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"So, what exactly is a cult anyway?"

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

The word "cult" can be very confusing. This confusion is valid because it tends to be overused, particularly in American culture. For example, if we start saying every religious group that's a little different than the norm is a cult, then what are we talking about? Where is the distinction between an actual cult and a group that's just a little bit different?

Only using the word cult when it meets the definition of cult helps us understand when a group is not orthodox (orthodox in the sense that it doesn't fit the core tenets of what Christians have traditionally believed). The word "cult" tells us that this particular worldview is nontraditional (or unorthodox) and that we should expect a Biblical interpretation that may not be what orthodox Christians believe is found in scripture. We may also expect that these unorthodox beliefs will be vehemently defended by those who hold them.

"As I get older and as I study worldview and world religion more, I start to step back from using the word cult. I've started to step away from using labels in general until I fully understand what it is I'm talking about. Because I've started to understand that when we attach words to organizations or people, they begin to own that, or it just creates a barrier that wasn't there to begin with.” - Lindsey Medenwaldt, Mama Bear Apologetics

Strong emotions can arise when the word "cult" is used, so we want to make sure when we're using this language that it's creating a bridge instead of burning one. For example, we don't want people who have fallen for a cult to walk away from a conversation believing themselves to be cognitively inferior. When we use a word that makes them feel that way, we may be enforcing the wrong belief that them falling for a cult makes them a less intelligent or capable person. This would be untrue and cause further harm.

Another example would be if a missionary comes to your door and you say to them, “Hey, did you know you're in a cult? You need to get out of it.” That's not the best tactic to use, even if their group meets the definition of a cult, because when people are truly in a cult, they often aren’t aware that they are. Using the word "cult" in that context will likely create a harmful divide, not a helpful bridge.

Defining Cults

So what is the definition of a cult, and does everyone agree on that definition? The tough answer is "no", not everyone does fully agree. Most people with a working definition of cult have different nuances to it, and that makes it complicated when we are trying to define new religious movements and various worldviews.

However, even if we don't have a unified definition of a cult, we can all look at certain groups and say there is a problem present. When we're looking at offshoots of Christianity and movements that have come from Christianity, we can see where they have muddied the waters by changing scripture. And that is one thing that is a huge red flag, called heresy.

In essence, heresy is the first side of the coin when it comes to defining a cult.

Note: It is important to pause here and remember that sometimes pastors (or anyone for that matter) can innocently apply a scripture wrong or misspeak accidentally. If this is the case, that doesn’t make them a cult leader. If something like this happens, there should be an open door to talk with the individual and bring it to their attention for consideration. This allows them to check their mistake and correct it, while learning something they didn’t know. This response means they aren’t cult-ish, and neither is their organization or denomination as a whole.

The second side of the coin is a religiously abusive component, where scripture is intentionally taken out of context to control or manipulate someone and exploit them for the gain of leadership and/or the apparent benefit of the organization as a whole. Of course, exploiting people never genuinely helps the organization, but from an outward perspective it usually looks like it's thriving, growing, and lots of good things are supposedly coming out of it. But within that infrastructure, people are getting "run over", emotionally, spiritually, financially, etc.

“In cults, there is someone making strategically calculated steps to cause harm.” - Naomi Wright

So while there is no clear cut definition that everyone can agree on, here at beEmboldened, we identify a cult based on the BITE Model (see below), with the addition of theological and doctrinal twists.

Explaining Undue Influence and Exploitation

In his book Combating Cult Mind Control, Dr. Steve Hassan created a model with four categories that constitute a cult, called the BITE Model. It recognizes that fear is used in each of these categories as the prime emotion for control, which plays into the over-exertion of influence in someone's life, such that their decisions are no longer truly their own.

  1. Behavior Control: Dictating who the member lives with, who they associate with, their hairstyles, lifestyles, permission is required for a major decision, etc.

  2. Information Control: Not being allowed to have access to any form of media, encouragement to spy on other members (and rewards if they report things), control so excessive that they're only hearing what you want them to hear.

  3. Thought Control: Instilling “us versus them” thinking, that anyone outside the group is inferior, dangerous, or bad.

  4. Emotion Control: Teaching emotion-stopping techniques so that you block feelings of homesickness, anger, or doubt, promoting feelings of guilt or unworthiness and shame.

James Sire, a Christian author and apologist, has also provided these helpful criteria when identifying a cult:

  1. Opposing critical thinking: Essentially, group members are told what to believe and they’re not allowed to critically think about it. (Thought Control)

  2. Isolating members or penalizing them if they leave. (Behavior Control)

  3. Special doctrine outside of the Bible: It's not just that they have manipulated scripture, but they've got additional information that is regarded as scripture or as better than scripture. (Theological / Doctrinal twists)

  4. Inappropriate loyalty to leaders. (Behavior, Thought, and Emotion Control)

  5. Dishonoring the family unit in favor of the group. (Behavior and Thought Control)

“This all sounds familiar…”

If the above sounds familiar to you on a personal level, being able to label it as a cult is a step in a helpful direction. Healing can continue from here, and we can help. beEmboldened exists for those impacted by religious trauma by providing support for the prevention of victimization and revictimization, creating a safe space to ask questions and to heal. We do this by offering the following support:

If you aren’t quite ready to connect with us directly, we also provide the following resources to bring awareness, and to support prevention and healing:

Your story isn’t over—hope and healing are possible, and we can help.

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