Why are cults so believable and hard to leave or get out of? This question is loaded with many different perspectives, lenses, and opinions. I am exploring this through the perspective of a current non-denominational Christian.
First, we need to know what a cult is. Many often associate cults in a negative perspective. A cult by definition is ” a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous”. You may find definitions worded a bit differently, but they all have the same general meaning. It is basically a group of people or a club in which people become a little too obsessed with the thing in which they are devoted to. It’s not always religious. Though in modern times, cults are often formed in religions because they take an idea too far or too literally. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the church or religion make certain ideas or rules the object of worship which inadvertently is the slippery slope into a cult that uses mind control on its members to keep them.
So we must ask ourselves, at what point does a group or club become a cult? Are all churches cults? What is the difference between a cult and a good church?
Let’s be honest, when the average person thinks of a cult, they may often think of a certain church or religion, and honestly that’s where a majority of cults are at. This is not to say that church is bad. Or that religion is bad. I think it really has alot to do with each individual church. What are they teaching you? Does it apply to modern day age? Is it backed by historical text (The Bible)? Is the church gaslighting you in a negative way? (I’ll explain later). Is the church growing? These, and more, are all factors to consider when figuring out if you’re going to a healthy church versus if you’re a part of a cult. Like many already know, sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. Let me help by explaining the many subtle differences between what goes on in a cult versus what goes on in a genuinely good and healthy church.
1. A cult gaslights you and keeps you in a cycle.
If a church gaslighting you sounds crazy, you may want to think again about what exactly they’re telling you. Are they telling you you’re worthy? For women- that you’re beautiful inside and out? For men- that you’re strong and courageous, etc. That you’re made in God’s image, capable of great things like following your dreams or starting that business? That you’re worthy both as a single person and as a married person?
Or, are they like businesses that create consumers by hypothetically creating the problem? (Like almost half of companies that exist) Similarly, in a church that operates like a cult, they might try to convince you or directly tell you “you’re a sinner” (contrary to telling you you’re worthy), and then they treat this word like it’s a disease. Next they explain how to “cure” this disease. They create the problem and then offer the solution. But wait, you can’t get the cure all at once, no no, you need to come back again and again, at least once a week – for the rest of your life. I’m not saying that going to church every week is bad. What I’m saying is that if that’s you’re mindset for going to church every week (to get rid of your sin “disease”), then you are going to church for all the wrong reasons. You’ve been bamboozled into a very convincing and false cycle of lies. Let me explain this further.
First off, the church should not continually be calling you a sinner. Though it is hard to wrap our minds around, even if we do sin, we are not sinners because Jesus already successfully did his part to remove that chain and identity from us. When I say “us,” I am referencing those who beleive Jesus is the savior. We call Jesus the Savior, not the ultimate guilt trip, yet for some reason why do some churches often feel like that? The church will tell you that you’re a sinner and then tell you not to sin. That doesn’t even logically make sense. Its like telling a dog they’re a dog but not to do dog things. The church instead needs to tell you you’re not a sinner. That you’re worthy and wise and spiritually competent to take on life. So, what does your church do? Does it give sound and true uplifting words of truth into your life for you to be the best version of yourself & the best citizen of society? Or does it make you take a guilt trip almost every time and create a cycle of repentance from the “church”?, like a business that just received a customer and uses ethos pathos and logos to keep them coming back for the product. Furthermore, the church might even try to convince you that your salvation is dependent on going to that church, when in reality, once a person receives God into their life, salvation and God are within us and not a far-away object needed to be continually obtained our entire life. The purpose of church is for the holy spirit to be present, fellowship, worship and teaching. The church facilitates salvation but it itself is not salvation. So if you’re having a hard time figuring out if you go to a good church or if you’re unknowingly part of a cult, the first step is to simply examine the verbiage used. What are they telling you about you? Are they creating a hypothetical problem within you, telling you you’re such a rascal and you need to repent every time you sin? Or, are they giving uplifting words of encouragement or truth to elevate your spiritual grounding and wellbeing?
2. A cult uses black and white language or thinking, often with little to no explanation.
Black and white language fits well with cults because they like to portray things as an extreme. For example, if you grew up going to church, you may have been told in a sermon that “sex is bad.” (Just an example of many of a plethora of topics). Here’s the thing, sure maybe premarital sex is not okay. But even more so, I do not know of one friend who had a pastor explain the why behind this. As if teenagers are supposed to know why it’s bad. I think the church should be more open about those topics. Like, instead of saying a black and white blanket statement like “sex is bad”, “the devil makes you lust,” or “if you sin youre going to hell if you dont repent” which invoke guilt, how about explaining it a bit better, in a more human way rather than in a religious way. Like – wait till marriage to have sex because physical touch or intimacy creates chemistry, which can mess up and dramatically alter one’s perspective of their partner. It can deceive you to think that someone who obviously isn’t the one for you, is the one for you, because the physical touch (the feel good feelings) messes up your ability to really see them for who they are. When a church uses such vague blanket statements as the one’s previously stated as examples, without explaining them, they leave a big gap for false teaching and is a red flag for being a cult.
3. A cult tries to make their imagination your reality.
So what do we mean by making someone else’s imagination a reality? In a church this can often be seen when a preacher talks about a dream, or if there is a prophetic word in prayer. Let’s explore these in more detail. When a preacher talks about a personal dream, they are explaining their own subconscious world. It is one thing to talk about a dream, which is totally fine. However it is another thing to say that one’s dream represents what is happening or will happen to the church. Sure, dreams may have been predictions in biblical times. However, today we cannot rely on dreams to tell someone else or a group of people their future. Dreams are not from God, they are simply programming’s of each person’s inner world. We should not be projecting our dreams onto others. The second one is when there is a prophetic word during a prayer. Members of churches often take these very seriously, yet often times we do not even know if the person saying them has been reading the word and in prayer. What if they just had an impulse to say what is on their heart? That is not from God, that is simply a word from that person – yet people think that they are hearing from God. If a preacher’s dreams are being interpreted as the future of the church or the world, or if prophetic words are being told from someone who was not prepared, you may want to rethink if you’re in a healthy church or in a cult.
Again, it really all comes down to the verbiage used and the lack of explanation of things in cultish churches. This is because if you feel you’re on the good side of the spectrum, members of the cult often feel very entitled or holier than thou, wanting to stay in that mindset. This is the sign that it’s too extreme. Nobody can be perfect. So the next time you visit a new church or even just at your own church, at least take note and examine these three things, 1. Does the church gaslight you and make you feel like you’re in a constant cycle? 2. Does the church use black and white language with often little to no explanation? 3. Does the church try to make an individual imagination everyone’s reality? Life is too short to get trapped in a mind game of lies within a cult. My hope in sharing this is that you take the time to find a genuinely good church that stays clear of all of those previously noted points, and instead uses God’s word to encourage you be the best version of yourself and the best citizen within society by looking towards Jesus.