If a group displays one of these seven characteristics, then they are a cult or have cult tendencies.
The following is not to be seen as a commentary on any particular ministry. We are re-posting it from our old website where it was originally posted over a year ago, so that it can be a resource for those who want better understanding of cults.
#1 Opposing critical thinking versus letting people think for themselves
a. Cults: Their members must accept what the cult believes without challenging their doctrines. They do not want their members to think critically for themselves.
b. The Bible: We must all examine each teaching that we hear in the light of Scripture. Do not believe a teaching that you cannot see with your eyes in the Bible. Think for yourself. Do not say, “Our leaders say…” but rather say, “The Bible says…”
“Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thes. 5:21)
c. Christians are exhorted to test the spirits or to discern the spirit behind a teaching.
“Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God.” (1 Jn 4:1)
#2 Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving versus helping them do God’s will
a. Cults: They isolate their people and then reject any who leave. They say that people will be judged by God or will lose God’s best if they leave. Rejection, shunning and warnings of judgment are given. People are taught to make lifelong commitments to the group and/or to seek permission to join another ministry.
b. The Bible: A Leader’s first concern should be for the good of the people he is leading. Therefore, leaders are to help people succeed as they seek to follow God’s will for their own lives, regardless of whether it means joining another ministry. The foundational value is that God owns people, not the leader or the group in which they serve.
#3 Emphasizing special doctrines outside Scripture versus loyalty to Scripture
a. Cults: Cults brainwash their people and emphasize the special revelations of their “anointed” leader who presents himself as having unique insights that no one else has. They claim to be the only way of salvation and that all refusing to join them will be lost.
b. The Bible: We must emphasize the supremacy and infallibility of Scripture as the final authority of truth. We must emphasize the main and plain themes of Scripture: the love of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount lifestyle, prayer, reading the Word, winning the lost, healing the sick, serving others, etc.
#4 Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders versus connecting people to Jesus
a. Cults: Cults require loyalty and devotion to the leaders versus connecting people to Jesus
i. It is very dangerous, in any ministry, when the leader cannot be questioned. Cult leaders are not accountable to anyone, nor do they freely admit their faults or errors; rather, they warn members that they are not to correct the leaders because they “must not touch God’s anointed.”
ii. The leader is seen as being above reproach and is not to be contradicted. Members have an inappropriate loyalty and respect for him.
b. The Bible: Our first loyalty and connection is to Jesus. We serve together with weak and broken leaders who do not have all the answers and who are in need of insight and correction from others.
#5 Dishonoring the family unit versus insisting on the biblical priority of the family unit
a. Cults: Children are taught to be more loyal to the leaders than to their parents. Women are taught to be more loyal to the leaders than to their husbands, and husbands are taught to accept this as normal behavior.
The cult leader seeks to take the place of fathers, mothers or a pastor or authority figure. The members act as dependent children seeking to win the approval of the leaders. Leaders go beyond their God-given authority and manipulate their members.
The members are required to cut ties with their family and friends who do not join the group. They are required to socialize only with other group members.
b. The Bible: The first relational priority of commitment is to one’s marriage, children and parents. The sanctity and identity of one’s family is far more important that the ministry in which they are involved.
#6 Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior versus sexual purity and personal ownership
a. Cults: Cults emphasize special revelations that allow their leaders to cross biblical boundaries in the areas of immorality and finances. They usually insist on owning the money and property of members who “join the community.”
Peter taught that false teachers are most easily detected by covetousness and immorality. “By covetousness they will exploit … having eyes full of adultery … heart trained in covetous practices … They allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness. (2 Pet 2:3-18)
They promote unethical ways to gain money (for example, lying about collecting money for charities that do not exist). Some insist on moral standards for the group, except for the leaders who are called to have “spiritual partners” for the benefit of the movement.
b. The Bible: Sexual purity and private ownership of finances and property. In Acts 4, the disciples laid their money and property at the apostles’ feet as a one-time free will offering, not as a permanent economic arrangement.
#7 Separation from the Church versus a culture of honor towards the whole Church
a. Cults: Cults criticize and exclude the larger Body of Christ and claim to be the only ones truly saved. They separate from the wider Church with an elite spirit, believing that they alone have a special calling and status with God. They have a polarized mentality of “us-versus-them” that causes them to separate from others in the Church and society at large.
They mock and ridicule all beliefs that differ from their own. They dishonor the Body of Christ, viewing all denominations and ministries as being in error.
b. The Bible: We love God by loving the whole Church that is so dear to Him. We are to cultivate a culture of honor in our midst that emphasizes blessing other ministries without criticizing, and a spirit of inclusion without elitism.
We are to bless the budding virtues (that have not yet matured) of all ministries, regardless of their deficiencies and without needing to point out their differences in ministry focus, style and standards of excellence. We all have deficiencies in ministry and need other ministries to show forth the fullness of Christ to our city and nation. The Holy Spirit forbids us to verbalize their deficiencies and differences.
The Scripture makes it clear that there are times to bring righteous judgment to ministries with destructive doctrines and behavior (Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:1-11; 2 Cor. 11:12-15; 1 Thes. 5:14, 21; 2 Thes. 3:6-14; rev. 2:2, 14-15,20). We must do this in the right way and with a right spirit.
All of the above is taken from the Onething 2009 Teaching Notes: What the Spirit is Saying to the Church booklet written by Mike Bickle. You can download the entire booklet here: http://www.ihop.org.edgesuite.net/mikebickle/dl/One_Thing_2009_Teaching_Notes_-_Mike_Bickle_Web_Edition__251371.pdf