What Is A Cult?

What is a cult?  In our latest podcast, David and I discuss an experience a friend of mine had while out riding a few weeks ago.  He and his friend stopped to rest and saw an illuminated cross on a hill above them.  They overheard angry chanting and were ultimately chased off.   As he was relaying the story to me, we began to discuss what constitutes a cult.

How Do We Define “Cult”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes cults this way: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious”.  Not very helpful.  Modern sensibilities often make it seem intolerant to refer to a group as a cult.  So how should we as Christians understand what constitutes a cult?

Jim Jones

The word cult has taken on some rather ominous overtones since the late sixties. When someone mentions the word cult now, what typically comes to mind is Jim Jones, The Manson Family or The Heaven’s Gate cult.  Cults are generally seen as extreme, dangerous and controlling.  

Is Cult A Derogatory Term?

This hasn’t always been the case with the word “cult” however.  Traditionally, a cult was simply a word used to describe a religion that was an off shoot of a more accepted religion. Cults deny one or more of the major doctrines of their parent religion.  In the book “Kingdom Of The Cults”, Walter Martin offered this definition of what a cult is:

By the term cult I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.” Dr. Charles Braden  

Some examples of this might be the Jehovah’s witnesses denying the Trinity or Mormons denying monotheism.  Both the Trinity and monotheism are essential doctrines of classical Christianity.  Denying these aspects of the Christian faith would therefore make these organizations cults of Christianity. 

Other Characteristics Of A Cult

Cults also tend to have very strong leaders.  These leaders demand total autonomy over the group.  It is generally their message or teaching that holds authority in the group. And if the message of the leader and the message of the written text of the religion come into conflict, the leader’s teachings will override the scripture.  

Charles Manson

As Christians, we hold to the authority of scripture over any particular leader or pastor.  While our church leadership should be instructing us and aiding in our spiritual growth, their message must be in line with Scripture.  If their teaching falls outside the pale of scripture, then the authority of Scripture should always be prioritized.  

How Can I Know If I’m In A Cult?

Warning signs that you might be in a cult are that the group is secretive or reclusive.  Most healthy religions are welcoming and open.  They do not try to keep other seekers out.  Leaders should not be trying to exert inappropriate control over its members (who they see or associate with, control over finances, restrictions on seeing family members, etc.).  If you’re uncomfortable or see any of these warning signs in your Church, it’s probably time to leave.  The longer you stay in a cult, the harder it will be to leave. 

Have you had experience with a cult?  How did you react?  

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