Many years ago a book came out called The True Believer. The author had done quite a bit of research on the tactics employed by mass movements used to help attract new people and then hold onto them. The book's ultimate conclusion was that most of the movements, regardless if they were secular or even a religious cult, used many of the same methods and displayed many of the same signs.
The amount of insight the book furnished was truly amazing. It delineated what was going on in the mind of a potential political or religious cult group member that got them interested and involved. It delved into the plethora of reasons why some join themselves to groups which others (family, friends, society, etc.) would find unreasonable or even dangerous. The book was able to identify quite a bit of silly behavior in the world and call cult-like behavior for what it was.
It was only after several years of involvement in a few demanding and controlling church groups that we became fully aware, on a personal level, of the many tactics used to try and manipulate the masses. We came to understand that there are literal SIGNS that a group or person, especially those who are religious-based, display that shows they are acting cultic and NOT how the Bible proscribes.
Below is a short, but by no means complete, list of signs of a cult. If you find that more than just a few seem to apply to a church, group or outreach you are considering involvement in, you may wish to seriously reconsider getting involved. You can, of course, deny that such signs exist. Denial, however, does not make them go away and you may rue the day you decided to entangle yourself with such people.
What to look for
Ask yourself, does the leader (minister, pastor, priest, founder, etc.) or group you are thinking of joining or are already a member have the following cult-like characteristics.
Do they condemn questions asked concerning leadership's tactics, even when their behavior has been shown to cause problems and trials for others?
Is the group highly invested in the idea that a top-down structure of rule and authority is the best way to go? Do they seem to go out of their way to 'prove' from the Bible how right and acceptable such a system is to God?
Do those in leadership give themselves unreasonable, cult-like titles of authority like 'prophet' or 'apostle' or 'evangelist' in order to seem far greater than others?
Make grandiose, unsubstantiated claims to have 'restored' truths that have lost for many years?
Do they make incredible demands on your time and on the time of followers, even to the point of harming relationships, family or job?
Do they demand a cult-like absolute loyalty from their followers?
Are there signs that leaders rarely, if ever, admit to do anything wrong even when the evidence insists otherwise?
Are followers told that God will NOT bless them, and may even punish them, if they do not give a certain amount or do what they are told?
Are sources of other materials strongly forbidden to be read or even owned?
Do you find members are thrown out or expelled from the group through a closed-door process with no accountability to ANYONE? Are any reasons EVER offered as to why a particular person no longer attends or participates with the group?
Do they REFUSE to be responsible to, or corrected by, any member - or even the whole group, even when it it clear that sin is involved?
Are you told that you must stop ALL contact with anyone who is a former member or attendee, even if that person is a family member?
Do they insist that, even when they are wrong, God will back up their decisions?
Repeatedly make subtle (and sometimes no so subtle) threats that if a member does X (which is not a sin) they will be thrown out of the group?
Do they refuse to seriously considered what the group wants or decides on something (e.g. whether or not to buy a building, how to effectively preach the gospel, etc.)? Do they believe what they decide is the final decision as to what the church does - regardless if a majority wants something else?
You need to be aware of possible SIGNS of cult-like behavior BEFORE you get significantly involved with anyone. Few groups will display all of the above characteristics. You should be concerned, however, if a group or leader has three or more of the above traits.
You might just find you have been considering joining, or have already given support to, a true cult. NEVER FORGET that God loves you and that his truth in the Bible is ALWAYS true! There is nothing in the scriptures that commands you must tolerate or put yourself under any person or group that only wishes to USE you for their own selfish purposes. Your best bet is to heed the signs of a cult and RUN as fast as you can away from such unstable and manipulative people!