Can A Good Church Become A Cult?

I’m sharing this research because part of being a stable Christian is being aware of the pitfalls of religion. Frankly, any business, social or religious organization can become a cult. Just have the wrong people in leadership and there you go. As I talk to Christians, many are unaware of what makes up a cult. The word has such negative connotations, especially in the post-People’s Temple/Jim Jones age. The idea that cult members are these rabid, zombie-eyed deadheads who make no sense when they talk is a misconception. If one listens to , for example, Scientology interviewees, these people are sane, intelligent, educated people who simply thought they were joining an organization where they could make a difference. They didn’t think they’d give up hundreds of thousands of dollars, their freedom and the physical and mental well being of their loved ones. They got reeled in.

That’s what happens. It’s like bread crumbs. You see one and then another, and you’re looking for the bread. You follow the crumbs thinking it will lead to something substantive, but you are only left with more crumbs and the bread has long since been eaten.

The actual substance (the good principles) that made you look in the first place has been devoured and replaced by an organization and you’re left standing there with nothing.

So what is the point where a good church starts to resemble a cult? Someone will see it for what it is, either a member or former member or those that grew up in the group tend to see these markers. To me, the line is when members live in fear of the community and lose their self determination and individuality. Any organizational structure that supports that fear and control has characteristics of a cult.

Most of the literature on the subject of cults tries to stay away from defining them and prefers to use a list of criteria as a source of identifying one. Here are few attempts at definition:

  • Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  • No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  • No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
  • Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
  • There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
  • Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  • There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.
  • Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
  • The group/leader is always right.
  • The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

From :


Thus, cults can be seen as an organized group or a solitary person whose purpose is to dominate cult members by using psychological manipulation and pressure strategies.
– Psychiatry Research 257 (2017) 27–33

One particular study noted the correlation between addictive disorders and commitment of members to their group, leader or organization. In other words the same factors that kept addicts of drugs and alcohol in their addictive state were similar to what happens when a person commits to a cult organization. They stay with their drug of choice regardless of the consequences or damage to relationships, finances, career or mental state.


That commitment level is scary, and I know from experience that this is true.

In fact, there was often talk about being addicted to the gospel in our church. It’s amazing how subtle statements followed by constraints can have such a lasting effect on a person’s life. I believe many sincere people in our group tried to live this addicted life, but it cost them. Some took the teaching seriously, some didn’t but the organization fully supported and promoted people that fulfilled that addiction lifestyle. And those that didn’t follow, found they were marked as problems, disobedient or spiritually lazy. Leaders demanded loyal church attendance 4-5 times per week, pressure to evangelize, pressure to not have close associations outside of the saints, pressure not to deviate from the dictates of the Pastor or ministry, pressure to tithe. As leaders rose to prominence over the years who didn’t understand life balance or balance in church structure there came a shift toward cult-like behavior.

Of the people studied, the impact of their religious commitment was the following:

  • Significant reduction of social life 58.1%
  • Isolation with family or/ and marital partner 45.2%
  • Significant financial expenses 45.2%
  • Studies/training/job cessation 38.7%
  • Marital or family separation 35.5%
  • Identity change experience 19.4%

Life events that facilitated the commitment

  • Need for personal development, life dissatisfaction 67.7%
  • Being on a spiritual/ religious quest 38.7%
  • Depressive symptoms 32.3%
  • Social presence of the group 32.3%
  • Significant and frequent conflicts with the family 22.6%
  • Family members in the cultic group 19.4%

Life events that were an obstacle to departure

  • Romantic relationship in the cultic group or/and family members in the cultic group 41.9%
  • Inability, difficulty in questioning the creeds of the group 41.9%
  • Feeling of dependence towards the cult leader and/or the group 29.0%
  • Regressive and reassuring experience in the group 22.6%
  • Affinities between cult members of the group 22.6%
  • Feeling of guilt 16.1%
  • Social precariousness 12.9% ( not being comfortable with society outside of the group)

Life events that aided in departure

  • Lack or loss of faith in the creeds of the group 64.5%
  • Social intervention 58.1%
  • Imperfection, contradictions of the leader 35.5%
  • Family intervention 32.3%
  • Experience of psychological abuse 32.3%
  • Conflicts with the hierarchy of the group 25.8%
  • Loss of a hierarchic place in the group 22.6%

2017 Study: Cult membership: What factors contribute to joining or leaving?,M. Rousselet, O. Duretetec, J.B. Hardouin, M. Grall-Bronneca, Psychiatry Research 257 (2017) 27–33

Have a great weekend. Be blessed.


Author: Renee

I am an author and a retired minister. My passion is helping others find their sense of self and identity after so many years of losing my own. So often we go to church and are still not aware of our disconnection with our true selves. The person inside that God deeply values. My husband and I have been married for over 30 years and have 3 children. I love gourmet cooking, swimming, all kinds of music, and political and religious discussion- the two things my mom said never to talk about at the dinner table.

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