A lot of my work has focused on dealing with Spiritual abuse, authoritarian and dominating religious leaders, and organized religious groups (who call themselves Christians) that can be classified as cults. In that work, I’m asked occasionally ‘What criteria are you using to determine if group A is a cult or not?’ I would like to answer that question thoroughly today.
It is a very strong claim, to label a group as a cult, but not everyone has a solid grasp on how to define a group as a cult. Group A certainly isn’t a cult just because you or I may disagree with them. In fact, I don’t even agree with the baseline definition of what makes Group A a cult, by leading sources, such as Walter Martin and his invaluable book, ‘Kingdom of the Cults’. So let’s dig a little deeper into what truly makes a modern day religious sect, Group A, a cult.
Fair warning – this will be a long article and is written to be a reference for future studies.
I’ve written before that the word ‘cult’ automatically conjures up news stories of great tragedies, well-known cult stories such as the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas of (1993) led by David Koresh, or the People’s Temple mass suicide and murder of 1978, led by Jim Jones, or even the Rajneesh cult of Antelope, OR in the 1980’s. Other popular news stories come to memories, but these are the absolute extremes and there are other organizations that will never reach that level that can still be and should be classified as cults like and dangerous.
We must, therefore, place the word into the proper context and define it before we start using it to label and categorize groups and the people within those groups. Simply using the word does not make it a true statement. And for as much as I have personally used the word, I do believe it gets flung around too loosely.
For instance, by the baseline definition of the word ‘cult’ in the modern religious context, as defined by Walter Martin in his book, ‘The Kingdom of the Cults’, any group that is different from mainline Christianity would be a cult;
A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more aspects as to belief or practice from those religious groups are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.
This definition, however, leaves much to be discovered in our search for what is a cult and it also leaves it up to the ebb and flow of society (cult[ure]) to constantly redefine what a cult is or is not. I am not challenging Mr. Martin, his work is exhaustive, incredibly valuable, and by no means incorrect. I am simply writing to express how I define cults in the Christian context. Mr. Martin even admits early in chapter 1 that defining a cult can be very complex and challenging.
In fact, Christianity was by definition a cult and labeled as such during its infancy. It differed greatly from the normative religion(s) of the day, primarily Judaism, and it was also solely focused around the embodiment of a single individual, as many modern-day cults are. It did, however, go on to become normative and by that, lost it’s ‘cult’ status.
Of course, as followers of Christ, we believe that He [Christ] was the embodiment of God, not just another human being, but the example is the same. David Koresh believed he was Christ incarnate. He convinced many people of this fact and a Group A was formed around devotion to David Koresh. Women gave their bodies to him in devotion, even their children to him. Many peoples gave their belongings and wealth to him, and ultimately, some 83 lives were lost due to this devotion in the siege of Waco Texas and the Davidian compound.
Certainly, we understand that particular group to be a cult, but is there actually more to the definition? Simply being ‘different’ doesn’t make Group A a cult. For instance, the religious sect I was a part of for 15 years, which I do indeed define as a cult, is most famous for two unorthodox doctrines. What they call Holiness, and the Oneness, which is umbrellaed under their total eschatological doctrines.
The ‘Holiness’ standard is most noted in a dress style, and more pointedly, in how the woman dress. They never cut their hair, they never wear pants, most would not wear makeup or jewelry. Does that difference in dress style alone define them as a cult? I think not.
This same group, most commonly known by its largest enterprise, the United Pentecostal Church, International, is called a cult by mainline Christianity due to its absolute denial of the historical and orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, in which they claim the Trinity to be a heretical doctrine and claim that their ‘Oneness’ message, otherwise known as Modalism is the only valid view of the nature of God and the Godhead. This, by Walter Martin’s definition alone, makes them a cult. Does that really make them a cult? I honestly do not think that alone is grounds to use that term.
Expanding the Definition (Criteria) of Defining a Cult
We must, therefore, expand our definition of a cult. I believe it to be a fair statement to say that by and large when the word ‘cult’ is used, especially in reference to Christian groups, it comes packaged with some underlying sentiments that aren’t entirely voiced or even correctly understood. For instance, I believe these three characteristics more correctly categorize what I would call a Christian Cult.
I will define these shortly, but one of the greatest litmus tests for whether or not a group is a ‘cult’ is wrapped up in this simple phrase.
You can tell if Group A is a cult by examining what happens after you or another person leaves Group A.
This generally falls under the category of Exclusive because exclusive groups by nature believe that they are the only chosen people of God and thus, any who leave their sect is under the control of Satan. They are now dangerous, untrustworthy and to be avoided, and likely, shunned. But taking that down to grassroots, you will recognize a cult by how the leader(s) and people within the group treat those who have left the group.
By way of example, the Jehovah’s Witness organization (Jw.org) has entire web pages, manuals and articles dedicated to when, how and why to cut off people who leave the organization. And they even say it that way. They do not say, avoid people who leave Christ, Christianity, faith, prayer, love for God, etc. They say to shun anyone who leaves the Organization, whether it is a spouse, a child, a parent, etc.
I remember when I decided to leave the group I was a part of my best friend messaged me, “Don’t go sideways, I don’t want to lose another friend.” The end result was we never speak anymore. I was to be cut off. I am not part of the organization any longer. His reputation and membership will be jeopardized by maintaining a close relationship with me.
We then must examine whether or not the behaviors of Group A are dangerous and harmful, either to those within the organization or to those without. For instance, there is no doubt that the Rajneesh group that took over Antelope, OR in the early 1980s was a dangerous cult. They collected guns, had their own police/military force and poisoned local restaurants/buffets to scare local people around their compound and to influence votes to take over the county seats in power.
But if we wait until a group starts poisoning food before we realize their danger, we’ve allowed too many to be traumatized and damaged before we react to the cult. A group that uses fearmongering to control its members traumatizes them and is dangerous. A group that overrides the family structure and causes the family to turn on each other for their devotion to the group, is a cult. These things damage people, families, and society.
By way of example, I received this partial comment on my YouTube video ‘Coping with the Cults – Spiritual Abuse’.
I don’t NEED their permission, but I would seek it because I know they have my best interests in mind. Everyone would expect me to run it by the pastor though, and I have seen instances in my church where the pastor decided who could date who and overrode the parents of the teen which I believe is totally inappropriate.
This was normative in the group I left. The pastor (leader) decided who could and could not date. Even if the parents approved, if the pastor didn’t, it was rebellion to keep the relationship going. The pastor decided who could marry as well, and the churches Bylaws claimed that the ‘pastor has sole authority and discretion over matters of infidelity.’
This is a gross overreach of the authority of a church leader/elder, but it is clearly dangerous when it overrides and breaks the family structure. It is by this definition then that we learn how to classify Group A as a cult. Is it dangerous to those within and/or those without?
The Three Defining Characteristics of a Cult
First and foremost, the most common characteristic of a group that is stepping towards the cliff edge of becoming a cult is a claim to be the only ones with the “Truth”. This need to be the exclusive children of God propels leaders, people and Group A’s into the more damaging aspects of cult-hood because their exclusivity justifies other behaviors, such as shunning, etc.
Of course, Jesus said that He was the way, the truth, and the life. Christianity often uses the term ‘truth’ to speak the gospel, Christ, or to talk about the Bible, as the written history of the Words of God (Christ). However, it is important to understand that groups that use this phrase in an exclusive manner are actually redefining ‘Truth’ as belief in, and adherence to the organization’s doctrines, or dogmas, which often times are extra-biblical, misinterpreted portions of Scripture,
Among the major sects that break from orthodox Christianity, such as those found in the book Kingdom of the Cults, and other more modern groups not discussed in the book, each makes this same exclusive claim over the Church. If you are a JW, you believe JW’s alone are the true ‘church’. If you are Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), you have the same view and invalidate the claims of the other group, and so forth.
There are countless Group A’s out there that make this claim. If you look at mainstream Christianity, they claim to be part of the Body of Christ, but generally, do not claim to be any more saved than the other church down the road. They may have a different church name, some differences in liturgical practice, service times, etc., but do not believe to be the sole (exclusive) church that has the only “Truth” that will save them.
The United Pentecostal Church, International teaches the message of Oneness, Acts 2:38 and Holiness. These core doctrines create the salvation method within the church which makes them exclusive. They teach that in order to be saved, you must believe in the Oneness of God (Modalism) by denying the Trinity, you must follow the Acts 2:38 model (Repentance, Baptism in Jesus Name (not the titles) and speak in Tongues (evidence, they claim, of receiving the Holy Ghost)) and then go on to live a life of Holiness (dress right, don’t drink, smoke, cuss, etc).
Whatever the group doctrines are, if they claim to be the only ‘saved’ people and the ‘true’ church, they are likely a cult, and if not, are but a few steps from it. We cannot, however, make the claim that this group is a cult by that one thing alone. It is the culmination of the major characteristics and asking the question, does this characteristic make them dangerous that ultimately defines the group.
Exclusivism is dangerous both to those within the organization and those without. This idea that your ideas, beliefs, and doctrines are entirely right and all others are entirely wrong leads to extreme judgmentalism, separation (the division of the body of Christ) when we are to be interwoven and a light to the world, and even hate. This judgmentalism and hate manifest itself in many ways but primarily it is found in the ostracizing of people who leave the group. They are often excommunicated, shunned and left behind.
Through this blog, my YouTube channel, social media groups I am part of I am told and I read countless stories of people who have been absolutely rejected by family and friends because of the simple choice to not attend that group any longer, or making a simple change in belief such as dress style.
Recently, one woman shared a text message she received from a long time friend in the Oneness Pentecostal church she used to attend, who said, “What happened?? I saw your daughter in pants. I used to love her and think so highly of her, she used to be so Godly. What happened?”
This message exposes the hate found within exclusive groups. When your ‘love’ for someone is dependant upon them dressing how you believe people should dress, you’ve overridden God’s love and the law of Christ with cult dogmas. Then, it becomes dangerous to the children and people within the group, being coerced into thinking that is being Christ-like, and more damaging to those without, whose familial relationships are at peril based on non-Biblical doctrines.
Many groups and organizations that make the list of being labeled as a ‘cult’ often have some forms of secret rites, rituals, and practices. Some even have what would be known as classified texts and information that only a few of the most loyal or enlightened members have access to.
In a lighter example, I remember hearing my old pastor saying, “Don’t talk to guests about our standards, leave that for the Holy Ghost to work on them.” That is to say, don’t tell new guests/fledgling members all of the requirements we have to obey to be a part of that organization, because you will scare them off. Let them become invested in the group and ‘buy-in’ before talking about such things.
In the book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, this is defined as the law of investment. Once a person becomes heavily invested in a relationship it is very hard to break free. Such as a financial investor, the more you have in stocks, the more loss you are willing to suffer because the loss is much greater when you sell off. Thus, when it comes to a secretive sect, you are granted access to information only after proving you have bought into the system.
Scientology, like many fundamental Christian groups, places paramount importance upon money. You climb the ranks of Scientology by how much money you invest. Some churches demand that you pay a 10% tithe in order to be saved and to stay part of the group, while others demand, even more, 15%, 20%, etc.
After you have invested years of your life into a system, countless dollars and other material support, it is extremely hard to simply give that all up. In fact, the most common connection between Spiritual Abuse and Physical Abuse is rationalizing behavior based on relative levels of abuse. That is to say, ‘I haven’t treated as bad as so and so…’ Or, ‘I can handle X, but when Y happens, I’m out!’
Then, when Y does happen, the fully invested member of the group or victim of abuse will often go on to say, “I can handle Y, but when Z happens….’ It is the same in secretive religious sects. When you reach a certain level of authority, or enlightenment, and have access to more information, though it may shock you, are too invested to walk away and rationalization kicks in.
For instance, in the group I was in, Television was strictly forbidden. Movies, television, DVD’s, etc. In fact, just owning a large screen was seen as shameful and for the families in the group that did, it was always explained away as just a ‘monitor’ and it was normally put away when company came over. One couldn’t afford to have the ‘appearance of evil’.
So when the pastor had several young men hang a 60” television in his home, wall mounted with custom cabling, etc, as a ‘monitor’, we were instructed not to talk about it or tell people, because they wouldn’t ‘understand’. When a group has secrets, it also has double standards, and if it has double standards, it is manipulative and using methods of controlling others in ways that they themselves abuse.
Side Note: The church bylaws from the organization I left wrote specifically, that for the protection of the pastor and his family, his income/salary was to remain confidential.
This again becomes dangerous and indicative of cult-like behavior because it becomes Pharisaical, as exemplified in the Matthew 23 narrative. People are taught to judge others based on particular behaviors and when they find out leadership is performing those behaviors, they either have to justify the leaders and create structures of different classes of people, or their faith is shattered in the leader, who to them is now a hypocrite. Either way, faith turns from God to man, or in the worst case scenario, faith is destroyed altogether.
We also see cult-style groups that cover up discrepancies, even criminal behavior so as to keep the ‘image’ of the church positive. Rather than providing justice, cover-ups ensue. The purity of the group must be maintained at all costs. When you hear things, that I heard many times in my old group, like “Turn off the recording and no one record what I’m about to say, this is family talk only.”, you’ve discovered a secretive cult.
The gospel, according to Scripture, was for all. There were no secrets, there were no hierarchies of people in the know and people who didn’t need to know. We do not see the Apostles or Christ behaving in this fashion. There were no ‘secret’ gospels that only certain authorities could read. No hidden tablets or hidden manuscripts.
Secrecy is a dangerous mark and characteristic of a cult.
All of the groups that make the ‘cult’ list exhibit a nearly identical stance on spiritual authority, taking leaps and bounds over Scriptural example and placing almost Godlike control in the leader’s hands, granting him power over the lives and indeed, salvation, of the members of the group.
In every case, an overemphasis is placed on ‘submission’. Rather than placing sole emphasis on submission to God, people are coerced into believing their submission to God is satisfied by their submission to the ‘leader’, often this is the pastor, elder or priest of Group A.
When I say coerced, I mean that over time, by the dripping of seductive and charismatic preaching, people are caused to believe that the words of the ‘Pastor’, or ‘Man of God’, are indeed, from God himself, and disobedience to the pastor is just like disobedience to God. Once this mentality is firmly ingrained into group members or congregants, over time, the pastor can begin demanding more and more, and it is obeyed, happily, indeed it is then seen as normative.
Authoritarian structures almost always follow the same pattern of love bombing by the leadership, heaping praises upon the obedient and pouring flames of condemnation on the disobedient. As one preacher said, who left the strict system I did, “They have stories by the thousands they tell to scare you into obedience.” I heard them all likely. Look what happened to Bro. So and So – he left the church in rebellion to me [the pastor] and now look at his life…
What makes this so dangerous, and why any ‘church’ structure that emphasizes absolute obedience to the pastor (or any obedience for that matter, outside of Scripture alone) should be avoided and labeled a cult, is that over time, almost nothing is ‘too much’. As explained in the previous point, the connection between Spiritual Abuse and Physical Abuse is that the victim learns how to justify behavior. People become so enthralled by Charismatic leaders that they will justify any abusive behavior, calling it something done out of ‘love’.
For example, I remember two Hispanic young men who were made to stand before the entire church and confess and apologize for their sins, made to swear loyalty, obedience to the pastor and promise never to do it again. Not only is that demeaning and demoralizing, but it also wasn’t even Scriptural. What was their crime? Watching DVD’s on their XBOX.
Often times, authoritarian leaders absolutely destroy people, in person, and claim it is love. About five years ago a video went viral of a Baptist pastor, Jim Stranridge by name, who became angry enough at a man falling asleep during service he took the opportunity to yell at many members of his congregation. To one man he said, ‘You aint worth 15 cents. You know I love you right?’
To another woman, he said, ‘Your kids will turn on you if you don’t hold up the standard. And if they don’t turn on you, you will just make two little worldliens.’ What is worse is he did this in front of the entire congregation, and what did the people do? They went right along with it.
My old abusive and an authoritarian pastor was found guilty of violating child labor laws, using church kids, wholly unpaid in his commercial [for profit] business. When discovered, the church rallied behind him and praised him all the more, claiming this was the attack of Satan, and justifying his behavior. In that mans defense, he claimed he was trying to teach the children a good work ethic. The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone, yet, it was, almost wholesale.
Furthermore, authoritarian leaders will always use the phrase, ‘Obey, or leave.’ You aren’t wanted here. Another fundamental Baptist preacher, who makes headlines for wanting homosexual people executed by the government, pastor Steven Anderson, has viral videos of furious tirades, telling members of his church to get out if they don’t want to line up to what he teaches. Does anyone in the church stand up to him? No, they clap, amen, shout, and go along with it. This is the danger of authoritarian leadership.
One of the most egregious comments I’ve seen made under the guise of love by an authoritarian leader was when my old pastor said this;
If I’m teaching anything outside of this book [the Bible], you just obey me anyway. Let God work on me, but you don’t want to be rebellious to the man of God.
Often, in groups that are authoritarian, the leader(s) controls many aspects of the individual lives of the members. For instance, dating/courtship is often controlled by the leader. Job choices, vacation, clothing choices, schooling choices are often at the discretion of the leader. Failure to comply is normally met with reprimands of rebellion and followed up by threats of condemnation, curses of God, and ultimately, disfellowship.
If a religious leader is able to break laws, go on rageful rants, demand absolute obedience and no one questions him or rises up against it, you know absolutely that the group is a cult. In the final service I attended, the pastor of the church/cult I left literally pantomimed and made fun of other Christians. This was nothing new, it was common in the Oneness Pentecostal circle to hear things like, “Aint no Baptist going to heaven.”, or, ‘There won’t be any Trinitarians in heaven.’
But this was an extra special scenario, where the man, in the microphone, pretended to sit on a bar stool with a leg crossed over, saying, “Those fake preachers, in their jeans and untucked shirt, sitting on a barstool giving a pretty sermon. IT DOESN’T WORK.”
He then went on to pantomime people who pray silently, bowing his head before hands placed together in front of his face, making a sarcastic scrunched up face towards the ceiling. Shouting, once again, into the microphone, ‘Those people who mumble little silent prayers, IT DOESN’T WORK!'”
And the majority of the congregation laughed, slapped their knees, raised hands in the air, said Amen, Hallelujah, Preach it, Preacher, etc.
When a so-called ‘Man of God’ can openly mock other ‘believers’, who choose to express their belief differently than he does, and the group he oversees thinks that’s a great message, that leader has control over the minds of the people, and that is the goal of every cult leader. Control.
There are many different methods of defining a cult. As explained early in this article, the most common way is to identify a group that is outside what is considered normative. However, this isn’t entirely precise because, as we saw with the rise of Christianity, what is normative is subject to change.
We then must find a more conclusive way to judge whether or not a group can be labeled as a cult. And while nearly every point is subject to the reader or observers perspective, we can lay down some easy guidelines.
- Does the group believe they are exclusive to the Truth? That they have the real and right revelation of what it takes to be saved, and others don’t? This can especially be observed by groups that come up with stories that cannot be corroborated, such as ‘I got a revelation, alone, praying, in the back room, and I found some tablets, that no one else can see.’
- Does the group keep secrets? Are there things you just don’t talk about? Unspoken rules that members know to obey? Are double-standards being practiced, such as leadership being allowed one thing while members are denied such privileges? Is there a hierarchy in the church in which only certain members have access to certain information?
- Does the group leader(s) have excessive control over the individual lives of the members of said group? Is there a common emphasis on submission and obedience, not to Christ, but to the ‘pastor’? Would questioning or challenging the leader to be seen as rebellious and cause one to be disfellowshipped?
- Does the group exhibit these characteristics in ways that can be seen as abusive, and dangerous, both to those within the organization and without? Does loyalty to the group come before loyalty to one’s self, to one’s family, to one’s friends? More importantly, are the dogmas and doctrines demanding obedience extra-biblical? Does the leader seem to have control over the members of the group, even when from the outside their behavior seems abusive, strange, out of control and potentially criminal?
By using this criterion we can more accurately determine whether or not a group should be classified as a cult or if it is merely ‘different’. Groups that stray from orthodoxy should not immediately be labeled as a cult. The Reformation created many groups who broke from some things considered Orthodox but was not in and of itself a negative or even dangerous enough to be labeled a cult.
As already mentioned, the mainstream Christian orthodoxy claims the so-called Oneness Pentecostal church a cult simply by measure of its rejection of the Trinity. While they can claim this is doctrinal error and that it can arguably lead to further doctrinal error, that is not by definition, a cult.
The case can be made that having incorrect views of the nature of God is dangerous to Christian doctrine, or that it can lead to increased doctrinal errors, and by some be viewed as dangerous to the salvation of souls, I do not use that criterion to determine whether or not a group is by nature a cult.