Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What is a Cult?

This material was written by Jim Moran in his two articles - Character Traits of Aberrational Cultic Groups and What is a Cult? I think it is interesting how he combines theological and sociological definitions.

What is a Cult?

As we consider the definition of what a cult is, we must hold firmly to the conviction that the Bible is the inspired, authoritative Word of God, the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The claims of Christians and the cults alike must be evaluated in light of the Bible. The founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), the late Walter Martin, articulately stated this premise.

    Our standard in examining the beliefs of the new cults is the Bible. It will be the final arbiter in the cults' challenge to Christianity. The Bible declares that certain articles of Christian faith are essential to salvation - namely, the Being and nature of God, the Person and work of Christ, His sacrificial death and bodily resurrection, man's natural condition and opportunity for salvation, the means of salvation, and Christ's ultimate return and reconciliation of all things to the Father. These are the areas we must examine in our journey through the labyrinth of cultic doctrine. Does the group support the doctrine of the trinity of God, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace, and the second coming of Christ? If, upon examining the literature of the group, we find that it denies these essential doctrines, then we must classify it as a cult, seriously at variance with God's Word.1

Walter Martin defines cults and cultism in his books, Martin Speaks Out on the Cults and The New Cults this way:

    By cultism we mean the adherence to major doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity, yet which claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodox sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources. Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. A cult, then, is a group of people polarized around someone's interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith....2

    By "cult," we mean a group, religious in nature, which surrounds a leader or a group of teachings which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrines. Most cults have a single leader, or a succession of leaders, who claim to represent God's voice on earth and who claim authority greater than that of the Bible. The cultic teaching claims to be in harmony with the Bible but denies one or more of the cardinal doctrines presented therein.3

Former research associates of Walter Martin, Robert and Gretchen Passantino, set forth this definition of a cult in their book, Answers to the Cultist at Your Door:

    ...we define the general word "cult" to mean a group of religious people who follow teachings and practices that deviate significantly from historic Christianity and the central doctrines of the Bible. A cult is usually founded and led by a single person or a small and "spiritual" elite....We are not using the term "cult" in a derogatory sense, but only as it refers to aberrant teachings and practices - teachings and practices that are not Biblical. Cults either claim to be Christian and Biblical or say that they are at least compatible with Christianity.4

Dave Breese offers this definition of a cult in his book, Know the Marks of Cults:

    A cult is a religious perversion. It is a belief and practice in the world of religion which calls for devotion to a religious view or leader centered in false doctrine. It is an organized heresy. A cult may take many forms, but it is basically a religious movement which distorts or warps orthodox faith to the point where truth becomes perverted into a lie. A cult is impossible to define except against the absolute standard of the teaching of Holy Scripture. When contrasted to biblical truth, a cult is seen to have distinguishing marks by which it can be labeled as being fatally sub-Christian.

In his book The New Cults (Regal Books, 1980), Walter Martin features a list of ten character traits that spell out, in no uncertain terms, the sentiment of Walter Martin and his research staff in regards to cultic activity. Here are some brief excerpts:

    Cults, new as well as old, are usually started by strong and dynamic leaders who are in complete control of their followers. The power such leaders exercise is said to be supernatural and to come from either personal revelation or personal "anointing" from some idea of God....All cults possess some Scripture that is either added to or which replaces the Bible as God's Word....All of the cults we will examine in some way add to or change the Bible....The new cults have rigid standards for membership and accept no members who will not become integrally involved in the group....Those who dare to deviate from the cult's norm are immediately disciplined and, if unrepentant, ostracized completely from the group and its members....The primary prerequisite for becoming an important voice within a cult is, surprisingly, the ability to be a follower. One must obey each and every tenet of the cult and must exemplify, in every way, ideal cult membership. Then and only then is one in a position to rise within the organization....In harmony with Christian theology, the new cults all believe that there is continual, ongoing communication from God....The cults emphasize experience rather than theological reasoning, and new revelation is just one form of new experience....The new cults claim to have truth not available to any other groups or individuals. Usually this new truth is said to be a "restoration" of the "pure" Christianity which was, according to them, corrupted at some time in early church history. With this claim to exclusivity comes a definite aloofness from the rest of the world. The particular cult is the only bastion of truth, and as such is the only haven for truth-seekers. This logically develops to a dangerous state of isolation for the cult....The last major characteristic of the new cults concerns cultic vocabulary. Each cult has an initiate vocabulary by which it describes the truths of its revelation. Sometimes the "in words" of a particular cult are the words of orthodox Christianity, but vested with new meanings....At other times the cult may coin new words or phrases....Although different cult experts would perhaps add to or subtract from the above list of cultic characteristics, we have presented here all of the essential marks which distinguish many of the new cults from the rest of society and from the biblical Christian church. By using these warning signals, we can be prepared to identify and to evangelize these new cults which are springing up continuously in America today (pages 17-21).

Character Traits of Aberrational Cultic Groups

The following characteristics of aberrational cultic groups have been adapted in part, and expanded upon, from a presentation by sociologist Ronald M. Enroth and are typical of many aberrational groups. The character traits outlined here represent such an extreme departure from Scripture that fellowship with groups in which one or more of them are manifested can prove detrimental to one's spiritual well-being. It is noteworthy that even genuine born-again believers, for a variety of reasons, can involve themselves with individual churches, Bible study groups, denominations, cults, and aberrational movements which are characterized by them. When confronting members about the claims of their faith, it may prove helpful to ask them what their own definition of a cult is and then confront them with the conclusions others have come to. The detailed bibliography and further recommended reading substantiates them fully.

The control of the movement is vested in one or more persons who are accountable to no one else but God. These persons are to be considered absolutely above reproach! A system of checks and balances is non-existent. The sole responsibility of interpreting the Bible and the formulation of the group's beliefs and practices rests with them. Leaders and their teachings are never to be questioned. Questioning the group's leader(s) is tantamount to questioning God Himself. God speaks to and through these leaders by means of audible voices, inner leadings, and visions. These leaders may hold titles such as the apostle, bishop, deputy authority, father, mother, oracle, prophet, seer, and so on.

The beliefs and practices of the group will deviate sharply from orthodoxy. The essentials of the faith will be compromised. The nature of God, including that of the Trinity, will be maligned. God is humanized, man is deified, sin is minimized, the Scriptures are ostracized, a different Jesus is publicized, and a very different gospel evangelized. Salvation by grace is compromised. Familiar doctrinal terms may be redefined and new ones invented to support the beliefs and practices of the group. The group's more objectionable beliefs and practices may be veiled from the public eye. Group members may be subjected to immense indoctrination. The group may also prepare and distribute its own printed literature with the intent to propagate their heresy. Only safe reading materials are permitted and recommended to the membership.

The theology of a particular group may dictate following subjective experience over one's own knowledge, negating discernment skills, and placing into doubt the sufficiency of revelation found in the Scriptures. Group members may exalt personal emotion, feelings, enthusiasm, and their experiences over doctrine, creating their own standard of orthodoxy that becomes their sole means to judge others by. Expressions such as anointing, drinking, eating, enjoying, feeling, leading, and touching are taken to extremes and may be commonplace.

The movement believes that it stands head and shoulders above all other existing Christian groups. Some groups believe they represent the whole truth and nothing but the truth - they are the one true church, the only family of God, the only true expression of God and His work on earth today during this age. They believe that they are God's special chosen people. They believe that God will treat them favorably in this age and in the ages to come. No one outside of the group can be saved or expect to receive the full blessings of God that are available only as a member in good standing with the group.

Such groups, encouraged on by leadership, will harshly judge individual Christian churches, denominations, and organizations based upon their own beliefs and practices. Others are considered apostate, divisive, fallen, sectarian, enemies of God, and agents of Satan. One is also expected to suffer loss at the hands of others and must therefore burn all bridges behind them to remain completely faithful to God. This mentality usually results in the destruction of close family ties, existing friendships, previous lifestyles, and activities.

Such groups under controlled leadership develop a persecution complex and are told to expect it from the outside world. Persecution validates the truthfulness of the movement and its own messianic cause. Close family members and others who claim to be Christians are not to be trusted. They are to be thought of as the instruments of Satan who are caught up in the entrapments of this world system. Group members may develop acute cases of paranoia and will learn to size up those who enter their midst.

Group leaders may give excessive advice, care, and love to members to influence their decision- making and to bolster the leader's position of spiritual maturity, authority, and control over the group. Many will join such groups to receive this attention that is regrettably not obtainable elsewhere. In some instances they may welcome such given guidance and control. Members will be taken advantage of under the guise of perceivable spirituality by self-seeking leaders. Leaders may also employ unethical practices of behavior and conduct to gain and retain members.

Group members are expected to conform to certain standards of behavior and appearance. Fear, guilt, and peer pressure may be employed to obtain the desired level of conformity and commitment to the group and its cause. Activities may be structured to bring about desired responses. Loyalty to the group and its cause comes first. Individuality may be severely shunned. One's ability to think independently and clearly may be hampered and one may not be given adequate time to reflect upon what is taught. Weekly meetings and daily activities may leave little time for group members to associate with those outside the movement. Shared religious and social activities of the group will draw its members closer together, resulting in emotional bonding that strengthens the group's hold on its members. This results in the distancing of members from those outside the group. A tightly run communal environment further restricts contact with others and plays an important role in the shaping of one's behavioral pattern and style of living.

Groups may employ fear, guilt, intimidation, public humiliation, harsh language, and may even resort to abusive physical violence to bring and keep their members in line. One's illness may be perceived as the evidence of lack of faith or sinful living. Covenants, loyalty oaths, and pledges of support may be employed by the group and then later brought to light, should one part from the straight and narrow.

Those departing the true church may face hard adjustment elsewhere. They may have been taught, or fear, that leaving the group is tantamount to leaving God, His divine protection, and His favor. They have been programmed to stay in and may feel that they must settle for God's second best elsewhere. Members who have committed many years to the group must leave behind friends, social standing, and perhaps even financial security. Because they have been burned once already they will find it more difficult to trust others, including those in positions of church leadership, their families, and close friends they left behind. They may take with them the teachings of the group they belonged to and it may take many years for ex-members to re-adjust to the world they once left behind.


  1. Walter Martin, The New Cults (Regal: 1980) 15.
  2. Walter Martin, Martin Speaks Out on the Cults (Regal: 1983) 17-18.
  3. Walter Martin, The New Cults 16.
  4. Robert and Gretchen Passantino, Answers to the Cultist at Your Door (Harvest House: 1981) 14.
  5. Dave Breese, Know the Marks of Cults (Victor: 1986) 16.

Dr. Ronald Enroth presented his lecture, Churches on the Fringe, at the 1989 Rockford Conference on Discernment and Evangelism, co-sponsored by Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR) and Mount Carmel Outreach. Enroth's lecture is available in printed form in Contend for the Faith, a collection of papers presented at the conference, edited by Eric Pement of Cornerstone Apologetics Research Team. Enroth's own publication, Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1992), based upon his lecture and many years of thorough investigation is highly recommended. Cult Proofing Your Kids by Paul Martin (Zondervan, 1993) provides an excellent analysis of cult involvement. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen (Bethany House, 1991), describes in great detail the methods used by church leaders and others to bring and keep church members under strict control. Case studies presented reveal the significant amount of harm caused as the direct result of spiritual abuse. Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton (Oliver Nelson, 1991), focuses on how people set themselves up for failure and how they can be deceived by spiritually abusive churches and cults.

Actually, Jim Moran meant one particular group, writing these articles. However, many other groups have the same traits. Some groups may have just some of these traits. For example, some abusive churches may have no serious doctrinal deviations from the mainstream Christianity, though they still have practices mentioned here. These articles illustrate the principle that Jim Moran held - both doctrines and practices of the group should be considered.

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