How do you know if a religion, sect, or organization is a cult? I posted earlier about the time my sister thought I was in a cult. This was in reference to the Word of Faith (aka, Prosperity Gospel), which I believed in for several years. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t fully a cult, but it wasn’t healthy either.
An organization called International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) has an article on their website called “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups” that lists a number of patterns that are consistent throughout all cults. Some groups may check several boxes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a cult.
I will go through this list, using my experience with the Word of Faith. You might want to consider answering for whatever group you are thinking of.
If you want a primer on the Word of Faith, I did a video about it.
Number 1: The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
As a group, Word of Faith (WoF) believers are devoted to their pastor, sometimes even referring to him/her as an apostle or prophet. They also have celebrity preachers that they follow closely. I became disenchanted with one of my churches when the pastor quoted a particular televangelist more than Jesus. It seems at times they take what their leaders say as just as much the Word of God as the Bible, even more so in extreme cases.
The lines between commitment to God and commitment to your leader can get blurred sometimes.Tweet
I will say yes to this.
Number 2: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
They are not punished but definitely discouraged. They encourage you to question and dissent outsiders, traditional churches, seminaries, “the fake news media,” experts, scientists, doctors, evidence, and anything that does not agree with their narrow interpretation of the Bible. But if you question, doubt, or disagree with them, you are automatically wrong, because their leaders are appointed and anointed by God. They might even tell you this is the reason your prayers aren’t being answered, because in questioning them, you think you are smarter than God.
I’ll say yes to this.
Number 3: Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
The only one on that list they practice is speaking in tongues, and it’s not done as a mind-altering exercise. It is to fulfill what they believe is a restoration of the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.(NRSV)
I don’t remember it as altering my mind, except on a few occasions, and there was no one to witness it. I did not do it in the church, because later in that same letter, Paul says only speak in tongues in public if there is someone to interpret it (1 Cor 14:28). They do believe in meditating on God’s word, but chanting is too new-agey or Buddhist-like for them.
But I’m not sure I can say no to this. The ones who invite people up for healing have gotten good at using the placebo effect. That requires some mind-alteration for people to believe they are healed when they aren’t. I was in my church choir for several years, so music is a big part of the worship experience for me. The way they use music, however, is to make you more suggestible or induce a sense of euphoria, so you will be easier to manipulate.
I will say yes, they do use some mind-altering methods, even if not the ones listed specifically.
Number 4: The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
In my own experience, they would express opinions on some of these issues, but they would not command or forbid one way or the other. They did not tell you what job to take, who to marry, what clothes to wear, where to live, etc. However, they did tell you how you should think, act, and feel in other ways.
If you prayed for healing, they would tell you things like, “Don’t consider your body. Don’t consider your feelings. Don’t consider your symptoms. Consider only the Word of God that says, ‘By his stripes you were healed.’” In other words, ignore the obvious signs that you were not really healed. They would not forbid but strongly discourage seeing a doctor, taking a prescription, getting vaccinated, or doing anything for your illness that did not come from the Bible or the Holy Spirit.
They would tell you that if you have Jesus, you can’t be depressed. For someone with undiagnosed clinical depression, I’ll let you guess how well that worked for me.
This is a tough call, but I’m going to say yes to this.
Number 5: The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
They did not have a specific leader they considered to be the Messiah, although as I said earlier, there were a few preachers they exalted to a level that felt equal to Jesus. That was when I really had problems with it. They also were somewhat elitist in thinking they were the only ones who believe the Bible, the only ones who stood for the word of God, and the only ones totally devoted to God. Traditional churches were dead as far as they were concerned.
You didn’t have to be part of their church or movement specifically to be saved, but you were considered a lesser version of Christianity. They were not happy with Billy Graham, because he would encourage those who came forward to give their lives to Christ at his crusades to join a local church. They wanted him to tell them to join a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church.” In other words, you have to join a church like ours, because we are the only ones who believe the Bible and teach it correctly.
I will say yes to this.
Number 6: The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
They believe they are persecuted, which fosters an us-versus-them mentality. And to them, that is confirmation that God is on their side, because Jesus said those who were faithful to him would be persecuted.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”(Mat 5:10-12 NRS)
When they do and say crazy things, and people say they are crazy, it means they are blessed. They are righteous. The more they are reviled and ridiculed, the more they think that is proof that they are right. But not all persecution is for righteousness’s sake. When a minister drives Mercedes S-Class or Bentley, or has a private jet, or is known to pull in tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and people ask how they can afford that, they complain. “Tom Cruise makes $20 million per movie. No one asks him how he makes so much. No one asks about the pastor who drives a Toyota. Why do they ask me about my Rolls Royce?”
Here’s why. Maybe Tom Cruise does make too much money, but we know where his money comes from. He doesn’t require people to give him 10% of their income to buy a ticket to his latest movie. My pastor drives a Toyota. We don’t ask him how he got it because we know how much he gets paid. The members of the church saw the budget proposal and approved it. We know his car is what he could reasonably afford. We don’t begrudge him any of his salary or benefits because being a pastor of a church our size will keep you pretty busy. We don’t want him to have to work another job just to make ends meet and take care of his family. But if he drove up one Sunday in a Mercedes, Rolls Royce, or Bentley, you’d better believe we would be asking him how he got it. And if he told us it was none of our business, we’d probably fire him.
Number 7: The leader is not accountable to any authorities.
Yes, and this is a big problem. The pastor or leader of the church is considered to be “the man of God” and accountable only to God. When I left my WoF faith for the Presbyterian church, one of the first things I noticed was they have an annual congregational meeting where they propose a budget for the next year. Everything the church spends money on, including compensation for the clergy and staff, is laid out for everyone to see. We vote on it and approve it. We can propose changes if we like, but usually everyone is satisfied with it. Any leader of a church or ministry who is not willing to do that should not receive your money. They should never tell you it’s none of your business how they spend your donations.
Some won’t even accept accountability to the government or law enforcement. One who was investigated by the Senate for possible fraud said the IRS has the right to audit their finances, but the Senate does not. He used to say Christians should obey the governing authorities according to Romans 13:1. Why does everyone else have to answer when the Senate comes knocking, but he doesn’t? Is he a Constitutional lawyer? Freedom of religion does not include the right to commit fraud. The church I’m in now would have no problem showing their financials if that happened. We have nothing to hide.
Number 8: The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
The ends justify the means. Defending the indefensible. It does happen, though I can’t think of many examples from my own time in WoF. I’ve seen it a lot more looking from the outside now. Even as hospitalizations and deaths mounted, they kept telling people not to wear masks and not to get the vaccine. Too many of them are not doctors but they play one in the pulpit.
When they said God will make you healthy, wealthy, and successful in all your endeavors if you send money to them—be it tithes, offerings, or “seeds”—at first I did not consider it reprehensible. I thought they were preaching “the Word of God.” It was silly dead church traditions that hid God’s promises of reaping a harvest from the seed–i.e., money–you sowed into God’s ministries. That changed when I saw the only people receiving the promised “harvest” were the preachers who received all those “seed offerings” and tithes. I went to one convention with my favorite televangelist at the time. I had been so looking forward to it, because I thought he was the most Spirit-anointed man walking the face of the earth. The first night, he told the story of how someone promised to give him a plane, didn’t do it, and died. That happened to three people, according to him.
I was horrified. He’s claiming God killed three people, because they lied about giving him a plane? Before I was really in the WoF camp, that would have been a stone-cold deal breaker for me. This guy was not only a heretic. He was dangerous. But I rationalized it by saying Jesus said and did things that offended a lot of people too. If I want to be anointed like this guy, I need to listen and not question. If God has anointed him, maybe I’m wrong. That thinking kept me in the WoF much longer than I should have been. Thank God I figured out he’s not really anointed. He’s just good at mind control.
I will say yes to this.
Number 9: The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
There were times I felt shame and guilt, but it’s hard to judge how much of it was self-inflicted. The fact that I didn’t know I was living with clinical depression did not help. They tell a lot of stories of people who stood steadfast in their belief for answer to prayer. It did not matter what the doctors said. It did not matter what the experts said. They kept believing for a miracle, and they got it. So if you don’t see the answer to your prayers, you have to keep believing. Keep praising God as if your prayers have already been answered, and you will get what you pray for. But if you doubt at all, that will cancel out your prayers. So there is pressure to believe things they say, even when you know they are not true.
They had me believing it was my fault that all those promises in the Bible were not coming true for me. That would make me feel guilty and ashamed, so I would double down. Read the Bible more, pray more, sow more seed offerings, and listen to more tapes of WoF stars to build up my faith, because “… faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17 KJV). Keep listening to WoF teaching, and your faith will grow. As your faith grows, your prayers will be answered. That’s how it works, according to WoF doctrine. Except no matter how deeply I immersed myself in their way of reading the Bible, it never worked for me. After I figured out this was a different Gospel, and what they spoke was not of the Holy Spirit, then I was able to walk away from them and their shame and guilt.
I will say yes to this.
Number 10: Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.
They are more likely to say pray for your family and friends than cut ties with them. Unless the family member or friend is LGBTQ, or “living in sin,” however they define that. Then they will tell you to cut ties with them until they “obey the Word of God.” With that one caveat, I will say no to this.
Number 11: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
I think any church wants to bring in new members. But generally, they are more concerned with saving souls whether or not they join our church. I will say no to this.
Number 12: The group is preoccupied with making money.
Many of them claim that God will not answer any of your prayers if you’re not tithing. So 10% of your income (gross, not net) is the cover charge for even getting in God’s presence to pray and be heard. The preachers brag about how rich they are and claim God will make you rich too if you give them money. Here are a few sound bites I’ve heard recently.
- “You want your loved ones saved? Get yo’ money! You want peace of mind? Get yo’ money! You want respect? Get yo’ money!”
- “Mone-e-e-e-e-e-e-y cometh! To me! Now!”
- “Tithing is the door that opens up the door to all the blessings.”
- “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing.”
- “Why are you coming to church if you’re not tithing? You’re not going to get anything from it.”
- “I’d like to take all the non-tithers outside, hand out uzis to the ushers, and shoot ‘em all dead.”
Yes, they are preoccupied with making money.
Number 13: Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
They would have Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services. That is more than the Presbyterian church I’m in now, but I don’t consider that inordinate.
Number 14: Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
No. Generally, they recognize you have work, school, and a life outside the church. You should act morally in all aspects of life, but they are not complete separatists. There is no compound where everyone lives.
Number 15: The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
I’m not sure what this looks like. I didn’t fear reprisals from the group, but they would speculate about whether you were still saved or not. “Why would anyone leave us? We have the truth,” was a common attitude. Parents who see their children leave “the faith” often feel shame, wondering where they went wrong. But I wouldn’t say they feel there can be no life outside the context of the group, at least in my experience.
I will say no to this.
There were fifteen items on the list. I said yes to ten and no to five. Some of them I couldn’t answer definitively yes or no. For about a third of them it was difficult to give a definite yes or no, which is why some of my explanations were long. I can think of some cults where I would say yes to all of these. If I were more generous, I might have answered seven or eight yes instead of ten. Just out of curiosity, I ran my PCUSA church and pastor through this checklist and answered everything no.
So back to the original question, is WoF a cult? You could say it’s relative. Compared to Scientology, no. Compared to most traditional churches, yes. However, having been in it and now out of it, I can say there is enough mind control, authoritarianism, and manipulation to be concerned. And knowing my current church checks none of these boxes, even one yes is a red flag for me now.
It’s no fun to think you were in a cult or even a half-cult. Whether it’s a cult or not, Word of Faith is something I am never going back to.
If you are interested in in learning more about the checklist and the dangers of cults in general, you can follow this link to the ICSA website.
Have you had experience with cults? Do you wonder if you or someone you know is in a cult now? Did this questionnaire provide any clarity for you? Let me know in the comments.
Michael D. Langone. Characteristics Associated with Cult Groups—Revised. ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 10
ICSA – Founded 1979 – About Us (icsahome.com)
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