What Is A Cult?

This is a very difficult question to answer because the Bible does not use the term (with the exception of the New American Standard Version in a few Old Testament passages).  And, even there, it never defines the term for us.  So, we aren’t left with a lot to work with.

Webster defines “cult” as “an unorthodox” religious group.  But, that only confuses things more – how does one decide what is “orthodox?!”  The word “orthodox” literally means to have the “correct opinion.”  As you probably know nearly everyone in the world believes that they have the correct opinion. I have yet to meet someone who genuinely acknowledges that they have the wrong ideas about something, and isn’t going to change!   So, whose “correct opinion” is “orthodox?”

One might respond by saying that whatever conflicts with the Bible is unorthodox. Well, I am comfortable with that thought – but who decides what is against the Bible?  Roman Catholics contend that Protestants are not in keeping with Scripture; Protestants contend that Catholics violate it; many Baptists claim they are the sole guardians of the truth; and Latter Day Saints claim that without the Book of Mormon no one can really understand the Bible!  So, you see, these groups would all agree that keeping with the Bible makes you orthodox – yet some of their doctrines run in direct contradiction to the others!  What is orthodox??

No, there’s got to be a better way of defining a “cult” than by deciding who is orthodox.

I can’t say that I have the answer, but in my opinion, to identify a cult one must look closely at the leadership of a group.

I think one observable mark of a cult would be when some individual or group does all of the “thinking” of that group.  In other words, if the leadership requires you to do, say, or think in a certain way, then you are likely in a cult.  The Bible teaches that in Christ we have liberty (2 Cor. 3:17).  Although becoming a Christian makes us a slave to Christ, it does not make us slaves to our leaders.  If the leadership attempts to remove one’s liberty, then in my opinion it is very “cult-like.”

A second mark of a cult would be one in which you could not reasonably question the leadership.  Let’s say you are at a Bible study with your group.  The leader is teaching something that doesn’t sound right to you, and so you respectfully disagree.  If you are rebuked for raising the question, then you might be involved in a cult – or at least in a group with some cult-like tendencies.  A good leader should welcome questions and reasonable challenges.  It might be that the leader could learn something from you – or it might be that you are incorrect – or, it may even be that both of you are wrong.  But, nothing will be gained if the question is squelched.  Cults do not permit members to hold differing views, or even question what is being taught.  Good Christians will disagree over many things – some being rather important – but doctrinal differences should rarely cause us to dis-fellowship with one another.

As an example, think of Apollos, who is first mentioned in Acts 18.  Luke tells us that he was eloquent, and mighty in the Scriptures.  Even Paul seemed to have great respect for him as a leader in the early Church.  Yet, when a man named Aquilla and his wife, Priscilla heard him preach once, they quickly took him aside because his doctrine was incorrect.  To Apollos’ credit, he listened to the correction, adjusted his teaching, and continued in the Lord’s work.  No cult-like attitude there!

Another indicator of being involved in a cult is when leadership falls absolutely into the hands of a single person, who has some kind of authority over others.  For example, in some cases this could be the pastor.  They see their roles, not as an elder in a family home, but as one in whom great authority has been bequeathed.  They are not there to coax others to Christ, but to protect their position of power.  They are not a kindly father-figure, but a President running a business.  This is clearly a cult – and may well describe many churches today.

In short, I would describe a cult – not necessarily by how orthodox its doctrines are – but by how its leadership exercises its role.

Get out of the cults – get into Jesus.





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