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What is a Cult, and How Might We Know?

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The existence and influence of religious cults is not something of by-gone days. They still exist today and continue to exert a nefarious influence on many. But what is a cult? Often we answer that question by pointing to virtually any religious body, group, or sect that differs from us on some point of doctrine. But that is profoundly unhelpful, and horribly divisive.

Several definitions of a cult are available to us by those who’ve studied them far more deeply than I have. For example:

“By ‘cult’, we mean a group, religious in nature, which surrounds a leader or a group of teachings which either denies or misinterprets biblical doctrine” (Walter Martin, The New Cults, 16).

“A cult is simply any religious movement that is organizationally distinct and has doctrines and/or practices that contradict those of the Scriptures as interpreted by traditional Christianity as represented by the major Catholic and Protestant denominations, and as expressed in such statements as the Apostles’ Creed” (James Sire, Scripture Twisting, 20).

It seems that defining the word “cult” is like defining the word “pornography.” You can’t quite put it into words, but you know it when you see it! Perhaps the safest approach is to say that a cult is a religious movement or organization that differs sufficiently from historic Protestant orthodoxy as to constitute it non-Christian.

It’s important from the start that we distinguish between a “cult” and a “sect.” A sect is a religious movement that differs from historic Protestant orthodoxy, but not to the degree that we would classify it as non-Christian. A sect, then, is more accurately defined as a movement formed in protest against another religious group for the purpose of preserving what they believe is a purer form of the traditional faith.

What follows are the fundamental characteristics of a cult. These features are not found exclusively in cults, but may appear in varying degrees in orthodox Christian churches. No single cult embodies all of these characteristics, but all cults are known for at least one or more, the most important of which is the tenth, or last.

First, a cult is at its core a religion. There are numerous non-religious movements or philosophies that are more socio-economic and political in nature. Of course, the issue is what one means by the word “religion.” Many have identified the essence of a “religion” as any movement or organization that is identified by its (1) ultimate concern; (2) its belief in a spiritual dimension to reality; and (3) a degree of belief in some form or expression of “god” or “gods.”

Second, although all cults are religions, not all religions are cults. Traditional, non-Christian religions such as Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. are antithetical to the fundamental beliefs of historic orthodox Protestantism, but we should not use the word “cult” to describe them.

Third, most, if not all cults are established by and focus on a single, extremely charismatic and magnetic, authoritarian leader. This individual typically will claim to have been the recipient of a special revelation from “god” who has endowed the leader with unique insights and authoritative spiritual and moral power. It isn’t uncommon for such cult leaders to make a claim for divinity.

Fourth, most cults will appeal to some form of special, written revelation, with a corresponding claim to have extraordinary insights that are not available to outsiders. In other words, most cults have their own “inspired Scripture” other than the Bible. Anthony Hoekema makes this important observation:

“Since, in distinction from non-Christian religions, they claim to be Christian groups, they must somehow appeal to the authority of the Bible. Yet in order to justify their peculiar doctrines they must either correct Scripture, reinterpret Scripture, or add other sources of authority to Scripture. Their attitude toward Scripture is therefore always an ambivalent one: a mixture of apparent subjection to its authority and of arbitrary manipulation of its teachings” (The Four Major Cults, 378).

Fifth, there is often a great deal of flux or change in the basic beliefs of a cult. As the cult and its leader feel the need to adapt to developments within its ranks and to allow for what many would claim is “new light”, they will build upon or even repudiate earlier teachings.

Sixth, in most cults there are rigid standards of membership and discipleship. Those who might deviate from or resist the requirements set forth by the leader are either severely disciplined or excommunicated. Some of these requirements are unconditional loyalty, the turning over of one’s financial assets and property to the cult and/or its leader, a strict and often austere dress code, a commitment to missionary outreach and the recruitment of new members, and often times sexual manipulation and slavery.

Seventh, experts in cultic behavior point out that most of these groups are intensely evangelistic. There is always a need for more money which, when obtained, serves to confirm that “god’s” blessings and favor are on the leader. In fact, in many cases one’s “salvation” is dependent upon the degree to which they are successful in recruiting new members.

Eighth, almost all who have studied cultic behavior point to what may be called the principle of “restoration.” There is often a claim by the cult to have recovered or restored long-lost truths that have been deliberately obscured by traditional religious groups. Closely linked to this concept are the following features.

(1) A spirit of exclusivity. In other words, the members of a cult are indoctrinated to believe that this particular group is unique, special, perhaps the “only” true people of “god.” All outsiders are branded as either spiritually naïve or demonically blinded.

(2) There is almost always an emphasis on eschatology in the sense that the group is told the end is near and urgent action is called for. In this way the leader can motivate greater giving, deeper loyalty, and fear of the broader society. Again, Hoekema is helpful:

“The cult is convinced that it has been called into existence by God for the purpose of filling in some gap in the truth which has been neglected by the ordinary churches. The birth of the cult thus marks the final climax of sacred history, the beginning of the latter days. Eschatology thus plays a determinative role in the theology of the cult: it becomes the arena in which the glorification of the cult will complete itself. The cult is therefore the messenger and way-preparer for the imminent return of Christ; it is God’s partner in the drama of the end-time; it is the ark of safety for the coming flood; it is the instrument of divine judgment on unbelievers; it shall finally triumph in the sight of all the world as the group particularly favored by God” (385-86).

(3) Another element of the restoration principle is the presence of a martyr complex, especially on the part of the leader. He/she builds loyalty in the members by insisting that opposition is simply a sign that he/she is the only bearer and interpreter of truth. We are opposed because we are right.

(4) There is also a tendency toward perfectionism in many, but not all cults. Rigorous standards of conduct are imposed, although the leader is in many cases personally exempt from the rules that others must follow.

(5) Then there is also the emphasis on novelty. Cult leaders strongly emphasize the fact that they are the special recipients of something new and unprecedented that no one else has possessed the wisdom and power to discern.

Ninth, it is often the case that in cults the same vocabulary is used that we find in historic orthodoxy, but with different and heretical definitions. In this way the cult can appear to the undiscerning public that it is simply a mainstream and more purified expression of what people have always believed, when in fact it is a serious deviation.

Tenth, and finally, essential to every cult, indeed, that which constitutes it as a cult rather than a sect, is a denial of one or many of the foundational truths of historic Christian orthodoxy. It may well be that the denial of one particular biblical truth forms the core identity of the cult.

By “foundational truths” I mean those doctrines without which one cannot be a Christian. Those would include, but not necessarily be restricted to, such doctrines as the Trinity, the incarnation of the Son of God, the deity of Christ, his sinless life, substitutionary atoning death, and bodily resurrection. Other foundational doctrines would likely include the reality of Christ’s personal, physical return at the end of history, and salvation by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. Needless to say, there are slight variations of these doctrines that often differentiate and identify certain Protestant denominations. One must always be careful before denouncing someone as cultic or as heretical. The latter term should be applied only to those who deny a doctrine that most concur is a belief essential for personal salvation.

The existence and appeal of cults can be traced to many factors, such as:

Disillusionment with denominational Christianity or its institutional and organizational structure. Either the legalism or licentiousness of a church or denomination is cited to justify the existence of a cult.

A search for personal identity; a burning desire to know why one exists and how one might make a difference in the world that they find lacking in traditional religions.

Often times the cult makes promises of bringing political, social, cultural, and economic change that traditional religions do not.

Many join a cult to escape what they perceive to be the excessively scientific and mechanical nature of contemporary life. This may take one of two forms. Either they long to experience something more spiritual, or, at the other extreme, something more native, natural, and less complicated.

The reality of fear and anxiety over the condition of society as a whole and the belief that this is assuredly the last generation of human existence can add to the appeal of some cults. “The world is coming to an end” refrain is often heard and serves to motivate many to join what they are led to believe is the only surviving remnant on earth.

Then, of course, there is Satanic deception. The enemy is always committed to undermining the truth and credibility of biblical Christianity, and in the minds of many, has done precisely that. The true and only legitimate worldview is found in the cult and its leader. This hunger for philosophical and theological coherence in all our attempts to make sense of the world leads many to join those cults that have a blueprint for human existence and an understanding of what life will be like on the other side of the grave.

There is, I am sure, much more that could be said about the nature of cults, but I trust this will give us a basic understanding of their appeal and influence.

1 Comment

Thanks Sam. Will there be a follow up post, that names names?

By some of these attributes, I think it is safe to say that many folks who have stayed in the old, so called mainline denominations,(Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist...) have found themselves members of a cult. They may not be cultists themselves but their church has transformed into a cult.

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