Trying to determine if a group is a cult can sometimes feel like nailing jello to a wall. I have created a list of things that could help someone determine if a group is a cult. Ultimately, I would say that this would be more of a cult scale then a ultimate determinate of something being a cult.
Some groups could check a few of these boxes, but not actually be a cult; but if a group checks all, or even most of these boxes I would say they are a cult. If you are part of a group that checks any one of these boxes it is very healthy for you to keep a sharp eye on that area to make sure you are not in a cult yourself. Cults do their best to appear normal and will never advertise as a cult, or even think they are one, but here are a few signs to watch out for.
1. The leader or leadership is too good to be true
Often times cults will do a lot to protect the reputation of the founder or the current leader of the group. It is one thing to have a leader who is just plainly a great and gifted leader. The sign is when there is no wrong that the leader can do. The leader has lack of transparency to admit his own struggles or shortcomings. This often means that the leader or leadership is trying seem perfect so no one will question them.
2. Leadership meetings are not public or leadership is unknown.
Secrecy on any level is a sign that a group is trying to hide something, which is always a mark of a cult. Groups that have nothing to hide have no reason not to disclose those who are making the decisions that determine the direction of the group. Furthermore, there is no reason that people cannot learn the reasoning for decisions made in the group.
It is not unusual or even cultish for a group to make leadership meetings private but cult groups will not wish to disclose what happens in those meetings. Churches for instance may not invite the entire public to a deacon or elder meeting, but if they are unwilling to share what happened in those meetings with the public, that can be a red flag.
3. Groups that discourage or limit outside influence
Groups that tell members not to listen to certain media sources, certain people, books etc. are showing signs of a cult. Any group believes to one extent or another that they have either an exclusive truth or a level of truth that the other groups do not. There is nothing wrong with that in itself. But if that is the case, there should be no fear in someone hearing contrary arguments.
At the worst extremes cults will tell members that they can no longer interact with family or friends. Groups that are not cults will not fear their members being drawn out of their group from outside influence especially family. In fact the reverse should be the case, in that they should hope that their members will encourage their family and friends to join the group by interacting with them.
If a group tells members to no longer interact with family members who are still loving and even accepting of the persons membership to the group then this is a beaming sign of a cult.
4. The leader, the leadership, or certain doctrines are not allowed to be questioned
Again, if the group has the truth there should be no fear in questions. Groups that have the truth should not fear that someone will hear things that go against the group. Truth will always have more convincing arguments then lies. So if a member is questioning a doctrine or leader groups should have no fear that they can defend the stance of the group. Questions are not to be feared if you have the truth.
5. They hide the history of the group from the public or from members.
Cults often have a very questionable history or may have things that put a group in a bad light. Of course, many non-cult groups may have a bad past the problem with cults is that they seem to avoid talking about those past problems when asked. It comes back to the fact that if a group now has the truth they should not be afraid to admit their group was wrong in the past and move forward. Bad pasts can be awkward for a group to talk about but only cults will avoid talking about them altogether, or may even attempt to cover it up.
Cult groups often have pagan roots, may have racist connections or unfulfilled prophetic predictions. If a group is trying to cover up these sort of past events that’s a red flag. Jehovah Witness’ for instance do not bring up the many failed predictions of the second coming or of the apocalypse that is in their church history.
6. The group keeps some doctrines, beliefs hidden early on
Often cults try to keep off the radar by appearing just as another unsuspicious group but as you become more involved the oddities of the beliefs become more plain. Mormonism does this on a minor scale in that much of their beliefs about polytheism and polygamy are downplayed or not mentioned to people early on even though this is central to their beliefs. Non-cult groups are not afraid to share these beliefs and will avoid making those beliefs public on any level. Mormons would be pretty low even in this since most of those odd beliefs are generally accessible to the public online.
7. Repetition of central beliefs especially in a verbal manner
This is one of the perhaps less important signs since some non-cults may do similar things. Many of us recited the pledge of allegiance before class growing up, but that did not mean we were part of a cult. But repeating central doctrines can be a form of brainwashing, trying to get members to start believing something simply because they have heard and said it so many times.
8. They ostracize anyone who leaves the group
This goes along with the cult not wanting outside influence. If a group has the truth they should feel confident that the apostate member will one day come back, or he will not have influence to bring others out of the group. Any group that fears ex-members shows that there is probably something that the ex-members know they are trying to hide. Cults of the worst kind may even separate families when family members leave the cult.
Ultimately all of these signs could probably very easily be summed up in saying that cults are afraid to have transparent, honest dialogue with anyone about any subject. Cults are trying to hide something or ‘protect’ those who are new to the group. Any actions that show a fear of some sort of honest open dialogue should be a warning flag that a group is a cult.
Scripture is clear that we should be willing to give a reason for the hope that we have in Christ and we see that Paul practiced this by having intellectual and open dialogue with people all throughout Acts. Any group afraid of honest dialogue like this is probably on the cult scale. If you want to see more about why Christianity promotes thinking and justifying our beliefs Jesus Wouldn’t Argue.