What Is A Cult?
And Are You Involved In One?
When the word ‘cult’ is mentioned, notable examples spring to mind such as: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Watchtower and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses), Moonies, Children of God, Branch Davidians, Herbert Armstrong’s World Wide Church of God, L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, Unification Church, Kabbalah, Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, the Christadelphians ad infinitum. But can a cult also include denominations that have deviated even slightly from orthodox Christianity in their teachings? In 1912 Ernst Troeltsch in his book Social Teaching of the Christian Church, classified religious groups into three camps:
1. Church – The Church holds unwaveringly to the historical teachings of orthodoxy, not seeking special between-the-lines revelation.
2. Sect - The term ‘sect’ from the Latin ‘secta’ which means an ‘organized church body’, it is in turn sourced from the Latin ‘sequi’ meaning ‘to follow’ and is often used as ‘way of life’, or ‘class of persons’. The word ‘sectus’ also means ‘to cut or divide’. According to letusreason.org, the term ‘sect’ can and is sometimes exchanged for the term ‘cult’. A sect can refer to a religious denomination, a group of people that broke from another greater body of religion to form their own. It can variously be to reform and go back to the truth or to further deviate from it.
3. Cult – A group of people fervently following a specific person’s interpretation of the Bible. Walter Martin in his book The New Cults defines a cult as “A group religious in nature which surrounds a leader, or a group which denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrines.”
Several weeks ago Australian television station Channel Nine, on their program A Current Affair (ACA), aired a report which outed mega-church Hillsong Christian Life Center, Australia, as a cult1. Hillsong is one of the most popular and prosperous Charismatic churches in Australia today, boasting many thousands of members and a non-taxed annual income in excess of 50 million dollars Australian. But was the ACA claim a fair representation of their activities? Is Hillsong Australia, along with a myriad of clone-like fellowships, a cult2?
A Secular Definition
First of all we need to define the parameters. What exactly constitutes a cult? According to dictionary.com a cult is:
a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
the object of such devotion.
a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
the members of such a religion or sect.
any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.
Please pay particular attention to points two and four as we consider a theological definition of a cult.
A Theological Definition
A theological definition of a cult must be based on a standard of Christian orthodoxy, using the Bible’s teaching as a focal point. A cult is any religious group that may or may not claim to be Christian, is distinct, and has doctrines and practices that contradict those of the Scriptures as interpreted by orthodox Christianity – those things that have been upheld in historic Christianity. Orthodoxy is represented from the beginning of the church, and is expressed in statements such as the Apostles Creed which are denied by cults. They will deny the Bible as the complete book of revelation and our guide to knowing God. They will distort the central message of the Scriptures as Christ being the Saviour alone. They will deny His deity and distort His nature by a new revelation. They remove themselves from the larger body and operate autonomously. A cult is organized heresy. They will distort one or more of the fundamentals.
Are You Involved In A Cult?
Asks letusreason.org 3 …
1. Are you told not to question what is being taught because the leaders are honest and want the best for you so you must trust them? Has someone replaced your own choices in life?
2. Are you told not to ask questions why anyone left you’re to accept the answers the leaders give you such as: they fell into sin, they didn’t receive correction, they weren’t open or they had a bad heart and didn’t want to be disciples?
3. Are you made to feel your failures - that your performance is not up to par with the Bible’s standard?
4. Are you being rebuked for things such as the way you say hello or how you respond to being asked to do something for a leader or disciple? Do they tell you it’s a matter of the heart how one complies?
5. Are they putting down other churches and / or building themselves up? Do they sometimes use people as examples of what you are to be doing and others on what you are not to be doing?
6. Do they bring attention to what they do, and ignoring others that may be doing the same things outside their church?
7. Do they stop you from reading anything negative about themselves calling it spiritual pornography or recommend you not to read it for your own spiritual protection?
8. Do they recommend for you to be around their people expecting you to be at all the group activities? If not is your spirituality and dedication being questioned?
9. Do they defend all that they do even though it can be harmful or wrong?
10. Do they operate by humility or are they arrogant and demand you to obey if you are considering otherwise? Or is it done subtly by manipulating you into obeying by statements such as, “Real Christians obey their leaders.”, or “If you were following Jesus you would see what I’m saying is right. True disciples did not question Jesus.”?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, you may well be involved in a cult. Here are some critical things to look out for:
1. People telling you how talented you are and saying, “You can really go places, and you should be using your gift for God.”
2. ‘Love Bombing’ – in instant bonding of friendship without your knowing who they are or they really knowing you, people acting as your best friend upon your first meeting.
3. When you ask questions about their history or the group, they are vague in their answers or avoid answering them altogether. [Not answering or postponing an answer makes the question go away.]
4. A requirement to attend studies, courses, seminars, and programs before you are allowed or deemed to be a ‘Christian’. [This will indoctrinate the ‘seeker’ with the group’s goals and agendas.]
5. An emphasis, and in some cases over emphasis of their church and who they are more than the Messiah; often teaching either literally or by inference that one can only be a ‘true’ Christian by joining them. [Exclusive spirituality appeals to our pride, and works well today.]
Some Common Characteristics of Cults
Cults always use methods of control in one way or another which, when broken down to the most basic common denominator, equate to fear. Fear of displeasing God or the leader of the group or both, fear of rejection, punishment, being back-slidden, losing one’s salvation, missing the rapture, going to hell, etc. Guilt, fear and intimidation of any kind are the most popular manipulative tactics of cults used to maintain a devotee’s loyalty to the group. According to letusreason.org:
1. Intimidation and Accusation: Are the tactics most often used. These can be overt or covert – expressed with iron rod or silver tongue. For example, any questioning of authority is treated as rebellion, and not trusting. Cult leaders suppress questions and conform to the group’s behavior. They discourage critical or rational thought and questions, and will reply with comments such as, “Satan is the cause of all doubt, he is keeping you from the truth,”; “Questioning our opinions and doctrine is negative thinking, and all things negative are of the evil one.” (critical thinking is discouraged, being considered prideful, sinful or rebellious), or even “It will take time to understand the deep things of God.”
2. No Independent Thinking: Independent thinking is discouraged, especially if it is considered to supersede the wisdom of the leader(s).
3. Cults Over-Simplify Answers to Life’s Questions: Making everything for all situations as simple as black or white. ‘Christian’ Psychology is often used.
4. Control: Telling one whom to date, whom to marry, or even with whom to associate is typical behavior of cults. [My daughter Kyrie reported to me during her attendance at the Paradise Community Church Youth Group that the leaders required information of her friendships, outings, and romantic interests. They even insisted that the correct translation of the Father’s command in His Word to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2Cor. 6:14) was quote: ‘not associating with those who are not as full on as us.’ This arrogant departure from Scripture is a typical example of cultic, controlling behavior.] Further extremes can be anywhere from having no social interaction with the opposite sex to outright promiscuity in sexual relations (Children of God – Hookers for Christ), group sex (New Age Therapy groups, Some Eastern religious gurus) child sex, adultery, and polygamy (Branch Davidian’s, certain Mormon sects, children of God) sex is used as an initiation into some cults (as well as occult and Satanic groups).
5. Group Trust: Confession Sessions are used to build relationships. (Rick Warren utilizes this control method in his Purpose-Driven paradigm.) Full disclosure of all secret sins, thoughts and desires are expressed with those you know and may not know to build up your trusting them with your life. These can become powerful tools to emotionally bond one to the leader or group. The latter can be used to manipulate, or blackmail someone if and when they decide to leave. The Roman Catholic confessional is a glaring example of a departure from Scripture wherein priests are given ungodly power and influence over parishioners.
6. Double Standards: One standard for the followers and another for the leaders, for example devotees [believers] are taught biblical humility - the taking up of the cross, etc., while the leader lavishes himself with expensive cars, exclusive parking, and other ‘privileges’ not extended to the congregation. The Saviour taught, however, that leaders should be servants of those they lead. Cult leaders, on the other hand, exalt themselves. Take this quote from the Bishop of Bling himself, T.D. Jakes, for example, “I’m preachin’ so good, I’m about to amen myself!” Devotees are also taught to not be respecters of persons, as the Bible commands, only to see their leader(s) afford preferential seating to ‘dignitaries’ in attendance at church services and functions. [An example of this occurred on a sweltering summer’s day just a few years ago at a Carols by Candlelight function at the Campelltown oval in Adelaide, South Australia. Hosted by the Paradise Community Church and sponsored by community radio station Life(less) FM, a marquis was erected to shelter the pastors of that church, their families, and senior dignitaries of the Campelltown City Council, including the Lord Mayor, wherein three or four children bearing platters of refreshments including cold cuts and fruit salads [very much akin to what one would expect of Julius Caesar] in procession were presented to the elite within.]
7. Taking license with God’s Word: The Scripture is not rightly divided. Looking between the lines to find hidden or esoteric meanings to justify strange behaviours such as clucking like chickens, irreverent laughing, and errant behaviour during worship services. Private revelations and interpretations (often called a Word of Wisdom or Word of Knowledge) are added to the Word, and sometimes supplant its true meaning. Passages contradictory to the orthodox beliefs of Christianity are twisted or taken out of their context. Strong emphasis is placed upon certain passages making them their thrust in ministry, while other pertinent Scriptures on essentials and practice are largely or completely ignored. Bible scholars who give a different interpretation from the ‘cultists’ are ridiculed or ignored – after all, he who remains silent in an argument controls it. For the cultist, it is all about control and power. Any organization which places an emphasis on these two points must be closely scrutinized, for the Word of God commands of believer’s no such thing!
8. Misplaced Loyalty: A person involved in an abusive system will find their loyalty is nurtured and even demanded. This is most often evidenced in expected and excessive church attendance, seminars, training programs, retreats, and ‘small groups’ – home fellowships, such that cause harm to the individual’s family and community life. Loyalty for the Messiah is by and large replaced by an organization, church or leader. Because authority is usually from an individual or a group, one is asked if they will be loyal to God confusing the member that to be loyal to a person or group means the same thing. Such is the case with the Jehovah’s Witness cult, and their blind loyalty to whatever the ‘Watchtower’ says.
9. Criticism: If evidence is presented that the cult have had false prophecies, or if they are used to make money, the focus is shifted and members are taught to question the motives or character of the person asking the questions and to ignore the evidence. So the focus is on the questioner’s character and not the proof they have. The questioners will be called “Emissaries of Satan”, (i.e., divisive brothers, troublemakers, nay-sayer’s, Fightin’ Fundies, ad nauseum)
10. Us Against Them Mentality: Cults will often insist that any criticism or rebuke of their behaviour is Satan’s attempt to hinder or stop their movement. Any detractor will automatically be branded as an enemy without consideration of any verifiable evidence such as Scripture.
11. Persecution: The cultists will insist they are being persecuted unfairly, whereas the true believer accepts persecution as his lot, for the Messiah deemed it so (John 15:18-20). New members are told that Satan will cause friends and family to say bad things about their group, and that they should only trust their ‘new’ family.
12. An Obsession with Demons: Cults are most often obsessed with attacking demonic forces which are deemed to be everywhere and infiltrating everything including finances, motor vehicles, washing machines, personal relationships, physical and psychological well-being and anything else that would capture the imagination of those involved. The focus shifts from the Father’s truth and purpose to that of an unhealthy focus on the supernatural. In other words, devotees are kept busy fighting evil beings rather than resting by faith in the omnipotence of the Heavenly Father. It is with great sorrow I recall attending a home fellowship group which was part of the Paradise Community Church where each week without fail, the majority of time was spent ‘driving demons’ out of Christians. I remember at the time being amazed that born-again Christians could have so many demons. The truth was during these meetings, Satan received more attention than God.
13. Motivational Teaching: [and you thought network marketing was dead] Techniques designed to stimulate the emotions, usually employing loud speaking or music with group participation, ambient surroundings and group dynamics are used to influence responses. People are overwhelmed with smiling faces, and handshakes, and hugs, and unconditional friendship. This tactic particularly appeals to those most vulnerable, those who have been hurt relationally, those who are isolated, those from broken homes or dysfunctional families, etc. They will be asked how they liked the service, and perhaps what they have to offer. The cultists will immediately become their best friend and want to know when they’re coming back and give an invitation to bring others with them.
14. Questioning Authority: The often unspoken rule is: do not disagree with the church authorities, especially the pastor, or your spirituality and loyalty will be questioned. Silence, therefore, becomes a fortress wall of protection. As we mentioned earlier, he who remains silent controls the argument. Many will blindly shield the pastor’s position of power from any scrutiny or challenge. If one questions what is said, or the rules they are seen as being against them and God, or divisive. The ‘can’t talk to others’ rule is probably the most consistent one used. If you speak about the problem to others, YOU JUST BECOME THE PROBLEM. Again, as we said before, anything negative according to the cultists is of the devil. One must become silent or ignore the issue lest they be asked to leave, or as the Catholics put it, excommunicated. Neither may that person discuss his or her concerns with others who have left the group or it will be considered betrayal.
15. Conversion Techniques: Conversion into a cult is done by dynamic interactions. Cults look for those who are new to the town or school. As mentioned previously, the easiest way to involve a potential recruit is when they are weak and vulnerable. This vulnerability can be enhanced by transitional situations in life such as divorce, depression, abuse, handicap, a job or career change, moving away from home or leaving school, few friends, an illness, death of a loved one, new to an area, loneliness, loss of a job, or someone backsliding. Cults will often advertise through various means using these examples to attract such people - always in a warm and inviting way. Those who have had numerous bad experiences with love in their lives, feel rejected by people, are insecure and as a result are attracted to cults. These groups make them instantly feel accepted and superior giving them unqualified friendship and acceptance. Many people who become discontent and disappointed in their prior church experiences are open to something new, even something radically different. Such folk are cult fodder.
16. Quickie Conversions: The tactic most often used by cults to indoctrinate members is a radical or quick ‘conversion’ during an intensive weekend retreat, crusade, seminar or special church event/service. Others have a more subtle approach which may take weeks or months such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the International Churches of Christ. Although ALL push for quicker decisions to join.
17. Insider Information: Emotions, intuitions, revelations and mystical insights are promoted over the objective word. They become more important than objective conclusions and what has already been revealed in Scripture. As mentioned previously, critical thinking is discouraged, independent thought can be looked upon as selfish, and rational use of intellect as being evil.
18. Altered States of Mind: Subjective experiences are accepted more quickly than constructive teaching. The New Age uses repetition of words. Techniques which bring relaxation, chanting, hypnosis, meditation, trance states, guided imagery or visualization, deep breathing exercises (breath prayers, and ‘breathing in the Holy Spirit’) all bring a person into an altered and highly suggestible state. Combine these techniques with physical stimuli such as mood music, lighting and peaceful ambience, and a psychological imbalance is produced.
19. Touch Not the Lord’s Anointed: The attitude that ‘no one can judge me or tell me what to do’ is fostered by pride when the leader of a cult is in deception and promotes such to his followers. The leader becomes untouchable by anyone. He is accountable to God only and everyone must obey what he says as if it were God Himself commanding it. The doctrine of ‘negativity belonging to the devil’ helps propagate this heresy. Included in this is the arrogant attitude that ‘we are always right’ ushered forth from the leadership. When Hobart Freeman began Faith Assembly, loyalty to him and his teachings were to be accepted without question. To question Freeman, a self-proclaimed ‘Prophet of God’, was to risk the charge of blasphemy. Many people died, including himself, from his teaching on healing. This continues today with the Word/Faith movement and believing for one’s healing. All false doctrine has pride as its catalyst and arrogance as its practice.
20. Excessive or Manipulative Giving: Cults emphasize giving to God to get back from God. Though most often veiled, this giving is essentially that of money into the organisation on the premise that whatever you give will be returned to you pressed down and shaken together. When this does not work the intimidation of Malachi 3:8 is used, despite the Apostle Paul having taught that a man should freely give without intimidation (2Cor. 9:7)
21. Kingdom Now Theology: Many cults teach the doctrine that it is up to ‘us’ to change society and government for ‘God’. Such is the delusional mandate of Ashley Evans, Senior Pastor of the Paradise Community Church, Adelaide, South Australia and his compatriot Brian Houston, Senior Pastor of Hills Christian Life Centre (Hillsong), mentioned at the beginning of this article. Militant evangelism, and even force may be promoted to sustain this heretical doctrine. Distrust and paranoia may empower the cult as they feel they may be threatened or subject to attack. This causes them to stockpile food and weapons and take extreme measures to ensure protection from their imagined enemies. As mentioned, in ‘Christianity’ some want to take over the world and ‘Christianize’ the government and the people so that after it is done, Christ will come back. It is interesting to note that extreme Islamists believe that by creating global chaos through terrorism their ‘Messiah’ will return.
22. Total Commitment: It is expected that followers will give their total commitment to the leader and his/her vision for the movement. This often requires not only the giving of personal time and resource, but also property and money to the movement or leader for ‘the cause’. It is most often garbed as their ‘mission’, which is interpreted as God’s. While many do use the Great Commission as the basic concept, they change it to mean something other than what it actually does.
23. Conformation: Individuality must be sacrificed for the group. The group’s concerns supersede an individual’s goals, needs and aspirations. Conformity is the key. The end justifies the means – any action or behaviour is justifiable as long as it furthers the group’s vision. In many cases to lie to others outside of the group is permitted since they are serving Satan.
24. Inherited Leadership: Many cults pass down the ‘mantle’ of leadership of their organisation to family members, particularly from father to son. There is nothing in the Scriptures to justify this behaviour.
25. Legalism: Strict adherence to laws that are unscriptural or Old Testament laws that are no longer to be practiced such as male circumcision, animal sacrifices, abstaining from or indulging in certain foods at certain times, abstaining from physical marital intimacy when mandated by the ‘Leader’, infant baptism / christening, prayers to dead saints, veneration of icons, the use of rosaries, manipulative or coercive requests / demands for money, speaking in tongues and / or good works for salvation etc.
26. The Deification of Man: Most cult teaching revolves around the nonsense that man may become God or is indeed part of God. Further to this, adherence must be part of a select group or church to learn new revelations or knowledge to progress to this God-hood. Someone, usually the leader, will proclaim they are God or at least have the ‘God’, ‘Christ’ or ‘Holy’ spirit within to a greater degree than other members of the group, and that they are commissioned or appointed to be the leader by God Himself. Such people often misuse the Scripture “…touch not the Lord’s anointed.” (I Chronicles 16:22) when confronted with criticism or doctrinal disputation.
27. The ‘Humanizing’ of God: Aside from the ‘buddy / pal’ mentality of some groups whose irreverence and familiarity are obvious, some groups deny the eternal nature of the Heavenly Father. Some are polytheistic, in other words believing in many gods, while others are pantheistic believing that all is God. The Gaia cult is one such example of extreme pantheism in their worship of the earth and nature, deifying them entirely. Gaia is otherwise known as “Mother Nature”. Other groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses falsely teach that Yahweh’s nature or state of being must be understood and reasonable to be true. In other words, if finite man cannot understand something about God then it is not true. This false teaching subtly elevates man’s mental ability to that of the Heavenly Father.
28. The Minimization of Sin: Many cults will either minimize or eliminate the doctrine of sin altogether. It is disturbing that in many Charismatic churches, specifically those following Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven paradigm, the doctrine of sin is not taught for fear of offending the ‘seeker’. Thus the true Gospel is not preached and therefore it is unlikely any genuine salvation has occurred among the aisle walkers.
29. Bible Minimization: Most cults use or place more emphasis on additional literature to that of the Scriptures. The Book of Mormon is one such example, and sadly in many churches the guidelines in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Church are more closely adhered to than the demands of Scripture even though at many points they are in direct violation.
30. A Different Salvation: Most cults teach a doctrine of salvation that is clearly at odds with that which the Bible teaches, namely by grace through faith alone. It was this point of contention that saw Martin Luther stand up against the Roman Catholic machine, and birthed the Reformation. Many cults teach a grace plus works salvation, in other words one must earn their way into God’s favour to be saved by good deeds, giving to charity, mandatory church attendance, etc. The doctrine of salvation by works essentially discredits the Messiah’s substitutionary atonement on the cross of Calvary where the sins of mankind were paid for in HIS shed blood. If works of any kind can purchase salvation, then Y’shua died for nothing. Therefore the doctrine of salvation by works is utter blasphemy.
31. A Different Saviour: Nearly all cults deny the deity of the Saviour Y’shua (Jesus Christ) claiming Him to be less than God incarnate. The Mormon’s claim He is Satan’s brother, Muslims teach that He was merely another prophet, and other groups claim Him to be variously an angel, an ascended master or just a ‘good’ man. Orthodox Judaism has yet to recognize Him as the very God and Saviour.
32. A Different Spirit: Cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the Holy Spirit is not God but rather an impersonal force or energy that emanates from God in order to perform certain functions. The New Age teaches a similar foolishness. Many Charismatic churches also, perhaps unwittingly, do the same with the ‘laying on of hands’ believing that the ‘force’ of God leaves them and comes upon the one being prayed for. Statements such as, “Breathe in the Presence of the Holy Spirit.” is another example of the Holy Spirit being seen as a force rather than the second Person of the Trinity. Further to this the book of Acts records a situation wherein the Holy Spirit was lied to (Acts 5:3). It should be obvious that one cannot lie to an impersonal force. It is also pointed out in this passage that the Holy Spirit is indeed God (vs. 4).
33. The Only True Church: All cults teach exclusivity when it comes to being the only true church by which salvation is obtained. They claim to be the only church ordained by God, that they alone speak on God’s behalf, that God directs only their organization or church to the exclusion of all others - the Roman Catholic Church, among many others, qualifies in this regard as a cult.
The sad reality is that no one involved in a cult will admit to being so. It is only after they have been removed or remove themselves that their eyes are opened and they see the seduction by which they were bound. As we have seen above, cults are groups that preach exclusivity, have a fixation with power, control and money, and who not only deviate from orthodox Christianity but are in the process of re-writing it.
We began this report by asking the question “Is Hillsong Australia, and such like organizations, a cult?” The shocking reality is that according to the substantiated definition of such, of the forty-eight points mentioned, Hillsong scored an amazing forty-four, which surely qualifies it and such like organizations as cults.
The Bible is clear when addressing the issue of errant belief systems. It does not support the notion of infiltration in order to ‘restore’, but rather biblical separation from. Our advice is that you pray fervently and research deeply, and if, having come to the conclusion that you are indeed involved in a cult as defined by orthodoxy, that you indeed “…come out and be separate.” (2 Cor. 6:17)
Yours in His Everlasting Embrace,
Tony and Pamela Dean
Moriah Ministries Australia
1. http://www.sendspace.com/file/2bt68t (13 megabyte video download)
http://www.sendspace.com/file/sudmlm (15 megabyte video download)
http://www.sendspace.com/file/x1hr3n (16 megabyte video download)
2. People in Glass Houses – Tanya Levin - http://www.word.com.au:80/details.aspx?productid=560472
3. Resource used in this article in part from www.letusreason.org
4. <a href="http://www.wespreadtheword.net">Christian Search Engine - WeSpreadTheWord.net</a>