispensers of it
must be revered.
- The sacred science boasts airtight logic, perfect
- If one harbors doubts on the sacred science then one feels
- If a person believes that the leader has absolute truth
then one will do anything the leader says.
- Results in feelings of uniqueness and elitism because the
group is the possessor of the truth.
- The sacred science is very appealing to people because it
feels good to have it all together and know it all.
- New Testament Pattern for the church (i.e., head coverings, no church
building, "Lord's Supper", Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 3 brothers
preaching, witnessing two-by-two, doorkeepers, weekly Lord’s supper,
supposed plurality of leadership).
- The inheritance.
- Praying at prayer tower and prayer meetings for "this ministry" and
only for Assembly missionaries
- "Heavenly Vision", "Testimony to Jesus", "Golden Lampstand".
- Wes Cohen saying to me, "Nobody has ever left the Assembly for
doctrinal differences, only personal commitment problems" clearly
implying that the Assembly has airtight scriptural logic.
- George, though not an apostle, has Apostolic authority.
- "Golden thread" weaving through history of the true remnant church
with the NT pattern and that thread passing directly through the
- Hymns are offered according to pattern.
- Chapter summary Bible study.
- Morning times, evening times.
- Spiritualization of Old Testament events/themes beyond that which is
found in the Bible. George attaching spiritual interpretations to the
minutiae of the Tabernacle. Journey of Israel from Egypt to Promise
land--with implication for the inheritance for Christians today .
Pattern of the Tabernacle analogous to the so-called New Testament
pattern for the church.
- Heavenly ladder.
- The ministry of George Geftakys is thought of as "The Work."
- Thought-terminating cliché.
- Complex human problems are compressed into brief,
reductive, definitive sounding phrases easily memorized and expressed.
- For the Chinese thought reformers, one who wanted to think
for himself and express individuality was labeled with a "bourgeois
mentality" and this label would stop a person from expressing the
- The language is extremely judgmental and categorizing.
- The language of non-thought.
- A common loaded language helps to bond members and
alienate those outside the group. In order to be accepted within the group,
the language must be adopted. This further restricts individuality, and
molds people into one common image.
- After using the same pattern of words for so long, one
- The imagination becomes atrophied from disuse.
- Words and labels used to stop and make a person conform
- Shop talk that cuts down the thinking process.
- This reinforces milieu control because one can't
communicate with outsiders because they don't know the language.
"Lord's appointments "
"the Heavenly Vision"
"miss out on the Kingdom"
the endless chorus of "Praise the
Lord", "Amen", "Hallelujah"
"the Lord's will"
"bear a double yoke"
"doing your own thin"
"coveting your spare time"
"avoiding the cross"
"going the way of the cross"
"self on the throne"
"You have a rebellious spirit."
"going the way of the world"
"keep the unity"
"committed to fellowship"
- Human experience is subordinated to the claims of the
- Myths of the doctrine replace actual experiences of the
- Character and identity are reshaped, not in accordance
with the personality of the individual, but according to the doctrinal mold
- In some Christian cults the ideal person in accord with
the doctrine is an extroverted evangelist who goes knocking on doors. An
introverted person who doesn't have evangelistic gifts must be forced into
the mold, the square peg shoved into the round mold. On the other hand, in
many Eastern cults the doctrine dictates that a person be subdued and quiet.
If a person is outgoing then he must be forced into the mold, changing
- The resistance to the doctrine is labeled as personal
problems, pride, or sin.
- Contrary experience must be either denied or
re-interpreted to fit the doctrinal mold.
- Results in the obliteration of personal identity and
- The corporate Testimony is greater than any individual and more
important, therefore individuals are subordinate to the Testimony.
- Heavy stress and emphasis on corporate scripture verses and the "House
- A person is "coveting their spare time" if they want to do something
recreational when there might be a meeting.
- Over-emphasis on certain spiritual gifts: teaching and evangelism.
- Anybody outside of the group is a non-person, or a
backslider, fallen away, worldly, unspiritual, satanic, compromised, has
lesser light, etc...
- A person on the outside has undesirable qualities. To
leave the group is to leave God.
- Nazi propaganda films consisted of scenes of rats pouring
out of a sewer and the announcer saying that the Jews were rats and vermin.
The Jews were non-persons. This rationale aided the slaughter of more than 6
million Jews because it was easier to kill a non-person.
- The dispensing of existence is a strong retention
mechanism for members. If someone leaves the group then they too will become
- This criterion creates a fear in members for leaving. Some
groups, such as the Boston Church of Christ and the JW's believe that they
are the only true church, and only those in the group will be saved. Thus if
a person leaves, then according to doctrine they will suffer for eternity.
This fear is a very strong motivation to stay in the group.
- Other groups proclaim that bodily harm will come to a
member who leaves.
- "Meaningful existence is dependent on creed (I believe,
therefore I am), on submission (I obey, therefore I am), and on a sense of
total merger with the group".
- This also reinforces the milieu control because a person
in the group does not want to receive information or communicate with a
person outside of the group.
- The dispensing of existence applies even to family members
and close friends.
- I knew I was being driven from my family and friends and
it hurt me very much, but it was "God's will" and I had to "go the way of
Dispensing of Existence in the Assemblies
- To leave the group is to leave "God's perfect will".
- To leave is to no longer be "in fellowship".
- One will loose the inheritance if one leaves.
- Typically, only people in the Assembly are referred to as "The saints"
other Christians are not.
- People not "in fellowship" are "missing out on God's best", "doing
their own thing", "out from under the covering", and "leaving the
- Forbidding certain people from partaking at the Lord's Supper
creates a visible stigma, a form of marking people who displease the
- People who attend seminary are "funny-mentalists
who walk around with Bibles on their heads" or just full of mere "head
- A person who has
relocated away from the local Assembly due to extreme illness is
basically told, "Prepare to die."
- Strong leadership and pyramid structure of command, top-down chain of
command. The people in position of authority don't lead the sheep, they
lord over the sheep. Leadership isn't by example but by coercion.
For examle, Wes saying, "Well, I think you'll be there, brother" after
telling him that I couldn’t attend Sunday worship. George is accountable
to God alone. Leaders make decisions for members that are personal
(where to live, job, marriage) via the practice of "seeking counsel".
Other matters of personal preference/opinion are legislated by
leadership: celebrating holidays, dating practices. Exhortation not to
"speak against the leadership" and to "be of one mind" discourages
independent thinking and personal critical evaluation.
"deeds of the Nicolaitians" is, according to George, the division of the
church into clergy and laity, there is a well-defined hierarchy among
- Elders (George, Tim, Jim, etc..), leading
brothers, workers and couples leading "houses of training", campus
workers, people "committed to fellowship" who are living in training
homes, regular attendees, new ones. There is little doubt that George is
more than a mere "brother among brothers" in this pyramid style of
leadership. He has no peer.
- Deceptive recruitment. A
"nondenominational Bible study& quot;, free movies, free picnics that
attract people, always with the ulterior motive of recruitment. At
UCSB we stated repeatedly that the Bible study wasn't associated with
any one church.
- Love bombing. The love given is extremely conditional
even though unconditional love may be preached. I've lost many good
friends. Initially, I was constantly invited to dinner by couples and
people in houses of training. Sets up an obligation that can be met only
by participation within the group.
- The church as a whole is an
island, set apart from the rest of the Body of Christ, attendance at
other churches is discouraged, fellowship w/ other Christians is frowned
No accountability to greater body of Christ.
- Spiritual elitism.
- Discouragement of independent thinking and contrary opinions to "keep
the unity" and to "be of the same mind".
- Conflict under the two
- Over-emphasis on only a small part of scripture.
- Only certain spiritual gifts are recognized.
- Individuality is discouraged, members being conformed into the image of
- Secretive handling of money.
Gretchen W.'s Story, in which she analyzes her 25-year experience in the
Omaha Assembly in terms of Lifton's 8 criteria for thought reform.