We need to be on our guard, however, not only against the overt cults, such as those listed above, but groups with cult-like characteristics. The New Testament warns us against what we might call cultish groups and individuals who will prey on the young and the vulnerable.
Hallmarks of a cult or cultish group
Here are some of the marks of a cult, or a group on its way to becoming a cult:
|David Berg - leader of Children of God cult|
Cultish groups are dominated by powerful (but ultimately insecure) personalities.
(2) Cultish groups actively seek out the naive and vulnerable. They may quite literally go from church to church looking for the weak and vulnerable. Here is how Paul warns us:
"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way.....Keep away from them..... By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people." (Romans 16:18)
When they are on the hunt, they do not speak to elders or pastors - these they studiously avoid (not least because shepherds are aware of wolves) - but seek out the naive and the vulnerable. Perhaps a young person full of zeal who they could easily deceive and twist to their cause.
(3) Cultish groups use flattery. Of course, none of us should be prone to flattery, for all of us should have a healthy view of ourselves which forces flattery to flow off our backs. In other words, should God ever be pleased to use us, we think it is nothing but amazing, since we know our sinfulness too much to think the blessing had anything whatsoever to do with us. But when you are young and immature, and someone says to you, "You are the most passionate disciple of Christ I've come across in years" or some such deliberate flattery, you have limited experience or self-knowledge to help you deflect the lies away.
Good old John Bunyan warned us about The Flatterer many years ago, with these sober words:
A man approached them clothed in a light robe who asked them why they stood thus. When the pilgrims informed him of their predicament, the man said, "Follow me, for I too, am going to the Celestial City, and am well acquainted in these parts."
Accordingly, they followed him, for he seemed a pleasant man and was full of compliments and fine sayings.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the road on which he was taking them turned away from the straight and narrow path; but being absorbed in listening to the fine things their companion was saying about them, they did not notice this deviation, and soon their faces were turned away from the Celestial City.
Suddenly, before they were aware of it, he led them into the compass of a large net in which they were so entangled that they could not, in spite of all their efforts, extricate themselves. Then the robe fell from the man, and they perceived he was a dark man whose name was Flatterer.
As they lay crying in the net, Christian groaned, "Now do I see myself in an error!"
(4) Cultish groups play nasty. Because they are not followers of the Jesus who was filled with grace and truth, cultish leaders put no restraint upon their vitriol towards those who disagree with them. They freely damn all people who do not buy into their gnostic myths. These leaders follow in the steps of the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said,"you travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15).
(5) Cultish groups have a powerful myth which supports their 'theology'. From the outside, the views of cultish groups look absolutely absurd. And indeed every 'doctrine' is very easily dismantled - they don't hold water, Biblically, theologically, historically or philosophically. But on the inside, supported by group-pressure, the myth seems powerful, even overwhelming. The myth works in the same way as a conspiracy theory works: in a large bank of 1000 pieces of data it is quite possible to select 100 pieces which can be used to support your view. All the other information of course is excluded or conveniently re-explained. But put 100 pieces of data together, and my it looks impressive, especially when it is reinforced by powerful personalities.
(6) Cultish groups are gnostic in theology. A gnostic is someone who thinks that due to certain knowledge they have acquired, they have become a member of an elite group of "Christians". The underlying problem with gnostics, however, has nothing to do with the supposed knowledge. The problem is always a spiritual, never a knowledge problem. And the spiritual problem is spiritual pride. All of a sudden they stand above all the other "compromising Christians" in the world. They may even tell you how much they have grown spiritually since they have acquired this knowledge and how poor they were beforehand. All of this is a delusion. The apostle Paul deals with this error in Colossians 2 in a thorough way - he tells the gnostic (of whatever stripe) that he has actually lost contact with Jesus Christ.
But Paul's words sound ludicrous to a cult member because....
(7) ....Cultish groups always think they are more zealous than others. Others compromise, they don't. And they boast about all the great sacrifices they have been prepared to make to remain faithful to the truth! They have lost churches, families, jobs and what nots. The truth is this: their zeal is without knowledge, and is more akin to fanaticism than holy zeal.They have lost friends through folly, not on account of truth.
(8) Cultish groups always separate from others. This is one of the chief characteristics of a cult - as soon as you become a member, you must sever all links with former friends. There are only two kinds of people in the world now, those who are in and those who are out. Those who are in are friends, those who are out, enemies.
Any group that bears these marks is a cult, or on its way to become a cult.
How should we respond to cultish groups?
(1) Warn fellow Christians. You will need to be specific if you are a church leader. Gather the flock and warn them.
(2) Do not engage with them directly. This is a great temptation but a grave mistake. People under bondage to a satanic suite of lies, are beyond logical argument. All that will happen is an endless string of unpleasant debates - be warned you will never win the debate.
(3) Use spiritual warfare - pray. I had a relative who got caught up in the Children of God cult, in the sixties (David Berg was the cult leader). I remember the great pain of relatives as they saw family members come under that powerful and satanic delusion. But the family prayed and he was delivered from the cult.
We have a God who is able to deliver his people from delusions, great or small. If you have a family member who has been drawn into a cult, it is probably best not to argue with them. So powerful is the delusion, they are incapable of seeing past it. In fact arguing will probably confirm them in their view that they are right (they are being persecuted) and confirm to them that you are an outsider. Gently warn, and then get on your knees and pray that the God who could humble Nebuchadnezzar and shatter his delusion, will deliver your loved one too.
See separate article on Gnosticism:
"Gnosticism" old and new