Characteristics of cults:
- Control: Members have to submit to the leadership. Leaders, who typically have a strong, controlling, manipulative personality, are viewed as special, anointed “prophets” or “apostles” of God. They demand submission even if they do not adhere to God’s Word in their teaching or behaviour. Sometimes their followers see them as God Himself. To obey a leader and his teaching is usually seen as equal to obeying God. Leaders exercise control over most aspects of the followers’ lives: dress codes, activities, finances, time, possessions and relationships. They subtly control and manipulate members in terms of who to see, what to do, what to say, and how to say it. Leaders expect rigid obedience with regards to the members’ time and activities. They involve their followers in activities that drain them physically and emotionally. This leaves little time for privacy and reflection, or for questioning the leaders’ authority.
- 2. Fear: is the main method of control that is used; e.g. fear of displeasing God, fear of displeasing the leader, fear of rejection, fear of punishment, fear of losing one’s salvation, fear of going to hell, etc. The leaders use guilt, fear, intimidation, manipulation and accusation as weapons to maintain the loyalty of members and ensure their devotion to the group.
- Questioning and critical thinking are suppressed: The leader discourages and suppresses questioning and critical thinking in order to promote conform to the group’s behaviour and views. Questioning and independent or critical thinking is treated as rebellion and pride, and seen as a lack of trust in the leader.
- Confession of sin: Leaders expect full disclosure of secret sins, thoughts, temptations, etc., as well as full disclosure of all private information and problems. These can become powerful tools to emotionally bond members to the leader or counsellor. The information leaders and counsellors obtain in this way, can later be used to manipulate or blackmail a member who decides to leave.
- Double standards: There is usually one standard for the followers and another standard for the leaders. Leaders can do almost anything they want, while others will be rebuked and made examples of if they do the same things. For example, members are mostly discouraged to support themselves financially and are made dependent upon the leader or group. Leaders, however, have the liberty to own enterprises and support themselves financially. They have special privileges and benefits. Cult leaders typically benefit financially from the manual labour, skills or academic knowledge and expertise of the members. Cult leaders and their families generally live in luxury and accumulate property and money, while cult members have to “deny themselves” and be satisfied with accommodation and food, or a small wage. Very often unethical behaviour e.g. lies and deception is excused or reinforced.
- Distortion of God’s Word: Cult leaders add to or even substitute what is written in the Bible with their private revelations and interpretations. They twist certain verses and take them out of their context. Strong emphasis is placed upon certain passages, while other pertinent scriptures on essentials and practices are completely ignored.
- Misplaced loyalty: Loyalty to the leaders and group is demanded. Loyalty to Christ is replaced by loyalty to the leader and the group. Members are conditioned to believe that loyalty to the leader and the group is the same as being loyal to God.
- Information control: Members are not allowed to read any information which might expose the leader and the inner circle’s corruption, lies and deception. Additionally, members are not allowed to have contact with those who are critical of the leader’s doctrine, e.g. ex-members of the group who had left the group, outside family members, other ministries or any other Christians that could influence them. This is done to prevent members from obtaining information that may expose what is going on behind the scenes in the cult.
- Members are not allowed to criticize leaders in any way: Anyone who questions criticizes and challenges the leader’s doctrine, is branded as an enemy of God. If any person presents evidence that the leader/group is at fault, the focus is shifted. Members are taught to question the motives or character of the person who presents the evidence and ignore the evidence. So the focus is on the person’s character and not on the proof that is offered.
- Rules of silence: Religious cults are governed by the unwritten rule of silence. “Do not disagree with the church leadership — especially the leader, or your spirituality and loyalty will be questioned.” The inner circle will defend the leader, protecting him from any enquiry or challenge. If anyone questions the leader or his authority, this person is seen as being divisive and destroying the “unity” of the group. If you voice your doubts or criticism, you become the problem. If you don’t remain silent, you will be asked to leave. If you discuss your doubts, etc. with others who left, it will be considered betrayal.
- Revelations and dreams or visions: These become more important than what has already been revealed in scripture.
- Pride of the group: Cults believe they are the only ones who are right. If you are not one of them, you are destined for hell. They alone have the truth, so one must join them to be saved. They have an “us” against “them” attitude, which can be very dangerous.
- Total commitment to the leader(s) and the group’s goals is expected of followers. One’s time, talent, and money are all at the disposal of the church or leaders. Service to the church is understood as service to God. Meetings and church services, etc. are mandatory and keep members so busy they will no longer have time for their friends and family. Members now receive a new family and new friends and a new view of life. Members are rewarded for being faithful to the leaders and organization.
- Individuality is sacrificed for the group: The group’s concerns supersede an individual’s goals, needs, and aspirations. Any action or behaviour is justifiable as long as it furthers the group’s goals. Even lying to or deceiving others outside the group is not sinful.
- Curses and threats: Curses are put on those who leave the group or oppose them. Threats are made subtly or to their face. Anyone who leaves the group or questions their doctrine, rules, practices or behaviour, is branded as an enemy of God.
- Destruction of marriages and families: Members are expected to ostracize family members who are not ‘one’ with the group or who questions their doctrine, rules, etc. Once a person is part of the group, there is no easy way out. You have to give up your friendships and family if you want to keep in good standing with the leaders and the group.
Summarized and adapted from: http://www.letusreason.org/culteac.htm