Unmasking the Cults – An Introduction

(1 Peter 3:15) Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

1. Definition of a Cult

1.1 “A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.”(1)
1.2 Some observations:
1.2.1 The word “cult” is sometimes used to refer to any religious group. In fact, there are also cults of other religious systems (e.g., Nation of Islam).
1.2.2 All Christian denominations agree on the essential core of the Christian faith. The central core should not be confused with peripheral issues about which Christians can legitimately disagree. Core doctrines have been held throughout the ages and can be summarized by historic creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed (third or fourth century A.D.):

I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Church; the communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

1.2.3 This definition assumes that it is not to have a sincere belief. Some people say, “We all worship the same God,” or, “It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, as long as you do good.” This runs counter to the claims of Christ and historic Christianity.
1.3 Other terms
1.3.1 “Occult” – different from cults. Usually refers to spiritism, fortune-telling, and magic.
1.3.2 “Heresy” – “A teaching which directly opposes the essentials of the Christian faith, so that true Christians must divide themselves from those who hold it”(2) A heresy is a major deviance from Christian teaching.

2. Common Characteristics of Cults

2.1 Theological
2.1.1 Denial of the Trinity – Probably all cults deny the doctrine of the Trinity. Some deny the doctrine outright, and others redefine it so the doctrine is not orthodox (e.g., teaching three gods instead of one God who exists in three persons).
2.1.2 Denial of salvation by grace through faith – “Every cult ultimately teaches that we must save ourselves.”(3) Many place limits on his saving work, and say that Christ was unable to complete his mission, and that we must add our works.
2.1.3 Denial of the bodily resurrection – The bodily resurrection is central to the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15). Many cults spiritualize the resurrection.
2.1.4 Reduction of the absolute authority of Scripture – Some cults accuse the Bible of containing errors, or undermine it by calling it “old light” and adding the cult’s own teaching (“new light”). Some produce their own translations, which change certain doctrines, or introduce new books with greater authority.
2.1.5 Redefinition of Biblical terminology – Often the cultist will seem to agree with everything a Christian is saying. They are using Christian vocabulary, but redefining the terms (such as Jesus, the gospel, salvation, heaven).
2.1.6 Exclusive belief system – Cults often claim to have the sole corner on truth.
2.1.7 Other characteristics include an emphasis on direct revelations from God (particularly in the experience of the leaders), a fixation with end times, and an overemphasis on isolated Scriptures.

2.2 Practices of Cults

2.2.1 Authoritarianism – There is usually a dominant leader, and chains of command. In some cults, permission must be granted for many life decisions.
2.2.2 Stripping of past associations – Some cults require that the person renounce past associations, especially family members.
2.2.3 Unusual degree of commitment and zeal – Not a bad thing in itself. Many cults require great sacrifice and commitment.
2.2.4 Antagonism toward orthodox Christian denominations – “Cults sometimes expend considerable energy denouncing other religious groups – particularly Christian churches.”(4)
2.2.5 Love bombing – “Group members give prospects an overwhelming sense of acceptance, belonging, and significance by ‘bombing’ them with flattery, touching, and hugging.”(5)
2.2.6 Other characteristics may include a communal lifestyle, familial imagery, distorted sexual teachings and practices, opposition toward autonomous thinking, a change of diet, and conformity of dress.

3. Why Do People Join Cults?

3.1 Love – “People affiliate with groups because they want affection; they want friends and loved ones to care for them.”(6)
3.2 Family – “One reason that young people join cults is to find a family.”(7)
3.3 Acceptance and self-worth – A sense of belonging and purpose.
3.4 Idealism and spiritual hunger – Part of an enthusiastic group that offers spiritual fulfillment.
3.5 Answers to intellectual questions – They have answers to questions people ask.
3.6 Wholesome lifestyle – A way to experience purity.
3.7 High degree of commitment required – This is attractive to many people.

4. Becoming Cult-proof

4.1 Know what you believe and why – Become grounded in basic Christian doctrine. “It is a sad fact that a ninety-day [i.e., newly trained] wonder from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society can turn the average Christian into a doctrinal pretzel in fifteen minutes.”(8)
4.2 Meet people’s social and emotional needs – Cults meet needs many churches don’t. Churches should be places of love and acceptance. “Cults are the unpaid bills of the church.”(9)
4.3 Meet spiritual needs – Many cults rightfully claim to be more “sold out” than those in the church. Many Christians could afford to be more zealous and committed. “A healthy church is the best weapon against losing people to cults.”(10)

5. Checklist of Cult Characteristics

  • The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us- versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
  • The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
  • The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
  • Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

(1) Alan W. Gomes, Unmasking the Cults (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 7.
(2) Gomes 17.
(3) Gomes 26.
(4) Ronald Enroth, “Churches on the Fringe” in Contend for the Faith, 196.
(5) Citizens Freedom Foundation, The Cult Crisis
(6) Richardson, “Conversion, Brainwashing, and Deprogramming,” 37.
(7) Doress and Porter, “Kids in Cults,” 297.
(8) Walter Martin, quoted by Gomes, 87.
(9)Dr. Martin Van Baalen, quoted in Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1965), 14
(10) Gomes,90.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada