A programme on the UK’s Channel 5 this week, Trapped In A Cult?, featured stories of people who had had encounters with or had escaped from cults. It didn’t spend too much time defining what a cult might be, but suggested that it’s a movement revolving around a charismatic individual who insists that only he or she has a direct line to God or some sort of Higher Truth. Such individuals insist that others must follow their teaching exclusively and that followers sever all ties with family and non-believing friends. They frequently demand too that followers give up their material possessions in order to demonstrate their commitment to the movement.
The programme also noted that once the original founder of a cult dies, or has been discredited in some way, belief in him or her can persist, with followers persuading themselves that their leader has miraculously transferred to a higher plane of existence. (Further information about cults and their leaders can be found on The Cult Education Institute web-site.)
Many modern religious movements conform to this pattern: The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church (Moonies), Scientology and Branch Davidians to name but a few. Orthodox Christians are always eager to point out the apostate, cultish nature of these heterodox ‘churches’, blind to the fact that their own belief system began in exactly the same way. The original Jesus movement had all the hallmarks of a cult and its leader the characteristics of a cult leader:
Jesus insisted that only he had a direct line to God and Higher Truth:
For example in Matthew 10.32–33: Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven
and John 14.23: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
He demanded his teaching be followed exclusively:
For example in Luke 10.16: He who listens to you, is listening to me; and he who rejects you is rejecting me; and he who rejects me is rejecting him who sent me
and Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
He expected his followers to sever ties with family and non-believing friends:
For example in Luke 14.26: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
He told those interested in joining his movement to give up material possessions: Matthew 19.21: If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
and when he died, his followers persuaded themselves he’d gone on to a higher plane: Luke 24.51: While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.
What do we learn from this? That if it looks like a cult, sounds like a cult and behaves like a cult then the chances are, it’s a cult. Christianity is just a first century cult that hit the big time. We are now so used to having it around – how legit it became! – we overlook its origins and essential characteristics. These are exactly the same as any other cult, both before and since.