What is a cult?
There are different types of cults.
Some definitions of a cult are:
A religion regarded as unorthodox.
A religious organization or movement which deviates from the established religious tradition in the community.
Great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work. (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader. Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing. (The Free Dictionary)
In narrower meaning, a cult would be a religious group that denies one of the fundamentals of Biblical truth set forth by the Bible, even if that group continues to claim that they are Christian. Examples today would be Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They say they are Christians but deny the Deity of Christ and that salvation is by grace through faith alone.
One of the distinguishing features of a cult would be those who believe incorrect doctrine.
Some doctrinal aspects a cult would deny would be:
The Deity of Christ
Jesus being God in the flesh
His virgin birth
The physical resurrection of Christ
Salvation by faith alone
There is a danger if a church or group does not conform to established doctrine.
While a church may not be a cult doctrinally it can become a cult socially.
The following deals with some of the aspects of social cults that are taken from different sources.
Some warning signs that a religious group is becoming unsafe:
- Authoritarianism without real accountability from inside or outside the group.
There is great danger when a leader of any group demands complete obedience to their authority. Exercising complete or almost complete control over the will of others is not what the Bible teaches.
1 Peter 5:3 “…nor as being lords over those entrusted to you…” NKJV
The phrase “being lords over” is a Greek verb (in Strong’s) that means: to control or to subjugate (to put down by force or intimidation).
It is true that the people are to submit to the rulers, but that is to be a voluntary submission that holds Jesus Christ as the head of the church (the final say), not some leader, especially if the Bible is not held as final authority or if it is misinterpreted.
- The group’s leader is always right.
No one is always right. If a person always thinks they are right it becomes impossible to engage with them on any subject, specifically, the scriptures. If a belief is formed in the mind that is not according to the Bible, there can never be a change because they are always right.
- No inquiry allowed (investigating the truth taught).
If anyone questions what is taught or would like to discuss the legitimacy of some statement or scripture, that person is labeled rebellious, not able to hear from the Lord, and not submitting to authority.
If truth is taught it should be able to be talked about or defended. Questions should not be viewed as threatening but inquiries that can be a time of learning.
Submission becomes key teaching that demands almost complete, unquestioned trust in the leadership. Leaders are viewed as, apostles, prophets, or special people with a special connection with God who must be totally obeyed.
It does not matter if you disagree, see something different, have insight into a scripture that is taught, or know the scripture is being misinterpreted, you must submit to what is said because the leader said it.
- The group’s leader is the means of knowing the truth or knowing the will of God.
Revelation is progressive which means that no one person has all truth. No one person sees everything, sees the beginning and the end, and no one leader knows the will of God for everyone else, that is for the Lord to reveal His will to the individual.
- There is no appropriate reason to leave the group, former group members are always wrong in leaving.
This is the classic, ‘them and us’ attitude. We are the true church, when you leave you are no longer in the will of God because you should be here in our church. They lean on “they went out from us, but they were not of us” which does not apply to all situations. There can be various reasons that someone leaves a church and it is not always because someone is out of the will of God.
There may be appeals to the group to reach out to those who have left. The thinking is that those who left are not in the will of God, they do not see where they are and need to come back to that specific church or group.
The body of Christ is not limited to one church or group!
- Special knowledge or revelation is held by that group that others do not see or could not understand.
This is called exclusivity, where the ‘group think’ is that they are God’s church and other churches are not as good or do not see what they see. This may not be voiced but they judge others as inferior.
It may be true that some churches have a greater revelation of God’s word because of leaders who have taught and lived by the scriptures, but that does not make them superior. If a group has greater knowledge, they should show it by receiving others outside of their church who have a need for teaching.
This superior attitude is nothing more than spiritual pride. By saying, you do not see what I see and you don’t know what I know, pushes others away and treats them as inferior.
- Increased isolation from those outside the group
This takes place over time as more emphasis is placed on the group itself. What others believe, and other churches do become less relevant because they are not like our church. They see themselves as the true church and other churches, in their thinking, do not see or have the revelation they do.
It is true that the Christian should find a church, be involved in, and be loyal to that church, but that should not be with a superior attitude.
The basis for Amish shunning is that the individual has violated their guidelines for daily living and is shunned by the community. That person is considered outside the flock. One of the scriptures used is,
2 Thess 3:14 “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.”
They do this as a form of discipline to bring about a change of behavior in the individual and to bring them back to confess their sin in front of the congregation. If not, they will be shunned for life.
Some groups practice other forms of shunning. They shun in the form of refusal to speak to someone, be around them or any life event they may have, or just to sever ties with them. This type of shunning can be done for reasons other than sin. For example, if they disagree with leadership or make a decision that is not agreeable to the leader, or they leave that church, they may be shunned. That is much different than Paul telling the Corinthian church not to associate with the brother who is guilty of sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:11).
How do church members become indoctrinated into some belief not found in the Bible?
If the Bible is taught and relied upon as the true source of enlightenment, then there is safety.
When church groups move away from the Bible and center on personal experiences, what a leader believes, or a shift from what the Bible teaches, that puts the group in danger.
Sources on this subject list different ways that cults gain control of those in the group.
- thought reform
Has as its goal control of the people. There may be little reference to Bible text, instead there is a substitute, what the leader says or has experienced.
- keeping members in the dark about decisions or anything related to leadership.
Some leaders think those in the church cannot understand nor need they understand decisions that are made. The leader is the one who knows all and hears from God, so that’s all members need to know.
Remember, the leader is not Moses and the congregation is not the children of Israel.
Once members are isolated from others outside, they begin to feel that the only family they really have are those in the group.
Demands for absolute devotion and submission said or implied. Personal decisions must line up with what the leader believes or else problems will ensue. Critical thinking, if not in line with leaders, will result in accusations of rebellion.
Indoctrination is rarely seen for what it is, rather it is denied.
Are you told not to question what is being taught because the leaders are honest and want the best for you, so you must trust them?
Has someone replaced your own choices in life by their choice for you saying, I know the will of God for you? They may see what you do not, but God does not force His will upon the Christian and neither should a leader.
How to recognize if you are in a cult or a group that has cult tendencies.
Here is a longer list of warning signs that a denomination, church, group, or gathering has become unsafe:
- Isolation, you are encouraged to be around their people and not other Christians
- control, domineering leader
- submission to the leader in everything no matter what
- not to question what is taught
- discourage asking questions of leadership
- special knowledge or have a corner on the truth
- the promise of a higher secret knowledge
- the leader becomes dogmatic ‘scripture is of private interpretation’, theirs
- deviation from the truth of the Bible, substituting personal experience
- leader promotes guilt feelings in members in order to control them
- turning the church into the leader’s personal kingdom
- no legitimate reason for leaving, unless the leader agrees
- shunning former members or encouragement not to speak to former members. This may be said or implied.
- limited contact with former members – they are all out of the will of God, they can corrupt or influence negatively
- asking any questions of former members is discouraged
- defending themselves as always right
- arrogance instead of humility
- members are expected to devote all their time to the group
- putting down other churches or pointing out they are not as good
- attention is given to what they do ignoring what other churches do
- defend and justify all that they do
- they are always right no matter how they treat others
- put down others to make themselves look better
- marriage almost always is encouraged from within the church
- marriage to someone outside the church is rarely or never the will of God in their view
- arranged marriages – the leader chooses who should marry who
- increased isolation from people outside of the church or group
- exiting the church is always difficult
- members are discouraged to grow intellectually, learning is discouraged or opposed
- thinking logically is discouraged as always being of the flesh
- shaming from the pulpit
The important thing to know is not what cults believe, but what the measuring rod, the Bible says. Anything that goes against what the Bible teaches is not from the Lord. Correct exegesis or study of the scriptures is important to find the truth and defend against error.
In summary, churches that move toward being a social cult have certain qualities that become unhealthy:
Submission from the Bible is used but taken to a spiritually unhealthy point. Complete and unquestionable trust in the leader or leaders, to the point where questioning them, puts the individual in a place where they are considered rebellious.
Members are psychologically won over to where they give their trust to the leader for their spiritual decisions, instead of going to the Lord and letting Him direct their life.
Controlling members through indoctrination from the pulpit, using scripture out of context and or said truth that does not apply. Controlling member’s actions through intimidation, shamming from the pulpit, or told they will be cursed if they do not listen.
The group holds to the thought that they have special knowledge, they are the true church, the leaders have special unknown knowledge received by the leaders that others do not or could or understand. Saying, you don’t understand – you do not see what I see.
Those who do not keep with the group’s practices or who have left the church who are considered by the leader as out of step are shunned.
Those in the group are told, or it is implied not to contact or keep company with those who have left the church – they are not in God’s will. Also, minimal contact with those outside the group is encouraged.