As a former member, I try to keep up with the Pentecostal church. Since it is less monolithic than some others and lacks authoritative, central leadership, most of its tenets are maintained by various social and political pressures, a few of which I will be discussing here. I recently came across a blog by a young woman who calls herself the “Passionate Pentecostal.” The blog happened to be on what many evangelicals call “holiness standards,” and it made me more than a little nostalgic.
It strikes me first that what is meant by “holiness standards” has little to nothing to do with how one behaves. Of all things, “holiness standards” refers strictly to outward appearance.
Like Scientologists, Mormons, Heaven’s Gate, and many other fringe movements, Pentecostals waste no opportunity to insist they are not a cult. The Passionate Pentecostal is careful to emphasize “[Pentecostals] DO NOT HAVE TO” adhere to these standards of dress (though she later calls them “requirements” in “some churches”) and that “We are NOT a cult.” Her support for that last claim is fascinating. She is not a member of a cult because she is (emphasis mine) “allowed decisions and free thought.” Think of that. Imagine a wife boasting her husband “allows her” the freedom to make decisions.
I’m uninterested in whether, by the strictest definition, the organization she aligns with should be considered a cult (though its leaders are quick to slap some of their competitors with the label). I will, however, note that this sincere young woman clearly does not understand how cults work.
Most of the time, participation in cult behavior is completely optional. The members of Heaven’s Gate ingested poison of their own volition as a means of accessing a passing spacecraft. The eight members who submitted themselves to castration in order to stave off “mammalian desires” did so of their own accord. They were, in short, allowed decisions and “free thought.” It turns out it’s easier to delude people into participation than to force it.
The leader of Heaven’s Gate, who claimed to be the same reincarnated being manifested in Jesus, was not a charlatan out to hoodwink the gullible for profit. He was by all indications every bit as sincere in his beliefs as the Passionate Pentecostal. He did not fool his followers on purpose, though fool them he did. Similarly, Pentecostal girls are not fooled into drinking the “holiness standard” Kool Aid by sinister people but by sincere and well-meaning individuals. One anecdote from the blog makes this point for me. I removed her emphases in the text and added my own:
So when we were at the National Youth Convention […] after an emotional service with many tears shed, it became quite obvious what churches do not teach against makeup when my church’s group of girls saw another group with mascara and eyeliner smeared faces. Immediately one of our newly converted ladies turned to us girls, who were her friends and the same age as her, and gave us a confused look. Later in the hotel room the tight-knit group of the four of us had to sit down with her and explain that their pastor did not preach against it and that those girls were not purposefully disobeying the standards of holiness.
I was tempted just to reproduce this anecdote and forgo the post entirely because I can’t make the point any better than that. It’s characteristic of my experience, as well. We were invited to “think for ourselves” with leading questions, gentle social pressure, and a never-ending tennis match between “think this” and “what do you think?” Though indoctrination often begins with false teaching and fraud, once the machine is set in motion, good, otherwise intelligent people fall in line to keep it maintained, no evil mastermind required.
Pentecostals would likely argue we all espouse our own values and should feel free to share them. It’s hardly manipulation when you put it that way, but that is unfortunately not the sum of what is happening in these churches. There is a middle ground between telling people what to think (i.e. “preach against it”) and offering no instruction whatsoever, and it’s called teaching people to think for themselves. If this alternative does not appeal to the Passionate Pentecostal, that’s her prerogative, but it seems she lacks the perspective to distinguish between her options. That’s the trouble with indoctrination: it robs us of our ability to think freely and then, with a smile, welcomes us to try and do so.