Six Sociological Characteristics of Cults

Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions: The Essential Guide to Their History, Their Doctrine, and Our Response (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 31–34:


I noted previously that even though cults should be defined from a theological point of view, we can nevertheless gain valuable insights into certain aspects of the cultic mentality from sociology. . . .

[1] Authoritarian Leadership

Authoritarianism involves the acceptance of an authority figure who exercises excessive control on cult members. As prophet or founder, this leader’s word is considered ultimate and final. . . .

Often this authoritarianism involves legalistic submission to the rules and regulations of the group as established by the cult leader (or, as in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, submission to the Watchtower Society). Cult members are fully expected to submit, even if they do not agree with the requirements. Unquestioning obedience is compulsory.

[2] Exclusivism

Cults often believe that they alone have the truth. The cult views itself as the single means of salvation on earth; to leave the group is to endanger one’s soul. . . .

[3] Isolationism

The more extreme cults sometimes create fortified boundaries, often precipitating tragic endings (we have already mentioned the tragedies in Waco and Jonestown). Some cults require members to renounce and break off associations with parents and siblings. . . .

[4] Opposition to Independent Thinking

Some cultic groups discourage members from thinking independently. The “thinking,” as it were, has already been done for them by the cult leadership; the proper response is merely to submit. . . .

[5] Fear of Being “Disfellowshiped”

It is not uncommon in cults that people are urged to remain faithful to avoid being “disfellowshiped,” or disbarred, from the group. Again, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a prime example, for a person can be disfellowshiped merely for questioning a Watchtower doctrine. . . .

[6] Threats of Satanic Attack

Finally, some cults use fear and intimidation to keep members in line. Members may be told that something awful will happen to them should they choose to leave the group. Others may be told that Satan will attack them and may even kill them, for they will have committed the unpardonable sin. Such fear tactics are designed to induce submission. Even when people do muster enough courage to leave the group, they may endure psychological consequences and emotional baggage for years to come.

Sadly, some Christian groups share these characteristics to some degree.


  1. Ben Edwards says

    I remember teaching through a series on cults and world religions a couple of years ago and realizing as I looked at a similar list of sociological characteristics how much of fundamentalism could be described by the same characteristics…

  2. Don Johnson says

    When I saw a link to this article, I wondered how long it would take for someone to raise the “this is just like fundamentalism” angle. No surprise, comment #1 fills the bill. Totally predictable knee-jerk undiscerning reaction.

    Now is it true that some of these characteristics resemble some characteristics of some fundamentalists (and evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, etc)? Well, of course. Ergo, these characteristics are not really marks of cults. Except, perhaps ‘exclusivism’, which I take to mean, “we alone in the history of mankind, have the way of salvation, leave us and you are doomed”. (Something that could legitimately be said of Catholics, by the way.)

    I don’t know of any Christian fundamentalists who would say something like that. “If you leave us, you’re going to hell.” Many would warn of the pitfalls in other groups, but I don’t know of any who would say that we alone have the exclusive handle on the way of salvation.

    So perhaps not as much insight is offered by these characteristics as first impressions might suggest.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. says

    I see what you’re saying, Don. On the other hand, an older couple in the ministry recently relayed to me their experience when they first started out in the ministry at a church very loyal to Jack Hyles. Hyles would regularly preach in their church, and the way that Hyles and the church’s senior pastor related to the pastoral staff and the rest of the church pretty much lines up with the above characteristics to some degree.

  4. Don Johnson says

    Hi Andy,

    I agree that there are some similarities in especially authoritarian groups, especially in those that a friend of mine calls the ‘Hylots’. However, I think that it is a mistake to call Christian fundamentalism cultic or to make the comparison, because it tends to engender heat, not light.

    BTW, greetings to your family, I know your wife’s parents pretty well, and even drove your wife and brother-in-law to church one night I was visiting in G’ville back when they were teens. My daughter knows your wife quite well also.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Ben Edwards says

    I’m not trying to create controversy with my comments or say that fundamentalism is necessarily a cult. I was simply sharing an impression I had a couple of years ago that this post reminded me of.

    To clarify, perhaps I should have changed my final phrase to “how [parts] of fundamentalism could be described by the same characteristics…” And, to the degree that a ministry I’m involved with shares these characteristics, I would like to do what I could to rectify that and become more biblical.

  6. Mark Olivero says


    Even before I read your final sentence, the same conclusion went through my mind. I realize it would not be fair to characterize a whole large segment of people as “cultish,” but I think most of us who have these negative vibes about fundamentalism speak out of personal experiences. I don’t speak editorially, but out of my own collection of firsthand anecdotes. No need to elaborate here. Rhodes’ list should be a warning to anyone that wants to “fight” to preserve a movement (and its label) instead of the gospel, a sub-culture instead of expanding the Kingdom.

    I wonder if behind this list there is a “trinity” of vices that perpetuate such practices: fear, pride, and resentment (again, looking back into my own first hand experiences).

    By the way, when I was younger, we went to a church where the preacher said repeatedly that he reserved the right to doubt your salvation if you weren’t a Baptist.

  7. john bocchetti says

    I’ve experienced personally the effect of being involved in a cult. It started in 1974 while working in Yosemite National Park. I became a member of the mormon church. Attended byu and got married in the slc temple. By 1984 I left the church and remained married to a mormon woman. That lasted for 24 years. Mormonism is a cult in that all the six characteristics are present. It’s taken years to get over the religion and the marriage too.


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