For some of you "Christian cult" is a contradiction in terms. If it's a cult, it's not Christian. If it's truly Christian, it's not a cult. I wish that were true.
Others faced with the word "cult" may jump to the defensive stance - "well Jesus started a cult so I'm happy to be in one". I know this defense well, as it is a favourite within cults.
Any sizable community of people will at times encompass mistakes, ambition and exploitation. An "open system" (one where people are free to speak up, and where people can talk to those outside and outside counsel makes its way in) has many safe-guards against this. Perhaps the foremost feature of a cult is that it is a "closed system." People are discouraged from seeking council outside, and those who speak up within are subtly (or not so subtly) admonished to tend to their own meekness!
What is a cult?
I'd like to start by saying that a cult is not distinguished by its erroneous doctrine. If that were the case then the term would be practically meaningless except as a mud-slinging term for everyone outside our own particular set of beliefs. I understand what a cult is completely separately from the debate of the rightness or wrongness of doctrine. This also implies that a person can be "right" about doctrine and yet in the grip of a cult. (He can certainly believe that he is right - since every man is right in his own eyes!)
There is no clear line that divides the cult from the non-cult, because there is no singular characteristic that alone makes a group into a cult. Rather, I believe there is an array of cult-like characteristics, some of which may be found even in a healthy group. Taken together, these traits begin to make a group cult-like, and in high concentration a group becomes almost undeniably "a cult". I say "almost", because for those on this inside, it's deniable.
Why do I say "Christian" cult?
This is a tough one. I believe that Christianity is good and healthy. It's good for the individual, good for the family, and good for the community - both within and without. Yet an unhealthy cult can be formed from nothing but the very ingredients of Christianity taken in a particular balance and emphasis. Cult-like behaviour may be supported by scripture in a way that is almost indistinguishable from the way any Christian may turn to scripture for guidance.
Secondly, there are good Christian people who live and function within Christian cults. Their love and Christian virtue is as real as yours. Within Christian cults, the testimonies shared, victories won, heart-lessons learned, kindness offered, friendships formed are as genuine and real as any shared in your church. If you don't believe this, then you are not going to understand what makes a cult so inviting and deceptive.
Misunderstanding the cult:
It is an often used cliche when writing about cults, yet it remains true in that elusive hard to really accept way... Normal people enter cults. It is not just the vulnerable, open-to-suggestion types anymore than in your church. Cults are full of intelligent, funny, honest, hardworking - doctors, electricians, plumbers, teachers, homemakers preachers and preacher's sons.
Cults are not overtly weird. (I wish they were - they'd be easier to spot.) The traits that make them a cult are very close to (and often the same things as) those features that make any group cohere.
What are the traits that make a cult?
The list is long, yet this is the meat of the issue. As I've already indicated, you'll find things in here that remind you of Jesus' teachings. That doesn't mean he was a cult leader. But taken together, you may begin to see how controlling and all encompassing a groups with these characteristics becomes.
- People are offered a vision for their future. This is inspiring, yet it's a dream always to be realised within the group.
- People are offered "power". Power to discern truth from error, power to prosper, power to lead others...
- Initially, much may be given freely to a new comer. The kindness given may even be overwhelming.
- A sense of urgency is created. This is your moment to serve! The devil wants to trick you out of this opportunity! God is calling you now! The devil is attacking our freedom and our beliefs now!
- People are given little time to reflect, or to consult with others outside of the organisation. People are kept busy within the group.
- New people are subtly kept separate from their family and old friends, and perhaps even from other new people. They are encouraged to spend time with faithful members of the group.
- People are sent on special missions. "This is God's call for your life right now".
- Demands follow the initial generosity. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.
- There is an unhealthy interested in separating people from their money.
- There is an "onion" structure. Outsiders and new people only see the outer layer. As you become more committed you are shown more of how things work. The first clue is in the "intermediate" stage when you are shown "appropriate" ways to deal with new people.
- There is a deceptive "don't tell" understanding. Imperfections are protected with silence - since it would be a stumbling block to others to air the dirty laundry.
- The very powerful technique of granting and withholding love is used to control people. You are never so "loved" as when you are in favour, and you'll do what is required to stay in that zone. When you're out of favour - you'll know!
- Things are only valued within the context of the group. No outside preacher or counselor is really trusted. No talent or skill is really valued unless it can be used to serve within the group.
- Schedules are prescribed, keeping you busy for the Lord!
- The leaders have strong claims to authority. Perhaps they are the only ones authorised to interpret scriptures, or they may have received a special revelation to exclusively teach.
- People learn to belittle their own individual lives, they exaggerate the degradation of their pre-group past, and exaggerate their story of deliverance.
- People learn ways to rebut every criticism.
- Fear is instilled. Fear of disfavour, fear of exclusion.
- Information is controlled. Not much comes in, not much comes out. The release or admission of information requires approval. Much is blocked out. People have learned to police their own thoughts.
- People watch and report on each other. Behaviour is monitored and confronted. New behaviour has been learned.
- Leadership may have falsified qualifications to bolster authenticity.
- Repetitive actions are taught - breathing techniques, quoting scriptures, chanting, quoting motivational phrases.
- It is not uncommon that people have become estranged from their families - or perhaps just uncomfortable and aloof from family. Time with families is reduced.
- Conformity is encouraged, individuality is discouraged.
- Church history is rewritten. This is justified as being expressed from a spiritual point of view.
- Those outside the group are demonised.
- Thoughts contrary to the group are demonised.
- Those who question the state of things are blamed.
- People are threatened if they leave, (for example, the devil will be able to attack them).
It took many years to realise what was happening. Every suggestion to see sense from the outside is met with a ready-made defense. "The adversary is trying to distract, discourage and deceive us". Any dissenting thoughts from within are quashed.
Until - a good person is able to look back and reflect upon gross unkindness and unfairness. A grown man begins to see that he's never confident in his own decisions unless they are confirmed to him by leadership. A friend to many realises that his friendships have been determined, selected, and even broken by the authoritive determination of others. Finally a man says - even if this was the truth, I won't have it any longer. Every evil I've seen done was justified by scripture. Even my own internal conscience is a more reliable judge than this. And from now, I must listen to my conscience. It is not perfect or divine, but it cannot be worse than the portrayal of scripture which I have come to know as a Christian cult.