One of the biggest surprises I had when arriving at university was the number of cults I would encounter. Sure, I could expect difficulties with atheism or apathy, but cults? I don’t think I could have ever predicted the number of cults of Christianity I would encounter on campus. One in particular I spent a lot of time talking about last Winter. I want to continue that research into other groups that have a presence nearby and on many other college campuses. Before going too specific, I want to lay out a few of the general principles and practices I’m looking for. It’s easy to throw around the label of “cult,” but what does it actually mean, and how can we know if a group has become one? When on the lookout for Christian cults, what should we be looking for?
What We Mean by Cult
When most of us picture cults, we think of the dramatic examples where an enigmatic leader like Charles Manson or Jim Jones gets their followers to do terrible things. There are characteristics in these groups that are often found in cults of Christianity as well. They all typically rule by fear, prey on the emotionally vulnerable, giving them a new community while cutting them off from their old one, and control the information their members can access. When on the lookout for Christian cults, there are a few unique characteristics commonly seen.
More Authoritarian God
I think some of these Christian cults start with good intentions and true believers, but with a serious problem. They have a wrong view of God. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t need to study theology, I just need Jesus?” Okay, yeah, but who is Jesus? What do you believe about God? If you start out with the good intention to love and serve God, but have a wrong idea of who he is, it will not end well. The most common form of this in cults is to see God as more strict and authoritarian. What better way to control people than to instill the fear of God? However, many genuine Christians have similarly legalistic views. Do you believe that God is a loving and just God who wants to have a relationship with his creation, or is he a vengeful spirit waiting for us to step an inch out of line so he can toss us to the fire? That starting point matters.
Additional Requirements for Salvation
If a church presents a gospel that requires additional steps for salvation besides what Paul describes in Acts 16 or Romans 10, there is a problem. There are plenty of good practices that we ought to do as Christians, such as good works, evangelism, or even sacraments like baptism and communion. If the church is making those out to be essential requirements for salvation, it is a red flag. Sometimes the amount of passion these groups put into their evangelism is almost inspiring, making us question how dedicated we are to our faith. However, if we believed that our salvation hinged on how much time we spend on evangelism, I’m sure we’d be out there with them fearing for our eternity.
What is their relationship with the rest of the Christian church? Do they claim that they are the only true church and that all the others have been corrupted? That’s a red flag. Churches argue over differences in teaching and practice, but any legitimate church will never want to steal you away from another Christian church. Going back to those additional requirements, are they being even more narrow and saying that you have to be baptized into our specific church, or follow our leader, or else you’re not saved? If so, get out while you still can.
Denial or Twisting of the Trinity
This goes back to that wrong view of God, but a remarkably common practice among cults of Christianity is to deny or alter the trinity in some fashion. They will still try to keep Jesus but may deny that he was God. Alternatively, they may try to add in their own leader as part of the godhead, such as being the second coming of Christ.
It may not be wise to tell someone that their church is a cult even if it is. For one, cult is a loaded word with a lot of associations that may not be accurate. More importantly, it feeds into the persecution complex that many cults hold. They see the opposition against them as confirmation that they are right. These groups are used to aggression. If we want to help people learn the truth, we need to be more tactful.
Total Devotion to a Leader
While not a universal feature, many cults have a central figure that has been more or less deified. They are the fearless leader who can do no wrong, and we will follow their lead to the ends of the Earth. Power corrupts, and churches are no exception. Even some good and honest churches have made me a bit uneasy in how they revere their own pastors. But the key thing to look for is if they are leading or ruling. What accountability is in place, and are they staying true to scripture, or adding to it?
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