What is a Cult?
As a Christian, I’ve heard that word thrown around a good deal. What is a Cult? To many atheists and agnostic any form of the Church seems to be a Cult, to others, a cult seems to be anything that differs from their own religious beliefs. It’s a question worth asking, and it’s a questions worth asking because the world is asking it. This is made very noticeable by the shows on Netflix like “the Family” or on Prime like “the Path”. The world always seems to be interested and appalled by Cults, yet so easily ensnared by them. We as the Church, given that many such cults come out from us, should be willing to talk about it, willing to deal with the issues.
For a quarter of a century Jim Jones, the notorious cult leader, was a recognized minister, first in the Disciples of Christ, then in the Independent Assemblies of God. He shared a pulpit at one time with the famous Pentecostal revivalist William Branham. He was instrumental in social justice movements and applauded for such efforts, even to the point of being elected to the Human Rights Commission by the mayor of Indianapolis. He had clout and acceptability both inside and outside the Church. He was pastor a mega Church/ mega movement, with over a thousand followers. In 1976, presidential nominee Walter Mondale publicly praised Jones’ Church. Governors of California and the mayor of San Francisco spoke at his Church. Jones was no fringe pastor, he was widely supported and accepted by his community and his fellow pastors. Jones moved his ministries to a community he set up in Guyana, where more than a thousand of his Church members followed him. In November 1978, 900 of his Church members were found dead from cyanide poisoning. Most of them following his orders to poison themselves.
What can we be looking for:
Knowledge is given in increments: One of the marks of a Cult is that they believe in a secret knowledge that only they have. They often profess, whether or outright or subtle, that other Churches and organizations do not have the knowledge they have. They create steps and processes for individuals to receive that knowledge. They require members to take courses, make pledges of money or time, buy books and programs, or do works of service to varying degrees so that they can then receive the next bit of knowledge. This promotes two controlling ideas. Firstly, that there are some in the Church/organization, who because of their obedience or status, have a greater knowledge. The other is to say to people that they are the only organization that has the knowledge and leaving the organization will mean that they cannot have this secret knowledge. This is contrary to Scripture which states that everything that God meant as sufficient for the life of the believer is revealed in Scripture (1 Timothy 3:16).
Instant friends: In many cults the minute you walk through the door the members become your instant friends. They without knowing you, will proceed to “love bomb you”. They will tell you, how much they love you, how amazing you are, how you are welcomed into their community, they will tell you all of that without knowing a thing about you. This is called flattery…they don’t know if you are amazing or not because they don’t know you. Flattery, according to Proverbs 26 is a sin. A Biblical Christian will use discernment before calling someone a friend, before being yoked. Flattery is not genuine encouragement, it exists for an ulterior motive, which is to get you to join and stick with the organization.
Alignment: One idea that is prevalent in Cults is the idea of alignment, this comes out of the new age movement that required that adherents be aligned with a guru or teacher. Christians have taken this on in the form of a doctrine called apostolic alignment. This doctrine says that if you are aligned with your Apostle (usually your pastor) grace, favour, prosperity, the Holy Spirit, etc, will flow through him to you. If you dis-align, it means that you will not receive any of those things. This is not in Scripture. In fact, Paul specifically speaks against this in 1 Corinthians 1. This is a trick, used to get people to think that if they leave their Church, for whatever reason, if they listen to a different apostle/pastor who is not in the same apostolic network, then they will not receive from God. This is a really manipulative way of getting people to stay in one particular church or organization.
Disagreement is discouraged: In some stereotypical expressions of Cults, anyone who disagrees with the leader or organization is immediately and publicly (sometimes violently) dealt with. This isn’t how this is usually met out. In more cases than not, the discouragement is more subtle. Most cults create a culture that says faith, love, peace, joy, etc supersede discernment. While the Bible says discernment is part of our faith. The more common approach is to keep everything so positive that any mention of disagreement would be seen as contrary to the positive “vibe” of the group. Talking about doctrine is discouraged, even though scripture says “watch your doctrine closely”. If someone does persist in disagreement they will be quickly silenced or removed from the group. They will be branded as having a “religious” spirit or lacking love. Paul, however, calls the Bereans more noble. They did not believe him at first and tested what he was saying, and they are upheld for doing this. According to Scripture not every miraculous thing comes from God, but that we should test the spirits, this should not only be allowed but it should be encouraged as the Bible encourages it.
Having a particular way of speaking: Cults often have a particular lingo that can identify them with other Groups. They may refer to people within the group or leaders or teachers with pet names or in ways that others, using terms that other outside the group would not use. They might, despite the clear command of Matthew 23, call their leaders, rabbi, father, teacher, or papa ( the last being the most contemporary). While at first this can seem like a term of endearment, it becomes a way of recognizing who is in and who is out and a way of displaying submission to the leaders and teachers in the group (hence why Jesus commands us not to do that). They will often use abbreviations or words that describe the programs they are part of and the level within the Cult that they are in as a means to identify their rank within the organization. Those outside the group do not know what these terms mean nor do they use these terms which makes identifying those who are in and those who are out easier.
Educational promises unusable outside of the organization: This is where some corporations can also become cult like. For instance, I worked at a grocery store that had a cult like management style. Long term employees were encouraged to attend a management university run by the corporation. The price was equal to that of any other degree program, however upon completion, graduates found that their newly earned qualifications were only recognized within the corporation. This is a sure way to keep talent from leaving and going to other corporations. Religious groups have adopted this idea as well. Many cults offer educational opportunities as a way to bring people in. Once “in” they find that the qualifications they receive are not recognized outside of the cult. This is done in order to keep people in the organization as setting up the proper recognized qualifications is not difficult especially for religious institutions.
Your better now you are in the organization: One thing common among cults is the teaching that whatever you learned before could not have been as good as what you learn inside the organization. They, especially Christian cults, often teach that the Church or organization you came out of was limited in their teaching, so that the only full knowledge comes from them. They will often discount any benefit you may have received from others in order to convince you of their inadequacies. This gets people to think that the only way to receive this continued “further information” is to stay in the organization. Cults will often focus on issues within your family of origin even to previous generations, introducing ideas like generational curses, in order to get you to think that your family or previous friends are holding you back. They might do this with Churches or other organizations you have been a part of as well. This will then make adherents view their families or friends from before they joined the organization as not “knowing that they know” or as being deficient in comparison to their new family and friends in the organization.
Amazing testimonials: Most Churches place a high value on testimonials. These testimonials are not about what the individual Church has done for the life of those involved, but what Jesus has done in the lives of those giving their testimony. The object of the testimonial is to point to Jesus and what He has done. Cults, take a different approach. Cults will also advertise testimonials that emphasize the leaders or the organization itself. Making it seem that, in the case of Christian cults, without the organization one cannot grow as close to Jesus. While they may testify to spiritual growth and even miracles, they will always bring it back to being part of the organization, and attribute the power behind whatever they experience to be the organization and the knowledge they have gained from the organization.
Cults demand your time and allegiance: In a Church setting a person is in fellowship in order to go out and to live out their faith and to share their faith in their workplace, jobs, family, and community. Church members are free to join sports clubs, to work where they please, to have friends both inside and outside the Church and to spend time with them accordingly. They do so as the Spirit leads and as they choose. A cult controls all of the above and requires all your time be given to the organization. A cult says you can only live out your faith in the context of the organization. It is while working for the organization that you, with the help of the organization, live out your faith. Any “good works” you do, must be done as a representative of the organization. Cults make huge commitments on your time so that you become completely dependent on the organization. Many cults will say in the beginning that their goal is to equip you to go out into the world, however, when the time comes to leave the first stages of the organization (usually after a set program or time frame), members will often be strongly encouraged to sign up for the next stage of the organization, and will then be kept locked into giving their time to the organization for a set period of time.
Cults are a slow burn: Surprisingly, cults don’t usually start out being defined as Cults. For Example, Jim Jones’ People’s temple existed for over 25 years before their fateful end. Jones’ began amassing followers nearly thirty years before. The branch dividians existed for forty years. Heaven’s gate (the Nike Swoosh people) existed for thirty years before their mass suicide. Many of the most well known cults existed for decades with popular support. Cults don’t usually look like cults, which is why so many people fall for them. Many cults can enjoy favour from society and even other Churches or organizations for years and even decades before alarm bells start to sound. Even after, some cults continue to grow, using tactics like changing their name or creating new organizations under the umbrella of the old. A good example is a group called the “international Churches of Christ”, who now, after being exposed do a good job of not using their common name and making themselves appear to be within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. Often, people in cults, don’t know the full extent of the control of the organization until they have moved up the ranks. In fact, many cults don’t exert any control over those at the lowest ranks, it’s only as you move up the ranks that the control becomes evident as you receive more of the knowledge and as you invest more time and money.
A true expression of faith allows people to freely be led by the Holy Spirit. The true Church, has a command to look outward, to go out representing, not the organization, but Christ. The great commission verb is “Go”, a cult demands that people “come in”. As John the Baptist says we “become less and he becomes more”. A true expression of faith allows that all believers are a royal priesthood and all that God revealed is revealed in Scripture and understood by all believers who have been equipped by the Holy Spirit who reminds us of everything Jesus taught. A true expression of faith can be lived out anywhere at anytime and does not require the rules of man or organizational structures. You can be a believer at a sports game, in your family, at your local Church, in the park, at work, in school, or anywhere you go. The kingdom of God is not within the organization it is within you.
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