Are You a Member of a Cult?Study No. 146
According to some, my beliefs classify me as belonging to a dangerous religious cult. Are you a member of a cult? Could you ever be lured into a cult? What is a cult? As we shall see, the word, "cult," as popularly used, can be applied to almost any form of belief. As someone said, "one man’s religion is another man’s cult." Let us examine various definitions of a cult, and discover the truth about cults.
Characteristics of Cults
Although sometimes doctrinally unsound, Professor Joseph M. Hopkins is usually a very objective writer. In a 1977 tract, Hopkins noted twelve marks of Christianity-based cults:
1. A Charismatic Leader. A cult is usually started by a dynamic individual with great personal magnetism, with a genius for attracting followers and inspiring their confidence. Examples: Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons; Charles Taze Russell, Jehovah’s Witnesses; Herbert W. Armstrong, Worldwide Church of God . . . .
2. New Revelation. This charismatic leader tends to be a strong personality who is unwilling to accept traditional religious teachings and so develops his own do-it-yourself theology. Usually a person with enormous ego and [or] ambition, he (or she) arrives at the belief that God has called him (or her) to be the channel of His end-time revelation. Examples: Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), who thought that she alone possessed the key to correct Biblical interpretation and so wrote Science and Health With Key to the Scripture . . . .
3. One True Church. As the cult leader gains followers, he comes to believe that his group of disciples comprises the "little flock" God has called out of the world — that they are God’s "One True Church," the 144,000 of Revelation, who will reign with Christ during the Millennium. All other churches are Satanic counterfeits. This doctrine is taught by the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Worldwide Church of God, the Children of God, and many other sects.
4. "Last Days" Belief. Most modern cults teach that we are living in the last days — the end-time of civilization. To their group alone has been given the commission to warn the world of its impending doom. Only they will be spared the "tribulation" and will participate in the rapture and the future world government of Jesus Christ. Examples: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Worldwide Church of God, Unification Church, and Children of God.
5. Zealous Evangelism. Because of this belief, it is imperative to proclaim the bad news of God’s apocalyptic judgment and the good news of the coming Kingdom to the world before the end. Often (as in the cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Worldwide Church of God, and the Children of God) terrifying warnings and denunciations are stressed more than the good news of God’s redemptive love in Christ.
6. Separation From the World. Because "the world" is corrupt and soon to be destroyed, the "true believers" must renounce this world’s evil system. They must be willing to suffer persecution for their faith, to be counted "fools for Christ’s sake" . . . .
7. Total Commitment. Disciples in many cults are admonished to "forsake all" and turn over all personal property to the organization . . . . In some cults, money is raised by peddling merchandise and/or cult literature. In others (e.g., the Worldwide Church of God), multiple tithes are collected, the members depriving themselves and their families while cult leaders live like kings.
8. Intensive Indoctrination. All cults without exception subject new converts to intensive indoctrination. During the indoctrination period there is constant supervision; lectures, drills, and personal study dominate the day’s agenda; members are given little time to think or sleep. Many ex-members testify to having been hypnotized or brain-washed by this high-pressure indoctrination . . . . most teaching focuses on cult literature and doctrines.
9. Authoritarian Government. The pyramid authority structure — government from the top down — is the rule in most cults. The cult leader, as God’s representative on earth, is revered and obeyed; and absolute submission to him (or her) and the hierarchy is required. A number of ex-members have testified that they were so dominated and controlled by cult authorities that they would have killed their own parents if asked to do so by leaders. Fear is employed as a club to compel obedience, to silence complaints and questions, to prevent defection.
10. Persecution Complex. Cult leaders generally are paranoid, viewing with suspicion and antagonism "outsiders" (especially the press and parents seeking to retrieve their children). Paranoia extends to those inside as well as outside the organization. If there is a doubt or question, its source must be Satan. Those who challenge doctrine or question authority are severely disciplined — and may be "disfellowshipped." Examples: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Worldwide Church of God, Children of God.
11. "Works Righteousness." Some cults, like the Mormons, openly admit that they teach a "righteousness" (right standing with God) based on faith plus works instead of "faith alone." [Hopkins does not understand the difference between justification and sanctification, and that we are rewarded according to our works.] Others, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, declare that they teach salvation by faith alone — but contradict themselves by insisting that salvation is limited to those who are baptized into their organization and conform to its doctrines and legalistic requirements . . . . Only rarely do cults reach out with compassion to those outside their membership.
12. Defective Christology. Most Christian-based cults distort Christ by compromising His deity . . . . Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus was a created being — the archangel Michael prior to His human birth . . . . Mormons deny the virgin birth; Jehovah’s Witnesses and Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, the bodily resurrection [sic.]. . . .
It may be noted that the first eight of the above features characterize the Christian church of the first century; the last four do not. There are these significant differences: cults tend to exalt the cult leader rather than Christ, to conform Scripture to cult teachings rather than vice versa, to be exploitive instead of redemptive, to induce compliance through fear instead of love.
Four-Point Test For Cults
John Trechak, in the June, 1990, Ambassador Report, defines a cult as a group with four characteristics:
Four-Point Test for Cults
1. Isolation — encouragement of separation (even if only psychologically) from nonmember family and friends.
2. Nonthinking — condemnation of any substantial questioning of the leader’s teachings.
3. Absolute Obedience — development of members who obey, without questioning, orders of religious superiors.
4. Giving Everything — encouragement of members to excessively contribute money, homes, property, and time, even to the point of severely harming family and self.
Each one of these bad characteristics is the negative side of a good characteristic that we as believers must have. We must separate ourselves from the evil influences of the world, while still living in the world. We must prove all things to ourselves, using the Holy Spirit and our spirit to discern the Truth. We must respect righteous leaders, but follow them only as they follow Christ. We must give (first) tithes and offerings to the work of God, and dedicate our time and effort to the work of the Church. But we must also provide for our own.
The Citizens Freedom Foundation, P.O. Box 1246, Springfield, VA 22151, publishes a very informative tract, entitled "Destructive Cults: Mind Control and Psychological Coercion." Here is a synopsis: Cult members may be guarded, vague, or secretive about beliefs, goals, demands, and activities until a recruit is "hooked." Given the right circumstances, sophisticated mind control techniques will work on anyone, even those who think they are immune. That is why we need the Almighty’s help to guard our mind from being enslaved to a cult.
As Thomas Jefferson said, "There can be no freedom of religion unless there is freedom of mind." The harmful effects of destructive cults include loss of free will and control of one’s life, diminished intellectual ability, vocabulary and sense of humor, involuntary, de facto slavery, physical deterioration, hallucinations, panic, guilt, paranoia, neurotic or suicidal tendencies.
Who are the typical cult recruits? Men and women from middle to upper socio-economic family backgrounds, aged 16-35, of average to above-average intelligence, usually well-educated, including college graduates, intellectually curious, and idealistic individuals are most vulnerable, especially between high school and college and between college and a career.
You probably won’t join a cult unless you run into a cult recruiter. Beware of recruiters who are excessively friendly, have simplistic answers or solutions to complex world problems, invite you to free meals and lectures, pressure you because "everyone else is doing it," recruit you through guilt, or invite you to isolated weekend workshops having nebulous goals.
Here is a warning from someone who was suckered into a cult:
When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you’ve ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you’ve ever met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true — it probably is too good to be true! Don’t give up your education, your hopes and ambitions, to follow a rainbow.
— by Jeanne Mills, survivor of Jonestown, former member of The People’s Temple, and subsequent victim of assassination
Remember that the two basic principles of psychological coercion are: 1. If you can make a person BEHAVE the way you want, you can make that person BELIEVE the way you want. 2. Sudden, drastic changes in environment lead to heightened suggestibility and to drastic changes in attitude and beliefs.
Three Definitions of Cults
J. Gordon Melton, in his Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986), notes that "cult" is a pejorative label and that its definition is confused and subject to disagreement. Social scientists use "cult" to describe a foreign or alien religious belief to a particular culture. Conservative evangelicals, such as Jan Karel Van Baalen (The Chaos of the Cults, 1938), label as cults any religious group that is "heretical" from "orthodox" religious beliefs. A third definition of a cult is given by parents who have had their children recruited into bizarre religious groups, such as the Unification Church, who say "cults" are groups who recruit young people, and radically alter their personalities.
Marcia Rudin, an anti-cult writer, lists fourteen commonly accepted characteristics of a cult. While no one group may embody all of them, any "cult" will possess a majority:
1. Members swear total allegiance to an all-powerful leader who they believe to be the Messiah.
2. Rational thought is discouraged or forbidden.
3. The cult’s recruitment techniques are often deceptive.
4. The cult weakens the follower psychologically by making him or her depend upon the group to solve his or her problems.
5. The cults manipulate guilt to their advantage.
6. The cult leader makes all the career and life decisions of the members.
7. Cults exist only for their own material survival and make false promises to work to improve society.
8. Cult members often work full time for the group for little or no pay.
9. Cult members are isolated from the outside world and any reality testing it could provide.
10. Cults are anti-woman, anti-child, and anti-family.
11. Cults are apocalyptic and believe themselves to be the remnant who will survive the soon-approaching end of the world.
12. Many cults follow an "ends justify the means" philosophy.
13. Cults, particularly in regard to their finances, are shrouded in secrecy.
14. There is frequently an aura of or potential for violence around cults.
The tragic, suicidal, end of the cults led by Jim Jones and David Koresh should remind us that real cults are dangerous. It is intellectual dishonesty to label another group as a cult just because we disagree with their doctrines. Dangerous cults prey on youthful minds effectively because their parents and educators have failed to present the Truth in a positive light.
Lessons From Cults
We should remember that cults have some good points. Cults would not gain adherents if they did everything wrong. Misguided though they are, we can learn from cults. Gerald E. Richter writes this in "The Case for the Cults,"
Some phases of the cults might well be emulated by other non-productive churches. The cultists believe strongly in what they profess and teach. They practice what they teach. They sacrifice of their slender means to a far greater degree than most other church going people. They publish literature expounding their views literally by the ton. They devote hours, days, weeks of gratuitous service in the circulation of the printed matter, that others may be lead and told and share with them the satisfying experiences into which they have entered.
If we were half as dedicated toward spreading the Truth of the Almighty as most cultists are, we would turn the world upside down.
Marks of a Cult
Dave Breese, a conservative evangelical Protestant minister, has written a very helpful booklet, "The Marks of a Cult" (Christian Destiny, Box 100, Wheaton, IL 60189), which is a summary of his full-length book, Know the Marks of Cults. He points out that cults prey on naive, new believers, who are not thoroughly grounded in Bible doctrine (Colossians 1:23). He defines a cult as "a religious belief and practice calling for devotion to a segmented religious view centered on false doctrine. It is an organized heresy." Instead of being gullible followers, new believers need to study diligently so they will not fall victim to cults. The Galatians soon left the true gospel, Galatians 1:6, 7. What about us? Breese details eleven marks of cults (not all cults have all the marks):
(1) Extra-Biblical Revelation. Cults believe God speaks or has spoken outside, apart from, the Bible. Isaiah 8:20 and Revelation 22:18-19 should be the antidote for this heresy. Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists have extra-Biblical "revelations." Paul warns us that even if an angel from Heaven brings to us another gospel, that being is to be accursed, Galatians 1:8-9. In these last days, God has spoken to us by His Son, Hebrews 1:2, and no other. His Word is forever settled in Heaven, Psalm 119:89. There is no need for further revelation, and the last few verses of the Bible forbid us from adding to God’s instructions.
(2) Salvation By Works. Most Protestants, such as Breese, do not understand the role of faith and works. They have followed Martin Luther, who added to the word of God, when he said we are saved by faith alone. There is no such scripture. We are saved by grace through faith, Ephesians 2:8, and faith without works is dead, James 2:20. It is not faith OR works, it is faith AND works. Both faith and works have a vital role in God’s plan for us. Protestants do not understand what salvation is, and therefore are confused about faith and works (see Herbert W. Armstrong’s article, "What Kind of Faith is Required For Salvation?"). Nevertheless, some cult groups over-emphasize works, such as door-to-door witnessing (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Nothing we can do can earn salvation, but we cannot receive the gift of salvation (eternal life at the resurrection) unless we lovingly obey our Creator.
(3) Uncertain Hope. Cults cultivate fear, so that cult members are never quite sure if they are in right standing with God. Faithful followers of God have a confidence and assurance that is rock solid, I Peter 1:3-6, Ephesians 1:13, Hebrews 6:19, II Timothy 1:12. They know that they can fall from the grace of God, but do not fret and worry because they know His power is able to keep them from falling, Jude 24.
(4) Presumptuous Messianic Leadership. One of the marks of a cult is that it elevates the person and the words of a human leader to a Messianic level. But the true Christian knows that only the Savior deserves disciples. We are all members of the body, of which the Messiah, not a man, is the head, Ephesians 1:22-23. Cult leaders quote their human leader with some kind of final authority, Luke 21:8. We should all be humbled by the question, "What have you that you did not receive?" (I Corinthians 4:7).
(5) Doctrinal Ambiguity. According to Breese, "The cults are characterized by a non-definitive system of doctrine which often changes with every new wind that blows." True believers are clear and certain in their beliefs, and are able to teach them to others, II Timothy 2:2. However, cults lean toward fables, II Timothy 4:3, 4. Cult leaders do not present a clear message (I Corinthians 14:8). They pose questions which they do not answer, and get you to receive hundreds of pages of literature which dodge the answers.
(6) Denunciation of Others. When one says that he is the Messiah or God’s Apostle, it naturally follows that others must be put down. Such a false leader denounces all other views as Satanic and corrupt counterfeits. However, the Bible shows that the Apostle Paul was generous to his opponents and those who differed with him, Philippians 3:15, II Timothy 4:16. Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive those who crucified Him. We are forbidden to judge (condemn) one another, Romans 14:5, 13; I Corinthians 4:5.
(7) Claim of Special "Discoveries." Cults have mysterious, otherwise unavailable information, usually given by God to the cult leader. There is no way to verify the validity of this kind of "revelation." However, the foundation of the faith of the Bible is based on factual evidence. The life and events of the Savior were not done in a corner, Acts 26:25-26. There were hundreds, sometimes thousands, of eyewitnesses to the miracles, I Corinthians 15:6. On the other hand, cult leaders have a private revelation, which violates the principle of two or three witnesses to substantiate a fact, II Corinthians 13:1. The Eternal used four writers to substantiate the Gospel record. As Breese states, "The coming of Christianity was not a private affair, but rather was announced by a sky full of angels, a star visible to all, a sinless life lived in the presence of thousands, a public, sacrificial death, a public resurrection attested to by more than five hundred living witnesses, represented in a composite of sacred Scriptures which cannot be broken."
[Here is a modern example of false "special revelation." Gerald Flurry and the Philadelphia Church of God take it as an article of faith that Herbert W. Armstrong was the end-time Elijah. In spite of overwhelming Biblical evidence proving that Armstrong in no way resembled Elijah (see our article, "The Elijah to Come"), they refuse to allow anyone into their fellowship who does not believe Armstrong was the Elijah to come. Clearly, the PCG has a mark of a cult!]
(8) Defective Christology. Cults usually deny the true Deity of Christ, or the true humanity of Jesus. Some, such as Mormons, deny the virgin birth. They say that God the Father had sexual relations with Mary. I John 4:1-3 gives a scriptural litmus test for false teachers.
(9) Segmented Biblical Attention. Cults pay attention to a particular verse or passage, without considering the context of the rest of the Bible. II Timothy 3:16-17 shows us that ALL scripture is for inspiration and instruction.
(10) Entangling Organizational Structure. Cults demand total commitment. The usual cultist is far more a slave to his present religious involvement than he ever was to various forms of sin which characterized his former life! Christ lambasted the Pharisees for enslaving people, Luke 11:46. See also II Peter 2:19. The less truth a movement represents, the more highly it must organize itself. Truth has its own magnetism producing loyalty. In the absence of Truth, only fear is left. Let us be free of such cults, Galatians 5:1.
(11) Financial Exploitation. Cults call their adherents to pay, and pay, and keep on paying, and imply that money donated will "buy" favors from God. Evil religious leaders have built expensive homes and lived lavishly at the expense of their "dumb sheep." However, God’s gifts are given freely, Romans 3:24, 6:23, and Matthew 10:8. A love of money is a mark of a cult leader, I Timothy 6:5, 10, Acts 8:18-20.
Breese reminds us that II Peter 2 gives a summary of the characteristic of evil cult leaders, which includes a condemnation of their sexual depravity.
Is the Worldwide Church of God A Cult?
Dr. Walter R. Martin, author of The Kingdom of the Cults (originally printed in 1965, revised in 1982), classified the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) as a cult, primarily for its Anglo-Israelism teaching and its opposition to the Trinity doctrine and "born again" theology. Yet by the early 1990s, the WCG had killed its most popular booklet, The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy, written by Herbert W. Armstrong. The church had abandoned its Anglo-Israelism teaching. The WCG accepted born again teaching, and fully embraced Trinity doctrine. The WCG is attempting to shed its former cultist image.
Anglo-Israelism, opposition to "born again" teaching, and anti-Trinity doctrine are correct teachings, no matter what evangelical Protestants such as Walter Martin say. WCG teachings have continued to change through the years. This is one of the marks of a cult. But, does the WCG meet Trechak’s four-point test for a cult?
The Sabbath, Holy Days, abstinence from unclean meats, and non-observance of pagan holidays naturally isolate one from family and others who are not of the same religious faith. When I was in the WCG (1969-1975), I do not recall being encouraged to be isolated from family and non-Church friends. That came as a natural result from my religious beliefs, but I tried to mitigate the separation. Was there pressure to conform to the Church’s government? Yes. But, when the Church said to burn the old Healing and Divorce and Remarriage booklets, because they had changed doctrinal teaching, I quietly refused. There was latitude for the individual to "don’t believe me, believe what you see in the Bible." I did not blindly accept what the Church taught. Blind obedience was not taught when I was in the WCG. Did I give excessively? My unconverted mother thought so, when I turned my paltry savings over to the Church. Yet, I gave willingly, without coercion, because I believed in the doctrines being proclaimed (this was before many doctrines were changed). I gave until it hurt, but do not regret a dime I gave. What I do regret is that the money I gave was often wasted on a weak gospel message or lavish living by the ministry. So, on the whole, the WCG did not satisfy Trechek’s four-point test for cults.
However, the WCG did, or does, have many aspects of cults. Its government is somewhat authoritarian. Herbert Armstrong was an authoritarian leader, as is his replacement, Joseph Tkach. Its finances are shrouded in secrecy, and lavish spending continues. WCG doctrines are ambiguous, and subject to constant change. There is an anti-family teaching, which fails to condemn homosexuality, and allows wide open divorce and remarriage, even among the ministry. We need to be on guard against cultish tendencies and not be taken in by these mind enslavers. W