Cult Warning Signs
ABOUT WHOM THIS IS WRITTEN
This post was written to deal with the sub-Christian sect and organization known as “Abolish Human Abortion (AHA),” but can apply to virtually any number of such sects that fit the definition of “cult.” As time progresses and as our Lord tarries, many such cults will arise and Christians would be wise to apprise ourselves of their tactics and strategies.
The word cult has several definitions. The term itself invokes thoughts of black-robed and hooded mystics conducting midnight ceremonies deep in the forrest glen. And although that might be accurate of certain cults, most of the time it isn’t that dramatic.
The first and most benign definition of cult is that it is simply a system of religious belief directed toward an object or person of worship. In other words, a cult is basically just a religion, and Christianity qualifies.
Another definition of cult is that it is simply a system of religious belief directed toward a mortal man. In this case, Christianity wouldn’t qualify because Christ is the immortal God-Man. Those cults that would qualify in this definition typically include stand-offs with the ATF and drinking poisoned Kool Aid.
A third definition of cult would be a group that holds to beliefs that are aberrant, false and damnable. This definition of cult isn’t always helpful, because it’s completely subjective based upon who is doing the judging. To Christians, cult might apply to Islam, Buddhism, Animism or any false religion on Earth.
A fourth definition of cult is used in a specifically Christian context, and is determined by historical orthodoxy, and would include those groups ruled heretical or schismatic by church council or creed. For example, this might include Montanists or Judaizers.
A fifth definition of cult is similar to the fourth, but includes any group that claims to represent the Christian Church, but is clearly not, whether or not the belief is ancient enough for historical orthodoxy to have officially denounced it. This definition includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, who even though they weren’t condemned by any historic council, practice the Arian heresy and so they’re to be considered a cult. It might include the Hebrew Roots movement, who even though they weren’t addressed by historic creed or council, practice the Galatian heresy and must be considered accursed.
In this helpful guide that provides warning signs of cult behavior, the characteristics below fall under the fifth definition of a cult. But for for the sake of clarity, instead of using the term cult, we’ll use a term that’s more precise and less confusing (not having four other definitions to contend with), sub-Christian sect. The fifth definition of cult is a sect (a group holding to heretical beliefs that put them outside Christianity) and it is sub-Christian, meaning that the group professes Christ and claims to be Christian.
THE WARNING SIGNS
If you want to discern sub-Christian sects, watch for the following warning signs (these are numbered so you can list the Warning Sign Number when you see the behavior demonstrated in social media; for example, “Cult Warning Sign #8).
PLEASE NOTE: Sub-Christian sects do not necessarily have all the warning signs as listed. Likewise, the presence of a single warning sign does not mean the practitioner is by necessity part of a sub-Christian sect. Orthodox Christians can sometimes fall into these practices, whether due to zeal or foolishness. If more than just a few are present, however, you might just be dealing with a sub-Christian sect.
1. Sub-Christian sects often purport to be the only authentic believers, and characterize all others as sell-outs, compromised, or watered-down imitations of the real Church or of real Christians. This tactic has been particularly powerful since the Restorationist Movement in the mid-19th Century. They will speak of “restoring” the church and going back to the “real church” that was lost in the Apostolic Age. This belief eventually causes them to reject the Visible Church.
2. Sub-Christian sects focus on proselytizing believers rather than evangelizing the lost. The false teachers the church was warned about in Acts 20:30 come into the church, appearing to be disciples, only to “draw men after themselves.” Satan desires to destroy Christians, and typically leaves the pagan alone. Sub-Christian sects, like their lord and master, Satan, spends most of their time trying to proselytize professing, church-going Christians rather than win the lost.
3. Sub-Christian sects spend an inordinate amount of time lobbying for approval of the church-at-large, desperately asking (or demanding) acceptance. Of extreme strategic importance to the schismatic is having established churches lend the sub-Christian cult credibility or to embrace them as orthodox. A massive amount of time and resources of the sub-Christian sect will be spent trying to project themselves as orthodox. Those within orthodoxy simply don’t have to spend much – if any – time desperately trying to gain acceptance by the established church, but sub-Christian sects have to.
4. Sub-Christian sects engage in victory-by-victimhood, projecting themselves as virtuous and long-suffering victims of marginalization or mistreatment. These sects “cry foul” at every given opportunity, clinging to the status of victimization in order to signal help from unsuspecting Christians who are drawn in at the accusation of mistreatment, playing on the good but naive intentions of believers. It could be called the “Servetus Syndrome,” in which five-hundred years after the death of a heretic, people still give sympathy and credence to one who (although he should not have been burned at the stake) was still a heretic and should have been marked as a schismatic and shunned from society. Every accusation against the sect is met with charges of “slander” or “persecution,” a martyr-syndrome that manifests itself in crying for help from well-meaning believers.
5. Sub-Christian sects engage in double-dog daring “are you saying I’m not a brother in Christ” strategy designed to force the critic to anathematize or accept them. A very popular tactic, these schismatics will demand that you call them a “Brother in Christ” or a “fellow Christian” or dare you to say they aren’t. If you concede they seem to be a fellow Christian because the confess orthodoxy on certain soteriological matters, then their charge is that you’re “attacking fellow Christians” and YOU will be made out to be the schismatic. If you say they aren’t Christians, then they’ll demand you explain why, given they agree with this point of theology or that point of theology. They’ll then make you to be an uncharitable curmudgeon. Don’t fall for this. You are not obligated to affirm or disavow anyone’s salvation based upon their profession alone (heretics lie).
6. Sub-Christian sects make their beliefs as nebulous and ill-defined as possible, so as to confuse their opponents and make them harder to discern. They claim “straw man” at virtually every criticism, yet don’t define their convictions clearly enough to be properly understood. Schismatics do not like confessions or exhaustive faith statements, because they like to have beliefs that are fluid and ill-defined. Because their goal is achieving for themselves their own disciples, they find that a wide and shallow theology is more conducive to accomplishing their goals, as it is less exclusive as to who can follow them.
7. Sub-Christian sects commonly twist words and phrases from their intended meanings (also known as ‘equivocation’) to make themselves appear orthodox. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses advertise celebrating Easter, but only speak of the crucifixion because they don’t believe in a bodily resurrection – and yet, people seeing their fliers at Easter time assume they believe in the resurrection. AHA speaks of their protests (which include picket signs and disrupting church services) as mere “exhortation.” Andy Stanley claims he believes in “inerrancy,” but means that term far different from the way others understand it. Again, this is to fool people into assuming their orthodoxy.
8. Sub-Christian sects are dishonest about the details of how their organization or ‘fellowship’ operate. They want to purport that their sect is just another church, but in order to continue the charade, have to conceal the real truth regarding the details of their organization. Those who follow after them will find out the details after they’ve already been inducted. Pay close attention as to how many people leave the organizations once they’ve joined. Often, the sub-Christian sects have “large back doors” through which a sizable proportion of their converts leave after being within them long enough find out their real beliefs.
9. Sub-Christian sects portray their beliefs as common or ordinary as a means to deflect criticism. Theonomists – those who believe the Mosaic judicial law (including penology) is obligatory for all nations and times – will say that the term “theonomy” is limited to its etymological definition of “God’s Law,” when in fact it means far more than that. AHA claims that the organization is synonymous with abortion abolition, when in the fact the majority of its work is directed towards converting Christians to Sectarian Minimalism and following after their leaders. These sects reduce their beliefs to a simple, often-repeatable mantra that lacks controversy, hiding their actual beliefs and intentions.
10. Sub-Christian sects prefer to project themselves as movements or ideologies rather than as organizations, in order to insulate themselves from criticism. Almost every sub-Christian sect in the last 170 years (since the Restorationist Movement) has claimed that their sect was just a grass-roots or “organic” movement, repudiating “organizationalism” or “insitutionalism.” They repudiate the label of organization (or denomination, etc…) even though they fit the qualifications of such. This way, they can argue that it is a move of the Holy Spirit and not the subtle guise of spiritual schemers. This also insulates the organization from criticism regarding the claims of more honest members, who are sure to be radicalized and ostracized for their unorthodoxy.
11. Sub-Christian sects have a tendency to rove in packs in social media, and they call for help from fellow sectarians in the event of argumentation. Infiltrating one social media group at a time, the sect targets seemingly vulnerable subjects and strategically “run together” to intimidate, annoy, or in some way coerce Christians into either following after them or risk being abused, shamed or shunned if they speak out against them. This is a very successful and common strategy, as it appears the movement is far larger, when it only has a small handful of highly motivated adherents.
12. Sub-Christian sects often try to win arguments through a victory-by-volume approach to argumentation. The schismatics produce an over-abundance of blogs, articles, books, videos and (in 2016) Internet memes to simply repeat over and again the same talking points. Schismatics, because they are by nature law-oriented and works-focused (as opposed to being Gospel-focused) are highly motivated (their righteousness depends on it), deeply fanatical, tireless individuals who will dedicate the many hours upon hours necessary to win a single argument. Their goal, after all, is building up their organization. Schismatics often believe they’ve won an argument simply because they’ve used more words.
13. Sub-Christian sects often apply ecclesiastical pressure to their critics, taking advantage of orthodox church structure (which they themselves often lack) to silence the opposition. These sects will find out information about their critic, and use it to call their church, pastor, or ecclesiastical authorities (using Sub-Christian Sect Warning Sign #4), accusing them of slander, violating the 9th Commandment, or mistreating of a “fellows Christians.” Often, the threat of controversy alone is enough pressure to silence opposition.