What is a Cult?
The term "cult" is not intended as a pejorative, inflammatory, or injurious word. The term is used simply as a means of categorizing certain religious or semireligious groups in modern America.
A cult may be defined from both a sociological and a theological perspective. Sociologically speaking, a cult is a religious or semireligious sect or group whose members are controlled or dominated almost entirely ;by a single individual or organization. A sociological definition of a cult generally includes (but is not limited to) the authoritarian, manipulative, and sometimes communal features of cults. Cults that fall into this category include the Hare Krishnas, The Children of God, and the Unification Church.
Theologically speaking, a cult is a religious group that claims to be Christian but in fact is not Christian because it denies one or more of the essential doctrines of historic, orthodox Christianity (as defined in the major historic creeds of Christianity). Groups that fall into this category include the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
What are some specific doctrinal characteristics of the cults?
In terms of doctrinal characteristics of cults, one will typically find an emphasis on new revelation from God, a denial of the sole authority of the Bible, a distorted view of God and Jesus, and/or a denial of salvation by Grace.
New Revelation. Many cult leaders claim to have a direct pipeline to God. The teachings of the cult often change and hence, they need new "revelations" to justify such changes. Mormons, for example, once excluded African-Americans from the priesthood. When social pressure was exerted against the Mormon church for this blatant form of racism, the Mormon president received a new "revelation" reversing the previous decree.
Denial of the sole authority of the Bible. Many cults deny the sole authority of the Bible. Christian Scientists, for example, elevate Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health to supreme authority. Members of the Unification Church elevate Reverend Moon's Divine Principle to supreme authority.
A distorted view of God and Jesus. Many cults set forth a distorted view of God and Jesus. The Jehovah's Witnesses deny both the Trinity and the absolute deity of Christ, saying that Christ is a lesser god than the Father (who is God Almighty). The Mormons say Jesus is the spirit-brother of Lucifer. The Baha'is say Jesus was just one of many prophets of God. The Jesus of the spiritists is just an advanced medium.
Denial of salvation by grace. Cults typically deny salvation by grace, thus distorting the purity of the gospel. The Mormons, for example, emphasize the necessity of becoming more and more perfect in this life. The Jehovah's Witnesses emphasize the importance of distributing Watchtower literature door-to-door as a part of "working out" their salvation.
What are some specific sociological characteristics of the cults? Sociological characteristics of cults include such things as authoritarianism, exclusivism, dogmatism, isolationism, and threats of satanic attack.
Authoritarianism. Authoritarianism involves the acceptance of an authority figure who often uses mind-control techniques on group members. As prophet and/or founder, this leaders word is considered ultimate and final. The late David Koresh of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, is a tragic example. Members of this cult followed Koresh to the point of death.
Exclusivism. Cults often believe, "We alone have the truth." The Mormons believe they are the exclusive community of the saved on earth. The Jehovah's Witnesses believe they are the exclusive community of Jehovah on earth.
Extreme dogmatism. Closely related to the above, many cults are extremely dogmatic and this dogmatism is often expressed institutionally. For example, the Mormons claim to be the only true church on earth. The Jehovah's Witnesses claim that the Watchtower is the sole voice of Jehovah on earth.
Isolationism. The more extreme cults sometimes create fortified boundaries, often precipitating tragic endings, such as the disaster in Waco, Texas, with the Branch Davidian cult.
Threats of satanic attack. The Watchtower Society is typical of many cults in that it warns new followers that friends and relatives may very well be used by Satan to try to dissuade them from remaining with the Jehovah's Witnesses. Hence, when a friend or relative actually does try to dissuade a new member in this way, it makes the Watchtower Society appear to be a true prophet. This, in turn, encourages the new convert to be even more loyal to the Watchtower Society. The Watchtower's warning hence serves as an effective way of keeping new converts so they can be thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult.
Are sincere cultists lost?
Yes, they are. A person can sincerely take a pill that is unknowingly laced with cyanide. All the sincerity in the world is not going to stop that cyanide from killing the person. In the same way, a person can participate in a cult that, unknown to him, teaches all kinds of deadly doctrines. And all the sincerity in the world won't prevent him from going into eternity without Christ. Sincere cultists are indeed sincerely lost.
Paul noted in Romans 10 that the Christ-rejecting Jews were sincerely wrong in their attempt to get a right standing with God by good works. Sincerely believing something doesn't guarantee its truth.
The preceding discussion is from The Complete Book of Bible Answers - Answering the Tough Questions by Ron Rhodes pp.319-322. Harvest House Publishers, 1997.