The word cult is generally used to denote a group or organisation which is a deviant from the norm in some way. It can describe either a psychologically-based group, such as EST, or those of a religious nature, such as the Unification Church, although the dividing line is not always clear. Some experts, such as the Government-sponsored INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements), prefer the morally neutral expression “new religious movements”. But whatever term we use there is no doubt that these groups are numerous and increasing in number.
Jesus warned the church that there would be many false prophets and teachers (Mark 13: 22-23), and much of the New Testament is written to correct their corrosive influence (2 Cor. 11: 1-11, Gal. 1: 8-9 etc.). Usually the heresy involved a denial of Christ, or his dual nature (2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 2:22-23), and an undermining of his finished work on the cross (note the continual use of the phrase “once for all” in the letter to the Hebrews).
In the early church there were a number of schisms and heretical movements (Novatians, Pelagians, Arians etc.). These heresies were essentially doctrinal ones, and it was in response to them that the great councils met, the creeds of the church formed, and the canon of the New Testament finally agreed.
Throughout history there have been heretical groups and teachings of many kinds, but in recent years there has been an explosion in the number of these groups. At a Cults and Counselling Conference in 1994, it was revealed that Britain is home to more than 500 religious cults, with around 500,000 believers, but this looks like a conservative estimate. There are almost 2,000 groups on the database of INFORM – from the London Church of Christ to flying saucer ‘worshippers’.
In the end most cults fall away but still can cause enormous personal damage, and create confusion amongst Christian and non-Christian.
The Nature of a Cult
Most religious “cults” are a deviation from a main-stream religious group or denomination, and err in both doctrine and practice. They can broadly be said to exhibit some or all of the following characteristics.
1) Psychological coercion.
The common perception of a cult is that brain-washing is involved, although it is probably incorrect to use the term unless active physical force is involved. However all “cults” tend to use emotional, or psychological pressure to both recruit and maintain membership. Techniques could include sleep deprivation, group pressure, love-bombing, and blatant lying. Contrast the Apostle Paul’s determination to be scrupulously honest in his ministry (2 Cor. 4:1-6).
2) A charismatic and non-accountable leadership.
At the heart of every cult lies a dominant personality, usually male, who exerts an overarching and unhealthy influence over all the members, sometimes through a closely structured discipling programme. The leader will often have been expelled from a previous church / group, and possess a strong desire for power. David Berg of The Family attended the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow, Jim Jones was a recognised Nazarene pastor, and David Koresh came out of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Obedience to the leadership is often regarded as being equivalent to obedience to God, and their teachings are accorded an authority equal, if not superior to the teachings of the Bible or other religious books. According to Christian teaching it is the teaching of the Bible that is truly authoritative, and it is to the Bible that all, especially Christian leaders, should submit (Gal. 1:8-9). No-one is at liberty to “make up” the truth, it is something uniquely revealed by God himself (Gal. 1:11-12).
3) A theological elitism.
Most cult members are convinced that they, and they alone, possess the truth, and that every other group is wrong. In this they resemble the early Gnostics, who, whilst accepting much of the teaching of the Bible, claimed to have found a special extra “gnosis” (knowledge) which was a prerequisite for salvation. The Bible will have nothing to do with a creed that seeks its justification in special knowledge or experiences (Col. 2:16-19).
4) The end justifies the means.
Because the cults believe they alone possess the truth, they are often willing to use deception and dishonesty for the greater good of winning recruits. So the Family engaged in “flirty fishing”, using the physical attractiveness of their female members to appeal to young men. The Moonies have often refused to admit who they are, operating under, at one count, 380 different names, including the International Religious Foundation, The Universal Ballet Company and the New York City Tribune. Christian teachers should renounce any attempt to persuade through deception (2 Cor. 4:2).
5) A doubtful use of money.
Many of the cults run into financial scandal. The Reverend Moon has been jailed for tax fraud, many organisations have been under investigation for similar offences, and cult leaders tend to live lives of enormous and ostentatious luxury. This is sometimes based on an extremely dubious reading of certain Bible passages.
“You give $1 for the gospel’s sake and $100 belongs to you. You give $10 and you receive $1,000; give $100 and receive $10,000. Give one airplane and receive one hundred times the value of the airplane. In short Mark 10.30 is a very good deal.” 1
By contrast the true Christian teacher is always concerned for financial probity, and genuine sincerity (2 Cor. 2:17-18).
6) Another Gospel
Essentially cults are a distortion of Christian truth, and reveal an inadequate understanding of the fundamentals of the faith. Even those groups that proclaim a faith in Jesus Christ fail to understand the person and work of Christ. They replace the authority of the Bible with their own teachings, be they the Book of Mormon, or Charles Taze Russell’s Scripture Studies.
“If [anyone] had merely read the Scripture Studies….. and had not read a page of the Bible as such, he would be in the light at the end of two years.” 2
They deny the finished work of Christ on the Cross:
“People have been taught, falsely, that “Christ completed the plan of salvation on the cross” – when actually it was only begun there…” 3
And they replace the historic Christian faith with heresy:
“God is now throwing Christianity away and establishing a new religion, and this new religion is the Unification Church.” 4
For the Christian, however the sufficiency of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, the finished nature of his work on the Cross, and the completeness of the biblical revelation are non-negotiable (2 Tim. 3:17, John 1:1, Heb. 9: 24-28, Jude 1:3).
A Response to the Cults
The best defence against all forms of false teaching is to acquaint ourselves with the truth (2 Tim. 2:15). The clearer our understanding of truth, the more easily we will be able to spot the lie. Many cults have teaching that is muddled and that changes constantly, and it is thus hard to identify clearly what is being taught. In fact the content of the teaching is less important within the group than the person who is teaching it.
But the ease with which some groups pass from being acceptable Christian churches to organisations with cult-like tendencies should warn us against any form of complacency. In particular we should beware in these areas:
a) The governance of a group. Christ is the true head of the church (Eph. 5:23), and human leaders should only be servants, not masters (Mark 10:42-45). They must not exercise their authority in an over-coercive way (2 Cor. 7:2).
b) The definition of a group. Most cults have an extremely clearly defined membership – you are either in or out. It has been well said that a church without a fringe is a cult (James 2:1-7).
c) The methods of a group. Most cults use deception, or dishonesty in recruitment. The Bible commends absolute honesty and openness.
d) The teaching of a group. Too often the teaching of particular leader replaces the unique authority and sufficiency of the Bible.
e) The finances of a group. They should be open and above reproach. True religion is not about making money at others’ expense (1 Thess. 2:9).
f) The elitism of a group. Beware any group that seems to suggest they, and they alone have the truth.
The best way of dealing with members of cults tends not to be to attack, rather to listen, and learn. There usually comes a time when the member will begin to feel disillusioned, and he / she will more readily listen to someone with whom there is a genuine relationship of trust. In addition there are a number of organisations, and agencies which can provide help, support and advice.
J. Allan, Shopping for a god (Leicester, 1986)
J. Bjornstad, The Moon is not the Sun (Minneapolis, USA, 1976)
R. Chandler, Understanding the New Age (Dallas and Milton Keynes 1988)
R.M. Enroth, Churches that Abuse (Grand Rapids, USA, 1992)
R.M.Enroth & Others, A Guide to Cults and New Religions, (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1983)
A.A. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults (Grand Rapids, USA, 1983)
J. McDowell & D. Stewart, A Concise Guide to Today’s Religions (California and Amersham 1988)
W.R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis, USA, 1992)
S.M. Wookey, When a Church Becomes a Cult (London, 1996)