Are you in a cult? Nobody ever answers that question “yes”.
Yes, I am a follower of Zorg who tells me what to think, and instructs me on life from the time I awake each day, until he summons me to bed each night. I live to do what Zorg desires because Zorg loves me and knows best. Zorg is from the planet Org, and he hears their psychic transmissions. The Orgians are coming to get us soon, and we’ll all have one cosmic Orgy.
Dude, you’re in a cult.
No! Zorg told us you’d say that! When the Orgians come for us, you’re going to be so sorry you missed the cosmic Orgy, and then they are going to destroy Earth to make room for a new Org. You’ll get blasted into eternal stardust with all the other unbelievers.
All righty then. Enjoy your life. Bu-bye!
Cults are destructive, oppressive, life-sucking zombie-producing groups that enrich their leaders at everyone else’s expense. Cult members drink poisoned Kool-Aid, murder whole families, and serve as willing objects of sexual abuse by monomaniacal autocrats. Nobody wants to be in a cult.
But people are in them. Lots of people. Replace that line about Zorg with some real cult (if there are any Zorgians who are offended that I used your cult, please forgive me, I am a very unenlightened soul who never studied Zorg in college) and you’ve probably heard someone say almost exactly those words. Then you told them they’re in a cult, and they denied it.
People stay in cults because only people outside the cult see the cult. From the inside, it’s a mirror ball designed to focus you on the thought that you and your fellow cultists are right and everyone outside the ball is wrong. Mind control? Very much so. Why don’t those poor souls in cults see it? They don’t see it precisely because they don’t think they’re in a cult.
Cults and genuine faith are difficult to discern, and for many, they look so alike that there’s no difference at all. But there is a huge difference. You might even be in a cult and not realize it. There are some simple tests we can use to find out.
Here are eight signs you might be in a cult.
Sign #1: All your friends believe just like you do
People like friends who share their beliefs. That’s only natural. As you get older, you make new friends, and lose some old friends. That’s natural too. When there’s a pattern, where all your new friends believe just like you do in the same doctrine, church, or group, and there’s no dissension at all, that’s a sure sign of a cult. When those new friends start to pressure you to drop your old friends, because they don’t believe, that’s a big, red, flashing sign reading “warning: cult ahead!”
I’m not referring to political parties, although this sometimes happens with dyed-in-the-wool party faithful. Some political parties resemble cults in their fervor (I won’t mention them—Libertarians—oops I slipped), but they are not cults. They are just strong believers in their own solutions.
Cults don’t withstand outside scrutiny very well, so they encourage people to exclusively associate with other cult members in the extreme cases. In the more subtle cults, you’re not limited in your associations, but you are “guided” to seek advice only from the “approved” sources, like your friends inside the cult. Old friends outside the cult are met with suspicion.
If you’ve had a friend since high school, and you were best men at each other’s weddings, and he suddenly stops calling you to ask advice like he used to, start asking questions. If you live close enough, visit. If he suddenly gives you the warm handshake and the cold shoulder, and avoids personal subjects, yet asks all kinds of personal questions from you, your cult sense should be tingling.
If you find yourself feeling awkward around your old pals, and your new friends are encouraging you to seek their advice them before you accept old friends’ advice, you might be headed for cult membership. It’s time to check yourself and check your new friends.
Sign #2: Nobody questions authority
Most groups have some authority structure in the form of a leader or guiding principles. Even anarchist groups have leaders—anonymous and hidden though they may be. A group without a leader is a drinking club, but still someone has to buy the booze and pour.
Within a cult, you’re not really encouraged to question authority, but to submit to it. There’s nothing wrong with submitting to authority. Romans 13:1-2 says
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
Cults which rely on the Bible will pound this one (and others like 1 Corinthians 7:3-4) into your mind so that you don’t ever question their authority. If you are being told that your church is built on a unique authority or revelation, but you shouldn’t question the validity of that authority or the truthfulness of that revelation, you should take a second look.
Cults are built on unquestioning loyalty. In this way, every military service in the world functions like a cult. The recruits are broken down, given a new mindset of instant and unquestioning obedience, and taught deadly skills. This enables them to run to the sound of gunfire and place their lives in danger. The main difference between the military and a cult is that military service is more or less temporary, and leaders change frequently.
Some rather well-known military cults have gotten out of hand. The Nazi SS and the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII are two examples. A modern day example might be the North Korean army, although you could also argue the whole country is one big cult.
If you’re in an organization where unquestioning loyalty and obedience to authority is demanded (aside from the military), you may be a cult member.
Sign #3: The source of authority is vested in a person.
Living or dead, most cults have their genesis rooted in an individual, whose special skills, revelation, or understanding have a unique, exclusive quality and magnetism to which people are drawn.
This is especially true of religious cults. They almost always, I say again always, have one person as the source of authority and doctrine. This personal foundation is also what separates entire religions from each other. Christian apologist and author Ravi Zacharias said
We often hear that all religions are the same, but this is not true. They are superficially the same, but they are fundamentally different.
The fundamental difference lies not in how religious ceremonies, rites and rituals are carried out, but in their source of authority and truth. Islam is based on Mohammed’s revelations, Christianity is based on Jesus Christ, Judaism is based on the Law of Moses. All claim their authority is ultimately from God. The specific claims of one religion’s authority cannot always be true unless the other religions are false. This is called exclusivity.
There’s a simple test we can apply to religious groups to determine the source of their authority. Just follow the root and find single sources of revelation. It’s obvious that if Mohammed was a false prophet then Islam would be false, or if there were no God then most monotheistic religions would be false. But these are hard to prove without substantial philosophical, historical and metaphysical argument, and I am not interested in proving or disproving them for this purpose. I mean a simple test, and within the bounds of a particular religious tradition (so don’t email me saying that all of Christianity is a cult).
Since I know Christianity best, I’ll use that for my examples. The Seventh Day Adventist church professes 28 fundamental beliefs. Number 18 is entitled “The Gift of Prophecy” and states in part:
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen. G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction.
The simple test is this: would the Seventh Day Adventist beliefs survive independently if Ellen G. White were a false prophet? I am not arguing whether she is or is not, but you see how the test makes this question very clear. If a Seventh Day Adventist would defend Ellen G. White’s standing as a prophet above the Bible she preached from, that’s a sign.
Let’s apply the same test to the Jehovah’s Witnesses: if Charles Taze Russell was a false prophet, would their doctrine fall apart? For Mormons, if Joseph Smith’s teaching was false, would there be a need for the LDS church? Outside the Christian world, would Scientology survive the debunking of L Ron Hubbard?
A final example: would the Assemblies of God survive if it turned out that William J. Seymour faked the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles?
Full disclosure: I am a member of the Assemblies of God. I’ve asked that question, and the answer is that the AG would continue to thrive. Seymour was a preacher like any other man, and his doctrine carries no special weight. Only Scripture informs AG doctrine. AG has survived worse scandals with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, without falling apart. This is true of most Protestant denominations; they may interpret scripture differently, but they do not weight any one person’s authority as its equal.
If you find yourself part of a group that bases its doctrine and truth on one person, whether they are alive or dead, you need to ask some hard questions. If you find yourself or your peers immediately getting defensive at the mere suggestion that questions the authenticity, truthfulness or authority of the person whose name adorns your group’s most sacred traditions and writings, you ought to check yourself for other signs of being a cult member, because this sign is a big one all on its own.
Sign #4: There is no independent evidence of that person’s authority
I am declaring myself the world’s coconut bowling champion. Nobody is better at coconut bowling than me. I know this to be true. That’s because I just invented coconut bowling. I am making up the rules as I’m writing this. If you have your own version of coconut bowling, it’s not the authentic coconut bowling since I am the authoritative source of all knowledge for coconut bowling.
Of course, i’ve never tried coconut bowling, and I’ve never written down the rules. Until I do, you have no reason to trust my authority to determine who the champion is (it’s me though). My point is that genuine authority cannot be claimed unless it’s independently witnessed and testified to.
Once again, I’ll use Christianity as my example. According to the New Testament, Jesus never claimed authority without testimony. There was the genealogy testifying to Jesus’ direct lineage from King David; there was the journey of the wise men to worship Jesus; there was John the Baptist’s testimony and baptism of Jesus (John was also a first-person hearer of Mary and Joseph’s testimony of the virgin birth); there were the disciples who were witnesses of Jesus’ miracles. And Jesus never had to eat his words.
Another simple test: has the group’s leader ever written or said something and then been forced to “walk back” their words? Every single person who has ever claimed to know the date of Jesus’ return to Earth has had to eat their words. There’s a few who claim they are Jesus (one of them must be wrong, as Mark Knopfler wrote). The late Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, made two predictions of Christ’s return: May 21, 2011, and then October 21, 2011. I don’t doubt Camping’s sincerity in his quest for the ultimate mystery of Christianity, but I doubt his mental state when he made the predictions. He died in December 2013 at 92 years old.
If Camping’s followers started a religion, it would be a cult, pure and simple, based on false teachings. Camping had no authority to claim a date for Christ’s return. Jesus said in Matthew 24:35-36: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” If you make claims of authority regarding Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is not your witness, you’re in cult territory.
Beware groups whose source of authority lacks evidence. It leads to blind faith, and blind faith is never good. Never.
Sign #5: Doctrine must not be questioned
It might start out as a Bible study. The teacher is dynamic, wise, and learned in the Bible. Everyone enjoys his way of communicating difficult concepts and breaking them down into easy to understand lessons. The guy is a flat-out awesome teacher and his teaching becomes popular.
At first, the teacher takes questions, and honestly tells you when he doesn’t know the answer. You spend time together learning the Scriptures and digging into its rich treasures. Then, when the teacher becomes well-known and popular, and writes a few books, he becomes less accessible. Those same mysteries you used to study together become less interesting study subjects, and more doctrinal in nature.
Soon you find that if you question what’s written in the books, you get one of three answers:
- It’s a mystery, and that’s all we know
- That’s just the way it is, we can’t change it
- Stop asking questions, it causes division among the faithful
Of course, there are mysteries in the Bible, and scientific mysteries in the universe: how the mind works, what happens to matter in a black hole, how the Trinity really works. We don’t know and are unlikely to solve these anytime soon, if ever. They are simply beyond the veil of our knowledge.
When you are criticized for even questioning, that’s the sign of a cult. Knowledge and learning thrive on questioning and challenging what is known and what isn’t known. When what is known directly contradicts what’s being taught, or just doesn’t line up with the group’s doctrine, it’s time to ask questions and challenge doctrine.
Authentic groups welcome the challenge in any form. With matters of faith, God is not afraid to be questioned: he made us, so why would he oppose his creation asking questions or challenging His words? I’m not talking about rebellion and questioning God’s truth. That’s a whole different subject for another post (see Eve and the serpent). I mean questions of faith and the heart.
If your group, directly or indirectly—through peer pressure—discourages questioning of its values, doctrines, or teachings, you should mentally note that this is what cults do. Any group that can’t stand by its teachings without punishing the questioner is not a group I’d want to join, and if you value independent thought, you should avoid them too.
Sign #6: Secrecy and excommunication
If someone were to leave your church, do they get a phone call asking where they’ve been? It’s actually a good practice to call people who haven’t attended in a while. Maybe they’ve been sick and need prayer. Maybe they were hurt by you or someone in your group. It’s better to know these things than to just assume that people come and go on their own.
When the phone call or visit turns from a simple “how have you been” to “you have betrayed the group” or “your salvation is in jeopardy”, that’s moving toward a cult.
Some groups require their members to take oaths of secrecy when they join. Freemasons have this practice. The oaths are supposed to be in effect even if you leave the organization (called a “demit”). Former Masons are not to speak about the rites, rituals, and writings of Freemasonry. This practice has made Freemasonry widely viewed as a cult.
Secrecy in itself doesn’t make a group a cult. Some rituals are deeply personal, and some programs are designed to use surprise as a tool to help teach hard concepts. One example is the Tres Dias Christian movement. Tres Dias (and its sister movements called Walk to Emmaus and Cursillo) community members are discouraged from publicly discussing some aspects of the three day teaching weekends. From personal experience, I can tell you that Tres Dias is not a cult, but some people are frightened of the secrecy. There are no oaths or penalties involved for members who let the cat out of the bag, but it ruins the experience, like telling the guest of honor about his own surprise party.
Secrecy, when in combination with disfellowship or shunning of former members, is one of the hallmarks of a cult. Remember that cults perpetuate themselves by keeping outsiders at a distance, and keeping insiders within a bubble that reflects all feedback and discourages questions. Secrecy and oaths are one of the ways that cults keep members in and outsiders out.
If you are in an organization which discourages you from speaking to former members, or hushes up those who leave as a scandalous event, flee. Even if the group you’re in isn’t a cult, it’s better to separate yourself from people who consider themselves above basic human courtesy, who don’t seek reconciliation with those who disagree.
This doesn’t mean that your church should be forced to fellowship with individuals or groups who are diametrically opposed to your own church’s teaching. It means that when people who are in your group leave, if there are bridges to burn, it shouldn’t be you who burns them.
Sign #7: Discerning faith from a cult
This isn’t as much a sign of a cult as it is a lesson in recognizing true faith. When banks train tellers to detect counterfeit bills, they don’t go through the Secret Service’s big book of counterfeits. They train the tellers to recognize the real bills. The feel, the size, the color, the markings of real currency are a combination that is, by design, very difficult to duplicate. Anything that’s the slightest bit “off” is examined more closely, and that’s how counterfeits are detected.
The best way to detect a cult is to discern real faith. A few simple principles can help us here.
- Faith bears questioning. We’ve covered this in the negative form, that cults discourage questioning. Too many churches teach the Word of God without allowing natural questions to arise. The Bible says God created the universe in seven days. Is it wrong to question that against scientific evidence? Is it wrong to look at reconciling those beliefs? There are thousands of examples in the Bible I could use. True faith does not shy away from difficult questions, and therefore true faith is not blind faith. It’s anything but blind.
- God has a reason for everything. When cause and effect break down, that’s a problem. Inconsistency in one doctrine leads to confusion and cross-purposes. For example, if a verse in the Bible were to say it’s an abomination for a man to lie with a man, and another verse were to say not to condemn a homosexual, we’d have a basic inconsistency and we’d be right to question God’s reasoning (the Bible doesn’t say that, by the way, its view on homosexuality is consistent and coherent). The Bible says “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). If you can’t connect all the teachings and doctrines in your group and keep them coherent, then you need to question what you are being taught.
- God is not afraid of a challenge. This is the corollary to point 2. When difficult concepts seem to be incoherent, challenge them. The Bible is either God’s word, or it isn’t. God’s word is not going to be incoherent, because it’s God. God didn’t make the universe incoherent (if He did, we couldn’t live in it), so His word and our faith can stand up to a challenge. If you think God did something that doesn’t make sense, it’s more likely the way you were taught or the way you understand than the way God intended it to be. If you recognize that God doesn’t fear a challenge, then you can break through any false teaching and escape any cult.
- Study produces more faith along with more challenges. The Bible says “Study to show yourself approved” (2 Timothy 2:15). Studying the Bible will always lead to more knowledge, and studying with faith applied will always build more faith. It also leads to more challenges, as you develop more questions. We will never know all the answers to all our questions in this life. Any group which bans or discourages a particular Bible book, or bases its interpretations on one single translation of the source texts, is suspect. Knowledge is gained by many people studying, not by one person handing down edicts.
- True mysteries are a reward, not a patch over a hole. A lifetime of study won’t answer all our questions. We will never know what Heaven is like. We will never know the true nature of the Trinity. We will never know the fullness of Christ’s mercy, or the Father’s love. We will never know if certain loved ones are in Heaven. The transom of death only goes one way, and we must pass through it to see clearly. Hebrews 11:13 says “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” We will receive the rewards of our faith one day. Mysteries are not for us to stop questioning or pursuing truth; if they are become a barrier, then they are being misused. Most cults are built around great mysteries. Real faith doesn’t treat them so much as mysteries but more as unknown rewards. I can’t wait to find out for myself.
Sign #8: True faith is supported by reality
This last sign is fairly easy to understand. Going back to Zorg, if the only reference to Zorg and Org and the Orgians came from me, you’d correctly count me crazy. That’s because there’s no basis in reality for me to make this claim. Only slightly more reality-based is a cult called Heaven’s Gate, who you might remember suffered 39 suicides in 1997 when the promised spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet failed to beam them up.
Hale-Bopp was at least a real comet, but that’s where reality ends. There was zero evidence that a spaceship was trailing the comet, zero evidence that the promised aliens would end the world. In 2012, the remaining members of that cult were still waiting to be whisked away. They will wait forever, because it’s not going to happen.
There are more whack-a-do cults on this planet than you might think. People are searching for something more real than their boring day-in-day-out lives, and just about anything could attract followers, no matter how ridiculous. These extreme examples have something in common with the more popular groups operating today. It doesn’t matter if the disconnect from reality is big or small, if faith can’t relate to real things, then it’s false. If a group’s teachings on faith don’t result in real changes, then that faith is in false things.
If Scientology really could produce spontaneous healing, telekinesis, mind control, and power over nature, then we’d all join up today. I’m sorry, followers of L Ron Hubbard, but your faith in his fictional book is false. You might say that about Christianity too. But miracles (unexplained events like spontaneous healing) do happen, and Christians never claim that miracles are the exclusive domain of televangelists or laying on of hands, but they are the sovereign will of God.
I can’t explain the peace I have inside or the change to my personality, my outside, that occurred when I put my faith in Christ. I know it’s real, and my friends know it’s real. They know I’m a better person for it, and not because all my friends are Christians…many of them are not. The Christian’s prize is to be more like Christ. Paul writes in Philippians 3:14
I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
This is the goal, to be in Christ Jesus, to be like Him, in deed, in thought, in speech. It’s not an easy goal, and in fact it’s impossible without faith, and without divine help. There is absolutely no way I can achieve pressing toward the goal secretly. As I grow in God, all who see me see more of God. That’s the result of true faith.
If you’re in a religion or a group that teaches that you need to make this journey without divine aid, or that you must do it without the security of knowing you are in Christ Jesus (secure in salvation), then your faith should be challenged. Is it real? Do people see more of God in you or just a better version of you being you?
There is only one goal that God has for us. John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
If there’s anything added to that goal, or any requirement preceding it, it’s not true faith. At least not if you call yourself a Christian.
If you’ve read this and you see yourself exhibiting several of these signs, the best answer is to get a Bible. Any translation will do, except the one you’re using now. Sit down like a child who has never read it, and begin reading. Start with the book of John. Read the words and verses for the first time, as someone who has never read the Bible before. (By the way, that’s how I came to faith, honestly, absolutely true).
There is only one way out of a cult and false teaching, and that’s learning the truth. It has always be thus, and it always shall be. John 8:31-32.
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”