What is a Cult?

For many people, when they hear the word cult flags go up. It is not out of the ordinary for popular news syndicates to focus on the negative happenings around the world, as well as the strange and unusual, as bad news sells. Thus when the news media does cover a cult or new religious organization, it has to do with some terrible or bizarre aspects of the group's beliefs and practices, and this helps form the belief that most cults are not only bizarre, but dangerous. Thus people often associate the word cult with groups that do bizarre rituals, practice Satanism or sacrifice animals. Some envision people held against their will, separated from society, working with little or no pay, or abused, especially, women or children, abused sexually. 

It was during the 1970's through the 1990's that not only the connection of cults to unorthodox religions and bizarre practices and beliefs was promulgated through the media, but the connection of cults to mass suicides and hoarding guns, after some unusual tragic events occurred connected with cults.

Major cult news went around the world when in 1978 People's Temple in Jonestown committed a mass murder/suicide involving 909 men, women and children. That same year trials began on a Scientology case. The FBI had conducted a massive raid on the Church of Scientology in 1977, after uncovering a plot called the “Snow White Program” where for seven years members clandestinely broke into government offices and copied and stole files. The raid eventually led to eleven top Scientology leaders being criminally charged and convicted for their role in the conspiracy to burglarize federal offices.

Then another cult, the Branch Davidian Christian sect, was believed to be stockpiling weapons. In February 1993, the sect was raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in their compound east of Waco, looking for David Koresh — the leader of the sect officials believed was stockpiling weapons and ammunition. Ten men died in a gunfire exchange, which began a 51-day standoff that would end with nearly 80 dead and one of their compounds burned to the ground.

In 1997, 39 members of the religious group, Heaven’s Gate, killed themselves in San Diego, California, with the goal of catching up to a UFO following the comet Hale-Bopp. When the members of Heaven’s Gate were found, they were all wearing black clothes and black-and-white Nike Decade sneakers and wore their hair cropped short. 

While these type of occurrences happening with religious cults are a rarity, there incidences have caused a lot of fear at what could happen to family members and friends who join cults. With an estimate* of about 5,000 cults worldwide the chances of knowing someone that is a member of a cult is very likely. What gives a group the notoriety of being called a "cult"? Defining what is a cult is not easy as there is no consensus among academia. But first the difference between cults and sects needs to be understood.

Difference Between Sects and Cults
Scholars in the sociology of religion state that sects are break-away groups from more mainstream religions and that they tend to be in tension with society. They are a subset of a religion or denomination. They typically share the same beliefs as the religion that is their foundation but will have marked differences in some areas. A religious denomination is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity. Examples of various Christian denominations is: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the many varieties of Protestantism.

A "sect" then is defined as a newly formed religious group that formed to protest elements of its parent religion (generally a denomination). Their motivation tends to be situated in accusations of apostasy or heresy in the parent denomination, and they often denounce liberal trends in a denomination and advocate the return to the so-called "true" religion. Sects will either eventually dissolve from lack of membership, or eventually develop into their own denomination by creating doctrine and a bureaucracy in order to maintain structure.  Methodists, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists were once sects that became denominations.

The main points that differentiate between cults and sects:

  • Cults are, like sects, new religious groups, but, unlike sects, they can form without breaking off from another religious group. While sects generally separate from their parent denomination advocating a return to their pure religion, cults focus on embracing something new or something that has been completely lost or forgotten (e.g., non canonical literature/books or new revelations and prophecy).
  • Cults tend to be formed and led by charismatic leaders than are other religious groups. These charismatic leaders often are the individuals who bring forth the incorporation of the lost component or the new prophecy and that becomes the main focal element of the cult.
  • Cults, as well as sects, combine existing religious theologies with their new belief system. The difference here is that cults tend to create more esoteric theologies synthesized from many sources.
  • Cults tend to emphasize the individual and individual peace.
  • Cults can development into a denomination, but when they maintain their more esoteric characteristics they usually aren't classified as a denomination. An example of a cult that became a denomination is Christian Science.

What is a Cult?
Sociologists differ in their definition in what defines a cult. Professor of Sociology, Dr. Ronald M. Enroth, explains that “we define the word ‘cult’ to mean a group of religious people whose belief system and practices deviate significantly from and often contradict the Holy Scriptures as interpreted by orthodox, biblical Christianity and as expressed in such statements as the Apostles’ Creed” (Evangelizing the Cults).  A cult, in the broadest sense of the word, is simply a religious system with particular rites and customs. During the cultural change of the 1960s and 1970s with the Hippie Movement and the development of the New Age philosophy, the term 'cult' became a popular way of referring to new and different religious groups that began to surface.

Bruce Campbell (Sociology of Religion) defines that there are three ideal types of cults:

  1. a mystically-oriented illumination type;
  2. an instrumental type, in which inner experience is sought for its effects;
  3. and a service-oriented type, which is focused on aiding others.

The mystical type of cult is concerned with the development of self, emphasizing detachment from the lower self to uncover the divine self. These mystical type of cults are associated with beliefs in a divine element in the individual (i.e. a Soul, Self, or True Self). They seek for a direct experience with the divine within. The instrumental type cult offers instruments to better a person. They may have techniques of meditation or yoga. Rather than seeking an inner experience as the mystical type do, the instrumental type seek to become a more "powerful" person, more intelligent, wise or obtain a better physical body. The service-oriented type focus on aiding others in order to spiritually grow.

A cult might claim that it is part of a religion, yet it denies essential truth(s) of that religion. For example, a Christian cult will deny one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth while still claiming to be Christian. Christian cults have two teachings that are quite common in their belief system. They teach that Jesus was not God and that salvation is not by faith alone. When they deny the deity of Christ they are really saying 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.

Two examples in modern times are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), however, the majority of Mormons consider themselves a Christian religion. Yet according to a 2011 Pew study, the most common one-word response to describe Mormons by non-Mormons was “cult.” Both Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons, while claiming to be Christian, 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 yet Mormons have many extraneous teachings to Christianity, such as that after a human reaches perfection in this life they too can become a god after they die and then this person can produce other “spirit children” to keep on reproducing the potential of other gods.  This newly born god-person can then populate other worlds like earth and so become a god of that planet. The group contends that it is the only true Church, and that all Christians outside Mormonism (gentiles) are following a deficient Gospel and a false Christ.

The  Journal of Discourses, a 26-volume collection of public sermons by early leaders, was considered to be an official publication of the LDS Church. Today the Church is distancing themselves from them. Why? Could it be that they contain highly provocative teachings that clearly differ from Christian biblical doctrine? Some examples from these sermons and other works:

About God and becoming Gods:

"He is our Father--the Father of our spirits, and was once a man in mortal flesh as we are, and is now an exalted Being." (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol.7)

"The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them." (Brigham Young Journal of Discourses, Vol.11)

“God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” (Joseph Smith, The King Follett Sermon, 1844)

“The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 130:22)

About salvation:

“…if it had not been for Joseph Smith and the restoration, there would be no salvation. There is no salvation outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition)

Denying the deity of Christ by teaching that he was created by a God, with God's celestial wife, and that salvation is obtained by works, qualifies Mormons as a cult.

One of the early Church groups that can be defined as a cult was Gnosticism. Gnosticism encompasses a very wide range of beliefs and therefore is not one coherent cult. Yet the Gnostics are believed to have some common themes that helps characterize them as a cult. They generally had a negative view of the universe as a place to be rescued from. Sacraments were utilized as the method of escape from this world, and an emphasis was on the protection of the self by living an ascetic lifestyle. Sex was evil and even married couples should avoid it. They also lacked concern for canon, structures and hierarchy. 

Many might remember the 'Moonies' (The Unification Church) selling flowers at street corners and airports. Their leader Sun Myung Moon toured America three times in the early 1970s and The Unification Church emerged as a national movement in which members lived communally and proselytized heavily. Another example is the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON) founded in New York in 1966. Based on Hindi scripture, their movement grew rapidly from the youth of America who were questioning Western values while Eastern thought was becoming more fashionable. These types of cults were influenced by eastern religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism and provided radical alternatives to western Judaeo-Christian traditions.

Term New Religious Movements
Because of the stigma attached to the term 'cult', researchers in the scientific study of religion now prefer to use the more neutral term New Religious Movements when referring to the movements that came into prominence in the West after 1960. While this takes the pressure off of these groups, not differentiating between cults and sects, as defined above, does not further society to know what dangers may lie within a group that appears to be morally sound, but within might be harboring the seeds of destruction. Charles Manson believed he was the incarnation of Jesus and that his followers, the Manson family, were the incarnation of the original Christians and the establishment was the Romans. Their cult ended after the brutal murders of seven people.

Their cult is an extreme example of an unbalanced leader who held enough power over young girls to get them to commit murder, yet other cults in the 1960's came to light that coerced their young women to have sex. The Children of God cult was founded by David Berg, who was a pastor before he started Children of God. He preached an “old world” idea of Christianity. To him, this equated to a lot of sex. Members lived together in communes and banded together around the concept that an apocalypse was coming and that they were martyrs with the power to save the world from the Antichrist. But behind closed doors Berg was encouraging adults to have sex with minors because, "God loves sex because sex is love". After their cult was disbanded because of allegations of abuse and reports of misconduct, it was reborn under a new name, "The Family of Love" and then "The Family", which name it is known under today.

These movements are examples of cults that did not form by breaking away from a denomination, as sects do. Doug Huges, in his book "My All For Your Glory" suggested that it would be best for Christians and non-Christians to have a way to define the most destructive cults and thereby restrict the use of the term cult for those groups that truly have a destructive or negative force on society and individuals. From a Christian point of view, in order to identify a destructive or an unmorally sound group he suggests there are two very important considerations. From a theological consideration the question needs to be asked, "How consistent are the group's beliefs with the basic tenets of the historic Christian faith?" From the social-psychological consideration, "How are power, authority, and control exercised in the group?" A group may be deficient in one or both areas and thereby be considered an unhealthy and/or destructive group from a Christian perspective.

Another method to define if a movement might be a dangerous and actually deserves a cult status, is to define what cults generally have in common. The Christianity Today magazine defined three characteristics that a new religious movement can earn the label of being called a cult. The three characteristics are: Exclusive; Secretive; Authoritarian. A cult makes their teachings exclusive by saying, "We're the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong; and if you leave our group your salvation is in danger." They keep certain teachings secretive and not available to outsiders until they have signed some pledge or taken vows. They have an authoritarian leader who presents himself as the definitive word of God, or as being some important figure, even being the reincarnated Jesus, or having elaborate titles that presents them as a supreme leader that unquestionably demands loyalty.

Why People Join
According to many psychologists and sociologists, there is no stereotype of the sort of person who might invariably join a cult. Studies do show that many cult members are under the age of 30, and that college-aged individuals are most commonly recruited into cults. Contrary to popular myth that cult members are ignorant or as psychologically unbalanced as their leaders, virtually anyone can get involved in a cult under the right circumstances. In fact, many people who are in, or have been in a cult, are well-educated, sensible, and logical. Many cult members are typically psychologically healthy, and often they are particularly idealistic, but through some major life circumstance they are vulnerable to joining a cult, although few may be aware they are joining a cult. Obviously, there are almost never any obvious red flags to warn people that they may be unwittingly joining a cult.

Statistics show that doctrinal issues alone have little to do with why most people join cults, and the susceptibility to cults may be based on life circumstances more than the person's personality. Anyone who is capable of loving could join a cult because cults have a lot of nice, open and loving people. While it may be hard for people to understand what the appeal would be to join a religious group outside of mainstream religion, especially in those groups appearing to adopt strict codes of behavior and anti-social values, yet there are some factors that cult experts tend to agree on that subject certain people to the manipulation of cults. Members tend to subscribe to one or more of these mindsets:

Impatiently wanting solid answers: People who want instant answers to problems and solid explanations about everything, and can't stand ambiguity would find cults appealing because lead members are very well trained to offer specific answers. More often than not, a cult will promise to solve an issue in society that no one else is offering a solution to, which is attractive to people who feel a need to contribute to changing the wrongs of their society. Cults also offer a very structured lifestyle, with absolute answers about what is right and wrong.

Going through emotional traumas. Anyone who has ended a romantic relationship can attest to the fact that there are both positive and negative emotions that go along with starting a new chapter in life. Some people cope by jumping into a new relationship as soon as possible, while others rejoice in their new-found independence. And then others join a cult to fill in an emotional void left after some loss. 

Looking for friendships and relationships, and the sense of belonging. Cults and their members are often very kind and open to new members. They even may be overly loving and complimentary. To a person with a low self-esteem, this is a great ego boost. To people who have not had a very loving background from family members, or were orphaned, abandoned or mistreated in their youth, a lot of love and flattery can be very enticing. If it is a religious cult, sometimes members are promised that they are spiritually loved and accepted from a higher being.

With cults that form communes, being part of a group that works together sharing housing with free room and board, in exchange for personal contributions through community service, prayer, and loyalty to the leader, may seem like a gift from God, especially for those who are struggling economically.

Looking for spiritual growth. Some people join cults after they reject their religious upbringing. They may have rejected all formal religions, or just their family's brand of religion, and they are looking for something that better expresses their inner beliefs. Finding that "perfect religion" may come into play. Cults promising they have the highest and true religion or teaching, may be interpreted by their followers that being a member of such an elite group means they are wiser or superior than others outside the group for finding and belonging to such a group. This is not uncommon, for the vast majority of cults teach their followers that they are superior to non-cult members. This elitism leads members to form an “us vs. them” sort of mindset, which in turn leads to members becoming socially isolated from those in the outside world beyond their cult.

Difference Between a Religious Community and a Cult
Mike Bickle, founder of the  charismatic Christian movement, The International House of Prayer  (IHOP), created a list of seven ways to recognize the difference between a religious community and a cult. A cult:

  1. Opposes critical thinking.
  2. Isolates members and penalizing them for leaving
  3. Emphasizes special doctrines outside scripture
  4. Seeks inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
  5. Dishonoring the family unit
  6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
  7. Separation from the Church

Authentic organized religion provides a framework – a structure, a path, ceremony and ritual, guidance and enlightened support – for individual's journey through life. Although most churches ask for donations, they don’t mandate them. Most churches act as social centers in their communities, but don’t expect you to make your church the center of your life, although you can. You can ask for counseling to get advice from ministers and priests, but they won't tell you who to marry, where to work or what God wants you to do. Cults will often control all major aspects of your life. Churches don't seek to control a member. Although a believer might not agree with official church doctrine, the religion's hierarchy would not persecute or exclude them. The believer would be free to read, watch and listen to what they wanted, wear what they wanted, and if they wanted to, leave the religion without negative consequences.

A cult would attempt to control their members through fear, intimidation and other manipulative ways. If a member does agree with official doctrine, they may be discriminated against and excluded by other believers in that cult and the cult hierarchy. In small communities there is more control where members are not free to read, watch and listen to what they want, or even wear the clothes they want. If a member wanted to leave the cult they would suffer negative consequences, andif they left they would be ostracized by other cult members, even by their own family members.

Cult Leaders
It is not the followers who create the cult, but their leaders. Yet the followers, under a strong cult leader, can and do become instruments of the leader and carrying out the leader's will. Thus, understanding how the founder of an organization manages to be so seductive needs to be scrutinized. This is not to say that all cult leaders are consciously aware that they are manipulative or unbalanced. Some may have a true desire to change the world, but their egos have gotten the best of them and they begin to display characteristics not normally seen in leaders of established religions. Some cult leaders may be more psychologically unbalanced, yet those imbalances do not appear at first. In retrospect, many of these well-known cult leaders were pathologically narcissistic. They had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. 

From studies the FBI has done on cult leaders and their movements, where great harm has been done to others emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, or financially, there are some key signs people should be aware of. When a cult or organizational leader has a preponderance of these following traits then you can anticipate that at some point those who associate with them will likely be harmed:

  • Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders
  • Believes they are either a deity or a chosen representative of a deity
  • Publicly devalues others as being inferior or incapable
  • Anyone who criticizes or questions them is seen or called an “enemy”
  • Attempts to control what their followers do, read, view, or think
  • Believes they possess the answers and solutions to many of the world problems
  • Takes sexual advantage of members
  • Exaggerated sense of power that allows them to bend rules and break laws
  • Restricts contact with family or outsiders
  • Reveals they are “destined for greatness” or that they will be “martyred”
  • Restricts members travel, taking away the freedom to leave
  • Communication is usually one-way in the form of dictates
  • Appears to have the best of possessions even when many members have very little
  • Frequently boastful of accomplishments
  • Makes members confess their sins or faults publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation
  • Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others 
  • Has arrogant and haughty attitude or behavior

For victims lucky enough to find their way out of a destructive cult, the process of recovery can be long and arduous, with people experiencing feelings of guilt, confusion, depression or disorientation which can last for a year or longer, depending on their experiences and years with a cult.

It is not that uncommon to have an existential crisis at some point in your lifetime. Finding one’s identity and purpose in life can sometimes be a struggle, and a cult often gives people a cause that they can fight for. Whether it is attaining eternal life in a heaven, or an unprecedented devotion to change some social issue for the better, a cult can give a purpose in life to people who did not have their own strong goals. How someone resolves their problems is unique to each individual, but each one of us needs to remember to reach out to those who are going through difficult times and be a listening ear. You never know when you might help someone by leading them to God instead of a pseudo God substitute in a pseudo church atmosphere.


DrRonald M. Enroth, What is a Cult?, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982

DrRonald M. Enroth, Evangelizing the Cults, Servant Publications, 1990.

Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions by John Mark Terry (Editor), Justice Anderson, Ebbie Smith (Editor), Published November 1st 1998 by B&H Publishing Group

Sociology of Religion, Volume 39, Issue 3, 1 October 1978.

* John Ankerberg (Author) and John Weldon (Author), Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, Harvest House Publishers (November 1999)