Sometimes cults are easy to spot. Most everyone knows about the Jim Jones cult (People’s Temple), or David Koresh’s group in Waco, Texas (Branch Davidians). Those cults are easy to spot because doomsday theology and mass killing tend to make headlines. But some cults aren’t so easy to identify. When people call a religious group a “cult” it usually means one of two things.
Two Kinds of Cults
Cult (1) – heretical theology deviating from core orthodox teachings of that religion. These cults spring from a parent-religion. Ex., Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are cult offshoots of Christianity.
Cult (2) – dangerous practices like authoritarian and manipulative leadership, social isolation, abuse, threats, blackmail, “mind-control” etc. These may or may not have a parent religion.
This article is about personality cults, which fall under the second type. Personality cults may line up perfectly with historic Christian teaching, have all the right creeds, prayers, liturgy, and so on. But they have dangerous practices in place centering on a personality-driven leadership model. That one leader calls all the shots and may resort to underhanded and manipulative behavior to get his way. Here are a few signs that can help you identify if your church is a personality cult.
12 Signs of a Personality Cult.
1. One charismatic leader is the face of the church
Personality cults center on one primary person, who typically has a magnetic and winsome personality. When he or she speaks, people listen. We’ll call this leader “Alpha” or “Al” for short. Alphas are often gregarious and extroverted, feeding off the respect and praise (or fear) of others. They are charismatic in the sense of persuasive influence. They are often natural leaders, drawing crowds most everywhere they go. Sometimes they are also charismatic in the sense of spiritual gifts (tongues, prophecy, visions, mysticism), but that’s not always the case. Bear in mind, there is nothing wrong with being a leadership-oriented charismatic person. Just because a person has tremendous social power within the church doesn’t mean they are abusing that power. But the more power people have, the more tempting it can be to abuse it, especially when they don’t have any accountability for their actions (see #8 – No Accountability). Remember, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That’s why personality cults always have a strong personality at the center.
2. Narcissistic leader
“Al” isn’t just a charismatic leader, he also has a big ego. I’m not just talking about confidence, and bravado, I’m talking about clinical narcissism. He tends to view all social dynamics as a competition, or a zero-sum game, that he’s trying to win. He can be remarkably crafty and manipulative in navigating social dynamics to acquire more allies, or to silence and cut-off anyone who disagrees with him. Al’s ego is too insecure to tolerate a truth-teller disagreeing with him. That’s like having a spy in your ranks or letting an opponent play on your team. Al also craves an approving audience (whether he admits it or not) and if anyone disapproves he can be so devastatingly hurt/angered/indignant that he resorts to extreme measures against them (see, #5 – Vindictive Church Discipline).
Narcissism is fairly common in the U.S., so Al may have come across it naturally. Western cultures tend to reward confident dynamic people with jobs, promotions, and leadership positions. Narcissists exploit that fact. They are experts at talking-big, acting important, and dictating every narrative into a story about how great they are. Narcissistic alphas have tremendous pride about their ability to lead, their vision for the church, and so on. But they lack the humility, maturity, and emotional security to fill out that confidence with self-assured competence. Likewise, Alphas tend to objectify people. Al may act like he values other people more than himself, as in Philippians 2:3, but he’s really just acting. In reality, he’s often just using people to feed his ego.
3. Authoritarian leadership-model
Al is also the power broker for the church. Al may delegate minor decisions to other people (especially for matters that don’t interest him). But when it comes to major decisions about church direction, big events, membership policies, church discipline, and especially finances, Al sits at the head of the table. Sometimes Alphas are heavy-handed in exercising authority. But many times they are indirect, manipulative, and evasive. That way they can still get their way while still rationalizing the outcome as a “team effort” or a “group decision.”
Because of Al’s authoritarian role, church discipline is typically a straight-line from him to whomever, he believes, needs correction. Al often bypasses any “due process,” like the checks and balances prescribed in Matthew 18:15-17. In personality cults, church discipline often comes down directly from Al like a monarch declaring an absolute verdict. He may appeal to the elder board, presbytery, or leadership team. But as long as they are just “yes men” (see #4 – Yes Men) and he gets to dictate the narrative, then he still gets what he wants.
4. Other leaders in the church are “yes men”
Al typically has several other “leaders” on his team, but he doesn’t really share power with them. They may have been invited into leadership, in the past, because they have clout, character and strong leadership ability, but they are only allowed to stay in leadership because they cooperate with Al. He likes them because they “rubber stamp” everything he proposes. It’s circular reinforcement. He likes how they rubber stamp everything he proposes, and they like being part of his “elite” circle of leaders, the few and the proud who have the ar of such an important man.
Some of these cooperators are “yes-men” by nature, that’s their personality type. They’re peace-keepers who “go along to get along.” Often they enjoy the privilege and status of being in the “inner circle,” so they don’t want to rock the boat. Other times people adapt to a “yes man” mentality because of group pressure, peer culture, or their growing addiction to Al’s approval.
Individually these people might be terrific independent thinkers, courageous, independent, and wise. But, when they get together at an 11am business meeting, and everyone is already hungry for lunch, their resolve may wane. When Al cleverly raises the most controversial proposal at 11:55am, “yes men” culture sinks in and all the “leaders” just follow the crowd, approving anything that lets them finish by noon. “Yes men” don’t have to be “suck-ups” (sycophants), but sometimes they are. Mainly the yes men act as extensions of Al’s authority. They don’t offer any serious challenge, critique, or correction against Al even when he needs it most.
5. “Lone wolf” approach to decision-making
As much as Al can, he makes decisions directly without any serious input from the rest of the church. In his mind, he sees himself as the hero. Like the dashing and talented quarterback, he thinks of himself as the most important person on the team and the on-field coach. Everyone else’s job is to support Him so he can win the game for them. This direct-decision making style, to him, seems like common sense. By making as many decisions as possible by himself, it’s easier and seems more efficient for everybody. After all, and it can keep the whole church working together toward the same unified vision of ministry without wasting time and energy quibbling through business meetings and deliberating over avery vote.
6. Vindictive Church Discipline
Church discipline is a Biblical concept (see Titus 2:15; 2 Thess 3:14). But in personality cults, church discipline is less like routine healthcare, and more like a spontaneous amputation. It isn’t healthy. It’s often petty and vindictive instead of restorative (Gal. 6:1). Often personality cults, under Al’s leadership, use gossip, shame, and backbiting to publicly humiliate people by either crushing their spirit so they leave forever or putting them in a dangerously vulnerable position for Al to swoop in like their savior and “restore” them (i.e., creating a codependent loyalist). When Al employs church discipline he is not necessarily aiming to use God’s word to correct false teachers (and every earthly teacher makes mistakes), though he may do some of that. Mainly he’s aiming at silencing critics, so the church is united around him. Never mind if those critics are speaking from God’s word, appealing to historic Christian teaching, or expressing humble godly wisdom. If they are criticizing Al or second-guessing his decisions then they are dissenters, trouble-makers, and enemies of the faith. Al can rationalize punishing them with vindictive discipline to protect the fragile unity of his church.
7. No critique allowed inside the church
Another common element in personality cults is how they cannot handle healthy critique. There is no tolerance for members critiquing Al’s theology, teachings, or vision for the church. He wants agreement, solidarity, even uniformity, and he can exert a tremendous amount of pressure to that end. Church members don’t necessarily have to dress alike and live in a commune. But they are strongly encouraged to support the leadership no matter what. Any questioning, disagreement, or failure to cooperate is treated like a malicious power play or as a personal failing. Critics are either villanized or treated as immature, selfish, doubters tangled up in private sin. A bevy of Scriptures can be cited (out of context), supporting this stifling uniformity culture too. “Do not grumble against one another” (James 5:9, NET). “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matt 7:1). “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Phil 2:14). And of course, “”Don’t touch my chosen ones! Don’t harm my prophets!” (Ps 105:15).
Those verses are not talking about a principled and gracious critique of false teaching or wise critique of a foolish decision. And we could just as easily cite Scriptural evidence about how we should “contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3), “expose” works of darkness (Eph 5:11), and “fight the good fight with faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:18-20).
8. No accountability from outside the church
Personality cults have little room for critique from their members and even less room for accountability from those outside the congregation. Personality cults may have strained and broken relationships with their parent churches or they may just have a lot of defenses in place to keep denominational authorities in the dark. As for Al, he doesn’t go out looking for accountability partners either. He doesn’t like to have his ideas challenged, and he has no interest in having anyone call him on the carpet. He may have several layers of defense mechanisms to keep people from getting that close to him, yet ironically, he can probably name a half-dozen people whom he claims “hold him accountable.” If he has anything close to an “accountability partner” that person is wrapped around his finger, having long-been manipulated into compliance. Or, he just keeps them at arm’s length, never letting them know enough gritty details to have an informed opinion about his personal life or sin-struggles.
9. Culture of silence
Cultures of silence stem from our self-serving biases. We all try to protect our reputation. We all want to be seen in a positive light. We all have this self-serving bias. But personality cults take it way farther than healthy people and churches would. People normally try to hide embarrassing and incriminating details. That’s just how we are. But personality cults take that self-preservation to another level by assuming the best of their leaders, denying all allegations, blaming the victims, and covering up the crimes.
Cultures of silence emerge in personality cults, in part, because Al isn’t humble or willing enough to endure correction. He can wander way off course without any serious accountability pulling him back on track. The further he veers into authoritarianism, and narcissism, the more likely he is going to do something grossly immoral or even criminal because he now thinks he can get away with anything. In many cases, he can. Wicked and criminal behavior goes unchecked because he built a framework of suppression in the church that disciplines whistle-blowers into silence and hides dirty laundry to “protect the ministry” and “preserve unity.”
Group leaders, staff, and leadership boards all have to report to Al before they say anything publically. Al treats church resources like propaganda, using social media, rumors mills, bulletins, newsletters, and sermons to “get ahead of the narrative” and dictate the “official” story to the church. Members are discouraged from reporting any mischief to outside authorities (unless it benefits Al). Any investigations are conducted in-house often through yes-men that Al hand-picked. Al and his staff are not trying to make things right so much as they are trying to control the narrative and save face.
10. Secretive finances
Another bad sign for churches is when they hide their finances. Healthy churches recognize the need for financial transparency if for no other reason than that they need accountability to reduce temptation. Many churches have crashed and burned because someone was skimming money, or because they just didn’t handle their money wisely. Churches should have nothing to hide with their budget and financial records. In personality cults, Al might never let the congregation see the real budget. Or worse, there might not be a budget because he expects everyone to trust him to make all the financial decisions directly. When financial matters are cloaked in secrecy, it often means the leaders are hiding something. For example, they might be way over budget, have too much debt, Al might be paid too much, or other staffers paid too little. Or perhaps the budget just doesn’t reflect the values of a healthy church.
11. No shared pulpit
Another bad sign is when the pastor rarely ever shares the pulpit or any related teaching opportunities. He is okay with letting people cover responsibilities that don’t interest him. For example, he may have no interest in the children’s ministry, or in public works projects. So he may be fine with sharing those forms of teaching and leadership with others. But when it comes to visibly leading the church, from the front, through sermons, vision-casting, and overseeing important meetings, he always takes the head seat at the table. He does not share the pulpit often, but whenever he does, it is either in very small doses or it is with close allies whom he has wrapped around his finger.
At this point, it almost goes without saying that personality cults are prime candidates for abuse whether physical, verbal, spiritual, or emotional abuse. When a narcissistic charismatic authoritarian leader like Al is in charge, abusive behavior usually isn’t far behind. He may not start out abusive. He may have been an innocent, ministry-minded man-of-God in the past. But, he now enjoys power and attention a bit too much, and like an addict, he molds his environment and manipulates his relationships to protect his addiction. Also like an addict, he is liable to escalate things eventually resorting to more and more aggressive measures to exert his power, feed his ego, or silence his critics. And that can mean abuse.
If you have gone through this list and you think your church might be a personality cult then you don’t have to just roll-over and take. Awareness is the first step. If you are in a safe and stable place spiritually, and you have the freedom to pull-away then you may just need to transfer to a healthier church or perhaps alert the proper authorities, like the police or presbytery. If, however, you have struggled and suffered in a toxic church then you may need more than a new church.
Resources for Recovery
- Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources [Resource Library]
- Mary J. Yerkes, “Emotional Abuse In the Local Church” [Article]
- Charles Stone, “The Narcissistic Pastor: Ten Signs That You may Be One”
- Thom Rainer, “14 Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders” [Article] and Podcast
- Nichole Cochran, “21 Signs Your Church Has a Toxic Team Culture” [Article]
- Stephen Arterburn, Toxic Faith [Book]
- David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse [Book]