Are you in a Cult?

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A CULT? 

When people hear the word cult, they often think of a group that worships Satan, sacrifices animals, or takes part in evil, bizarre, and pagan rituals. However, in reality, a cult rarely involves such things. In fact, a cult, in the broadest sense of the word, is simply a religious system with particular rites and customs. 

Usually, though, a cult is more narrowly defined, and the word refers to an unorthodox sect whose members distort the original doctrines of the religion. In a Christian context, the definition of a cult is, specifically, “a religious group that denies one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth.” A cult is a group that teaches doctrines that, if believed, will cause a person to remain unsaved. A cult claims to be part of a religion, yet it denies essential truth(s) of that religion. Therefore, a Christian cult will deny one or more of the fundamental truths of Christianity while still claiming to be Christian. 

The two most common teachings of Christian cults are that Jesus was not God and that salvation is not by faith alone. A denial of the deity of Christ results in the view that Jesus’ death was insufficient to pay for our sins. A denial of salvation by faith alone results in the teaching that salvation is achieved by our own works. The apostles dealt with cults in the early years of the church: for example, John addresses the teaching of Gnosticism in 1 John 4:1–3. John’s litmus test for godly doctrine was “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (verse 2)—a direct contradiction of the Gnostic heresy (cf. 2 John 1:7). 

The two most well-known examples of cults today are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Both groups claim to be Christian, yet both deny the deity of Christ and salvation by faith alone. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons believe many things that are in agreement with or similar to what the Bible teaches. However, the fact that they deny the deity of Christ and preach a salvation by works qualifies them as cults. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and members of other cults are moral people who genuinely believe they hold the truth. As Christians, our hope and prayer must be that many people involved in cults will see through the lies and will be drawn to the truth of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

If a loved one or friend is involved in a cult, it’s important to, first of all, pray. Then do a little research first to ascertain what kind of group he or she is part of. You need to be aware of the general way these groups operate and to understand the mindset of those trapped in a toxic religious group. 

Essentially, toxic religious groups are fueled by fear, shame, and secrecy. Cult members are taught to set their sights on a future existence on a paradise earth or in heaven and forced to give up all hopes of true joy or fulfillment in this life. They often face feelings of emptiness and dread and must resign themselves to boredom, drudgery, and self-discipline. Cult members are often forced to fake a smile and find the energy to put on a “positive face” in order to prove to outsiders that theirs is the “one true religion.” 

It’s also common that cult members feel under constant watch. More senior members of their group check on their behavior, words, and deeds. Any deviations from the group’s acceptable norms are punished in some way. People in toxic religious groups are kept mentally enslaved. If they have friends and family members who are members of the same cult, they risk losing them if they ever choose to leave. Many former cult members are shunned for breaking away from the group. 

As they are constantly under the threat of losing their loved ones and social community, being destroyed at Armageddon, or losing their salvation, cult members often behave on “automatic pilot.” They go through the motions of life, trying desperately to ignore the questions and doubts that sometimes pop into their minds. They have to make an effort to convince themselves that their lives are not based on a lie and that all their hard work and sacrifice have not been a complete waste. 

Many active cult members have given up everything for their group: a decent education, the prospect of having children or following their dreams, a career, a retirement fund, and a relationship with their non-cult family members. They have turned their backs on all that to serve their cult and thereby earn salvation. That’s one reason why cult members will generally be very defensive when speaking to a non-member about their beliefs. They will often justify and defend their life choices aggressively. 

When speaking to a friend or loved one involved in a toxic religious group, be aware that people do not generally react to the words we say, but the emotion behind them. If we express ourselves in anger, frustration, bitterness, or ridicule, we will risk alienating our friend, causing him or her to turn away or fight back defensively. 

That doesn’t mean that we are powerless to help cult victims from breaking free, or that there is nothing we can do. There are tried and tested ways to rescue a friend from a toxic religious group, but it is important to act strategically and sensitively. 

The first thing to do, as mentioned, is to be praying for them. Prayer is the most effective and powerful tool we have, because only God can cause the scales to fall from their eyes. The God of truth can set them free (John 8:32). 

Second, it is important to build and maintain trust with your loved one who is trapped in a cult. If he or she doesn’t feel comfortable enough to confide in you, then you probably have not yet earned an audience. 

Third, rather than overloading your friend with information you’ve gathered about the group, it’s better to ask searching questions that he or she can take away and investigate. If your loved one refuses to respond to you, at least you have planted a small seed of doubt in his or her mind. 

Fourth, help cult members get to know more about other cults, so they can see the connections between them and their own religious group. For example, many people are now becoming aware that they are in a toxic group after watching Leah Remini’s exposé of Scientology. When victims of a cult see how mind control and manipulation are used in other groups, they are faced with the uneasy reality that they are being used in the same way. 

It is also essential for your loved one to know that, if he or she leaves the cult, you will be there in support of that decision. Sadly, many people remain in toxic cults for far too long because they are afraid that they don’t have anyone on the outside that they can count on. Concerned family and friends need to provide strong and lasting friendships with those who are trapped in a toxic religious group to support them on their long and difficult journey out.