Excellent question. The word "cult" is offensive only to those on the inside; if you are on the outside, it's a comforting word that allows you to pridefully declare two things. First: "I wouldn't be so stupid or naive to join such a group." Second: "Why do people stay in such groups when they find out that it's wrong?"
Fair enough. From the outside. How you respond to such a revelation that this group is wrong, cultic and you need to leave depends how deeply your needs are being met, and whether you think you can leave that all behind.
False teachers tap into deep scars, wounds and needs that maybe no one knows about. They exploit that connection with you. How do they know? They do, for their knowledge is coming from the one they serve.
If God reveals a hidden wound in someone to you, the last thing a Christ-like person would do is exploit it, manipulate it or use it to meet their needs.
Satan can reveal things to people, too.
For me, the pastor that I was taken in by tapped into my daddy wound. I never had approval voiced by my father. I was an excellent student, obtained a Masters in college, and had a successful marriage. He never took me aside and said, "Well done." It was only on his death bed did he express an appreciation for who I was. But forty-five years of craving approval had done its damage in how I saw myself.
This pastor made me feel special, complimented me and made me want to please him. I went out of my way to do so. He returned the favor and let me do a bunch of different things in the church that I love to do: teach, lead worship and participate in Bible studies.
After a year of this, and my self-esteem bolstered by all this attention, things began to change. I was no longer invited to do certain tasks. He would shut me down in front of others with disparaging comments. Instead of growing angry, I would question myself: What did I do wrong?
The point of no return was when I told him I felt God was calling me to a church plant. I had served for eight years in this church and almost two under him. The time was right to move on.
The reaction was swift and severe. He became emotionally distant from me. He told me not to tell anyone for fear it would be depressing to the church. He blamed me for some changes that were not my idea. I finally went to his house to make amends. He was so angry, I could feel it emanating from him. I tried to make small talk and his wife walked out of the room. WHAM: He let me have it. I couldn't get a word in edgewise and I gave up. He finished and I left, feeling even more stupid, for others had warned me not to try to reconcile with him.
People who loved me figured him out long before I did.
It's taken a lot of pain, time and love from the Lord and others to get a hold of why this went so wrong. Now, if this pastor had started out mean, then I would have left immediately. One of the church members, who left way before I did, said, "Either he is the most spiritual person I know, or he is a fraud."
I saw things early on in him that raised flags for me, but I wanted to believe that this man was sent by God and would help me grow.
He did. I grew in a lot of knowledge of the Word. I explored the area of spiritual warfare under his leadership. But I also learned that wolves will eat salad for a long time before they clamp their jaws on you.
This man had great teachers and he was able to share their teachings with us. But after a year, his well ran dry. Left to his own devices, he started recycling the same basic messages over and over. He didn't seem to have the vibrant life in Christ that he presented when he first came to our church.
His teachings became less and less predicated on the Word and more on his personal practices. He opened the Bible less and less. It became more and more about him.
That was the undetected problem at the very start of our relationship: He was centered on himself. He was happiest when his needs were being met; when you ceased to meet his needs, you were discarded.
So, what did I learn about why people fall in with false teachers?
A false teacher will meet your deeper needs: Perhaps you are looking for a daddy-figure; a strong man; a kind man; a compassionate leader; a buddy; a good friend; a knowledgeable teacher or an inspirational Christian, who seems to have it together. Or, yes, all of the above. That teacher will be there for you.
A false teacher will make you feel special, unique, chosen: You will receive such positive affirmation that you will begin to act and feel better about yourself than you have in a long time.
A false teacher will have strong Biblical knowledge, but it will have other elements blended in: These other elements will raise a red flag, but because the teacher's Biblical knowledge is the larger percentage of what is taught, you ignore the flags. You are hungry for the Word, and thus you will sift through the teachings.
A false teacher has an answer to every question: Even if you sense it is not all Biblical, you enjoy the confident glow around such a leader. Your own questions don't seem so pressing; you bask in the glow of someone who has figured it out.
A false teacher will make you part of his family: Your church will have a strong sense of community, and you are placed smack-dab in the middle of it. Others will not be in the middle with you, but that's OK. The teacher makes you feel part of an inner circle, and you feel safe and valued there.
A false teacher will appear successful, happy and in control: In a world of just the opposite, a leader that emanates these qualities is refreshing. You want to be a part of this!
A false teacher will have an "us versus them" mentality: You are so glad to be a part of the "us" that you do wonder why the "them" don't see life the way the leader does. You are concerned for them, but feel a deep sense of pride to be an "us."
A false teacher will soon confuse you by acting differently than before: You will seek to correct the problem; after all, everything started out so good. If something went wrong, it's you. The leader has it all together, after all.
A false teacher will have reasonable explanations for the inconsistencies that eventually arise: The leader, unbeknownst to you, has well-rehearsed reasons for why things go wrong; you just see this as the leader being very confident in the face of problems.
A false teacher will have reasonable explanations for why other people cannot get long with him: This will cement your bond with him; you determine that you won't act this way, therefore you will not be cast aside.
A false teacher will have reasonable explanations for why things start to fall apart, people leave and what was once a vibrant community comes tumbling down: Actually, the facade of a vibrant community comes down. Whatever was real was small; the unreal, the manufactured, the manipulated was the stronger element, and the truth comes out eventually.
A false teacher doesn't want the Truth; he wants his truth: That's the great divide. Truth as revealed in the Word, or a truth created to keep a person in control: that is where the rubber hits the road. You have to make a decision in face of such compelling evidence about the foundation upon which the leader has built.
Now, briefly take these points and enlarge them. These are why so many cults flourish. These are why so many people, even faced with compelling evidence that what they believe and who they follow are not in line with the Word, still carry on.
I have learned a lot during the past few years. Instead of standing Pharisee-like and excoriating followers in thus and such cult, I get it.
The Holy Spirit led me out. For that I am grateful. My prayer is that He will lead out those still caught in the net.
I will next focus on what the Word says about false teachers. I have sat in church for over 40 years and have never heard a pastor preach on how to detect false teachers. I sadly had to go through the school of hard knocks to understand the danger and damage such a false teacher can cause.