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10 signs you’re in a cult-like movement

 LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images
LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

There have been numerous offshoots of Christianity that have turned out to be heretical cults. Because of the lack of biblical discernment, many people fall prey to them.

One of the most popular cults with many of the following characteristics is the “Watchtower,” better known as the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Many would also include aberrant religious groups such as Scientology (founded by L. Ron Hubbard) as well as many other religious entities too numerous to mention here.

However, some so-called Christian churches and movements also function like cults. (If your church or movement does the following, run from it!)

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Most recently, a new, young attendee of our church has fallen prey to a cultish offshoot of Christianity. This group she affiliates with has all of the earmarks of a religious cult. My objective for this article is to help parents, families, and friends identify the signs and characteristics of religious cults.

Any group that is truly Christian and biblical would not have to revert to these extreme tactics to recruit and maintain followers. True Gospel-centered biblical churches do not engage in the following coercive manipulative practices.

The following are 10 characteristics:

1.  They prey on vulnerable youth

Often, cults have mobile outreach strategies on college and university campuses so they can target scared, insecure youth who are searching for an identity and a community of friends for emotional stability.

The outreach strategy is mobile or transient because college officials are often alerted to their cultish tactics that do not comport with the traditional campus (religious) clubs. (They have to be on the move so they don’t get caught and shut down!).

2. Love bombing

Love bombing is a term used to describe the effort cults initially make with potential converts by creating a strong emotional connection with them. The  initial contact includes constantly showing them a lot of attention and  affection, bestowing upon them affirming words, and throwing around the words “community” and “love.”

Once a convert is controlled, they no longer need to affirm them. Thus, the love bombing ends and is replaced with mind manipulation, scare tactics, and various forms of abuse. The goal, of course, is to get potential converts to adopt this new group as their primary family identity — hence replacing their biological and any spiritual family or church with which they are affiliated.

3. Social isolation

After the new initiate converts into their religious community, they are loaded with numerous activities and religious meetings to ensure they will not have time for other activities or affiliations.

They are also assigned a mentor or spiritual leader who will discourage them from any outside involvement with a goal of total isolation from all other relationships outside their new community. This ensures long-term loyalty because they will only have other cult members in their social circle for a few years. (Hence, leaving it will mean getting cut off from all their relationships.)

4. Mind control and programming

Between all the long meetings, incessant activities, micro-managing of their social life, social exclusionary tactics, and constant indoctrination, the result is a form of mind control and social programming.

5. They claim their religious community (or church) is the only true church

This is the greatest initial red flag. When any church or new movement, especially those without a historic footprint from the first few centuries of Christianity, claims to be the only true church, it demonstrates delusion and deception with the founders of said religious group since Jesus has been building His true church for more than 2,000 years since His resurrection.

6. No regard for church history

Along with the previous point, religious cults often have a twisted view regarding church history that cannot be backed up by respectable, mainstream, historic Christian scholarship. This distorted view generally attacks mainstream historic classic Christianity and points to this new movement as the only true movement since the first-century church of the original apostles. 

7. False doctrine

Invariably, most cults not only have aberrant mind control practices but also espouse some form of heretical doctrines regarding salvation, the deity of Christ, the person of the Holy Spirit, the existence of hell, and other primary biblical doctrines.

I.E., many cults, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that Jesus is a created being and not God the Son. They believe the Holy Spirit is a force and not the third person of the triune God, that lost souls are annihilated in hell, and that salvation is by good works (i.e., the Watchtower organization encourages its members to witness and go door to door to be one of the chosen few that go to Heaven.)

8. The leader is idolized

Often, the leader of a religious cult, whether deceased or living, is almost worshiped and idolized as a great prophet or saint.

9. Numerous ex-members have shared traumatic stories of abuse

Common with most religious cults, there are numerous testimonies available on social media, YouTube, and printed pages from ex-members regarding mind control, social isolation, mental and spiritual abuse, and other manipulative practices resulting in traumatic experiences. When people escape such cults, they usually need several years of therapy, prayer, and, at times, even deliverance from demonic spirits. 

10. Lack of financial transparency

Religious cults are wrapped in secrecy regarding their governance, membership records, leadership protocols, and financial expenditures.

Many cults rarely divulge how their donations are spent. Conversely, most legitimate churches have annual business meetings that show committed members their functional budget with an annual “profit and loss” statement.

In conclusion

Beware of Targeting Strategies: Cults often prey on vulnerable individuals, such as youth in transitional stages of life, who are searching for identity and community.

Be aware of Love Bombing: Be wary of groups that use excessive flattery, affection, or promises of an instant community. 

Guard Against Isolation: Watch for groups that insist on excessive involvement to exclude other activities and relationships. 

Be Informed About Church History and Doctrine: A group that claims to be the only true church should be approached with skepticism.

Seek Transparency and Accountability. Legitimate organizations are transparent about their leadership, governance, and financial practices.

I pray that this article helps people avoid or escape the traps set by cults so they can come into the spiritual freedom of the true body of Christ.

To read more on this topic, refer to my book Poisonous Power.

Dr. Joseph Mattera is an internationally-known author, consultant, and theologian whose mission is to influence leaders who influence culture. He is the founding pastor of Resurrection Church, and leads several organizations, including The U.S. Coalition of Apostolic Leaders and Christ Covenant Coalition.

To order his books or to join the many thousands who subscribe to his newsletter, go to

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