A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Eight Elements of Coercive Control Hiding Behind the Mask of Faith

Updated: May 14, 2021

A guest blog post by Patty Bear

Shutterstock | Isaac Lugalia Arts

Heresy. The very word ignites our collective psyche with haunting images. Questioners have been burned at the stake both metaphorically and literally for centuries, and toxic faith leaders and organizations count on us to remember this trauma, to carry the memory of the heinous cost of looking behind the mask of faiths.

Of course, not all faith communities are toxic authoritarians wearing a gentle disguise. Some are broadly supportive of their members, encouraging the kind of questioning required to nurture an independent conscience and spiritual maturity. However, if you are reading this article, you have probably begun to question your faith environment, or perhaps even stumbled upon the bared teeth of the wolf behind the disguise. Or maybe, like me, you would describe yourself as having religious PTSD.

I was raised in a sect of the Plain People of Pennsylvania. As a child, I took in the Church teachings and role modeling of my mother and saw my future clearly—and willingly—without question. Though I wasn’t always comfortable with how women were portrayed in sermons, it wasn’t until my teen years that the drilling of female inferiority and subservience into me was upended. Once I was awakened, the coercive control I’d been living under no longer had a place to hide—but the long-term effects had already taken root.

When I was growing up, I often heard the phrase from the book of Matthew: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Toxic faith organizations are quite good at showcasing a smorgasbord of “shiny fruits,” seemingly polished to perfection. For this reason, I have found that a far better metric for identifying those in sheep’s clothing is recognizing their cunning, stealthy, wolf-like behaviors—the rotten fruits that might be more difficult to spot at first.

After the Korean War, psychologist Albert Biderman studied the methods of coercion and control used against prisoners of war to induce false confessions and to manipulate prisoners to betray their country. Since he first developed the framework, it has been recognized by domestic violence and child abuse experts as the universal toolbox abusers around the world use to systematically take control of their victims. To show how these tactics operate in parallel to many spiritual leaders and faith-based organizations, I have applied Biderman’s eight elements of coercive control below with specific examples of what to look for . . .

The Eight Elements of Coercive Control in Spiritual Settings

1. Isolation

  • The creation of close-knit spiritual communities separating believers from nonbelievers, subtly or unsubtly discouraging intimacy with those outside the “tribe.”

  • A gender-based hierarchy, often where female members have a lesser status than male members, and sometimes insistence that female members be dependent on male members to be considered “godly.”

  • The lending of assistance to down-on-their-luck individuals who come to believe they can’t survive outside the group.

  • The requirement of a dress code or uniform that sets members apart from everyone else.

  • The extinguishing of members’ voices by insisting upon conformity, secrecy, and silence.

2. Monopolizing Perception

  • A heavy indoctrination process, such as repetitive sermons constantly reinforcing a few select scripture passages, forced scripture memorization, a narrow religious education, and the vilifying or demonizing of otherness.

  • The discrediting of anyone who questions the indoctrination, or the ejection of them from the group as troublemakers.

  • The discrediting of outsiders and family or friends who question the spiritual group’s beliefs or behavior patterns.

  • The discouragement or forbidding of secular education or certain types of books, music, and entertainment so that only the “right” beliefs get airtime.

3. Humiliation and Degradation

  • After isolating and monopolizing perception and discrediting others, it remains necessary to discredit the individual themselves or an entire class of people so that they are:

- gradually drained of self-esteem, self-respect, and personal agency

- weakened in their physical, mental, and emotional ability to resist

- worn down by being treated in demeaning ways, ridiculed for having any needs or independent perceptions, mocked, labeled in derogatory terms, and given subservient tasks

This can be done by:

- publicly exposing an individual’s vulnerabilities or weaknesses under the guise of prayer, or saving their soul

- targeting individuals for exorcism or ostracism

- depriving individuals of sleep, meals, or special privileges

- denying individuals participation in group activities, such as kicking them off the mission trip or not inviting them to the group picnic

- demanding members be submissive no matter how badly they are treated

  • This process conditions targeted victims to accept increasingly unacceptable behavior without complaint. In other words, what might have once been shocking behavior becomes normalized.

4. Threats

  • Designed to create anxiety and despair, threats may be overt or subtle, but they are intended to:

- make abusers’ expectations clear

- induce fear of consequences for challenging the authority or erratic behavior of abusive individuals

- make clear that, “Thou shalt not question ‘God’s’ representatives on earth, as ‘He’ is beyond question,” and therefore so are his representatives and any demands they might voice.

This might look like:

- passive-aggressive behavior through comments like, “It would be a shame to lose you as a valued leader/member,” or quoting scriptures that make it clear God sees your behavior or questioning as worthy of eternal damnation

- overt blackmail, such as threatening to expose a perceived sin

- threats or displays of aggression, physical dominance, and violence

5. Omnipotence, Superiority, or Overwhelming Power

  • Demonstrations of shock and awe, such as performing alleged miracles or claiming to receive visions or special dreams.

  • Overwhelming displays of force or disproportional consequences, such as dramatically ejecting a member from the community for sincere questions, noting hypocrisy in the leadership, or separating family members as punishment

  • Brutal and/or public scapegoating of a member in a staged powerplay to demonstrate superiority. Making an example of someone.

  • Open committing of crimes by authority figures.

  • Indulgence in hypocrisies or treating others in ways nobody else could get away with.

All of this behavior further conditions the acceptance of the unconscionable, serving the purpose of demonstrating the kind of omnipotence that generates a profound sense of futility for anyone in disagreement or who would fight back.

6. Enforcing Trivial Demands

  • Reinforcement of who has the power and who does not by the making of patently silly demands that serve little apparent useful purpose, such as unnecessary manual labor, or making you apologize to your abuser.

  • Communication of no-win messages like answering questions with, “Because God says,” or, “That’s not for you to question,” or, “You just need to have faith.”

7. Induce Exhaustion

  • Expectation of members to attend services or be on committees that interf