What Is a Cult? The 6 Telltale Signs to Look For

"I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30).

Paul is speaking to the early church—and to us—about cults. They will and have come. They existed then and now. If we’re not extremely careful, they can draw us away from the truth.

One quick note before we begin. The term “cult,” as expressed in the English language, can be used in both secular and religious settings. For example, “the singer's cult of fans” or “the film has a cult following.”

Today, we will work with religious cults, defined by Dictionary.com as “great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers; a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.”

The following characteristics will help us define and recognize the nature of a cult. 

First, the most dastardly, insidious mark of a cult is that it ignores or distorts the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To one degree or another, all cults deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Their teachings and principles will eventually leave a person unsaved, without a relationship with Jesus Christ, and spending eternity in hell.

The Bible teaches that faith in Christ, plus nothing else, equals salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 reads, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

The three most obvious cults today are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Watchtower Society, and Mormons. All three put good works in the place of “nothing else," suggesting the redeeming work of Jesus is not sufficient by itself. Faith plus anything else is heresy.

This characteristic of cults is so significant that Paul literally pronounces a curse as he shares his displeasure and outright anger at these false prophets who minimize, distort, or change the gospel:

“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; ... But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9).

Please note that the word Paul used for “curse” is the strongest word for cursing in the Greek language. Technically, it dooms the one who is cursed to the darkest, deepest, most horrible fate imaginable.

Second, most cults are led by a dynamic, charismatic leader who eventually controls and manipulates his or her followers.

Jim Jones was a psychopathic, manipulative, controlling, and insidious leader. He founded the People’s Temple in Indiana during the 1950s. Jim began moving to different cities, gaining followers at each one. In the mid-1970s, he relocated all of his followers to Guyana on the northwest coast of South America.

Then in 1978, rumors began to circulate, alleging that human rights abuses were occurring in the People’s Temple. United States Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate. Ryan and several defectors were murdered by gunfire while boarding a return flight home. Shortly thereafter Jones led all of his 918 followers—including 304 children—to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid spiked with cyanide.

Jones was a brash overlord who enslaved his followers… ultimately leading to their deaths.

In contrast, true Christian leaders are humble. Jesus described himself as "meek and lowly in heart" (Matthew 11:29).

Paul mentored Timothy as a pastor and church leader in two of his letters. In 1 Timothy 3:1-4, Paul described a godly leader: 

“Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.”

Third, surprisingly, most cult leaders grew up in a Christian environment.

Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, grew up in a Presbyterian home. Jim Jones attended a Nazarene church; later he pastored a Disciples of Christ congregation before founding the People’s Temple. Moses David (David Berg), founder of the Children of God, is the son of evangelical parents and served as a minister in a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. Mary Baker Patterson Glover Eddy, founder of the Christian Scientists, and Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, were both raised in Christian homes and churches.

Obviously, there are many reasons why cult leaders turn from Christianity. I would guess that some imagined hearing a voice from God telling them that they were divinely inspired to begin something new. Some were deceived by demonic promptings. Others were arrogant con men and con women who knew just enough Bible to get everything confused. Many were arrogant, grandiose people whose pride led them to destruction.

Fourth, cult leaders tend to ignore, confuse, add to, and/or demean the Bible’s teachings.

It is easy to trap Christians when cultists speak Christian language. This is why churches need to teach the Bible early and definitively. This is why new Christians need mentors.

Occasionally, the media draws our attention to a leader who counts up biblical numbers and is convinced that he or she knows the date of Christ’s Second Coming.

I recall one such group in southern Arizona that I identified as a “Second Coming Cult.” This particular cult leader went to the Bible, added up some dates, and declared that he had figured out the exact time and day of our Lord’s return (never mind Matthew 24:36).

Cults like his spring up occasionally. He convinced his followers to sell all their possessions because they would no longer need them after Christ’s return.

Jesus didn’t return on his time. The cult dissipated quickly. Most had nothing to show for it except some clothes in a closet.           

Like all cult leaders, this man demeaned the truth of the Scriptures. Jesus said that only God the Father knows the day and time of his return.

Fifth, cults use devious methods to trap, deceive, and control their followers.

In an article entitled "The Power Abusers," Ronald Enroth demonstrates some of the tools used by cults to control their members:

  • Behavior Control: An individual’s associations, living arrangements, food, clothing, sleeping habits, finances, etc., are strictly controlled
  • Information Control: Cult leaders deliberately withhold or distort information, lie, propagandize, and limit access to other sources of information
  • Thought Control: Cult leaders use loaded words and language, discourage critical thinking, bar any speech critical of cult leaders or policies, and teach an “us vs. everyone else” doctrine
  • Emotional Control: Leaders manipulate their followers via fear (including the fear of losing salvation, and the fear of being shunned, etc.)

Personally, I know of one freshman college student who fell into a cult led by a man named Brother David. She had been to church all of her life but became entrapped by both his teachings and personal guidance.

She writes: “Brother David (not his real name) pastored a wildly demonstrative congregation, and people prophesied over me twice a week. I didn't need to listen to God anymore; my fellow followers told me exactly what to do (and what not to do). I had this gnawing feeling growing deep inside that God was mad at me all of the time. I felt that I had disappointed Jesus if I were not fasting and reading the Bible constantly. I withdrew from friends and family, dismissing them as carnal and deceived.”

Fasting at his suggestion, she reached 89 pounds before her parents and boyfriend succeeded in wrenching her free. Unfortunately, she was kind enough to tell Brother David why she was leaving. He told her that she could go to hell.

Sixth, people join cults for a number of reasons.

Some look at the level of religious mediocrity that they see all around them and find cults more attractive, as they tend to be more demanding.

Others are looking for a new or deeper spiritual experience. They listen to an attractive personality and admire their reputation for superior godliness.

Still, others are attracted to authoritarian movements that offer black and white, clear-cut answers or systematic approaches to life's problems.

Some crave a message that seems to support their own beliefs and desires.

Many lived through a church split and were hurt and disillusioned. They swore never to return. Then, they were exposed to a cult that seemed fresh and new. They were ripe for conversion.

Paul calls out all of these motives in 2 Timothy 4:3-4:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.”

One other group is especially vulnerable: young Christians who get confused about the truth.

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).

How to Avoid being Seduced by Cult Leaders and Teachings 

1. Study Scripture in order to know true doctrine and biblical teaching.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

2. Don't forget or ignore what you've already learned.

“Peter, knowing that his days were numbered, reminded his readers of those truths which they had already learned.” (2 Peter 1:12-13)

3. Develop a consistent and committed walk with Christ. Grow up!

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” (Colossians 2:6)

4. Consciously pray and practice the filling of the Holy Spirit.

"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit”(Ephesians 5:18).

5. Before leaving the house in the morning, put on the spiritual armor of Ephesians 6:10-18.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes... the belt of truth... the breastplate of righteousness... the shoes out the gospel of peace... the shield of faith… the helmet of salvation... the sword of the Spirit... and pray in the spirit...”

6. Use James 4:7 as needed for spiritual warfare.

“Submit to God; resist the devil; and he will flee from you.”

How to Help Deprogram Someone Out of a Cult  
  • We must recognize the power of prayer and our dependence on the Holy Spirit for healing.
  • Since damage was done in a relational context, healing must also take place in a healthy, safe relationship.
  • Use the Scriptures and take time to help the individual identify their cult’s particular biblical distortions in a safe setting.
  • Avoid criticizing, confrontation and arguing.
  • As often as possible, give them an infusion of truth about who God is and how He sees us.
  • -As they emerge to freedom, connect them with a healthy church.

 I hope this article is helpful.

By the way, the freshman college girl is my wife.

  

Best Resources for this article may be found at: Preach It Teach It.org; Bible Gateway.com; Got Questions.com; Wikipedia.com; the helpful teaching of Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas; and Steve Dowdle, retired counselor from Casas Church, Tucson Arizona. 

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