What are the signs of a cult leader? How can you identify a leader of a cult? And what kind of language will cult leaders use to deceive their loyal cult followers?
All true cults deny Jesus as Lord through their actions and sometimes in their words (1 John 4:1-3). The main way to identity a cult is by testing their beliefs and actions against the word of God.
Before we really dive into this content, I want to be careful and say that just because a church leader does something unbiblical does not mean they are a cult leader. Every leader sins because all leaders are human. Jesus came to save us from sin, so we should not expect perfection from anyone. But perhaps that’s one of the biggest themes found in a cult leader: They pretend like they are perfect and they are always above everyone else.
In this article I will list 13 phrases cult leader love to use. Not everyone who uses these phrases is a cult leader, but most cult leaders use these phrases. Don’t be quick to accuse a Christian leader of being a cult leader, but don’t deceive yourself into thinking that cult leaders are not real. Often times they are right under your nose.
Nobody in a cult thinks they are in a cult. Nobody who follows a cult leader thinks their leader is a cult leader. Therefore, be humble enough to at least examine the possibility that your leader could be a cult leader if he or she is saying these phrases.
“God told me to tell you . . .”
Whenever someone starts claiming they are speaking for God, you should realize they are most likely a cult leader. I prefer to stay away from language like, “God told me.” I try to opt for the less definitive statement of “I feel like God told me.”
The Bible clearly states that God speaks to his people. That’s not the issue. The problem is when a leader starts claiming God told them something about you or God told them something you are supposed to do. Sorry, that’s not how God works.
When you die and are judged for how you lived your life, God isn’t going to let you say, “Well Pastor Daniela told me you said you wanted me to do that.” God will hold us each responsible for obeying what God tells each of us to do. The cannon of Scripture is closed and God will no longer command you to do something through the mouth of another human. The cult leader is lying.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus . . .” (1 Timothy 2:5)
“The Bible says . . .”
One easy way to deceive gullible people is to just add the phrase, “The Bible says . . .” before any statement you want them to believe. Obviously Christians should be referring to what the Bible actually does say, but all too often people just use this phrase rather than actually reading what the Bible actually says.
If someone doesn’t actually read the Bible to you and neve references the truth they are saying with an actual chapter and verse in the Scriptures, don’t believe what they say until you check it out for yourself. I’ve seen cult leaders literally walk on stage and never read anything from the Bible and yet their whole “sermon” is filled with phrases like “The Bible says” and “God says” and “Jesus wants you to know tonight” and so on.
A good Christian leader loves to actually read and reference the Bible rather than just slapping the all too common phrase “We are a Bible believing church” on their website.
But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:25)
“God sent me to . . .”
The truest mark of cult leader is the man or woman who claims to be a Christian and yet denies the person and work of Jesus Christ in their words or actions. One way cult leaders deny Jesus is by trying to replace him with themselves.
Subtly overtime the cult leader takes center stage. Suddenly Jesus is no longer sent to save Cleveland, now Pastor David Burgess is somehow the one sent to be the savior of our town. When a cult leader starts preaching about how “God sent me to lead a revival in this town,” you should seriously start to investigate the mental health of this person.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to feel like God sent you somewhere to do something for him. The problem is when you start leading a large group of people and telling everyone “God sent me.” Really? I thought God sent Jesus?
When the money dries up, don’t be surprised if God is now suddenly sending that cult leader to another town to save.
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
“God will punish those people for what they did to me . . .”
Another classic sign of a cult leader is the belief that God is their personal executioner. Cult leaders genuinely believe they have a special status with God that other mere mortals do not possess. So in their minds they actually believe that those who “wrong” the cult leader are actually going to be physically harmed by God himself.
The cult leader believes God loves him more than God loves other people. Therefore the cult leader can easily justify wishing divine harm on people he doesn’t like or on people who he feels have wronged him. Cult leaders are very vengeful people because they have elevated themselves so high in their own hearts that when they are offended they feel the person who “wronged” them deserves cosmic punishment.
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:19-23)
“Don’t question my authority . . .”
Cult leaders are marked by dogmatic, militant, and authoritative control over their followers. If any member gets out of line by questioning the supreme leader’s authority (gasp), this will not go unnoticed. The member will either be scolded and will fall back in line or the member will be demonized by the cult leader to the other members and shunned by the group.
All Christian leaders should certainly respond if there is a problem or someone challenges their authority, but there’s a difference between responding and reacting. Good leaders respond to the people’s concerns and address the issues head on. Cult leaders react to the problems in the church and blast people with their authority.
If a leader ever says, “Don’t question my authority” or expressed the sentiment through their body language and actions, it’s best to call them what they are – a lost cult leader who is leading others astray.
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder . . . Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you . . .” (1 Peter 5:1-3, NIV)
“This is okay for me to do because . . .”
One sign of a cult leader is a psychotic ability to justify evil in their lives. Cult leaders are very “religious” people. Therefore they are uncomfortable with just blatantly sinning and calling it what it is. Rather, to cope with their own mental and moral strain, they must become masters at justifying doing the opposite of what God clearly says in his word.
The easiest way to see cult leaders justify unfit behavior for Christian leaders is with money. A cult leader always has a reason why they need the mansion, “Well we are going to use it for ministry!” The cult leader always has a reason why they need to use church resources to travel first class and take vacations. The cult leader always has a reason why the church should pay for their normal life expenses (coffee, gas, cell phone bills, etc.)
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Galatians 6:7)
“Don’t talk to those people because . . .”
One well established trait of all true cults is shunning. When one group member begins to question the cult leader, suddenly the cult leader will warn everyone how dangerous this person is to talk to. If your leader feels you are so weak minded and fragile that you can’t sift through the lies and truth of others, you should be insulted.
A good leader who disagrees with someone will not tell everyone in his church to never speak to that person again. He will explain his side and tell the people to talk to that person to. He will tell the people the facts and encourage them to decide for themselves who is telling the truth. A cult leader doesn’t want his people to actually think for themselves so he just tells his followers to stay away from people who don’t believe in him.
If your leader has basically shrunk your social circle to only people who also attend his cult, send him money, and hang on his every word, this is not healthy. A good leader rarely says, if ever, “Don’t talk to those people . . .” Every now and then it happens. Paul did warn Christians to stay away from certain people who were harmful to the church (Romans 16:17-18). But these were people causing divisions within the church, not people who disagreed with the supreme leader. John told Christians to avoid people who spoke theological heresy (2 John 1:10).
Leaders should protect the sheep from wolves. But wolves are not simply those people who disagree with the leader or have personal issue with the leader. Wolves lead Christians away from Christ. Someone is not a wolf if they try to help people see the evil in the cult leader.
If the leader is not evil people should be able to listen to the accusations being made against this leader for themselves and make that conclusion based on the evidence of the leader’s life. A cult leader knows they can’t answer the accusations with evidence so they just tell their followers not to talk to the person making the accusation. A cult leader again usurps Christ’s place and makes his followers feel that if people speak badly about the cult leader they are speaking badly about God himself.
Cult leaders are quick to limit their followers from speaking to non-followers.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)
“You need to give me your money because . . .”
Cult leaders get into “ministry” because they are after something they want. Some cult leaders want respect, some cult leaders want sexual control over others, but most cult leaders are after money.
Cult leaders are oftentimes brilliant pitch men. They have a salesman-feel to them. Lots of times they even used to be in sales before entering ministry. Cult leaders seem to always have a big, grand vision for the future that requires a capital campaign. Most times the capital campaign is simply a ruse for lining their own pockets. All of sudden some reason totally outside of their control (I’m being sarcastic) seems to always stop them from doing what they promised they would do with the money they raised.
“The orphans are really in need!” “The young adults really need this new ministry!” “The church really needs new camera gear!” The money is raised but only part of it, if any, is used for the reason stated. Cult leaders are always asking for more cash. They won’t just ask though, they will always have a good “because” to make you feel guilty for not giving. Cult leaders raise money through guilt, manipulation, and sob stories. Real pastors raise money too sometimes, but they do it through joyful givers, not people weighed down with guilt and fear for not giving.
Here’s a great way to identify a cult leader. Take the square footage of everyone’s home in the church, add it up, divide it by how many people are in the church, and that should be the average square footage of everyone’s homes in the church. Now go to Zillow.com or Trullia.com, type in your pastor’s address (assuming you have it since cult leaders usually guard their address) and compare that number to your pastor’s house square footage. If your pastor’s house is more than twice as large as the average person’s house in the congregation, he’s probably a cult leader.
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10)
“My church is better than that church because . . .”
Somehow every cult leader is always the pastor at the best church in town, at least in their own minds. Cult leaders have an “us verse them” mentality. They will tell everyone in the congregation that their city is filled with unreasonable church leaders who all bicker and fight with one another.
The thing is though, once you get set free from the cult and start actually talking to other churches in town, you suddenly realize the real problem was the cult leader, not all the other churches. As most mature adults know, when someone claims everyone else is the problem, usually it’s safe to assume that person is the real issue. It’s unlikely one person is always right and everyone else us always wrong. The same is true with churches. If one church claims all the other churches in the area are bad, that church is usually the real issue.
Good pastors love to collaborate when possible and they love to celebrate the successes of other churches. Cult leaders wish bad on other churches, keep their church isolated, and claim they are the best in town. They compete rather than collaborate. Cult leaders are always legends in their own minds. Sad.
For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:4-9)
“A spiritual revolution is coming here . . .”
Cult leaders are always talking about the future. Their past is too sketchy to mention. Usually they show up from another state and no one really knows anything about them. There’s usually a long trail of broken churches they have left behind.
Cult leaders certainly don’t want to focus on the present. Cult leaders usually have a small following because it’s hard to find masses of people naive enough to follow their nonsense. So the only thing left for a cult leader to do is talk about the future.
There’s always spiritual revival on the way. The end is always just around the corner. A great move of God is always just about to break out. I’m certainly not saying these things can’t be true. Cult leaders just talk about it all the time. What’s the point of saying a great move of God is coming? Why not just let it come!
Cult leaders also work off excitement and emotion. Therefore they need to always keep their people in an excited state of anticipation. When people have to actually look at the facts in the present and they see how ineffective this leader’s ministry actually is, it’s hard to get them to open their wallets. But when a great move of God is coming, a cult leader knows the tithe baskets will be a little easier to fill.
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:23-24)
“The spiritual revolution is not happening because you people are not . . .”
The most ridiculous part about a cult leader promising “a great move of God” is that when it doesn’t happen, they blame the people who were sitting in the audience listening to that junk.
The cult leader turns on his own following and blames them for why the revival never occurred, “You people don’t reach out enough. You people don’t pray enough. You people didn’t do the yearly church fast legalistically enough.” The cult leader always blames someone else because he is a god in his own mind. Clearly he can’t be the problem his prophesy isn’t coming true (sarcasm). Therefore he always finds someone to blame.
He has to do this because he publicly told everyone what was going to happen. So if you are a follower of guy who claimed he knew what God was going to do, watch out, because eventually that cult leader will be mad at you for not doing what he said God was going to do. Weird logic, I know, but would you expect anything less from a cult leader?
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” (Colossians 2:16-19)
“Outsiders hate me because . . .”
Another excuse a cult leader is forced to create is why everyone in town dislikes him. A cult leader sometimes even likes when other Christian leaders call him out because this gives him the attention he craves. Because he is a master manipulator, he usually finds ways to turn the animosity of the community towards him for his own good.
Suddenly he will do a sermon series on how all true great church leaders end up getting persecuted, “The reason all the other pastors don’t like me is because I love Jesus more than them.” Oh, how convenient. “The reason so many people don’t like me is because the presence of God is so thick around me.” Wow, I never knew how hard it was to be in God’s presence. “People don’t like me because Satan is mad that I’m so good at preaching.” Yes, Satan himself has been assigned to you because you are that important.
Don’t get me wrong. The Bible does say that Christians will be persecuted when they stand for Christ and spiritual warfare is real. However, the Bible also says that Christian leaders are supposed to have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7).
The way it usually shakes out is that some people love a good Christian leader and some people hate him. If everyone loves him it probably means that leader is compromising on the truth and is preaching prosperity theology. If everyone hates the leader it’s probably because he is a narcissist and literally can’t get along with anyone unless they are worshiping him.
Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” (1 Timothy 3:7)
“If you leave us, you are turning your back on God and horrible things will happen to you . . .”
There are so many more common signs of cult leaders, but we will close with this.
Cult leaders always produce a fear in their followers to leave. Whether through making people so dependent on the cult leader the follower can’t imagine life without this person, or whether through brainwashing them into thinking their group is the chosen group in that town and to leave is to leave God’s chosen group, or whether through actual threats of retaliation if they chose to leave like suing for slander or threats of violence – cult leaders make people feel like they will suffer for leaving the cult.
There are many good reasons to leave a church and a good pastor will help you weigh through this important decision. A good pastor might be sad about it, but he won’t intentionally try to make you feel evil for doing what you feel is best for you and your family. A cult leader will make you feel like you are leaving Christianity by leaving his little cult.
A good pastor will not teach you to follow him. A good pastor will teach you to follow Christ. Therefore if your pastor makes you feel damned because you feel Christ is leading you somewhere else, he might be a cult leader.
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16:24)
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