If you’re not new to this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I am oddly fascinated with all the ways Christianity can go horribly wrong. I like to be aware of what’s going on in Christian culture and what weird, new, creative ways people are dragging the name of Jesus in the dirt.
Obviously, the title of this post is kind of meant to be humorous, as I know a lot of people don’t have to worry too much about potentially ending up in a cult. However, there are some very cultish ministries that are becoming quite mainstream, and I thought it would be helpful to talk about the characteristics of sects and cults and how we can avoid making these mistakes.
The first semester of this last year (my last year of college; I just graduated), I took a class on sects and cults. In a strangely timely fashion, that same semester I accidentally answered the door to some Jehovah’s Witnesses and had a short conversation with them. I found myself wondering how on earth people could be lured into joining a cult, especially one as seemingly unappealing as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet many people get drawn into sects and cults all the time, and I think it’s important to learn the characteristics.
In scholarship, sects and cults are two entirely different types of groups. But there is a lot of overlap, and for the sake of this post, I’m not going to differentiate too explicitly, and I’m sometimes going to speak of cults and sects interchangeably because that’s often how they’re spoken of in mainstream culture. However, you might find it useful to research the differences between the two, as they are insidious in different ways.
Cults have really given lots of people a horrifically distorted picture of Christ and the gospel, and it’s so important that we make sure we never become sectarian or cultish in any way. To some of you, these tips may seem incredibly obvious, but I wish someone would have told me these things when I was a new Christian so that I wouldn’t have wasted my time considering weird teachings and sketchy leaders.
Trust your gut instincts
If you have a bad feeling about something or someone, there might be a good reason for that. Yes, the enemy can plant doubts in your mind to try to distract you from God’s plan. But then there are times when doubt and skepticism are a good thing.
Most of the time, people who got sucked into sects or cults could sense that something wasn’t quite right all along, but they lacked confidence in their own perceptions and therefore ignored their gut feelings. Don’t do this. Especially not when these suspicions are based on scripture and it might well be the Holy Spirit warning you.
Be aware of your potential vulnerabilities
There are certain factors that make individuals more likely to join sects or cults. Most of these groups target young adults in particular, especially those who are going through a transitional phase in life. People who are socially isolated are also more at risk.
At my old church, there was a very dishonest and manipulative man who had a cult leader mentality. He would specifically target single women who seemed alone because he knew they had emotional and sometimes material needs that he could meet. He would provide some sort of support so that he could worm his way into their lives and then control and manipulate them. This is a very common tactic.
Be aware of factors that could make you more vulnerable, and make sure that no one takes advantage of them.
Never discourage questioning and intellectual autonomy
People should always feel free to question everything. Questioning and free thought is a good thing, and when this is stifled, that’s a definite red flag. Even if people are questioning the truth, let them question. The gospel holds up under the weight of any doubt and skepticism, so we should never feel threatened by questions.
If leaders feel threatened by questions or by intellectual curiosity, this is a terrible sign. Good leaders want people to think for themselves. Gullibility allows for ample exploitation and manipulation. If leaders are acting in a way that isn’t biblical, they should always be called out.
Don’t put leaders on a pedestal
What all cults have in common is that they have a very charismatic and narcissistic leader who attempts to control people and abuses their power. It is essential to remember that people are just people, and we are all equal in God’s eyes. Any leader who elevates themselves above others is not a trustworthy leader.
If a leader is actually a man or woman of God, they will always want the best for you. They will never try to control anyone, and they won’t be focused on feeding their own egos. If anyone makes themselves sound as if they’re spiritually superior to everyone else or have some sort of special revelation from God, run in the opposite direction.
Remember that Christianity is universal
I’m not talking about universalism here. No, I don’t believe everyone is saved whether they want to be or not. I’m talking about the global Church. Elitism is a very sectarian mindset. It’s so easy to develop an attitude that says there are only a few “elite” or “true” Christians and that very few people are actually saved. But the gospel is not exclusive.
When Jesus told us what we need to do to be saved, there were no disclaimers or small print. Salvation isn’t as complicated as we often like to make it. God reveals Himself to people all over the world in lots of different ways. Although we shouldn’t take everyone who claims to be a Christian at their word, we also shouldn’t think that we can determine who is and isn’t saved.
Don’t have an “us vs. them” mentality
This carries on from the last point. The attitude many cults and sects have is that their little group is pure and special and that everyone else is evil and alien. They hold this attitude towards both Christians outside of their group and non-Christians. But this attitude is the opposite of Christlike. We should never try to determine who is in or out or who can or can’t be saved.
We should never view non-Christians as dirty or evil or unrelatable. Sheltering ourselves won’t lead anyone to Christ but will rather cause people to perceive Christians as weirdos. Many cults and sects have a very paranoid mentality and believe that the world is out to get them. This is especially evident with people who are obsessed with conspiracy theories. This kind of mindset is isolating and damaging, and we should be rational and level-headed in how we view those with different belief systems.
Allow for theological differences
It’s easy to just write people off because they don’t have the same theology as you, but this attitude can be really dangerous. I think it’s really important to read/watch/listen to a diverse group of Christian leaders who vary in theological thought. They should all know the real Christ and preach the real gospel, but it’s okay if there are more minor differences or if some of their doctrines vary. No one will ever get everything right.
I watch videos of leaders who are more focused on apologetics and intellectual questions, but I also watch Christians who want to live supernatural lives like the Christians did in the early Church. I listen to leaders who are still in the traditional church system, but I also listen to leaders who believe the traditional system is flawed and no longer attend Sunday services. I listen to free-spirited creatives, but I also listen to intellectual scholars. This stops me from becoming box-viewed and reminds me that the body of Christ is incredibly diverse and that difference is beautiful.
Avoid legalism at all costs
What almost all sects and many cults have in common is that they go beyond the Bible and create weird rules and prohibitions that God never put in place. We have to make sure we never become legalistic and create rules that aren’t even in the Bible.
If a group has weird prohibitions, such as saying that any modern music is sinful or that Christians can’t wear makeup or jewelry, this is a huge red flag. There are some things that are explicitly prohibited in the Bible, but then there are rules that are entirely pharisaical because they have no real basis in scripture.
Establish clear boundaries (physically and relationally)
Contrary to somewhat popular belief, the Christians in the early Church didn’t all live in communes. This is an absolute myth. Yet many cults have this weird belief and think it’s a good idea to have no physical or relational boundaries and to all live together in a small area. As expected, this rarely goes well.
Now roommates are a good thing and I highly recommend young, single people find other like-minded Christians to live with if they don’t want to live alone, but that’s very different than living in a commune.
It’s important to firmly establish boundaries in every area of our lives, because otherwise community becomes suffocating and controlling rather than something that blesses and encourages us. Everyone needs their own space, and no one should feel controlled or spied on.
Don’t rely on extreme supernatural behaviors
Most of you are probably aware of how cults have relied on overt displays of spirituality such as speaking in tongues and healings. There are several popular Christian leaders who use their “anointing” to exploit people and gain power over others. Surprisingly enough, this tactic often works, because people feel that to come against these individuals would be to come against God.
I believe that we are called to live supernaturally. I believe that God still heals people and that speaking in tongues and prophesying is biblical. But when these behaviors and actions become the focus, something is very wrong. These things should point people to Jesus, not become an end in themselves and make leaders look more powerful.
Know that no one ever has all the answers, and that’s okay
In my class, I read that the people who are most likely to join cults are people who don’t like ambiguity and want black and white answers about everything. I have to admit that I have this tendency myself. But it’s actually really arrogant to act as if we can know everything. As the body of Christ, we all need each other to get the full picture.
The Church is like a mosaic, and different members of the body have different callings and different revelations. We’re not all going to have the same amount of wisdom about every single subject. If we think any one of us can completely understand everything in scripture, we’ll quickly become frustrated. Our understanding is finite, but thank goodness that God’s grace allows for our limitations.
Identify as a follower of Christ, not a member of a group
What sects and cults all have in common is that they swear allegiance to a particular group and think this limited number of people has found the truth while other people haven’t. If you think your identity or salvation is found in a particular group or ministry, there’s something very wrong. The truth is that people and ministries are always fallible, even the well-intentioned ones.
As a follower of Christ, you’ll often have to stand alone. A Christian leader and author who I have a profound amount of respect for, and who played a huge role in my early walk with Christ, is Oswald Chambers. He frequently wrote about how Christians often have to stand alone. Certain groups will try to sell you a false unity, but oftentimes obeying God requires you to stand on truth even when no one else is. Don’t wait for a group to define your walk with God. You’re supposed to be following Jesus, not people.
Rely on God and not human beings
This carries on from the last point. People who join cults all have one fatal characteristic in common: they’re so starved for community that they put people before God, disregarding the fact that God calls us to love Him before we love other people. Community then becomes suffocating and unhealthy because they’ve made an idol out of it.
These people are often highly unrealistic in their expectations of people and fail to realize the potential humans have to mess up and to distort the truth and ruin what was previously good and healthy. Community is great, but personal relationship with God comes first. If you’re not in a good place in your relationship with God, you’re not going to be able to relate to people in a healthy way.
Know scripture so that you’ll be able to call out false teachers
Every Christian absolutely must read the Bible for themselves. The reason so many Christians get deceived by weird teachings and get drawn into sects and cults is because they have no real knowledge of scripture and believe whatever leaders tell them. They’re unable to recognize when verses have been taken out of context because they don’t have any context of the Bible to begin with.
The reason I was able to recognize many false teachings during my early walk with God was that I was familiar with scripture. When I’d see something questionable, Bible verses would pop into my head that contradicted those ideas. The Holy Spirit reminded me of what He had already said in His word, and I knew that anything that contradicted what He had already spoken couldn’t be true.
There are more characteristics of sects and cults that I didn’t mention in this post, but I think these are the most important things. Knowledge really is power, and it’s so important that Christians are adequately informed. Especially those who are at a vulnerable stage in life, such as their late teens and early adulthood.
Although the class I took in college wasn’t from a Christian perspective and taught some things I don’t necessarily agree with, I am so glad I took it because it made me so much more well-informed about the characteristics of sects and cults. I think that as Christians, we should all educate ourselves on these things so that we can objectively evaluate various groups and ministries and leaders.
I hope this helped at least some of you out there, or if anything, at least confirmed what you were already thinking and helped you feel less alone. It’s so important that more Christians speak out against questionable practices and stop sacrificing logic and discernment for the sake of false unity.