Christian Cults

A great deal has been written about the theology of the various Christian cults, with a view to demonstrating how they veer off from true Christian orthodoxy.1 While it is important to be aware of the heterodox nature of the theology of many of these cults, the discussion is often left here, as though there were nothing more to be considered. However, cults can be dangerous for other reasons. They should be studied, not only from the point of view of doctrine, but also from the point of view of sociology and behavioral psychology.

Cults usually exhibit characteristics similar to other sociological entities and have in common with them many of the characteristics of ideological totalism. In his study of brainwashing in China, Robert J. Lifton discusses these characteristics.2

The first step in any environment of thought reform is milieu control, in which the individual is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection needed for anyone to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it. The second step is extensive personal manipulation which seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously. Lifton writes of ideological totalists that "by thus becoming the instruments of their own mystique, they create a mystical aura around the manipulating institutions--the Party, the Government, the Organization. They are the agents `chosen' (by history, by God, or by some other supernatural force) to carry out the `mystical imperative.'"3

Although Lifton was writing of ideological totalism and brainwashing in China, there are striking similarities between the situation he described and that of various cults, not all of which necessarily have aberrant doctrines, but which exhibit certain manipulative characteristics.

A Christian group may not even necessarily have any serious doctrinal problems to be classified as a cult. Whether its ideology is true or false is a question that should be considered independently of whether the group, or its leaders, are engaged in certain types of social manipulation.

1 Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany Fellowship, 1965); William J. Petersen, Those Curious New Cults (New Canaan, Ct.: Keats Publishing Co., 1973); John H. Gerstner, The Theology of the Major Sects (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1960); Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today's Religions (San Bernardino, Ca.: Here's Life Publishers, 1982).

2 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963), chapter 22.

3 Ibid., p. 422.


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