What is a Cult? The Characteristics of a Cult
Cults are everywhere and they exist all over the world. A cult can exist in different forms. For example there are religious cults, political cults, sex cults, new age cults and many more.
Some groups are extreme and abusive cults, while others are very subtle and deceptive cults. Some cults are widely accepted and mainstream, while other cults prefer to be isolated from the general public.
However, the most important thing to understand about most cults is that there is a major element or culture of lying, deception, manipulation and control. Cult leaders or the group leaders will excessively or subtly deceive, brainwash and control their members.
The context of this article is specifically related to defining religious cults that are of a pseudo-Christian nature.
Since there is an overwhelming number of religious groups existing all over the world, it’s important for people to know and understand the difference between a legitimate Christian group and a religious or pseudo-Christian cult.
WHAT IS A CULT?
What is a cult? In the Christian context, a cult is a religious group that either subtly or blatantly denies or distorts one or more of the fundamentals or essentials of Biblical doctrine. Most religious cults are also known for exercising manipulative mind control techniques in order to brainwash or control the lives of their followers.
Therefore when understanding the characteristics of a cult, it is important to understand that a religious cult has 2 natures that govern how the group operates.
The two natures / aspects of a cult are the following:
1. The Doctrines / Beliefs of the Cult
2. The Group Dynamics of the Cult
A cult’s doctrines / beliefs and its resulting group dynamics are usually interrelated as these natures are like 2 sides of the same coin.
1. THE DOCTRINES / BELIEFS OF THE CULT
Every cult either denies or distorts the fundamentals or essentials of Biblical doctrine. For example, a cult may deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Some cults may deny salvation through faith alone and instead teach a works-based salvation. Other cults may distort the Biblical view of grace and instead they will teach a perverted type of greater grace / hyper-grace which is sometimes called antinomianism.
At their core, the doctrines of these groups creates a false concept of God and causes the followers to believe in a false gospel and to follow after a false christ (2 Corinthians 11:4). Furthermore, the doctrines of a cult can lead to false conversions or false believers (Matthew 7:21-23).
In 2 Corinthians 11:4, Paul says: For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.
In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Therefore there are many religious cults which claim to be Christian and may teach from the Bible, but yet because of their false doctrines and beliefs, these groups have created false believers who believe in their false gospels.
Therefore in the Christian context, a cult denies or distorts one or more of the fundamentals of the Christian faith by promoting the group’s own false doctrines and religious traditions above the truth of the Bible. Such groups are likely to prevent the genuine conversion of their followers. The nature of a cult is such that if the false doctrines of the group are believed, it will cause many of their followers to remain unsaved or to be under the deception that they are saved when the Biblical reality is that the members are not truly born again. Hence Jesus emphasizing that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21-23).
Examples of mainstream or well-known religious groups that claim to be Christian but are actually cults are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons (Latter Day Saints) or the Moonies.
These religious groups and many more are known for preaching a different gospel, a different Jesus and they are under the influence of a different spirit (2 Corinthians 11:4).
Their teachings deny the essentials of the Christian faith and put emphasis on the doctrines and traditions of the group rather than on the true interpretation of the Bible.
(read Are The Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?); (read What Do The Mormons Believe?)
However, besides well-known groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, there has been a fast-paced growth for several decades of a different breed of pseudo-Christian groups that teach a variety of false gospels and heretic doctrines. For example, such false gospels / doctrines include the prosperity gospel, seed-faith teachings, hyper-grace / antinomianism, spiritual covering doctrines and word of faith theology and New Apostolic Reformation teachings. Many cultic groups especially within developing countries are also in the habit of deceiving followers through the selling of “anointing oil” and various “anointed” objects for cash.
Many of these groups, whose leaders have become extremely wealthy due to their false teachings, have either become cultic in nature or have over the years evolved into full-blown cults that have distorted the true gospel of Jesus Christ and Biblical Christianity.
In 2 Timothy 3:13 Paul speaks of evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
In Matthew 7:15 Jesus said that we should “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
2 Corinthians 11:13-15 says For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
Ultimately a group becomes a cult simply because it denies or distorts the essentials of the Christian faith and the group’s false doctrines & traditions are promoted by its false teachers above the truth of God’s word.
2. THE GROUP DYNAMICS OF THE CULT
Group dynamics refers to the interactions or system of behaviours that occur within a cult and influences the attitudes and behaviours of the followers / members.
The Bible speaks concerning the negative effects of our social and spiritual associations. It says that “bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33) and therefore the consequence of being a member of a cult will psychologically and spiritually influence the members in a negative and ungodly way. Members may become morally, spiritually and also psychologically corrupted because of the social system and cultic methods that may exist within the group.
In most cases the cult leader is a narcissist who seeks to intimately control the lives and decisions of his followers for his own personal gain. Therefore control and dominance is a very big thing within a cult.
Some of the group behaviours or characteristics of most cults are as follows:
A) The Cult Leader is a “little christ” – In a cult, the focus shifts to a man and not to the Biblical Christ. In a cult, the cult leader can be a dead person. For example in groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons and many other groups, the heretical teachings of the founders of these groups are still believed and practiced by the members long after the founders / leaders have died. Therefore the founder of the cult is extremely revered and adored by the cult members as if he/she were a type of deity.
The founder can be either dead or alive, but his heretical teachings will remain as foundational doctrine to the members and to the overall function of the group.
Followers perceive their leader as a “spiritual father”, “God’s man”, “God’s anointed”, “God’s apostle”, “God’s prophet”, “God’s special messenger” or a type of “christ”.
If an outsider were to speak or comment negatively about the group’s leader or even the cult itself, the members are likely to get very upset and even vindictive for being against their leader or the group.
Therefore the cult leader, whether dead or alive, is revered by the members as one who stands as a human deity for the group – or as spiritual mediator on behalf of his group. (read 12 Characteristics of a Cult Leader).
B) Authoritarian Leadership – A cult leader will teach and enforce false doctrines such as spiritual covering theology or use various submission and fear techniques to influence their members to submit to them and their control. A culture of legalism is also introduced in the group.
The leader demands total submission and unquestioned obedience from members even when there is a conflict with the scriptures. The leader claims to be a “spiritual covering” or a “spiritual father” over his members. The “touch not my anointed” phrase is used to subdue members. Therefore the leader can never be challenged; he is always right and no one should correct, judge or criticize him or else they will encounter curses or the wrath of God for “touching the anointed”.
In the authoritarian system of a cult the members are always under pressure to please the group leader and to gain the leader’s approval rather than God. The members also fear to disappoint the leader rather than God because in the cultic system the leader and God are perceived to be one. As a result the members fear opposing or criticizing their leader even in situations where it is Biblically justified because they are falsely warned of inviting a curse from God if they disagree with their leader. (read Who Is Your Spiritual Covering? Is It Biblical?)
C) Group Over Individual – The group’s goals, objectives and purpose supersede the individual’s needs, concerns and aspirations. Therefore the group always comes first. To say “no” to the group is to say “no” to God or to the group’s leader, which is considered to be unacceptable. Members can be persuaded to deny or forsake their friends, family and even job for the sake of the group agenda or group goals.
Members lose or shed their original personality / individuality and take on a cultic personality or the personality of the group or the group leader.
Therefore there is always a psychological and emotional pressure by individual members to please the group and its leader. Fear, guilt, love bombing, and other forms of emotional manipulation is also used to coerce and control members.
D) Critical Thinking Not Allowed – The cult leader is the exclusive means by which the “truth” is revealed or taught. Therefore members will often quote the leader or reference the leader’s teachings instead of referencing Bible scripture or Biblical truth. To the members, the teachings of the cult leader on particular issues are more accurate than what the Bible actually says about those particular issues. The group leader’s teachings must not be questioned.
Therefore members lack critical or independent thinking regarding many topics that are taught within the group.
Members become a clone of their leader and will often channel their group leader’s characteristics through mimicking / imitating the leader’s personality and traits. Members will often quote the leader’s phrases or talking points almost word-for-word and use loaded language to promote or defend the group.
Members are also spoon-fed spiritually instead of learning to be Bereans (Acts 17:10-11) or to think for themselves because the group leader is believed to be infallible or always right.
E) Us versus Them Mentality – Anyone who is outside the group is either viewed as inferior or as an enemy. Cults often have a superiority complex because they believe that it is the group alone that has special knowledge and revelation whilst other religious groups or individuals are perceived as lacking the special revelation or knowledge that the group has.
F) It Is Difficult For Members to Leave the Group – In a cult there is great spiritual bondage which is caused by fear and manipulation. Therefore members are threatened with spiritual, emotional and even physical punishment if they consider leaving the group. Members may want to leave the group but they fear retaliation or harassment from the group leaders or the other members. Members may also be told that if they leave the group they may face curses from God.
Members also fear being unable to cope with life outside of the group. They question themselves if there is any group that is “better” or they fear joining another abusive group.
G) Sexual Exploitation of Members – In a cult, the leaders have a culture of sexual promiscuity and abuse. Therefore a leader will commit sexual immorality with many members within the group. Sex is used as a form of initiation and power over members. This exists because of the amount of spiritual and psychological control that the leader may have over individual members. (read How Cult Leaders Use Sex to Control Followers and 4 Causes of Sexual Misconduct by Church Leaders)
H) A Culture of Lying & Deception – Many members in a cult are taught to lie or deceive on behalf of the group. Cult members are taught to behave unethically as long as it is in the best interests of the group. Therefore in a cult, the end justifies the means. In a cult, lying and deception is not a sin if it is for the “good” of the group and its leader.
There is also a culture of deception among the group members themselves where they may spy on each other and report back to the group leader.
A new member cannot know or understand the true and dark nature of the group until he/she has been either properly indoctrinated, brainwashed or initiated.
Therefore manipulation, deception, brainwashing and coercive techniques are consistently used in order to manage and control a member’s decisions and behaviour.
I) Financial Exploitation of Members – Leaders may use various manipulation and coercive techniques to financially exploit their followers for their own monetary or personal gain. Unbiblical doctrines and techniques are introduced to deceive followers out of their money for the purposes of enriching the group leaders (read What Does The Prosperity Gospel Teach) , (read Seed-faith teachings).
J) Salvation Can Only Be Experienced / Achieved Through The Group – Anyone who is not part of the group is either lost or not saved. Anyone who leaves the group has lost his salvation. Therefore it is common that most cults are obsessed with deceptively recruiting followers into the group because they believe that joining their group is the pathway to salvation.
K) Isolation of Members From Family or Anyone Who Is Likely to Expose The Group – Many cults do not respect marriage nor the family unit. If a member joins, they are likely to isolate that particular member from his/her family so that they may effectively control the individual’s life. Some cults or cult leaders will separate marriages and destroy relationships between parents and children.
Members are also trained to avoid or smear people who may expose the group’s true nature especially family or ex-members.
L) A Culture of Double Standards – There are standards or rules that are applied unfairly where some are expected to achieve or follow but other people are not. Therefore a culture of hypocrisy is very rife in a cult, especially among group leaders.
What Can Christians Do?
Cults are very controlling and very deceptive groups by nature. They employ different manipulative and coercive techniques to brainwash their members. They cause their members to live in spiritual bondage and they spiritually and psychologically destroy or corrupt the lives of their followers.
Quite often, the last people to know that a group is a cult are the cult members themselves. More often it is those who are not part of the cult who can easily discern a particular group’s aberrant doctrines and abnormal behaviour whilst the members themselves are either unaware or totally deceived about the group’s true dark nature and beliefs.
As Christians we should always pray for people who are involved in a cult and seek to minister to them the true gospel of Jesus Christ whilst exposing any false doctrines that may be detrimental to the salvation of many people.
In Matthew 15:3 when Jesus asked the question: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” , Christ knew that there were people who had no interest in obeying the true Scriptures, but instead many people preferred to follow their religious and legalistic traditions than to follow the authentic word of God.
Matthew 23:1-39 is one of the major chapters in the Bible where Jesus dealt with the hypocritical and cultic nature of the Pharisees who sought to exploit and abuse their followers through false teachings and for the purposes of gaining power, wealth and control over the people.
The Bible encourages us to test the spirits because of the rise of false prophets and teachers in the world (1 John 4:1).
We must also be diligent to expose any group that teaches demonic doctrines that are contrary to the fundamentals of the Christian Faith with the hope that people will be educated and not be trapped or deceived by various cultic groups (Ephesians 5:11-13).
If you have been reading this article and believe that you are a member of a cult and have thoughts of leaving please also read our articles: How To Leave and Recover From A Cult and 6 Ways to Heal & Recover from Spiritual Abuse.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Index of Cults and Religions | Watchman Fellowship, Inc