Cults vs. Cultic type Groups
We have been talking about spotting deception for a number of posts now, and there’s more to come. However, here’s a ripe example of how a little knowledge can help prevent deception: understanding the cults and, specifically for this post, cultic groups.
While many abuse the word “cult” without proper justification, there is a real concern. A cult of Christianity is usually defined, by Christians, as a group that deviates from core Christian theological doctrines along with displaying characteristic sociological attributes. Today we see many groups like that, those who deviate from classical Christianity. Many “cult watch” organizations delineate these reasons (1).
However, while deviations from classical Christian beliefs define cults, there is another area of concern that needs to be addressed because it’s pervasive throughout many different groups, even mainline Christian denominations. This concern is “cultic” groups, or groups that have cult like tendencies in their sociological structure. While cultic groups share very similar sociological structure with cult groups, cultic groups usually hold to orthodox Christian teaching. Cult watch organizations will note these characteristics of sociological structures as cultic in nature (1).
While I usually don’t write about specific groups, an interesting public documentary on one Amish group crossed my desk: “Trouble In Amish Paradise”. In this documentary, I see many “cultic” tendencies demonstrated by this Amish group. There are other tendencies as well not talked about in this post (1). The filmmaker followed a couple families as they exited an Amish group. While I’m not against the Amish, if they (or any group) use some or all of these tactics, I’m greatly concerned. In the below documentary, you will see many of these cultic tendencies: authoritarianism, exclusivism, isolationism, close-mindedness, legalism and exiting scare tactics (1).
The first characteristic is domineering leadership who have great control over the lives of the group members. The leader’s words are ultimate. Divine inspiration, “angel” revelation and “Spirit leading” are common in these types of groups. In other words, there is extra-biblical revelation and the leader’s words are “inspired by God”. I have talked many times about the “Spirit led” mentality and why it’s so concerning. While there are a number of good reasons for concern, this is just one more. The leader’s words take precedence over the Bible when there is a difference between the Bible and their beliefs. Submission is demanded upon the people from leadership, conformity is key. Any criticism of leadership is sometimes posed as if it’s criticism of God, and there may be severe and “supernatural” sanctions and consequences. While Christianity teaches that leaders are not to be lords over the people, rather examples, these types of groups pressure members to conform to the leader’s extra-biblical commands.
Elitist or Exclusivistic Mentality
A second characteristic is an elitist mentality. Most cult and cultic groups believe they are the “true church” and the only ones who will be saved in Christendom. If there are others, they are rare. This is a logical progression since the group believes they have new revelation or the “correct” understanding that gives them superior standing. However, it’s clear in Jesus’ and the apostle’s words that all followers of Christ are his brothers and sisters. They are his friends. We are taught to love one another and “embrace” each other (2). I’m not talking about groups that have deviated from core Christian tenets, like Christ’s and the apostle’s teachings, rather I’m talking about Christians who follow Christ (3). In fact, even the Apostle’s Creed requires converts to recognize the holy catholic church (meaning universal church, not Roman Catholicism). In addition, it talks about the communion of the saints.
Because of their elitist mentality, cult and cultic groups believe those who do not agree with them are “deceived”, are of the “world” or even under the influence of Satan. Thus members must be protected from the outside world, and physical or psychological barriers are sometimes created to prevent “deception”. For example, members are prohibited from communicating with those outside the organization, or reading and listening to content from the outside, especially content that does not agree with the group’s teachings. In other words there is information control. Leadership tries to cut off or denigrate outside sources of information. However, in Acts 17, the Bereans were praised when they checked up on the Apostles teachings. And in 3 John, we read an account of one leader named Diotrephes who was rightly reprimanded for isolationism.
Individual thinking and study is discouraged. Because of the authoritarian nature, only leaders are the ones who ought to interpret the Bible, especially since they have direct revelation from an angel or God. Participants turn to the leader or leaders for biblical interpretation and advice on life decisions. Any type of questioning is discouraged and there is an unwillingness to dialogue and consider other viewpoints. Emotions, feelings and insights are valued greater than rational conclusions. There is a denigration of critical thinking. Independent thought and intelligence can be called selfish, prideful and evil.
Group participants must live up to a specific group standard (extra-biblical standards) to be able to maintain membership and maybe even hope for eternal life. They absolutize the relative. For example, very specific clothing styles, technological restrictions and extra-biblical practices are made out to be at biblical level. Members are pressured to faithfully serve, attend all meetings, studies and services, and required to live up to the organization’s requirements. There are people always ready to expose “erring” participants and all are pressured to conform.
“Closed Back Door”
If one does desire to exit the group, it’s difficult. “Salvation” is usually integrally connected with the organization. Thus leaving the group is very serious, even to the extent of the thought as if one is leaving God. Shunning is a common practice to those who leave – even by one’s own family! Fear and scare tactics are used to prevent people from leaving.
Trouble In Amish Paradise – The Documentary
While I’m not going to call the Amish a “cult”, I’m calling the tendencies they exhibit “Cultic”. I have talked to Amish before, some are great people. However, any group expressing these tendencies, including Amish, give me great concern. So, enjoy the below documentary! (It is part one of six.)
Next post I want to carry on with the discussion of deception prevention. Some in queue for the future include using wisdom, how to determine truth and a conclusion that brings all the posts in this series together. You will want to keep an eye open for the next post. The best way is to click here, because you can get them straight to your in-box. You don’t want to miss out! (Click here.)
What are your thoughts? What did you think of the documentary? Have you seen these tendencies in other groups? What about mainline Christian groups? Do you think these are not concerning, if no, why?
(1) https://www.probe.org/character-of-the-cults/, Norman Geisler’s works, and http://www.watchman.org/articles/cults-alternative-religions/cult-or-cultic/
(2) At the end of many of the epistles one reads statements of acceptance or greeting all the saints (Romans 15:7, Philippians 4:21, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, Titus 3:15).
(3) 1 John defines who is Christian.