What is a Cult?

As I go about my life in these crazy days of self-seeking lawlessness, it seems as if I hear the term cult hurled toward any and every kind of organization. There’s the cult of Mac. The cult of personality. I once saw a book titled The Cult of Lego. Of course some churches get called cults. Scientology, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are widely accepted as cults. Islam has been labeled a cult. There is the workout phenomenon known as CrossFit, which has also been called a fitness cult. And then, of course, there are those hands down, creepy-commune-in-the-woods kind of cults with their sex-fiend leaders, like Jim Jones and David Koresh. So many things are called a cult anymore it’s almost like Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried, “Wolf.” Cry, “Cult” enough and no one will believe you. As a pejorative, cult is one of those terms that, when hurled, immediately places the accused on the defense. Like racism, the term is often used, though inaccurately, with the intention of harming the reputation of the accused. I have heard Mark T. Barclay’s church called a cult. For that matter, I’ve heard many Pentecostal flavored churches called the same. But since this blog is all about examining the theology of Mark T. Barclay, I wonder, is Mark Barclay Ministries a cult?


All of this prodded my desire to do research into what the “professionals” (you know, the FBI, psychologists, etc.) deem to be classic cult criteria or characteristics. I want to explore the criteria of cults and see if Mark T. Barclay or his church has earned this descriptor. First of all we should have a simple definition.


Cult, derived from the Latin cultus, meaning “worship”:


  1. A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person of thing. (This appears to be the least dangers of the definitions. This definition is used when speaking of the “cult of personality.”)
  2. A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. (This definition lends itself to the cults that worship religious relics or dead leaders.)
  3. A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as stranger or sinister. (Now we’re ramping it up. This is probably what most of us think of when we envision a cult.)
  4. A religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader. (Bingo!! Now we’re talking.)

It should be pointed out that the professionals make a distinction between cults and religious cults and even destructive and non-destructive cults. In researching the characteristics of cults, I came upon another center’s previously compiled research and will borrow from it (www.prem-rawat-talk.org). Their study presents multiple analyses and multiple professional guidelines for identifying cults. I have decided, for the purpose of this article, to limit our analysis to six sets of expertise. The lists of cult experts and their respective number of characteristics are as follows:


  • American Family Foundation—14 characteristics
  • Carol Gaimbalvo (cult expert)—13 characteristics
  • Steve Hassan (cult expert)—26 characteristics
  • UC Berkeley—19 characteristics
  • Cult Information Centre—31 characteristics
  • Rick Ross (cult expert)—20 characteristics


As should be apparent, there is no general unifying voice or consensus on what exactly defines a cult.   The professional and experiential expertise of these six experts presents a rather wide list of traits—anywhere from 13 to 31 cult characteristics. Why the wide disparity? That’s the nature of cults. They’re slick and subtle, taking truth and braiding it with perversion and excess. It seems to make nailing down a concrete list of criteria a little like clasping oil in your fist.


In comparing these six studies, I have chosen to distill the aforementioned studies down and only present the 12 characteristics that occurred the most among them. I believe this will be more than adequate for the average person to be able to rightly discern cults and religious cults. As an upfront warning, most of the following characteristics we are about to evaluate are found all around us, every day, in every area of life. Some of these characteristics are even necessary for successful leadership. If used properly, they can coach your team to the Super Bowl. If misused, they can produce a cult-like environment. These 12 common traits of cults are as follows (in alphabetical order):

Creepy Cult

  1. Behavior control—Intense training and a culture of rules work to adjust the behavior of the member in order to bring it in line with the mission of the group. Any deviation from the groups established protocol results in castigation, shame, discipline, and perhaps total rejection. Groups known for using behavior control include: kindergartens, daycares, sports teams, private sector industry (especially Silicon Valley), fraternities/sororities, the military, governments, and cults.
  2. Denounce family—In an attempt to control their members, cults work to separate their members from normal family influence. Usually, the leader’s demand for commitment and subservience to the group causing the member to cut ties with friends, family, and even personal dreams. The group may even proudly become the “new family.” (Wait, was this a cult or the youth soccer team?) Groups known for causing members to denounce family include: sports teams, private sector industry (especially Silicon Valley), the military, governments, and cults.
  3. Elitist—Cults tend to take on an “us vs. them” polarizing mentality. They claim a special exalted status for their members and leaders. “We are God’s gift to society and we must save the people from themselves.” Sounds like the environmental movement or any company that believes in their product. Groups known for having elitist cultures include: sports teams, private sector industry (especially Silicon Valley), fraternities/sororities, the military, universities, governments, and cults. 
  4. Fear mongering—Often success and acceptance is tied to performance and commitment to the group. Warnings and admonitions of group departure work to induce a fear of leaving the group. An individual’s success and prosperity is tied to the group. Departure is considered betrayal. Fear keeps the worker bees submitted. Groups known for using fear mongering include: sports teams, private sector industry, fraternities/sororities, the military, governments, and cults.
  5. Guilt induction—Guilt is used to tear down the individual and manipulate them into submission and dependence on the group. “No one accepts you like we do.” “You were nothing when we found you.” Cults might constantly bring up the member’s past failings and their need for redemption (that can only be found through faithfulness to the group). Groups known for using behavior control include: sports teams, private sector industry, fraternities/sororities, the military, governments, and cults.
  6. Inferiority complex—Members are made to feel as if “good enough is never good enough.” You must work your way into favor, promotion, and even salvation. Success is impossible without the group but you must contribute more.  Groups known for using behavior control include: kindergartens, daycares, schools, universities, sports teams, private sector industry, fraternities/sororities, the military, governments, and cults. 
  7. Leader worship—The leader’s charisma and confidence produce a vacuum in which people can’t help but follow. The leader is considered to be imbued with god-like wisdom and power. He/she is regarded as capable of achieving the impossible and is worthy of total devotion. Dangerously enough, the leader does not reject these sentiments. Leaders known for producing and permitting leader worship include: coaches, military leaders, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, teachers, professors, and cult leaders. 
  8. Money-driven—The lust for money ends up producing a pragmatic-ends-justify-the-means ethos towards gathering wealth. In short, the group doesn’t mind to be unethical in its fundraising and all wealth benefits the top leadership, never society or the little people. Cults are known to often develop an obsession with money. Groups known for being money-driven include: University athletics, sports teams, private sector industry, governments, and cults.
  9. No dissension—Absolute and unquestioning loyalty is demanded. There can be no dissension from leadership. There can be no challenge to leadership. Leadership is absolutely always right. Groups known for using behavior control include: University classrooms, sports teams, private sector industry, fraternities/sororities, the military, governments, and cults.
  10.  Mind-numbing—Similar to brainwashing. In order to eliminate anti-group thoughts or rhetoric; songs, chants, and phrases are taught and recited. This is done to produce a new culture within the member, “washing” them of their past values. Other techniques might include debilitating work regiments–anything to stop critical thinking. Groups known for using mind-numbing techniques include: kindergartens, daycares, schools, universities, sports teams, private sector industry, fraternities/sororities, the military, governments, and cults.
  11.  No accountability—Finally, a very serious characteristic of true cults—no accountability for leadership. The leadership, whether singular or group, is not accountable to anyone. A cult lacks a board of directors for accountability and oversight. A cult lacks an elder board for accountability and oversight. A cult even lacks investors to whom they must answer. A cult is accountable to no one but the supreme leader’s whims and fancies.  Groups known for having no accountability include: the military, politicians, governments (dictatorships), and cults.
  12.  Supreme leader/Totalitarian—Cults are always totalitarian. There is only one leader and he has a special connection with God (or believes he is God). He’s accountable to no one and his attitude can often be described as mercurial. He controls the distribution of information and keeps many secrets. His true motives are never revealed and he is often very suspicious of the “mainstream” and the “system.” Many successful business leaders demonstrate some of these attributes. Many tech companies have developed the reputation of being run like totalitarian regimes. Many a president has been accused of acting or operating in a totalitarian way.

 Crazy Cults

Though a bit of sarcasm has been used, I hope the point has been conveyed. Not everything with strong leadership (e.g., military, sports teams, governments, families, clubs) can rightfully be called a cult. Cults use many of the qualities and characteristics necessary for successful leadership, but take them too far, perverting them for their own selfish gain. Real leadership requires a followship and a successful leadership depends upon a successful followship. When a leader can see their leadership failing they often ratchet up the very thing that’s already not working. This begins to produce an environment of felt control (though there must always some element of control in place, otherwise nothing gets accomplished). What truly makes a cult a cult are its motives and fruit. Before calling a strongly lead group a cult, it would be wise to examine the fruit of its followers’ private lives and the fruit of the organization. When considering a church, we must ask, “Do the church members live as normal citizens in their town? Do the followers have healthy marriages? Are their children “normal”? Is the church preaching the Gospel? Winning the lost? Supporting world missions? Discipling?” Unfortunately, it has been my experience that those calling churches cults are generally rebellious vagabonds who reject any kind of leadership.  So to answer our original question: Is Mark T. Barclay’s church a cult?  No more than Coach Harrison’s 8th grade elite travel soccer team is.  Go Rockets!!