Is my church a cult?

I grew up in a cult. Yes, it was a cult. I call my childhood church a cult because because we operated like one.

Cults aren’t about beliefs so much as they are about behavior. Plenty of churches share similar beliefs but you can distinguish the healthy ones from the unhealthy by looking at how they operate and how they treat people.

For example, there are far more incidents of cultish behavior coming from independent Baptists than from the mainline Baptist denomination (same basic beliefs, different behaviors).

As Janja Lalich says in her book Take Back Your Life, a group “earns the label ‘cult’ on the basis of its methods and behaviors–not on the basis of its beliefs.”

I’m not particularly interested in dissecting various belief systems because I think what’s far more harmful are the ways in which these groups practice. In my view, the beliefs are important only insofar as they are used to justify or perpetuate harmful practices.

One example of how belief directly perpetuates abuse is the fundamentalist Christian belief that human beings are inherently wicked. This belief directly impacts how children are disciplined; ie. with relentless spanking.

When you believe children are inherently wicked sinners who must be spanked until their “wills are broken,” you have effectively dehumanized them and therefore, are justified in abusing them. What’s worse is that it’s done in God’s name. THAT is an example of how beliefs directly perpetuate abuse.

However, for the most part, the important questions about “what is a cult?” get muddled by derailing questions like: “Are Catholics Christians?” or “Are Mormons Christians?” That conversation is a conversation about beliefs and, frankly, it usually becomes a doctrinal tug-of-war which fails to answer the question of harmful behavior.

I have Mormon friends and don’t doubt for one minute that they have a true, authentic connection to God. That said, the culture of Mormonism, the way Mormonism is practiced and, particularly, the requirements placed upon individuals for maintaining good standing in the church, vis-a-vis, good standing with God, DOES raise huge, red flags for me.

[Sidebar: since Mormons prefer that we consider their church part of general Christianity, I think it’s fair for me to include them in my discussion, here. But also in the name of fairness, if the Catholic Church were still carrying on with Inquisitions and burnings at the stake, well, I wouldn’t have become Catholic. :)]

Here’s the thing: it’s really NOT enough to have orthodox beliefs. Everyone believes their beliefs are true otherwise they wouldn’t believe them.

The difference is, not every group practices their beliefs as Absolute Law or goes around making sure it’s enforced among group members.

Being a cultish church is not about whether your beliefs are TRUE. It’s about HOW those beliefs are practiced.

So, orthodoxy is important, yes, but so is orthopraxy. They go hand in hand. Ideally, a church has both. But if given the choice between orthodox beliefs and healthy behavior, I will always go with healthy behavior.

In my experience, beliefs can be straightened out fairly easily. Harmful behavior–like bad habits–are much more difficult to rehabilitate.

In Take Back Your Life, the authors offer a list of characteristics to help people determine whether or not their group is a cult (Appendix A, pgs. 327 & 328). I’ll offer an adapted version, here, tailored to Christian-specific churches and let you decide whether or not your church is a cult:

  • excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader (for example, always deferring to the senior pastor’s interpretation of Scripture; considering the pastor’s personal preference as spiritual mandate)
  • questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished (“sowing disunity” is code for silencing, being called into meetings to discuss disloyalty)
  • leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (ie. what to wear, where to live, dietary restrictions based on outdated or disproven science, requiring members to get permission for personal life choices, mandating how to discipline children)
  • group is elitist, claiming special, exalted status for itself (creating us vs. them mentality; “the lost” vs. “us who have the FULLNESS of truth”)
  • leadership induces feelings of shame in order to influence and control members–often done through peer pressure or subtle forms of persuasion (assigned an “accountability partner” who reports on you; lots of ‘checking-in’; enforcing unwritten rules, policing tone of voice, facial expressions)
  • preoccupied with bringing in new members (turn every opportunity into an outreach! that person you sit next to on the airplane might die tomorrow–better preach the Gospel to her!)
  • preoccupied with making money
  • members expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities (meetings, meetings, meetings!)
  • members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members (Scripture verses are used to warn against the corrupting influence of outside friends)
  • the most loyal members (“true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group (leaving the church is same as leaving God)

Updated: I’m closing comments because the point of this post is to address cultish BEHAVIOR which manifests itself in MANY churches. I am NOT interested in hosting a conversation about “who is Christian?” The best comment today was written by Rachel and in lieu of keeping comments open, I’m reposting her comment here: 

I have believed that it is the actions not the theology that matters. When people are stuck in a pattern of abusive behavior, they will twist their beliefs to support the abusive interaction. No amount of right doctrine or theology will fix that. There is a desire to believe that right doctrine will supernaturally override abusive interaction. That has not been my experience nor have I seen that to be true in over a decade and a half of studying both cults and the people who become entangled in those high-demand groups.

Like you say, they come in every variety of theology. The key, I have seen is that people who desire control or to be controlled search out abusive interaction. They find a theology that inspires them. However, they will not truly feel comfortable with a specific church until they also find abusive interaction. As a result, the theology will not overcome the abusive behavior. The individual must be self aware regarding their own patterns. 

This is important to understand. From a personal point of view it is important because no amount of theology will replace truly dealing with patterns that may stem from a dysfunctional or abusive past. While faith can help you heal, you must also understand the person God created in you and do the personal work.It is important when dealing with others who come from an abusive group. Arguing that the past groups theology was correct or incorrect will not be very healing. Don’t justify or condemn the theology. Instead, meet the person. The healing must happen in the arena of interaction, not necessarily theology. That can come later.

Also, don’t ever assume that the theology you adhere to could never be shared by a cult. Every theology can and probably is being shared by a cult somewhere. Somewhere there are people interacting in abusive ways and using the theology you hold dear to justify the abuse.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    I don’t disagree with your main point, but I do want to point out that our beliefs inform our actions and, over time, shape us as human beings. Orthodoxy implies much more than right belief or thinking as well. It comes from “right glory” or right worship more than right belief, though it has come to mean the latter. And I think that’s important to understand because I do believe that over time we become like that which we worship. Cults (in the modern usage — every time I see that word things like “cult of Athena” spring to mind), typically Christian offshoots in our modern experience, require a ground of wrong worship in which to take root.

    Of course, you made the same point when you noted how the worship of a God angry with an inherently wicked humanity tends to lead toward abusive treatment of children. That’s just as true in mainstream SBC churches as in independent Baptist churches. (When promoted from the pulpit is also one of the relatively few things that has produced outright rage from me in the past. Though I know how to clamp down hard to stop myself from publicly expressing it.)

    It’s the beliefs, practice of worship, and most importantly the object of worship that shape practices over time and living out those practices shape and reinforce what you believe. And beliefs are only easy to change when they have not become deeply seated as a part of your identity. Once that happens, they aren’t easy to change at all. Even when such beliefs are not “religious” per se, people will cling to them even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

    • Anonymous

      Agreed in the sense that right belief and worship aid proper behavior–when i started understanding the love of God, for example, it truly changed HOW i saw and viewed my own children, myself and others. This then led to better behavior. HOWEVER, take recovery groups like AA, for example. It is not about RIGHT belief–you surrender to a Higher Power as you understand that higher power to be–and i think it’s fair to say that sobriety (ie. right behavior) is not dependent on all the alcoholics agreeing on having the same Higher Power or understanding of that Higher Power.

  • Rachel

    I have believed that it is the actions not the theology that matters. When people are stuck in a pattern of abusive behavior, they will twist their beliefs to support the abusive interaction. No amount of right doctrine or theology will fix that. There is a desire to believe that right doctrine will supernaturally override abusive interaction. That has not been my experience nor have I seen that to be true in over a decade and a half of studying both cults and the people who become entangled in those high-demand groups.

    Like you say, they come in every variety of theology. The key, I have seen is that people who desire control or to be controlled search out abusive interaction. They find a theology that inspires them. However, they will not truly feel comfortable with a specific church until they also find abusive interaction. As a result, the theology will not overcome the abusive behavior. The individual must be self aware regarding their own patterns.

    This is important to understand. From a personal point of view it is important because no amount of theology will replace truly dealing with patterns that may stem from a dysfunctional or abusive past. While faith can help you heal, you must also understand the person God created in you and do the personal work.It is important when dealing with others who come from an abusive group. Arguing that the past groups theology was correct or incorrect will not be very healing. Don’t justify or condemn the theology. Instead, meet the person. The healing must happen in the arena of interaction, not necessarily theology. That can come later.

    Also, don’t ever assume that the theology you adhere to could never be shared by a cult. Every theology can and probably is being shared by a cult somewhere. Somewhere there are people interacting in abusive ways and using the theology you hold dear to justify the abuse.

    WAY TO GO ELIZABETH!!

    • Anonymous

      BRILLIANT!

    • http://likesunshineinthehome.blogspot.com/ Sarah H

      “There is a desire to believe that right doctrine will supernaturally override abusive interaction.” Yes, I totally agree. We can look to the Bible for ‘right doctrine’ to help us but you can of course twist scripture and apply it in abusive ways. In my own ex-church/cult Jesus’ words in John about the Disciples being ‘one’ as Jesus and the Father are ‘one’ was misused in our church, as was the words in Acts where the Holy Spirit came just after the disciples were described as being ‘of one accord in one place’. Therefore the pastor came up with the phrase “it is better to be one than to be right”. I fell for this hook line and sinker. You see this might seem ‘right’ on one context – it is better to stay friends than to argue about jots and tittles. But the way it was applied was, “It is better to totally agree with everything the pastor says (and he will know if you are thinking incorrectly too) than to totally break God’s heart by arrogantly disagreeing or having your own opinion.” This was of course backed up by the scripture in Hebrews about obeying leaders.

      We were told that if we followed the leader in everything then we would be protected from error, if the leader was wrong God would show the leader, the leader would then turn the flock around and go in another direction. We even had ‘prophesies’ from God from members of the congregation that ‘confirmed’ the ‘Word’ which had been preached about this. We were told that if we didn’t stay ‘one’ we would spiritually die. The pastor would tell a story, “Say there was a thumb, now what would happen if you chopped off the thumb and put it into a jar and left it there. After a few weeks what would that thumb be like? It would be rotten and dead. That is what happens you you if you disagree with the [preached] Word of God and go your own way”. Well, no-one wants to be a rotten thumb, so you agree ‘knowing’ that God would put the leader right if he was wrong about things, and anyway it’s better to be one than to be right! YUK! Makes my flesh crawl now, it’s going to take some time before I can listen to a sermon on unity and not be having major panic attacks!

      I Googled the phrase ‘it is better to be one than to be right’ and found out that some Mormon prophet had coined the phrase too, funny that, maybe the pastor was a closet Mormon. ;)

  • http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/ Dani Kelley

    But if given the choice between orthodox beliefs and healthy behavior, I will always go with healthy behavior.

    Yes yes yes. This.

  • J

    This is a great post. And I agree with everything you said regarding theology alone not being the indicator of a cult. However, when I read the list of characteristics of cult religions I do FEEL some of how I felt in the Catholic Church (but certainly not to the extent of a true cult). I suppose many religions have similarities in this way, certainly when protecting theology (and those preaching it) becomes the top priority.

    • Anonymous

      I ran into some fundamentalist dynamics in the CC, for sure. Last summer, a very fundamentalist priest really hurt me. But by and large, the fundamentalist element doesn’t hold sway in the CC–at least, where I am. Still, I fully agree that cultish behavior can be found everywhere–including the CC–and really must be dealt with when it happens. Thanks for the comment.

      • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

        If I may… Over the years I think many priests have matured to a place of grace and those who have will have parishes that extend grace as well. each individual church is going to be different. and not only due to the leadership, but the congregation as well.

      • http://cuppboard.blogspot.com Elizabeth Erazo

        I’ve always wondered if you’ve ever been accused of leaving one cult for another in joining the Catholic Church?

        Great post btw!

        • Anonymous

          Yep! Been accused of “joining the biggest cult of them all!” ;-)

      • J

        I think for me, much of what I felt was less from the church, but more from its members. I still find many Catholics I know (many in my own family) hold themselves up to be holier than the church. They believe that there is only one TRUE church, only one RIGHT way to worship. In so many ways I suppose it felt “cultish” to me… Worship our way or be damned. Tithe your 10% or be shamed. Walk into another place of worship and be condemned. But I agree, those tendencies need to be addressed (and hopefully not tolerated) by its leaders.

  • Anonymous

    Although I understand and agree with the thrust of your post, Elizabeth…(that’s why I subscribed to you, in general)…the orthodoxy you refer to isn’t genuine orthodoxy or their wouldn’t be destructive fruit. Therefore, to me it isn’t possible to seperate or favor one over the other. If there is bad fruit, then it’s a result of spoiled orthodoxy. Since we always, always act out of what we believe. But, I think I may be splitting hairs here. Bottom line for me is that my “orthodoxy” is far simpler than most religious systems including and especially the Christless brand of Christianity. My orthodoxy boils down to, I will love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, my neighbor as myself, and as Jesus said, each other as I have loved you. Other stuff is stuff. The simplicity of that is my litmus system. I especially like this thought, “Jesus is perfect theology.” In the tone of this post, “Jesus is perfect orthodoxy.”

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      If I may respectfully push back a little bit, I’m not fully convinced that bad fruit is always a result of spoiled orthodoxy. I think it’s entirely possible to technically have all the right beliefs but for the heart to be in the wrong place. I think specifically of the verse that says, “You believe there is one god? Good! Even the demons believe that, and tremble.” I, too, may be splitting hairs, but I wonder why James would have bothered making the point that there needs to be something more than just correct belief if correct belief would always lead to good fruit.

      Scot Morizot brought up an interesting point in that “orthodoxy” can mean much more than just “right belief,” and if it does, then I think it definitely can be demonstrated that orthodoxy would lead to good fruit. But I think we would also serve ourselves well to not assume that good fruit and correct belief have a perfectly correlating relationship.

      EE: Great post! I shared it on Facebook and Twitter, because I think it’s really important that people are educated about this.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks, Sheney. And yes! You nailed it. This was the point I’m trying to make, here. I also think Rachel (read her comment below) adds a fantastic perspective. It’s about ACTIONS, not just about “right belief.”

  • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

    I think this article is very good. I think there’s more good in what you said than things to criticize, however, as a former Independent Fundamental Baptist, I’d like to contribute that their ways, although similar to SBC, are far more extreme. I’ve been to SBC churches and felt a great relief compared to IFB. When I speak about cults I do what I can to steer away from the denominations, simply because cult tendencies can be found everywhere. The concept of ‘right vs wrong’ can lead to abuse without the Bible even being involved. Even many lawyers become so consumed with being ‘right’ that they put innocent people in prison. To me, the problem is a lack of grace when we, or others, are off kilter. NONE of us will ever be 100% “right” when it comes to interpreting the Bible. We speak about orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), but where does grace fit in between those two words? Maybe ortho-whatever-you-think-or-practice is what gets us off balance. I’d rather rest on grace.

    A cult lacks grace and healthy boundaries.

    • Anonymous

      Cult tendencies can be found everywhere. YES! A gracious, non-codependent way of behaving is what sets apart the cultish behavior from the non-cultish behavior. :)

  • Lindsey

    Kinda not the point of your post but most Mormons do not feel the need to be recognized withib the context of the Christian church. Each part of the country is different but as a whole, the LDS Church does not.consider itself Christian.

    • http://likesunshineinthehome.blogspot.com/ Sarah H

      In my own experience, as I’ve had this discussion with quite a few Mormon missionaries, they all claim to be Christian. The official LDS website also goes to great pains to affirm that they are ‘Christian’.

      • Lindsey

        I lived in Salt Lake City. I spent much of my time researching, studying, and speaking with people who grew up within the culture and faith of the LDS church. My husband and I moved there just to get to know and understand their culture better and I can assure you that it is it’s own culture and faith, regardless of whether or not they use the same words we understand in a Christian context. When pressed, and not trying to convince you of how similar you guys are, the LDS missionaries and LDS church will not claim to be Christian.

        • Ami

          Lindsey, I’m a Mormon who grew up in SLC. I don’t know of a single Mormon who doesn’t think of themselves as Christian. Honest and truly. We call ourselves Mormon or LDS, just as the Catholics refer to themselves as Catholics, but we identify Mormonism under the umbrella of Christianity.

    • Anonymous

      Again, this kind of comment is NOT the point of this post and any further comments like this will be deleted since they’ve only led to squabbling.

  • http://likesunshineinthehome.blogspot.com/ Sarah H

    Thank you for this post. So true.

    In my own exchurch/cult/crazyville I can say yes to all but one of the bullet points, and even the one I can’t say absolutely yes to there were certainly elements of it.

  • Anonymous

    Interestingly, I also believe that an important factor in our conversations is the reality that we all use same words, like orthodoxy, I mean something a bit different, which then causes ‘push back’ from others. When I used the word “orthodoxy” in my original comment, I meant it in the same way as the full definition of ‘truth’ as is referred to Jesus. It encompasses the whole package of belief and actions that are harmonious. That is why I said if the fruit is bad, the orthodoxy is spoiled in some way. We as Western thinkers are “scientific” and like to compartmentalize. To me, Truth, or Orthodoxy is a holistic reality.

  • Kirby

    I’m always hesitant to label my former church a cult, but I can easily point out 8 of those characteristics that applied to it and impacted my life. Thank you!

  • jvrap

    Mormons may have ‘healthy behaviour’ but they are not Christians, no matter how much they like to believe they are. Christians don’t believe that Adam, as god, had sex with Mary, thus producing Jesus. Christians don’t believe that you can become your own god, to rule over your own world. Mormons believe in a works based righteousness. Christians believe in justification by faith, through Christ alone.

    Not that their doctrine makes them bad people, it just means they do not have a belief in the true God.

    • Anonymous

      This is an example of the kind of conversation I DON’T want to have. Any further comments like this will be summarily deleted.

  • Amanda

    I’m an ex-Mormon, and I approve this message.