Is the LCMS a Cult?

Cult mind control is a topic that has recently been popping up more and more in my YouTube feed. This is thanks to my recent subscription to Telltale Atheist, an ex-Jehovah’s Witness atheist YouTuber who examines cults and oppressive religions. He often uses a method called the BITE Model to determine whether different groups are cults, but he is most familiar with his own former cult, the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

He and Mr. Atheist have been releasing a series together where they work out whether the Mormons, Mr. Atheist’s former group, are a cult using Telltale’s expertise on the BITE Model and Mr. Atheist’s personal insider experience in Mormonism. Watching their videos, I wondered if I had anything to contribute to this greater conversation on groups being cults, examining them using personal experience from the inside. Thus, I decided to put the religion (well, the Christian denomination) I was raised in, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, to the test.

I’m excited to find out whether the LCMS could really be called a cult, especially since in a time of extreme frustration, I once made the claim that I thought it was a cult. That being said, my own analysis will be based off of my personal experience and various Lutheran doctrine that I’ve had the chance to read. I do have a personal dislike and deep disdain for the LCMS, but I’m going to do my very best to be fair and objective when pitting it against the BITE Model. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s a cult. Maybe it is, but maybe it’s not. Let’s find out.

The BITE Model stands for the four main attributes of a cult: behavior control, information control, thought control, and emotional control. To see them in full, check out this page that lists them all and even links to a PDF that goes into even greater detail.

I know that Telltale Atheist uses a complex rating system, which I assume is more technically correct, but in the interest of ease and simplicity, I’m rating each cult characteristic out of two. Zero out of two means the LCMS doesn’t really do this at all. One out of two means that they can sometimes do this but not often, or they do but it’s not that bad. Two out of two means they’re either very guilty of this, they do it constantly, or it has at some point caused me great personal distress in my life.

Behavior Control: Does the LCMS…

Promote dependence and obedience? Not really, in my experience. 0/2

Modify behavior with rewards and punishments? Not any more than any other non-cult group. 0/2

Dictate where and with whom you live? There’s not any kind of commune-living or specific dictation of this, but it is frowned upon to live with a significant other before marriage. This caused a bit of tension before I got married. 1/2

Restrict or control sexuality? Absolutely. Sex is only allowed between two straight married people. Long story short: my breaking of this rule is what led to me having to come out as atheist to my whole family. That wasn’t a good time. 2/2

Control clothing and hairstyle? Not really. I wasn’t allowed to dress up as a witch for Halloween, but I think that was more about my mom’s principles than those of the LCMS. 0/2

Regulate what and how much you eat and drink? Nope. 0/2

Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep? It would for me personally because I had to get up before 7 am on Sundays to make it to church. That was just because my mom played the organ at the early service. But other than that, no. 0/2

Exploit you financially? Yes. 2/2

Restrict leisure time and activities? No. Unless your leisure time consists of reading The God Delusion and writing blog posts exposing their bible studies and sermons. They don’t like that. But I think I was an unusual case. 0/2

Require you to seek permission for major decisions? Not really, for me. 0/2

Behavior control total: 5/20

Information Control: Does the LCMS…

Deliberately withhold and distort information? Yes. The LCMS as a whole is very committed to belief in creationism, despite claiming that they don’t have an official position. In the past, I’ve looked at different articles, pamphlets, and even my former church’s book collection (including this gem) where they give every regurgitated creationist “argument” in the book and seem to be incapable of giving any evidence of evolution at all. And that’s a lot of evidence to conveniently forget. 2/2

Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics? The LCMS doesn’t have any kind of excommunication practice for deconverts like myself. However, growing up I would occasionally hear mention of people who had left the LCMS and who were now looked down upon and avoided. 1/2

Discourage access to non-cult sources of information? Yes. When I told my mom that I learned about evolution, atheism, and the like using the Internet and books, she was disgusted, and she warned me that I couldn’t trust anyone who claims to “be smarter than God” or who “believes they can disprove God”. 2/2

Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine? Yes. See above. 2/2

Generate and use propaganda extensively? Yes. See the response to the question about withholding and distorting information. 2/2

Use information gained in confession sessions against you? Nope, Lutheranism doesn’t have one-on-one confessions of one’s specific sins. 0/2

Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory? No. 0/2

Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors? No. 0/2

Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct”? No. 0/2

Information control total: 9/18

Thought Control: Does the LCMS…

Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking? This is central to the Lutheran faith. It’s interesting to me that it’s not always clear who Them is. Us certainly includes LCMS Lutherans, and Them always involves Muslims, “non-believers”, and any other nonChristian group. At times, though, Them can also include non-LCMS Lutherans and other Christian denominations.

But the Us vs Them manifests itself most saliently in possibly most the intense persecution complex I’ve ever witnessed in person. It’s all they talk about, whether it’s the LCMS or Christians at large that are always somehow being persecuted. It’s a great tactic to gain the emotional sympathy and trigger the defense of the congregation members, and it creates a more tight-knit community full of people willing to give up all their money for the cause. 2/2

Change your identity, possibly even your name? Nope. 0/2

Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought? I remember from my time at church that this definitely occurred, but I’m only giving it a one because I can’t think of any specific examples. 1/2

Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate? Not that I recall… 0/2

Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts? Absolutely. When I was writing this post, I made note of LCMS president Matthew Harrison’s mechanism for coping with his understandable doubts about creationism:

“Though I’m no scientist, I’ve had challenges myself believing that the creation accounts are history. When will a talking snake appear believable to reason? How, in the face of the dominant theory of evolution, will the special creation of Adam out of dust and in a flash appear reasonable? And what of Eve from a rib? How can I possibly hold on to an actual creation of all things in six natural days?” 

You can read his full article here and here, but his conclusion to the “scandal” of believing in creationism in 2018 is “I believe [the creation accounts] because I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior.” This is obviously a non-answer. This post is all about the thought-stopping techniques of the LCMS if you want to see even more. 2/2

Allow only positive thoughts? Not positive thoughts. Mostly persecution thoughts. 0/2

Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, & chanting to block thoughts? Yes. Lots of hymn-singing and chanting about all of God’s wonders but none of his faults. 2/2

Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt? Yes. See my answers to the questions about distortion of information and thought-stopping techniques. 2/2

Thought control total: 9/16

Emotional Control: Does the LCMS…

Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group? Not really. I was afraid to come out in the case that my family might no longer accept me, but as for the group as a whole, I didn’t really have any fear of leaving. 0/2

Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong? Oh, yes. Skepticism and autonomy were among the worst. 2/2

Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness? Not really. LCMS Lutherans aren’t really required to go anywhere or do anything specific other than go to church and give their money, so there’s no homesickness involved. 0/2

Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness? Yes. These are typical of Christianity, of course, but it does apply to the LCMS. They claim that you get into heaven by faith and not by works (just by the grace of Jesus, because you’re unworthy), but it seems that there are a lot of things you can do that would stop you from qualifying for getting into heaven. 1/2

Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”)? Not that comes to mind. 0/2

Threaten your friends and family? It’s not really the fire-and-brimstone type. 0/2

Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve? This is hard to tell. I think that this is more of a person-by-person or family-by-family basis, but I don’t know what the group as a whole does. 0/2

Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group? Yes. In this case, once again, the group is Christianity at large, and any atheists knows their arguments that without religion, there is no morality, peace, meaning, happiness, purpose, and most importantly, no entrance into heaven and eternal life. Allegedly, though, there’s also no persecution! 2/2

Emotional control total: 5/16

And the LCMS’s total cult-score within my rating system using the BITE Model is……

28/70!

If this were a test, the LCMS would have gotten 40%. I know I could have been more precise, using the BITE Model’s official, more weighted scale of rating things as 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, or 21. This way, if the group only meets a few of the criteria, but is extreme with those few, it can still qualify as a cult. Maybe I’ll use this system one day, but for today, I just used 0, 1, and 2. I just thought that having seven choices for each item was too many for me to pick.

I definitely have a better idea now of whether or not the LCMS is a cult, and I would probably say almost, but not quite. In school, 40% is a failing grade, but my family’s denomination being 40% cult is still unnerving to me.

What do you think? Did I judge fairly? Would you say the LCMS is a cult? And if you were raised LCMS, do you agree with my answers? Let me know, and be sure to check out my online merch store!

22 Replies to “Is the LCMS a Cult?”

  1. I agree with your analyses. However I still think they area cult. I was raised ‘Misery Synod’. I went all through their grade school and high schools. It’s awful. Very male Dominated. Male chauvinist. And yet I do NOT consider myself a feminist . They are a VERY controlling religion. Some say WELS is worse. Maybe. But I was in an extremely controlling lcms group. My family is lcms. I thank GOD I broke out of that mindset and joined a different not funamentalist religion. I detest the lcms. All those people do is argue and fight amongst themselves. I cannot believe how FAMILIES fight over dogma. And won’t speak to one another. Life is TOO SHORT for that s$+&.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Use information gained in confession sessions against you? Nope, Lutheranism doesn’t have one-on-one confessions of one’s specific sins. 0/2

    Hi Rebekah, actually the LCMS does do private, individual, confession and absolution with one’s Pastor. Usually by appointment. But that wouldn’t change your answer, because the pastor wouldn’t tell anyone else what was said, nor would he use anything that came up against the person who comes seeking Christ’s forgiveness.
    I’m sorry you’ve left the church and choose atheism for now, and I want you to know that just like the prodigal son’s father, God will joyfully receive you back.

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    1. Anyone can opt to have a private session with a pastor, but it’s not required. Cults (like Mormons) are known to have required confessions in which the authority figure involved uses your confessions against you. The LCMS does not do this. See this video for more detail on what I am describing: https://youtu.be/tpr5RAAByqI (starting at 1:50)

      I don’t think anyone would want their religion to be associated with interrogations like this.

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    2. Yes they do use information against you. I went to a confession. With an lcms preacher. He used it to run me down with my family. To “correct me”. I detest the synod. Male dominated and they control women. Women are busy tearing one another down in those churches. I needed to talk. And all I got was a mess from a stupid ignorant minister. Useless. Yep. I agree they use info like the catholic church and eastern Orthodox Church did years ago.read up on that. Jehovah’s witnesses do this tattling with their “elders”.

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  3. Thanks for your openness to share what you believe according to the BITE rule of cult ‘thumb.’ Most every institution, religious or not, has cultish (think in the narrow sense ) traditions. In the wider sense, cults seek to remove the influence of meaningful relationships, whether family or otherwise, so that only they (or a specific leader) are to be followed (blindly perhaps) willingly at the expense of others who are not associated with the cult. Brainwashing is quite a bit more than rote memorization. You can memorize scripture, hymns or creeds and still have an open mind about information outside of your religion. The real question comes for everyone, what is your ‘BITE’… rule of thumb/ What do you use to measure outside thoughts, ideas or any kind of human reasoning? As a lifelong LCMS’er w/about a 10 year absence after confirmation, I was drawn back to the Bible and to the teachings of Jesus (not what people said Jesus said – too many variables). Everything I read made sense, not that I liked the idea of being a sinner, but then, everyone will usually admit, “I am not perfect.” Well, that pretty much says that we all blow it and that there is something in me (us) that wants to good and right but I often find myself not doing good or right… The Bible describes that as the sin nature everyone is born with. Test it out: The sin nature doesn’t want to listen to God’s Word, follow God’s Word, and will in fact seek to go everywhere else but God’s Word to ‘find a truth’. Jesus say of Himself, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father (enters heaven) apart from Me.” Either He is lying or He is telling the truth. If He is lying then you have to throw out the whole Bible because it says He is the Word made flesh, come into the world to die on the cross for our sin and rise from the dead to give us new life. (Even 1st century historian Josephus recorded this about Jesus.) Now, if Jesus is telling the truth then you have your measure (the Bible) to go by when you judge what one person says over another. I know from experience that God’s forgiveness is forever and that I am a child of His only because of what Jesus has done for me. By faith (not blind, but according to God’s Word) in His promises I will get the benefit. If I don’t believe then I will not benefit, like others who do not believe. I have had bad things done to me as I have done bad things to others. Because I have been forgiven by God, I can in turn forgive others who have harmed and taken advantage of me. The LCMS is not a cult in wide sense… we do not make people believe, force people to believe, take money form those who do not want to give nor force people to give. We don’t make you check your brain at the door and would ask for your forgiveness if we have wronged you in any way. The reality of a messed up world (good, bad and ugly) is written about in the Bible so that we humans would recognize our need of God’s grace, live in His forgiveness by believing Jesus died for our sins, once for all, so that we can live as we have been created to live in a right relationship to God our creator and with one another. I wish you well and hope the best for you!

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  4. “Lutherans don’t have Confession.”

    I mean, the rest of this is slanted, but that bit of ignorance is enough to tell you that the writer doesn’t really understand Lutheranism.

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    1. Hi! I was a member of the LCMS for 21 years. We had communion, and we said a creed to confess our sins, so if you consider that as confession, then yes, we had confession. What I was referring to is that we did not do a private one-on-one confession of sins with the pastor.

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  5. I’m actually quite curious about your background. You seem to have been very hurt by someone in your church growing up and perhaps your questions were not dealt with with the respect they deserved.

    Not that I disagree with any of the positions it seems you disagree with (Creation, forgiveness of sin, teaching that there is right and wrong teaching), just that I might have suggested handling them differently.

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    1. Hi!

      I have actually shared my background and the story of my life in the LCMS extensively on this site. I was not hurt by anyone, just indoctrinated to believe as my family did (LCMS) and eventually left the church after keeping my atheism a secret when I wasn’t sure if my family would accept me. How would you have handled these situations differently?

      My story: https://thecuriousatheist.blog/category/personal-experiences/stories-from-home/

      My thoughts on the LCMS: https://thecuriousatheist.blog/category/the-lutheran-church-missouri-synod/

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  6. I find it significant, having been raised LCMS and no longer a member of any church body, how many beliefs and ideas were attributed to being “Christian”, but were in fact specific to LCMS doctrine. I really like your commentary on the blindness of being saved only by “Christ’s grace”, but being condemned by, like, everything. I fully agree with your scoring here, in my experience, except that we had an incredibly charismatic pastor for way too long in our congregation, which led to a lot of fire and brimstone from the pulpit. Oh, and being female was almost like being a member of the ostracized masses—I can’t tell you how often my intelligence and talent were lamented for having been wasted on a female, and how frequently I was warned that my wit and charisma needed to be kept in check, just like my sexuality, because of the great risk of corruption for “a special girl like you”. Helluva roundabout way to keep me controlled. Didn’t work, ultimately, and the way I’ve seen this kind of faith brandished like a weapon in my family would prevent me from such an even-handed conclusion as what you’ve presented, I think!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What I did not see in the rating system was “brainwashing”. Even after more than 40 yrs of being an atheist and away from the LCMS, it’s still in my head. I can be at a funeral or wedding, and when the Nicene creed or Apostles creed is spoken, all the words are there and would easily come spewing out if I were to open my mouth. Bothers me that stuff is so deeply imbedded in my brain.

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    1. sometimes I object to the word ‘brainwashing’. we learned stuff, and repeated it until it was part of that 78 record up there in the brain. But if you step back a foot or two, and think about how we learned our times tables, the prepositions (I can still do them, 60 years later), and every damn song we ever listened to as kids…

      It’s how you learn a favorite poem, or a song, or any other piece of stuff that will hold still long enough to be memorized…

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  8. Hmm I should apply this to my former church to see what I come up with, would be fun! I’d imagine that I get a similar answer to yours – not completely cultish, but certainly some cult like behavior.
    I would argue that most churches employ some form of behavioral control though, especially the one which mentioned using rewards or punishments. It isn’t always overt, but can be subtle, like belittling you or making you feel stupid, if you have a problem with some of their teachings. In a nut shell, the rewards/punishments are socially based.

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  9. I very much doubt your former church, or the church you grew up in, is a cult. It is simple really, if it was a cult you would have been ostracized by your family, which is probably is the most potent tool in the curl chest, which isn’t mentioned in BITE specifically, but could be included possibly as emotional control.

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  10. In my first year-and-a-half of college, when my going to college and my still being Catholic overlapped, I attended a total of three quarterly retreats held by the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry. The second of these, known as SEARCH (which I was breathlessly assured would be “life-changing” and had indeed changed the life courses of several of its attendants) was so transparently manipulative that it catalyzed my eventually absolute disenchantment with the NCCM (a bit different from my disenchantment with religion, though it was part of the same process – I guess in a way, SEARCH did turn out to be life-changing!). Years later, I happened to be reading about the mind control methods of certain cults and noticed so many similarities with the structure of those Newman Catholic retreats, particularly SEARCH, that I felt a literal chill run down my spine, which until then I had always assumed was just a figure of speech.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. When Lutheran friends came to visit, we read church signs driving around to see if any were the right “Luther” group to go to church on Sunday. They couldn’t find their tribe, so did not go. Any excuse, right?
    At dinner a few weeks ago, one said he was troubled that there were 23 different Lutheran sub-denominations. I looked it up. On line said 40. Should I tell him? Wow, 39 more for the cult test. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve never been LCMS, so I’m an outsider to this. But I think you have judged them fairly.

    There is something very cultish about today’s version of conservatism, but it is controlled my by FOX NEWS rather than by the churches.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. As Homer Simpson would say; Doh!! Politics left or right has become cultish. Can’t even wear a stupid hat without some leftist smacking you in the face and screaming RACIST. Wow…

      I’ve never heard of the BITE model, but I might apply it to Zen Buddhism, my last religious experience. Thanks CA for this post. Interesting and useful

      Liked by 2 people

  13. The cross and the the doctrine of blood sacrifice would conjure up cult images too. Possibly the image of an empty cross as Lutherans use fosters even more imagery than the catholic displays. Getting our minds to fill in that blank is awfully effective in any marketing ploy.

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