What are some signs and practices of a cult?

by Matt Slick

There have been many serious studies on the dynamics of cults and behavior of people within those cults. Following is a representative list of characteristics common in cult groups. Not all cults hold to every item. 

We have to be careful when assigning cult-like behavior to any group. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so to, cult-like behavior is subjective. Generally, it takes a trained person who can identify unhealthy patterns and teachings as compared to healthy ones and can then identify a cult.  Furthermore, cult-like behavior is more commonly identified through excessive control, manipulation, and esoteric teaching of a group where the group's members are often isolated and indoctrinated into special teachings and practices.

Social aspects of cult-like behavior

For a group to be a cult in the social sense, many of the following characteristics would have to be present. For a group to be a cult in the doctrinal sense, essentials (in this case of the Christian faith) would have to be violated. Some of the characteristics are listed below.

  1. Submission
    1. Complete, almost unquestioned trust in the leadership. 
    2. Leaders are often seen as prophets, apostles, or special individuals with unusual connections to God. This helps a person give themselves over psychologically to trusting someone else for their spiritual welfare.
    3. Increased submission to the leadership is rewarded with additional responsibilities and/or roles, and/or praises, increasing the importance of the person within the group.
  2. Exclusivity
    1. Their group is the only true religious system, or one of the few true remnants of God's people.
  3. Persecution complex
    1. Us against them mentality. Therefore, when someone (inside or outside of the group) corrects the group in doctrine and/or behavior, it is interpreted as persecution, which then is interpreted as validation.  
  4. Control
    1. Control of members' actions and thinking through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of salvation, or a place to live, or receiving curses from God, etc.
  5. Isolation
    1. Minimizing contact of church members with those outside the group. This facilitates a further control over the thinking and practices of the members by the leadership.
  6. Love Bombing
    1. Showing great attention and love to a person in the group by others in the group, to help transfer emotional dependence to the group.
  7. Special Knowledge
    1. Instructions and/or knowledge are sometimes said to be received by a leader(s) from God. This leader then informs the members.
    2. The Special Knowledge can be received through visions, dreams, or new interpretations of sacred scriptures such as the Bible.
  8. Indoctrination
    1. The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, but the indoctrination usually occurs around Special Knowledge.
  9. Salvation
    1. Salvation from the judgment of God is maintained through association and/or submission with the group, its authority, and/or its Special Knowledge.
  10. Group Think
    1. The group's coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.
    2. There is an internal enforcement of policies by members who reward "proper" behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion and acceptance by the group.
  11. Cognitive Dissonance
    1. Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.
    2. Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group's belief system.
  12. Shunning
    1. Those who do not keep in step with group policies are shunned and/or expelled.
  13. Gender Roles
    1. Control of gender roles and definitions.
    2. Severe control of gender roles sometimes leads to sexual exploitation.
  14. Appearance Standards
    1. Often a common appearance is required and maintained. For instance, women might wear prairie dresses, and/or their hair in buns, and/or no makeup, and/or the men might all wear white short-sleeved shirts, and/or without beards, or all wear beards.


Doctrinal aspects of a cult

Since CARM is a Christian-based ministry (statement of faith) it holds to the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Therefore, deviation from any of the doctrinal essentials as defined by the Bible would qualify a group as being a cult. The essentials of the Christian faith, as revealed in Scripture, are as follows:

  1. The Deity of Christ
    1. Jesus is God in flesh (John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14). See also John 1:1, 14; 8:24; 10:30-33; 20:28; Col. 2:9; Phil. 2:5-8; Heb. 1:8
  2. Salvation by grace through faith alone
    1. Romans 3:28; 4:1-5; 5:1; Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 3:21;5:3-5
  3. The physical resurrection of Christ
    1. John 2:19-21; 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17; John 20:25-28; Luke 24:39
  4. The Gospel, as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus
    1. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Galatians 1:8-9
  5. Monotheism
    1. Exodus 20:3-6; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6, 8
  6. Trinity
    1. Though the Trinity is not explicitly defined in Scripture and stated to be a necessity, it is a logically necessary doctrine since it properly describes the true nature of God.
    2. Matt. 3:16-17; 28:19; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:4-6
  7. Virgin Birth
    1. The Virgin birth is an essential to the Christian faith since without it, the true nature of the incarnation of Christ could not be scripturally maintained and it could not be said that Jesus is deity.
    2. Matthew 1:23





About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.