Trigger warning: This section describes authoritarian control, including human trafficking, imprisonment, abuse, and manipulation.

It has long been debated whether or not the church is a cult. I am going to make no claims regarding this, as the topic is loaded with emotion and it does no good.

I will, however, examine the church in the context of authoritarian control. Whether or not the church is a cult, it does use methods and techniques that cults also use to gain authoritarian control over members.

What is the BITE Model?

Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe cults’ specific methods to recruit and maintain control over people. “BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. The BITE model should be used within the Influence Continuum Model to help determine authoritarian control. Not every group or relationship uses every one of these. Some are universal such as deception (Information control), indoctrinating people to distrust critics and former members, or installing phobias to make people afraid of questioning or leaving.1

While many apologetic sources have attempted to argue that the BITE model is not a reliable way to identify authoritarian control, a quick search on Google Scholar shows that the model is frequently cited, especially in the context of identifying cults and mitigating the harm they cause. It is also convenient and tempting to suggest that because the church doesn’t meet every condition in the list, the church is not a cult.

I want to make this clear: I am not suggesting the church is a cult. I am simply using this model to show the amount of authoritarian control that is present in the church. I am writing from my own experience; please consider your own experience in the church in the context of this model to decide for yourself.

In each category, numbered points are sourced from Hassan’s BITE Model, while bullets are my commentary and justification.

Behavior Control

“The church doesn’t control my behavior; it teaches that we all have agency,” I thought before examining my life experience.

Let us consider the BITE model’s list of methods of behavior control and find evidence within the church’s teachings that the church matches this model:

  1. Regulate individual’s physical reality
    • The Sabbath day is to be strictly observed
    • The Word of Wisdom dictates what to eat and drink
    • The church promotes physical reminders they belong to the group:
      • Garments are to be worn at the risk of forfeiting God’s protection (“We are at war! […] This garment, worn day and night, serves three important purposes; it is […] a protective covering for the body”2)
      • CTR rings / Emblems of belonging are given to young children
      • Young Women’s medallions are seen as a symbol of righteousness
      • Members are encouraged to always carry a temple recommend
  2. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
    • Early saints were instructed to move to Zion
    • Children and youth are taught to make righteous friends3
    • Dating couples are not to live together
    • Missionaries have almost no say over schedules and living arrangements
  3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
    • The law of chastity and local leaders’ interpretations thereof dictate exactly how and with whom people ought to have sex
  4. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
    • Especially for young women, modesty is strictly enforced
  5. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
    • Members are instructed on when to fast and what to eat and drink
  6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
    • This is a common experience among missionaries and local leaders
  7. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
    • Members are required to pay tithing and are instructed that God’s blessings depend on their willingness to pay tithing before taking care of their own basic needs
    • If someone fails to pay tithing, they cannot get married or be there for significant family events, including their kids’ weddings
  8. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
    • Strict Sabbath day observance restricts time people have off of work
    • Church activities often take up evenings and weekends
  9. Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
    • Members are required to attend church classes and encouraged to enroll in seminary and institute, in addition to extra activities
    • Personal scripture study is viewed as a commandment
    • Members are instructed never to take counsel from an outsider
  10. Permission required for major decisions
    • The church encourages prayer and fasting before many decisions
    • Marriage and church milestones require leader permission (via a recommend)
  11. Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
    • Church discipline and shame for disobedient members keep behavior in check
    • Righteous members are given leadership roles and are praised by church leaders
    • Families often reward and punish their children based on church policies
    • Youth are awarded for completing religious milestones
  12. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
    • People are asked to leave if they share controversial ideas in church meetings
    • Members are taught there is one right way to think and act
  13. Impose rigid rules and regulations
    • Church rules and policies are to be strictly and exactly obeyed
  14. Threaten harm to family and friends
    • Missionaries are often promised that their families will only be protected if the missionary is obedient
  15. Instill dependency and obedience
    • Many church members feel they depend on and must be exactly obedient to the church
  16. Separation of Families
    • Parents are taught they will never see their unrighteous children after they die unless they repent
  17. Imprisonment
    • Many missionaries have been imprisoned in MTCs (see 1.2 My Story )
  18. Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning, cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
  19. Force individual to rape or be raped
  20. Encourage and engage in corporal punishment
  21. Kidnapping
  22. Beating
  23. Torture
  24. Rape
  25. Murder
    • Thankfully, points 18-25 do not seem to take place in the church at large, though they certainly do within some member families

Information Control

  1. Deception
    1. Deliberately withhold information
      • Remember the talk “To Young Men Only”? When I was a young man, we regularly discussed it in Sunday school. Try to find it on the church’s website.
      • There is no public report of the church’s finances (except what arises through a lawsuit)
      • Church history is thoroughly sanitized before it is taught to general church membership
    2. Distort information to make it more acceptable
      • See the Gospel Topics Essays compared to other academic writing
      • As a missionary, I was told to minimize the commitments a person would make to the church to convince them to convert
    3. Systematically lie to the cult member
      • I was promised a happy mission; I was miserable for two years
      • Members often feel deceived when they are not offered welfare assistance after years of paying tithing and fast offerings
      • The church covers up abuse while teaching that it does everything it can to protect families
  2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
    1. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, media
      • Members have long been taught to avoid seeking truth from the internet or media
      • Missionaries have long been prohibited from reading anything other than designated church-produced literature
    2. Critical information
      • I felt so uncomfortable researching “anti” material
      • Members are taught not to take counsel from anyone who doesn’t believe
    3. Former members
      • Members who have left are not welcome to participate in most church meetings
      • The church has a long history of attempting to discredit “inactives” or “ex-mormons”
    4. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
      • There’s no question the church does everything it can to keep people busy
    5. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
      • This is most common among missionaries. It is sometimes proposed that the church uses standard corporate tracking software on missionary phones. However, I would suggest that employees of other institutions are allowed to have personal devices in addition to work phones. Further, corporations do not intercept and inspect mail that is sent to their employees, but many missions periodically do.
  3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
    1. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
      • The church tightly controls the information that is available on its website and other resources
    2. Control information at different levels and missions within group
      • Most members are not allowed to browse the full church history library, for example
    3. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
      • This has become more challenging since the advent of the internet, but members often only had access to materials approved by church leadership
  4. Encourage spying on other members
    1. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
      • Missionaries are encouraged to monitor their companions and report anything disobedient to the mission president
    2. Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
      • Members are required to confess and are often asked about these thoughts, feelings, and actions
    3. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
      • Members often police each other’s behavior, especially if they see a church leader disobeying a commandment in public
  5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
    • Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
      • The church produces all of these media
    • Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
      • See the Gospel Topics Essays
  6. Unethical use of confession
    1. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
      • At 12 years old, my bishop pulled me out of Sunday School and told me I was expected to serve a mission, told me I needed to obey the law of chastity, and taught me what masturbation was
      • Members are taught that their primary purpose is to have a family, and bishops and other leaders frequently degrade individuals whose lives follow a different course
      • Church leaders have often degraded or behaved inappropriately toward LGBT+ members, teaching they aren’t really gay and that they are listening to Satan
    2. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
      • Bishops set the terms for a person to obtain forgiveness, sometimes including being disallowed to participate in church meetings, take the sacrament, or wear garments
    3. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories
      • Members seeking help with abusive relationships are often gaslit, and abuse is systematically covered up

Thought Control

  1. Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
    1. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
      • Starting around 3 years old, children are taught the Plan of Salvation and are told to recite that they know the church is true
      • Participation in church ceremonies requires kids as young as 12 to indicate they have faith in the godhead, Joseph Smith, and modern church leaders
    2. Instill black and white thinking
      • Members are taught they cannot serve both God and mammon
      • The church teaches that everyone is naturally an enemy to God and that only the church’s teachings are good
    3. Decide between good vs. evil
      • From primary, people are taught to choose the right
      • Members are pressured into thinking about “good, better, best” choices
    4. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
      • Members are encouraged never to take counsel from someone who doesn’t believe (i.e., is an outsider)
      • Non-members and exmormons are considered dangerous to someone’s testimony
  2. Change person’s name and identity
    • People receive a new name in the temple
    • The church focuses on someone’s identity as a child of God
    • Primary children sing “I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”
  3. Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
    • “Think Celestial”
    • “Doubt your doubts”
    • “God hasn’t revealed everything yet”
    • “Lazy learners”
    • “Wheat and tares”
  4. Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts - “Your mind is like a stage in a theater” - Members are taught to sing a hymn to cast out bad thoughts
  5. Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
    • I do not have the academic background to address this point adequately
  6. Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
    • Many people experiencing a faith crisis report feeling gaslit, including myself
  7. Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking, chanting, meditating, praying, speaking in tongues, singing or humming
    • I was taught all of these techniques as a method to deal with “anti-mormon” teachings
  8. Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
    • I was always taught never to criticize a church leader
    • “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith”
  9. Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
    • Leaders speak from God and should not be questioned
    • Those who vote “opposed” are not welcome in church meetings, especially general conferences
  10. Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
    • “Other churches have some truth, but we have the whole thing”
    • Members are encouraged to include in their testimonies some variation on the following: “I know this church is the only true church on the face of the earth”
  11. Instill new “map of reality”
    • Members are taught what reality looks like and are discouraged from considering any other options

Emotional Control

  1. Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
    • I was taught that feeling anything but the spirit was inappropriate
    • Members are taught to carefully control their feelings to create a loving atmosphere
  2. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
    • Homesick missionaries are told to work harder
    • Members are taught to sing a hymn if they are upset or angry
    • The church teaches that studying church-produced resources is the antidote for fear and doubt
  3. Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
    • Church leaders have frequently taught that problems come from unrighteousness or are just a trial to pass through
    • Moroni 10 teaches that despair comes from iniquity
  4. Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
    1. Identity guilt
      • “Would a representative of Jesus Christ do _____?”
    2. You are not living up to your potential
    3. Your family is deficient
      • No family will live up to the church’s expectations
    4. Your past is suspect
      • Members are regularly subjected to “worthiness interviews” in which their past is questioned
      • Baptismal interviews include questions about a person’s past (including a history of abortions or homosexual relationships), even though baptism supposedly clears up someone’s past
    5. Your affiliations are unwise
      • Members are discouraged from affiliating with “outsiders”
    6. Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
      • Members are taught to sacrifice everything for God
    7. Social guilt
      • “We missed you in church this Sunday”
    8. Historical guilt
      • Members are expected to defend a church’s troubling past
  5. Instill fear, such as fear of:
    1. Thinking independently
      • Members are taught that following their own wisdom leads to damnation
    2. The outside world
      • “Be in the world but not of the world”
    3. Enemies
      • The church often mentions that “there are some people who want to tear down your faith”
    4. Losing one’s salvation
      • Even in spite of repentance, “repeat offenders” are warned that God will not be mocked
    5. Leaving or being shunned by the group
      • I have been terrified to tell people I left
    6. Others’ disapproval
      • The church encourages people in testimony meetings and other venues to seek approval from other members
  6. Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
    • I became very good at love bombing then convincing people they were sinners as a missionary
  7. Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
    • Many members feel the need to talk about their flaws during church meetings
  8. Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
    1. No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
      • This is fundamental to the church’s teachings
    2. Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
      • Members are taught they will never see their loved ones after death if they are not sealed and faithful
    3. Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
      • Many people who leave the church experience this
    4. Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
      • I was always taught that people “fell away” from the church because they didn’t try hard enough to be righteous
      • Those who leave are often regarded as lazy and sinful
    5. Threats of harm to ex-member and family
      • Thankfully, all threats are spiritual, but they include damnation and the lack of any opportunity to see loved ones after death
      • Loss of God’s protection

This model, in my opinion, neatly condemns the behavior of the church as authoritarian. It is my personal opinion that a perfect, merciful God would not run His church in this way. Whether or not it shows the church is a cult, I propose that the sheer amount of conditions the church satisfies should at least encourage scrutiny.

  1. Steven Hassan’s BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. (n.d.). Freedom of Mind Resource Center. Retrieved December 18, 2023, from ↩︎

  2. The Temple Garment: ‘An Outward Expression of an Inward Commitment.’ (n.d.). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Retrieved December 18, 2023, from ↩︎

  3. Monson, T. S. (n.d.). How to Choose Good Friends. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Retrieved December 18, 2023, from ↩︎