Understanding Cults

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Several times when I engage in discussions with fellow Christians and I point out that a certain religious group is a cult, they look dazed or confused because they don’t expect a group that claims to believe in Jesus, professes belief in the Bible or makes outlandish claims of supernatural experiences would be a cult.

In fact, many cults don’t usually have the name etched on them, and would in fact, vehemently reject such a tag being used for them.

Many of us have certain stereotypical misconceptions about cults: as groups of people wearing strange clothes, living in communes, of religious nuts or killing machines dancing wildly in caverns at night and making pacts with the devil.

While some of these may apply to some dangerous cults, the word “cult” as used in Christian apologetical and theological contexts, is defined as any false religion that masquerades as Christianity. Therefore, it is wrong to apply the term “cult” to every non-Christian religion.

Any group that claims to be Christian but teaches things that are fundamentally different from what the Bible teaches, is a cult.

For instance, a Hindu group that claims to be Hindu is not a cult, but a Hindu group that pretends to be Christian or employs Christian terminologies and figures, is a cult.

If you know of a religious group that claims to be a “better form of Christianity” but is actually a deviation from Christianity, or mixes it with various pagan beliefs, it can be rightly called a cult.

In the work, Kingdom of the Cults, by Dr. Walter Martin and Hank Hanegraaff (first published in 1965), Dr. Charles Braden, an emeritus professor of Northwestern University was quoted to define a cult as “any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in total culture” (p. 17).

Similarly, Dr. Walter defined a cult as “a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.”

These traditional definitions of cults were adhered to by many Christian thinkers in the 20th century.

However, in the light of modern realities of how cults have mutated and adopted various social, political and philosophical masks, there’s a need to improve on that definition.

Therefore, the modern definition of a cult is a group that also employs mind control and deceitful recruiting techniques.

Any group that tricks people into joining it – by brandishing false public image, false interpretations, false supernaturalism, false religious icons – and coerces them into staying in it (utilizing brainwashing, promise of “deeper revelations” or enlightenment, carnal pleasures, fear, power etc.) is a cult.

Based on this definition, there are different forms of cults:

1. Religious cults: These are the ones that are overtly religious. They fit in with the traditional definitions of cults.

Examples include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Scientology, Bahai faith, the Grail movement, Rosicrucianism, The Family International etc.

2. Self-Help/”Motivational” Cults: These are cults that don’t normally claim to be religious, but use “self help” or therapeutic strategies as their bait in luring individuals or business corporations.

They introduce their recruits to courses, a set of occult formulas or techniques which reprogramme their minds with the promise of achieving great success or attaining sublime life goals.

Examples include Roy Masters, Pacific Institute (Lou Tice) Possibility Thinking/Positive Mental Attitude, The Forum (Werner Erhard), Silva Mind Control, Kroning etc.

It’s from this that the commercial cult of “pressure selling” comes in. In these cults of greed, individuals and business-inclined people are lured in with promises of grandiose success and wealth if only they follow the plans and guidelines of a seminar held by a famed figure (usually the cult leader).

Many who fall prey are locked in a hotel room, exposed to enticing videos used in brainwashing them, made to exhaust their savings and sent out to lure in other recruits like friends, colleagues and family.

3. Political cults: These cults use political ideas as their base and they vary from country to country.

The common thread is that it is usually formed around a pyramidal leadership figure who is viewed as a messiah or saviour of sorts whose rule will usher in a kind of paradise on earth – an idealistic political establishment that will be the solution to the world’s problems.

They also subscribe to eliminationism – the wholesale demonization of anyone outside their tent and seeking to eliminate them.

We have many examples of this: Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Stalin Communist regime, KKK and other white supremacist groups, Israel United in Christ and other black supremacist movements.

In Africa, most dictators are cult figures who are shielded from any moral or institutional accountability or legitimate criticism by their horde of brainwashed followers who see them as demi-gods or God’s mouthpieces on earth.

I often illustrate the relationship between a cult leader and his victims as when a group of people have wires connecting them to the voice of a single loudspeaker at the back of their heads.

The leader not only occupies a place that should be reserved for God in their lives, but he/she also holds the steering wheel of their brains and turns it wherever he/she wills. Even when it is driven off a cliff, the victim blames himself instead of his mental programmer.

The bottom line is when people can no longer tell right from wrong, truth from lies, good from bad, facts from fiction, that’s when a leader has created a cult. They no longer care about anything. The cult is everything. Turning back is to admit their foolishness. Many cultists would rather self-destruct than leave the group.

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, has the power to break away the cultic gates of brass and the mental iron bars that hold the mind of the cultists captive in a deadly grip.