What Is a Cult?

Paul Derengowski, ThM


Of course, depending on who is asked what a cult is will also depend on the type of response that is received.  For many different persons in many different fields of study define what a cult is according to their particular discipline.  A standard definition that many typically refer to is Webster’s dictionary, which defines a cult in the following manner:

1a) a system of religious worship or ritual  b) a quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices, or beliefs  2a) devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle, or lifestyle, esp. when regarded as a fad [the cult of nudism]  b) the object of such attachment  3 a group of followers; sect. 1

Although such a definition serves to broadly and generally inform an inquirer as to what a cult is, it does not do justice to how the word is used in the various fields of study which deal with cultism more directly.  For example, in the world of social psychology a cult may be defined as:

…a group of people who organize around a strong authority figure. Cults, like many other groups, attempt to expand their influence for the purposes of power or money. However, to achieve these ends, destructive cults employ a potent mixture of influence techniques and deception to attain psychological control over members and new recruits. This fundamental level of control is known alternatively as ‘brainwashing,’ ‘thought reform,’ or ‘mind control.’ A successful induction by a destructive cult displaces a person’s former identity and replaces it with a new one. That new identity may not be one that the person would have freely chosen under her own volition. 2

Or there is the definition provided by the late cult researcher Margaret Thaler Singer who wrote that:

Cults range from the relatively benign to those that exercise extraordinary control over members’ lives and use thought-reform processes to influence and control members.  While the conduct of certain cults causes nonmembers to criticize them, the term cult is not in itself pejorative but simply descriptive.  It denotes a group that forms around a person who claims he or she has a special mission or knowledge, which will be shared with those who turn over most of their decision making to that self-appointed leader. 3

“Cults are not always easy to recognize at first glance,” added Dr. Singer.  “Most people have a general grasp of what a cult is and are aware of the rise of cultic groups in the past decades.  However, what people are not generally aware of is how cults achieve the control of people’s lives that they appear to have.” 4

Conversely, in the world of forensic psychiatry, Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn of the Harvard Medical School defined a cult as, “a group of people who are fanatically dedicated to exercising power at the expense of anyone who is not a member of the cult.”  He explains, “Often cults take the form of worshipping the leader as ‘God’ or worshipping the group members themselves. Both are elements of idolatry, which preceded the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” 5  According to Dr. Bursztajn, such people regularly believe themselves to be superior to those outside the group, and that “Such people are open to being manipulated by people who promise them they will go to heaven by sending everyone who is not a member of the cult to hell.” 6

It is when we turn our attention to the area of theology that the term cult takes on a slightly different nuance.  For while theologians and apologists of the Christian faith are concerned with mind control, brainwashing, and manipulation, what drives their definition of a cult is not sociological or psychological, per sé, as much as it is theological deviation.  In other words, does a particular group either distort or deny the essential doctrines of the Christian faith?  If so, then from a theological point of view one is dealing with a cult.  Therefore, one is likely to see a cult defined in the following theological ways:

A cult…is any religious movement which claims the backing of Christ or the Bible, but distorts the central message of Christianity by (1) an additional revelation, and (2) by displacing a fundamental tenet of the faith with a secondary matter. 7

A cult is a group of people basing their beliefs upon the world view of an isolated leadership, which always denies the central doctrines of Christianity as taught from the Bible. 8

A cult is a religious group which deviates doctrinally from the traditional norm. 9

A cult is not biblical Christianity, which may be loosely defined as the way that people for two thousand years have agreed on such basic concepts as acknowledgment of the Oneness of God the Father, his divine Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who indwells believers; an identifiable point of salvation by grace through faith, followed by a life commensurate with gratitude for that salvation; and belief in the Bible as God’s Word to all people of all ages. 10

…a cult may be briefly defined as ‘a separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity.’ 11

From a purely theological point of view a cult may be defined as a caricature, counterfeit, or imposter of Christianity that has deviated from, distorted, or denied the major, historical, biblical tenets which constitute what Christianity is.  Hence when a Mormon claims that God is an exalted man, and that he lives on a planet nigh unto a star called Kolob, one is dealing with a cultist.  Or, if a Jehovah’s Witness asserts that Jesus is a created being, that he was the archangel Michael before coming to earth, and that Jesus’ body was turned into gases upon ascending back into heaven after his resurrection, and is now Michael once again, then one is dealing with a cultist.  Or, if a Seventh-day Adventist claims that by fulfilling certain legal obligations, which are commensurate with the ideas involving the doctrine of “Investigative Judgment,” that somehow increases their acceptance by God as one of his, then one, again, is dealing with a cultist.

Generally speaking, a relatively easy way to determine whether a particular person is a part of a religious cult is to simply discern what that person believes about God, Jesus, and Salvation.  That principle, however, does not dismiss other doctrines as well, particularly those pertaining to the Bible, the Holy Spirit, Sin, etc.  It merely means that the simplest way to discern cult indoctrination is to listen to what the adherent has to say about God, Jesus, and Salvation.  God, for example, is typically not seen as Triune in nature, Jesus’ deity is frequently denied, and Salvation is often an ad-mixture of quasi-faith and diluted grace plus a heavy amount of personal works and legalistic effort.

The key, though, is discernment, for as it is with any good counterfeit the closer the counterfeit is to looking like the genuine article the more difficult it is to determine the fake from the real McCoy.  Therefore, there are going to be times when discernment will not be realized until certain questions are asked that “go below the surface,” so to speak.  For instance, merely asking a Oneness Pentecostal whether they believe that Jesus was God will only serve to confuse the questioner in later discussions, given the fact that Oneness Pentecostalism advocates a Modalist view of God, or the belief that God manifests himself in three modes, at different times, through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, instead of asking whether the OP believes that Jesus is God, a better question would be, “Does God exist in a Trinitarian relationship, where there are three distinct persons in the godhead who commune with one another harmoniously, as one God?”  The point being, most cults are fairly easy to recognize.  But there are a few with characteristics that are subtle enough to require even more patient attention and understanding before they may be identified.


The question over what a cult is is drawing more and more criticism from our politically correct, eclectic, and pluralistic world.  For who would dare use the “c” word to describe anyone in such an insulting manner?  After all, a cult could be used to describe Christians and Christianity.  So, it is more “Christian” not to label or define anyone or anything as cultic or a cultist, since to do otherwise is to express hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.  However, such contentions are baseless and misguided, and more the product of relativistic thinking than anything else, where the belief is that there is no such thing as right or wrong, truth or error, or black and white.  The Bible, though, is quite clear that cults and cultists existed long before our cultic generation decided that everything should be tolerated when it comes to spirituality.

Throughout Scripture one finds repeated warnings to beware or to avoid becoming associated with persons or groups that espouse theological doctrines and practices which were contrary to the doctrines and practices of God’s people.  In the Old Testament, just prior to the nation of Israel conquering the land, the following command was given: “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations” (Deut. 18:9), with those “detestable things” dealing with divination, witchcraft, spiritism, and mediumship.  Later on, though, one discovers that the nation of Israel failed to heed God’s warnings and became involved in those practices, which resulted in idolatry, corruption, and God’s wrath being poured out on the divided nation of Israel and Judah, as both were eventually carried away into bondage.

In the New Testament we find continual warnings to “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15); “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock…I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28-29); “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Pet. 2:1); “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether or not they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1); “…I felt it necessary to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.  For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4).  The point is, cults and cultists, even though they were called by other names, were as much a part of the New Testament times as they are today, and they need to be identified and steered clear of, not ignored and “tolerated,” simply because they claim to be “Christians.”

Therefore, a theological cult is a deviation away from the basics of what traditional, biblical Christianity has stood for since Christianity’s inception.  Typically, the easiest way to identify a cult or cult member is by simply inquiring into what they believe about God, Jesus, or Salvation.  Some cults and cultists are easier to spot than others, therefore, patience in asking the right questions will go a long way in making a correct evaluation.  Of course, asking the right question implies that the questioner knows the right answer prior to asking. Above all, one must not be intimidated by the politically correct crowd that discourages the use of the word “cult.”  All one must do is understand exactly how the word is used, and to whom it applies.  It is a word that need not be stolen by the cultists, the relativists, and the politically correct, and rendered meaningless just because they do not like knowing that their worldview is cultic itself.  It is a descriptive word that when used specifically can help determine what is faulty belief and who it is that is propagating it.  And that ought to be more important to everyone concerned than kowtowing in fear to those who are more worried about offending someone’s feelings than in merely telling the truth.


  1. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Victoria Neufeldt and David B. Guralnik, eds., 3rd edition (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 337.
  2. Dr. Kelton Rhoads, “Working Psychology,” <http://www.workingpsychology.com/cult.html>
  3. Margaret Thaler Singer, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995), xix-xx.
  4. Ibid., xx.
  5. Stephanie L. Whyche, “The Cult of Terrorism” <http://www.forensic-psych.com/articles/artCultTerrorism.html>
  6. Ibid.
  7. Gordon R. Lewis, Confronting the Cults (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1966), 4.
  8. Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, The Deceivers (San Bernardino: Here’s Life, 1992), 15.
  9. Janis Hutchinson, Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding & Encouraging Ex-Cultists (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994), 13.
  10. Latayne C. Scott, Why We Left a Cult (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 20-21.
  11. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1999), xxii.

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