Cult Characteristics and Protecting Yourself From Cults
Ignorance of the Bible = Recipe for a Cult
Ignorance of what the Bible really says has played a large role in making many Christians vulnerable to the teachings and the tactics of the ever dangerous and ever more numerous cults. Successful cults are always highly proficient at "mind control" techniques, and while most of us feel that we are impervious to such things, there are enough case studies to show that relentless group pressure preying upon our most basic fears, guilt, and needs, can be extremely effective. Such pressure can cause even the most confident of people to surrender their will. As Christians, we are most vulnerable to groups that style themselves as Christians such as the "wolves in sheep's clothing" of Matt. 7:15. Cult leaders of this sort are very good at appearing to be "angels of light" when in reality they are agents of the devil. (2 Cor. 11:14)
Our first line of defense against such persons and organizations must be the Bible, for it is with the Bible that they will attempt to win us over. So strongly beware of any person or group who:
1. downplays the importance of reading the Bible for yourself
2. wants to supervise or take control of your reading of the Bible
3. suggests you read only 'their special version' of the Bible (other versions are 'wrong')
4. tells you not to read the Bible for yourself at all
From the cult's point of view, the Bible is a dangerous weapon in your hands because if it is read with even the tiniest bit of open mindedness, it will eventually contradict their tenets. Cults inevitably share certain common characteristics that a firm grounding in scripture will condemn every time. But for those whose grasp of scripture is less than adequate, cult doctrine and cult methodology are frequently effective. While often proclaiming the Bible and Christianity at first, cults are in fact anti-Bible and anti-Christian. Despite their different origins, cults have nearly identical essential characteristics, as might be expected when we take into account that they are all at their base dedicated to furthering Satan's plan.
We are reminded of the similarity of the devil's original anti-Biblical ploy when we examine these four basic cult characteristics.
1. A Separate Society/Isolation: In Genesis chapter three we find Eve alone in the Garden conversing, strange as it may seem, with a snake. Perhaps the novelty of a talking creature should have set off some warning bells for her, but we should not be surprised at the lapse of judgment. Failing to pay attention to God and His Word makes us all vulnerable to lies. The oddity of the source of the lie (cult members with bizarre ways are the most common today) is easily overcome by the devil when there is no barrier of truth to block the way. Notice in Genesis 3:1 where the serpent began his attack by twisting the truths of God where we read: "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'" (whereas God had actually only forbidden eating from the tree of knowledge). The devil often starts his attack by misquoting God's truths. Perverting the truth is an important step for cult evangelists because getting people to accept distortions of the truth is a good way to start divorcing them from the reality they know. This, in turn, makes them increasingly dependent upon their new masters.
The new 'separate' society to which the cult victim now belongs thrives upon isolation from the real world, and not only because the light of truth and reality expose the lies upon which it is based, but also because: cults draw their main strength from separating and isolating their members from normal society. Once the resistance of Biblical truth is overcome, it is a central part of the cult strategy to isolate their victims and new recruits from their friends, family members, support systems, and from the normal world in general.
ISOLATION OF THE NEW RECRUIT IS ACHIEVED BY ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING :
a. Intolerant Dogmatism: Beware of groups who claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and who will not tolerate any deviation from their doctrines or any discussion of their tenets. People who are positively certain of the truth of what they say do have a definite appeal, but their certainty and dogmatism do not necessarily make what they say true. The cult will often put the matter to the potential recruit in this way: "They are the 'only ones' with the truth which can't be found anywhere else, and if people refuse to believe in their teaching then those are people destined for hell." This is a version of pressure salesmanship that is all too often effective. Within the cult, there is no real seeking of Biblical truth, however, because they think they've already found it! But somehow you can't get to this truth of theirs immediately, you can't examine it or test it (all things will be revealed to you "later"). And if you dare to question or challenge the dogma, you become the enemy. These tactics are isolating because they force the initiate to "go along in order to get along" And it won't be long until he's surrendered his will.
b. Odd Customs: Beware of groups that sport unusual dress, exhibit strange behavior, and affect an odd vocabulary (this can include chants etc). Besides appearing exotic and therefore strangely intriguing to some potential members, these patterns of behavior serve another important function in the strategy of the cult: they serve to isolate the individual from the rest of society which does not dress, act, or speak in the same way. As the new recruit begins to adopt the manners of the cult, people start to shun him (or at least keep their distance). Now the other members (who dress, act, and talk as he has begun to), are the only ones like him and the only ones who fully accept him, and the process of isolation moves forward.
c. Emotional Excess: Beware of any emphasis on feeling over facts. Cults are masters at using loneliness, guilt, inadequacy - even an honest desire for truth and self-improvement - as levers to pry the potential recruit out of his normal environment. The expression of emotion in an excessive way does not necessarily mean that one has found the truth or the "right way". Displays of emotional ecstasy, besides being enjoyed by many people, and tending to reinforce the sense that they "have found the truth", have this additional effect: they tend to isolate the person from main stream society, as friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even family have a tendency to withdraw from these extremes of behavior which they understandably consider bizarre.
d. Physical Separation: Beware of any group that demands you sell your possessions and move to another state. This may seem laughably obvious but it is amazing how many people have succumbed to cult tactics to the point of embarking upon just such tragic courses of action. Certainly, this is not the first step of cult-indoctrination, but many poor souls are brought to this point with much greater eagerness than we or they would have imagined. When one does not firmly put what the Bible says above what man says, then it is not a far stretch to see that the cult leader (or leadership) and his word can easily become "the truth" in the mind of the cult victim. The process often starts with the leader demanding that he approve the new follower's decisions (even the most minute ones) until the time comes when almost all independent decision-making has been done away with. Once a person has been spiritually isolated (from the truth of scripture) it is no great task to isolate him emotionally, and, eventually, effect a complete physical isolation from family, friends, and the world he once knew. When we lose our anchor of truth, which is what God says to us in the Bible, it is inevitable that we will drift into other currents of influence, the end of which may possibly be the shipwreck of our souls in a separate society whose end and intent is evil. (1 Tim. 1:19, Heb.2:1)
2. Self-Righteousness: A second major cult characteristic is self-righteousness. A central part of cult doctrine concerns the issue of God's judgment upon sin and sinners. The immutable righteousness of God and the inevitability of judgment is an indispensable part of the gospel (Acts 10:42, 24:25) because it explains why Christ had to die in our place (to satisfy or propitiate God's character Rom. 3:22-26). As Christians, we are saved FROM the judgment, due to our sins by relying on Christ and His work on our behalf. To deny that there is a final judgment (and no hell), is, in effect, to deny that God is a just God (He can overlook sin if He chooses, would be the implication). It is also to deny that mankind has any need for a Savior (if sin can be dismissed so easily).
God is a loving God and a forgiving God, but His forgiveness is based upon Christ's payment of the penalty of our sins. To reject this aspect of the gospel is to reject the gospel itself. Cults that promise righteousness and eternal life apart from belief in Christ as the Savior, are essentially denying the existence of a truly righteous God, just as the serpent did when He called God a liar in Genesis 3:4 when the serpent told Eve that "You will not surely die". To attain eternal life (or whatever their equivalent may be), anti-Biblical groups universally substitute some system of self-righteousness. Their version of heaven or paradise can only be achieved by a burdensome system of works (rituals, good deeds, self-sacrifice etc.), works that are ultimately an insult to God who offered His Son that we might possess true righteousness by faith in Him (Rom. 4).
3. A Secret Doctrine: It is a common quirk of our human nature, that the prospect of knowing something few others do is a tempting one. I think we can all appreciate the effectiveness of Satan's temptation of Eve. He promised her what all cults promise their prospects: initiation into the mysteries of the universe, the "secret doctrines" available only to the select, enlightened few.
This aspect of a cult procedure was known in the ancient past as Gnosticism, a movement that claimed possession of such secret knowledge was the means of attaining spirituality and spiritual advancement. Some of their specific doctrines have come down to us and seem like so much gibberish on the printed page. But we would do well to remember that cult doctrines are also manifestly ridiculous when viewed from a safe and sanitary academic perspective. For the potential cult victim, the hidden and forbidden nature of the secret doctrines enhances the temptation, as does the committed and dogmatic adherence of the society of "believers" who are doling them out to him cautiously and selectively.
In such carefully constructed situations, the very dogmatism of the cult members can impress and command allegiance. The problem, of course, is that cults possess dogmatism, but without the authority of the truth, and without documentation. The Bible doesn't change, and can be read and checked "to see if these things are so". Cult doctrine, on the other hand, so far from being open to scrutiny, is almost always changeable as well, since it is open to interpretation of and often fresh "revelation" from the leader or leadership. The Bible, being the very Word of God, is the authority for Biblical Christianity, not any single person or group of people or their writings or "visions". If it really is the Bible that is being taught, this can be checked, this can be verified. Cult religions, on the other hand, can never be pinned down, and the evil systems which promise to "open the eyes" of their converts, really only intend to blind them.
4. A Substitute For God: Genesis 3:5 shares the words of Satan to Eve in which Satan states: "and you will be like God, knowing good from evil". The Hebrew word for God in Genesis 3:5 is Elohim, a plural of the word majesty of the word El, meaning "mighty one" or "god". Elohim is the most common word in the Hebrew Bible for God and stresses the preeminence of our God as well as the plurality of persons (three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in His single unique essence. Occasionally, however, Elohim is used as a true plural for "gods" (as in the gods of the heathen nations: Ex. 20:3), and it is likely that Satan's implication here is even stronger than the translation suggests: you will be like gods. To be like God, or even to become a god or god-like being seemed a fairly unbelievable offer to make, yet the offer to Eve was just the first and not the only time that Satan has used this ploy. There are a number of groups operating in the United States today which really do make this promise in no uncertain terms.
Analogous to being promised divine status, is the relatively new twist of becoming part of an extra-terrestrial civilization. And occasionally, the transcendence of humanity by evolving consciousness is promised. But whatever form "becoming like gods" takes, implicit in such an ambition is the replacement or supplanting of God. For if a man can become God's equal, in every way, then, of course, God would no longer be God relative to the new "man-god". It would be hard to find a single page of the Bible that would not contradict (in tone or in the text) such a blasphemous notion, and even the basic common sense the natural man is born with cries out against such an unbelievable claim (Rom 2:1-16). Yet Eve has not been alone in succumbing to the temptation. Nor was she the first in the realm of creatures to lust after such an impossible object, for the desire to be "like God" and ultimately to replace Him is the arrogant essence of the sin that corrupted the heart of Satan (Isa. 14:12-15, Ezek. 28:12-19).
Therefore in this final point, we see a principle that we have been building up to from the start: cults and anti-Biblical religions are always embodiments of Satan's essential philosophy: at its base all false religion is idolatry, and standing behind the idol, craving our worship, is the devil. After all, if you are not worshipping the one, true God, who are you worshipping? Christ said, "He who is not with Me is against Me (Matt. 12:30)," and He said this while responding to those who were accusing Him of using the devil's help to cast out demons. Satan, Paul tells us, masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), and what, after all, would the devil wish to be called by His worshippers if not God? If he must falsely promise a share of divinity to his potential prey, why not? Was he not so bold as to even offer our Lord all the kingdoms of this world, an offer he would not and could not honor in any case? (Matt. 4:9)
Why Do People Begin To Follow Cults?: Often it is because they are given the sense that they are missing out on "the truth", which is an impression that religious appearing cult members are practiced at creating. In fact, it takes a very, very strong and solid grasp of what the Bible actually says to resist cults on their own ground when operating according to their own tactics. "Wolves in sheep's clothing" are indeed plentiful in our day. They may seem nice, and even spiritual at first, but the end result of believing their lies instead of the Bible leads only to spiritual disaster. Just as when David, wandering on the roof of his palace when he should have gone forth with the army, caught a glimpse of Bathsheba and was immediately headed for trouble (2 Sam. 11), so too when we are not where we are supposed to be (i.e. in the scriptures), we too are apt to be vulnerable to the siren songs of the cults.
TO KEEP YOURSELF SAFE FROM CULTS:
1. Read and Reread the Bible (God's Word) to know and
understand it: We need to trust in God's Word as revealed in the Bible, not the writings or teachings of any man or organization, nor the supposed eye-witness accounts of any third party, nor any vision, dream, prophecy, or any
other possible source of information, for the Bible is the only proper standard of faith and practice for those who claim to be followers of Christ. It is wise that we find a prepared and accurate Bible teacher, but the only
way we will know if a Bible teacher is teaching the truth is if we test his teachings (in a spirit of humility) against the truth of God's Word as the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). It is our responsibility to test what
is being taught by someone with the Bible, and if we do not test what someone who claims to be a "Bible teacher" says against scripture, we could easily be deceived into following a cult. But in order for us to test properly, we must have
a broad understanding and feel for the entire canon of scripture, or else our judgment of what others say will be distorted. So it is wise to have disciplined regular reading of all the holy scriptures in order
to provide maximum protection from false teachings.
Reading the Bible should be an enjoyable activity in which we get to know and fellowship with our Lord and get to know Him more deeply and intimately. Don't rush through your Bible reading time, but instead read it in order to gain meaning and understanding. It is better to read one verse and to get something from it than to read three chapters whose contents you can barely recall afterward "just to get through it". Give yourself a chance to understand what you are reading and be inspired and instructed by what you read. Try to keep a good attitude as you thirst for truth, and don't worry about memorization. It is always more important that you understand what you read than that you can remember it word for word (the two definitely do not go together). After all, you are reading a translation of the original texts; there are many such translations and all are worded differently, so it is clearly the idea and not the exact wording that should be the focus of our efforts. Memorization can be useful, but if it is a choice between continuing to read or going over the same few verses until they stick, you are better off moving forward with reading.
The main point is just to get to actually reading your Bible for yourself on a regular basis. The more you read it, especially the more you read it again and again, the more good things start to happen. You find yourself becoming familiar with the contents, the theme, the tone. More and more you discover links between the ideas and teachings scattered throughout this complex and wonderful Book of books; more and more your questions are answered as you build a framework of Bible knowledge that acts to solidify and intensify any accurate Bible teaching you receive (while also providing a hedge against false doctrines and teachings). The more you read it, the more everything begins to make sense. The principles of truth you know are reinforced, illuminated, and deepened. You find encouragement and insight into the Person of God on every page. The more you read, really open your heart and read, the more you move closer to God in every way. Let the Word of God, sweeter than wild honey, sink deep into your soul, into the very foundation of your mind and spirit, until the words of God become an inseparable part of all your waking thoughts.
Rely on help from the Holy Spirit as you read the Bible: Just as the Bible is the Christian's ultimate standard, so the Holy Spirit is the ultimate teacher. As believers when we read the scriptures (our visible guide), we are assisted by the Holy Spirit (our invisible guide - 1 Thess. 4:9, 1 John 2:27). So when we read the scripture, we should not approach it as a chore to be gotten through, but rather eagerly and as an opportunity to learn. We should take time to read for meaning, to stop and think, as well as reflect and consider what we are reading, and to allow the Spirit to teach us about God from the Bible. After all, the Holy Spirit's ministry to our life will be most effective when He has something to work with, some spiritual capital and understanding of scripture to use as leverage in guiding and directing us. The Holy Spirit works with the truth - not surprising as we are told that the Bible is the "sword of the Spirit", the weapon with which we believers are to confront all the falsehood and evil of this world (Eph. 6:17).
Worries about the correct Bible version to use:
It would be wise to stay away from more modern type versions like the "Living", or "Today's English" versions since they are part of a trend to play fast and loose with the Word of God that truly is alarming. But out of the more widely available versions of the Bible, you do not need to be overly concerned about the accuracy and reliability of the English translation of the Bible you are reading. You can be assured that your standard Bible will be quite adequate for your purposes, even though these versions do have their unique advantages and disadvantages. To use an analogy, if we were to become concerned about our dinner and take it to a microbiology lab for exhaustive analysis, we would probably find out that while it did contain some minute impurities, these would not pose any significant threat (and surely the threat of refraining from eating at all would be far more serious). This is the case with most widely available versions of the Bible. For personal spirituality and growth, the Bible you have is good, solid food. However not partaking of it is the only serious danger, for it is only by reading that we can build our relationship with God day by day as we continue to learn about Him and His Son through the Word He has given us.
2. Do not follow any false teacher who does not pass the "Christ tests". These are teachings that deny Christ in some form or another and can include some or all of the following forms of denial:
1. That Jesus Christ is both undiminished deity (fully God) and true humanity (Rom. 9:5, Col. 2:9, 1 Jn. 5:6-12)
2. That He came into the world to die for all mankind (Jn. 3:16, 1 Pet. 2:24)
3. That His work was deemed acceptable by the Father (Rom. 3:21-26)
4. That we are saved on the basis of our faith in Him, and His works and not by our own works (Eph. 2:8-9)
5. That apart from faith in Jesus Christ, there is no way to approach the Father (Jn. 14:6)
6. That the true believer in Jesus Christ follows Christ and His teachings throughout his life on this earth (Mt. 7:20, 1 Jn. 2:4)
"But you have an anointing from the holy one, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist - denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him." (1 John 2:20-27)
The important and simple thing to remember for discerning false teachers is to heed the "warning bells" when they go off too frequently and loudly. To put it simply: False teaching leads us away from Christ (and gets our focus instead on other matters like self-righteousness and self-exaltation, seeking after signs and wonders, obsessions with pet doctrines and theological debates, various rituals and traditions, love of entertainment, excessive emotionalism, strong legalistic tendencies etc.), while True teachings lead us toward Christ (exalting Him and His full teachings, and His teachings will be shared in ways that are not forceful and harsh but in ways that exude the fruits of the Spirit, in true humility and in a spirit of compassion.) God bless you!
Article by R. D. Luginbill