Cultiness 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.

10 Responses to Cultiness

  1. Anonymous November 19, 2010 at 4:41 am #

    I read this a couple of days ago and just thought “Wow,” (heavy sigh) Deep breath….

    (Next thought) Wonder how things would be different if I had had the wisdom to see this years ago…

    Isn't it telling that no one has posted a comment and even I will post this as anonymous…

    Thank you, Wendy, for being brave and saying things that need to be heard…

    There is so much idolatry and fear (of man rather than God) in Jesus' Church…

    I was there and perhaps would be still but for God's grace that came with great wounding and anguish but nevertheless set me free…

    Thankful and still healing

  2. Wendy November 19, 2010 at 6:56 am #

    Thanks, Anon. Yes, the crickets are chirping. That happens sometimes. It's ok. This isn't the final word on what is or is not a cult. I think people are thinking and processing all across the United States. I just hope that if someone is really struggling with fear and doubt, this will help them realize if their fears are really valid and maybe minister grace to them so that they have confidence to obey their conscience.

  3. jennifer November 19, 2010 at 7:51 am #

    Been in exactly the sort of church that you described. Have been out now for 10 years and by God's grace have found healing in the family of God outside of that culty environment. I still have friends who I am praying for who have turned away from church altogether because of their experiences.

    If anyone reading this post identifies with this post and has been scared to leave such a church, please believe that there are healthy churches and Christians out there and God is good – don't be afraid to seek them out.

  4. Wenatchee the Hatchet November 20, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    A few things about #3 stick with me. A leadership team may display cultish tendencies without going so far as to overuse phrases like “God wants us to do X”. The name of the Lord may not be directly invoked. What we might see instead is an appeal to or a declaration of what is ultimately an unrealistic degree of uniformity in leadership decisions. The verbiage I'm thinking of is “All the pastors are in agreement on X” as a response when members object to something as not having adequate scriptural support or fully explained reasoning.

    Unanimity of leadership decisions does not by itself mean the decision is good. The Sanhedrin unanimously voted to have Jesus killed. A leadership team that often splits 80/20 on issues rather than going 100% is more likely to make healthier organization decisions because that “generally” means the organization is not so driven by a single personality that there is habitually room for dissenting but loyal votes within the leadership. If the church you're at has leadership that says they always agree on everything or on everything that's important and that doesn't refer to a core shared confession on the order of the Nicene Creed at least be cautious. Somewhere, somehow at least most of that leadership team may be fooling themselves.

    #1 is rightly listed as #1. IF you find yourself telling yourself or others that no one is like this or that teacher or preacher and that the leader or the church “gets it” unlike everyone else out there then consider yourself to be the one who thinks he knows something but does not know as he should. If you spend your time defending statements by your leaders that would be indefensible coming from anyone else and that you would repudiate if they DID come from someone else then that's definitely cultish stuff.

  5. Wendy November 20, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    That makes me think. Can you emphasize unity to the point that you can't hear dissent when it is deserved? Certainly. But 80/20 indicates people are dissenting but their concerns are ultimately dismissed before they are satisfied. Unity after vigorous debate seems ideal to me. But you have to slow down to allow that to happen. Maybe 20% dissent because it really is a bad idea (the Canaan spies come to mind).

  6. Wenatchee the Hatchet November 22, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    Maybe, and yet Paul and Barnabas parting ways over whether to bring John Mark with them doesn't mean either man had a wrong idea. It's true that in some cases we can value unity over spirited debate and disagreement and sometimes we can value unity over what may turn out to be God's providential decision to split groups apart because they were less productive together than separated. The 20% who said to invade the land were not heeded, true, but the 80% who said “It can't be done” was part of God's providential judgment on that generation, wasn't it? Sobering, but something we need to remember–even among God's people God can providential ordain that our own failures will haunt us.

    When we find ourselves at #4 and see our identity as wrapped up in the church or ministry we are in then we're not able to see how those churches or ministries have failed because to concede the failure of our ministry or church is to accept, at an often deeply emotional level, that we share in that failure. It then becomes easier and more tempting to shift the blame of that failure on to whomever is not completely on mission or with us in a decision instead of confessing that failure does reflect at least partly on us. We don't really believe the Lord is strong enough and faithful enough to use even our failures to accomplish His will even though Scripture attests to this throughout the narrative books.

  7. Wendy November 22, 2010 at 3:25 am #

    Wow. That's a great last point.

  8. saraharveynyc November 28, 2010 at 2:53 am #

    This resonated, especially: “… when your ministry business or nonprofit that is not a church starts trying to exercise church discipline style control over its people.”

    This happens a lot in particular Christian universities.

  9. redeeminglife February 18, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Wendy, I read this article back in November and was amazed at how it spoke into our situation. We have since left the Church and feel a great deal of relief, but also sadness that it didn't work out. (We just moved cities to join this new Church!)
    The Church we were in was proclaiming Jesus, 'Missional living' 'Gospel intentionality' and so many other hot buzz words that it was hard to see the person centered control at the heart of it all. But God is good, and when we seek Him and love what is right He doesn't leave us unable to act or know truth.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom, please be encouraged to know that God is using it for His own good purposes 😀

  10. la pianista February 20, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    I read this post a long while ago and re-read it again today. I'm a recovering cult member of 55 years and each day is a challenge. I so appreciate the objectivity and plain language you use to describe what was (and still is at times) difficult to apply to what I felt was 'the exception'. I know that God is good; His love is perfect and unconditional. Thank you again for words that bring me back to the truth that I know in my heart.