Is My Church or Club a Cult?
In Response: Is My Church or Club a Cult? — In a recent article posted on this site, the topic of dangerous cults was touched upon. The article has generated several questions from readers, most of which can be brought together under one general question…”Is my church or club a cult?”
In short, the answer to this question is a resounding, “In far more instances than you realize, many mainline evangelical Christian churches have crossed the line to become, or teeter on the line of becoming definable as cults.”
This answer might shock some readers, but what cannot be disputed is the fact that during the time when Jesus of Nazareth walked on the face of the earth, based on modern day definitions, Christianity was a cult, and it was the mainline church leaders of that day who pushed the hardest for the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ. Cults and Christianity have danced a precarious dance since the beginning of time.
If we are going to gain better insight into what a cult looks like then we must first establish a baseline of understanding in what a cult is or is not, and for this purpose we begin by turning to the Oxford English Dictionary.
- worship or reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings;
- a particular form or system of religious worship, especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies;
- devotion or homage to a particular person or thing.
With this baseline of understanding, we can clearly see that the major weight of our definition would appear to point directly to religious organizations, but to assume that all cults are religious in nature would be terribly wrong.
As outlined in the recent article North America Poised For a New Era of Cults and Extremist Thinking :
Currently, there are over 5,000 destructive cults or cell groups operating in the United States of America, festering and heating up with a pot that contains approximately 4 million members.
While most world cults have been birthed out of the Baptist and Pentecostal (charismatic) church movements, today’s world of the cults fall into 4 basic categories:
- Religious — these can range from what might be a very small community church with tangent beliefs to extremist forms of Islam;
- Psychological/Enlightenment — New Age centres or teachings offering what are often expensive “enlightenment” workshops or sessions with today’s newest and most inwardly insightful leaders or gurus;
- Commercial — These can range widely from certain pyramid and multi-level marketing organizations where there is religious overtones to massive international conglomerates;
- Political — Often taking on the guise of much needed leadership, these are ideaologies, belief systems, or political dogmas which spring up in the void of leadership vacuums offering salvation to local, regional, and national dilemmas, an example of which is Nazism. Nazism was originally a cult, which gained politcal power, fell, and returned to a hidden populace as a cult ideaology. Today, few political parties exist where cult beliefs cannot be found burried deep within their views and thinking.
While the general number of cults, sects, or active cell groups are recognized in the United States of America, Canadian figures do not define the actual number of groups but simply indicate that approximately 3 to 5 percent of the Canadian population is knowlingly or unknowlingly attached to and active in some form of cult. Currently (According to Statistics Canada) Canada’s population sits at 35,985,751. This means that between 1,079,573 and 1,789,285 Canadians are actively invloved in cults. Compared to the American population, Canada has a massively higher number per capita of cult members than their American counter parts where only 1.25 percent of the over all American populace is knowlingly or unknowlingly attached to and active in some form of cult.
Cults have a much stronger footing and freedom to grow and expand within the Canadian populace.
Are Churches Cults?
To determine if a religious organization is a cult, one must take into consideration several factors.
On the surface, if we look at the structure of religious organizations, then we will quickly recognize that all religious organizations, including mainline evangelical Christian churches have the same core structure as cults. However, organizational structure alone does not determine if a religious organization is a cult. Organizational structure (hierarchy) combined with additional cult characteristics determines if a church is in fact a cult.
No matter the denomination, be it the Salvation Army, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Baptist (which has over 74 different sub-categories of Baptist denominations operating under the generalized title of “Baptist”), Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Anglican, Episcopalean, Christian Reformed, Church of God, Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Vineyard, United, Lutheran, Mennonite Brethern, Brethern, Mennonite, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness, Associated Gospel, Sihk, Muslim, Buddhist, Evangelical Free, and the many other denominations, independant churches, or temples, each and everyone of these has the potential to be a recognized cult, or have a de facto cult group operating within their walls.
A church accountant, church usher, or church member could be a de facto cult leader operating within a larger church setting, and could be doing so without the actual church leadership having knowledge of such activity. A major cult leader could be sitting in a church pew every Sunday without any of the other church members or church leadership knowing about it. A church congregation could be sitting under a cult leader, without the denominational administration being aware of what is taking place, and this scenario occurs quite frequently.
Cults are subtle in their day to day existence. So subtle that many cult members would honestly deny being a part of a cult — they don’t even recognize the nature of the circle of people they run with. This is in keeping with the delusion cults try to install upon their members
Characteristics Which Help Define a Cult
If the the authoritarian structure (chain of command) for a cult exists, then the next thing we look for is the existence of cult characteristics within the leadership or membership. A cult does not have to have all of the following characteristics to be definable as a cult, but there should be at least two or more present from the list below before any conclusions are drawn.
- The questioning of, comments of dissention, or acts of disloyalty towards the charismatic entity acting as the leader are discouraged, or through peer pressure or organized action, punished. (Church members or colleagues who go to extreme measures to defend their Minister or church leader, past or present, should raise red flags immediately.)
- Excessive indoctrination of the groups beliefs. (Sunday school and church sermons provide a means to indoctrinate individuals and this is widely used by cult leaders.)
- Mind altering activities which over the long run diminish a person’s individuality.
- The leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel (for example, who a member can or cannot date may be dictated by a cult leader, they may be advised to or ordered to change jobs, marry someone not of their choosing, and leaders may dictate what types of clothes may be worn by what genders and to what events such as private schools belonging to the cult group, where members should live, whether or not members can have children, and how members should discipline children, etc.).
- An excessive committment to a minister, political leader, society member (e.g. police officer, law enforcement agency, judge, club leader, teacher, counsellor, or some other authoritarian charismatic entity etc.) dead or currently alive, and where a person considers this charismatic entity’s beliefs, or ideologies to be truth.
- They dictate how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date particular people, or divorcees must re-marry their ex-spouse, forced or heavily implied instrcutions to change jobs, who you can or cannot marry, whether or not you are worthy of being married in the church sanctuary or not, subject you to excessive forms of punishment over extended periods of time until you do their bidding, leaders prescribe what types of clothes you can or cannot wear, where you can live, whether or not you can have children, or how to discipline your children, and so on.
- The suspected cult group walks through their normal day-to-day routine harbouring a polarized “us-versus-them” mentality, which may cause rifts or relational problems with members of the wider society.
- The suspected cult leader is not accountable to, conceals real activities from, or skirts around, his or her normal authorities.
- The suspected cult group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ performing tasks they would have previously considered reprehensible or unethical.
- The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. (The Mennonite movement — by many defitnitions a cult movement — is particularly strong in the use of this tactic.)
- Submission to a suspected cult leader may require that members cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and lifestyle interests that they had before joining the group.
- The suspected cult group has a continual emphasis on evangelizing and bringing in new members to the group.
- The group is continually focused openly, or behind the scenes, with raising revenues.
- Members are encouraged to devote large amounts of time mid-week, and on weekends to group-related meetings and activities.
- In some instances, members are encouraged forsake not the assembling of themselves together, suggesting or requiring the members to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
- In advanced cases, the most loyal members often feel there can be no life outside the context of the social network of fellow cult members and meetings . In time they have difficulty seeing life as being anything else, and often fear reprisals (e.g., social rejection, professional and or personal reputational destruction, physical harm, etc.) to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
- Adherence to or alignment with a particular belief system, statement of faith, or mission statement.
- In extreme cases, the use of sexual promiscuity with leaders and fellow cult members.
- In some cases the use of ritual mutilations and/or ritual killings of persons or animals.
It’s important to understand that cults will vary in beliefs, especially in a church setting, but at their core there is always to some degree concerted efforts to influence and control those in the cult, cult programs, and relationships. Many cult members, former cult members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, or even abused.
You might also be interested in: Is My Club A Cult?
Religion vs. Cults
In a recent article on the 2o traits of relationally unsafe people, it was stated that one of the traits of a relationally unsafe people was that some are religious vs. spiritual.
Religious people are all too often “so heavenly minded… they are no earthly good”! Religious people often approach relationships from the perspective of focusing on your sinfulness, and what’s wrong in your life. There is very little that is genuine about their own personal lives. Outwardly they will put on airs of spiritual maturity, when behind the scenes they will cuss, drink and attack people to the point where motorcycle gang members run away in tears. They can be oppressive, controlling, judgemental, and critical, all while believing they are very righteous in the eyes of God, and a healthy example as to what everyone else should try to be.
Spiritual people, who are far more relationally healthy than religious people, are accepting of others where they are and how they are in life, realizing that we are all equals on this great journey called life.
In the world of spiritual people vs. cults there are several differences one can look for.
- Respect your individuality;
- They possess a true spirit of selfless giving to help meet the needs of those around them;
- They encourage independant thinking, the questioning of philosophies, and ideals;
- Includes processes that helps build a person’s natural identity;
- They leave the door open for people to come and go as they please;
- They do not interfere with or impede on a person’s lifestyle choices, simply choosing to accept a person for who they are and where they are at in thier life journey.
Cult Leaders and Members
- Blatently or subtly coerce a member’s compliance;
- They focus on collecting wealth instead of spreading what comes in;
- They discourage independant thinking claiming it’s an act of disobediance or a lack of submission to the leadership possibly resulting in punishment of some form such as psychological coercion, to shunning, to physical abuse;
- Processes dimish a person’s awareness of their own personal identity;
- Members are heavily recruited and placed into a “funnel” of indoctrination;
- Those who try to leave often face destructive actions at the hands of the cult leadership and membership, as the leadership makes every attempt to drive the wayward member back under the control of the cult;
- They seek to control the life choices of group members.
It would be wrong to say all religious institutions are cults, but certainly many cults have been born out of religious organizations. No one should assume their church or temple is a cult until they have taken careful time to observe and measure the behaviour and belief system of the religious organization.