By: Brian Chilton | March 23, 2017
A few weeks back, I was troubled to hear about a Word of Faith congregation in Spindale, North Carolina, that was guilty of abusing its members. Reports included young children being punched by the leadership while being called Satanists. Jane Whaley and her husband are at the center of these accusations. The full report can be accessed at http://wspa.com/2017/02/27/spindale-church-accused-of-abuse-responds-to-accusations/.
Unfortunately, cultic churches abound. Just last night, a guest pastor from the Philippines spoke about particular cults in his land. He noted that one cult did not allow the congregants to open their Bibles as everything had to be interpreted by the leadership. Churches like these are identified as cultic churches as contrasted with authentic churches. Authentic churches are the body of Christ. They are the assemblies of baptized believers who fully adopt biblical principles and have the freedom to grow and develop in their relationship with Christ.
Cultic churches are aberrations of the authentic church. Cultic church lead by power-plays and draconian control over their members. Cultic churches are distinguished from cults in that their theology may be close to orthodoxy (right beliefs)—however, upon further investigation most cultic churches border on heresy. In contrast, cults are completely separated from Christian orthodoxy in their beliefs. However, cultic churches are not authentic churches due to questionable orthopraxy (right practice). Their actions do not represent the loving precepts found in God’s Word. So, how does one know that a church has the characteristics of a cultic church? Consider the following 10 signs of cultic churches.
1. Biblical orthodoxy is held in low-esteem. Most cultic churches are merely one step removed from being a full-blown cult. Biblical doctrine and theology are dismissed in favor of elevated levels of emotionalism. While there is nothing inherently wrong with emotionalism, the loss of biblical integrity develops into some downright bizarre practices. Orthodoxy affects orthopraxy. In authentic churches, biblical orthodoxy is both taught and practiced.
2. Personal interpretations are held to an equal or higher view than biblical truth. Recently, I interviewed cult expert, Michael Boehm. Boehm noted that many trained cult leaders can twist most Christians into knots by pulling various quotes from the Bible. Without proper training, cult and cultic leaders will make biblical connections that do not exist. Thus, the leader’s interpretation is given an equal, if not higher, standing than clear biblical precepts. In authentic churches, biblical truth is given greater weight then personal opinions.
3. Members are not allowed to grow intellectually. In cultic churches and with cultic leaders, intellect is dismissed. Members are discouraged from learning philosophy, history, science, systematic theology, or about anything with which the leader(s) is/are not familiar. Much of this anti-intellectualism comes by the leader being threatened with information that would show a potential weakness in the leader’s philosophy or theology. To show superiority, the cultic leader maintains a domineering attitude to show his/her supposed intellectual and/or spiritual superiority. In authentic churches, all members are encouraged to grow spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually.
4. Members are not allowed to ask questions of the leadership. In cultic churches, questions are condemned. Most likely, cultic leaders do not want to expose any weakness on their part. Thus, questions are restricted and shown to be a sin. The leader may show that to question him or her is like questioning God because the cultic leader has assumed a delusional godlike stature. In authentic churches, questions are the means of growth. The leader and leadership are transparent. People who have nothing to hide are transparent.
5. Traditions are equated to commandments. While all churches have favored traditions, cultic churches elevate their traditions to the level of the Ten Commandments. Jesus combated the Pharisees over this very issue. Jesus said to the Pharisees in reply to a question pertaining to their traditions,
“But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever benefit you might have received from me is a gift committed to the temple,’ he does not have to honor his father.’ In this way, you have nullified the word of God because of your tradition. Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands” (Matthew 15:5-9).
In contrast, authentic churches—while they have traditions they love—will place biblical commands over personal desires. This is not to say that changing traditions is easy. But if an assembly sets an exorbitant and stringent set of traditions as a prerequisite for a person’s attendance to their church, then it is likely that the assembly is leaning towards a cultic code of conduct.
6. Members are required to follow harsh, legalistic rules. The sixth sign flows forth from the 5th. Members are required to follow a harsh set of rules. In places like the Word of Faith Fellowship, leaders determined where their members could live and even how a husband and wife could be intimate. Authentic churches…well…don’t. Authentic, Bible-based churches will promote members to live a holy lifestyle originating from biblical ethics. But, leaders realize that people are free to make their own decisions and are not dictatorial (1 Peter 5:1-5).
7. Outsiders are viewed with skepticism, evangelism is avoided. The seventh, eighth, and ninth signs are complementary. Since cultic leaders seek complete control of their members, outsiders are viewed with great skepticism. Potential members may be allowed in slowly and with great reservation. Cultic churches are not committed to the Great Commission. Evangelism is avoided. Cultic churches are committed to power and control. Authentic churches are committed to the gospel. Authentic Christian leaders have a passion to see souls come to Christ. Thus, healthy churches are mission-minded churches.
8. Exiting the church is difficult and may be met with threats. Since the cultic church is about power and control, cultic leaders do everything in their power to keep control over their members. Therefore, if a person attempts to leave, the leader(s) will emotionally, spiritually, financially, or even physically threaten the member. In stark contrast, authentic churches realize that their ministry may not suit everyone’s taste. Thus, while authentic churches seek to keep its members, threats are never employed. Remember, Jesus allowed Judas to betray him, fully knowing what Judas was planning.
9. Cultic churches are opaque. A strong sign on the spectrum of authenticity is transparency. Authentic churches are transparent as they have nothing to hide. This includes every aspect of ministry including financial matters. Cultic churches are almost always opaque and secretive. Cultic leaders do not want the general public to know what they are doing. The more secretive a movement, the more cause for concern. Jesus publicly taught, publicly performed miracles, was publicly crucified, publicly resurrected, was publicly seen alive after his resurrection, and publicly ascended into heaven.
10. The church desires its membership to become more like themselves than like Christ. The final sign of a cultic church deals with the end goal. What do the leaders desire? Cultic leaders want to make their members more like themselves. Authentic churches desire people to become more like Christ. If Christ is the Son of God, then he is the perfect example for one to model. When leaders become cultic, they desire people to become like themselves so that they can exert more power and control. Coercive and manipulative measures are used. Jesus, by contrast, allows people to come to him fully knowing what is expected of them. Concerning cultic leaders, Jesus warned those who abusively used people in his day, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15)!
This article is not an attack against the church. The church is a blessing. Many good, Bible-based, churches exist and are thriving. A person needs to find a place where he or she can attend, grow, develop, and serve. However, we must realize that there are many places that claim to be churches, but do not possess characteristics that are honoring to the Lord. In Revelation, Jesus addressed seven churches (Rev. 2-3). Some of the churches were good, like Philadelphia. Others were bad, like Laodicea. Some places that call themselves churches are more in the realm of cultic than Christian. Be watchful! John warns that we should “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). My prayer is that multiple Bible-based churches will grow and expand, while cultic churches will diminish and cease. If you are in a cultic church, for the good of yourself and your loved ones, leave! Find a good, Bible-based church in your area. A good church family is a great blessing and worth the effort to find.
Post-note: Jonny Scaramanga argues that there should not be a distinction made between authentic churches and cultic churches. While I agree with Scaramanga that all churches need to examine their practices to ensure that they are not abusive, I fully disagree with him in saying that there are not distinctions between the two. The patterns of the two are quite different. Scaramanga is writing from a bias against Christianity in general as he left Christian fundamentalism for, what appears to be, atheism. The distinctions that have been discussed in this article are not only found between the authentic and cultic churches of today, but are clearly observable in the leadership style of Jesus as opposed to the extreme Pharisees and cultic leaders of his day. Scaramanga’s article can be read at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leavingfundamentalism/2016/05/23/stop-calling-abusive-churches-cults/.
About the Author
Brian Chilton is the founder of BellatorChristi.com and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University, his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University, received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and hopes to work on doctorate studies soon. Brian is the pastor of Huntsville Baptist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.
© 2017. Bellator Christi.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the Christian Standard Bible (Nashville: Holman Publishers, 2017).