Lamb’s Harbinger takes care to produce articles like Abuse and Authority, What Really is Church?, Correctly Defining Legalism, and Who’s the Weak One?. Hopefully, the reader will pause to consider that biblical Christianity recognizes abuses and cult-like tendencies can happen in any organization. When a church or church leader takes on those tendencies, one can rest assured that such leaders are not Scriptural/valid and neither is their “church.” What is more, Toxic followers enable “toxic leaders.”
The power of a counterfeit is its similarity to the genuine. This maxim is true for leadership and church leadership. There can be no counterfeit without something authentic to fake or pervert. Thankfully, there is an entire movement of authentic Christians who are working “counter-cult.”
Next, the reader should note that a “cult” stands (by definition) in distinction from an “occult.” While a cult is a biblically invalid extrapolation of Christianity, an occult is that which involves itself with everything anti-Christian or pagan.
The objective boundaries of the Word without the experiential life of the Spirit produces deadness; but the experiential life of the Spirit without the objective boundaries of the Word produces excess. Either side of the pendulum can produce either a cult or other similar error. When either the Spirit or the Word are ignored or diminished; and especially when one person’s interpretation or personality becomes absolute authority, then be sure a cult is forming. Therefore, it is important to Consider and Survive Unhealthy Christian Organizations as well as cults.
Through personal experiences and by way of collecting research from both secular psychologists and biblical Christian scholars, I present to you the following Warning Signs of a Cult:
- Authoritarianism or Nepotism – CORRECTIVE ANSWER: 1 Pet. 5:1-3; 1 Tim. 2:5; 2 Tim. 2:25; 4:2, emphasis on “with complete patience and teaching” and “with gentleness.”
- No or Faux Accountability – the leader is not truly accountable to any internal or external authorities, particularly religious ones (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders, peer review). [see plurality of elders in Abuse and Authority]
- Absolutism – They insist on total, unquestioning obedience and submission to the group, both actions AND thoughts. Reliance on subjective assessments by leaders results in their determination of who is “devoted” or “worthy.” Group “love” and acceptance becomes dependent upon obedience and submission. Unconditional love…isn’t.
- Genuine questioning, doubt, and conscientious dissent are discouraged or even punished. The leadership and upper levels of followers induce 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/public shame/humiliation.
- Flaunting Hierarchy — Promoting acceptance of cult authority by promising advancement, power and salvation
- Dependency upon the group leader for problem solving, direction, solutions, and definitions occurs without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group leader involvement. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group leader results in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
- Crisis Creation – Leaders employ tactics designed to test allegiance or readiness and “maturity,” create or deepen confusion, fear, guilt or doubt. i.e. “you aren’t serving God the way He intended.” Then the leader(s) provide the solution to the crisis they raise. Instead of focus on clear and accurate biblical truth, grace, faith, hope, and love; questions are posed concerning obscure areas of “faith” one may have never before examined or explored in order to create an atmosphere of “never being good enough.” Performance becomes all-consuming.
- The “Leader” has All The Answers – provides simple answers to the confusion they, themselves, create. Support for these answers is given with material produced or “approved” by the group. The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. The group leader is always right.
- The upper echelon of followers or members are comprised of only those who approve of/willing to protect senior leadership. No one dares question his authority. Some even defend his not having to entertain any criticism when members voice concern on the basis of the Bible. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution” or “bitterness.”
- Exploitative of Members – CORRECTIVE ANSWER: Rom. 14:4; 1 Timothy 2:5; [see see articles mentioned above]
- “Spiritual blessing” is promised if congregants obey “the word” of leadership, usually having to do with excessive emphasis on giving or devotion. The group is preoccupied with making money to forward its “cause.” On the other hand, money may be used by the leader to gain control or assert position over individuals through “obligation” and “kindness.”
- Guilt and Fear – Group dwells on members’ “sinful nature” (e.g. many use public confession). Guilt and fear arising from “failing God” are magnified to manipulate or drive a new member.
- Confession to Leaders for “Clearing” and “Blessing” — Encouraging the destruction of healthy God/believer confidence through confession of personal weaknesses and innermost feelings of doubt to a leader. Confessional booths exemplify this principle. This is also promoted by signing covenants that bind the follower to the “standards” or conscience of a leader, coupled with the teaching that one must be “right with all authority” before he can be right with God and/or receive blessing. This interjects a man as intermediary between God and man, instead of Christ.
- Striving for the Unreachable – Group membership and service are essential for salvation/sanctification…”Work your way into God’s favor.” No matter what you do, it is never enough. Followers feel they can never be “good enough.” The continual pursuit of a mysterious “spiritual” understanding or experience needed for validating a follower’s legitimacy and/or “maturity” may be a deceptive facade for the process of psychological subjugation, creating the thirst for acceptance.
- Attack Independent but Legitimate Thought – Critical thinking is discouraged as prideful and sinful, blind acceptance encouraged. [See above, “Genuine questioning, doubt, and conscientious dissent…”]
- Followers/members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities, especially if approval from leaders is desired.
- Schedule Control & Fatigue – Study and service become mandatory. The new member becomes too busy to question. Family, friends, jobs and hobbies are squeezed out, further isolating the new member.
- Emphasizes Devotion According to Prescribed Ritual – CORRECTIVE ANSWER: 2 Tim. 2:15, 21; It is to God that we must give an answer – 1 Tim. 4:1 [please see Abuse and Authority (above) for matters of “Church discipline”]
- Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
- Methods and traditions and prescriptions for every minutia of life become overbearing and are the standards by which one is approved or disapproved, instead of one’s being accepted in the Beloved and approved by God (Eph. 1:6).
- The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
- Elitist Mentality – CORRECTIVE ANSWER: Eph. 3:15; 4:1-3; 1 Thess. 5:20; Acts 17:11
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members.
- Totalism – “Us against them” thinking strengthens group identity. Everyone outside of group lumped under one label. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members. Friendship with those who are seen as unholy/unsaved is detrimental to one’s reputation with the leadership. Friendship or partnership with those of independent, biblicist Christian denominations is frowned upon.
- Exclusivity is maintained by forbidding (usually implied but enforced by social pressure) one’s learning from other sources than materials which the “group” produces. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. This not only extends to secular society but, as said, extends to other Christian denominations.
- “Finger pointing” occurs, creating a false sense of righteousness by pointing to the shortcomings of the outside world and other cults, instead of dealing with them intelligently and reasonably.
- Jailing/Institutionalization Effect – ANSWER: Gal. 5:1-26
- The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
- Phobias – The idea is planted that anyone who leaves goes into a life of depravity and sin, loses their sanity, dies, or will have children die, etc. Constant rumors of bad things happening to people who leave. No one ever leaves for “legitimate reasons.”
RESOURCES (relied upon heavily herein):
Dangerous Cult Leaders | Psychology Today
— Christian Today (@ChristianToday) May 13, 2016
Cult Comparison Chart (CARM)
Historical Figures in the Christian Counter-cult Movement – Walter Martin
Identifying Christian Cults (CARM)
Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin & Ravi Zacharias
PowerPoint Apologist’s False Faiths