“My pastor said last week in a sermon that the church my friend goes to is a cult. I’m so worried now! What if they all kill themselves?”
“I bought a book at the Christian book store the other day that tells all about cults, and I’ve been reading it. I was concerned that maybe the group that my aunt was getting into is a cult. She is so secretive about their meetings, she hardly talks to family members any more, and she is giving so much money to them that she can barely afford her rent. But I guess they must not really be a cult. I’ve read some of their booklets, and they teach the same basic doctrines as my church. The book I bought says that you can tell if a group is a cult by whether what they teach lines up with Bible doctrines.”
“My brother told me the other day that he was worried that I’m getting involved in a cult because I’ve been getting a lot of literature from a television ministry that teaches some unusual things you don’t learn at the church my family has been going to since I was a kid. But my brother is wrong—he needs to see all the wonderful good works this ministry does, feeding the homeless, helping crack addicts, taking the Gospel into prisons!”
“My church friend who has been going to the same congregation with me for five years up and left the church last week! She says that the pastor has turned into a cult leader or something. That’s nonsense. He knows more about the Bible than anybody I’ve ever seen, and really feeds us deep truths in his sermons.”
All these comments by concerned relatives and friends are based on confusion regarding the word cult. Have you been confused by all the hype that surrounds this word? This article may help you to clear your head.
Back to Basics
The first thing that may be helpful to understand is that the word cult doesn’t even have a specifically religious meaning at all. In a broader “dictionary-style” sense:A Cult is a Group of People who share an intense dedication to a particular individual or belief system.
This simple definition of cult can be applied to almost any type of group, whether focused on a religious belief system or not. In fact, it would obviously have even applied to the disciples of Jesus in the first century, who shared an intense dedication to Him and his teachings.
Until the second half of the 20th century, the word was seldom heard outside of the academic world. Historians would use it to label aspects of ancient societies, such as the “Cult (or Latin cultus) of the Emperor” in Rome. Sociologists would use it, sometimes interchangeably with the word “sect,” to indicate a small religious group outside the mainstream of “historical Christianity.” A few decades ago, one might even hear it used humorously to describe the fanatic devotion of some admirers of entertainers, such as the “Cult of Elvis.”
However, all that changed in November 1978 when over 900 followers (including children) of a religious leader named Jim Jones died in a mass suicide—and murder of the children—at Jones’ command in their religious compound in Jonestown, Guyana. In reports of this startling situation, Jones’ group was often referred to in the media as a cult. The grisly images of the death scene on international television and in print news left an indelible impression on most who saw them. From that point on, the public became more and more familiar with the word cult, as it was frequently used in the media to describe unconventional religious groups.
Although the original word has no specific negative connotation to it, its common use now in our society carries the negative baggage of the Jonestown massacre and numerous other subsequent troubling incidents connected to the activities of unconventional religious groups. One such was another mass suicide of 39 adults in 1997 involving a non-Christian group calling itself “Heaven’s Gate.” Although not as many individuals were involved, the circumstances of the deaths were so bizarre that reporting on this event also dominated the news for quite some time.
This has led to much confusion in the general population over the use of the word cult, because a variety of different groups have adapted the term to their own specific use. And they are not all referring to a group of people being led by a megalomaniacal leader like Jim Jones.
Secular use of the term Cult
To the average secular—perhaps atheist or agnostic—observer or reporter, the bickerings among Christian teachers and groups over doctrines, methods, and styles of authority may seem silly. Not wishing to get into any debate over these “in-house” differences, their concern about religious cults is limited in most cases to those popularly believed to be actually physically dangerous to themselves or others. A group which is alleged to be involved in child physical or sexual abuse, or to be in danger of mass suicide within the group, or whose teachings (such as perhaps racial hatred) may possibly lead to physical harm to outsiders, is viewed with alarm, and may thus be labeled a cult.
Religious use of the term Cult
Many religious writers and theologians use the term cult in a very specific way, which has a shared understanding in their own circles, but may be very misleading to those outside those circles. Under their definition, any group which deviates in even a minor way from a doctrinal “orthodoxy” to which they subscribe may be labeled a cult. In some religious settings this may be defined quite loosely, taking in mostly a minimum standard of “historical orthodoxy” expressed in ancient Christian statements of belief such as that in the “Nicene Creed.” In other religious settings the definition may be much more narrow, requiring more agreement with a detailed list of beliefs considered crucial.
Psychological/Sociological use of the term Cult
An increasing number of authors, both religious and secular, have tended to use the term cult—or, more specifically, “abusive cult” or “unhealthy cult“—to describe groups which they believe to have teachings and practices that present a real threat to the spiritual, mental, emotional—and perhaps even physical —well-being of those involved.
There is really no use in attempting to avoid use of the word, as it is so pervasive in our society now. Nor is there a need to insist that it must be completely confined to its totally neutral definition as mentioned above. The reality is that it is no longer a neutral word. We may as well use it, but carefully define it in the context in which we choose to communicate.
For the purposes of the rest of this article, a modern religious cult will be defined as a group of people established by one leader or a small group of leaders, to whom they are intensely dedicated and obedient, and who have such a significantly unique set of beliefs that they are cut off from religious fellowship with all others outside their own group.
You will note that this definition does not address specific doctrinal issues at all. If you have concerns about the doctrinal orthodoxy of a specific group compared to your own religious affiliation, it would be best to consult someone knowledgeable about such matters. But the reality is that many groups and teachers who can honestly pledge conformity to a standard of “historical orthodoxy” may, nonetheless, present a real threat to the spiritual, mental, emotional, and sometimes physical well-being of those who come under their influence. Such groups and teachers may be this type of threat even if they do all sorts of “good works” of a charitable nature. And they can be this type of threat even if their leaders seem exceptionally knowledgeable about the Bible.
Given the definition above of modern religious cults, the following observations may be helpful when evaluating the potential for serious harm of any given such cult. (These observations include reference to the words New Age and occult. Click on those words in the sentences below to go to a definition in the footnotes to this article.)
Religious cults frequently:
- Are started by one very persuasive teacher/leader.
- Have a tightly organized and restricted membership.
- Are convinced they have the only acceptable way of life.
Many religious cults do not:
- Have any occult or New Age connections or beliefs.
- Have radical or violent tendencies.
- Use “brain washing” to get or keep members.
Some religious cults may:
- Rely on fear to keep members in line.
- Rely on isolation to keep members away from other teachings.
- Use Christian terminology, but be unbiblical in their definitions.
- Disguise their actual teachings when dealing with the public.
So considering these factors, how do you evaluate whether you or a friend or loved one might be involved in a group which could literally present a serious danger to well-being? The key to evaluating this is considering carefully the tactics and practices leaders and groups use to get and keep followers. There really are some solid signs that a religious group or teacher is attracting and keeping followers through humanly coercive methods, rather than through biblical methods blessed by God, and through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. If a few, some, many, or all of the factors below seem to apply to a group you are involved with, or considering involvement with, you can save yourself a lot of grief by facing reality and taking steps to get free now. If you choose to remain in irrational denial, you may find some day that you wasted much of your life in bondage to mere men rather than in true service to God.
Signs of trouble
Does the group or leader:
- Demand the exclusive loyalty of followers?
- Condemn any serious questioning of the integrity of the leadership, even if followers have access to strong evidence of irregularities in matters of finance, morals, or ethics?
- Condemn any serious questioning of the policies or tactics of the leadership, even when such policies or tactics have been clearly shown to lead to emotional, mental, spiritual, or perhaps even physical suffering of followers?
- Forbid anyone with even minor questions or concerns about the leadership from expressing them to others in the group?
- Insist any questioning of the leadership is tantamount to questioning God, and is an affront to Him personally?
- Twist scriptures regarding authority, particularly in the Old Testament (e.g., “the rebellion of Korah”), to make it appear that there is a direct correlation to contemporary circumstances, and that God’s wrath will be felt once again by those who reject authority within the group?
- Make grandiose claims to such biblical roles as prophet or apostle, with nothing more than self-aggrandizement to establish the validity of such claims?
- Make grandiose, unsubstantiated claims to have “restored truths lost to the world for 1900 years”?
- Insist that the average person is unable to understand the Bible through independent study, but instead should rely entirely on the interpretations and explanations of the leader or group?
- Make extremely excessive demands on the time and financial resources of followers, to the point of physical or financial exhaustion?
- Insist or strongly imply that there is a direct correlation between financial contributions to the group and God’s blessings and protection on the donor?
- Threaten that God will withhold blessings from—or perhaps even inflict His wrath upon—those who resist the leader’s or group’s demand for sacrificial giving beyond even the “prescribed” amount (such as the tithe)?
- Forbid or strongly discourage followers from reading or listening to any material produced by any outside religious source?
- Encourage or demand that followers seriously reduce, or cut off entirely, relationships with family members outside the group?
- Discourage or forbid the development of relationships with friends who are not part of the group?
- Make decisions to expel members through a secret process not open to the observation of the average member?
- Encourage or demand that followers cut off all contact with former group members, even though such ex-members have not been found guilty of, or even publicly charged with, any flagrant violation of biblical standards of morality or ethics?
Few groups display all the characteristics above. If someone suddenly realized that the group they were involved with did have all of these characteristics, I would recommend that they run, not walk, to the nearest exit, and never look back!
But even if one recognized only two or three of these problem areas in a group, that should raise some very bright red flags. Quite frequently, new followers do not realize that many more of these conditions may exist within a group than are obvious on the surface. Only as they become more deeply involved than just getting some literature, or visiting group meetings a few times, will the “rest of the story” become clear. The time to look for danger signals is before one has invested so much time, effort, emotions, and resources into involvement that it becomes almost impossible to disengage without significant trauma. The truth of the Bible will remain the truth, and remain accessible to sincere believers, even if they find they must withdraw from affiliation with the person or group that first pointed out that truth to them.
There are no scriptures that put anyone into bondage to a human group or a human leader, no matter how persuasively some groups or teachers may have tried to convince their followers that there are.
The Occult is the collection of beliefs and practices that are based on the idea that there is a supernatural world that Man can tap into in order to control the environment or other people through secret, special knowledge and rituals.
New Age is an adjective that describes the collection of beliefs and practices that are based on the idea that Mankind is about to enter into a “new age”of peace, prosperity, and spiritual enlightenmentbrought about by Man’s own efforts to change himself.
Pam Dewey has been doing research on modern religious movements for over two decades. Her Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion website provides details on the history, teachings, practices, and tactics of a wide variety of religious groups, leaders, and teachers of the past 150 years. A companion book by the same title, published in 2005, gives an overview of the changes in the religious scene in America of the past fifty years and shares concerns about the direction such changes are taking us. This article was adapted from material in the book and on the website.
The Field Guide website is available at the following web address;