What are signs that someone you know may be involved in a cult? What can you do to bring them out of it?
Definition of a Cult
A cult is defined as a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies, and usually a great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, which is especially as manifested by a body of admirers, but it doesn’t have to be a religious cult because cults can be groups of people who have exclusive membership that can deal with any number of political or social issues. More often than not, it is a group holding to a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering on their sacred symbols. Most people think of cults as a religious sect which is considered to be false, unorthodox, or an extremist group with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader, but sometimes cults can be more insidious as they appear to offer help to the hurting, but actually look for members to have under their control. Cults take various shapes and sizes but cults are growing and they are looking for people who have often been hurt and have great turmoil in their lives. People like this are very vulnerable to cults because they see cults as family, accepting them when it seems no one else will, so what are the dangers of cults?
Dangers of Cults
One of the greatest indications of a cult is when the group tries to cut the person off from the outside world, including family, friends, and anyone else connected to them. They seek to isolate them and make them fully dependent upon the group, so that they will not need anything or anyone else outside of the group. Cults can sometimes strip a person’s personal identity and place them into a group with a “group mentality” and discourage individual thinking and acting so that the actions of all members fall under one person’s domain and act collectively rather than individually. The “self” is sacrificed for “us” and “us” is now placed against anyone outside of the cult, as its “us” and “them,” creating individuals who are isolated from society and family and acting in ways that are sometimes contrary to the world. Former cult members report a sense of purposelessness, disconnection, depression, guilt, anger, alienation, fear, low self-esteem, and shame. The damage that some of these cults do is almost irreversible, and if not for God’s Spirit, many of these former cult members would have remained in bondage in these exclusive cultural hideouts. Today, there are well over 5,000 acknowledged cults in the U.S. but the number is growing .
Signs of a Cult
Some of the signs of being in a cult were mentioned before, and things like disassociating the person from family, friends, and the world in general, but also being under emotional control by a strong, charismatic leader to whom everyone is totally devoted. This total devotion makes the members do things that they normally wouldn’t do in society or around family or friends, so aberrant behaviors such as isolation, forsaking family and friends, manipulation, taking possession of members personal property, and a de-programing of things formerly held to beliefs, practices, and doctrines that are commanded for the group. These groups violate a person’s civil personal rights and strip most of their freedoms for the “best interests” of the cult, and in doing so they place the person under mental, emotional, and sometimes physical control, making resistance nearly impossible. There is loss of privacy, rights, dignity, and individuality, and the person becomes part of a greater whole in which they lose control over personal choices. Some of the most famous cults, most of which ended in disaster, are the Branch Davidians, the Church of Scientology, the Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, Unification Church, the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Twelve Tribes. Of course there are hundreds more, but these are the most significant and most powerful, although some do not exist anymore. Others include the New Reformation, the Apostolic Mandate, Five Fold Ministry, and dozens of others and what you’ll find is they focus on one specific belief or doctrine over all of the other essential doctrines, and put the group ahead of God, the Bible, and the Great Commission.
Escaping a Cult
Escaping a cult can be difficult. It takes prayer, patience, and persistence. Most cult members don’t even know they’re in a cult, while some are afraid to leave for fear of the cult leader’s repercussions against them. Many have been programmed or “brain washed” and need to be deprogrammed or debriefed once they leave, but to get them to leave is often very difficult because the cult doesn’t allow non-members into their property or compound. A few cult members become disenfranchised or disillusioned and simply walk out (some say they had to escape under cover of darkness), but most former cultists say it’s not easy to get out. Some members are kicked out for not following orders, some are burned out, and just can’t take it anymore, and some find out that they are in a cult by family or friends who sent them literature about the cult they’re in. It’s best to try and speak with cult members when they’re away from the members of the group, because the person in a cult won’t feel comfortable speaking to family and friends if other cult members are present. A few former cult members said they saw the hypocrisy of the leader and how the cult had been taking advantage of the members’ personal property and their personal freedoms.
If you know of someone who is in a cult, understand that they won’t agree with you on most things, so point them to what the Bible says. Perhaps there’s still a spark of interest in what God’s Word says, so educate yourself and the person in the cult so that they understand they’re in a cult. Make sure you stay connected to the person in the cult, even if they don’t respond or communicate back with you. People who are in a cult might not even know it, but even if they do, they might not be able to escape it easily. Offer to be there for them, 24/7; keep communication lines open; pray for that person; educate yourself about this group and try to inform the one in the cult; and understand that since these cults are not of God, they can only come from another source, and that is Satan and his demons. Satan has done a good job of cloaking these cults, but God’s Spirit can change the human heart (Prov 21:1), so there is hope, even for those who are imprisoned in this stronghold of Satan.
Read more on a similar topic here: How Can We Recognize False Doctrines?
Resources – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible : English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  Prevalence of Cults: A Review of Empirical Research in the U. S. A. International Cultic Studies Association, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, July 14, 2005 Edward A. Lottick, M. D.