What is a Cult?
James M. Rochford
Cult groups have spread rapidly across the United States in recent years. Secular author Margaret Thaler Singer estimates that in the last two decades roughly 20 million Americans have been involved in a cult.1 Christian cult expert Ron Rhodes concurs with this estimate, claiming that this has been a 3,000 percent increase over the last 150 years.2 Rhodes writes, “It is for good reason that every book in the New Testament except Philemon has something to say about false teachers, false prophets, false gospels, or heresies.”3 While cults have certainly proliferated over the last century, many have had difficulty clearly defining what they mean when they use the term cult. Atheistic critics have grouped all religious groups together. For instance, arch-skeptic Richard Dawkins writes,
Jesus’ family values, it has to be admitted, were not such as one might wish to focus on. He was short, to the point of brusqueness, with his own mother, and he encouraged his disciples to abandon their families to follow him. ‘If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.’ The American comedian Julia Sweeney expressed her bewilderment in her one-woman stage show, Letting Go of God: ‘Isn’t this what cults do? Get you to reject your family in order to inculcate you?’4
Is Christianity just one big cult, or is it possible to differentiate Christianity from cultic practice? How are high commitment churches different from cults, and how do we consistently distinguish between the two? To inform our answers to these questions, we have consulted both secular and Christian authorities on the subject, which we will depend on throughout our study.5
What is a Cult?
Our English word “cult” comes from the Latin word cultus, which literally means “worship.” However, modern people don’t have worship on their minds when they use the word “cult.” Definitions are essential when categorizing a group of people as a cult, rather than a church. Rhodes argues that there are two necessary definitions for cults: both theological and sociological.6 Let’s begin with the first definition.
1. Theological Definition of a Cult
What is the difference between a Christian denomination and a Christian cult? Let’s consider several characteristics that are common within cults, but are not permitted in genuine Christian churches:
1. New scripture
Cult leaders will usually claim that they have a direct pipeline to God—even if it is in contradiction to the Bible. This would include adding new Scriptures or teachings as equal or even above the authority of the Bible. Against this view, Paul writes that even the apostles themselves were subject to the doctrine of the gospel message (Galatians 1:6-9). Likewise, Jude writes of “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). As believers in the Bible, we shouldn’t expect new teaching or revelation to contradict what God has revealed through the Bible. Jesus himself said, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He also said, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9). Therefore, we shouldn’t add onto what Scripture clearly teaches (Revelation 22:18; Deuteronomy 4:2).
To articulate their view on Scripture, churches will often agree to certain doctrinal statements about the Bible. For instance, our church would agree with the famous Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) and the Chicago Statement of Hermeneutics (1982), which were drafted by 200 of the top Evangelical thinkers in the world. These statements help in offering a plumb line on where a Christian organization stands biblically.
2. Denial of core doctrine
Core doctrines are those teachings that are central or mandatory for Christian faith. While some doctrines are debated amongst Christians (e.g. the rapture, the millennial kingdom, etc.), other doctrines are so essential that without them, you can no longer be considered Christian (e.g. deity of Christ, the Trinity, the resurrection, the Second Coming, etc.). Christian churches will usually have a clear “Statement of Faith” on their website, so that you can see where they stand on fundamental issues like these.
For instance, our church has a Statement of Faith that clearly articulates our belief in all of the historic doctrines of the Christian church. To discern where someone stands on core doctrine, it is often helpful to ask if they would agree with statements like the Apostle’s Creed. Cult groups would be unable to affirm basic creeds like this.
3. Denial of grace
Whenever a “Christian” group claims that you need grace plus works, this is unbiblical. The doctrine of grace is essential to Christian faith. Regarding the legalistic teachers of his day, Paul writes, “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8). According to Paul, if we are adding works onto grace, this is no longer Christian teaching. It’s surprising how quickly cult groups try to make good works necessary for salvation. When investigating a so-called Christian group, it is helpful to see where they stand on this important issue. Our church has a very clear stance on salvation by grace, through faith, and apart from works.
4. Exclusivity from Christian churches
Cults almost always exclude themselves from legitimate Christian churches. Secular cult expert Magaret Singer writes, “Cults appear to be innovative and exclusive.”7 In cult groups, one will often hear the language that their group is “the only way” to God. Of course, as Christians, our problem with this claim is not that it is exclusive. Jesus was exclusive in his claims to salvation (John 14:6), and so were the apostles (1 Timothy 2:5; Acts 4:12). But these exclusive biblical claims are centered around doctrine—not an organization. This is a crucial difference. Whenever a supposed “church” says that you need to belong to their organization for salvation, this is aberrant and anti-biblical teaching.
Of course, some churches are no doubt healthier than others in their doctrine and practice. Jesus’ comments make this clear when he speaks to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2 and 3. However, while it is healthy for church members to have a high view of their own church, it is going too far when they say that theirs is the only true Christian church on Earth.
In addition to this, we feel it is healthy for Christian groups to spend time with those outside of their own church. For instance, our fellowship has the Xenos Summer Institute every year. Here we invite famous Christian scholars and practitioners from all over the world to come and speak. Moreover, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School also has an extension site at our fellowship, so that we can hear from professors of various theological perspectives. We realize not all churches can have a world-class Evangelical Seminary in their main campus, so we’ve used this as an opportunity to bring in neighboring pastors and leaders for biblical training and instruction. In addition, our senior pastors are members of the Gospel Coalition, where they meet monthly with other Evangelical church leaders in the area to talk about important Christian issues. We feel like this is a healthy way to learn from other churches and (hopefully) to share our wisdom with others, too.
While these practices aren’t mandatory for Christian churches, we feel that they are good ways to get outside of our own paradigm, and these are signs of a healthy Christian group.
2. Sociological Definition of a Cult
In addition to a theological definition for a cult, we should also consider a sociological definition. While Christians can identify cults based on what they believe (i.e. theological definition), they can also identify them on how they behave (i.e. sociological definition). In her famous work Cults in our Midst (2003), cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer offers several common sociological characteristics within every cult: (1) leader, (2) structure, (3) thought reform, (4) healthy dissent and disagreement, (5) excluding members from friends and family, and (6) promoting secrecy with information.
Cult groups typically revere (and in some cases deify) their leader. Singer writes, “Priests, rabbis, ministers, democratic leaders, and leaders of genuinely altruistic movements keep the veneration of adherents focused on God, abstract principles, or the group’s purpose. Cult leaders, in contrast, keep the focus of love, devotion, and allegiance on themselves.”8 From a Christian perspective, we should be able to discern when a group of people has moved from following God, to following an individual leader. It is biblical to follow the example of Christian leaders (Heb. 13:7), and God uses leaders to make an impact on people. However, we should follow Christian leaders only if they themselves are following God. As Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Singer describes the cult structure like an inverted “T” with the leader at the top and all others at the bottom.9 In other words, cult leaders have all of the authority in decision-making and the direction of the organization. Furthermore, leaders of cult groups are not accountable to anyone, and they make decision by fiat. By contrast, in healthy churches, everyone is accountable—even top level leaders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:2). In our fellowship, a group of elders leads the church, and even our two senior pastors are accountable to one another and the elders. Therefore, no person stands without accountability.
3. Thought control
Paul teaches that believers should be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). But this refers to persuasion—not manipulation. Cults will try to control the thinking of their members by not giving them both sides of an issue—only their side. Singer explains,
The key to successful thought reform is to keep the subjects unaware that they are being manipulated and controlled—and especially to keep them unaware that they are being moved along a path of change that will lead them to serve interests that are to their disadvantage. The usual outcome of thought-reform processes is that a person or group gains almost limitless control over the subjects for varying periods of time.10
Of course, devoted Christians should desire to hand their lives over to Christ, but never to a human authority, who will make their decisions for them. In our training curriculum for leaders, we call this the “parent-child” distinction. That is, leaders should never make decisions for a member that would be akin to a parent-child relationship. Singer writes, “A cultic relationship is one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions.”11 Our leadership curriculum explains, “Church leaders should not tell Christians what jobs they may take, how to spend their money, who to date, or other issues unrelated to running the church.” These subjects are outside of the realm of a leader’s authority. Of course, parents shouldn’t control their children in these adult decisions either, but these would be closer to decisions that a parent would control in a young child—not what an adult should give to another adult.
For instance, a recovering drug addict once asked me to handle his money for him, so that he wouldn’t spend his cash on drugs. This was tempting to help the young man in this way, because he was so irresponsible. But, I immediately refused to “help” him in this way. As it turned out, the young man fell back into drug use, but I still wouldn’t have done anything different in retrospect. This is what a parent would do for a child—not what an adult should do for another adult. Christian leaders should be careful to respect healthy boundaries like this.
4. Healthy dissent and disagreement
Cults prohibit members from dissenting or disagreeing with the prerogatives of the church. Singer explains, “[In a cult group] you are not allowed to question or doubt a tenet or rule or to call attention to factual information that suggests some internal contradiction within the belief system or a contradiction with what you’ve been told.”12
This type of control is anti-biblical. Jesus warned us to “beware of false prophets… You will know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:15-16). Here, Jesus says that we can recognize false teachers, and we should be vocal about this. Paul tells us, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment” (1 Corinthians 14:29). He instructs us to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). How could we “examine everything” if we aren’t allowed to read dissenting materials (c.f. Acts 17:11; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1)?
Biblically, it is the responsibility of the church community to judge the teaching that they are hearing. The Bible was given to the members of the church, and it is expected to be interpreted by them. In our fellowship, after each teaching, we open up the floor for comments and questions. And in many cases, people who share ask challenging questions, and at times challenge something the teacher has said. We feel that it is healthy to hear discussion and even dissent on difficult topics.
5. Excluding members from friends and family
Cults often try to exclude members from their family so they can foster even greater dependence upon the cult. Singer writes, “Members’ contacts with former ties are either completely cut off or strongly discouraged by both leadership and peers.”13
The Bible explicitly teaches that we should love and honor our parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:2). Instead of abandoning our families, the Bible teaches that we should reach our families with the love and message of Christ. Often times, there is tension between commitment to Christ and commitment to our own families. Jesus taught that we should love God more than anything else in our lives, including our own families (Matthew 10:37; c.f. 6:33). So it shouldn’t surprise us if there is difficulty here. But the crucial way to identify a cult is the teaching of the group. If the group teaches to abandon one’s family, this is non-biblical.
6. Promoting secrecy of information
Cults often use a “bait-and-switch” method. Instead of being forthcoming about their beliefs and goals in the organization, they retain information and often lie about their motives. Cultists sometimes call this “heavenly deception” or “transcendental trickery.”14 By contrast, Singer denies that high-commitment groups like Jesuit seminaries are cults, because they are clear about the standards in advance. She writes, “[The applicant] is warned in advance about what is expected, and what he can and cannot do. He is also given every opportunity to withdraw.”15 Likewise, in high commitment churches, it isn’t cultic to have standards for the group, as long as these standards and goals are forthright.
In our fellowship, we post virtually everything about our church on our website, including our classes, teachings, and beliefs.16 We even have open financial books, in order to have financial transparency. If a church is operating honestly, why would they feel the need to hide information? This is a sure sign of suspicion.
How can we fight cults today?
Many people in our postmodern culture feel uncomfortable calling a group a cult, but we don’t agree. Cults rob people of their lives and souls, and they should be battled by Christian believers. Consider counterfeit money. We might make a lot of purchases with counterfeit money in the short term, but once the fake currency is taken to the bank, it can’t be deposited. Similarly, counterfeit Christianity might do some short term good in people’s lives, but it will ultimately turn out to rob people of their souls. With this in mind, we believe that there are at least two central ways to combat cultic practice:
First, don’t allow the cults to confuse true spirituality! The NT teaches that false teachers will arise in order to confuse the truth of Christ (Matthew 7:15; Romans 16:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 11:13-15; Galatians 1:6-9; 5:10-12; Philippians 3:2; Colossians 2:16-23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1,2; 1 Timothy 1:3ff.; 4:1-5; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-8; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11; Hebrews 13:9; 2 Peter 2:1-22; 1 John 2:18-26; 4:1-6; 2 John 1:7-9; 3 John 1:9-10; Jude 1:4ff.; Revelation 2:2, 15, 20). With so many biblical passages, we should be well warned of false teaching! In fact, warnings against false teaching occur in 17 out of the 22 letters of the NT (if we include the letters to the churches in Revelation).
False teaching is surely a strategy of Satan to disguise the truth of Christ. Satan does this by disgusting people with aberrant versions of Christianity. Thus, when we finally hear about the real message of Christ, we often regard it alongside the bizarre claims of cult groups. Cults often have similar features to Christian churches, and this makes the genuine truth blend in with falsehood. Therefore, if we allow cult groups to make us cynical of the truth, then they will have accomplished their mission: keeping us from the truth and love of Christ.
Second, develop an intellectual depth to your biblical study. J. P. Moreland argues that two of the great Christian cults were started on the heels of the great American revivals.17 Because many of these new Christians didn’t know their Bibles very well, they were easily captured by the false teaching of these cult groups. Paul predicted that the false teachers in Ephesus would actually arise from within the church itself (Acts 20:29-30). Therefore, in the modern church, we need to learn how to interpret and read our Bibles with clarity in order to combat false teaching like this.
To illustrate this principle, my cousin worked at a bank years ago, handling money all day long. Since she was so familiar with real money, she had developed an acute skill at identifying counterfeit currency. When a fake bill was handed to her, she could identify it almost immediately. Similarly, when we have been steeped in the word of God, we become more effective at identifying counterfeit Christianity.
Delashmutt, Gary, and Dennis McCallum. “Identifying and Defining Sects.”
Geisler, Norman L., and Ron Rhodes. Correcting the Cults: Expert Responses to Their Scripture Twisting. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005.
Martin, Walter, and Ravi Zacharias (General Editor). The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003.
Rhodes, Ron. The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions: The Essential Guide to Their History, Their Doctrine, and Our Response. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Ron Rhodes is an evangelical Christian who is an expert in comparative religions and cult groups, authoring several books on the subject.
Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
Margaret Thaler Singer is a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Marks of a Cult: A Biblical Analysis (DVD).
Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1981.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 5.
- Rhodes, Ron. The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions: The Essential Guide to Their History, Their Doctrine, and Our Response. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001. 14.
- Rhodes, Ron. The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions: The Essential Guide to Their History, Their Doctrine, and Our Response. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001. 19.
- Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 284.
- We suggest our bibliography to review our sources. Both Christian and secular sources were considered in the writing of this article.
- Rhodes, Ron. The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions: The Essential Guide to Their History, Their Doctrine, and Our Response. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001. 21.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 9.
- Emphasis ours. Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 8.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 8.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 52.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 7.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 68.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 116.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 69.
- Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised & Updated). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 99.
- Our church website receives roughly 5 million hits per year. In a recent month, over 95,000 visitors from 192 countries have used our website—nearly half of the traffic coming from outside the United States and 85% from outside central Ohio.
- Moreland, James Porter. Love Your God with All Your Mind: the Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997. 23.