Supporting Article

Discerning a Cult


The following article is excerpted from a course being developed for use in China that teaches about cults. It deals with the characteristics of cults that will help a believer in Christ to discern between an orthodox church and a cult.

Doctrine can serve as a definitive plumb line to discern and identify whether a teaching or a group is a cult or not. In addition, since cults exhibit some common characteristics, these characteristics can serve as warning signals that can alert us to investigate further. A doctrinally orthodox church may display a few of the extreme practices or characteristics listed here; however, when a group exhibits a number of or most of the following characteristics, we need to pay special attention to it and be on our guard.

Authority and Exclusivity

The first thing to observe is the attitude of the followers towards their leaders. Cults strongly emphasize the status of their leaders. Cult leaders usually have strong to near absolute authority over their followers. Their position in the organization is definitive and unchallenged. Below is one example.

A cult, active in Shanghai, claims that complete submission to the leader can overcome sin. When followers are criticized or wronged by the leader, they must not answer for themselves but only say “Amen”; they must obey the leader absolutely. The leader’s authority can rival or equal that of God. Moreover, followers are expected to serve the leader: wash his clothing, prepare his meals, clean his residence, and so forth. These tasks are typical ways that the cult advocates the follower can deal with his or her sin, especially pride

To support this assertion of absolute authority and power within the cult, the leader may claim that he is God or Christ, or that he is the sole spokesman (prophet or apostle) for God in this age. Therefore, he is the only means by which believers can know the truth; only he can discern what is, and is not, truth. Since he claims his words are revelations from God, no one is allowed to raise questions, and he is not accountable to anyone for his teachings or actions.

Cult leaders also typically claim that their churches are the purest churches and the only true ones that belong to God. For example, one cult claims that it is the “church of the Son,” the only church that knows God. All other churches are “churches of the servant” (see Gal.4:22-23) and are secondary at best. One must join their church and obey their teachings in order to really know the truth and be saved. Some cult leaders may strongly criticize evangelical churches and accuse them of having gone astray. They do this to justify the necessity of their “new” teachings.

Control and Submission

Another characteristic of a cult is that it exercises undue control of its members and uses destructive, manipulative means to enforce their submission so they will remain obedient within the cult.

Mind control: Cults work hard to exercise control over the minds of their followers so they will follow their teachings and obey orders. Following is an example.

Pastor Zhang was the founder of a sect. Born and educated in China, he then left and studied at two well-known Bible seminaries in the United Kingdom. Although he taught believers to follow the teachings of the Bible, he also said he was the only one who had the authority to interpret and apply the Bible. He forbad believers to read biblical commentaries or books on theology or the church, and he kept them from attending any biblical institutions. He criticized famous theologians and insisted that his trainees write down his every word and master his teaching that denied the Trinity and deity of Christ. Since Pastor Zhang claimed he was a prophet who received direct revelation from God, everyone accepted his status as far superior to others and dared not raise any questions.

Cults use various means to control the minds of their followers.

  • Although believers may be allowed to read the Bible, the cult claims divine authority for the writings or preaching of its leader to the extent that they are equal or superior to the Bible.
  • Followers may be forced to listen daily, for long periods, to the designated sermons of the leader and study them intensely with others who make sure they come to the right conclusions.
  • Followers may be forbidden to read anything but the designated publications of the sect; they may be discouraged or forbidden to watch the news, read newspapers or books—especially theological books and Bible commentaries.
  • If someone raises a question or a doubt, cults may respond by casting doubt on the questioner’s spiritual life by saying that this type of thinking is suspicious, hurtful to the one questioning or unnecessary since “this cannot be explained as it is on a higher level.” Questioners may be told to be humble, and that “they will understand after a while.” Raising questions about the leader is usually taken as persecution of the leader and often treated as a very serious offence.
  • Followers often are required to report to their seniors their thoughts, feelings and actions.
  • Sleeping time for followers is often short so that their bodies and spirit are subject to prolonged fatigue which prevents them thinking clearly.

Control of social life: Cults usually seek to control the social life of their followers who may be asked to leave home or quit their studies to receive intensive training at the cult’s designated centers. This will show their commitment and loyalty. All those who live in the centers must strictly follow the center’s schedule and take part in all activities and meetings. Below is a weekday schedule of a cult center in Shanghai.

Time Activities
5:30~6:00 a.m. Get up and dress
6:00~7:30 a.m. Morning meeting
7:30~8:00 a.m. Breakfast 
8:30~9:00 a.m. Work in the cult’s language and computer school
9:00 a.m.~5:00 p.m. Work
3:00~8:00 p.m. Have love-feast and sharing at the meeting place
8:00~11:00 p.m. Pray and listen to sermons
11:00 p.m. Back to hostel to wash and sleep

Some cults control both the dress and diet of their followers and may arrange dates or marriages for them. They may announce these either openly or subtly and imply that adherence to these mandates is considered true self-renunciation and submission that leads to a higher level of spirituality. If members do not go to live in special centers, they arrange for them to attend many  meetings every week; consequently, they will not have time for family, friends or anything else. All these practices are designed to isolate the members from their families, their friends and social networks. As a result, followers become emotionally dependent on the cult and easier to control.

Control of behavior: To bring about the level of submission they want, cults will use various means to control the behavior of their followers so they dare not disobey or leave. 

  • They start making decisions for the followers. In many cults, everything must be done collectively according to the instructions of the sect. Under group pressure, members will accept and do things that previously they would not. Individuals dare not act on their own unless they seek permission in advance.
  • They laden followers with guilt and exaggerate their mistakes so that followers are convinced only the cult can help them. If followers express any lack of progress, the cult will say it is their own fault, they have not been serious about things, have not studied well, have not prayed enough, or are a mess—and thank goodness the cult is there to help them out.
  • They implement legalism and set up a strict reward-punishment system. Disobedience is usually severely punished. For example, one cult insisted that its followers listen to a set of sermons for 40 days. Missing just one day meant that person would be forced to listen to the same set of sermons for 120 days. On the other hand, those that obeyed without hesitation or question were assigned positions of authority to increase their sense of belonging. Those who disobeyed were rebuked openly, then had to confess and repent openly before they could be accepted again.  
  • They intimidate followers. Cult leaders may claim that anyone who disobeys or leaves the cult will experience disaster, fall into the hands of the devil, lose their salvation or their family members will suffer hardship and be cursed—the list is almost endless.
  • They reject those who leave. Cultic groups never let a person leave with a blessing; those who leave pay a price. The cult may ruin the person’s reputation, go after their loved ones, hassle and stalk the person leaving, or even physically hurt that individual. Death threats are not uncommon. At a minimum, they may shun and shame the individual, pronounce accusations, announce he or she has fallen, is worse than an infidel or should be shunned and so on.   

Secrecy and Darkness

We also need to evaluate a sect’s transparency and whether it bears the fruit of light or of darkness. Cults usually want to hide their identity and not work openly. Accountability and transparency are foreign to a cult. Truthfulness is at best a selective virtue. The individual must be totally truthful to cult leaders, but it is permissible to lie to parents, to other authority figures, or in order to lure people to their meetings.

Some evangelical groups are secretive because they must be careful about authorities breaking up their meetings and arresting them. However, for a cult, the purpose of secrecy is to keep others from knowing what its true intentions are. Secrecy is used as a tool to lure followers and maintain control over its members. Below is an example.

This sect, that conducts its meetings at night, is skillful in organizing ad hoc meetings but never tells participants specifically the venue, only giving a rough indication of the location. Before each meeting, it reminds the participants repeatedly not to tell anyone—including spouses, parents and children—where they are going. Their preachers never tell people their real names and addresses saying they are not home during the day or it is inconvenient to give out their contact information. If they should provide addresses, information or family background, the details are false.

When asked about this secrecy, they say it is because now is the time God acts in secret. They also say that in order to protect themselves, it is not necessary for others to know much about them. They claim they are Christ’s apostles in the new age and they must be as shrewd as snakes. Therefore, it is all right to tell lies as long as one intends to lead someone to the right way.

This sect is very careful in their communication which runs only from top to bottom. The higher one’s position, the more people one can connect with. However, people cannot communicate directly with those in authority over them and have no idea about the situation of their superiors.

Abnormal Changes in Goal and Conduct

If we are watching the effect of a cult on a church member, we need to pay attention to any sudden or abnormal changes in the life goals and conduct of the cult member. Since cults seek to exercise comprehensive control in the lives of their followers, the goals and conduct of their members will undergo dramatic change.  Following are some examples.

Life Goals

  • Lack of enthusiasm for work or study; suddenly giving up a business, job, or study.
  • Sudden canceling of a wedding with a weak or lame excuse.
  • Sudden lose of interest in normal hobbies and activities with a focus on things the individual does not want to talk about. Using phrases such as, “You won’t understand,” or similar ones.
  • Sudden abandonment of normal routine with an announcement that he or she is going to a secretive center to learn to preach.

Conduct

  • Spends all his or her savings and sells all personal valuables such as mobile phones and computers.
  • Borrows money from family or friends expressing a monetary need without specifying the purpose (or lying about it).
  • Becomes very quiet and secretive, or may continually boast about his or her church and its leaders.
  • Behaves secretly; goes out very early and comes back very late; avoids people he or she was once close to; refuses to speak of activities or with whom he or she is spending time.
  • Sudden decision to move out and live with others (with no details given).
  • Feels tired and gives evidence of sleep or food deprivation.

Summation

It does not necessarily follow that people showing the above changes are cult members while those who do not are orthodox. As mentioned earlier, some of these things can apply to some evangelical house churches; nevertheless, these things can serve as warnings to alert us if we need to make a further examination of a church or group. If someone observes a number of these characteristics in a group, or if a person undergoes some of the changes mentioned above, it would be good to take a closer look at the group or individual using the plumb line of doctrinal truth.

This article is adapted from “Guard Against and Refute Heresy, Revised,” a course developed by the Curriculum Department of SALT (Systematic Asian Leadership Training). Copyright ©2015 by SALT. Used with permission.

Image Credit: Watch Out! by Steve Calcott, on Flickr