The word “cult” has many connotations and many definitions, from harmless fan clubs, to dangerous systems of religious beliefs and rituals. But, I think the best definition of a dangerous religious “cult” that should be avoided by Christians is…
- Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong; and if you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
- Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
- Authoritarian. A human leader expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.–christianitytoday.com
- Defining a Cult
- The fear of religion is a dangerous trap
- Gnosticism and the altar of special knowledge in the church today
Cults are exclusive
Any group who claims they are “The Way”, “The Truth”, or “The One True Church” is a cult. This may be explicitly taught as in some of the most well-known cults. Or, it may be implicitly taught through the use of code words and phrases, such as, “keeping the unity of the Spirit.” These groups discourage or prohibit members from reading anything except their own literature. This is especially true for groups that discipline members to enforce their separation. Some of these groups can make it nearly impossible to leave.
These kinds of groups usually teach it is a sin to belong to any other group. They may teach (outright or by implication) that you probably can’t be saved unless you are part of their group. Often, this is phrased something like, “If they believe what that organization teaches, they aren’t saved.” These kinds of cults sometimes corrupt the meaning of verses like 1 John 2:19 to teach that you will lose your salvation if you leave the group.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,
Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:1-3 KJV)
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia: [which might have been several hundred miles by horse, mule, or on foot] Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:1-2 KJV)
For example, the body is one unit and yet has many parts. As all the parts form one body, so it is with Christ. By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether we are Jewish or Greek, slave or free, God gave all of us one Spirit to drink. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13 GWT)
So God put each and every part of the body together as he wanted it. How could it be a body if it only had one part? So there are many parts but one body. An eye can’t say to a hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” The opposite is true. The parts of the body that we think are weaker are the ones we really need. The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we give special honor. So our unpresentable parts are made more presentable. However, our presentable parts don’t need this kind of treatment. God has put the body together and given special honor to the part that doesn’t have it. God’s purpose was that the body should not be divided but rather that all of its parts should feel the same concern for each other. (1 Corinthians 12:18-25)
Through the peace that ties you together, do your best to maintain the unity that the Spirit gives. There is one body and one Spirit. In the same way you were called to share one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over everything, through everything, and in everything. (Ephesians 4:3-6 GWT)
- What is the One True Church?
- What about keeping unity?
- What is limited fellowship? (based on knowledge, doctrine, lifestyle) Did Jesus have limited fellowship with you?
- What about “closed” or “separatist” fundamentalism?
Cults are secretive
Any group that hides its doctrines from the uninitiated is a cult. This secretiveness can be hidden from even members, and especially new converts, as “mature” doctrines of “meat” instead of “milk” (1 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:12). Beware of any group that doesn’t have a well-written statement of faith. You can’t know what they believe, which might be because they don’t want you to know what they really believe, or it might be because they don’t even know what they really believe.
A typical form of secretive teaching is intentionally using words differently than the listener expects. This is often used to distort teachings about Jesus Christ, trinity, sin, hell, salvation, justification, eternal life, and even faith. This kind of cult can say, “Yes, we believe that Jesus Christ died for sin and you can be saved through faith.” But, they don’t mean anything close to what you would expect because their words have different definitions. This kind of teaching is often expressed in phrases like, “The ‘real’ meaning of this verse is yada yada,” or “the ‘real’ meaning of death is yada yada.” Be especially wary of any group who’s doctrine depends on the exact wording of fragments of verses in only one version or translation of the Bible.
He that separateth himself seeketh his own desire,
And snarlest against all sound wisdom.
A fool hath no delight in understanding,
But only that his heart may lay itself bare. (Prov 18:1-2 JPS)
- Through desire a man, having separated himself
- This should probably be rendered, The separatist seeketh after his own desire, against all improvement he shows his teeth. The man of small mind is here described, who will only follow his own narrow aims, who holds himself aloof from men of wider views than his own, and will not join with them in the furtherance of philanthropic or religious plans, but rather opposes them with all his power, as he can see nothing but mischief in them. (For his temper of mind, comp. John 7:47-49.)–Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers
Brothers and sisters, I encourage all of you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to agree with each other and not to split into opposing groups. I want you to be united in your understanding and opinions. (1 Corinthians 1:10 GWT)
Because of the kindness that God has shown me, I ask you not to think of yourselves more highly than you should. Instead, your thoughts should lead you to use good judgment based on what God has given each of you as believers. Our bodies have many parts, but these parts don’t all do the same thing. In the same way, even though we are many individuals, Christ makes us one body and individuals who are connected to each other. (Romans 12:3-5 GWT)
- Final exhortations to a fledgling church (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22)
- Walking worthily — lead a life worthy of God
- 8 Important Things for Christians to Embrace
Cults have an authoritarian leader
Any group that has a leader, who must be obeyed no matter what, is a cult. This is especially true if this person claims to have received special revelation from God that you can’t get from reading the Bible. The quickest clue that you are in an authoritarian cult is how often the leader’s name is used in conversation. If questions of doctrine are referred to this leader instead of opening the Bible, then head for the exit, run don’t walk.
- Paul and the False Apostles (2 Corinthians 11)
- Warning against False Judaizers (Galatians 2)
- The Danger of False Teachers (2 Peter 2)
- The Dangers of the Last Days (2 Timothy 3)
- Correcting False Teachers (Titus 1:10-16)
- Discerning False Prophets (1 John 4)
- The Tree and its Fruit (Matthew 7:15-20)
- Satanic Strongholds through False Concepts versus Walking by Faith
- Stand firm and keep a strong grip on the teaching (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
- 8 Dangerous Things for Christians to Avoid
What to do if you think you are in a cult?
First, put your trust in Jesus Christ and the power of his might (Ephesians 6:10). He was raised from the dead to conquer sin (1 Corinthians 15:57). If you have accepted him as your personal savior, you have been joined into his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Nothing can take that away from you (Romans 8:34-39). Search the scriptures (John 5:39). Ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). You can trust his leading because he is the author and finisher of your salvation (Hebrews 21:2).
When a group becomes a cult, there really isn’t any hope for it, so don’t try to stay in it and “fix” it from the inside. Just walk away and don’t look back (Genesis 19:26).
“Beware of false prophets. They come to you disguised as sheep, but in their hearts they are vicious wolves. You will know them by what they produce. “People don’t pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles, do they? In the same way every good tree produces good fruit, but a rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. Any tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into a fire. So you will know them by what they produce.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the person who does what my Father in heaven wants. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we force out demons and do many miracles by the power and authority of your name?’ Then I will tell them publicly, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you evil people.’
“Therefore, everyone who hears what I say and obeys it will be like a wise person who built a house on rock. Rain poured, and floods came. Winds blew and beat against that house. But it did not collapse, because its foundation was on rock. “Everyone who hears what I say but doesn’t obey it will be like a foolish person who built a house on sand. Rain poured, and floods came. Winds blew and struck that house. It collapsed, and the result was a total disaster.” (Matthew 7:15-27 GWT)
- The fear of religion is a dangerous trap
- Do you have Religious Trauma Syndrome?
- God has promised to deliver you