Recently, I sat watching through blinding tears about a testimony of a young woman who had fled the clutches of a cult. Her retelling of the trauma of both the psychological and spiritual abuse she endured was heart breaking, and it brought to mind that there are many in our own community that are either experiencing that level of abuse now or have in the past.
As someone who has taught Christian world view and is currently teaching it at Evergreen Baptist, I am aware that using the term “cult” can be a dicey issue. Even the mention of the word sparks to life all types of imagery; a charismatic leader, a sect of people secluded in a compound, individuals who color coordinate their dress to express separation and exclusivity. Cults have been and are considered taboo today, but what exactly is a cult? The term “cult” can have many variations but most simply is defined as any group that gathers around a particular set of doctrines that are unorthodox or distort the original doctrines of a religion. In most cases (not all), many popular cults are fashioned around a person or person’s distortion or misinterpretation of the Bible.
In not only altering or twisting the historical and traditional teachings of Christian doctrine, there is also present an incredible sense of hyper-exclusivity. Phrases such as “we are the true witnesses,” “we are the only church of God,” or “we are here to restore the true Church,” are common among these groups. The result of this hyper-exclusivity is that it isolates members and creates in them a deep seated suspiciousness and paranoia. The “us against them” mentality has its most devastating effect in the realm of family. Any organization or group that seeks to isolate family members, or shuns family members because they have either questioned some particular group’s belief or do not share in the practice of the group should be looked at with some concern. How often in pastoral ministry I have heard people who have shared that upon entering a cult, that they were manipulated into severing all ties to their family or those who were born into such group, after being rescued by the grace of God, are unable to communicate with family members who are still participating in such cultic activity. Isolation and separation are two very powerful components in keeping people controlled and produce some of the most damaging effects.
Another aspect of a cult is a preoccupation with outward performance while at the same rejecting genuine spirituality. A performance based relationship with God is a staple of cultic ideology. In other words, that God doesn’t accept me unless I perform certain religious observances or if I stumble in doing so, that God in some way is going to love me less. Now think about the incredible guilt that idea lays on people and the insecurity that can be produced. If my relationship with God is dependent upon me, then there is no relationship. I remember sitting across the table with a woman who was deeply involved in a cultic group and she was going on about all the rules they have, to which I interjected, “What of relationship?” A cultic system distorts the love of God by rejecting its unconditional nature and making it conditional upon the person. The Bible clearly states that “God is love”(1 Jn. 4:8, 16) and this love that God has for people is not contingent upon the recipient, it is freely given out of His very own nature. In other words, there is no amount of outward performance that anyone can do, to merit the love of God.
The truth of God’s acceptance based on the work of Him alone is precisely what individuals who are engaged in a cult need to hear. A relationship with God and deep intimate connection with Him is to be found not in what you do for Him, but by simply trusting what He has done for you. A group that displays a cult-like atmosphere is one that is severely oppressive, manipulative and offers no sense of hope. However the historic expression of Christianity offers the reverse. The Scripture says “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”(2 Cor. 3:17). Reader, do you or does your group express that same liberty? If not, seek it out.