Identifying a Cult
There has been much confusion about cults and how to "pickem".
Some have difficulty identifying a cult because it is not so easy
to identify one that is not even religious. For this reason, over
the years, different definitions of what actually is a cult have
developed to make it easier when you know little about their
The different definitions:
Cult - From the Latin "cultis" which denotes all that is
involved in worship, ritual, emotion, liturgy and attitude. This definition
actually denotes what we call denominations and sects and would
make all religious movements a cult.
Cult - Any group which deviates from Biblical, orthodox, historical
Christianity. e.i. They deny the Deity of Christ; His physical
resurrection; His personal and physical return to earth and
salvation by faith alone.
This definition only covers those groups which are cults within the
Christian religion. It does not cover cults within other world
religions such as Islam and Hinduism. Nor does it cover
Psychological, Commercial or Educational cults which do not
recognize the Bible as a source of reality.
Cult - Any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership
structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/
persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to
God; Nirvana; Paradise; Ultimate Reality; Full Potential, Way to
Happiness etc, and will use thought reform or mind control
techniques to gain control and keep their members.
This definition covers cults within all major world religions,
along with those cults which have no obvious religious base such as
commercial, educational and psychological cults. Others may define
these a little differently, but this is the simplest to work from.
The "Orthodox Bible-Based Cult"
A group is called a cult because of their behaviour - not their
doctrines. Doctrine is an issue in the area of Apologetics and
Heresy. Most religious cults do teach what the Christian church
would declare to be heresy but some do not. Some cults teach the
basics of the Christian faith but have behavioural patterns that
are abusive, controlling and cultic.
This occurs in both Non-Charismatic and Charismatic churches.
These groups teach the central doctrines of the Christian faith and
then add the extra authority of leadership or someone's particular
writings. They centre around the interpretations of the leadership
and submissive and unquestioning acceptance of these is essential
to be a member of good standing. This acceptance includes what we
consider non-essential doctrines e.i. not salvation issues (such
as the Person and Work of Christ.) The key is that they will be
using mind control or undue influence on their members.
An excellent book on this subject is "Churches that Abuse" by Dr
Using these guidelines of definition, Bible-based, Psychological,
Educational and Commercial aberrations can easily be identified.
Other Identification Marks
- The group will have an elitist view of itself in relation to
others, and a unique cause. e.i. They are the only ones right
- everyone else is wrong. They are the only ones doing God's will -
everyone else is in apostasy.
- They will promote their cause actively, and in doing so, abuse
God-given personal rights and freedoms. This abuse can be
theological, spiritual, social &
How They Do This
- Their leaders may claim a special, exclusive ministry,
revelation or position of authority given by God.
- They believe they are the only true church and take a critical
stance regarding the Christian church while at the same time
praising and exalting their own group, leader/s and work.
- They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep
members loyal to their ranks. This could be in the form of threats
of dire calamity sent by God if they leave; certain death at
Armageddon; being shunned by their family and friends etc. This is
a vital part of the mind control process.
- Members will be expected to give substantial financial support
to the group. This could be compulsory tithing (which is checked);
signing over all their property on entering the group; coercive
methods of instilling guilt on those who have not contributed;
selling magazines, flowers or other goods for the group as part of
At the same time bible-based cults may ridicule churches that take
up free-will offerings by passing collection plates and/or sell
literature and tapes. They usually brag that they don't do this.
This gives outsiders the intimation that they are not interested in
- There will be great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its
teachings. The lives of members will be totally absorbed into the
group's activities. They will have little or no time to think for
themselves because of physical and emotional exhaustion. This is
also a vital part of the mind control process.
- There will be total control over almost all aspects of the
private lives of members. This control can be direct through
communal living, or constant and repetitious teaching on "how to be
a true Christian" or "being obedient to leadership". Members will
look to their leaders for guidance in everything they do.
- Bible-based cults may proclaim they have no clergy/laity
distinction and no paid ministry class - that they are all equal.
- Any dissent or questioning of the group's teachings is
discouraged. Criticism in any form is seen as rebellion. There
will be an emphasis on authority, unquestioning obedience and
submission. This is vigilantly maintained.
- Members are required to demonstrate their loyalty to the group
in some way. This could be in the form of "dobbing" on fellow
members (including family) under the guise of looking out for their
They may be required to deliberately lie (heavenly deception) or
give up their lives by refusing some form of medical treatment.
- Attempts to leave or reveal embarrassing facts about the group
may be met with threats. Some may have taken oaths of loyalty
that involve their lives or have signed a "covenant" and feel
threatened by this.
Refugees of the group are usually faced with confrontations by
other members with coercion to get them to return to the group.
Some Abuses of Rights and Freedoms
- Abuse of Individuality:
They adopt a "groupness" mentality. They are not permitted to
think for themselves apart from the group and only accept what
they are told.
- Abuse of Intimacy:
Relationships with friends, relatives, spouses, children,
parents etc are broken or seriously hampered.
- Abuse of Finances:
Pressure to give all you can to the group. In non-communal
groups, members usually live at the lower socio-economic strata,
not because of a lower income level, but because they are
always giving money to the group for some reason.
- "Us Versus Them" Mentality:
Isolation from the community in general. Anyone and
everything outside the group is seen as "of the devil" or
"unenlightened" etc. Their enemies now include former friends;
the Christian church; governments; education systems; the
media - the world in general. Those who are involved with
these in any way see such involvement as a "means to an end".
- Abuse of Time and Energy:
The group controls and uses almost all the members time and
energy in group activities. They are usually in a constant
state of mental and physical exhaustion.
- Abuse of Free Will:
They must unquestioning submit to the groups teachings and
directions and their own free will is broken. Their "will"
actually becomes the groups "will" without their realizing it.
This is done either by coercive methods including low
protein diets and lack of sleep, or over a period of time
through intimidation. Both methods make heavy use of "guilt".
Results of This Abuse
- Personality Changes:
Relatives will say they no longer recognize the person.
From a warm, loving personality will come heaped abuse,
rejection and feelings of hate. The cult member sees himself as
"righteous" in comparison and this comes across in their attitude
toward all outsiders.
- Loss of Identity:
They cannot see themselves as individuals apart from the group.
Some even change their name as a rejection of their former
- Paranoid - We Are Being Persecuted:
Any time you say anything negative about the group, whether
justified or no, it is regarded as "persecution". Any criticism
of the individual is also seen as persecution only because they
are the "true Christian" or "enlightened" one - not because they,
as an individual, have done the wrong thing. However, at the same
time they will feel free to criticise whatever you believe, say and
do because they are "the only ones who are right".
- Social Disorientation:
They lose their ability to socialize outside the group. This
can go so far as to not being able to structure their time or make
simple decisions for themselves when they leave.
Their world-view alters and they perceive the world through
their leaders eyes. They become very naive about life in general.
- Severe Guilt Complexes:
They are made to feel guilty of everything they did before
entering the group and are to strive to be "good" and "worthy" for
"eternal life". Misdemeanors are made into "mountains" so that
members are in a constant state of guilt for infringing even the
most minor rules. Guilt comes because they aren't doing enough;
entertaining doubts or questions; even thinking rationally for
This guilt is piled upon pile with new rules constantly being
laid down about what is sinful and what is not. Illness may be
seen as lack of faith - more guilt. Emotional illness may be seen
as proof of sin in your life - more guilt.
Not all these points will be found in every cult, but all
cults will have some if not most of them, although these may vary
to some degree.
Copyright © 1985 Jan Groenveld
Freedom In Christ
P. O. Box 2444
Mansfield, 4122, Australia
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