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!!

Welcome to the Blogosphere (Where Voices are a Dime a Dozen)

I was in the remote South-South region of Nigeria during the Easter of 2009. The town we stayed in did not have consistent electricity. Most businesses operated by candle or oil lantern at night. Every bit of the cooking I saw was either done on kerosene stoves or over a fire. Most people walked everywhere or had bicycles. If you had a little bit of money you might have had a 50cc Chinese-made motorcycle upon which you would transport your family of five. Many of the homes were made of mud walls on a stick frame with thatched roofs. Everyone in that city had to rely on generators for essential electrical needs, but most generators did not run all day. If you were fortunate enough to have municipal water, it was not safe to drink. Trash blew the streets like leaves on a fall day. I think you get the picture. But among this all too common scene of African scantiness something caught my eye—cellphones—an abundance of cellphones. As I began to pay attention, I noticed most people didn’t just have one phone, no, more often than not, people had two or three cellphones—men and women. And there, in a part of Africa, without potable water, sanitation service, where people burn their trash to dispose of it; in a place with no more than three hours of electricity a day, the Internet was available on cellphones. (We even pulled up YouTube one day just to do it.)


On another trip, we were in the bush of Uganda, at the base of an extinct volcano near the Kenyan border, preaching at a pastors’ conference. The home of the pastor we were visiting had no electricity or running water. Many of the children in that village ran around without pants (for some reason they had tattered shirts). The livestock were tied to rocks and allowed to graze in circles. The pastor’s compound had a small brick and mortar house surrounded by three traditional round mud huts used for sleeping and cooking. And even there, we not only had cell signal, we had Internet. And there, we not only pulled up YouTube, we actually watched a video or two.

bush phone
Smartphones abound in Africa.

Anyone, anywhere, can now have a voice and a platform, even when they could never earn that platform from God or even the experts in their perspective fields.

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So I Went to a Mark T. Barclay Conference . . .

This past week I attended what is called Mark T. Barclay’s National Holy Spirit Conference. Apparently, it is held every year in Midland, MI—the home of Mark Barclay Ministries. Since this blog is all about the Theology of Mark T. Barclay, I want to take time in this article to report what I witnessed and experienced.


Before I deliver my field report on this “Holy Spirit” conference, let me be very transparent concerning my background so that you will understand the perspective from which I experienced this series of meetings. Perspective is so critical when it comes to interpreting and reporting what one has observed. Show a city-slicker a picture of a cow calving with the help of a ranch hand and they may state, “That farmer looked like he was pushing something into the cow.” A farmer or a vet would have the more precise interpretation of the same photo: “That farmer was helping to deliver the calf. He was pulling.”


Is he pushing or pulling?

I have had the privilege of worshipping and serving among many different denominations in the Kingdom of God. I was brought up in many different denominations, not because my parents were church hoppers, but because we moved around due to my father’s career. I’ve been among the Methodists (black and white), the Baptists (black, white, African, South American, and Eastern European), the Catholics (American, Central American, South American, and Eastern European), Covenant, Presbyterian, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of God Prophecy, Apostolic Faith Mission (Southern Africa), countless non-denominations, etc., etc. I share all of this to say, I’ve been able to see how so many members of the Body of Christ serve and worship Jesus Christ based on where they are at culturally, geographically, doctrinally, and denominationally. I have never agreed with everything I have seen, but I have always found the hearts of the people to be sincere and desirous to please the God of the Bible. Certainly, every church has its problems, and those problems are the people that call that church, “Home,” but I have found Peter’s sermon ringing true everywhere I have travelled, ministered, and served: “But in every nation he that feareth him [God], and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:35).

Allow me to be the interpreter of what I observed at Mark T. Barclay’s 2015 National Holy Spirit Conference.


First Impressions

Upon arriving to the ministry headquarters of Mark Barclay Ministries, you can’t help but spot a big silhouette statue of a bird (I later gathered it was a dove). And by large I mean it’s every bit of 15 or 20 feet tall. As it turns out, it’s the same silhouette Barclay uses for his ministry logo. The headquarters appears to be on a quaint acreage with very modest buildings out in the middle of nowhere Midland (but about 500 yards from an Islamic Community Center—go figure!).

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Mark T. Barclay–Heretic? Pt. 2

In my last article, we began to define doctrine, sound doctrine, and heresy. We determined from the Scriptures that the only way we as Christians are permitted to build doctrine is from the Word of God, and more specifically, from the witness of two or three verses. The intention of these articles is to scrutinize the doctrines of television preacher, Mark T. Barclay, to determine whether they are heresy or sound doctrine. If the doctrines of Mark T. Barclay can be proven to be heresy, then we can, with all humility and without a critical spirit, call him a heretic. However, if his doctrines are proven to be merely doctrinal differences and not heresy, then we must leave him and his ministry alone and obey the Scriptures that command us to, “know them that labor among you and esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). Paul didn’t encourage us to love the Gospel Preacher because we agreed with all their doctrine, for doctrine is not even mentioned in the verse, rather, it is for their work’s sake that we love and esteem them.


So, What is Heresy?

So, what is heresy? According to the sum of the New Testament verses addressing the subject, heresy is a doctrine or system of teaching designed to deceive and lead people away from a holy life serving Jesus Christ. Heresy is designed to remove the love of God from a believer’s heart, callous their soul against sin, and turn them against truth by providing an easier standard. In short, any opinion or teaching that is repugnant to the doctrines of the Bible is heresy.


When does a mere doctrinal difference qualify to be labeled as a heresy? Doctrine can earn the label of heresy when it produces the following perverse fruit:

  • Deception in the minds of believers (Matthew 24:4, 5, 11, 24)
  • Lawlessness in the hearts of believers (Matthew 24:12)
  • Remorselessness in the hearts of believers (Matthew 24:12)
  • A perversion of the Gospel (Galatians 1:7)
  • Bewitching the hearer out of the Gospel and back into spiritual slavery (Galatians 3:1)
  • Causing people to depart from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1)
  • Producing an attractive alternative Gospel to follow (2 Peter 2:2)
  • Causing the Gospel to be slandered and mocked by others (2 Peter 2:2)

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Mark T. Barclay – Heretic? Pt.1

One of the greatest spiritual cancers assaulting Christians today is the pervasiveness of heresy. New Testament Greek lexicons define heresy as dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims, and a body of men following their own tenets. Modern English defines heresy as the belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine. When the aforementioned “men” teach “their own tenets” and “dissensions,” drawing people after them, they are called heretics. Though these definitions seem a bit simple, non-threatening, and nonchalant, the Bible takes a much harsher stance against heretics and their heresies. The Lord Jesus also warned of these men, declaring that in the last days, false prophets would arise and deceive many. In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul listed heresy as a work of the flesh—as wicked as adultery, idolatry, witchcraft, and murder. Paul warned Timothy of the last days’ “seducing spirits and doctrines of devils,” causing some to depart from the faith. Paul even delivered Hymenaeus, a preacher, over to Satan, for preaching heresy. In his case, he was preaching that the resurrection had already happened. Peter addressed heretics in Second Peter 2, equating heretics to false prophets and false teachers. The Holy Spirit, through Peter, called their heresies “damnable.” But even more disconcerting is the prophecy of Peter stating that many would follow after the pernicious and destructive ways of these false teachers. It is through perverse doctrines that many Christians are being taught to betray Christ. Because of these dire biblical warnings, we must address heresy and the heretics that promote them. Before we do this, let us first discover how we as Christians are to build sound Bible doctrine and then compare heresy to doctrinal differences so common in the Body of Christ.


A doctrine is a systematic set of teachings upon which an individual lives their life. Every person on earth lives by some kind of doctrine. Atheists have doctrine. Muslims have doctrine. Environmentalists have doctrine. Even the bar-hopper has doctrine. In this regard, doctrine isn’t so much what you believe as it is how you live. We, as Christians, are to have doctrine based upon the Bible. Heresies are doctrines that usually reduce the authority of God’s Word with the aim of causing the hearer to depart from Christ altogether. Some heresies are doctrines with just enough Scripture in them to appear convincing to the unstudied.  Other heresies are nearly all solid Bible-based doctrine with the exception of a little bit of purposed leaven to slowly poison the hearer (even mercury at >1ppm in fish is considered to be contaminated and toxic). The only proven method to eliminate heresy and avoid deception is to study the Bible with the desire to draw near to God (it should be apparent that one could study the Bible with the wrong motive and it benefit nothing).


Paul exhorted Timothy to study to show himself approved unto God. We are to be students of God’s Word. We must allow the Scriptures to interpret themselves. This is called hermeneutics. Christian doctrine is based solely upon God’s Word. Doctrine is never built on hearsay, experiences, worldly wisdom, or the teachings of other religions. If we want to have sound Bible doctrine, the Bible must be the only text from which we build doctrine. The Bible establishes a law concerning the power of witnesses, “At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15b). This verse is quoted again in Numbers 35:30; Matthew 18:16; John 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; and Hebrews 10:28. Noteworthy is the fact that this spiritual law of witnesses is established twice in the Old Testament, twice in the Gospels, and three times in the Epistles; thus, more than fulfilling its own mandate. These verses teach us that we can’t base doctrine on only one verse. We must have the witness of at least two or three verses to establish any word or doctrine. We are to build doctrine based upon text, not supposition. Heretics often twist the Scriptures, usually taking verses out of context in order to back up their heresies. Their doctrines are not based on the Holy Scriptures; but rather, perversion and deception. We, as sound students of God’s Word, must be willing to submit all of our personally held doctrines to this divine litmus test, and even be willing to go back and reevaluate our beliefs to further line them up with Scripture.


Heretics spew perversion to intentionally deceive and harm.


When contrasting sound biblical doctrine to heresies, we must also keep traditionally held doctrinal differences in mind. Among orthodox evangelical Christians there are many doctrinal differences. We understand that these doctrinal differences arise from different interpretations and emphases among the various denominations and affiliations within the Body of Christ. Though Christians often align their memberships and even ministerial credentials with the group that closest mirrors their personally held doctrines, the term heretic or heresy is rarely, if ever, hurled between denominations. Consider some of the numerous contradictory “orthodox” doctrines in Christendom today: there are Calvinists and Armenians debating predestination versus freewill. Both are based on the Scriptures—countless scriptures. There are numerous debates on the major eschatological doctrines: pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation raptures, and no rapture at all. Each has a scriptural precedent. There are numerous stances on water baptism: baptize immediately, baptize after discipleship, baptize in Jesus’ name only, baptize in the name of the Trinity, baptism is critical for eternal salvation, baptism isn’t critical for eternal salvation. Then there are cessationists arguing that the Gifts of the Spirit have ceased while their Pentecostal brethren in Christ argue weekly that the Gifts have not. These are just a few examples of doctrinal differences currently found in orthodox Christian churches today. Yet, for these differences, we don’t consider these diverse doctrines to be heresy—just different doctrinal stances. (Though to be fair, we hold the doctrines we do because we believe them to be the accurate interpretation, with anyone else’s opposing doctrine to be “wrong” or “in error”).

I spent 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I could lose my salvation, then I spent the next 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I couldn’t lose my salvation.

One pastor with 50 years experience once said, “I spent 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I could lose my salvation, then I spent the next 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I couldn’t lose my salvation.” These are two totally different doctrinal stances, but both based completely on the Bible.   Furthermore, the Bible tells us the best we can ever know is just in part. We are fools to think we can know everything now. We must be open to continuous studying of the Word, and if any man thinks he knows anything he knows nothing yet as he ought. So what is heresy? And when does a doctrinal difference make someone a heretic? And is Mark T. Barclay a heretic? That will be the subject of next article.