Members of cults seem to share similar characteristics. In New Testament times there were those who exhibited the same traits and became victims of false teachers. What are the qualities that make a person a prime target for recruitment into a religious cult?
Believed the Teacher More Than the Teaching
A prime example of this is found in Acts 14:8-18. Paul and Barnabas healed a man. The people tried to worship them as gods, but Paul and Barnabas insisted that they were just men and should not be treated that way (v 12-14). Even after this, they could not stop the multitude from sacrificing to them (v 18). Imagine what could happen if Paul and Barnabas encouraged the crowd to worship them instead. Cult teachers tend to be intimidating. When they find someone who can be so influenced by a teacher, they will have an easy time recruiting followers.
Never Question the Teacher nor their Doctrine
Stories about the shady practices of cult leaders are easy to find in the media, yet their followers are often not dissuaded. Why not? Followers have blind allegiance and refuse to ask hard questions about the cult, its leaders, its teachings, etc. Not only that, followers will defend their actions and teachings. This sounds Biblically familiar.
Jesus asked, “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher,” (Lk 6:39-40). Just as a righteous teacher can foster righteous disciples, false teachers can foster lost, unquestioning followers.
Believers are Isolated
The biggest fear cults have is losing their converts. If they had the truth, they would not have to be afraid. However, they want complete and utter control of all their members. This is achieved by isolating them from family and friends. They are trained only to talk with those who will listen and not question other people like them. In contrast, Christians are encouraged to associate with non-Christians in order to have a positive influence (Matt. 5:13-16 ff; I Cor. 7:13-16, I Cor. 5:9-10). We do not want Christians to fall away but also do not fear a fallen Christian exposing “secrets” or the inner-workings of the church like those who leave cults tend to do.
Irrational Confidence in the Cult’s Teaching
Christians are told to examine themselves regularly to make sure they are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5). Many Christians, including the apostles, had to be rebuked for doing things that were wrong (Gal. 2:11-12 ff; Gal. 1:6-9; I Cor. 5:1-2; Acts 5:1-5). I have been in many studies with those who belong to cults. I consistently tell them that while I do not believe I am wrong, I will certainly admit that I am if it can be proven. When I ask them to state the same, they refuse. Why? They are puffed up and think the cult is infallible. We all need to remember the words in Romans 12:3, “…not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”
Cults only have as much power as their members give them. Remember that faith grounded in genuine truth has nothing to hide and nothing to fear with an honest discussion of the scripture. Children of God are supposed to only speak by the oracles of God (I Pet. 4:11 f; 2 Tim. 3:16). They are not to teach for doctrine the commandments of men (Matt 15:7-9).
Cults Are Structured In Lies
Cults cannot exist without lies. Their leaders claim they heard the voice of God. They claim they have seen God. They claim God wants them to write new revelations (2 Pet 1:3). They claim that they are God. They claim they are the prophets of God. They claim only they can interpret the scriptures. They claim they know the end of times (Matt 24:36). Jesus said it plainly, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (Jn 8:44). No man has ever seen or heard the voice of God and lived (Jn 1:18 f; Jn 5:37). If someone was a prophet of God, their prophecies came true every time. “And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ — when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deut 18:21-22). There are many false teachers in the world and for this reason must try them by the scriptures (1 Jn 4:1). When they speak that which the scripture does not say, they are a false teacher. When they add to God’s Word, they are a false teacher (1 Cor 4:6). When they subtract from God’s Word, they are a false teacher (Rev 22:18,19). When they speak great swelling words of vanity in order to make monetary gain from you, they are false teachers (2 Pet 2:1-3 f; Rom 16:17,18).
Are You Brainwashed?
If God’s people were brainwashed, then nothing that was offered to the Lord would be genuine. Something cannot be done out of free-will if that person does not even have a will. This explains why Christians are told such words as, “beware”, “watch”, “take heed”, “choose”, etc. Just as God’s people can choose to serve faithfully, they can also choose to disobey (Matt. 13:18-23).
When people honestly and sincerely study and search the scripture, separate and apart from the bias of others, they will come to the same conclusion as early day Christians did. When people are honest seekers of the truth, they will come open-minded and free of preconceived ideas. They will not be naive, but like the Bereans who after they heard the Word, searched the scriptures daily proving what they had heard was so (Acts 17:11). Sincere believers have an open mind, a ready mind, and trusted only after they had verified what they had heard by God’s Word. Notice, they did not verify what they had heard by personal beliefs, family beliefs, friend’s beliefs, or by someone they revered. Their proof was in the scripture (1 Thess 5:21).