Material in this article is based on Cult-Proofing Your Kids, chapter 6, by Dr. Paul Martin. The purpose of this overview is to familiarize readers with the various types of groups that claim to offer ultimate truth through something other than or in addition to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because these groups appeal to the spiritual part of man's nature, they have the potential for cultic manipulation. For the purposes of this website, the criteria for a cult is the presence of mind control, as defined by Lifton's criteria for mind control.
These are groups or churches which claim to be based on the Bible, in whole or in part, and yet deny or distort core doctrines of the Bible such as salvation by faith in Christ alone apart from legalistic works, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the person and deity of the Holy Spirit, etc.--doctrines which the Christian Church throughout its history has consistently affirmed. Each group in this category denies the first or second doctrine mentioned, and usually one or more of the others. Some also employ mind control techniques to recruit and keep members. Examples: the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses; the "local church" of Witness Lee has been grouped in this category, but has been successful in court in fighting this allegation.
These groups stress a subjective approach to truth, valuing experience over reason and doctrine. These new mysticisms teach the essential oneness of the universe--that God, man, and nature share the same essence ("monism" or "pantheism"). Their objective is to help the individual become aware of his divine nature within. Man's fundamental problem is one of ignorance, not sin. Examples: the Hare Krishnas, 3HO (the Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization). Rachel Geftakys recounted how the similarity between the Assembly and the "Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization" (3HO) turned the lights on for her about Assembly dysfunction.
These groups do not normally function as churches or even as religions--i.e., they do not typically have "houses of worship" in anything approaching the traditional sense, nor do they have regularly scheduled meetings for the performance of religious rituals. Rather, they more typically offer workshops, seminars, or personal sessions to teach techniques or provide therapy purportedly to aid in self-improvement, self-discovery, self-actualization, and personal transformation. Services are provided for a price (usually steep) and are based on Eastern-mystical philosophy. Examples: est, Transcendental Meditation.
Some of the new religious movements attempt to distill elements or truths from several different spiritual or mystical traditions and reformulate them into a single religious system. By putting together new formulations of "truth" (syncretism), selected from various sources ("eclecticism"), they can achieve, from their perspective, the best of all spiritual worlds. This is "smorgasbord" religion. Examples: B'hai, Sufism.
The growth of cults in recent years has been accompanied by a new preoccupation with psychic and occult phenomena and a revival in various forms of astral or celestial religion. The prevailing cultural sense of alienation and spiritual impotence has provoked a flight to worlds beyond the ordinary realm of knowing, to the occult or "hidden" teaching of "ancient masters". Perhaps in reaction against our overly scientific or technological society, men and women are increasingly looking to the stars and consulting astrological charts for personal guidance and spiritual direction. Examples: astrology, UFO groups.
There is a distinction between witchcraft and Satanism, even though there is some overlap, mainly in the use of certain symbols and the practice of some rituals. Witches (or "wiccans", as they prefer) do not believe in or worship a personal, evil devil, as true Satanists do. Witchcraft is a diverse religious movement whose followers are polytheistic and/or pantheistic nature worshippers, who practice multiple forms of divination, perform magical spells and incantations, observe pagan seasonal festivals, believe in reincarnation, etc. Example: the Society of Witches.
Satanists literally worship the devil first and then themselves. They are preeminently attracted to Satanism in the hope of acquiring power and the freedom to indulge their personal lusts. Some Satanic cults are violent, practicing animal and even human sacrifice. Example: the Satanic Church in America
In a very general sense, the religious groups in this classification identify with the dominant religious traditions of North American, and therefore, according to a theological definition, are not strictly cults. Although all claim to be biblically based and Christian, many deviate (in terms of social practice or doctrine or both) from what is conventionally understood to be traditional conservative Protestant evangelicalism. Membership in one of these groups does not necessarily preclude one from being a Christian in the truly biblical sense. These groups are sect-like fringe movements on the margins of mainstream Christianity. Examples: the "prosperity" Word of Faith movement.
Churches and groups in this category hold to all the fundamental doctrines of true biblical faith, and yet their concepts of church leadership/authority and discipleship are unbiblically strong and authoritarian. Leaders commonly expect or require members to seek their advice and counsel (and often permission) on virtually every decision in their lives, including marriage, dating (if allowed at all), employment, place of residence, education, roommates, home and car purchases, etc., etc. These groups demand and expect a high degree of spirituality of their members, and this entails a rigidity of lifestyle that leaves little room for personal expression or individual focus on spiritual gifts or natural talents if these do not fit in with the program of the church. There is usually a very strong emphasis in the church on evangelism and discipleship with the expectation that everyone will participate with the same zeal and in the same way. These are high-demand authoritarian groups. Examples are Christian Growth Ministries, the International Church of Christ (as distinct from the mainline Church of Christ) and the Geftakys Assembly.
Further reading about cultic groups and sects: