What’s So Bad About Cults?
By Greg Albrecht
If PTM wants to get lots of letters from readers, all we need to do is publish an article explaining and defending Christ-centered-Christianity against some wrong teaching or biblical misinterpretation.
Defending and explaining biblical doctrines is called apologetics. An apologetic article in The Plain Truth usually results in a tidal wave of letters and emails, pro and con. The cons often go something like this:
“Why are you so critical of other Christians? Why don’t you just leave other people alone and let them believe what they want?”
Most Christian denominations were originally formed because they disagreed with another denomination over some peripheral point of teaching. Nevertheless, most denominations that call themselves Christian generally agree on the core teachings of Christianity. All denominations that are actually Christian subscribe to and accept core beliefs of biblically based Christianity.
Plain Truth Ministries emphasizes the main and plain teachings of the Bible—the Christ-centered principles of Christianity. We believe it is important to discuss these grace-based essentials.
So why is erroneous and corrupt teaching such a big deal? Even if it’s theologically wrong, who does it really hurt? At worst, isn’t it sort of a victimless spiritual crime?
Cults—Bad for You, Bad for Everyone
Cults in general, and Christian cults (groups that claim to be Christian but are not) in particular, are harmful on several levels. Not only are cults theologically inaccurate—presenting a distorted view of God—but their bad theology almost certainly leads to a truckload of other ills.
Bad theology, bad teaching and bad biblical interpretation are not only spiritually damaging, but they lead to false assumptions and inaccurate worldviews, which form the basis for bad decisions.
Usually, there is some presumed scriptural basis for the mis-information that “Christian” cults teach. Some cult experts refer to this misinformation as exaggerated truth claims. Less tactful critics call them unbiblical assertions or even lies. Intentional or not, Christian cults lie to their followers in the name of God. Here are a few of the biggest whoppers:
“We’re the one true church.” Cults are cults, theologically, because they differ on one or more of the major essential teachings of the historic Christian faith—teachings that are sound, biblical and that have stood the test of time. But cults will tell you that somehow, somewhere, most Christians got off the track, and that God has raised up their group to “restore the truth” in these “end times.”
There is, in fact, one true church in the Bible. It consists of everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ as the Son of God—who has accepted him as Lord and Savior. Those who share a genuine belief in Jesus are all part of his universal church.
When a group teaches on its own authority that it is the only true church, it fosters pride and arrogance, and its followers will thus treat other human beings with contempt.
“God speaks through us.” A cult by its very nature is trying to perpetuate a unique set of teachings. These constitute the group’s unique selling proposition and exaggerated truth claims. Without such distinctions, there would be no unique offer to attract members. The cult, of course, believes that these teachings must be preserved and protected from change. Cults therefore suppress personal opinion, critical thinking and free exchange of ideas.
The Bible warns against personal interpretations of Scripture (2 Peter 1:20). But nowhere in Scripture is sound thinking discouraged. In fact, Jesus’ teaching method involved asking his disciples questions and challenging them to think critically and carefully.
Cults, on the other hand, steer followers away from critical and clear thinking. Administering a cult and its teaching is all about control. Personal decisions are often made for people who are trained to obey, rather than being educated in how to make biblically sound, Christ-centered decisions.
Cult leaders often hold eccentric ideas that fly in the face of education, science and medicine.
Followers, mistrusting conventional education, often do not obtain adequate schooling, making them even more gullible and incapable of questioning and evaluating the cult’s unorthodox and sometimes dangerous ideas.
The Bible stresses obedience to the gospel, as well as respect for the pastoral ministry. It charges ministers with teaching and explaining Scripture. It tells us to get sound advice (Proverbs 20:18) and to involve God in all of our concerns (1 Peter 5:7). But it does not give clergy the authority or ability to manage parishioners’ lives.
Cults rob people of self-determination and the maturity that comes as a result of facing challenging decisions. The lack of critical thinking and unquestioning obedience to cult hierarchies has led to the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco, Texas, and the People’s Temple mass suicide in Guyana.
“You’re not good enough.” While there are many variations on this message, this teaching keeps members in a state of anxiety and fear, and they are therefore malleable and dependent on cult leadership.
This cultic idea may seem to echo the biblical teaching that all have sinned and that none of us can be good enough to earn salvation. But the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that God has made those who are spiritually reborn righteous through the work of Jesus (Hebrews 10:10).
This empowering truth of the gospel is not good news for cults, who seem to want their members to continually believe that their behavior is in question, and the only way they can ever hope to improve, overcome or qualify is by towing the cult line.
Some followers actually attempt to escape this dark cloud of oppression and guilt by rising to positions of leadership and authority within the organization—where they then treat people as they have been treated.
But cult leaders eventually find that the cult treats them worse than lay members, as they are drawn into its political web and must struggle to maintain their position, or risk being scapegoated and “disfellowshipped” in disgrace. Followers who have been subjected to this treatment often view God as a harsh, stern taskmaster instead of a loving heavenly Father who gave himself to save us.
“The end is just around the corner.” Many cults—those who call themselves Christian as well as those who do not even pretend to be Christian—have a strong apocalyptic component. For such groups, the end of the age is their focus rather than Christ. This virus, of course, is widespread even within the orthodox evangelical Christian community.
As a result, followers live in a constant state of anxiety, fluctuating between dread and anticipation (depending on one’s perceived spiritual state). Lack of anxiety is interpreted by cultic authorities as cause for worry, and failure to be tormented about the future indicates complacency.
Because the end is always seen to be near, followers are prone to neglect physical responsibilities, such as long-term career goals, education, financial planning and investments—even needed medical and dental treatment.
If you are convinced that the economy and society are perpetually on the verge of collapse, you will not be inclined to invest time and money in sound career or financial goals. Further, professional and financial achievements are often seen as suspect, since these “materialistic” pursuits might lead followers away from the group.
Ironically, cult leaders often seem to have no problem with acquiring lavish material possessions and investing in a future that their followers believe will never happen.
Since followers are not encouraged to pursue higher education or long-term financial goals, many of them live a hand-to-mouth existence. Because of this, cult leaders often use a “crisis” model to raise funds. Cults often move from one manufactured crisis to the next as they try to motivate their financially strapped followers to dig deeper into their pockets and fund yet another project that is beyond the organization’s normal operating budget.
This is an unethical and irresponsible way to run an organization, but even worse where it is employed in God’s name.
It is true that the Bible teaches Christ will come again, and that believers are not to make this physical life their focus. But the Bible also teaches that Christ-followers are to live responsible and productive lives here and now (Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:11-13). The cause of Christ is more effectively advanced by stable believers who are responsible and mature citizens.
“We are more important than your family or community.” Families have a stabilizing effect on individuals. Cults who recruit young people usually seek to remove new converts from the influence of family or close friends. Cults also use families and friendships to keep followers in the fold—as eventually the vast majority of friends and family of cult followers will also be part of the cult. Members are often discouraged from excessive involvement in the “world” (unless it is to recruit new members).
Some cults ban voting. The cult becomes a surrogate family, and the only community that followers will ever need.
Scripture does warn of involvement with “the world,” (1 John 2:15-17, referring to the evil that is in the world). Scripture also says that some may need to choose between family and Christ. Yet the overall thrust of New Testament teaching is that families should remain intact and connected with their communities (1 Timothy 3:2-7).
“We are God’s perfect government on earth.” Cults put their best foot forward. After all, each cult considers itself to be God’s sole representative, sometimes speaking of itself as the kingdom of God. More fundamentally, cultic groups tend to be legalistic, placing great emphasis on correct behavior and appearance. Conformity is therefore paramount.
Yet in the New Testament, we do not see the apostles suffering from group-think. Rather, we see differences of opinion and exchange of ideas. There was open debate at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-21), open disagreement between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41), and a dispute between Paul and Peter (Galatians 2:11).
Leaders in cultic groups will not readily admit to making mistakes (which will usually be repackaged as successes, or blamed on some other leader who has fallen into disfavor, subsequent to being ousted).
Because of the pressure to be flawless, serious problems (both personal and corporate) are swept under the carpet. Allowed to grow, these festering sores often cause followers to become disillusioned and leave. In such cases, cult leaders quickly point to biblical passages such as 2 Thessalonians 2:3, trying to show that such a “falling away” or “rebellion” was prophesied.
Disillusionment is perhaps the worst, most lasting effect of cults. The more sincere, the greater the loyalty and the greater the respect for cult leaders, the more devastating is the disillusionment of followers when they finally realize they were duped and deceived. Their orderly universe has been turned upside down, shaken and scattered.
As a result, many former cult members give up on Christianity altogether. They become cynical, bitter and skeptical. If they are attracted to any kind of religion at all, it is often the vague spirituality of the New Age movement—a vast depository of unbiblical teaching.
The Fruit of “Christian” Cults
At their worst, “Christian” cults:
• lie about being the only spiritual show in town.
• rob followers of the ability to think clearly.
• rob followers of confidence and control over their own lives.
• rob followers of financial stability.
• rob followers of sound life and career goals and education.
• alienate followers from family and community.
• make false prophecies.
• arrogate to themselves false authority—even infallibility.
And they do all this in the name of God. Cults create a trance-like illusory world in which some followers are little more than blind drones doing the bidding of their corrupt masters.
It is alarming to see that similar problems are also present even in some Christian churches with relatively sound theology, at least officially. Whether in a known cultic or a seemingly Christian setting, when such a dynamic is present, Christ is not the center of faith and practice. In most cases God’s grace has been overcome by an emphasis on human deeds and works. Legalistic teaching ensnares and entangles—and eventually enslaves.
If you or someone you know is involved in a cult, cultic teaching or Christian group with cult-like characteristics, you need to take action. It’s not easy or comfortable to make the break. But eventually, you need to face the painful truth and embrace the plain truth of your freedom in Jesus Christ.