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What Is a Cult?

By Clete Hux –

What do you think of when you hear the word “cult”? For many of us, that word conjures up images of Jim Jones and Jonestown, Guiana, where some 900 people in Jones’ People’s Temple followed his instructions and committed suicide by drinking kool-aid laced with cyanide. Or we may think of David Koresh and his Branch Davidians’ fatal encounter with federal agents. Even more recent was the suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult. On the other hand, some people follow a more cynical definition of a cult as “the church down the street from yours.”

The Question of Definition

In actuality, there are four different definitions we need to consider. These are: the common dictionary definition, the sociological, the psychological, and the theological definitions. First, the dictionary definition. According to Webster’s, a cult is “a system of religious worship or ritual.” By this simple definition, any religious group or denomination would be a cult. The Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, etc., would fit the label because they all have a system of worship. Clearly, this is not what we are looking for.

The Sociological Definition

Second, there is the sociological definition. Most sociologists tend to view a cult as a group that is rather small in number and relatively new to society. Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), German theologian, used the term cult in his work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, to describe any religiously oriented group that did not fit into the mainline church.1 For example, when the Mormons first came on the scene, sociologists were less reluctant to call them a cult than they are now. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been around quite a while now, and it exerts a great influence in the state of Utah as well as in the nation at large. Because of their worldwide presence and many millions of members, they are even on the verge of being considered a world religion by some academics.2

Still, getting sociologists to agree on a common definition is no easy task. Also, there is a move even among some Christian apologists to abandon the word “cult,” perhaps following the lead of sociologists who have traded in the term for less offensive ones such as “new religious movements” (NRMs), “alternative” or “fringe” groups. For the sociologist, the less value judgment on a group’s beliefs, the better.

Counter-cult specialist Richard Abanes points out that any group’s practices and behaviors which depart from surrounding cultural norms draw the attention of sociologists as a “red flag.”3 He quotes John Saliba as stating,

Sociologists focus on the existence of these new religious entities as marginal subcultures or units that are in conflict with society at large. They examine the way diverse religious institutions and organizations are formed and maintained; the internal dynamics that make them viable social entities; their economic, social, and political structures; the type of charismatic leadership that provides divine legitimation for the movements’ beliefs and practices; and the levels and types of commitment demanded of their devotees. . .4

The Psychological Definition

In any case, the sociological perspective does not help us to understand the destructive nature of cults, but the third definition, the psychological, does. From this viewpoint, any group behavior that is detrimental to a person’s psyche would be considered cultic. This area is one in which the church needs to be educated. Because the church, for the most part, has historically defined a cult from a doctrinal standpoint, it tends to neglect this component of cultism. Many people have left cults and have tried to assimilate into mainstream society and/or the church, yet have a hard time doing so due to the emotional and psychological baggage they carry out of their cult experience. Janis Hutchinson, for this reason, wrote her book titled Out of the Cults and Into the Church in order to give Christians help in understanding the mindset and effects of mind control.5

The most common or popular terms reflecting the psychological perspective on cults are “destructive mind control,” “thought reform,” “undue influence,” “deceptive manipulation,” and “brainwashing.” Indeed, the legal system recognizes a tort liability for the human rights abuses of undue influence, coercion, fraud, and social influence.6

So, the psychological model of cultism would consist of certain methods which can be employed by individuals (cult leaders) or groups in order to deceptively assimilate people into the group, and which produce a significant measure of control over them. Groups that practice this deception can be religious or secular. There are religious cults, certain psychotherapy groups, certain multi-level marketing groups, political cults, etc., which fit this psychological definition.

The most common means of undue influence or unethical thought reform are: (1) unquestioned authority of the cult leader with little or no accountability; (2) isolation of the member, either physical or through controlling a person’s time, activities and even language; (3) manipulation and control of thoughts and actions using fear and guilt and a closed system of logic; and (4) control of information by limiting contact with detractors. These manipulative methods produce a range of destructive psychological effects which are contingent on the number of dynamics or methods the group employs, the degree of intensity of those methods, and the varying levels of vulnerability of their subjects.

Robert J. Lifton, a secular psychiatrist, conducted seminal studies on the brainwashing techniques used on American prisoners during the war with North Korea. His study adds a few more methods that these groups use: (1) Demand for Purity, where any behavior or custom that does not conform to the group’s standard is considered absolutely evil (black and white); (2) Confession, which means that every known sin, past and present, must be divulged, accompanied by rewards and punishments; (3) Doctrine over Person, which means that the goals of the group always outweigh any individual or contrary thought or question; (4) Dispensing of Existence, which means that only the group is ultimate, has divinely sanctioned rights, and all those outside do not have any worth or rights.7

Secular anti-cult researchers have been identifying and quantifying the cause and effect relationship between mind control and psychological harm for quite some time. For example, Stanford University professor and 2002 American Psychological Association president Philip Zimbardo has published numerous studies demonstrating the powerful, harmful effects of deceptive persuasion. He writes, “The majority of ‘normal, average, intelligent’ individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal, irrational, aggressive and self destructive actions that are contrary to their values or personality, when manipulated situational conditions exert their power over individual dispositions.”8

Researcher Flavil Yeakley, professor at Abilene Christian University, conducted a major study using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a psychological profile tool, on members of the Boston Church of Christ (International Church of Christ), Hare Krishnas, Church of Scientology, Children of God, Unification Church (Moonies), The Way, as well as members of mainline Churches of Christ, Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations. The results demonstrated a high level of unhealthy and unnatural changes in personality in the first group of cults, compared with the population of traditional mainline churches. The changes in the members of cult groups showed a strong tendency to conform to the particular personality type normative within a given group.9

The operative biblical terminology describing the undue influence of false teachers or leaders are “deception,” being “taken captive,” and “exploitation.” The New Testament gives numerous warnings in this regard. In Acts 13:10, we encounter Elymas, a false prophet accused of using deception and fraud to lure people away from the faith. Ephesians 4:14 warns of men using trickery, craftiness, and deceitful scheming to draw followers. 2 Peter 2:3 warns of false leaders who will exploit with false, persuasive words. Colossians 2:8 exhorts us to make sure no one takes us captive with empty deceptions (See also 2 Tim 3:13).

Now, these three definitions—the dictionary, the sociological, and the psychological—are perhaps all useful in some contexts, especially the insights of the psychological definition. However, none of these definitions is adequate by itself. We need as well a theological definition gleaned from the Bible which gives us God’s perspective on the nature of cults. Seeing this issue from a theological standpoint has eternal implications, not only for “making our calling and election sure,” but for taking seriously our call to reach the kingdom of the cults with the gospel.

The Theological Definition

When used in a theological context, the term “cult” refers to a group of people who are centered around a particular person’s serious misinterpretation of the Bible. In the case of the Mormon Church, this person would be Joseph Smith, the founder; then Brigham Young the second leader; and Gordon B. Hinckley, today’s present LDS leader. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it would be Charles Russell, Joseph Rutherford, and now the Watchtower organization in Brooklyn, New York.

To be sure, the word “cult” cannot be found in the Bible. But, its equivalent is. Descriptive words such as “heresy,” “heretic,” “false prophets” and “false teachers” are spoken of quite often. Such words should grab our attention like the Surgeon General’s warnings on cigarette packages. To paraphrase, the Bible frequently shouts at us: WARNING: Following this man’s teaching can be hazardous to your spiritual health! The warning in scripture about false prophets is clear:

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he counseled rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you (Deut. 13:1-5).

In the New Testament, Peter also denounced false teachers who had infected the visible church:

But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves, and many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgement from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep (2 Pet. 2:1-3).

We are told that God wants us to know the difference between the “spirit of truth and spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). There are many non-essentials which the scriptures mention, some having significance for our sanctification, but many times the scriptures speak of doctrines which are essential for salvation. Always, these doctrines in some way concern the person and work of Christ and the gospel. Nothing is more essential to our justification and salvation than having the right Jesus and the right gospel.

In John’s day, there was a heretic named Cerinthius who taught that when Jesus hung on the cross, the Holy Spirit left him—basically leaving him just a man on the cross and dying only for His own sins. To this ancient heretic, and many modern ones, Jesus was not the theoanthropos (the god-man), but just a mere mortal.10 John also spoke of those who deny “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:3)—claiming that Jesus was divine, but not truly human.

When the Apostle Paul wrote the churches in Galatia about the Judaizers’ false gospel which mixed works with faith, he had this to say:

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; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 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 accused. 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 accused” (Gal. 1:6-9).

And when the Corinthians tolerated false teachers, Paul sarcastically indicted them for allowing both a “different Jesus” and a “different gospel” to be preached in their midst:

But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. (2 Cor. 11:3-4).

So, at the heart of the Christian faith is the teaching that Jesus is fully God and fully man, and salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This is the right view of Jesus and the right view of the gospel. By understanding that Jesus is God in the flesh (John 1:14), and holding to the gospel of grace, one has a good foundation for discerning the spirit of truth from the spirit of error. For cults always deviate from one or both of these doctrines.

The Characteristics of a Cult

As we have just seen, cults promote a pseudo Christ. They have a different Jesus, usually denying His deity. For example, the LDS Jesus was sexually procreated as a “spirit child” of Elohim along with his spirit brother Lucifer on a mysterious planet called Kolob. This Jesus worked his way up to becoming a god. The Jesus of the Watchtower is Michael the Archangel, the first thing created by Jehovah God.

The cults also teach a pseudo salvation, adding works to grace in some way or another. The Mormon Church teaches that Jesus’ resurrection provides general salvation (i.e., resurrection) to all people, but eternal life can only be attained by one’s own effort (temple works) as he seeks exaltation to “godhood.”11 The Jehovah’s Witnesses will say that they are saved by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, but they insist that being spared from destruction at Armageddon is contingent on “taking in knowledge” and door-to-door witnessing. New Age groups rely upon their own works as well, hoping that through the endless chain of karma and reincarnation, salvation will be self-attained.

Though the above errors are the most serious, cultic groups have other problematic characteristics that should be pointed out. First, many groups will have pseudo scriptures. Though some might affirm the authority of the Bible, all will subscribe to other “inspired” books or teachings by their leader(s) that are considered the real authority. If the Bible contradicts their doctrine, the Bible is dismissed or re-interpreted (twisted) to fit their system. For instance, the Mormon Church promotes the King James Version of the Bible as part of their standard revelatory works along with the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Yet, for them, the Bible is authoritative only insofar as it is correctly translated—and it is never correctly translated when it conflicts with Mormon doctrine! When the Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking on your door, they quite often will bring a King James Version of the Bible, but this has really been replaced by their New World Translation. In addition, they have the Watchtower and Awake magazines, along with Reasoning from the Scriptures which provide “authoritative” interpretations of the Bible.

Next, there is a pseudo authority common to cults. For most, this involves having an authority figure who exercises authoritarian control over members. There are many examples such as Jim Jones of the People’s Temple or the late David Koresh of the Branch Davidians. Others are the Reverend Moon of the Unification Church, the Watchtower of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the leaders in the hierarchy of the International Churches of Christ. With this mentality, a cult tolerates very little independent thinking beyond the express teachings of the leaders. If a member is critical of the leaders, he is either ostracized or disfellowshipped.

Third, a common trait of this authoritarian mode of leadership is an excessive exclusivism. That is, cults have an elitist attitude that they alone have the truth, and that their group is the “one true church.” The LDS church believes that they have the “restored gospel” and only they can lead a person to salvation. Other Christian groups are apostate. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Watchtower is the one true channel through which Jehovah communicates his message.

Conclusion

Let me conclude by reminding you of our responsibility to reach cult members with the gospel. There are many casualties of cult involvement, and it behooves the church to take seriously this mission field. Yes, we are to “defend the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude), rebuking false teachers. But we are to “speak the truth in love,” as well. Many Christians fail to remember this last point when they encounter a cultist. Paul points out that “the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (II Tim. 2:24-26). Realizing that except for the grace of God, anyone can be caught in cult bondage, our prayerful attitude should always be: “Lord, give us not only minds of discernment, but also hearts of compassion as You use us to make a difference!” AJ

Clete Hux is the Counter-Cult Apologist for the Apologetics Resource Center.

NOTES
1 See Richard Abanes, Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 31.
2 See Carl Mosser, “And the Saints Go Marching On,” in The New Mormon Challenge, eds. Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen (Zondervan, 2002), 61-65.
3 Richard Abanes, Defending the Faith, 33.
4 Ibid., 34.
5 Janis Hutchinson, Out of the Cults and Into the Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994). See also David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991); and Ron and Vicki Burks, Damaged Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
6 See Cults in American Society: A Legal Analysis of Undue Influence, Fraud, and Misrepresentation, prepared by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, Cultic Studies Journal, 12:1 (1995): 1-48; and David J. Bardin, “Psychological Coercion and Human Rights: Mind Control (Brainwashing) Exists,” Cult Abuse Policy and Research (April 19, 1994): 1-19. The latter work includes excerpts from the opinions of justices Brennan and Marshall in the United States v. Kozninski, 487 U.S., 931,953,955-56 (1988), notably “certain psychological, economic, and social means of coercion can be just as effective as physical or legal means, particularly where the victims are especially vulnerable….weakness resulting from a lack of food, sleep, medical care can eliminate the will to resist. Hypnosis, blackmail, fraud, deceit, and isolation are also illustrative examples” (p.9).

7 Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert J. Lifton, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1989, pp. 419-437. In addition to Lifton, Dr. Margaret Singer, emeritus professor at Berkeley, has worked with and helped thousands of former cult members. She offers a helpful list of precipitating conditions for harmful undue influence in cults in Psychiatric Annals 20 (1990):188-193.

8 Philip G. Zimbardo, APA Monitor (May, 1997): 14.
9 Flavil Yeakley, Jr., ed., The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988), 23-38.
10 Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, ed. Everett F. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), s.v. “Cerinthians.”
11 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 237-39, 669-671.

Want to Read More About World Religions and Cults?

Check Out These Resources:

Cults, New Religious Movements, and Your Family, by Richard Abanes (Crossway)

The Worlds Religions, by Norman Anderson (Eerdmans)

Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, by John Ankerberg and John Weldon (Harvest House)

Neighboring Faiths, by Winfried Corduan (InterVarsity)

When Cultists Ask: A Popular Handbook on Cultic Misinterpretations, by Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes (Baker)

The Kingdom of the Cults, by Walter Martin (Bethany House)

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