Cults are everywhere. Many religions in the world are cults or, at the very least, display many of the attributes of a cult. If we are not careful, we can fall prey to these cults and get sucked into their manipulative ways. One gentleman, D. M. Canright, was brought into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church shortly after his salvation, and it took twenty-five years for him to recognize the fallacy that surrounded him and make his way out of that cult. For this reason, we must constantly fill our hearts and minds with the Word of God so we can recognize and avoid the traps of these cults.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a Cult as: "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious." A religion with questionable beliefs and/or practices can be described as a cult. This is totally subjective, meaning that one individual would consider a particular religion to be a cult based on their personal feelings while another individual would consider that same religion to be "mainline." An example of this is seen in Germany where Baptist churches of any stripe are considered cults. This thinking is the result of one group of so-called "Anabaptists" in the city of Munster during the 1500s. This group neither believed nor practiced like other Anabaptists of the day, yet the fact that their enemies called them Anabaptist was enough to paint every other Anabaptist with the brush of a cult.
There has to be a better way to determine what is and what is not a cult than attempting to apply a subjective definition.
We will mention the names of several cults throughout this article so that we understand the practical expression of the various attributes of a cult. Some religious groups display cult-like tendencies by adhering to one or two of these attributes, but may not be a full-blown cult because they do not adhere to all these attributes. What is bothersome and sad is that some Independent Baptist churches fall into the category of cult-like tendencies. We must learn to recognize these so that we save ourselves, and our loved ones, from the pain and suffering of the cult mentality.
As Bible-preaching, Bible-practicing Baptists, our absolute authority is the Word of God. Psalm 119:101 tells us, "I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word." It is the Word of God that commands our movements, our thoughts, our attitudes, and our actions. When we get away from the Word of God, we inevitably fall.
The cult may pay lip service to the Bible as their final authority, but the final authority is found elsewhere.
The cult will say things like "the Bible is our final authority, as interpreted by our leading council."
This is the teaching of the Jehovah's Witness. They teach that the Watchtower publications (beginning in 1879) are the only proper avenue of Scriptural and spiritual interpretation.
This has ever been the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, telling us that we must believe whatever the priest tells us because he represents the "Church." The Pope, speaking "ex-cathedra (from the throne)," can confirm doctrine that is not found in the Bible: i. e.: The immaculate conception of Mary, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the assumption of Mary, Purgatory, etc.
Yet, there have been some Independent Baptists who have also fallen into the trap of teaching that the Pastor must be believed and obeyed, even if he has no Biblical basis for his doctrine or practice. This is an attribute of a cult among people who should know better.
The cult will also say things like, "I know the Bible says that, but I've had a vision and/or an experience!"
This is true of most, if not all, Pentecostal and Charismatic groups. When confronted with the teaching of Scripture, they will fall back on their own experience as a reason to ignore what the Bible has said, or they will point out some vision or dream they have had. The Holy Spirit will NEVER lead anyone contrary to the Scripture (John 16:13-15), and He would never give a dream or vision in contradiction to God's written Word if He were still speaking through dreams and visions today.
When the leader(s) interpret the Bible according to their ideology, it is easy to see where abnormal doctrine will be the outcome. We already mentioned the various non-Biblical doctrines that have been affirmed by the Roman Catholic Church.
Another example of abnormal doctrine is found in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church holds the prophecies of Ellen G. White to be of equal standing to the Bible. Many of these prophecies have been proven untrue, yet the SDA Church ignores these "problematic" prophecies and continues to promote other prophecies. It is through her prophecies that "cold cereal" was popularized, because, according to her prophecy, it would make men express less "toxic masculinity." Due to this prophecy, one of her adherents, W. K. Kellogg, established Kellogg's cereals.
Some of these abnormal doctrines will be less glaring than these examples. In an Independent Baptist church, the abnormal doctrine will be seen in carrying any practice beyond the dictates of Scripture. Consider church discipline as an example of this truth. Many Independent Baptist churches do not practise church discipline at all, even when there is an obvious need for it. This is abnormal when compared to 1 Corinthians 5:2, "And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you." Other churches believe church discipline to be at the whim of the Pastor. When a church allows the Pastor to decide that an individual member is no longer a member of the church, they are practicing Pastoral discipline rather than church discipline. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 make it clear that the whole church was to be involved in deciding to remove a member of the church: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, (5) To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." There are other aspects of church discipline that we will deal with as we consider other attributes of a cult.
Cults and cult leaders demand allegiance or loyalty that is unreasonable and unquestionable. While the Bible teaches that every Christian should be loyal to the Lord and the church to which the Lord has directed him, that loyalty is not blind loyalty. Biblical loyalty is based on the teaching of the Scripture rather than the manipulation of men.
When you read the Gospels you will find that the disciples constantly peppered Jesus with questions about His teaching. Jesus did not show offence at being asked to explain what He believed, but a cult leader will be highly offended that anyone would dare question his teaching/doctrine.
When you read the Gospels you will find instances where the Lord did not answer the questions of the religious crowd and those who asked questions to get "dirt" on Jesus. There are times a Pastor will discern this as the attitude of the questioner and refuse to answer a question. That is legitimate. However, to have a consistent pattern of failure to answer honest questions should be a red flag that you are rubbing shoulders with a cult/cult leader.
Absence of Soul Liberty
Soul liberty is a wonderful thing that can be twisted into something detrimental to the individual. Soul liberty states that every born-again believer can be lead and taught by the Holy Spirit of God (John 16:13), and is not answerable to anyone but the Lord for his doctrine and practice.
Of course, there are some boundaries to soul liberty: it must be used to edify other believers (Romans 14:19) and it cannot be used to produce arguments over petty disagreements (Romans 14:1). Also, a believer who is not in doctrinal agreement with the church of which he is a member may not be able to hold a particular position within the church. This is because every New Testament church is supposed to show unity in doctrine rather than diversity in doctrine (1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 4:5).
A cult, however, allows for NO dissent. You cannot believe differently and be a part of their group. If you happen to disagree with the cult or cult leaders, you will be identified as a troublemaker and removed from the group. On top of that humiliation, the cult will ban any of its adherents from any sort of contact with you.
Again, this can be seen in Independent Baptist churches in the area of church discipline. The Pastor or church will point out that the disciplined church member is to be treated as a publican or a heathen man (Matthew 18:17). The Pastor or church will proclaim that this means every church member must treat the disciplined member as if they had died. This is beyond the teaching of Scripture: Jesus Himself sought to reach the heathen man and the publican. He did not associate with them in their sin, but He did seek to reach them for God. In church discipline, the church member should not go out of their way to maintain contact with the individual under church discipline, but when they have contact it must be to promote reconciliation. So, these churches have taken the truth too far; demanding that every church member falls in line.
This has been hinted at in previous points, but it is needful to bring it to the forefront. Cults/cult leaders will seek to control every aspect of your life: where you go, who you see, what you do, etc.
Again, this is extreme. The Pastor ought to preach the Word of God with authority, telling folks what God expects of them in every aspect of their lives. However, this bold preaching does not translate into dictatorship, where the Pastor or church-appointed official enters the home of the member to correct detected error (misuse of money, inappropriate music habits, attendance to worldly entertainment, etc.), except in those areas where church discipline would be necessary. Cults have a "snitch system" or "secret police" built into their religion which spies on various members to bear tales to the leadership. The cult leaders then approach the individual cult member in a heavy-handed manner to maintain total control.
This sort of control has been known to occur among Independent Baptist churches, too. I can recall staying in the home of a family during a visit to a particular church. The wife had 4-5 children, home-schooled most of them, cared for one child that had special needs, arose every morning at 5:00, walked 5 miles every day, baked homemade bread every day, and a host of other responsibilities all because the Pastor had said from the pulpit that every wife should be doing those things. Of course, the Bible says nothing about what time to rise each morning, how far an individual should walk every day, whether bread should be homemade, etc. This was a Pastor taking total control over the daily lives of every individual.
What every Pastor of every Independent Baptist church should pray for and promote is a people who will look to the Word of God and follow that as their pattern for living. That would be a blessing to every Pastor and church member!
Avenue of Salvation
Finally, a cult has the attribute of claiming to have a corner on truth. This is usually seen in the area of salvation, but not always.
The Bible teaches that Christ is the only way to heaven (John 14:6)! Sadly, the majority of "Christian" churches do not teach this, having fallen into the trap of adding the works of man to the work of Christ. Some would claim that we are a cult because we believe this, but that is not the case. Many people have been saved outside of an Independent Baptist church, and I am thankful for every soul that has come to Christ, no matter the church or denomination that was involved. A cult, however, believes that no one can be saved unless they are a part of their group. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that they are the only way to heaven. The Jehovah's Witness teaches that they are the only way to heaven. The Seventh-Day Adventist teaches that they are the only way to heaven. The Mormon teaches that they are the only way to heaven. And the list goes on.
Some point to a group of Baptists called "Baptist Briders" and claim that they are a cult because they believe that they are the only ones going to heaven. Having known many who called themselves "Baptist Briders" and having discussed this issue with them, I can honestly attest that they do NOT believe that only Baptists go to heaven. This claim is a gross misrepresentation of what they believe.
In these Last Days, believers need to recognize a cult when they see one, even if that cult claims to be "Independent Baptist." We must avoid these cults, and pray that we never find these attributes of a cult to be a comfortable place for our church to stand.