How Do I Know If I’m in a Cult?

Hey there friend. I hope its morbid curiosity that helped you find this blog piece. I hope its not that you, a friend or family member is questioning whether a group you are involved in is a cult. Because that is hard stuff. If it’s the latter, you have my sympathy. This piece is not written to brand a particular group or church a cult, and it’s really not for me to be labelling individual groups anyway. Often people’s own research can just come up with personal, subjective and heartbreaking stories that don’t offer much in terms of solid, objective thought. But after the veritable inundation of questions I’ve received, I thought it time to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) and answer a few questions about what a cult is and isn’t. It comes from reading, and research. It is not an expose of personal experiences and I’m not an expert.  Read that sentence again. Good? Now…I hope this helps you think through the challenges.

“Cult” is a term I hear thrown around a lot these days. Many, many churches get branded this. As a Christian, and a participating member of a wonderful, healthy church, this saddens me because I see the beautiful reward of participating in healthy spirituality and community. But I also see the damage unhealthy churches and groups do. It can be significant, to say the least.

There are a lot of things that a cult isn’t. But if you Google it, you might find a whole lot of personal stories that don’t bring any real structure to what you are thinking, feeling or fearing. I hope this series can help. I say series, because its not a one-post wonder. It’s a complicated topic and you need space to ponder and possibly plan. The topics will be spaced out a bit, because friend, Mamma’s gotta write this stuff! They’ll be as follows:

  1. Risk Factors for Cultism
  2. Key characteristics of cults (You’ll get this one today too. Bonus!)
  3. Cult Commonalities
  4. So I’m in a cult. What next?
  5. What to look for in a healthy church – the Kit Kennedy Opinion

At the end of each article, there will be a link showing you how to clear your web browser history as one aspect of cult life may include control of information and access to it. I’ve got your back. Now for topic number one:

Risk Factors for Cultism

We live in an era where non-denominational churches, or independent churches are on the rise. You don’t need a reference for that. It’s obvious. We also live in an era where some pastors are promoted without solid theological credentials. In my opinion, this gives us a few areas wide open for toxic or unhealthy churches to develop. We used to know what a church believed based on its name. Catholic/Anglican/Salvation Army/Baptist/Lutheran/Methodist etc. Now we have churches with increasingly vague names. We don’t know what they believe, although their marketing can be pretty slick. Sadly, in some cases, their own members aren’t clear on the doctrines they do or don’t believe. These things concern me deeply because:

  • Many cults exist as independent groups, or groups outside of denominational organisational structures. There is little or no accountability or grievance structure, or they are able to hide their illegitimate activities from the chain of command. Then there are groups like Scientology but that shit’s just next level. (Watch Going Clear if you need more on that sad case)
  • Where people do not have strong theological training, credentials or dedication to learning, pseudo-Biblical or extra-Biblical “theologies” can develop. This has the potential to twist the truth of the Bible into something more sinister or damaging – even if it sounds enticing on the surface. My personal fear is that, in an age where we can all have Bibles on our shelves or on our phones, Biblical literacy and solid knowledge of doctrine isn’t necessarily any better than it ever was. “Convenient” does not always equal “informed.”
  • Names can be used to camouflage the true nature of groups. Where true allegiances aren’t obvious, members can be left grasping for what the truth actually is.
  • Its important to note that not all cults are harmful. Some centre on self-improvement and can help boost someone’s self-esteem or connection. It’s the job of loving family and friends to keep a watchful, caring eye over whether the person is falling more and more under coercive or unhealthy control. Love them. Keep in contact.

(If you want a book that spells this all out, check out “Cults, too good to be true” by Raphael Aron.” Link below.)

It’s important to note, before we get into the guts of this, what doesn’t constitute a cult.

  • If you have been to a church and had a negative experience, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a cult. You have my sympathies, as a negative experience in a church can be a profoundly damaging experience. I’m sorry to say it doesn’t always mean they’re a cult though.
  • If their belief system doesn’t sit well with you, or if you’ve had a clash with leadership, that doesn’t mean they’re a cult. Different strokes and all that.
  • A church may have toxic or unhealthy aspects, but may not be a cult. There are very specific set of characteristics that makes up a cult. I’d encourage you to read through the  list in the blog post that follows this one (linked below), and have a good think about it. If you are in a toxic/unhealthy church, or a church that isn’t a good fit for you, then I encourage you to move on and find a healthy one that is a good fit for you. We all need to find our spiritual home.

The term “cult” has now been largely superseded in modern literature with the term “high-demand group.” I have issues with this, as it seems altogether too simplistic, but I concede that the term needed to change because of one key issue: not all cults are religious. Self-help groups, multi-level marketing businesses, and even normal businesses can also be cults. If you are looking for good information, you may need to include the term “high demand group” in your search. I’m going to focus on the churchy kind of stuff in this series, because otherwise it all gets too broad.

I’ve heard  it said that Christian groups can’t be cults. This is absolutely untrue. Pseudo-Christian cults exist (Again, I’ll point you to Raphael Aron’s book). Again, it’s a matter of looking at the eight characteristics I’m about to show you (as a starting point!)

These eight points are from an authoritative work by a well-respected psychiatrist, but it is not the exhaustive list on cults. It is the best, most structured list I’ve come across though.

I listened to a Ted Talk recently where the speaker, a cult survivor, offered up a point all pre-exiting cult members should note: a cult will never say it’s a cult. If you think you are in one, then asking a member of leadership if your group is a cult will result in the answer “No.”

Do think carefully before you ask this question of anyone inside your group. This could put you at risk of shunning or of further control measures. If you are questioning, I’d advise against doing it out loud just yet.

Okay! That’s the necessary starting point. Now onto the second topic. Get yourself a cuppa. Breathe and click here to access the next post with the meaty stuff…

(And here’s how to clear your browser history if you need to )



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