What Is a Cult?

[This is an updated article that originally appeared at the old blog location]

 

He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that followeth vain persons is void of understanding.

~ Pr 12:11 (KJV)

What is a “cult”? While it is usually true that cults are headed up by a single powerful leader, that is about where the agreement in what the popular idea of what a cult is ends. I think it is important that those of us with a Church of God background look objectively at this question. Not only have there been many casualties along the way because of our holding fast to the true beliefs (from various types of persecution and trials), but we have to honestly look at the fact that some of us have been hurt by “our own” and the abuse of power wielded by individuals within the Church.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but I’m going to anyhow. This is not meant to be a criticism of Mr. Armstrong. He was human, but there are so many lies on the Internet that accuse and mock him and the Church that I find it difficult to believe half of it. I actually have a lot of respect for what he did. The bottom line is that I would not have known of God’s truth if it had not been for his efforts.

While this isn’t intended to be a critique of WCG, I have recently come to believe one of the main reasons that God scattered that organization precisely because He wanted to sort out the bad apples from the good (in particular the ministry). While I cannot say it is the only reason, He certainly knew who was going to be abusive and who was not. I believe He also knew who would follow men and who would follow Him. He protected His own by separating them out (and, no, they did not necessarily all go to the same organization). God looks upon the heart, and He will scatter those who oppose Him (Neh 1:7-9).

If we are going to look at this objectively, we need to assess what a cult is and what a cult is not.

cult (from dictionary.com)

  1. a. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
    b. The followers of such a religion or sect.
    c. Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.
    d. The object of such devotion.
  2. A system or community of religious worship and ritual.
  3. The formal means of expressing religious reverence; religious ceremony and ritual.
  4. A usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.
  5. a. Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.
    b. The object of such devotion.
  6. An exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric, usually artistic or intellectual interest.

You can see that the word “cult” is not necessarily a pejorative term, although the implication is usually quite negative. Sometimes, the word is interchanged with the word “sect” in common usage:

sect (from dictionary.com)

  1. a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination.
  2. a group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition.
  3. (in the sociology of religion) a Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.
  4. any group, party, or faction united by a specific doctrine or under a doctrinal leader.

Definitions 2, 3 and 4 often fit in with the concept of cults; however, “sect” is usually used in the broader sense (definition 1), esp. by theologians and religious authors. Since dictionary definitions usually follow the pattern of listing the most common meanings first, for the purposes of this blog, I will define “sect” to be a body of believers belonging to a particular faith, religious denomination or system of beliefs. Inherent in this definition, then, is that the system of beliefs is the minimum common tie between members of this group, and it must be a group of people and not a single individual. The group may be large or small, as “sect” can sometimes refer to a smaller group of people in contrast to a larger group. Indeed, sometimes “sect” is a smaller group holding to “deviant” (I am putting quotes around this, as “deviant” itself can appear judgmental rather than simply meaning different than what is considered “normal”) beliefs within a larger group (such as a denomination).

As far as the word “cult” is concerned, it almost always is used in a negative manner, except by theologians and sociologists. On Wikipedia’s article for “Cult”, we see this definition:

 

Cult typically refers to a cohesive social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture considers outside the mainstream, with a notably positive or negative popular perception. In common or populist usage, “cult” has a positive connotation for groups of art, music, writing, fiction, and fashion devotees,[1] but a negative connotation for new religious, extreme political, questionable therapeutic, and pyramidal business groups.[2] For this reason, most, if not all, non-fan groups that are called cults reject this label.

To make matters more confusing, the article goes on to describe “problem cults” and “destructive cults”, which muddies the waters further. It is impossible to define what a “problem cult” is, though. In fact, Wikipedia points out that Alcoholics Anonymous would fit the definition of a “problem cult” because their goal is to change members’ behavior and even members’ way of thinking (ibid). “Destructive cults” usually refer to cults with serious consequences such as People’s Temple at Jonestown or the Heaven’s Gate cult. However, in its broadest sense, this seems to be what people typically think of when they think of cults. In its broadest sense, a “destructive cult” can be destructive psychologically and not just physically (Wikipedia, “Destructive Cult“). However, even this term has been abused, as it has been used against sects that have not been shown to injure themselves or others (such as the “Moonies” or Unification Church). As you can see, there is very little agreement about even what at first appears to be a straight-forward term.

So, let’s step back from this. We need to ask, “What is the real concern here, anyways?” Well, if you are more orthodox in your approach to Christianity, it is obvious that your concern would be just about anything that is unorthodox. The belief that people will go to hell if they do not believe in this or that might compel you to rail against what you consider false teachings. However, if you are either a nominal Christian or not even a Christian at all, your real concern might be the damage that is occurring to someone you love because of the sect they belong to. Notice that both of these examples are motivated by a caring for the other person. If a person is displaying disdain simply for disdains sake, then the real issue obviously is not the person or group they are disparaging. Instead, the concern is that someone is somehow being harmed by their association. Since the motives are similar, it is easy to confuse the one idea of the consequences of heretical teaching vs. the ideas of emotional, financial, psychological and physical damage. The first concept is about an eternal consequence. The second concept is about consequences in this lifetime. They really need to be separated out. The first should simply be referred to as a “cult” because the damage can only be assessed by God. Let’s face it; God has to call us away from true heresy, anyhow. “Heresy” in the eyes of the world is quite different. We know that true Christianity will be out of step with the rest of the world. The second kind of damage is more obvious, though, and that damage is the result of a destructive cult.

Confused? Brace yourself for the insidious part of this! That confusion can be taken advantage of! If you are reading this, you are probably part of the Church of God in some way, shape or fashion. It is known that certain groups have taken advantage of this confusion. Your pastor probably knows the difference between a cult and a destructive cult, in deed if not in words. He may use the ambiguity to his advantage. One COG group’s leader (no need to mention his name, or his head might swell even larger than it is now) even boasted, “I am glad when they call us a ‘cult’.” The implication is that he is glad to be recognized as “different”. However, it is very likely that the people calling the organization a “cult” really should be calling it a “destructive cult” because it is not only blocking some people’s entrance into the Kingdom of God, but it is damaging their members financially, emotionally and psychologically. Ambiguity about the word “cult” allows that church’s leadership to wear it as a badge of honor instead of it bringing shame.

One thing that almost all cults have in common is that there is one central leader at the top. The idea that there is a “one man government” of the Church has caused more aberrations, in my opinion, than any other doctrine. Many of the COGs have this type of government, and it should send up red flags whenever we see it. However, we need to be realistic and acknowledge there are different levels of cultism. They can range from simple respect for one person to complete idolatry. Yes, make no mistake about it: there is idolatry in the Churches of God! Whenever a man is placed in Christ’s stead, it is idolatry! Even Mr. Armstrong had to put people in their place at times with their flattery. Still, it seems that at times even he wasn’t immune to the corruption that almost absolute power can give a person. Having one central leader is a weakness of many COGs, one that UCG learned and has mitigated. While there is no “perfect” form of government (other than Christ’s rule), UCG has this advantage over many of the others.

The fact that certain churches that came out of WCG are cults has bothered me. In fact, I can look back and see that there were cultish ideas even in WCG while Mr. Armstrong was alive. And yet, I have had to ponder why my experience within the Church, even as a teen, was so much more positive than what some seemed to experience, and I have come to the realization that in spite of appearances, there was still a wide variation of attitudes and beliefs even when Mr. Armstrong was alive. Some of the ministers that came out of WCG have continued their destructive behavior, while others have learned and grown. In other words, even during Mr. Armstrong’s time you had ministers in some congregations ruling by fear and intimidation, while others were actively trying to be godly pastors. Some were wolves in sheep’s clothing, and some were actual shepherds.

The membership that left WCG and continued to follow men may have been never converted in the first place. Only God knows for sure. However, I believe we are beginning to see the effects of this type of leadership, because as the congregations get older, the young people are not staying around. They are leaving in droves to escape the abuse so heavily heaped upon them. I believe the destructive COG cults are beginning to pay a price by dwindling down to becoming non-players. Over time, they will not even exist any longer.

A man who troubles his own house will come to ruin (Pr 11:29). Family is what God is about; His goal is to build a family. Mr. Armstrong changed the Divorce and Remarriage doctrine after some study because he realized the fruits were not good. Did he change it too much? That’s a subject for another day, but he realized that breaking up families because the parents were previously divorced was not the answer. Churches that drive wedges in families are destructive cults. It is exactly this behavior that finally sparked me to write about it. Remember, you shall know them by their fruits. There are COG organizations today that are driving wedges between members of the same family.

Wikipedia used to have a good article with various checklists of characteristics of a “cult”. They define “cult” as “spurious” or “likely to abuse or exploit or otherwise harm its members.” Keep in mind that any group might one or more of these characteristics and may not necessarily be a destructive cult. However, these are things to look for. Some of these have occurred at specific times in the WCG, but I am more interested in helping you to know if you or a family member may currently be involved in a destructive cult. I have tried to distill and summarize some of the ones I have also seen elsewhere on cult sites:

  1. The organization is willing to place itself above the law. This is probably the single most important flag that something is wrong. Unless the law clearly violates Scripture (such as a command to work on the Sabbath), then are to obey the ruling authorities (Ro 13:1-2).
  2. Totalitarianism and alienation of members from their families and/or friends. A sect that is destructive to the family is a destructive cult (Ex 20:12; Ge 18:19; Ge 2:23-24; Dt 4:9; 1Ti 3:1-5; Pr 31:21, 27-28; 1Ti 5:8, 16). This is different than if the family turns against you (Mt 10:36).
  3. The leadership dictates (rather than suggests) important personal (as opposed to spiritual) details of followers’ lives, such as whom to marry, what to study in college, etc. Obviously, someone engaged in a sinful occupation (prostitute, drug dealer, etc.) should be dealt with. Otherwise, people should enjoy the freedom they have in Christ.
  4. The leader sets forth ethical guidelines members must follow but from which the leader is exempt.
  5. The group is preparing to fight a literal, physical “Armageddon” war against other human beings or defend against an end of the world scenario from government agencies, specified groups, etc.
  6. The leader regularly makes public assertions that he or she knows is false and/or the group has a policy of routinely deceiving outsiders.
  7. A powerful leader who claims divinity or a special mission entrusted to him/her from above.
  8. Revealed scriptures or doctrine. Unfortunately, we seem to have an abundance of “prophets” within the COG community.
  9. Deceptive recruitment.
  10. The use of indoctrination, by sophisticated mind-control techniques, based on the concept that once you can make a person behave the way you want, then you can make him/her believe what you want.
  11. Slave labor – that is, the use of members on fundraising or missionary activities for little or no pay to line the leader’s pockets.
  12. Misuse of funds and the accumulation of wealth for personal or political purposes at the expense of members. This especially means churches that require paying a third tithe that is supposed to be for the widows, orphans and poor but really go to build pastors’ houses.
  13. Exclusivity – “we are right and everyone else is wrong”. I can remember a sermon in the 70s about how we must be careful even being critical of Seventh Day Adventists because there may be true Christians in the SAD organization. Yet, today it is sad to see a COG organization calling other COGs names when in reality their beliefs are not very far apart.
  14. A movement that separates itself from society, either geographically or socially.
  15. Adherents become increasingly dependent on the movement for their view on reality.
  16. Provide members with instant acceptance from a seemingly loving group. What is really sad is that there are cults that do this better than some of the COG groups.
  17. Keeps members away from competing or critical ideas. The WCG was guilty of this, esp. when Mr. Armstrong was alive. The result was not protecting the brethren, however. Instead, it encouraged members to turn off their brains. Competing ideas can lead one astray, but they can also make one’s faith stronger by learning how to critically dissect false doctrines. We learned how to do this before coming into the Church, so why should we stop once we are in the Church?
  18. Provide an authority figure that everyone seems to acknowledge as having some special skill or awareness. In the COGs, this most often manifests itself as some “secret knowledge” or “new truth”. Watch out for those words.
  19. Provide a philosophy that seems logical and appears to answer all or the most important questions in life. In reality, falsehood will be uncovered sooner or later or the arguments for a false philosophy will prove to be fallacies. Truth will stand the test of time.
  20. Structure all or most activities so that there is little time for privacy or independent action or thought. Honestly, though, it doesn’t have to be a cult to make you busy. Remember, activities are not worship!
  21. Promise instant or imminent solutions to deep or long-term problems. Unfortunately, the COG has at times been guilty of this. Well-meaning members and ministers often offer pat suggestions to those undergoing trials and end up making the person feel worse than before!
  22. Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority. The person under mind control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group. Threats of consequences if you leave the group. “They are no longer part of the True Church!” “Only if you belong to [fill in destructive cult name], you will not go to the Place of Safety and have to go through the Tribulation!”
  23. Giving new meanings to words so that outsiders do not recognize or understand. We have to be careful, though, as it is recognized that most mainstream Christian denominations do not agree on the meaning of words, and even when they do they are sometimes unbiblical. Again, we cannot turn off our brains at the door. Ask yourself if that is the Biblical definition or not.
  24. Behavior control: Where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates, what clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears, what food the person eats, drinks, adopts, and rejects, how much sleep the person is able to have, financial dependence, little or no time spent on leisure, entertainment, vacations.”
  25. Rigid rules and regulations. Honestly, just following the rules set out in the Bible will label a Church as “strict”. Is it really necessary to add more on top of it? Isn’t there a danger in adding to it (Dt 4:2; 12:32; Rev 22:18)?
  26. Need for obedience and dependency. Obviously, we are called to be humble, but our dependency should be upon our God and our Lord, not on human beings.
  27. Deliberately holding back information, distorting information to make it more “acceptable,” “outright lying.” Information is not freely accessible. People at different levels in the organization have access to levels of information. The leader decides who has the “need to know”.

Remember, the main difference is control. Who controls your life? Is it God, or is it your church organization? Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free.” Cults seek to put you into bondage.

Does that mean that everything that cults teach is wrong? No, even a destructive cult has enough truth to fool even otherwise bright people. I learned early in my Christian walk that truth is truth, and it doesn’t matter who God uses to give you the message. I was confronted with this when I was told what was undeniably the truth by a pagan! However, just because a pagan told me the truth about one thing doesn’t mean I should go and worship their god, now does it? Truth is more objective to that. Unfortunately, when WCG started throwing out the baby with the bath water, some could not distinguish between throwing out error and throwing out the truth. After some are disfellowshipped from xCOG, instead of finding an organization that comes closer to what they know is the truth, there are those that turn completely the other way and either go to Protestantism or even atheism. We have to be discerning, even when we are confronted with the humiliation of being lied to by those we trusted. Everyone must hang on to what they know is the truth, even if it was from a fallible source (which will be most of the time). Your best bet is to check and recheck what you’ve been taught against the Bible. It should be the source of all truth for us Christians. That will keep us away from destructive cults, and that will heal us even if we fall prey to one.

The nice thing is that if you are being abused by a group, there are about 400 (the official count stopped sometime after 300, and I’ve heard estimates of 500) splits from WCG. There are even rare groups that keep the Sabbath, clean meats, etc., yet were never associated with WCG (although, most if not all were located outside the US, it seems). You do have a choice. As in all matters, pray and study about it. Fast before going to a service (not necessarily during it). You can find a home and still be a part of the spiritual body.

What can you do if someone you love is in a destructive cult? Frankly, it is difficult. Remember, the person in that cult has joined it voluntarily (even though it may have been based upon lies). There was some type of reward for joining in the first place. Now, to voluntarily leave means admitting they were wrong (and other family members were wrong, if they were involved as well). If that weren’t bad enough, destructive cults always use fear to keep members in (like threats of not going to the Place of Safety, shunning, or not being part of the “True Church”).

The Cult Awareness and Information Center (CAIC) is not favorable towards the COG. However, they do have useful information on what to do and not to do if someone you know is a member of a cult (and at least they acknowledge that there are cults and then there are destructive cults). Some of these are:

DO NOT…

attack them verbally (or physically!), creating walls to communication. They have a persecution complex inherited from the cult, believing that all non-members are agents of Satan. Don’t feed the complex! Have a curious yet cautious attitude, striving to get them to see things from another perspective (not necessarily yours).

argue the Bible (the most common mistake). Their problem is not lack of knowledge, but the inability to process it correctly! They must be taught how to process the facts consistently, and before you can teach them, you need to gain their confidence and respect. A barrier erected by your own ego (i.e., the need to be right, to prove them wrong, etc.) will almost always prevent this from ever happening, necessitating the need for outside intervention.

DO…

educate yourself in the area of cult mind control techniques, through books and seminars. Talk to former members of any group, as cult techniques are all quite similar. Be wise before you embark on such a risky endeavor- you may only have one chance.

enlist the help of others, either professionals in the field, or by educating friends and family members and soliciting their support. Long-time friends of the victim are the most effective.

pray for them. Ask God that if it be their time to get out, He grant you the wisdom and circumstances to accomplish the intervention, and that if it turns out they are not yet ready, that He grant them the circumstances necessary to prepare them for disillusionment with the group and the desire for something better. Ask for patience and wisdom for yourself as well!

Obviously, you need to be careful about engaging “professionals” in any event, and that really should be reserved for the worst forms of abuse. Even if you get them out, there is no guarantee that they will come into the truth! There is no guarantee they will even remain a “Christian”!

In the end, only God can make someone a Christian. Even at that, we in the COG are blessed with the knowledge that God does not force Himself upon people, but are looking for willing participants to engage themselves in His work and His family. If the person stays in a cult, even as a person who was raised in the Church stops attending, it should be taken as a sign that God is not yet calling them. God does convict people when they live wrongly, and He can bring them into all truth (Jn 16:13). However, maintain contact with that person because God will choose the time of calling that person. Love will be what wins out in the end.

 

 

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