When people hear the word cult, the stereotype notions include: a group that worships Satan, weird rituals involving blood, people cutting themselves, people chanting iffy slogans, etc. In the broadest sense of the word a cult is simply a group of religious people who adhere to a set of rules and rituals. In a Christian context, the definition of a cult is, specifically, “a religious group that denies one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth. A cult is a group that teaches doctrines that, if believed, will cause a person to remain unsaved. A cult claims to be part of a religion, yet it denies essential truth(s) of that religion. Therefore, a Christian cult will deny one or more of the fundamental truths of Christianity while still claiming to be Christian”
This fine-tuned definition is very important because it means that people who think they are Christians may actually be part of a cult. So what are the characteristics of a cult?
Extra biblical revelation
Cults do not hold to the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures. They often have some leader who started the movement after having an encounter with God, seeing a vision, having a dream and/or receiving a prophecy from God. Cults will often have another book in place of the Bible or in addition to the Bible that they consider as equally authoritative and inspired.
Selective teaching of the Bible
Another trait of a cult is that they do not teach the whole counsel of God. They have a tendency to focus on one portion or genre of the Bible, and it is often the part that teaches what they emphasize. So there are groups whose primary teaching is based on the first five books of the Bible (the law), then there are groups whose main preoccupation is the prophetic books, etc. What these groups forget is that “all scripture is… profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Salvation based on works
Cults also teach a works salvation. For them salvation can come by human efforts such as adherence to the law, baptism, good deeds and sacraments. They cannot stomach the words of Jesus Christ in John 14:6 where he declares “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one can come to the Father except through me;” nor the charge in Romans 3:21 that the righteousness of God is revealed apart from the Law, through faith in Christ Jesus.
Salvation is not assured
As a result of a salvation based on works, members of cults cannot find assurance of their salvation. If salvation is based on the good you will do, who knows whether God will approve of your life or not? People in cults have no hope and are enslaved to meet the demands of their system.
Another characteristic of a cult is that they often have human mediators. They teach that no one can have access to God apart from some super spiritual human being. So either their prayers are offered in the name of another human or they need a fellow man to stand in for them before God. This they do despite the Scriptures telling us that we have one mediator before God and that is Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5), and through Him we have access to the throne of God. (Hebrews 4:16)
Preoccupation with new doctrine or revelation
This comes as a result of their belief in extra biblical revelations. These groups feel the need to invent new doctrines each passing day. They are not content with the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These new teachings come in different forms. For example, there are some who are so preoccupied with the details of the last days that they have on a number of times identified a person to be an Anti-christ only for that individual to die, and they without shame move on to another person! There are others who come up with all kinds of teaching on prosperity or visions and dreams.
False doctrine of Christ
The mark of every cult is their unbiblical view of Christ. Some will deny His deity, others will deny His humanity, yet others will deny His finished work on the cross. As a result, cults will often reduce Christ to a prophet, an angel, a good man or to a name that you use to end a prayer or unlock your breakthrough. They refuse to acknowledge that Jesus is the bedrock of Christianity and everything else is held together by Him, and it is through him that growth takes place (Colossians 2:8-19). If Christ is not your Lord (the master of your life to whom you submit) and Savior (the one trusted for the forgiveness of sins) then you are not a Christian, and any church that does not teach this truth is a cult.
These characteristics are obviously not exhaustive and may not necessarily apply to all cults; they are however very representative of what a cult in the Christian context looks like. You may wonder, why is this important? It is important because our country is full of cults that are misleading many and condemning them to hell with their Christ-less gospel. Those of us in the light need to make sure that we proclaim the gospel intentionally and with clarity. Secondly, we need to be ready to give a defense of the faith against the many false teachers misleading the masses.