Most readers have heard of cults. The very name “cult” may bring to mind a group of people participating in a voodoo type of dance, ready to sacrifice an unwilling participant; or perhaps, a maniacal leader, such as David Koresh or Jim Jones, who brainwashes his victims for personal gain. If this is what cults are, what do we mean by “cultic churches?”
Before we begin to list the marks of a cultic church, we need to first define some key differences between the church, cults, and cultic churches. The church is based upon the teachings and historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. The church’s main mission is found in Jesus’ Great Commission as He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus preached liberation which is ultimately found in God. Jesus did not force someone to accept Him. He openly allowed people to leave His cause as was exemplified in the Rich Young Ruler’s rejection of Jesus. Jesus did not bring secret messages, except for special instructions to His disciples…(but even those special instructions were proclaimed in front of the masses). Jesus openly taught and preached His messages before open crowds. Jesus welcomed adversaries as He bested all of His adversaries in open public forums. Jesus’ primary message was that of love: love for God and love for humanity. Compare this to that of cults.
Cults are aberrations of the truth, focusing exclusively on a human leader, and controlling the adherents of the group for the benefit of a leader or leaders. Jesus went out of His way to serve. Cult leaders desire to be served. Jesus preached the practice of doing for others. Cult leaders desire others to do for them. Jesus preached in public. Cult leaders will generally speak to a small group in private. Jesus welcomes all and allows for His love to be received. Cult leaders trap people and exclude them so that the person can be brainwashed for his/her agenda. Jesus preached love and forgiveness. Cult leaders promote hate and militancy. Jesus backed up His claims with real miracles and acts of wonder. Cult leaders claim they can do amazing things, but never back them up. Furthermore, the Bible is backed up by archaeology and history. Cult leaders base their ideology on people and events that can NOT be proven. Get the picture?
Cultic Churches are churches that have sound theology (orthodoxy) but do not have sound practice (orthopraxy). Cultic churches may range on the borderline of being called an orthodox church (right belief…not the denomination) to being on the borderline of becoming a cult. Cultic churches exist regardless of denomination. Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Pentecostal churches, and Presbyterian churches could be called cultic churches if they have the following qualifiers, or marks:
1. Cultic Churches are Focused on Leaders Instead of the Lord.
Cultic churches generally have one of the marks of cults in that the organization focuses more on a leader than on the Lord God. The leader is celebrated and praised to unhealthy levels in a cultic church. The service may revolve completely around him. The problem in such cases is that the leader is proclaiming himself instead of the Lord. This is a HUGE threat to the integrity of a church. If a leader, or group of leaders (such as elders, deacons, etc.) claims sole authority to the church, then the church is not following the leadership of the Lord, but that of humanity.
Every church will need to have leadership. This is why God calls pastors, elders, deacons, and so forth. It can be tricky deciphering this trait at some times. If the leadership is seeking the will of the Lord and following the Lord’s direction, then the church or organization does not have this mark. However, if the leadership speaks more about their wants and desires than that of the Lord, then the organization could fit the description of a cultic church.
Charismatic leaders (not speaking of spiritual gifts but of enthusiasm and attractiveness) may bring large crowds to a church. But if the leader is not promoting the worship of God and promoting the leader only, then it may be that the leader is not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ but the Gospel of (enter leader’s name). The cultic church may be a large church and may have a lot of notoriety. But if God is not being glorified, the church is not really a place of worship.
2. Cultic Churches are Focused on Church Instead of the Commission.
Cultic churches become focused more on the inner workings of the church than that of the Great Commission. It is easy for such an establishment to become a cross-wearing-community-club if the church focuses on those of the congregation more than those of the community. Jack Gentry, a former Director of Missions in our local Baptist association, said, “Churches need to strive to adhere to the 50/50 model. Spend 50% of their time focused on the membership of the church and spend 50% of their time focused on the lost in the community.” This is true. The membership of a church does need attention, indeed. But the problem arises when a church spends the majority, if not all, of its’ time focused only on the laity instead of on the lost.
3. Cultic Churches are Focused on Laws Instead of the Lost.
Cultic churches can become ultra-legalistic. Ultra-legalists become like the ancient Pharisees; focused on the letter of the law instead of on the persons being affected. Jesus fought against this type of mentality during His earthly ministry. The Christian should fight against this mentality, too. Often, atheists arise from churches that focus more on the length of one’s hair, the style of dress, or the amount of facial hair instead of on the soul of the person.
Let us be honest. A fish cannot be cleaned before it is caught. A Christian cannot expect a lost sinner to automatically act like a Christian the first time the sinner sets foot in a church. That would be like expecting a kindergartener to master calculus before learning to count. Invite the lost in. Preach the gospel. Let the Spirit of God do the cleaning.
4. Cultic Churches are Focused on Traditions Instead of the Truth.
Traditions are good things. I am a traditional type of guy. I enjoy many of the Christmas traditions that my family and I have…and some which we have started. I enjoy the many Easter traditions…especially the sunrise service which is one of my favorite services of the year. However, problems begin to arise when we allow the traditions of man to surpass the truth of God. Isaiah, quoting God, wrote,
Then the Lord said,
“Because this people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote,
Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous;
And the wisdom of their wise men will perish,
And the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.” (Isaiah 29:13-14).
Should we not be focused primarily on the truth of God’s word? Yes indeed. As Dr. Randy Kilby said in his final message before going to be with the Lord, “Some will say, ‘Now preacher, if such and such person knew about this, they would roll over in their graves.’ I tell you that if God is calling you to do something that they might not approve…let ’em twirl!” To that I say, preach on Dr. Kilby…preach on!!!
5. Cultic Churches are Focused on Culture Instead of the Cause.
The culture in which is addressed may be twofold: culture of the times and/or the culture of the church. More times than not, churches that become “cult-like” are more focused on the culture of the church. In other words, the congregants and leadership only seek to attract people like themselves. They become complacent and are not concerned with reaching souls as much as keeping up a certain culture. It must be said that God uses different churches to reach different people. Nonetheless, this should not stop a Christian from inviting someone of a different race or background. It may be that the person’s native tongue is different than yours. But consider this, Jesus’ primary languages were Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. So if you are only seeking after English speakers, you would exclude the One who saved you in the first place!!! We should not allow socio-economics to play a role either. Every person is special to God whether the person has a bank account of $2.5 billion dollars or $2.50. Do not become focused on what the person can do for your church as much as what God can do through them.
6. Cultic Churches are Focused on Past Instead of the Present.
As time moves on, it is easy to remember the past. This is a healthy endeavor. However, if one is stuck in the past, problems begin to arise. This is also true of churches. Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12). Do not stop working for the Lord. God may have blessed you in the past, but God still holds blessings for you in the present and in the future. If we spend all of our time in the past, we cannot be used in the present to transform the future. God has chosen to use you in a mighty way. Will you cooperate with the workings of God in your life? Will your church? Cultic churches become useless because they live in the perceived “good ol’ days.” But, if we believe the teachings of Christ, the “good ol’ days” are still ahead.
7. Cultic Churches are Focused on Grumbling Instead of Gratefulness.
The Psalmist writes of the children of Israel while in the wilderness, “Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe in His word, but grumbled in their tents; they did not listen to the voice of the LORD.” (Psalm 106:24-25). Cultic churches become like the children of Israel. They forget the blessings that God has bestowed upon them and focus on what they do not have. They begin to covet what God has given others. Pressed far enough, a grumbling attitude can become disastrous. Many of those in the wilderness were not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of their constant grumbling. There is great power in thanksgiving. One needs not wait until the November holiday before giving thanks. The Christian should give thanks to God every day of his/her life. The church should, as well. Do we spend our time in worship wishing we had more, or do we spend our time in worship adoring and thanking God for all the blessings of life? Churches become cultic when they focus on the “have nots” rather than the “haves.”
8. Cultic Churches are Focused on Accomplishments Instead of Adoration.
Finally, cultic churches spend their time focused more on individual and corporate accomplishments and accolades rather than spending time adoring the Lord. This becomes dangerous. It is dangerous because the attention is taken away from God and is placed in humanity. This does not mean that we should not brag on the Lord for what the Lord does for us. But, this does mean that we should keep things in proper perspective. For it is the Lord who saved us, called us, abides with us, communes with us, and directs our paths. God is the one who brings people to us. God is the one who blesses us. So, we do not save anyone. God does. So instead of spending one’s time praising the self, the person and church should praise the Lord God of heaven and earth…the maker of the universe…the Mind behind all the laws of nature…the Founder of time…the Great God Almighty!!!
If your church has one or two of these traits, it may not be that your church is cultic. However, if your church has a multitude of these traits…or all of these traits…it is likely that your church has become cultic. Two things can be done. One, you can seek to reform the church. You may need to speak to the leadership of the church, prepared with scripture to back up your claims, and in a Christ-like manner expose the problems of the church. It could be that some things are operating in ways that you did not know which may mean that the church did not actually possess the traits you thought that it had. But, if reform is not possible, it may be that you need to pray and seek another church where God is glorified and praised.
At the heart of it all, the difference between churches walking in the pathway of God and churches that have become cultic or cult-like is the area of focus. Is the church focused on service to God and others, or is the church focused on serving themselves? The reader has read the following information from this writer several times. Yet, it seems like many cannot keep their focus on what is really important. Like most things, the difference of focus between evangelical churches and cultic churches boils down to the adherence of the two great commandments given by Jesus, quoted from the Hebrew Bible, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ “This is the great and foremost commandment. “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40). If churches and individuals would focus on these two commandments, we would have a lot less problems and would not even need to worry about churches becoming cult-like.
What’s the big deal with cultic churches? For one, cultic churches do not place the focus on God the way they should. This lack of focus brings the second major problem with cultic chruches into full view. If cultic churches do not place their focus on God and place their focus on themselves, it would be very easy for cultic churches to evolve into cults. Many cult leaders did not arise from outside the church, but from inside the church (for example, Jim Jones tried to become a Methodist minister but was kept from the ministry by a mandatory psychological exam issued by the United Methodist Church for all upcoming ministers). We must keep our focus on God and remain true to biblical truths. If we surrender to the lordship of Christ and the authority of God, we will be able to spot cultic practices and cult-like teachings before we are influenced by their false dogma.
For more information concerning cults and cultic churches, see “Cults, Characteristics of” by Ed Hindson in The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), edited by Ergun Caner and Ed Hindson.
 Jack Gentry, Annual Conference, Yadkin Baptist Association. October, 2010.
 Randy Kilby, “Laughing With the Trumpets,” West Lenoir Baptist Church. February 11, 1997.
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).