Our English word cult comes from the Latin word cultus, which means “worship.” Linguistically a cultic action is one that involves external rites and ceremonies with a worshipful attitude on the part of the devotee. A “cult” in this sense refers to a system of worship distinguishable from others. Of course, the modern usage of the word is much more specific than this linguistic definition.

In modern times, the term cult has primarily been defined from both sociological and theological perspectives. Those who opt for the sociological definition say that a cult is a religious or semi-religious sect or group whose members are controlled or dominated almost entirely by a single individual or organization. This definition generally includes (but is not limited to) the authoritarian, manipulative, and sometimes communal features of cults. Cults that fall into this category include the Hare Krishnas, the Children of God (The Family), and the Unification Church. (See Part Two)

Gordon Lewis, in his book Confronting the Cults, suggests that the term cult “designates a religious group which claims authorization by Christ and the Bible, but neglects or distorts the gospel—the central message of the Savior and the Scripture.”

James Sire, author of Scripture Twisting, suggests that a cult is “any religious movement that is organizationally distinct and has doctrines and/or practices that contradict those of the Scriptures as interpreted by traditional Christianity as represented by the major Catholic and Protestant denominations, and as expressed in such statements as the Apostles’ Creed.”

Walter Martin defined a cult this way: By “cult,” we mean a group, religious in nature, which surrounds a leader or a group of teachings which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrine. Most cults have a single leader, or a succession of leaders, who claim to represent God’s voice on earth and who claim authority greater than that of the Bible. The cultic teaching claims to be in harmony with the Bible but denies one or more of the cardinal doctrines presented therein.

Orville Swenson, in his book The Perilous Path of Cultism, suggests that a cult is “a religious group whose doctrines involve a distortion of biblical truth; whose dedication and subservience to their domineering leaders is frequently excessive and blind; and whose attitudes, aims, practices, and teachings are divisive, creating an exclusive body of deviates from historic biblical Christianity.”

Ron Rhodes: While definitions are helpful and are also accurate to a degree, I think a key point they fail to include is that cults always derive from a “parent” or “host” religion.

As Alan Gomes put it, “cults grow out of and deviate from a previously established religion.” Seen in this light, a cult of Christianity, according to Gomes, would be “a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which [system] denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.”

Waring from New Testament: It is for good reason that every book in the New Testament except Philemon has something to say about false teachers, false prophets, false gospels, or heresies. Jesus Himself sternly warned His followers to watch out for false prophets (Matt. 7:15–23) and false Christs (Matt. 24:5). The apostle Paul warned of a different Jesus, a different spirit (2 Cor. 11:4), false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13–15), and those who preach “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8; cf. 2 Cor. 11:4). First John 4:1 understandably urges believers to “test the spirits.” The concern is obvious: Counterfeit prophets who speak of a counterfeit Christ who preaches a counterfeit gospel can yield only a counterfeit salvation. Because there are eternal consequences to false teachings, Scripture bears numerous warnings.


Works Cited:

  • Christian Research Institute. (n.d.). What is a cult? Retrieved from
  • Confronting the Cults (1976) Gordon Lewis, Published by Zondervan.
  • The Cult Explosion (1980) Gordon Lewis, Published by Fleming H. Revell Co.
  • Cults and the Occult (1983) Gordon Lewis, Published by Zondervan.
  • The New Cults: An Analysis of the Religious Landscape (2007) Alan Gomes, Published by Kregel Publications
  • Faith Foundations: An Overview of Basic Christian Doctrine (1989) Gordon Lewis, Published by Crossway Books
  • Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (1980) James Sire, Published by InterVarsity Press
  • The Culting of America (1982) Walter Martin, Published by Bethany House Publishers

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Written by
Paul Natekin
Paul Natekin

Paul Natekin

Paul Natekin is the Chief Editor of “Мир Вашему Дому” Peace to Your Home magazine and a teaching fellow at Emmaus School and the Great Commission Missionary School. He also writes apologetic blogs aimed at questioning Christians and sincere skeptics.

As a disciple of Christ, I aspire to lead others to Him through my actions. His transformative grace and plan is crafting my simple life into a marvel beyond comprehension.

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