By dogcatcher on February 26th, 2012
Ephraimites…Are they a Cult, a Movement or Part of our Orthodox Faith? The title to this article poses a question our Hierarchs and members of the Laity who lead our faith should be asking themselves. The editors of this website, Faith abiding Orthodox Clergy, Monastics unaffiliated with the Ephraimites and the vast majority of our email correspondents have used the term “cult” to characterize the structure, activities and organization of the monastic movement headed by the Elder Ephraim of Florence, Arizona. Certainly, there is no greater disagreement among the Faithful than the term of art used to describe this group, so which is it? Are the Ephraimites a movement, a branch of our traditional Orthodox Faith or, as we believe, are they a destructive cult? Clear thinking is needed to define how this problem relates to the Orthodox and more importantly to those trapped by its negative cultic methods, culture, beliefs and actions. Additionally, an unbiased evaluation is needed to examine the enormous impact the Ephraimites have over lives of its adherents and the innocent who have lost loved ones ensnared by the cult. This article focuses on the structure and organization of the Ephraimites and how they mirror the paths of other cults that have been widely recognized as destructive to its own members, to their families and generally to society around them. Before we discuss how to determine if a group is a cult, below is a typical email sent to us by a member of an affected family. We have redacted some of the information in order to protect the author and his loved ones. It is provided to the reader to offer a counterpoint and reference between the personal experience of a devout Greek Orthodox observer and the dry text of a formal definition of a cult. The reader is invited to reread the e-mail below after finishing the article to decide for yourself how this movement started many years ago and how it operates today. “Dear Sir, I thought I would tell you my family’s story concerning the Ephraimites so that I can finally let go of dark history of my family. We are a Greek family in ………. and we were quite content until my relative [exact relationship redacted] introduced my parents to the Elder Ephraim. My father all of the sudden became somber, strict, never smiled and narrow minded to the extreme as were the rest of the followers of Ephraim around us. Although I was a child then I do remember clearly the darkness of this movement and did my best to avoid it. I remember once I was at my relative’s house where the Elder Ephraim was visiting and they performed this ritual where they washed his feet and then forced me and the other children to wash our faces with the water that had been used to wash his feet. I also remember my brothers buying a ………. [a type of child’s toy redacted] figurine toy for one of their friends and one of the followers of Ephraim grabbed it and threw it out calling it the “devil’s” work. Many similar things happened like this to us and we had no life or happiness. Fortunately, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, the truth was revealed to my father when he noticed that the followers of Ephraim were gaining up on our parish priest (making absurd accusations such as they caught him wearing a Muslim turban) and they were trying take control of our parish all in the name of Ephraim. When my father formally left the group, denounced Ephraim and acclaimed Jesus Christ as his only Lord, my relative and the rest of the Ephraimites in our community lashed out at my father, cursed him, made him an outcast, ridiculing him, including us his children. However the tides have since turned, the Ephraimites never came close to being successful in taking over our Parish and the Greek Orthodox Hierarch of …………. removed Ephraim from ………….. Now the followers of Ephraim in our community are few and scattered and we are much happier, and ever since my father left this cult he has been happier, more open minded, smiles and laughs, and even watches his much loved soccer games which in the past the Elder Ephraim prohibited him from watching. For that I thank the Lord and I am no longer afraid of the curses of a mere monk on our family because he is no match for the Light of Jesus Christ that expels darkness. Sadly our family was not the only one negatively affected by this monk in our community but many others. For instance, my friend’s mother no longer talks or has any contact with her two sons and her grandchildren because they refuse to follow the teachings of Elder Ephraim. I wonder how has this person gotten away from the suffering he has caused through his followers and minions? I greatly fear that when Ephraim dies they will make him into a demigod and cause further division in the Church and cause more suffering as is typical of a cult. Regards, ……………” Definition of a Cult Although several definitions of cults can be found in any dictionary or online search, the basic definition of a cult is clear and includes characteristics which can be destructive to its members. Once you understand the characteristics of a cult you will realize that these same characteristics exist in the Ephraimite movement. This article examines the elements that are needed for a movement or organization to be labeled a cult. Many of the definitions relate to the structure and the belief systems of the cult, and most require a minimum of three conditions to be met. Additional conditions may be present. However, we will discuss in detail the minimum three conditions which are considered necessary for an organization to be labeled cult as opposed to a sect. These three things are: 1. A Charismatic Leader to whom all the members of the group look up to and revere; members sometimes claim this leader has divine knowledge or is blessed or holy. The cult leader is beyond question and requires perfect obedience to his every wish or demand. The leader’s word is the law within the cult or you are out; 2. An Internal Code of Conduct that isolates its members who are in the cult from anyone outside the community, including close friends or family who are not members. The cult is promoted to members as their new family. They are encouraged or pressured to cut off any and all ties to the external community and rely only on the cult for all of their spiritual, social and sometimes physical needs; and 3. An External Boundary is established so that the members of the cult treat and talk to the other members differently than they do with outsiders. The traditional Judaic-Christian values of the group do not necessarily apply to those outside the group, so it is common to bend what is acceptable, e.g., lie to those outside the group. The isolation from influences outside the group protects the cult’s internalized belief system of its members, because they are never exposed to outside critical thinking. In a chapter entitled “What Is a Cult” from A Guide to Cults and New Religions, edited by Ronald Enroth, a recognized authority in the field of cults, and including several essays regarding cults by other experts, (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1983), an additional accepted definition contains supplementary elements which are also characteristics of cults : 1. Authoritarian 2. Oppositional 3. Exclusivist 4. Legalistic 5. Subjective 6. Persecution Conscious 7. Sanction Oriented 8. Esoteric 9. Anti-sacerdotal These supplemental elements will be discussed in a second article on cults and how the Ephraimites fit within this expanded definition of a cult. The second article will further discuss how even more closely aligned the cultist practices are to what social scientists call “destructive cults.” Nevertheless, some of these elements will be subject to a limited discussion in this article for background purposes. Are the Ephraimites a Cult? 1. A Charismatic leader. The leader of the Ephraimite movement is “Elder Ephraim.” His adherents are those people who have accepted the beliefs of the Ephraimites. These adherents consider him a “living saint” and hang on every word that he says; indeed some believe he can levitate and even act as a conduit to heaven. He is charismatic to his followers. They treat his every word as truth, accept his attitude of innocence as saintliness and treat his beliefs as reflecting the “true faith” of the historic Orthodox Church. This places them in direct opposition to our Faith, the Church and how our Faith has been practiced in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. There is no question that at least nominally, the followers of Elder Ephraim see him as a leader beyond measure in his spiritual authority and surpassing all others, even the Patriarch. The most fervent Ephraimites preach that the Patriarch has strayed from the “true faith” and has led his flock away from God’s grace. Our readers tell us over and over again about their Parish Priests and Ephraimite Monastics telling them in conversations things like ….“Who says I believe in the Patriarch”? There are steady criticisms leveled at people or issues they do not control. They see Elder Ephraim is an authoritarian figure so revered that some of his followers will eat the remnants on his plate after he has finished eating. Why is a living human being subject to such reverence? Where is the focus on our one and only Savior Jesus Christ? 2.Isolationist. Monks, by definition and practice are isolationists; they have removed themselves from the world so they can venerate God in peace and tranquility. We Faith abiding Orthodox Christians understand the role of our Monastics is to unceasingly pray for the faithful. The Ephraimites have tried to redefine the role of Monastics and have also attempted to use their influence to create a shadow Church using the infrastructure of the Archdiocese. The Ephraimites do not remove themselves from society as do Monks from other Monasteries. Instead, they continue to try and influence the material world by being spiritual fathers to many of their followers, including members of our Clergy. Nevertheless, for those who are acolytes, and especially younger believers, once they have been welcomed into the monastery life, they are completely isolated from the outside world. They are not allowed to have any information from regular media channels, and are discouraged from contacting anyone outside the monastery, even family members. Indeed some are denied this basic human right. Control, limitation and denial of information is commonly used method to influence people’s outlook and actions. Isolating a person and removing that person from normal life, including a support system of family, friends and independent opinion provide the best foundation for putting a person into a state ready to be indoctrinated into a cult. They are encouraged to suppress any independent thought and to only believe the words of a “prophet,” “living saint,” or cult leader. While isolation from the material world is a key element of Orthodox Monastics, the Ephraimite movement has taken the concept to apply it to all who come within their influence. The way Ephraimites treat isolation has a number of differences that are troubling to many. Many articles posted on this website provide to our readers many obvious examples (see Ruth’s Blog entry or reread the e-mail above). The oppositional schismatic aspects of the Ephraimite movement became evident when they require their followers to attend church on Sunday at the monasteries or at Parishes whose Clergy are Ephraimite followers. They also insist that their followers conduct other services and sacraments (baptisms, funeral) at their monasteries. The Ephraimite movement openly encourages their followers to turn away from their neighborhood Parishes. They tell their adherents that the Church Hierarchy is evil and that they should follow only the Elder Ephraim, and not the Hierarchy and never the “Ecumenical Loving” Patriarch. 3.External boundaries. External boundaries between those who are in the cult and outside of the cult provide an exclusivist group mentality that further isolates the acolytes from their friends and family. The members inside the cult identify only with other members of cult. Cult symbols exist by which members recognize each other. For example, if the Ephraimite is a Priest, his beard or hair will be long. Other signs are the komboskini, the repeated references to the Evil One as the cause of mischief or adversity in the world, and the division of the laity along the lines of “traditional” or “Spiritual” used to identify their own or “nominal”, “country club” or “westernized Orthodox” to describe others. By knowing these terms of art, Ephraimites know whom they can open up to with their unfiltered thoughts. To outsiders, the Ephraimites present only a smiling face. This is an art that is well practiced and fostered by the Ephraimite community. If you are talking to someone who remains with a frozen smile in place no matter what you say, you may be in the presence of one who has already relegated you to the “unbelievers” and who is certain your fate will be with the Evil One in the hereafter. The believers are taught that only those within the group will be saved, and of those only the ones who are unquestionable followers of the word of their Spiritual Leader the Elder Ephraim will be kept in high regard and will be afforded the opportunities to enjoy the fruits of the “Ephraimite Kingdom”. The Ephraimite movement has created a brand new facet of Orthodox theology. Now heaven has its own caste system. An Ephraimite heaven is like getting on a modern ocean liner. You have first class and second class staterooms but you also have “steerage class” (generally defined as the cheapest passenger accommodations on a ship, usually in the area near the rudder and steering gear). Your designated class depends on the level of obedience to your spiritual father, the number of pilgrimages to Ephraimite monasteries and of course how much money you give. One of our Ephraimite Priests in our Metropolis even suggested during his sermon that “giving more alms can insure a higher place in heaven”. This is a perversion of our Faith. Unfortunately for our Faith, most of us are unaware that is it a perversion since our Hierarchs fail to issue any writings addressing Ephraimite teachings and proclaiming the faith. One manifestation of this group’s exclusivity is to shun anyone who is not a “true believer” because to associate with non-group members would invite pollution of the spiritual well being of the individual who opens himself or herself to ideas from outside the group. Thus a cohesive and self-defining group of individuals keep the door closed to all but those who enter through a prescribed way. Their resolve and commitment as well as their suitability to become acolytes must pass their entrance exam. The editors of this website have documented numerous instances of people who have become so deeply spellbound by the Ephraimites and what they stand for that they have walked away from their lives to join monasteries because they see this as the ultimate road to their and their families’ salvation, and as said by some for the “salvation of 7 generations of my family in both directions.” As stated earlier, some of the manifestations of accepting their brand of faith include separation of families, mind manipulation, and other cultist acts. Our Editors have interviewed several people who can testify to the results of those who have become enmeshed in the Ephraimite world and who have left that world and have consented to talk about it. Several of these first hand accounts can be seen on this website’s links. For a case in point, read Ruth’s blog for an example of distortion of our faith being spoon fed to the vulnerable. Ruth quickly found out that once she became a Novice Nun at an Ephraimite Monastery, complete submission was required to the abbess and to the adherent’s spiritual father, and all further independent thought was discouraged. The boundary between the adherents who are susceptible to the Ephraimite beliefs, that they are the only route to salvation for them and for seven generations of their families in either direction, as opposed to the outside community, can be very abrupt and difficult to break. The Novice is held in isolation and away from family, friends, acquaintances, and others who can provide a different perspective than that provided by the fanatic Ephraimites that encircle the novice. After continual bombardment with the same ideas, and after hard physical and mental strain, it is difficult to think straight, and even more difficult to think against the grain and go against the very people who you see as providing for your salvation. Thus, the universe of these people who are new to the monastic life quickly becomes very limiting in their thoughts and actions. It is difficult to have any thoughts of your own, or to have any contrary thoughts that perhaps this lifestyle is contrary to your physical, emotional or spiritual well being. Avoiding the Trap How do you prevent yourself from getting into this kind of mental trap? A good initial question is to ask is how this group (cult) impacts my health, wealth, and/or personal relationships. If you find that you are always sacrificing yourself for the demands and wishes of others, and denying yourself the basic minimum of a healthy diet, normal sleeping hours, a healthy emotional life and healthy exposure to ideas outside the cult, you have to start asking yourself why I am continuing this abuse. Is it possible to test the ideas of the “spiritual father” with a “reality check” by open discussion with non-members of the cult? Does your “spiritual father” take an inordinate interest in the details of your sexual life and actions? We have interviewed many victims who have been asked only by Ephraimite Priests specific questions about their sexual activities during their confession or during pre-marital counseling sessions. This is a tactic used to create guilt and gain control over individuals and families. If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, then the answer is obvious, you must leave this group. Ultimately, a cult is an organization that feeds off its members’ contributions. However, if all the privations and deprivations are against the impressionable adherents who are being courted to accept the Ephraimite monastic or spiritual life, and all the benefits flow to the leaders, than you must ask yourself: Is the Ephraimite spiritual life I am seeking in the best interests of myself? If the answer is no, please take the time to reach out to others, family members, good friends and anyone else OUTSIDE the group who you trusted before, and ask them for A REALITY CHECK. Is this the right thing for you? Ask yourself, why I cannot talk to my Parish Priest if this is a good idea to devote myself to a monastic lifestyle while I live in the world. If the Ephraimite life is such a good idea, why am I not allowed to discuss it with my family and friends, so they too can see the light and be brought into the fold? These are legitimate questions which require answers before you make a decision that will affect your life as drastically as almost any other.