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Characteristics of a Cult

written by Asher Intrater
January 17, 2010

This week in Israel a strange cult was revealed, led by a man named Goel Ratson, who controlled almost 20 women as wives or concubines. They and their children lived in a form of psychological slavery. There are many cults in the world today, and it would be wise for us to understand what the characteristics of a cult are, so that we can avoid them.

Let us divide the characteristics of a cult into five basic categories:

1. Dominant Leadership – The first sign of a cult is an excessively dominant leader. He gains a degree of influence which controls almost every aspect of the lives of the cult members. The leader is followed blindly and without question.

In a biblically based community, there is clear leadership, with spiritual authority. However that leadership is balanced by the eldership group and the input of the members and other leaders. There is moral accountability. I dealt with this issue in my book, Covenant Relationships, under the heading, “Leadership – Headship with Plurality.”

In addition, spiritual leadership in Scriptures is limited and defined to different spheres of authority. The congregational leadership respects the separate authority of the family, and of the workplace, and of the government.

2. Controlled Behavior – In our communities, the spiritual leadership gives guidelines on how to live according to principles of holiness, integrity and faithfulness found in the Bible. However there is no dictating or manipulating of the individual details of a person’s life. The elders give counsel on any issue, but the choice is left to the individual as to how to apply the principles in his life. There is a big difference between preaching moral conviction versus exerting manipulative control.

In a cult almost all aspects of the member’s life is controlled. He will be told whom to marry, what clothes to wear, what to eat, etc. This kind of religious coercion is found as well in many sects of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. A cult often tries to control the total finances, income and expenses of the individual. In a biblical community, the members are taught principles of generosity and integrity, but they are free to decide what and how to give.

3. Closed Socially – In all biblical communities we are told to separate ourselves from the sinful values of worldly culture, such as lust and greed. However cult members are closed off so that they lose interaction with their families and community. Yeshua (Jesus) taught us to be “in” the world but not “of” it (John 17:15-16).

We are to separate ourselves from sin but not from healthy relationships with people outside our particular congregation. While every congregation has its own emphasis, each local congregation sees itself as only one part of the wider international body of believers which has many different streams and emphases.

In cults the member is afraid to leave. He feels huge pressure to stay within the group even if he wants to leave. He is taught that this group is better than any other in the world. Pressure to stay and conform is often done through guilt manipulation and condemnation.

4. Closed Intellectually – We believe that the Bible is the only standard of truth in the world. However we also believe that no one person or group has a monopoly on understanding the Scriptures. We encourage all forms of learning, secular and religious; spiritual and professional.

One characteristic of cults is that they forbid studying materials outside the group. Members of a cult are often told that they have a higher revelation than any other; that no one outside the group can understand them, and that no one outside the group can gain access to this esoteric revelation. We believe that the Holy Spirit gives revelation, but that revelation is open to all and is based on what is written in the Scriptures.

5. Self-Destructive Tendencies – Not only does a cult control the behavior of its members, but that behavior sooner or later will shift to actions that are destructive and unhealthy. The Scriptures call us to a life of loving self sacrifice in order to help and bless others. However restraining one’s selfishness in order to help others is a far cry from self destructiveness.

Yeshua told us that He came to give us “life and life more abundantly” whereas the devil comes to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10). In the devil’s temptation of Yeshua, he challenged Him to jump off the Temple roof. That is evil. Our teaching from the Bible is healthy because God created us with a body as well as a soul; it is logical because God created us with a brain; it is moral, because God created us with a conscience.

Summary: In our congregations we have a vibrant spiritual life, including supernatural experiences like those recorded in the Bible. We are zealous and enthusiastic about our faith, and joyfully share with those around us what we believe.

However we reject all characteristics of cults. While we have high standards of holiness and obedience, we seek to be balanced in every aspect of life, and always respect the freedom of conscience and choice of those involved.

Asher serves as president of Tikkun Global family of ministries and congregations, dedicated to the dual restoration of Israel and the Church. He is founder of the Revive Israel five-fold ministry team, and oversees both Ahavat Yeshua and Tiferet Yeshua congregations in Israel.

He and his wife Betty share a passion for personal prayer and devotion, local evangelism and discipleship in Hebrew, and unity of the Body of believers worldwide.

Asher was raised in a conservative Jewish home and holds degrees from Harvard University, Baltimore Hebrew College and Messiah Biblical Institute. He has authored numerous books, tracts and articles.

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