A cult is defined by Paul Carter as an organization that veers from the core tenets of the Christian faith and isolates its members. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are cults, yet there are Christian cults that share certain features. Why do cults hide within Christianity?
Defining a Cult
Carter offers readers some helpful questions to ask if you suspect your church might be a cult.
“Does your church oppose critical thinking? [...] Does your church isolate and punish dissenting or departing members? [...] Does your church emphasize doctrines rooted in extra-biblical sources? [...] Are certain topics emphasized again and again and again, over and above the central truths of the historic Christian Gospel?”
This is only a sample from a long list. Members of a cult worship their leaders, who are not accountable to the elders or their congregation.
Adherents rely on their church when they make any decision, and their participation might be motivated — at least in part — by the fear that non-compliance could lead to severe consequences.
The Need to Hide
Wyatt Graham explained that the prophet Jeremiah, in the letter he wrote to the exiled people of Jerusalem, also “appealed to a ruler directly because God’s people do not need to be ashamed of their behavior. When known, God’s people do civic and societal good since God leads us to do so.” Children of God do not need to hide. Their good works tend to attract notice.
Jeremiah’s letter also flushed out “prophets and [...] diviners” whom the Lord had not sent: “Do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them” (Jeremiah 29:8-9).
Jesus warned his disciples in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
They try to disguise their lies in the form of Christianity, which misses the mark by straying from core biblical tenets, which include the inerrancy of Scripture and the Triune Godhead.
The Perfect Hiding Place
How many church participants clothe themselves in religious, good behavior while inwardly rejecting the Father?
Erik Raymond exhorts believers to read their Bibles regularly, to love him, and to obey him. “Doctrinal error leads to eternal punishment. We must be sure [...] that we are not succumbing to the false teaching that denies the supernatural nature of the Bible.”
Since the majority of professing Christians confess to reading their Bibles irregularly or inconsistently, how can they effectively and truthfully “test the spirits”? (1 John 4:1).
Church is sometimes the best hiding place for religiosity, which rejects God, or it can be a club where people know they are all going to agree about the one thing that is talked about more than any others.
Participants are not being transformed into the image of Christ but are being affirmed in their shared belief about something besides the gospel. They are often angry and confrontational, but they look like well-behaved Christians on Sunday morning.
These churches make great hiding places because they are encouraged to believe that God has anointed their beliefs. God wants, instead, for their minds, hearts, and beliefs to be shaped by the example of Jesus.
Examples in Our Culture
In an article about the Cult of Trumpism, Michael Horton declared, “While worrying about secularists outside, many of us have failed to reckon with the secularization right under our noses, as the rich cuisine of biblical faith is traded for a mess of pop-culture stew. This idolatry inhibits the church’s work of evangelism in myriad ways.”
Trumpism, says Horton, is actually a confluence of three types of cults in America: Christian Americanism, End-Times conspiracy, and the prosperity gospel.
Christian Americanism:Trump’s cry of MAGA takes verses out of context to indicate that “passages from the election of Israel in the old covenant” and apply it to America (Ibid.).
But Jesus paid the penalty for all sin, for all people, and he is the only way to the Father, into eternal life with him, for all who believe in him, globally.
“This ‘good news’ is not moral improvement or a Christian society or any political system — whether democratic or totalitarian, capitalist, or socialist. It’s the announcement that in his incarnation, obedient life, sacrificial death, and resurrection Jesus Christ has accomplished redemption from sin, death, and hell and reconciled sinners with God” (Ibid.).
God has declared us free to choose; a cult will pressure others to believe in their way or suffer social, financial, or physical penalties. The gospel is an invitation, not a weapon.
As for End-Times Conspiracy, this has taken the eyes of Christians off of their Savior and his call to spread the Good News everywhere.
Preachers have sucked desperate people’s focus away from the Risen Christ and onto an image of hellfire: how do we avoid eternal damnation, they wonder; and are world crises a sign of Christ’s imminent return? “In all this focus on Christ’s return, the finished work of Christ on the cross was eclipsed in many evangelical imaginations.”
Churches that obsess about the Rapture are cultic in nature. They feed off of widespread anxiety that the next crisis — Covid, school shootings, floods, or fires — is a sign that Christ will come back soon, so they had better watch their pastor (not Jesus) closely for instructions.
The third insidious, cultic beast is the Prosperity Gospel. This false gospel exhorts good behavior for material benefit. The basis of their belief is “hyper experiential spirituality based on speaking in tongues and routine claims of direct revelations from God.”
Christians know from Scripture (the inerrant, inspired Word of God) that “we should not expect God to speak outside his revealed Word, which has reached its fulfillment and therefore completion in Christ.”
Horton realizes that discussion is necessary and good, but not if one argues against the resurrection or the Triune nature of God.
Still, for “those who expect their self-appointed apostles to provide more scintillating and relevant wisdom than, say, Isaiah, Romans, or the Gospel of John, not even the Bible contains a sufficiently authoritative rebuke.”
The Prosperity Gospel says that if you are financially struggling or cannot progress in your career, this is a punishment for sin. But “while we were still sinners, Christ died,” wrote Paul (5:8). He wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
We are all sin machines in need of Christ’s transforming work. But there is an obvious appeal to the idea that people who behave well are going to reap material benefits if money is their priority in life.
What Can We Do?
We need to read the Bible. Jeremiah 29 teaches that we are to obey secular authorities because they have been put in place by God, but ultimately, God is the authority.
Wyatt Graham explained that Nebuchadnezzar’s “freedom coincided with God’s intent for Israel. The Lord wielded Nebuchadnezzar like an ax without abrogating the king’s freedom. Both God and Nebuchadnezzar acted [...] yet with a certain hierarchical priority. God’s decree will come to pass. [...] God does not lack control over the hands and minds of earthly rulers.”
Test your pastor’s sermons against the full context of Scripture.
Pray for leaders. They are in a position of tremendous responsibility, and some of those who are misleading congregations today did not intend to walk away from the gospel.
“Christian leaders need to talk about power. We need to acknowledge it, be cautious of it, and steward it for the good of those in our care.”
Chris Davis dissected the theme of pastoral power, pointing out that there are abusive pastors but also well-meaning pastors who are subject to their mentorship; younger pastors who respect these corrupted leaders.
Confront the situation. Bring someone with you or even call the police. If your pastor’s eyes are opened, all the better. If not, you might have to leave your church, which could involve a lot of suffering and sacrifice for a time.
Have people around you who are God-fearing, empathetic, and reasonable. And be careful, especially if you sense that the consequences of walking away could be violent.
Belonging to God
After leaving or being kicked out of your church, you might feel isolated, ostracized, or even fearful. You might second-guess yourself or question your sanity. This could be a lonely time, but God has the last word on our identity and his purpose.
God said this to those who feel scattered or abandoned: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down [...] I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice” (Ezekiel 34:15-16).
He does this by drawing his sheep together into safe fellowship where he is glorified.
For further reading:
Why Are Cults Often Associated with Christianity?
Why Do Cults Use God Falsely in Their Mission?
What Are the Signs of Cults and Their Leaders?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/peshkov
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.