When I first got saved and joined a small Bible church that was not part of a denomination my friends were concerned that I had joined a cult. The church was small (50 or so attendees), we met in a school hall, the pastor was a foreigner (any American teaching just smelled suspicious), and we had a lengthy membership process, part of which required baptism because my “mainstream” Catholic christening didn’t count. It also included signing a document that said I understood the practice of church discipline, resulting in excommunication for violating Scripture. In retrospect, I can sympathize with their concerns. My beliefs and behavior altered, and albeit for the better, it still seemed radical. I attended three Bible studies a week, two services on a Sunday, and listened to countless hours of John MacArthur tapes. I started dating a girl in the church who had refused to date me while I was Catholic. I can see what this looked like. At one point the pressing concerns of a close friend of mine caused me to pause and consider: is my church a cult?
I asked a friend in another church how I could know is my church a cult. I have been asked the same question by others, and I’ve had Christian parents enquire how they can know if the church their college-aged child has got involved in is a cult or not.
First, let me say that the mere fact that you are asking the question is a good sign. Even if someone in my own (Baptist) church asked me if we were a cult I would not be offended but encouraged. It signals that the person is thinking critically about their faith, rather than accepting it based on an authority figure spoon feeding (or worse: force feeding) it to them. I would also recommend to the enquirer that they not accept my answer as final either, but that they read widely and research other sources to check what I say.
Also, bear in mind that cultic patterns occur on a spectrum. The more characteristics your church exhibits, the more concerned you should be. And just because a group is missing one or two of these traits does not mean it is a safe spiritual place. If your church or small group might not be a cult, while still exhibiting cultic behavior, you should address this with the leadership.
Is My Church a Cult – 5 Characteristics:
1. An Authoritative, Unaccountable Leader.
Be concerned if the leader is not held to the same standards as the members or if members don’t question the leader’s teaching or behavior, or if he/she is not held to the same standards as the members are.
2. A Source of Doctrine Outside the Bible.
Cultic groups always have an outside source of revelation they appeal to (writing or “prophecies”). This is how they add to or re-interpret biblical doctrine. Any authoritative “new revelation” that other churches don’t have is an indicator of cultism.
3. Subtle or Overt Isolation of Members.
Overt isolation is when they want you to break off contact with your parents/friends outside the church. They may ask you to move to a new location. They discourage research outside of their group’s authorized material. They create distrust of any outside source. They may, for example, warn that Satan has corrupted everything out there, including Bible translations and church history books.
Subtle isolation occurs through introducing new jargon and definitions to words that only insiders understand. This causes a member to think, “Oh, the others just don’t understand what we’re saying, that is why they think we are a cult.” A newcomer slowly starts to feel more like an insider as they pick up the jargon, e.g. “We don’t say “good luck” we say “good providence.”
4. Control Over Members’ Decisions.
Church leaders shouldn’t have authority over their members, outside of Scripture. In other words, leaders may not create new rules or make life decisions for members. Leaders should counsel and give advice from God’s word, and even from experience and common sense. But if the member decides not to heed the counsel, they should be free to do what they choose if it is not sinful. And sin is defined by the Bible, not the leader.
For example, a leader can counsel you to seek employment that permits more time with your family. But he may not tell you to quit your job, under threat of excommunication.
5. Claims of Exclusivity.
The essential characteristic of cults is that they claim to have a special corner on the gospel, and thus be the only way to salvation. This can be overt, such as with Mormons (who say non-Mormons go to Hell), or it can be subtle. Subtle exclusivity is saying that “there are other churches that are right, but we just don’t know of any in our area.” They don’t claim exclusivity, but they imply: “If you leave us you are going to Hell.”
If your church won’t let you leave them without consequence (e.g. excommunication), to join another gospel-teaching church, then you are in a cult.
Is my church a cult? A church that has a leader who is always right, has its own new revelation, encourages isolation, and exercises undue authority over members, is a church that is sliding down the slope of cultic behavior. But if they say you need to stay with them to be saved, they have dropped off the cliff into cultism.
This article on is my church a cult originally appeared here.