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Is Christianity a Cult?

by Brian Flewelling on March 07, 2023

As mainstream American culture continues to become skeptically secular, there is a growing distrust and resistance towards Christianity. This is nothing new. The Roman Empire was suspicious of the early Christian Church because of its strange beliefs and practices that didn't conform to the general society. You can also hear disdain towards the Christian Church laced throughout the Enlightenment Philosopher's writings from two-hundred years ago. Even more recently, about twenty years ago, a new group of aggressive atheists became very vocal about their contempt for Christianity and compared it to a superstitious and abusive cult. This accusation touches on some complex issues and raises many difficult questions. What's the difference between religions and cults? What do healthy religious leaders and communities look like? How unhealthy can they be before they become "cult-ish"? What is society's role in attempting to socialize people and break up cultic communities? What does a healthy relationship look like between a group and an individual? 

Unfortunately, we don't have time to answer all these questions, but I wanted to investigate a few ideas for our consideration. 

What is a cult?

When most people use the word cult today, they generally mean an insulated community of people dominated by a charismatically manipulative leader who often uses their influence on people for their own selfish purposes: financially, sexually, organizationally, or theologically. I don't believe all groups that manifest these symptoms are necessarily cults, but these symptoms certainly do point to some unhealthy tendencies. We even see these within a handful of our conservative Christian communities in Lancaster County. Below are a few unhealthy, cult-like tendencies to watch out for. Or, if you don't have the time to read all 1300 words of this article, you can jump to the end and read my summary.    

1. Authority that is Unaccountable or Uncriticizable

Most cultic leaders present themselves as the ultimate authority. They are the only righteous one. They have a new revelation, or the "word of the Lord," and nobody says "no" to them. Nobody can criticize them or point out their mistakes. They become essentially uncorrectable. No one has the power to fire them, confront them, or amend them within their tight-knit community. They effectively become a deity to their people. They become the mediator to God, to which every other person becomes accountable.

Conversely, healthy communities, even with strong leaders, discern God together and keep each other accountable to God's established standards. God is the ultimate judge, and everyone will be held accountable to God, not one leader. 

Even Jesus submitted himself to the faith community. He was baptized by John the Baptist. He went to the local synagogues and worshipped with other open Jewish communities. While under trial, he told his accusers, "I have spoken openly to the world…I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret" (John 18:20). We even learn from the conversations between Jesus and his disciples that their relationship, between teacher and students, was of a dynamic nature. His disciples constantly asked questions, searched for answers, and challenged the process. Healthy leadership exhibits a two-way relationship.  

2. Fear of Punishment (Coercive)

Often cults are highly manipulative and abusive. They control greater and greater portions of people's lives and behaviors through fear of punishment or pressuring them to behave in certain ways. Establishing standard behaviors is not necessarily evil. All groups, including companies, families, and nations, have accepted behaviors and a process for alienating or punishing those who don't conform. 

Maybe, what differentiates a healthy group from an unhealthy group is whether a person has the freedom or choice to leave. Is this person free to walk away? Or is there intimidation and fear of physical or spiritual punishment? Sometimes a family's emotions may run high. Sometimes they may grieve over the choices a child makes. But is that child free to make their own choices without coercion? 

Jesus invited people to "come follow me." It was an open and upfront contract. There's no manipulation or threats. You are free to come and free to leave. The son of man "did not come to condemn the world but to save it," he said. In fact, one of Jesus' followers sabotaged his ministry, and still, Jesus did not punish Judas for his betrayal. Jesus died on the cross for his enemies. Courageous leaders sacrifice themselves to serve others, not manipulate them.

3. Cults Become Insulative (Group Think)

Cults often become insulative and disconnected from the broader society. They don't want community members interacting with the outside world, reading books by anyone that’s not on their approved list, or listening to other leaders. Those influences and ideas may permit people to think differently, think for themselves, or rival the "word" presented by the leadership. Cults thrive in thought control and darkness. They thrive on narrowing the aperture and limiting what you're allowed to think, say, and do.

Christianity has a long tradition. Some of it got pretty manipulative when it was merged with political power, but as a whole, it is a faith built on ever-expanding knowledge, practice, transparency, and openness. It thrives in the light of information and freedom. Test it. Explore. Learn. Grow. Truth has a way of presenting all the facts and giving you the freedom to decide for yourself. It is a faith that believes, not in closing its eyes to contrary evidence, but rather in facing the evidence and argument rationally. It is openly critiqued, tested, and put on trial as it has been for centuries and still withstands the challenge of credibility and plausibility.

Unhealthy leaders are fearful that what they believe will be discredited or disproved. Healthy leaders know they aren't perfect, but know that truth is something we are pursuing together

4. Loss of Individuality 

Often in controlling communities, individuality, and individual expression are lost. Individuals are not free to voice their opinions, critique the process, or draw their own physical boundaries. They exist to serve the leader or community. At its worst, this can look like sexual exploitation. The person's core identity becomes lost in the service of the collective. The individual is only taught to surrender to the group, never how to have healthy relationship with the group.

Thinking along group lines is not necessarily evil. Many relatively healthy societies around the world are tilted towards group identity instead of individuality—many far east countries, for example. But sacrificing an individual's liberty to choose, or eroding the inherent value of an individual, in order to benefit the interest of the collective is an unhealthy extreme. Healthy communities are made of healthy individuals who knowingly band together in trusting relationships. "So in Christ, we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us" (Romans 12:5-6). In healthy communities, individuals build trust and freely choose to sacrifice out of love. 

Jesus welcomed people to join a movement, a community, and a family. We are social creatures, and we need each other to grow and become all God has called us to become. But always, the individual maintains primary responsibility for their choices and actions. Always the individual is capable of receiving love and care from God without the aid of a human intermediary. And always, there should be a respect for the unique capacities, goals, giftings, and physical value that each person possesses in life.

There are many other indications of coercion in cults. I've just tried to list a few of the big ones. If you are trapped in a cult-like group, find someone who can help you and protect you. The process of becoming free from this oppression is not just physical but also mental and spiritual. Cult-like mentalities are like clamps around people's minds. It often takes a decade or more to fully unclamp those debilitating thought patterns. You're going to need healthy, safe, nurturing relationships to help you along in your healing journey. We get broken in relationships, and we get healed in relationships.


We started by asking the question, "Is Christianity a cult?" Well, there may be cult-like communities within Christendom. But no, Christianity is not a cult. It is an open-invitation community built on what God has done for us, not what we can do for God. It should be practiced in communities where the Holy Spirit democratizes the roles, authority, gifts, and responsibilities among diverse individuals. It teaches final accountability to God and his Word, with freedom of individuality to grow, explore, adapt, and change throughout life according to God-given liberties. It teaches healthy relationships of trust between individuals and groups and healthy leadership that is self-sacrificing instead of manipulative. Socially speaking, Christianity teaches people to build the broadest possible communities—nations, or school districts—oriented along the highest levels of relationship: respect, truth, trust, and sacrifice. Indeed, the golden rule is not a private perversion of a cult leader; it is the highest ethic man has discovered in relating to himself, "do to others as you would have them do to you.”


Tags: truth, community, fear, authority, accountability, relationships, liberty, punishment, cult, charismatic, boundaries, respect, transparency, healthy, individuality, coercion, unhealthy

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