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What Is A Cult?
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What Is A Cult?

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''NEWSWEEK's piece on cults painted with a very broad brush, and, frankly, I feel splattered. I have practiced Transcendental meditation (TM) for more than 20 years, and now you inform me that I am a cultist...'Cult' has become a smear word, as ?commie' was in the ?50s. Those who practice TM do not deserve the label. [1]

Few, if any persons, like the term ''cult'' used as descriptive of their religious beliefs or practices. In contemporary society the term has taken on negative connotations in the wake of Manson, Jonestown, Waco and other infamous cult tragedies given broad media exposure. What exactly is a cult? How can you identify one? And what can Christians do to meet the challenge of the cults? This article will attempt to address these frequently asked questions. As we will see, the cult phenomenon is complex and many times it defies easy answers. The following is a brief treatment of this complicated issue.

Defining the "C" Word

A careful examination of the definition and concept of a cult is in order. The word derives from the Latin cultus which means ''worship.'' There are numerous definitions to the term, and it varies with the perspective of the person using the term and the context in which they use the word. Popular media treatments usually focus on the strange or bizarre aspects of a group's beliefs and practices, and it is this ''unconventional'' aspect which most people associate with cultism. Let us consider the term's popular usage in reference to new or non-traditional religious movements.

There are three basic approaches taken by researchers in studying the cult phenomenon which are helpful in defining the problem: the sociological, behavioral and evangelical.

A sociological approach seeks to describe the lifestyle of cults but usually makes no value judgments about the group, its beliefs or its practices. This approach seeks to define a cult within a historical and social context.

The behavioral approach includes a description of lifestyle but also includes a value judgment in areas of psychological or behavioral abuse, such as authoritarianism and sexual abuses. This approach, like that above, is utilized largely by secularists.

By contrast, the evangelical approach is primarily doctrinal or theological, and seeks to examine a group's belief system and includes a value judgment from an evangelical perspective based on a standard of Christian orthodoxy. The evangelical focus on cults places the emphasis on doctrine because questions of truth and falsehood are involved, and many groups, particularly established Bible-based groups, are notorious for twisting essential Christian doctrines.

But as important and essential as the theological element is to a Christian treatment of this problem, evangelicals have been guilty of placing too much stress on the theological dimensions and have neglected the psychological and authoritarian abuses of cults. [2] Incorporating both theological and behavioral or psychological elements into our examination of cults provides a more encompassing definition which contributes to a better recognition of the cult problem and more effective evangelization and rehabilitation of those associated with cultic groups.

Given this background, we propose a working definition of a cult as follows: theologically, a cult is a religious group which claims harmony with Christianity but which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrines; [3] and/or, psychologically or behaviorally, a cult is a secular or religious group which tends to use extreme and unethical techniques of manipulation to recruit, assimilate, control and retain members. [4]

It should be noted with this expanded definition, that cults encompass not only ''traditionally'' accepted new religious movements, but also fringe churches, as well as psychotherapy or self- fulfillment groups, New Age groups and secular political organizations.

Cult Characteristics

With this revised definition we should note some of the characteristics of cults. Evangelical sociologist Ron Enroth notes nine common characteristics of cults. [5]
  1. Authoritarian: central, authoritarian leadership in one person or small group of individuals.

  2. Oppositional: values, beliefs or practices at variance with the dominant culture or tradition.

  3. Exclusivistic: only the group has ''the truth,'' usually based on new insights or revelation.

  4. Legalistic: a tightly structured framework which governs spirituality and the smallest details of daily life.

  5. Subjective: undue emphasis on experience and emotions often resulting in anti-intellectualism.

  6. Persecution-Conscious: the belief that their group is singled out for persecution.

  7. Sanction-Oriented: stern sanctions issued for anything less than total obedience.

  8. Esoteric: an emphasis on secret, hidden or inner truth.

  9. Anti-Sacerdotal: lack of paid clergy and an emphasis on laity in leadership.

Cult Categories

To better understand the differences in cultic groups it is helpful to categorize them. Enroth offers the following classification scheme: [6]
  • Eastern Mystical: groups related to Hinduism, Buddhism and other pantheistic Eastern religions; examples in this category are Hare Krishnas and Self-Realization Fellowship.

  • Aberrant Christian: groups that claim to be Bible-based but which deviate in practice or belief, such as The Way International, the Boston Church of Christ and the Shepherding Movement.

  • Psychospiritual or Self-Improvement: groups offering seminars or workshops providing self- improvement or personal transformation (a growing cultic trend), includes Transcendental Meditation, Lifespring and The Forum (formerly est).

  • Eclectic/Syncretistic: a combination of several religious traditions, includes the Unification Church (''Moonies'') and the Church Universal and Triumphant.

  • Psychic/Occult/Astral: these groups offer ''secret wisdom'' and ''lost truths;'' examples include UFO cults and Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment.

  • Established Cults: Bible-based, cultic religious movements which have achieved mainstream status; this would include Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science.

  • Extremist/Political/Social Movements: groups cultic in the psychological or social sense which include the Aryan Nation, White Aryan Resistance and the Ku Klux Klan.

Cultic Growth

It would not be an exaggeration to speak of the cult explosion. Conservatively estimated, there are 3,000-5,000 cults in America affecting nearly as many lives as alcohol or drug addiction, yet receiving far less attention than other social problems. And cults are not only of concern in the United States, but around the world as well. With the rapid growth and destructive power of cultic groups, physically and spiritually, it is clear that society is facing a pervasive cult problem on an international scale.

Why People Join

Statistics show that doctrinal issues alone have little to do with why most people join cults. The three main reasons are: ''(1) healing for emotional hurts, (2) establishing friendships and relationships, and (3) spiritual growth. [7]

To this we would add (4) coercive persuasion or thought reform (popularly called ''brain washing''). A growing body of research supports the view that many cults effectively utilize subtle forms of psychological persuasion to recruit and retain members.

Contrary to popular myth, virtually anyone can get involved in a cult under the right circumstances, particularly during periods of vulnerability such as emotional trauma associated with illness, loss of a job, death of a loved one, moving or going away to college. Even those raised in Christian homes are susceptible to the lure of the cults.

Responding To The Challenge

There is much the church can do to meet this challenge. First, we must recognize that a growing and pervasive cult problem exists, and expand our definition of the problem. As we have seen, traditionally evangelicals have focused on a theological definition of cultism, confining their attention to doctrinal deviations of ''established cults'' such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses, while ignoring a host of groups with behavioral or psychological aberrations that are not typically viewed as cults, including those with orthodox doctrinal statements. Second, churches must promote and teach sound doctrine, especially with reference to contemporary deviations from biblical truth. Third, we must recognize that most people are susceptible to cultic involvement, even those coming from Christian homes, either because of unmet needs which the cults fulfill or ignorance of cult issues and recruitment techniques. Finally, the church must actively promote and support with prayer, volunteer efforts and finances, the provision of education, evangelistic and recovery resources for cult members and their families by individuals, denominations, churches and parachurch ministries.

- Footnotes -
  1. [Back to text] Letter to the Editor, NEWSWEEK, April 5, 1993.
  2. [Back to text] Paul R. Martin, ''Dispelling the Myths,'' Christian Research Journal (Winter/Spring, 1989), 9-14.
  3. [Back to text] Walter Martin, The New Cults (Ventura, CA: Vision House, 1980).
  4. [Back to text] Joan Ross and Michael Langone, Cults: What Parents Should Know (New York, NY: Lyle Stuart, 1989).
  5. [Back to text] Ron Enroth, What is a Cult?, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 19-25.
  6. [Back to text] Ron Enroth, The Lure of the Cults (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 22-25.
  7. [Back to text] Paul Martin, Cult Proofing Your Kids (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 41.
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