For years, I had a small book in my library that could identify and describe the characteristics of a cult. In David Breese’s book, ‘Know the Marks of Cults,’ he lists twelve marks of cults to help one determine whether a group claiming to be Christian is indeed a cult. A group does not have to exhibit all twelve marks to be considered a cult, but the more marks it does display, the more certain one can be that it is a cult. This little book is, in my opinion, one of the best books listing the tenets of a cult. Here are the twelve marks of cults listed taken from David Breese’s book ‘Know the Marks of Cults,’ published by Victor Books in 1975.
Defective Christology: Denies some aspect of Christ; His deity, humanity, origin, or the union of his two natures. A defective Christology can manifest in various ways, such as denying or distorting key aspects of Christ’s nature, mission, or significance. For example:
- Denial of His Divinity: Some belief systems reject the idea that Jesus is divine and consider Him solely as a human prophet or teacher. This is contrary to orthodox Christian belief, which holds that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human (the doctrine of the hypostatic union).
- Denial of His Humanity: On the opposite end of the spectrum, some belief systems may emphasize Jesus’s divinity to the point of denying or downplaying His humanity. This is also considered a defective Christology because it neglects the biblical teaching that Jesus was fully human.
- Distorted Views of His Atonement: Some belief systems may offer alternative explanations for the purpose and significance of Jesus’s death on the cross, which deviate from the traditional Christian understanding of His atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
- Denial of His Resurrection: Denying the historical reality of Jesus’s resurrection is another example of a defective Christology. The resurrection is a central event in the Christian faith, and a denial of it challenges the core of Christian beliefs.
- Different Views on His Role: Some belief systems may attribute a different role or purpose to Jesus than what is traditionally accepted within Christianity. For instance, some may view Him as a political figure rather than a savior or Messiah.
A False Basis of Salvation: Teaches that eternal life depends upon works other than faith in the atonement of Christ on the cross. The orthodox view is that salvation is based on faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior and that one’s sins are forgiven through His atoning sacrifice on the cross. A false basis for salvation within a Christian context might include:
- Salvation by Works: Believing that salvation can be earned solely through good deeds, without the need for faith in Jesus Christ. This contradicts the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.
- Salvation by Belonging to a Particular Group: Holding the belief that belonging to a specific religious denomination or group is the sole basis for salvation, rather than faith in Christ.
- Salvation by Rituals or Sacraments Alone: Focusing on religious rituals or sacraments as the primary means of salvation, neglecting the importance of faith and personal relationship with God.
Uncertain Hope: The issue of a cult member’s salvation is unknown and is based on one’s obedience to the leader and their doctrine. In a South African context, we have a few cults that seem to find security in a specific leader. The words of Jeremiah (17:5 NIV) seem true.
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.”
Special Revelation: Cult leaders usually claim new and continual, exclusive revelation given to them through visions or dreams. These revelations usually feed directly into the ego and demands of the cult leader. The result of these exclusive revelations might have the following effects:
- Doctrinal Confusion: Extra-biblical revelations can introduce beliefs and teachings that contradict or deviate from the core doctrines of established religious traditions. This can lead to doctrinal confusion and division among believers.
- Erosion of Scriptural Authority: Accepting extra-biblical revelations can undermine the authority of established religious texts, such as the Bible. This can result in a shift away from the foundational principles and teachings of the faith.
- Lack of Accountability: Those claiming to receive extra-biblical revelations may not be held accountable for their teachings and actions, making it difficult to discern the authenticity of their messages.
- Manipulation and Control: Leaders who claim to have special revelations may use their status to manipulate and control their followers, leading to psychological and emotional abuse.
- Division and Sectarianism: Extra-biblical revelations can lead to the splintering of religious communities as different individuals or groups claim to have unique insights from the divine. This can result in divisions and rivalries.
- Spiritual Deception: In some cases, people may be deceived by charismatic individuals who claim to have divine insights. This can lead to spiritual disillusionment and a sense of betrayal when the revelations do not materialize as promised.
- Exclusivity and Intolerance: Believers who follow extra-biblical revelations may adopt an exclusive and intolerant attitude toward those who do not share their particular revelations, leading to religious conflicts and prejudice.
- Potential for Exploitation: Financial exploitation and undue influence can occur within groups that emphasize extra-biblical revelations, as followers may be encouraged to make significant financial or lifestyle sacrifices.
- Lack of Historical and Theological Context: Extra-biblical revelations often lack the historical and theological context provided by established religious texts. This can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
False Messianic Leadership: The leader is seen as the only interpreter of Scripture appointed by God and, therefore, should not be disobeyed. The way the community reads the Scriptures is influenced by how the individual leader reads the text. Some cult leaders might overemphasize a specific topic or highlight a specific mandate that will give the group an exclusive identity. In some cases, individuals have no autonomy, and they have to ask for permission even to enjoy the menial tasks of everyday life. David DeSilva laments;
“Once authority becomes located in the teacher’s alleged access to the divine, it is quite difficult to bring external, objective standards to bear on evaluating their claims.”
Cult leaders often possess charismatic personalities that draw people in. They use their personal charm, confidence, and persuasive communication to create a strong following. Followers are encouraged to place their trust and faith in the leader, making it easier to adopt the new belief system. Cult leaders are often skilled manipulators. They use psychological and emotional tactics to convince followers that their new belief system is superior to others. They may employ techniques such as love-bombing (excessive affection and attention), isolation from outside influences, and information control to shape followers’ beliefs and loyalty.
Denunciation of Others: The members are taught that their community is the only true group and that all other groups are false. This is usually done by creating an “Us versus Them” mentality. Usually, the cult leader will claim to be a victim of someone’s ill intentions. There will also be a caution that the members will be treated in a similar manner. It might even seem like the leader experience a sincere concern. As long as you stick to the group and stay loyal to the cause. In certain cults, there would be some financial benefit as long as you stay connected to the leader and show some conformity and allegiance. You might even be threatened to lose any security and even family or friends if you do not conform to the group.
Doctrinal Ambiguity: Their “doctrine” tends to be unclear or continually changing. Cult leadership usually sticks around a nonsensical topic long enough to create some intrigue amongst his people. Everything that is said is laced with some controversy or sensation. The leader will have the ability to make himself appear as an expert because he has direct access to the source of revelation. He might even appeal to a special imparted gift or magical tome that gives him the exclusive ability to truly interpret scripture in a specific way. His teachings might not even be blatantly heretical, but at the least, it will be ambiguous. The leader will also not stick to a specific topic long enough to be questioned, but will usually just give enough information to garner attention, and then speedily go to another topic that would peak interest. This means inevitably, the group might claim knowledge of a specific topic but have a very superficial understanding of the topic at hand.
Segmented Biblical Attention: They tend to focus on one verse or passage of the Bible to the exclusion of others, violating the context. It’s essential to read and interpret the Bible with a well-rounded understanding of its historical, cultural, and linguistic context. Many verses can be misinterpreted or misapplied when taken out of context. A comprehensive understanding of the Bible often involves considering the entire narrative and taking into account the historical, cultural, and theological context in which the passages were written. Additionally, engaging in open and respectful dialogue with others who have different perspectives can lead to a deeper and more well-rounded understanding of the Bible.
Syncretism: They combine different teachings from differing systems of belief, which results in a new teaching or belief system. Cult leaders draw inspiration from various existing religious or belief systems, selectively picking elements that serve their agenda. They may borrow rituals, symbols, concepts, and ideas from different sources, often with the aim of making their new belief system seem profound and all-encompassing. This syncretic approach allows them to create a seemingly unique and appealing ideology.
Enslaving Organizational Structure: They demand total commitment from their followers, that usually destroys their individual will. Here are some common methods cult leaders use to achieve this:
- Isolation: Cults often isolate their members from the outside world, including friends and family who might offer differing perspectives. This isolation makes it difficult for individuals to maintain their own beliefs and autonomy.
- Control of Information: Cult leaders control the flow of information to their followers. They may restrict access to outside information, label it as “evil” or “false,” and insist that their teachings are the only source of truth.
- Love-Bombing: At the beginning of their involvement with the cult, members may receive excessive love, attention, and affirmation. This makes them feel valued and appreciated, creating a sense of obligation and attachment to the group.
- Gradual Indoctrination: Cult leaders often introduce their beliefs and practices in a gradual manner, starting with less extreme ideas and progressively moving towards more radical ones. This gradual indoctrination can make followers more accepting of increasingly extreme beliefs.
- Fear and Intimidation: Cults may use fear tactics, threats of punishment, or intimidation to keep members in line. The fear of being ostracized from the group or suffering negative consequences can suppress individual will.
- Group Pressure and Conformity: Cults encourage conformity and discourage dissent. Group members are pressured to conform to the leader’s beliefs and behaviors, and dissent is often met with punishment or shunning.
- Demeaning and Manipulative Language: Cult leaders may use language that belittles or devalues individual thoughts and feelings. Followers may be made to feel that their ideas and concerns are insignificant compared to the leader’s wisdom.
- Guilt and Shame: Cult leaders may use guilt and shame to manipulate followers. They may make individuals feel responsible for any perceived shortcomings or failures, reinforcing the need for the leader’s guidance.
- Emotional Manipulation: Cult leaders often use emotional manipulation to keep followers dependent on the group. They may foster feelings of insecurity, fear, or unworthiness and then offer the group as the only source of support and salvation.
- Punishment and Reward: Leaders may use a system of reward and punishment to control behavior. Positive behaviors that align with the leader’s wishes are rewarded, while dissent or non-conformity is met with punishment or threats of punishment.
- Mind Control Techniques: Some cults use mind control techniques such as sleep deprivation, altered diets, meditation, or chanting to induce a state of suggestibility in members.
- Confession and Blackmail: Cults may require members to divulge personal information, secrets, or confessions. This information can then be used against them if they ever consider leaving the group.
These tactics can gradually weaken an individual’s willpower and autonomy, making them increasingly dependent on the cult leader and the group. It is essential for individuals to be aware of these manipulative strategies and to seek help if they find themselves involved in a potentially harmful cult or group. Cult recovery programs and support from friends and family can be critical in helping individuals regain their independence and free will.
Financial Exploitation: The cult leader strongly implies that money given to the cause will grant blessings, powers, and salvation. They may require members to make financial contributions, donations, or tithes to the group as a sign of commitment and loyalty. They may use guilt, peer pressure, or threats of divine retribution to pressure members into giving more money than they can comfortably afford. They may also promise material wealth, prosperity, or spiritual salvation in exchange for financial contributions. These promises exploit members’ hopes and desires for a better life. In some cases, cult leaders may gain control over their members’ bank accounts or financial assets, making it easier to extract money and control the finances of followers. The best way to exploit people is to tell them that they need to give as much as they can for their own vindication and financial benefit.
What to do?
I have tried to give my own opinion on the twelve marks that Breese gave when looking at a cult or specific cult leaders. Breese also describes what can be done to guard oneself against cults in the last chapter, and I will end this article with his five points.
First, he mentions that it is imperative to understand the essentials of Christian Doctrine.
You cannot defend what you do not know, and you cannot stand for the truths you cannot articulate.
Second, separate from spiritual subversion.
Do not try to change a cult from the ‘inside out.’ It would be best to get out!
Third, refuse profane points of view.
Do not try to contend through vicarious teachings and practices or those things that are deduced from mere myths.
Fourth, do not encourage cultic practitioners.
Do not commend the success of cults or even try to flatter what is deemed as positive.
Fifth, contend for the faith.
Stick up for truth! Defend it, and make sure it is not just your opinion but the essential truth that you are defending.
If you have anything to add, or you even struggle to get out of a cult, please feel free to contact me via this website.