How to Identify a Cult

Is someone you love trapped in a cult? This article helps to identify the traits of a cult.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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In November of 1978, nine hundred people in Guyana, South America drank a deadly grape drink at the behest of cult figure Jim Jones. Our nation was mortified.

In 1993, David Koresh led seventy-six souls to their deaths in the Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Davidians. Again, a cultist mentality was evident.

Our own brotherhood of the churches of Christ has observed the rise of the so-called International Church of Christ (formerly known as the Boston Movement), led by mind-control artist, Kip McKean. Members of this movement are slavishly dominated by the powers that be—ultimately by McKean himself.

Though the Bible does not use the word “cult,” the idea is there—at least in seed form. It is represented by the Greek term hairesis, rendered “sect,” which derives from a root meaning “to choose.” W. E. Vine suggests that it hints of a self-willed opinion that rejects the authority of truth, leads to division, and the causes the formation of a sect (1991, 389).

Much study has been done in recent years with reference to the development of cults. How do these bizarre movements get started? How do cult leaders gain such strong control over their devotees?

Dr. Michael Langone, editor of Cultic Studies Journal, has done considerable research in the matter of mind-manipulating movements. While one would not agree with all of Landone’s conclusions, he has, nonetheless, identified some key traits by which cults reveal themselves.

Similarly, Steve Hassan, a former cult member and one of the nation’s leading experts on cult control, has produced a valuable work titled, Releasing the Bonds. Both of these men have helped in identifying the tell-tale signs of cult mentality.

Consider the following:

Unquestioning commitment to a domineering leader

Cult members are “focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.” The leader is a strong-willed, domineering character who rules the group with tight control. He lets it be known in subtle ways that he is in charge of the movement. He makes the plans, he orchestrates the movements of the group or groups (sometimes he exercises his sway over several groups). He dispatches the workers, assigns their chores, etc.

Frequently, they even begin to imitate his mannerisms in terms of voice inflection, language patterns, aggressive attitudes, etc. They become clones of their esteemed leader. It is not uncommon that the leader knows of weaknesses or past problems of people within his group. Thus, through subtle intimidation and fear he keeps them under his control.

Dissent and discussion discouraged

“Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged,” and there can be pressure or social punishment when there is disagreement with the “boss.” Those who disagree are made to feel as though they are stupid or inept. They are brainwashed with the notion that they do not have the knowledge or experience to question the leader.

Younger people are particularly vulnerable to the leader’s gift of gab, and his feigned expertise. No matter how radical the leader becomes in his decisions or actions, the cult members will not criticize him. Even if there should be mild disagreement, no specific expressions are voiced. The members reason that though he may be mistaken in some of his judgments, yet the overall good he accomplishes outweighs any minor flaws.

Members are taught to “rationalize” the conduct of the leader in matters they have always “considered unethical before,” under the guise that the “end justifies the means.”

Cult members lavish the leader in luxury

The leader “is preoccupied with [raising] money.” There is always a need for increasing finances. New projects are ever in the planning. Members are strongly encouraged to greatly sacrifice for the leader’s current pet enterprise. There is little pressure let-up; members of the group must be kept revved up on a continual basis.

The cult leader always takes the major credit for the movement’s accomplishments. Members become psychologically dependent upon him. “What would we ever do without our leader?,” is the cult mentality.

Polarization of members

The cult leader generates within his members “a polarized” mentality. His people evolve an us-versus-them outlook. Little by little, he criticizes other groups with which his members might tend to associate, undermining confidence in them, attempting to discredit anyone who could have influence over his flock.

Cult members become suspicious; they imbibe the critical disposition. “No one is really as sound as we are. We are an elitist group.” And so, seeds of isolationism are sown. The movement leader discourages reading any material, examining any ideas that he does not generate. He seeks to control the inflow of knowledge relative to his group.

Kip McKean has actually charged his followers not to read certain books dealing with mind control, characterizing any breach of this rule as sin (Hassan 2000, xvii). Jehovah’s Witnesses generally will not read any literature other than that published by the Watchtower Association.

Rebellion against other sources of authority

The cult leader has a clearly defined anti-authoritarian disposition. Within the context of the church, for instance, he would have an “anti-elder” attitude. Elders would be recipients of constant critical remarks. No cult leader would affiliate himself with a congregation having elders to whom he must be in submission. Control could not be maintained in such an environment.

The cult leader will constantly criticize preachers, particularly those whose knowledge of the Scriptures eclipse his own. Members must be made to feel that he is the chief authority in spiritual matters.

Alteration of personality

Cult members are seen occasionally to take on a new personality. They begin to act differently. They become increasingly antagonistic to family members and long-time friends. They may even boast, “I am not the old [name] that you used to know; I am a new person now.” And indeed they are. They have become strangers to those who knew them well. They have been transformed into the image of their leader.

The Christian must always be on guard against cult-like figures who would control their thinking and life patterns. Our challenge is to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), and to none other.

  • Hassan, Steve. 2000. Releasing the Bonds. Somerville, MA: Freedom of Mind Press.
  • Vine, W. E. 1991. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, IA: World.