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YOU ARE HERE:   Home >  Articles >  General Topics >  What is a Cult?

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What is a Cult?

Each issue of Vantage Point will include a Mini-Profile in which we spotlight a particular cult, religion, belief system or heretical doctrine. These Mini-Profiles will supplement the Profiles contained in each issue of the Watchman Expositor. What better way to launch this section than with a clearly stated definition of the term cult as it is and will be used in the Vantage Point and our other publications and presentations.


One of the more frequently asked questions we receive, and one that we address at the beginning of every seminar we conduct, is: What is a cult? Sometimes the question is asked by liberal civil libertarians or people actually in a cult, but it is usually expressed, "What or, who gives you the right to label a group as a cult?"

Their defensiveness is certainly understandable because definitions of anything will be arbitrary if there is not an agreed upon reference point. Someone said, "If you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything".

The media seems to have no problem using the word cult as we see it across the headlines whenever some tragedy occurs related to some religious group. The media's reference points are those which are sensationalistic, destructive, and/or bizarre.

The more "neutral" liberal academic definition would say a cult, or sect, or aberrational group is that which is new on the scene, relatively small in number and has not been accepted by the mainstream established religions of that culture.

But for the Christian, the reference point is what the Bible teaches. Christians believe that God defines reality though the revelation of propositional truths in the Bible.

The word "cult" is not in the Bible but its direct corollary is heresy or heretic. Other Biblical terms are false teachers, false prophets and false brethren. Other related and descriptive expressions are "such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles (ones sent with authority) of Christ, (2Corinthians 11:13) and as Jesus warned, "Beware of the false prophets who come in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." (Matthew 7:15)

In fact, the topic of deception and false religious worship is so significant to the Christian life and message that every book in the New Testament (except Philemon) and many in the Old Testament give warnings and instructions to guide the Christian. Some examples: Deuteronomy 13:1-4, Isaiah 47:12-15; 18:9-14, Matthew 7:15; 24:4-5, 11, 24; Acts 20:28-31; Romans 1:18-25; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 12-15; Galatians 1:6-9; Philippians 3:2; Colossians 2:16-23; Ephesians 5:11-13; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-11; 1Timothy 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:1-4; Titus 1:9-11; 2 Peter 2:1-4; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 John 4:1-3.

Although the word cult has a pejorative connotation, we use it because it sends a loud, clear message of warning. Genuine love and concern should compel Christians to send the strongest message possible in order to prevent such dire consequences as those inflicted upon cult members.

The Bible uses the word heresy on two levels. On the first, it means false teaching that causes harm, disunity or divisions; in a stricter sense, however, it is a man-made doctrine that actually will produce a fatal result - eternal separation from God.

The starting place for the Christian is doctrine and the non-negotiable, essential doctrines are the Trinity (including deity of Christ) and the gospel of grace (justification by grace through faith in Christ alone). Any religious group that denies these essentials is outside of Christianity and is thus false.

Other Biblical characteristics of cultism include: extra-Biblical authority, segmented or fractured use of the Bible, authoritarian control over members, coercive guilt and fear manipulation, isolation, and lack of accountability.

Within this larger Biblical definition, there is also a valid mental health or behavioral model that must be considered in defining a cult or cultism. Various terms used to describe this model include: mind control, thought reform, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, etc. When people are exposed to certain intense, social influence methods, the results can be a significantly diminished capacity of personal autonomy, illegal or immoral behavior, irrational or self-destructive actions, and breaking up of families or other close relationships.

Many mental health professionals recognize this element in working with cult victims. Former president of the American Psychological Association and professor at Stanford University, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, speaking of cult mind control techniques writes, "They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing and emotional manipulation." (Monitor: American Psychological Association, May 1997)

Even in the context of the judicial system, we find there are legal principles of fraud, undue influence, duress and psychological coercion tied to cults. The American Bar Association's Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, describe cults as any group which "(1) uses a thought reform program to persuade, control and socialize members, (2) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members (3) exploits members to advance the leadership's goals, and (4) causes psychological harm to members, their families and the community". (Cults in American Society: A Legal Analysis of Undue Influence, Fraud and Misrepresentation)

In summary, the Bible describes the doctrinal perversions of false religions, their methodologies, and the temporal psychological/spiritual consequences of cult involvement. Christians need to be forewarned and more understanding and sensitive in our response to those either in cults or to those who have come out of cults.

This article was excerpted from the March 1998 Vantage Point.

For more information on apologetics, doctrine, and church history, please visit our web catalog; or click here to order a free information packet.