The Definition of a Cult

The dictionary gives one generalized definition of cult” as “a small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure.” Not all cults are religious in nature, but similarities do exist between most religious and non-religious cults. Cults prey upon an individual’s need to identify, and be identified with, a strong belief and with others of like conviction. Cults rob individuals of the ability to make moral and social decisions that govern their lives. Cults rob followers of their individuality by making them conform to the identity of the group.

Under discussion here is one of the more specific dictionary definitions of “cult” as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also its body of adherents.” In this vein we do not find the term “cult” in Scripture, but it is generally implied under the headings of false teachers, false teachings, false prophets and false prophecies that lead a person away from the truth of God and into bondage.

What is the difference between a cult and a religious sect?

It is important to differentiate between harmful pseudo-Christian cults and genuine Christian sects. A Christian sect emphasizes a certain teacher or teaching, but remains scripturally based and gives the Lord Jesus Christ His rightful place. Scripture describes what might be called a sect in referring to certain groups that claimed, “I am of Peter” or “I am of Apollos” (see 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4).

Twelve features of cults that are derived from Christianity

1) The group presents the Bible as being unknowable except through their authoritative interpretation. Although they claim otherwise, such cults actually lead people away from Christ.

2) The group makes commitment to Christ synonymous with allegiance to the group and its leader.

3) The group becomes a substitute for conscience and for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Right and wrong are judged according to the cult’s teachings rather than Scripture.

4) The group often demands unquestioning allegiance and obedience to the cult leader, who is usually an authoritarian figure. The cult leader may proclaim that no one can properly understand the meaning of Scripture except through his authoritative teaching.

5) Cult leaders’ lifestyles are often different from that of their followers, and they seem exempt from the moral and ethical expectations that bind the others. Cult leaders often allow themselves privileges and luxuries that their followers are denied.

6) The group leads its followers to view those outside the cult as potential enemies or as being less “enlightened.” Followers are often required to live in a community that functions for the benefit of the cult and is cut off from society.

7) The group requires its members to give and work only to promote the cult, rather than to proclaim the gospel.

8) The group instills guilt in its members by declaring that anything less than 100% commitment is unacceptable and that less committed members are unworthy and unfruitful. This becomes their basis of values and self-esteem.

9) The group asks its members to make unreasonable sacrifices, such as giving up children, money or possessions in the name of commitment and growth. The members do not view these sacrifices as being unreasonable because the cult dictates a new standard of behavior and social norms.

10) The group offers its members a sense of family and belonging and provides a ready-made set of friends. The individual has a sense of peace and personal well-being as long as he or she can conform.

11) Followers often must denounce and avoid their families in order to be considered members in good standing.

12) Members are usually discouraged from staying informed about world events because the leader wants to be the interpreter of reality and does not want members to be distracted.

This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.