There are many helpful red flags to let you know that you’ve inadvertently stumbled into being a cult member. Keep in mind the simple definition of “cult” is a system of religious veneration of a particular figure. A cult doesn’t have to be sacrificing virgins and worshiping Satan to be a cult.
None of the things I list below necessarily mean you’re in a cult, but it sure might. So tread very lightly if you see these warning signs:
- The “leader” is revered as the one person with all the answers. This is especially true if he will argue with anyone who challenges his assertions. You can’t be a cult leader without first being a narcissist.
- The leader has no actual seminary training or ordination. Folks, there is a reason that the vast majority of preachers go through seminary, or at least through an intensive ordination process. It’s because it weeds out a lot of the potential cult leaders – people in it for personal accolades. It also provides real accountability, as a person who is ordained through a larger organization can be fired and replaced if they go off the rails.
- People who leave are badmouthed by the leader. In a real church, people come and go all the time. This happens for myriad reasons. Sometimes it’s doctrinal differences. Many times it’s simply logistics. And other times, it’s interpersonal. However, if each time a family leaves, the leader of the “church” talks about “always knowing they were bad people….” you can be sure of one thing – you’re in a cult.
- The leader has requirements of members that make most reasonable people uncomfortable. For example, if the leader of your “church” insists on kissing all of the women on the lips, you can be sure you are in a cult. The Bible does say to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” However, I don’t recall the Bible saying to kiss the women on the lips and no one else. Creepy! Also, a 100% sign you’re in a cult.
- Your “church” only attracts weirdos. Sure, we’re all a little weird, and into every church a weirdo or two will appear. But if your entire “church” is made up of weirdos, misfits, and the fringe of society – there’s a good chance you’re in a cult. Cult leaders prey on the weirdos and misfits. They tell them that if they just follow this set of rules, that they will be an accepted part of the group. That’s what weirdos and misfits want – acceptance.
- Incidentally, if everyone “out there” is considered lesser because they don’t believe exactly what the “leader” believes, chances are, you’re in a cult. There are about eleventy-million denominations within the Christian faith. All of them share a reasonably short set of things in common and have many small differences. I would never say a Lutheran is less of a Christian or less of a true believer than a Baptist. However, these little one-off cults are happy to paint with a broad brush.
- The leader makes all the decisions. I’ve been in a lot of churches where they pay lip service to inclusion and accountability. But I’ve also seen people who just “pitch” their ideas to their “elders” and it’s just expected they will rubber stamp it.
- The leader meets with and “counsels” people of the opposite sex one-on-one in closed door sessions. No professional, accountable person would ever do this. Pastor’s office doors have windows in them. Pastors don’t meet with women one-on-one without anyone else around. Even if the pastor has no bad intentions, it’s completely unprofessional and is asking for trouble. If your “leader” doesn’t worry about things like this, you may just be in a cult.
- The “leader” interferes with other people’s relationships. No real pastor or counselor takes a side when doing relationship counseling. To pick a side is to interfere in someone else’s relationship – something only a cult leader wants to do. If a pastor is telling you “he’s no good, you should dump the bum….” he’s WAY overstepping his bounds – a sure sign you’re in a cult. Some exceptions apply, but they are extreme – physical or sexual abuse. “He’s mean” is not a valid reason for a pastor to try and break a married couple up. A real pastor is always working towards helping both parties get better and create an environment for reconciliation. If he is not up to the task, perhaps he should be in a different line of work.
- The church ceases to exist when the “leader” moves on. Churches go thru tough times, but no church should be built on one single person. If it is, there’s a good chance it’s a cult.