Life for many is so hollow they grasp for the first straw that passes their way. They seek some new concept with which to identify. Many wind up with cults or counterfeit movements that rob them of volition, money, real estate, self-respect, and for their unquestioning allegiance promise them “pie in the sky when they die” and a choice seat or planet somewhere in the universe. In the end, the movement’s leaders achieve total control of their minds and lives.
It isn’t necessary that a group or movement be entirely religious, or even religious at all, to qualify as a cult. There are certain traits that help us establish whether a group or movement is wholly cultic, partly cultic, or non-cultic. I want to advance what I feel are some of the features which are common with all cults. A bona fide cult may not possess all of them—indeed, rarely do we find one that carries all of the symptoms. But each has enough of them, particularly the principal ones, to qualify. So please listen up.
Are All Churches Cults?
Is it fair to categorize all churches or denominations as cults? Where do we draw the line, if at all? And whose standard of measurement should we use? A genuine cult to one man is his salvation and blanket of security. To another man, the same cult is dangerous and should be shunned. One man considers his circle of fellowship as having begun with heaven’s approval and blessings. Another man judges the same group cultist and affirms that its leaders are interested only in money, power, prestige, and control.
Try convincing a Jehovah’s Witness that The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Brooklyn, New York is a cult that controls and manipulates his thinking and he will most likely laugh in your face. Or try to assure a Mormon that Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, apparently was schizophrenic and a false prophet and he will call you a religious bigot. If you care not to be labeled “anti-Messiah,” don’t tell a member of The Unification Church that “Reverend Moon” is a counterfeit messiah. And assuming you don’t wish to be scoffed at, you may want to think twice before telling a New Age enthusiast that his religion is idolatrous because he worships creation rather than the Creator.
Traits That Identify
And on and on we go. Surely there must be traits that will help us determine whether or not a particular group is full-blooded or half cult. I’m convinced there are. Two of the definitions Webster
offers of a cult are: 1) “An exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric interest”; and 2) “Obsessive devotion to a person, principle, or ideal.”
“Well, now,” the observer announces, “if obsessive devotion to a person makes one cultic, all Christians are cultic, for they have an obsessive devotion to Jesus.” So a clarification is due. Allow me to define the matter in the following style:
Allegiance and devotion to any human person, or to any human principle, or to any human standard as a means of eternal salvation is cultism.
I believe this clarification will stand the test of opposition, and on that principle I affirm that any movement, sect, church, religious party, or denomination that falls into this category is either wholly cultic or partly cultic. Having stated this premise, I now want to list a number of cultic characteristics. The following marks of distinction are not listed in order of importance, but are chosen randomly.
- They practice separatism and devote much of their time trying to proselyte others.
- Their efforts to convert others are underhanded and manipulative.
- The group’s leaders claim to be God’s prophets or messiahs or apostles who receive “divine revelations.”
- They teach that all other churches and groups are lost unless they surrender what they have and join them.
- Their leaders are dictatorial and demanding, either directly or subtly.
- They claim to have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
- Members are expected to attend study sessions where they are firmly indoctrinated (“brainwashed”) with the group’s mundane creeds and human theories.
- They resent having their doctrines and creeds questioned.
- They believe salvation and afterlife are found only in their camp.
- Those who desert the group are judged evil and apostates.
- They dictate almost every facet of the members’ lives—sexual, social, domestic, political, and spiritual.
- They deny that God has other children scattered over the hills and valleys of sectarianism.
- They believe God’s elect are found only within the borders of their own enclosure.
- Honest dissidents are disciplined, avoided, and excommunicated.
- They insist on strict conformity to the group’s doctrinal standards.
- Their teachings contradict plain truth.
- Their source of authority is of human origin.
- They require a new convert to be rebaptized, even though he was sincerely baptized previously.
- They have devised their own translation of the scriptures and prohibit any translation not approved by them.
- Members are expected to give large amounts of money and ample energy and time to the group’s activities.
- They allege to be the only legitimate interpreters of scripture.
- They wrest scripture to foster their belief system.
There are other cultic marks unknown to this scribe, but these are sufficient to establish our premise.
At this point, you’re probably wondering which groups I consider full-blooded cults. I am not reluctant to name them. The list is not exhaustive, of course, as there are many awry groups out there that have not come to this scribe’s attention. The ones listed below carry the major components of cultism, and are tallied alphabetically.
- Branch Davidian groups.
- Buddhist Movement.
- Christian Science.
- Church of Christ (mainline, a cappella).
- Church of Scientology.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Mormons or Latter-day Saints.
- Muslim and Hindu religions.
- New Age Movement.
- Orthodox Jewish groups.
- Roman Catholicism.
- The Way International.
- Transcendental Meditation Movement.
- Unification Church.
- Unity Church Of Light.
- The New Apostolic Church.
There are many churches and religious groups that are infected with some cultic traits, but not enough to qualify as thoroughbred cults. The Lutheran and Episcopal denominations, for instance, have acquired strong cultic traits, but I’m reluctant to group them alongside full-blown cults.
What features separate a non-cult from a cult?
- They confess to being redeemed sinners in need of God’s grace.
- Money, elaborate edifices, plush offices, power, and control do not occupy their time and energy. Rather, ministering to any in need and sharing as a communal people are accentuated.
- They see themselves as only part of the one body of believers, and affirm that wherever God has a child, they have a brother or a sister.
- They do not claim to have truth cornered or God corralled.
- They comfortably acknowledge their mistakes and weaknesses, believing that God shames the proud but extends grace to the humble.
- They are believers only, but not the only believers.
- They place their confidence in Messiah Jesus, not in flesh and blood or palpable organizations.
- They view heaven as life hereafter, not earth as heaven.
- They accept all those God accepts, and they love those the world hates.
- They do not seek public recognition or fear public scrutiny.
- They don’t make unrealistic claims or promote ridiculous agendas.
- They see Jesus as a healer, redeemer, and peacemaker, not as a conspirator and false prophet.
A cult never admits to being a cult. Some cults lay no claim to religion or divinity. Atheistic communism is cultic, yet she denies religion and rejects spirituality. Most cults are non-violent—that is, they’re not physically or militarily combative. But when we ponder other forms of injury and abuse they bring to bear upon their followers, they’re as guilty as those who use guns and knives. Judgment of the severest kind awaits those self-proclaimed prophets, messiahs, and money-mongers who twist innocent minds and deceive receptive and hungry hearts.