Watch Out For Churches That Behave Like Cults
Some people blindly accept church rhetoric, but they risk going down a dangerous path
We’ve all heard stories of people taken in and indoctrinated by cults. Though some stories end happily after they extricate themselves from the control the cult, too many situations end badly.
There are many common characteristics to help us identify cults and cult-like behavior. Here are some of the key things that reoccur on many of these lists.
- Utopia: The community seems too good to be true. Everything is wonderful; there are no problems. Peace and harmony abounds. (And when a potential problem surfaces, it’s quickly squelched.)
- Exclusive Leadership: One person, or a handful of people, exercises excessive control over the group and restricts other people from participating in leadership.
- Absolute Beliefs: Their group has the only true understanding of truth. All other groups are false.
- Loyalty: Devotion and submission to the group is expected.
- Persecution Complex: Everyone else is against them. The group has an us-versus-them mentality.
- Critical Thinking Opposed: Questions aren’t tolerated and are quickly repressed.
- Isolation: Members are separated from family and friends.
- Shunning: People are discouraged from leaving, with excessive penalties for those who try.
- Dependence: The group creates an emotional dependence by offering excessive love, acceptance, and support.
- Lack of Transparency: The group’s finances are hidden from members, and inappropriate behavior by its leaders is accepted without question.
When we read this list, we’re quick to agree these characteristics are both wrong and damaging. We would never want to be in a group that behaved this way.The behavior and attitudes at some churches parallel many characteristics of a cult. Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, I’ve seen some churches whose behavior and attitudes parallel many of these characteristics of a cult. While I won’t label them a cult, the way they function fills me with apprehension.
- These churches have a dynamic, charismatic minister who people follow without question and accept every word he or she says.
- The church’s doctrine is presented as the only true understanding, with everyone else being an error.
- Members are encouraged to separate themselves from those who disagree with the church’s teaching, including their family and friends.
- The church envelops its members, providing a tight emotional bond and offering support to such an extent that members worry about what they will lose if they leave.
- Though threats aren’t given, the outcome is clear they risk being cut off from the community.
Am I claiming that some churches are cults? No. But I am suggesting that they’re veering too close. And from the outside it’s sometimes hard to see the difference.
What’s the Solution?
- Don’t allow one person to control or dominate the group.
- Share leadership broadly.
- Be transparent.
- Be egalitarian.
- Encourage questions.
- Seek diversity.
- Make Jesus the focus.
- Let the Bible guide in all things.
When I read about the early church in the book of Acts I see this type of positive, open community demonstrated in how they function. We must consider their example carefully.
The challenge in this is to examine our own church’s practices in the light of these characteristics of a cult. Then take whatever steps are needed to avoid even the appearance of cult-like activity.
With so much at stake, we can’t risk even the appearance of impropriety.
Read more about the book of Acts in Dear Theophilus, Acts: 40 Devotional Insights for Today’s Church now available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality, often with a postmodern slant. He seeks a fresh approach to faith and following God through the lens of scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.