Do you ever worry that your church is exhibiting strange behaviour? Asking for more commitment than seems sensible; encouraging an unusual amount of devotion to the leader? Requiring your life and all be given to them, rather than directly to God?
Mike Bickle, author of Passion for Jesus and founder of IHOP in Kansas, came up with a list of seven key 'tells' that suggest a church is behaving like a cult. Most churches could probably do better in one or two of these areas but for some, this checklist provides a dangerously accurate description of how things work. There are various 'cult watch' organisations which provide similar lists, but Bickle's is especially pertinent because it comes from within the church, and recognises some of the nuances and grey areas involved.
So here is the list, with some thoughts on how it might apply in practice, and what to watch out for. Because cult membership is dangerous, and can destroy your life; arguably the same could be true of a church which behaves just like one.
Sign #1: Opposing critical thinking
I remember a friend telling me that he'd finally become more comfortable at his charismatic church because he'd realised that he just needed to disengage his brain during the services and 'go with it.' To him this made sense because his intellectualism was making him overthink everything, but there's a fine line between resisting your cynicism and disabling your critical functions entirely. The Bible and God both stand up to intellectual scrutiny; so any church which tells you to switch off your brain is probably trying to lead you into dangerous new territory.
Sign #2: Isolating members and penalising them for leaving
Some of the more mainstream cults are well-known for this sort of behaviour, even turning family members against those who try to leave. While there aren't many churches which will go that far, there are examples of those which deliberately exclude those who appear to oppose or challenge the leaders from the rest of the community. This accusation was aimed at Mars Hill in Seattle by individuals who questioned the behaviour of the leaders and elders. If a church begins to close ranks against anyone, especially those who have previously been members of the community, they're behaving just like a cult.
Sign #3: Emphasising special doctrines outside scripture
This is especially prevalent among churches which preach a 'prosperity gospel'. Cults use extra-biblical ideas and wrap them up in biblical sounding language, in order to compel followers to practice certain behaviours which are usually nothing to do with the actual gospel. Infamously this often involves sexual or financial conduct, and while there hopefully aren't many churches which encourage the former, there are entire church movements which appear to have created special new doctrines around the latter. From the seed-of-faith evangelists to the megachurches which take several offerings in order to finance a 'professional quality' worship performance, this is one of the easiest and most transgressed pitfalls on the list.
Another key area here is around End Times prophecies, which Scripture does talk about, but in no way to the levels emphasised by some churches and individuals. This line of thinking is exactly what leads cults into tragic suicide pacts; an obsession with the coming apocalypse runs counter to Jesus' warning in Matthew 24:36 that only God knows the day and the hour of Judgment Day.
Sign #4: Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
I wrote recently about the prevalent problem and of leader idolatry, and in particular the disgraced church leader who on returning from his prison sentence made every member of the church kneel at his feet and pledge devotion to him above the justice system. This might be an extreme case, but there are plenty of other churches which hold their leader in inappropriately high esteem, showering him with gifts (like the British church which bought its pastor an £80,000 Mercedes as a birthday present) and viewing him essentially as being above scrutiny. Unaccountable leaders, with devotees who love them perhaps even more than they love God, are a key feature of any cult... and some churches.
Sign #5: Dishonouring the family unit
God loves family: he's crazy about children, and he's not at all keen on family breakdown. So any church which encourages its members to put the church first, even ahead of their commitments at home, is behaving unbiblically. This is exactly how cults convince people to turn against their own non-believing parents, siblings or spouses; many churches also subtly request the same order of priorities, whether subconsciously or deliberately.
Sign #6: Crossing biblical boundaries of behaviour
Thankfully, this is an area where few churches will recognise themselves. But if your church starts encouraging lifestyle choices which don't tally up with scripture, then start to worry, and fast. Scary examples might involve Westboro Baptist-style affirmation of prejudice or even the use of violence to accomplish supposed 'kingdom' goals. More subtly though, this could be seen in a deliberately permissive attitude to sex or other behaviours. If your church is actually preaching against holiness, it's acting like a cult.
Sign #7: Separation from the rest of the church
Finally, and perhaps of most concern to the modern church, Bickle identifies that cults always promote the idea among their members that they're the only part of the 'church' that has truly understood God's plan for the world. For cults this often means not only cutting their community off from the rest of the church, but also wider society. Churches rarely speak with quite this level of arrogance, but they do often exhibit a related behaviour; claiming that God has given their particular church a specific mission and calling which means that it's unhelpful for them to work in unity with others. And forget what they say, if your church stream behaves as if it's the only true way, guess what: that's exactly what cults do.
Take another look down that list. Hopefully you only vaguely recognise your own church, and others that you know. Try not to use Bickle's helpful signposts as a means by which you can judge other churches though; but rather to note where yours needs to take care not to stray into cult-like territory. And if there's a real red flag among the seven, then pray about how you might be able to help your church get back on to a straight path. After all, it was for freedom that Christ has set us free; cults offer the very opposite. It should be of the utmost concern to us when our churches begin to resemble them in any way.