Dictionary.com defines a cult as a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader. It’s a loaded term when it gets used with Christians. Scripture indicates that God is doing something in His people that gives true children of God different values and practices from much of those who reject Him. So in some sense, all believers can expect to be viewed as culty (a word I just made up) by the world. But there ARE Christian groups who have earned the right to be called a cult with every negative connotation of the word. The Branch Davidians are obvious. The trajectory of other Christian groups toward cultish behavior is a bit subtler. They are often oblivious of all the ways their current practices put them much more in line with cults than with the historic church. Here are some warning signs that you should not ignore.
1) Your church or ministry thinks it’s doing something particularly unusual or unique from other churches. They celebrate that uniqueness and protect it as core to their ministry.
The truth is that God has been effectively building His church and discipling His children for 1000’s of years. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). If you think you’ve stumbled upon something new, unique, and utterly distinct from what’s going on in the Body of Christ outside of your particular church or ministry, be warned. You are adopting an unbiblical view of the Church of God. That separatist view is a strong indicator of a pride that will lead to many unhealthy, unbiblical responses to those who leave your church or ministry, to family who are outside your church or ministry, or to other churches or ministry that don’t fawn over your church or ministry. If you have Christian family that is concerned by your involvement in your church or ministry (maybe you can’t even bring it up with them anymore in conversation), think hard about why that may be.
2) Your church acts like a business. All churches need good, ethical business practices. But when your church adopts business practices to govern and minister to its people, start thinking hard. When the pastor see himself as a CEO rather than an undershepherd of God, um … that’s bad!
And the opposite is bad too — when your ministry business or nonprofit that is not a church starts trying to exercise church discipline style control over its people. God’s plan for community, discipleship, and accountability is through the elder/deacon authority structure of a local church. You get into troubled water quickly when people who are not under the authority structure of a church try to exercise spiritual authority over you. They can encourage you, support you, point you to Christ, and so forth. But they cannot discipline you. And if they try, be very wary.
3) Your church or ministry over claims one or more of these ideas to justify itself against its critics. “God spoke to me about this (or about you).” “I have discernment on this issue that you don’t have.” “I’m an apostle with a special word from God.” “This is demonic oppression to stop the work of God.”
These ideas (special words from God) easily become justification for not obeying God’s clearly expressed will in His Word. If Pastor A thinks he’s an apostle of God being oppressed by Satan in a certain conflict, he feels instantly justified in using harsh words, unloving statements, and ungracious actions to fight off Satan. When a leader’s experience in a particular circumstance trumps God’s clear instructions on how to handle conflict as laid down in Scripture, be VERY wary.
4) Your church or ministry becomes your identity. This is pretty important because it zooms in on not the cultiness of the overall ministry but the dangerous idolatry of our own heart. Do you push down your concerns with the ministry because to exam them closely makes your heart constrict in fear as you contemplate possibly getting out? I’ve been there. Twice. I couldn’t consider the truth of the church’s/ministry’s problems because I felt so threatened by the idea of moving out of their safety and security. They had become my protectors, and I wasn’t confident that God alone could assume that role adequately for me. I thought no one else could minister to me or meet my needs the way they did. That is idolatry, friends. All my relationships were in the group. My finances were tied to it. My IDENTITY was tied to it. The truth is that there is godly Christian community throughout the world. I am continually awed at the healthy Christian community I find in the shadows of unhealthy ones.
Such idolatry can happen with healthy ministries. It becomes an indication of cultiness when the church/ministry FOSTERS that kind of dependence. They WANT you to find your identity in them. They want all of your resources to flow into them and all of your ministry work to flow out of them. They want you to be proud of them and feel that what they are doing is superior to other groups.
5) Your church or ministry uses the Lord’s name in vain. When “Jesus” and His “glory” are cited for enduring attacks, bearing long with someone, or confessing your sins, that’s healthy. In contrast, when you justify firing someone “for Jesus’ name” or to preserve “the glory of God”, um, you’re traveling at light speed down the trajectory of cultiness. Jesus name is high and mighty. It’s to be used with precision and care. If your church or ministry uses Jesus’ name to justify actions that have NO OTHER REAL BIBLICAL JUSTIFCATION for them, that’s a big time problem.
6) Your church or ministry protects its authority at all costs. It is not safe to say certain things. And truth is no excuse for saying them. In contrast, according to Scripture, GOD sets up authorities (Romans 13). He sets up those in our government, and He sets up those in our churches. And it’s God’s job to preserve those authorities. God’s authority can handle questions. God’s authority doesn’t need to circle the wagons to protect itself.
If these things ring true in your heart yet you FEAR leaving, let that be the final indicator that you are in an unhealthy place. God says it best in I John 4, and it’s a good word to end these thoughts.
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.