Thinking Out Loud

January 30, 2017

What are the Criteria for Calling Something a Cult?



Years ago, I recall hearing about or reading a book titled The Mark of a Cult. One factor I remember specifically was exclusivity. Recently I talked to someone who had a family member converting to a fringe sector which prohibits fellowshipping with outsiders; ie. Christians from other denominations. I gave him what was on that day my best advice, but as the days have passed I have grown more concerned about their exclusivity doctrine.

I went off in search of this factor in lists of “marks of a cult” or “signs you’re in a cult” and didn’t see it listed. However, the internet offers many rabbit trails and I thought you might like to see some of the lists. I never did find the book reference I was looking for either, but decided to compile all this material on one page so it could be helpful to many of you. The term cult is often used differently in the broader population than it is among Christians, so it’s good to define your context when discussing this topic.

These are excerpts from much longer articles.

At the website BBFOHIO:

There are four identifying marks that a person should avoid when joining himself or herself to a church (assembly, congregation, organization, etc.). We have them outlined with a simple acronym:


Authority other than Scripture.
Deviation from the Trinity doctrine of God.
Departure from the true Bible Doctrine of Jesus Christ.
Salvation by works and not by grace through faith alone.

From Questions We Wanted Answered (.pdf):

1. Supplementary Revelation
2. Spurious Leadership
3. Faulty Christology
4. Financial Pressure
5. Dubious Hope

The DVD The Marks of a Cult as reviewed by Tim Challies:

Add: Cults add to Scripture.
Subtract: Cults subtract from the person of Christ.
Multiply: Cults multiply the requirements of salvation.
Divide: Cults divide the loyalty of believers.

From the website Christian Courier:

1. Unquestioning commitment to a domineering leader
2. Dissent and discussion discouraged
3. Cult members lavish the leader in luxury
4. Polarization of members
5. Rebellion against other sources of authority
6. Alteration of personality

From the website (greatly edited):

1. Their leader/s may claim a special, exclusive ministry, revelation or
position of authority given by God.
2. They believe they are the only true church and take a critical stance
regarding the Christian church…
3. They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep members
loyal to their ranks…
4. Members will be expected to give substantial financial support to
the group…
5. There will be great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its
6. There will be total control over almost all aspects of the private
lives of members…
7. Bible-based cults may proclaim they have no clergy/laity
distinction and no paid ministry class…
8. Any dissent or questioning of the group’s teachings is discouraged.
Criticism in any form is seen as rebellion…
9. Members are required to demonstrate their loyalty to the group in
some way…
10. Attempts to leave or reveal embarrassing facts about the group may
be met with threats…

I thought it was interesting that this last point also contained:

Some may have taken oaths of loyalty that involve their lives or have signed a “covenant” and feel threatened by this.

That reminded me of some of the “survivor” and “spiritual abuse” websites I often read.

Finally, from Christian Arsenal:

1.  Does it attempt to attack or change the person, work or Deity of Christ?
2. Is salvation by a new unique non-scriptural method, works, or something other than faith in Jesus and His work on the cross?
3. Is membership with this group required for salvation?
4. Is the Doctrine of the Trinity compromised?
5. Does it attempt to change the teaching about the person, Deity, and/or work of the Holy Spirit?
6. Is the Holy Spirit credited with revealing things that are contrary to what He has already revealed in the Bible?
7. Is God being made to seem more like man?
8. Is man is being made to seem more like God?
9. Is someone or something being presented as an authority equal to or superior to the Bible?
10. Is the teaching or interpretation of one person or select group of people seen as the only acceptable material or guide by which you are to study the Bible?
11. Does it edify the Church and build up the body of Christ or does it seek to give glory to a person or organization?
12. Are claims and/or prophecies made that cannot be substantiated or that have failed to come about?
13. Are terms commonly used in “Christianity” redefined and given new “non-biblical” meanings?
14. Is the teaching or activity consistent with the New Testament?
15. Is this a matter of tradition, culture and emotions or is it Bible?
16. Does this group or teaching force interpretations of scripture passages that make the Bible contradict itself?
17. Does movement or group produce healthy well-balanced growing Disciples?
18. Is the teaching, movement or group focused on the entire message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or are they focused only on a few specific issues? (For example end time prophecy, deliverance ministry, healing campaigns, prosperity teachings etc.)

The graphic image used above is from (the article linked goes into greater detail than space allowed us here.)

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