10 Ways a Church Operates Like a Cult More than a Healthy Family

Words are really tricky, so addressing the term “cult” can get very complicated, especially because it’s not always used in the right context. This may come as a surprise to you, but the real meaning of the word cult is not 100% negative. Cult is derived from the word culture and can describe the unity and alignment around certain values, mindsets and behaviors that cause an organization to flow in clarity.

Some of the greatest organizations have been called cult-like. This can be given as a compliment to the clear vision and adherence to specific passions and missions. Businesses, movie lovers and certain hobbies have “cult-like” followers.

Word “Cult” Often Misused

Many Christians can be called cult followers, when they are simply just passionate Christ followers who have given their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Churches and ministries that experience powerful moves of God can be named cults, simply by the unity and passion that is expressed.

I remember years ago I was called a cult leader, simply because I taught on the love of God as a Father. Nothing complicated. In fact, it’s a rock solid biblical precept. But because it hit at someone’s discomfort with what father meant and brought pain to the surface, it was easier to label me as a cult leader so that heart wounds didn’t have to be addressed.

The Early Church

The early church would have been called a cult by today’s standards. The love they carried for each other and the bond they lived in was special. Imagine church life being one where you go from house to house, eat together and share life together is a constant. “Sounds like a cult!” many would say.

The Need for Caution with Labels

People love to throw the word cult around anytime they don’t like a particular leader, church or ministry. It’s easy to toss a cult label as a wet blanket over an entire group to dismiss them. Jealousy and downright bitterness cause us to tear down anyone that is making a powerful impact.

In an age where labeling has become uninformed, shallow and accusatory, we have to be cautious how we use certain words to describe others. Sometimes fellowships are called cults when in reality they are operating as a powerful family. As believers, we are the army of God, but our core culture is that of a family. And because we don’t always know how to do family in the natural very well, living as a healthy spiritual family is not an easy task.

Becoming Healthy Church Families

In this context, the sense of what spiritual family should look like can easily get distorted. Cults form when culture gets dysfunctional. Leaders become slave masters instead of humble servant leaders. An orphan spirit is at the heart of most cult leaders. They need followers to fulfill the emptiness in their hearts. Overall, brokenness is not addressed. It becomes justified and covered over rather than healed in the context of grace relationship. Culture becomes a dangerous cult when terms get misused and what often starts as a genuine move of God can become a toxic environment of control, manipulation and deception.

Here are some tell tale signs a church is moving from a powerful family into a dangerous cult-like environment.

1. There is very little interest or involvement with any persons, organizations or groups outside their church.

I find this to actually be a common manifestation amongst churches today. When I was a staff pastor many years ago, I carried this mentality in my life. If you were not directly involved or connected to something I was doing in my own church, I was not really interested in our relationship. I showed very little compassion and love towards other churches and ministries outside my bubble.

It’s a dangerous mindset that seeps in—one that I had to repent of. When I left a church staff position, I felt what it was like to be on the receiving end of this mindset. There was little to no interest in what I was doing or how I was doing because I was no longer in that particular bubble anymore.

It brought me to my knees in recognition of how much we all operate like unhealthy cults than we do genuine believers who really care about the whole body of Christ. We’re all too busy building our little kingdoms with little regard for what God is doing in others that we need to engage.

When a church does not encourage engagement with other ministries and churches, it can shelter the people from healthy input. Many times this is done as a way to protect the flock, but doesn’t equip people to think for themselves and make use of powerful ministries that can be a help to their life. No church has all the answers and its one of the reasons we’re stuck. We’re so busy blocking each other out, we cannot hear what we need to grow to the next level. 

In this process of separation, we develop a higher status in comparison to other churches. If you have some insights, it becomes, “we have revelation that other people don’t have or understand.” If you have a large church, smaller churches are looked down upon. If your church is small, then large mega churches become the enemy. It’s all built on insecurity and jealousy.

2. Critical thinking and collaboration are not encouraged.

You can tell a cult leader from a mile away when you try to have a civil conversation with them about a different viewpoint from Scriptures and they buck in anger. I’m not talking about attacking someone or coming to a leader with disrespect. God knows I’ve had church members attack like that and there was nothing redemptive coming out of it.

I’m speaking of honoring conversations that could enhance what is believed and taught. The standard being the Word of God, not opinions. I’m talking about white board meetings, where you can collaborate on ideas and work with multiple people on ministry projects. Cult-like churches circle back to that one leader. Whenever someone else rises up with influence, that person is easily shut down and sabotaged.

3. People who leave are handled poorly.

This is by far one the saddest repercussions of cult-like organizations. People who move on for various reasons are treated with contempt, shame and judgment. Their departure is not about differing perspectives. In a cult, that person is condemned. God is not on their side. It’s easy to make it a “we are right and this person is wrong” kind of scenario.

I have found that most drama from a person leaving the church happens because the next level of that person’s life was not recognized. Many times people are at a church for a season. The church serves as an equipping center for a particular area in their life. But then there comes a time where they need to move on to a different assignment. They may need to move on to another fellowship or they may need to be launched into a new ministry assignment. Churches should be excited about this. The problem is, leadership doesn’t recognize this. We are too busy trying to build our personal kingdom and we fail to see that the agitation we have with a leader is because we are not equipping them to move on. The tension may be there because they need to be launched! 

4. People have a hard time joining your circle of relationships.

One big difference between a natural family and spiritual family, is that in a spiritual family, people should be added on a daily basis. We all should have our core relationships, but there needs to be a genuine openness to new people and allowing for new relationship connections to form.

Cult-like organizations don’t know how to make people feel welcomed. They either have an initial coldness, or they go overboard—hugging and kissing on the first meet. When I was a lead pastor, I told my core leaders, “I am not going to spend much time with you on a Sunday. That is time to interact with new people and those I need to get to know.”

5. Unhealthy loyalty is given to a leader, even more than Jesus and the standard of the Scriptures.

People begin to elevate what a particular leader says over the authority of Scriptures. In one conversation I had with a cult-like church, I asked some simple questions regarding some biblical precepts. The answer I was given over and over again was “Pastor so and so says…..” When that’s the answer all the time, it’s dangerous.

6. The health of the people takes a back seat to achievement, constant programs and the look of success.

The pull of “success” can become such a driving force that every resource is used to present a fabricated image, while ignoring honest and authentic interaction.  In fact, the definition of success can often have more of a world based definition than a God based perspective.

A cult-like environment will never admit to struggles, setbacks or disappointments. No matter what is happening, everything is shown as going great! This creates confusion in the people, who struggle to know how to face their own trials and tribulations. 

Meanwhile, the driving force of achievement allows the machine of church to take over. Now leaders don’t even know how to slow down and find rest in the never ending cycle of busyness.

7. The concept of family is twisted.

When the church takes priority over personal wellness and family health, things are going to get unhealthy. This abuse often starts with a subtle communication that church equals God. Therefore, its communicated that if you don’t put the church first, you are not putting God first.

Over time, church leaders can override family leaders. People can even be shunned for spending time with family.

8. They emphasize revelation that either contradicts Scripture or creates an emphasis on a matter that is not central.

Too many Christians are spending time arguing on side issues that are not central to a healthy life in Christ. But most cult-like environments feel they possess secret revelations and have a spiritual elitism in certain matters.

9. People constantly feel not good enough or that something is constantly wrong with them.

One of the biggest manifestations of spiritual abuse is people are left spinning in thoughts that say, “what is wrong with me?” or “what did I do wrong?” They’ve been conditioned that if something is not happening or showing fruit, it’s because of something they are not doing:

You need more faith. ..

It’s because you need to do this program…

It’s because you haven’t fixed this issue in your life…

You’re aren’t giving enough…

Beware when people in the church body continue to feel worse about their life and circumstances, when they are taught, “If you just pray more, do more, read your Bible more or get some areas of your life right, then you’ll see growth.”

10. There is a loss of integrity and sin becomes hidden.

I’ve had to see this with my own eyes to really discover how integrity slowly erodes when a church becomes cult-like. Yet it proves true time and again. Behind the scenes, relationship interactions becomes unhealthy, leaders begin to portray very unhealthy patterns and even sexual sin can grow. I’ve even watched mental instability and forms of mental illness begin to increase. A lot of this comes about because the desire to be healthy with one another as a family has been abandoned.

Do you feel like you have experience spiritual abuse in your life? Sign up for this course to get more insights on how to engage the healing process to recover and rebuild.