Define Cult…

I’ve written before discussing the IFB as a cult trying to flesh out the characteristics of a cult and see if the IFB fits the profile. I recently received a question from a curious reader about the Independent Fundamental Baptist denomination as a cult and as I was considering the questions I began to realize that the more I understand what a cult is the more I’m beginning to see that the IFB fits the profile of a cult.  Below please find the questions and my reply which may help us as we make efforts to define cult more precisely.

I am writing in regards to your article on the IFB being “cultish”. I use to be a Lutheran and started attending an IFB church because I wanted more preaching from the bible. I have been attending now for some time. I got saved and baptized in this church. Now I am a memeber. One big difference I noticed from the IFB and Lutheran church is the standards. Now I just went along with this, but for the past couple of months I have been getting the feeling that the IFB is “cultish”. Their preaching on “being seperate from the world” is what set off the alarms for me. It seems that the church gets too involved in peoples personal lives. Not only that but the preaching always seems to be aimed at making you feel guilty. They say its the Holy Spirit “convicting you of your sins” but I am starting to think its just a control technique. The IFB loves to use fear as a method of submission for its congregation.

Now my question to you is this, If the IFB is a “cult” then what is their motivation? I always thought a cult needs to have a purpose.

I am a young Christian, all I ever wanted is to have a relationship with the Lord and know that I am doing the right thing. Since you have left the IFB, how has your life been?  I always here from my church that people who leave the church and go somewhere that doesn’t have a good bible preaching church end up in a world of hurt. I was just wondering how your life has been without it?

I have made a lot of good friends within this church and am worried what they are going to think if I end up leaving the church. I am starting to lose hope in Christianity and religion in general. I don’t think their is one “real” religion. Thats just food for thought. Anyways, I appreciate any advice you might give.

Those are good questions and ones that many people have.  I may take this discussion and post it on the website.  These are very important things to understand and I’m glad you are seeking answers.

The term “cult” itself is very ambiguous and as such, very difficult to define.  I purposefully use the term “cultic” or “cultish” because of that ambiguity, however, there’s really no better or more relevant term to use.  I used to think that the IFB wasn’t really a cult in the strictest sense of the word and as such simply “cultic” or “cultish” in nature (that is, containing some aspects of a cult but not actually a cult itself), but the more I study what a cult is the more I see the IFB fitting into the category of a cult.

Consider the following aspects or characteristics of a cult (as identified by the ICSA):

  1. Excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment (and loyalty) to (it and/or) its leader
  2. Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged and even punished
  3. Leadership dictates how people should think, act and feel (lists of dos and don’ts and “standards”)
  4. Elitist mentality
  5. Exclusivism and separateness
  6. Piousness
  7. Polarized ‘us vs. them’ mentality
  8. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities
  9. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members
  10. The group is preoccupied with making money (e.g., tithe)
  11. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion
  12. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members

Those all describe the IFB churches I was in and from what I’ve been able to gather over the years, many other people have had similar experiences with the IFB.

A cult doesn’t necessarily have to have a motivation per se, at least not a real one.  I’d say that the IFB is motivated by a delusion.  I know that’s harsh, but the thought process of a cult is cyclical.  Their cultish practices only serve to reinforce their cultish mindset which in turn serves to reinforce their cultish practices.  They are deluded into thinking that they have the corner on the truth.  This is the most severe form of delusion.  Most people who have a delusion truly believe with all their being that they are correct and no amount of rational discussion can or will change their minds.  Some IFBs are motivated by prestige among other IFB churches (in competition fashion such as who can win the most people for Christ or bring in the most members), while others may be motivated by money (such as a strong focus on tithing), but overall I think that the primary motivation is pride.  That elitist mentality says that they are better than everyone else and their teachings (doctrines, traditions, beliefs, etc.) are somehow truer than others.

There’s only one word that describes my life now… FREEDOM!!!  I don’t know how else to explain it.  I’m not bound by what the IFB wants me to believe.  I’m not bound by their “standards” of living.  I’m able to have a personal, individualized relationship with Christ without the bonds of legalism and other junk that the IFB heaps on people.  There is some turmoil at times.  Obviously any life change brings with it confusion, loneliness, doubt, etc., but the benefits FAR outweigh the risks.  I’m definitely NOT in a “world of hurt” by any means.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.

Not wanting to hurt people or lose friendships is a very tricky issue.  I still have friends from my IFB days.  I have friends who know about my site and others who don’t.  I’ve also had to cut off friendships (or they have cut me off).  That’s all painful and difficult to juggle, but we can’t live our lives worried about what other people think of us.  We have to do what we think is best for our individual, unique walk with Christ.  I would say that if you have to worry about losing friendships because you left the IFB then they weren’t really your friends to begin with.  A friend will be supportive and understanding.  An enemy will try to get you to do what they want you to do.

I’m OK if you lose hope in Christianity and religion.  That doesn’t bother me in the least.  We can have a relationship with Christ without being involved in Christianity.  Christianity is just a religion.  One can be a Christian (i.e., having an intimate relationship with and being a follower of Christ) without being a Christian (i.e., a follower of the religion Christianity).  Does that make sense?

I hope that helps a little.


  1. Hi am currently attending an IFB Hispanic church. I’m am 25 years old and grew up in this church. My dad was pastor and then my brother took over and now a new pastor has come into place. Reading everyone’s stories makes my heart cringe. Growing up I have always questioned their teachings. But always gave in. Always feeling not good enough. Preachings always aimed at someone specific in mind. I am just now feeling the sense of freedom since I am now seeing this “cult” for what it is. Just the other day this new pastor found out we take take our child to preschool, a Christian non IFB preschool that we pay for and the next service said “those parents who take there kids to daycare and pay so someone else so they can put up with them because they can’t control them!!’why have kids and then hand them off to some else? A woman is to stay home and take care of her kids.!” I married a IFB member but we both have been questioning everything and plan to leave the church soon. I say soon because my husband plans to talk to the pastor and let him know there are a lot of flaws to there system. And how this cult has manipulated us into feeling guilty, superior, not good enough, and are non biblical and hopes to bring him to the “light” . I know this will not work. But I am happy to leave and hope to freedom like never before

  2. Steve Sorenson, I do not know if the “cult” category is where I want to make my comment but many years ago God was working on me trying to get me to think for myself. I was going through a bad trial with a friend of the family who had some Jim Jones like qualities. God lead me to a book by Fyodor Dostoevsky titled ” A Friend of the Family” or it might have been “Friend of the Family.” I laughed when I read this book until the tears ran down my face. God really knew how to cheer me up!! And since then I have always tried to think for myself. We have such an awesome and great God and what a friend we have in Jesus.

  3. I had a romantic relationship with a man in an IFB church for 16 months. We were planning on marrying. He was totally into me, then suddenly broke up, siting all kinds of things about me that just didn’t measure up to his (probably his pastor’s) standards. Is there any way to help someone see the truth? He has gone from feeling connected to me to acting as if I am Satan incarnate. He has now cut off all correspondence. I know this is not a “relationship issue”. Its obviously much bigger, deeper than that. How can one expose the facts without confirming in his mind the pastor’s teaching that these things are from the pit of hell?

    1. Laura-I read all 3 of your comments. As hard as it may be to hear, this is probably the very best thing that could have happened to you. What if you guys had gotten married and he would have tried “to change you?” Look at the heartache that would have come from that!

      The MOG holds stong sway over good men & women in many of these legalistic churches. I remember a good friend left an IFB church that I was attending in the 80’s, he stopped by my house one day, some weeks afterward, and was driving a new truck, I commented about how nice the truck was, and he said that if he would have stayed he wouldn’t have been able to have the truck that the Pastor would have gotten all over him about having it, and how that money could have been put to better use if he would have given it to the church! That shoud have clued me in yet I spent another 13 yrs there! Before I finally left this spiritually abusive church.

      I would recommend prayer for your love interest, God indeed can change people, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I consider myself a very strong-willed person, and in fact there were always sparks between the pastor and me the entire time I was there, but a bigger KJVonly you woulnt have found, so unfortunately I did consume some of the Kool-aid!

      Blessings on you during your struggle, there is much information that will help guide you, and always good therapy to see what others went through and how they escaped the web of legalism. I wish you well and pray blessing on you in the lovely name of Jesus!

      (Btw, after I left the fundy church, Pastor said that Greg likes an argument! That’s code for “I didn’t buy all the crap you were selling”)

      1. Wise counsel, Greg, thank you. I am very interested in how others escaped the web of legalism. I appreciate this site. You describe yourself as a strong willed person. My IFB “friend” will dig his heels in and not budge if he perceives someone is trying to control him, but he just hasn’t seen that he allows this system to do just that, even in his personal life. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in, I guess. He can open anyone’s eyes.

        1. The Holy Spirit can absolutely open his eyes, that’s exactly what He does!

  4. I’ve been doing some reading regarding spiritual abuse and just found this interview that was done with Jeff VanVonderen. Something he said in this interview has really hit home with me, so I thought I would share it.

    “People in abusive systems think that the inside of the system is the only safe place. If you associate with or connect to people outside the system, that is not safe. You can get hurt doing that. So just stay in here where it is safe. Those people out there will lead you away from God or from the things God wants. So it’s safest to stay in here with the leaders, who are the only ones who really know what God wants. The paranoia is that any kind of break from “us” and return to “them” would be disastrous. What makes this even more hurtful is that an individual’s relationship with God is taken hostage. It’s not just that the leader is worried that you are going to fall from grace if you associate with outsiders—or that you might tell outsiders what it’s like in here. It’s more like if you do tell the truth, you will be wrong and God will get you for that. God will be the enforcer. Bottom line: Stay in here or God will punish you.”

    I can remember being scared to leave the IFB because I did not know what was on the other side. I had grown up believing that the way the IFB did church was the only true way to do church. I had grown up learning that all other religions were apostate and knew that those who left, had even had their salvation questioned. I can even remember learning that the IFB was started by Jesus, so therefore it was the only true religion. All of this speaks of a cult.

  5. It took me a while to see it this way, but the friends I lost when I left the IFB were not as numerous as those I cut off while in the IFB. Since leaving, I have been in a variety of churches, and no one in those churches (and very few people I’ve met who attend no church at all) would cut off friendship with a person just because of the church they attend or don’t attend. But the IFB urged me to be this unkind and unfriendly, and made me feel guilty if I didn’t.

  6. “It’s a lot easier for you to get out of the system than it is to get the system out of you. You can play the game from inside or outside. The approval you felt then came from the same source as the shame you feel now. That’s why it hurts so much when you hear the rumors or watch old friends turn away embarrassed. They’re not bad people just brothers and sisters lost in something that is not as godly as they think it is.”

    “That’s the problem with institutions isn’t it? The institution provides something more important than simply loving each other in the same way we’ve been loved. Once you build an institution together you have to protect it and its assets to be good stewards. It confuses everything. Even love gets redefined as that which protects the institution and unloving as that which does not. It will turn some of the nicest people in the world into raging maniacs and they never stop to think that all the name-calling and accusations are the opposite of love.”

    “…If you do what we want, we reward you. If not we punish you. It doesn’t turn out to be about love at all. We give our affection only to those who serve our interests and withhold it from those who do not.”

    “Religion survives by telling us we need to fall in line or some horrible fate will befall us.”

    “Institutionalism breeds task-based friendships. As long as you’re on the same task together, you can be friends. When you’re not, people have to treat you like damaged goods.”

    Excerpts from “So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore”
    Free .pdf download

  7. Thanks for posting this, Steve. I needed this today.
    My family and I left fundyland about 6 years ago. We have lost just about every relationship due to our departure from the “family faith” as my mother-in-law puts it.

    Since our departure we are having a hard time finding a good Bible preaching church. All but one church in our 6 year search is chocked full of traditions of men. We have a hunger and thirst for God that will not be quenched. We are having a hard time finding folks who hunger for Him as well. Most of what we find are good church attenders. Been there, done that, not going back!

    I agree, one can be a follower of Christ and yet have very little to do with modern day Christianity. I know we have a full life in Christ even though we don’t regularly attend church! Gasp!
    (I had to laugh at myself as I typed that. If you asked me just a few years ago if a person could be a good Christian and not attend church I would have said absolutely NO! I equated church attendance with being a follower of Christ. They were one in the same for me. I never fully drank the kool aid, but I was an attend every time the doors were open, serve in various ministries etc. kind of church member.)

    Sadly, you will most likely lose all relationships due to your departure. Like Steve said, they really weren’t your friend to begin with. True friends accept you for who you are not for who they can make you become. I learned that the hard way and have seen it happen time and time again.

  8. In explaining (or trying to explain) the dress standards, soul winning, bus routes, KJV only, Man of God, and other rules that I grew up adhering to, it is only recently that I began to think of the IFB as a cult. When I was in it, it was just a part of life. Now that I’ve been out of the IFB for a few years and can talk about some of my personal experiences, people who have never been in it have repeatedly told me that it sounds like a cult.

    The more I learn about the brainwashing that goes on, the more convinced I am that it is a cult. For instance, I remember a sermon that was preached when I was a teenager called “One of Us.” The pastor spent the entire sermon asking us if we were going to be “one of us” (tow the IFB line and fall into lock-step with him and the church) or “one of them” (rebellious and worldly). That type of manipulation is just one of many examples of the manipulation that was put into my head on a regular basis. No one truly wants to be at odds with their church, friends, family, etc. If they can make you afraid of what is outside the IFB bubble, they will do so.

    There are many people who can’t believe that a BAPTIST denomination could be so extreme as the IFB. But there are too many cult-like characteristics of the IFB to not call it what it is. I grew up in a religious cult. It’s weird to think about that let alone say it out loud.

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