Characteristics of a Cult
Beloved, believe not every spirit,
but try the spirits whether they are of God:
because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
— 1 John 4:1
In a cult, one person controls and dictates a group’s beliefs and actions. Members are not free to question the doctrines or the system. Any religious movement that claims the backing of the Bible but distorts the central message of Christianity either through new revelation or by replacing a biblical principle with a deviation of their own interpretation is a cult. Any religion that holds writings such as the Book of Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness Bible translation, or even the Apocrypha equal to or above the Bible is a cult.
The Webster’s Dictionary defines a cult as “a quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices, or beliefs; a devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle, or lifestyle, especially when regarded as a fad (definitions 1b and 2a).
There are a number of characteristics you almost always see in cults.
1) The leader is usually in control of the money. He says the money is used for a greater purpose in the group or society at large, yet he himself largely benefits from it.
2) He demands strict obedience to him; he craves power. Anyone who raises questions is looked at as a threat.
3) He is uncannily interested in the private lives of his followers; for example, arranging marriages, demanding celibacy, or even regulating what kind of underwear his followers wear. Often he is sexually involved with members of his group.
4) Occult activities such as divining or clairvoyance are commonly practiced by cult leaders. In our case, it was “communication with the spirit.” The finger pressing (in Out Of Deception) was a form of divining in order to receive answers. Certain faith healing and other mysterious or magical powers are often used to maintain faith in the leader.
5) Cults always progress toward evil. The most prominent character we see is the one specifically described in 2 Timothy 3:13: “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.” Every cult starts out looking quite innocent, but they always progress, never to the better, always to the worse. They claim they have the truth and no one else does. When that happens, beware.
How a Person Becomes Susceptible
People don’t deliberately join cults; they join churches, special interest or self-help groups, and even multi-level marketing firms. All of these groups can be good, yet groups under these labels have ensnared people and controlled them to the point that they did not dare think for themselves. They succumbed to the leaders’ mind control and believed their unrealistic promises.
In Proverbs 29:18 it says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” A person with no vision has no goals, no meaningful prayer life. He just does what is required of him without really understanding why. There is an emptiness he can’t shake off or fulfill. He exists, but does not feel or see the Lord’s purpose for his life, which often seems a meaningless existence. In this state of mind or spiritual condition, a person does not have good judgment, because he has no solid foundation for his beliefs. His house is built upon the sand. He is open to deception.
Jesus said, “Take heed that no man deceive you” (Matthew 24:4). He warns us that there will be people who claim to be Christ. How do we keep from being deceived? In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 we read, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first.” This verse brings the responsibility home to us. When we harbor ill feelings such as bitterness, rebellion, contempt, anger, and resentment, we are falling away. When we do not repent of a sin in our life, we deceive ourselves. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
A person who is deceived is ignoring the truth. God made the truth, which is the Bible, available to us; we just need to receive it and believe it. When Eve was deceived, it wasn’t that she didn’t know the truth. She was made to believe that if she ate the forbidden fruit she would gain the knowledge of good and evil and become as gods. It is interesting to note that she already knew what good was, but Satan made her believe God was withholding something from her by not letting her know what evil was. Had she adhered to the truth as God had said, “Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die,” she would not have become deceived.
Let’s return to the age-old question Pilot asked Jesus: “What is truth?” Often, as with Eve, the truth is no longer clear. It has been twisted until what God has said does not seem like the truth anymore. In our case, we depended on our Amish lifestyle to save us instead of immersing ourselves in the Word. Therefore we were not grounded in the truth. Had we studied God’s word, we would have known from Romans 16:18 that those who come with “good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.” Had we studied the whole verse, we could have seen that those who serve themselves are not in the truth. Had we greater knowledge of the Scriptures, we would have been able to detect the lies and inconsistencies in our leader’s teachings. We would have known that we “know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 25:31), and so not been led astray by his false predictions of the end. We would have understood that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and not been susceptible to our leader’s claims that parts were intended to deceive. His erroneous teachings concerning marriage, money, the roles of women, and communicating with spirits would have been obvious to us had we only been more familiar with the Scriptures.
The Church’s Responsibility
While we are in a fallen world, we will never be able to create a perfect environment where no one makes wrong choices. Does that leave the church free of any responsibility? No. When people desire to become members, they should be clearly taught what the new birth is. The new birth should be evident in their lives before they are allowed to become members. They should be taught what it means to live a Christ-like life and how to have a meaningful prayer life. God’s will is that we portray His image and are part of His kingdom (the church) on this earth. But how can the church teach these things if it does not understand the new birth? How can it demonstrate Christ-likeness when its members show anger, resentment, and bitterness? How can it be His image when sin is allowed in the church? When these things are present in the church, there is work to be done.
When the church does not deal with sins of the heart or even blatant sins, its members become disillusioned. Members also become disillusioned when the church resorts to tradition rather than giving sound biblical teaching. The members do not see the need to live an upright life. Being a church member becomes just a form, a way of life, rather than a meaningful relationship with the Lord and His people.
Often in this environment a person will start to search for meaning in life, which is good. But when he starts to ask questions he is looked at as odd or rebellious. Sadly, in some plain churches questions are squelched with the reasoning that the person is seeking for more material things, thus creating a [low-key] cultic environment where one is not free to ask questions. When that happens he is pushed to live a meaningless life, a life without a vision. The church should be there to foster that search and direct it to Christ.
Besides discipline, the church needs to give sound biblical teaching. This responsibility lies on all parents, but especially on the ministers. All members should look to the spiritual welfare of the other members.
He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him (1 John 2:10).
If you find yourself in a cult or in an environment where you have no one to turn to for advice or help, first seek God’s guidance. Pray. “And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Luke 11:9). Find a Bible and read it. Earnestly seek the truth.
Look for an opportunity to speak with a person you know could help you out of your situation. Make sure he understands the dire circumstance you are in and that you need to get out now.
Once you are away from your situation, seek spiritual counseling and become grounded in the truth. Until you are completely grounded in the truth, do not trust yourself to speak alone with any members of your former group.
- Wilbur Hochstetler, Former Amish Cult Victim