The Difference Between Religions and Cults

We’ve spent the last few weeks studying different world religions: Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Let us be clear that I am not promoting one religion over another in this series of world religions and cults. However, I am presenting these from the point of view of a Christ follower who subscribes to His teachings and offer of salvation as the only way to true Life with God. So why present other religions? Simply to refute the idea that Christians are closed-minded. Plus, I believe strongly that each Christian, in order to be an effective witness, must study these other teachings in order to be ready to engage intelligent conversations with people we might come across in our daily living.

We have covered all of the world religions (save for Christianity, which we’ll discuss last), and now it is time for us to move on to more shaky ground: Cults, new religions and the occult.

A Cult, by definition, is from the Latin word “worship.” Webster says, “A religion regarded as unorthodox (unbiblical) or spurious.” There are five major characteristics of Cults:

1)    They reject the Trinity; they disbelieve in Jesus Christ as God. They may say good things about Him and assign Him positions of importance. But they undermine His deity either lowering Him to the level of man or raising man to His level.

2)    Cults usually believe all Christian churches are wrong and their group has the only real truth about God.

3)    They claim to believe the Bible but they distort its teachings on many doctrinal issues. Their leaders claim to have new interpretations or even valuable additions to it.

4)    All cults deny that people can be saved by Jesus Christ alone. You become right with God through good works.

5)    They are skillful at using Christian terminology but they aren’t talking the same language. (“God,” “Christ,” “faith,” “sin,” “salvation,” etc. all mean different things to a cultist.)

Why do Cults grow so fast? Cults offer answers to human needs that aren’t being met by Christian churches. Many people who grew up Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. wind up in cults because it seems to offer practical solutions to problems such as loneliness, spiritual emptiness, and a desire to find a way to please God by serving Him faithfully.

In other words: Cults offer counterfeit salvation.

Beliefs and ideas about God aside, here is a practical table I came across considering the fundamental differences between a cult and a religion. Keep these differences in mind as we begin talking about cults next week. The graph can be found here.

[Image Credit]

Deceit in recruitment Information offered up front
Totalitarian Allows freedom of thought and members have a say
Destroys that family unit Promotes the family unit
Isolates its members Works within society
Keeps non-believers out Open to general community
Limits development of individual Interested in promoting potential
Exploits and manipulates its members with mind control techniques While there are guidelines members are not systematically controlled
Commitment is encouraged during recruitment process Thought before commitment is encouraged as part of conversion process
Criticism is met with threats of legal action People are free to speak out against the tenets of a religion
Leader and follower consider leader to be above reproach Clergy are expected to be responsible for their words and actions
Questioning the leader, or basic tenets, is not allowed Critical thinking is allowed and sometimes even encouraged

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9 Responses to The Difference Between Religions and Cults

  1. Right on the money!

    • encorenow says:

      There is a difference between religion, cults and a relationship with Jesus. All cults and religions are man’s attempt to please God or gods. Father God offers us a finished work through the Lord Jesus Christ and then sends His Holy Spirit to live in us and lead us into complete freedom. Our only job is to believe in the One He sent to redeem us out of this mess antd through trusting Him enter into His rest. This doesn’t mean that we sit on the couch and wait to die. As we fellowship with Him and worship Him, He shows us what to do. His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

      I struggled with religion all my life – trying to be good enough and never measuring up. He doesn’t expect me to behave perfectly, just like King David in the Bible – He wants our hearts right toward Him.

      If you have never trusted Jesus Christ’s finished work on the cross . . it is easy – just ask Him to come into your heart. He will. He already loves you.

      Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  2. I really wish you would stop referring to Catholicism as a “different world religion,” in the same breath as “cult.” What else would it take to convince you that the Catholic Church does not teach “works’ salvation” or “distort the teachings of the Bible,” or in any other way resemble anything on your list?

    • missahful says:

      After reading this, I think for me what really hit me on the head that the Roman Catholic religion could be a cult are the following points: “limits development of individuals” and “leader and follower consider leader to be above reproach.”
      I think that the catholic church severely limits development of individuals, in particular of people in the lgbt community. I’ve read numerous articles in the past few months where the leaders of this church has called these people unnatural, ruining the family unit etc. they’d like nothing more for men and women to just marry each other which is a restriction of development in society and personal development where the individual is unhappy due to this thought.
      I’ve interpreted leader as priests and those of higher positions and I believe that there has been an abuse of power in your church. I’m not sure if you know of this but it is common knowledge that the catholic church has had problems of pedophiles being members in their churches. However, instead of these people paying for their crimes against humanity, they have been hidden away by the church and protected. I know of a catholic school near me where it was found that several ordained members of staff had been preying on the boys that they were put in charge of. But guess what? Before the police could arrest them, they were gone. They had been shipped off somewhere else.
      You could say that I am anti-catholic and that could be right. I just don’t like a religion where there is a head of church. It isn’t a religion based on faith anymore but of profit. Tell me another religion where there is a head of church that sits on a throne? Even as the son of God, Jesus sat with his diciples and followers. Even as the son of God, Jesus washed the feet of others. The pope lives in riches even when God’s children are starving and living in poverty. That is probably the biggest sign to me that indeed the catholic religion is a cult, when it has a leader that lives amongst splendor.

  3. perfectchild says:

    To be yoked to anything is a cult.

    The monkeys of hearsay.

  4. supernova says:

    As a college student I was approached by a cult called the “Children of God”, at the time I was ignorant of this fact and so spoke to them at length. They all had biblical names and the things they were saying started to ring alarm bells. They were very contradictory in their interpretation of the lessons the bible has to offer and came across as people pretending to be something they were not. I was given the hard sell to join the “Children of God” and they wanted all my personal details so I would “not miss the important information I needed to know”. What they really wanted was the means to carry on “brain washing” me into joining with them. Eventually they did take no for an answer but I felt very uncomfortable and was almost dragged into the next stage of recruitment. After about twelve months the police arrested many members of the cult for drugs, sex orgies and other nefarious activities – I had a lucky escape! Thank you for the post,

  5. The irony is that Christianity began as a sect of Judaism and Protestantism began as a sect of the Catholic Church.

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