What is a cult?

This article is from Hank Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book—Collector’s Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008)
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Larry King asked me this very question after thirty-nine people took their lives in the largest mass suicide in U.S. history. He went on to ask whether Christianity might legitimately be referred to as a cult. As I explained on Larry King Live the word “cult” has various connotations.

First, a cult may be defined sociologically. From this perspective, a cult is a religious or semi-religious sect whose followers are controlled by strong leadership in virtually every dimension of their lives. Devotees characteristically display a displaced loyalty for the guru and the group and are galvanized together through physical and/or psychological intimidation tactics. This kind of cultist more often than not displays a “we/they” siege mentality and has been cut off from all former associations including their immediate families.

Furthermore, a cult may be defined theologically. In this sense a cult can be a pseudo-Christian organization that claims to be Christian but compromises, confuses, or contradicts essential Christian doctrine. Such cults operate under the guise of Christianity but deviate from the orthodox teachings of the historic Christian faith as codified in the ancient ecumenical creeds. Typically, devotees become masters at taking texts out of context to develop pretexts for their theological perversions.

Finally, I should note that although the media-driven culture has given the term “cult” an exclusively pejorative connotation, denotatively the word “cult” can be broadly defined as a group of people centered around a religious belief structure. As such, Christianity might rightly be referred to as a cult of Old Testament Judaism. In fact, the Latin verb cultus from which we derive the word “cult” simply means to worship a deity. Thus, in dealing with cults it is crucial to be diligent in defining terms.

For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff, Counterfeit Revival, rev. ed. (Nashville:Word Publishing Group, 2001), part 5; and Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).


“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived
by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be
led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
For if someone comes to you and preaches a
Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive
a different spirit from the one you received,
or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put
up with it easily enough.”

2 Corinthians 11:3–4

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