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What Is A Cult?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

The word "cult" is thrown around quite readily these days.

What is a cult? Are you a member of one?

It sometimes is not as easy as you may think to identify whether something is a cult or not, and it is very difficult for those who are in one to realize it.

Let's take a moment and consider this topic.

Following are some definitions with explanatory material offered at various points in the definitions.

1. June Hunt, in her book, Biblical Counseling Keys on Cults: The Truth Twisters (Dallas, TX: Hope For The Heart, 2008) discusses the definition of the word "cult.".

"A cult is a sect or group of people that hold to deviant doctrines. A cult is a system of religious beliefs that distorts orthodox Biblical doctrine.

— “Orthodox” refers to basic beliefs that conform to established doctrine.

— “Doctrine” refers to a general teaching or a system of principles. Biblical

doctrine is teaching based on the self-evident truths of Scripture.

Every cult varies in its teachings from one or more of six fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith:

  • Incarnation - The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God became flesh and that the historical Christ is at once both fully God and fully man - I Timothy 3:16 [F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 830.]

  • Virgin Birth - The virgin birth is the doctrine that Christ did not have a biological father but rather was conceived by the Holy Spirit miraculously in the womb of Mary - Isaiah 7:14 [Jonathan Warren P. (Pagán), “Jesus’ Virgin Birth,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.]

  • Atonement - In dying for the sins of the world, Jesus Christ fulfilled and replaced the OT sacrificial system, so that all who believe in him are restored to fellowship with God. Christ is the true high priest, who finally liberates his people from the guilt of sin, by offering himself as the supreme sacrifice - Hebrews 9:12-14. [Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).]

  • Resurrection - The resurrection of Jesus Christ is that central moment in human history that serves as the foundational doctrine of Christianity. After having truly assumed human nature and submitted to an agonizing and shameful public death, the eternal Son of God was truly raised from the dead in his glorified physical body, no longer subject to decay and death. His resurrection validates his identity as the divine Son of God, demonstrates his irrevocable victory over death and the grave, and secures both the present salvation and future physical resurrection of believers - I Cor. 15:3-8

  • Eschatology - Eschatology means the theology of last things. That study can cover all things that were future at the time of their writing, or it can include only those things that are still future from our present vantage point. It deals with the consummation of all things, both those things that relate to individuals and to the world. John 14:1-3 - [Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 508–509.]

  • Scripture - 2 Timothy 3:16 - All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

2. Another definition for the word "cult" is as follows.

"The specific Christian definition of a cult is “a religious group that denies one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth.” In simpler terms, a cult is a group that teaches something that will cause a person to remain unsaved if he/she believes it. As distinct from a religion, a cult is a group that claims to be part of the religion, yet denies essential truth(s) of that religion. A Christian cult is a group that denies one or more of the fundamental truths of Christianity, while still claiming to be Christian." [Got Questions Ministries, Got Questions? Bible Questions Answered (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2002–2013).]

3. Although a bit more nebulous, Walter Martin, in his definitive work on the cults (Kingdom of the Cults), states the following,

"Dr. Charles Braden, emeritus professor at Northwestern University (1954) [and co-author, John C. Schaffer, lecturer (1955) and visiting professor at Scripps College (1954 to 1956)], made a number of observations with which this writer agrees. In regard to the term "cult," for instance, Dr. Braden says the following: By the term cult I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture (Preface, xii). I may add to this that a cult might also be defined as a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible."

4. One final definition is given by Alan Cairns.

"A cult is a system of religious worship, homage, or devotion. Theologically, it is used of those systems that profess to be Christian but that are antagonistic to the basic doctrines of Scripture. Inherent in cult worship is the elevation of some authority to or beyond an equality with the Biblical revelation. Frequently, this takes the form of some special revelation claimed by the cult leader or some peculiar interpretation of Scripture that is binding on the adherents of the cult. The natural result is either a denial of Biblical authority, tacit or expressed or a practical embargo on the freedom to ascertain and accept what the Bible teaches. Cults are naturally exclusive. Usually, truth belongs to them alone. Salvation is found in them alone." [Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms (Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002), 120–121.]

With these definitions in mind, how can a person distinguish what a cult is?

Generally, there are several distinguishing marks or warning signs of a cultic psychology.

  • blind obedience to authority … the dogma of the leader or founder is supreme.

  • closed-mindedness … not interested in a rational evaluation of the facts. Cultists have an "institutional dogmatism." They are, generally speaking, profoundly intolerant of any position but their own. This is not to say that there are not core doctrines (like the virgin birth of Christ) that need to be held to dogmatically, but it is to say that in a cult, there is information control/mind control based on the cult leaders dogmatism and/or an appeal to supernatural authority (for example, a cult leader stating that God, or an angel, revealed something to him/her).

  • controlled living … (Extreme manifestation, for example, Jim Jones commune). The details of daily life are dictated by the leader.

  • contempt for outsiders … intolerance for any belief system other than their own.

  • Isolationism - Many times cultists are isolationists. They are a "closed community."

Are you a member of a cult? Get out today!

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