The main way that a religious or non religious group is classed a cult
is because it has significant detrimental sociological impact on its
members through widespread use of mind control techniques to manipulate
and control its members.
The second main way a group is classed as a cult is because it presents
itself as being Christian or compatible with Christianity, but has severe
theological differences to normal Christianity.
In other words, the group stuffs up people's lives (by using mind control)
or it's got seriously bad doctrine. Normally a cult has both these problems.
(See Types of Cults and
mind control for more info.) A cult often has one charismatic leader
that all the members (and sub-leadership) look up to. This makes mind
control much easier for the cult.
Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons
are cults because they get major doctrines wrong and practice
serious mind control.
Exclusive Brethrens are a cult because
although they have pretty good doctrine they are extremely legalistic
and controlling when it comes to what members are allowed to do. For
example, ExB-run companies have two lunch rooms (one for ExBs and one
for non-ExBs), grandparents sue their own (former ExB) children for
custody of their grandchildren, etc.
There are other sorts of cults as well, such as non-religious "business
cults" that may have little or no religious beliefs but qualify
as cults because they share many features with religious cults, such
as being led by a single charismatic leader and relying on mind control
for recruitment and/or control of their members. For more information
see the Types of Cults section.
A cult generally produces undesirable behaviour modification. However
some cults can sometimes create instances of desireable behaviour modification.
For example, making a messy person's life more tidy, a completely disorganised
person more scheduled, or a licentious person more moral. (There are
things that the Christian church can learn from cults.) However, these
things are normally not done because of love, but rather to control
The definition of a cult according to Dictionary.com: "A religion
or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with
its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance
of an authoritarian, charismatic leader."
Ultimately a cult is not a healthy environment to be in. In the short
term it may seem like a nice place but cults damage people. In
the long term it is better to be out of a cult, and normally the sooner
the better. When/if people leave, they are very often burnt out or feel
used and worthless. Even worse, cults screw up people's relationships
with Jesus Christ.
Usually a cult is not a bunch of people dressed in strange clothes
who want to commit suicide together (or who are tricked into doing so).
There are some infamous cults like this but most are not. Most cults
appear quite ordinary on the surface. Members wear normal clothes and
want to live normal lives, and will often be regarded as model citizens.
A small group that simply wants to worship God in their own way is
not necessarily a cult. For example, a church that wants to sing a capella
(without musical instruments) or has its main worship meeting on Saturday.
A religious or non-religious group with a charismatic leader is not
necessarily a cult (although many cults do have a charismatic leader).
A religious sect is not a cult. A sect is generally a subset
of a larger religion, set apart from the larger religion. There is nothing
necessarily wrong with sects (apart from the separation itself).
The definition of a sect according to Dictionary.com: "A group
of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of
certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice. A religious
body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination."
A false religion is not necessarily a cult. Simply because a
religious group has totally different beliefs to Christianity does not
make them a cult. They may qualify on sociological grounds (mind control).
Note that false religions should still be avoided.