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.