Cults: When churches go very, very wrong.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 June 2022
CULT kəlt noun. A religion centered on one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controling, abusive, devilish, or just plain strange.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.
[Cultic 'kəl.tɪk adjective, cultish 'kəl.tɪʃ adjective, cultism 'kəl.tiz.əm noun.]

I throw this word “cult” around a lot, so I’d better define it. First, what other folks mean by “cult,” all of which are included in the above definition:

  • Sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists whose job descriptions end in -ist, tend to use definition #1: A cult is any religion with a guru in charge. Not necessarily controling, abusive, or devilish; just a group which follows a person. Technically Christianity falls under this definition: We follow Jesus, right?
  • Popular culture leans towards definition #2: A cult is any creepy religion. If it weirds people out in any way, they just call it a cult. Even if it’s Christianity. If we trust Jesus a little too much for their comfort, they call us cultish.
  • And popular Christian culture leans towards definition #4: A cult is any heretic church.

The popular Christian definition originated when Charles S. Braden used it, in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. It’s a book I oughta plug, since it’s mighty useful: It explains how certain churches deviate from orthodox Christianity.

But thanks to these guys, when an Evangelical Christian says “cult,” they typically mean “heretic.”

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals don’t believe God’s a trinity. So they’d be cults.
  • Latter-Day Saints say Jesus (and for that matter the Father) is a created being. So, cult.
  • Christian Scientists claim death is an illusion, and therefore Jesus didn’t literally die: Cult.
  • Muslims and Buddhists don’t even believe Jesus is God: Cults.

Yep, doesn’t even matter if these groups don’t consider themselves Christian. Evangelicals will freely slap that label “cult” on any religion they consider heretic. Depending on how Fundamentalist they get—by which I mean how narrowly they define orthodoxy—everything can be a cult but their group. I grew up in such churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church lets ’em, they’ll call you a cult. Because their religion is so strict, makeup is orthodoxy, and you aren’t orthodox. Today it’s foundation, eyeshadow, blush, and lipstick; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course if your church is that strict and controling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (If you don’t mind me mixing a few metaphors there.)

Totalitarian churches.

The definition I go with, is the one popular culture has adopted. If any church is too strict and controling, they’re a cult. Because God’s kingdom runs on grace. And if your church doesn’t do grace, it doesn’t matter how orthodox it might be in every other area: It’s not following God. It fits squarely with James’s statement,

James 2.18-19 NET
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.

Evil spirits know who God is. Which, weirdly enough, makes them orthodox. But they don’t follow God: Their orthodoxy doesn’t stop ’em from being evil, and from leading people astray. Cults are the very same deal. They may have all the correct beliefs about God, and teach ’em. But don’t do as they do—precisely as Jesus said about Pharisees.

Matthew 23.1-7 NET
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ ”

Pharisees were notorious for their loopholes, and used ’em to break the Law whenever they wished. But as far as orthodoxy was concerned, they were orthodox. Their God really was the One God, Jesus’s Father, the LORD. You can listen to their teachings… but their example was crap. And certain Christian churches may not be heretic, but their example is likewise crap. They’re not following God properly. They’re cults.

Any church who’s too controling—who see it as their job to make us behave ourselves, not the Holy Spirit’s—is a cult. And by this definition, many a Fundamentalist church is a total cult. Many other churches as well. Sometimes they’re hidden in plain sight in your own denomination.

They get away with it ’cause they’re orthodox: They believe in the trinity, in Christ Jesus’s death and resurrection and atonement, in all the basic creedal stuff. But they also believe whenever Pastor, or one of the elders, or Dad, or any leader, tells ’em to jump, you better ask how high… or you just might not be saved.

That there’s a cult. They’re a far bigger problem, far more destructive, than heretic churches. Some heretics follow Jesus’s example way better than these legalists do. (Mormons are an obvious example.) Whereas control-freak churches don’t. They lack all his fruit; they’re graceless, impatient, easily outraged, quick to divide, quick to encourage immoral solutions to anything they consider a problem. They dismiss the fact they’re fruitless as if it doesn’t matter. Yet according to Jesus, it absolutely matters.

Theologian Roger E. Olson is hesitant to use the word “cult” for such groups. Partly because they might sue. “Cult” is considered defamation by a number of churches—and yeah, if they’re not really a cult, that’s fair to push back when someone calls you one. Hence Olson goes with the term “Totalistic, Aberrational, Christian Organizations”TACO for short. I’ll quote him:

So here are my suggestions for behaviors that should cause people to RUN from a congregation EVEN IF it is perfectly orthodox doctrinally and even though its reputation is evangelical:

  1. Condoning (including covering up) sexual abuse or sexual immorality of leaders within itself.
  2. Silencing honest and constructive dissent.
  3. Treating leaders as above normal ethical standards, above questioning.
  4. Implying that “true Christianity” belongs to it alone or churches in its network.
  5. Using intense methods of “discipleship training” that involve abuse of persons–including, but not limited to, teaching them they must absolutely lose their own individuality and sense of personal identity in order to become part of an “army” (or whatever) of Christ and using methods of sensory deprivation, brainwashing and/or abject obedience to human authority.
  6. Teaching (often by strong implication) that without the church, especially without the leaders, members lose their spiritual connection to God. […]
  7. Simply closing itself off from all outside criticism or accountability by implying to its members that the “whole world” outside the church is evil.
  8. Falling into magical, superstitious beliefs and practices such as “spiritual warfare” with an emphasis on destroying all of a certain kind of object because objects “shaped like that” are often inhabited by demons. […]
  9. The pastor literally owning the church lock, stock and barrel. Olsen, “TACOs, anyone?”

These are standout symptoms of greater problems. I tend to lump the underlying problems into these two categories: Fruitlessness and legalism.

Granted, you’re gonna find levels of fruitlessness and legalism in every church. ’Cause nobody’s perfect. We’re all gonna struggle with that, as we grow in Christian maturity. But when the church is structured so that legalism’s important, and in such a way as to demand, defend, or hide the fruitlessness, you’ve got a cult on your hands. Like Olsen said, run.

Cultish behaviors aren’t really the sort of things which’ll come up in a church’s faith statement. You might see hints of it on the church’s website. Casual activities, like a church picnic, where people are dressed way too formally. A whole page on church discipline… ’cause apparently they gotta discipline people a little too often. Or the pastor has a blog on his church’s doctrines, but his church has way more mandatory beliefs than Christendom.

Generally you won’t realize the church is a cult till you’ve visited a few times and noticed the aberrant behavior. It’s why I point out, when we’re church-shopping, look at the fruit. If it’s not there, something’s very wrong.


As you know, Christians must produce fruit of the Spirit. No fruit, no Jesus. Period. In a cult, instead of fruit you’ll typically find these things:

  • They love no one but their own. Often not even their own.
  • No joy. Not for long, anyway. When someone’s experiencing true joy, someone will get it into their heads it has some kind of sinful component to it, and squelch it.
  • No peace; no trust; loads of fear. Fear of the devil. Fear of the End Times. Fear of the government. Fear of other religions. Fear of foreigners. Fear of false teachings. Fear of popular music and mass media. You name it, they fear it. That’s why all the guns and secret basements and bonfires. And secruity guards, ’cause the pastor fears the people.
  • They’re jerks. Unkind, impolite, impatient, ungenerous, rude.
  • Everything’s a secret. If you join the church, you gotta sign a non-disclosure agreement; if you leave, they remind you you’re in big trouble if you disclose anything. All sorts of evil thereby takes place, and they hush it up. If you find out about it, and try to put a stop to any of it, you’re in trouble. Especially when you spread the news outside the church, or involve police.
  • While the rank and file will practice some degree of self-control (not out of following Jesus, but for fear of getting in trouble), the leadership won’t bother. They don’t control their emotions, their spending, their eating, their fornicating, their sins. But they definitely try to control you.
  • Zeal, a work of the flesh, Ga 5.20 is called a fruit, and highly praised. They’ll fight anyone for Jesus. Usually verbally. Sometimes physically. They “love” him so much, they’ll beat the devil out of you.
  • Knowledge is also called a fruit. Growing up, I had so many people assume I was a strong Christian ’cause I knew my bible, and knew all the stuff my church taught. Made it really easy to get away with hypocrisy.

Notice without the fruit—without the love, joy, grace, and goodness—all the relational elements are gone. Churches are meant to be a support system where Christians can love one another, do for one another, encourage one another, support one another. In a cult, that’s all gone. All that’s left is the usual dog-eat-dog, crush-or-be-crushed, survival-of-the-fittest principles of our fallen universe. All that’s left are rules. Hence all the legalism. It’s the only thing left, the rotting corpse once you’ve ripped the soul out.


People who can’t and won’t control themselves, often try to compensate by controling others. So cult leaders are very particular about enforcing rules. Punishments get harsh. Grace is rare, or non-existent: Grace, they figure, is a one-time deal, a one-time event: It’s God, at the End, forgiving the Christians as he destroys the deserving wicked. But in the meanwhile, don’t you be wicked.

Cult leaders tend to be exceptionally orthodox. For three reasons. The main one is because they use definition #4 to define “cult”: A cult isn’t orthodox. And they’re totally orthodox. So they’re clearly no cult.

The second is their fake fruit. They’ve no real fruit to point to, so they point to their “bible knowledge” and “sound doctrine” (which ain’t all that sound, but they do their darnedest to make it sound plausible to the people of their church) and have all the correct answers to all the important questions. As if there’s gonna be a quiz at the Pearly Gates.

Which brings us right to the third reason, faith-righteousness: They believe they’re saved by faith, not grace. (Their actions surely demonstrate they don’t understand how grace works!) And when they talk about “faith,” they don’t mean the trust we put in God; they mean the things we personally believe. They mean our religion. So when they claim “We’re saved by faith,” they actually mean “We’re saved by orthodoxy.” There is a quiz at the Pearly Gates, and if you don’t get the doctrine right, you’re going to hell.

Yep, that’s why all the legalism. Anybody who colors outside the lines is probably undoing their salvation. Hence:

  • Comprehensive rules about everything. Everything. Far more rules than there are in the scriptures. No room for free will. It’s all about the leadership’s God’s will. They overload people with rules specifically to break their will.
  • Broken a rule? Churches forgive, but cults hand down punishments. Again, meant to break the will. Therefore they never fit the crime. They’re deliberately excessive.
  • Way too easy to get in trouble. Especially since you’re expected to shun former church members… and they’re everywhere in your town. Feels like there are more ex-members than members.
  • Rules never apply to leaders. You might think you’re allowed to disagree with them—they might claim they’re not infallible, and invite people to correct them when you find they’ve made an error. But if you dare do it, they’ll never trust you again. They’re above question, comment, critique, and dissent. Best to just agree with them on everything. Even trivial stuff: If Pastor says vanilla is the best ice cream, the matter’s closed. It’s doctrine now.
  • Leaders aren’t just treated like God anointed them; the prevalent attitude is that without these specific leaders, you’d go to hell. (And for that matter, the rest of the world is going to hell.)
  • People aren’t just kicked out of the church for sinning. They’re booted for opposing the leadership in any actions, attitudes, or statements. Like I said, way too easy to get in trouble.
  • The rules seem awfully arbitrary. The “bible principles” which back ’em up are ridiculously stretched.
  • Only leaders get to decide which other Christian influences are acceptable. And they don’t do gray areas. If the leaders approve of Christianity Today, you can read their website; otherwise it’s forbidden. If they approve of Focus on the Family, you can get their books and listen to their radio show; otherwise it’s off-limits. If they like a Christian musician, you can listen to them; otherwise they’re from the devil, and if their albums are on your iPod, you gotta delete them. If the leaders think Catholics are okay, you can work alongside them; otherwise treat them like heretics ’cause they’re going to hell. And so forth.
  • Spiritual warfare is also arbitrary: Things are “demonic” for unbiblical, irrational reasons. Ordinary sins are “demonic,” and require long, drawn-out interventions, even exorcisms. (Often they’re really punishments disguised as spiritual warfare.)

Obviously my lists aren’t comprehensive. But you get the idea. They’re entirely orthodox, and proud of it, but their religion is horribly flawed. The relationships they have with Jesus, with one another, with other Christians, and with the bible, will be horribly unhealthy and wrong.

So… how cultlike are we?

Humans are creatures of extremes, and sometimes we Christians get awfully extreme in our devotion to Jesus. This is why I get these questions from time to time: Can we overdo it on religion? Is it possible to be too devout? Can we get, as the popular phrase puts it, “so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good”?

When we’re following Jesus properly, and fruitfully, it’s not possible. Jesus came to save the world, Jn 3.16 so he’s absolutely earthly good. The Holy Spirit produces kindness, goodness, and gentleness. Whereas cults aren’t kind, good, nor gentle. They stick to covered-up works of the flesh: Hostility towards other Christians and “sinners,” quarreling, jealousy over other churches’ “success,” angry outbursts, selfishness, dissension, division and separation, and a focus on controling others.

When we read the gospels, one of the things we immediately notice is how the only folks Jesus alienated were Pharisees and Sadducees. Mainly because their religions butted heads with Jesus’s teachings. Exactly like us Christians, Pharisees got fixated on minor things, used loopholes to escape major things, and suffered from lots of hypocrisy. Sadducees, on the other hand, were compromised heretics.

Jesus didn’t butt heads with these religions because he couldn’t save them. Of course he could. He can save anyone. The real problem was neither group believed a thing he said. They were so focused on getting everything just right (as they defined “right”), they entirely missed their Messiah. Same as some of us Christians do.

Look at Jesus. He attracts sinful people, and doesn’t shun them, nor spend so much time religious activities he has no time for them. He has rules, but he’s nowhere near as hung up about them as we are, and typically forgives instead of punishes. A Christian who’s following Jesus properly, should be just as attractive to others as Jesus. Period.

So… how’re we doing?