Two weeks ago we woke up to the horror story of a man named Pastor Paul Mackenzie who led his followers to starve themselves to death at Shakahola, here in Kenya. As we speak, his cult has claimed over 100 lives with over 400 people reported missing.

This has left many puzzled with more questions than answers. One can’t help but wonder, how an individual could exert so much influence over people that they killed themselves willfully.

I admit that these kinds of things are hard to wrap our heads around, which brings us to the question, why do people join cults? And why would someone belong to a movement that might ultimately cost them their life? Didn’t they see the signs?

Well, numerous research has been conducted on how cults operate. Based on the information garnered, we are going to look at the tell-tale signs that most cult groups exhibit. But first, let’s define what a cult is.

What is a cult?

A cult is a religious organization where a group of people fanatically adhere to an unorthodox set of beliefs. Cults often coalesce around a charismatic figure, who sets the rules for everyone else’s ideas, practices, and beliefs. 

Usually, the charismatic figure operates in spiritual gifts such as healing, prophecy, deliverance, and so on. And more often than not, they hold to beliefs and doctrines that deviate from the Scripture. 

While this post will focus on religious, particularly “Christian” cults, it’s worth noting that not all cults are religious. Cults can also be political, terrorist, sexual, satanic, etc.

How to Spot a cult

A group is a cult or shows cult-like tendencies if any one of these characteristics is present. Cults often begin with one or two of the signs below:

New or Special Revelation

This is a common trait shared among many religious cult organizations. Cult leaders often claim to possess a special revelation from God that hasn’t been revealed to anyone else. These extra-biblical revelations are usually received through supernatural encounters such as dreams, visions, angels, or an audible voice from “God”. 

(This is why many religious cults exhibit apocalyptic tendencies. The term “apocalyptic” refers to beliefs or prophecies about an imminent catastrophic event that will bring about the end of the world. They often believe they have a special revelation or insight into these prophecies, which sets them apart from mainstream interpretations of God’s word.)

Nonetheless, these revelations serve as the basis for developing doctrines outside the established teachings in Scripture. And they are regarded as being at par with or even superior to the Bible’s authority. So much so, that cult leaders may refer their followers to other written materials on their new teachings.

To strengthen their claims, verses from the Bible are often taken out of context and presented to followers as evidence that their revelations are indeed from God. Once the cult members are won over, these teachings are repeated to the point where they become deeply ingrained with false and strange doctrines through a form of brainwashing.

However, in Galatians, Paul says:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. Galatians 1:6‭-‬9 ESV

This means that we shouldn’t anticipate a new or fresh revelation. There can be no greater revelation than that which was already provided in the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16-17). God has given His authority to the revelation that we have received through the writings of the Apostles of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:6).

In addition, the Bible warns against adding to or subtracting from it (Revelation 22:18; Deuteronomy 4:2).  You can read our post on the sufficiency of scripture to learn more.

Related: Mysticism: The Dangers of Seeking Special Revelation

Distortion and denial of the essential doctrines of the faith

While some Christian beliefs are up for debate, core beliefs such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the resurrection, and the Second Coming aren’t. Because they are an integral part of the Gospel message. 

However, cults are notorious for distorting and denying the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. One common trend in cults is the undermining of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For example, many cults have been started by people who claim to be Jesus Christ. Yet we know this to be false since according to Matthew 16:27, Christ will return as the righteous judge. Not to start a sect. 

In addition, it’s common for cult teachings to undermine the work of the cross. One of the core teachings in most cults is that the cross falls short of bringing about complete salvation and must be complemented by our efforts. 

Hence why it’s common for cult members to indulge in practices that would otherwise be considered unwise or reckless to please God or earn salvation like in the Shakahola or Jim Jones massacres. However, this is unbiblical because the full price for salvation was paid by Jesus Christ on the cross. All that is required of us is to believe (John 3:16; 6:29; Eph 2:8).

Exclusivity from Christian churches

Cults typically distance themselves from orthodox Christian denominations. Having received “special enlightenment”, they are normally elitist (claiming to have a spiritually superior position to the rest of the people). 

They tend to challenge and discredit anyone teaching foundational Christian doctrines that have been held by the church throughout history. This results in an us-versus-them mentality that puts them at odds with the rest of the church.

This partly explains why cult members are always preoccupied with bringing in new people. They believe they alone possess the truth and that their movement is “the only way” to God. Therefore, every other truth outside what they teach is a lie. And those who aren’t a part of it are doomed for destruction.

However, there is no such thing as the monopoly of truth in Christianity. The truth has been laid bare and made accessible to everyone through the Scriptures. The Gospel is meant for everyone. Therefore, a so-called “church” teaching that membership in their group is necessary for salvation or to access God, is aberrant and unbiblical.

Authoritarian Leadership

Ever wondered why cultic groups show unwavering devotion to their leaders?

In many cases, cult leaders possess charismatic and persuasive qualities. They excel at creating an environment where followers experience feelings of love, security, and acceptance. Simultaneously, these leaders demand absolute loyalty, forbidding any form of challenge, questioning, or criticism. Their authority is absolute, so whatever they say goes. Suffice it to say, going against them equals going against God.

The deep admiration and high regard aids in the members’ psychological surrender to the idea of placing their spiritual well-being in the hands of the cult leader rather than Christ.

This surrender then, provides a suitable environment to exert authoritarian (enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom) influence over the cult. The ideas, practices, and beliefs of the leader are therefore viewed as supreme and conclusive.

Cult leaders may exert influence over followers in a variety of ways, but some common ones are as follows:

1. Manipulation: 

  • Rewarding submission to the leadership, hence, elevating an individual’s standing within the group. 
  • Mind-control techniques are employed to quell any reservations about the group and its leader(s).
  • Creating sentiments of guilt or shame to force cult members who disagree into submission. And even if they are still opposed to the demands, cult members nevertheless submit for fear of being disfellowshipped.

2. Control

  • Prescribing how members should feel, act, and think (for instance, members might have to obtain permission before dating, changing jobs, or getting married). 
  • Ensuring common appearance is enforced. For example, women might be required to wear long dresses at all times or all men might be prohibited from shaving their beards, and so on.

3. Lack of accountability: 

  • They are not accountable to elders and deacons (1 Timothy 5:17-18; 3:8–13; Titus 1:5) making it easy for them to manipulate their followers without question. As such, it’s common for questioning, skepticism, and disagreement to be frowned upon or even punished.  

4. Love Bombing: 

  • Preying on the vulnerable by showing a new member of the group a lot of affection and care to transfer emotional reliance to the leader or the group.
  • Making you feel like you belong to a new family that loves you more than your own has ever loved you. Therefore, alienating you from your loved ones. 

5. Brainwashing: 

  • Controlling members’ behavior and thought processes through indoctrination. This is accomplished by repeating their false teachings over and over again to a point where members cannot distinguish between what is true or false.

6. The end justifies the means:

  • Encouraging followers to use whatever means they deem necessary to accomplish their goals. Lofty and underhanded means (such as lying to loved ones) that members would have otherwise found to be unethical are justified. The idea is that all means necessary to accomplish that goal must be acceptable because they are the custodians of the truth that brings salvation.

7. Abuse:

  • Exploiting members through sexual abuse to break down psychological barriers, erode autonomy, and create vulnerability. They exploit intimate aspects of followers’ lives to establish dominance and foster emotional connections that reinforce loyalty and obedience.
  • The shame and secrecy surrounding such abuse can isolate members from outside support systems, further cementing their reliance on the leader and the group.
  • Sexual abuse, in particular, is exploited to deepen the emotional bond between the leader and followers, making it even more challenging for them to break free from the cult.

8. Threats:

  • Using fear and intimidation to coerce followers into surrender. Members might be warned that if they decide to leave the group, terrible things will happen to them e.g. satanic attacks or death. Also, “Touch not the anointed of God” is often given as a warning.


Cult leaders run the group in such a way that they limit the amount of interaction between their members and non-members. For example, it’s common for them to run teaching programs almost every single day. This provides the leader with a platform to exert even more control over the members’ beliefs and behaviors through indoctrination.

Often, members are convinced to withdraw from society and even give up relationships with loved ones and friends. They are often made to feel like they will take them away from the truth that the group has. In some extreme cases, they are made to believe that their families and loved ones are their enemies and it’s God’s will for them to alienate themselves from them. 

Members are also encouraged to drastically change the personal goals they had prior to joining the cult. The most devoted followers eventually think that there is no life outside of the group. It’s this kind of isolation that often ends up in tragedy.

Why Do People Join Cults?

People join cults for a number of reasons but we’ll only look at a few. Some join cults because they are young in the faith. This makes them susceptible to any wind of doctrine that might blow their way. The book of Ephesians shows us that it’s possible to be deceived if we are not spiritually mature:

so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Ephesians 4:14 ESV

Some are drawn to cults because they’re looking for the answers they want to hear concerning life’s problems. They could be going through a rough patch and they desperately desire a breakthrough. This desperation puts them at risk of being seduced by a cult that offers to provide the answers they seek. They can be lured by promises of health, wealth, and prosperity. Such motivations are addressed by Paul in 2 Timothy:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Timothy 4:3‭-‬4 ESV

Others fall into a cultic trap because they are looking for a place to belong. They may be yearning for love or identity. As such, they will find a group that seeks to accept and love them appealing.

Last but not least, a yearning for a profound spiritual encounter with God is another factor that draws people into cults. This is particularly common within hype-charismatic circles. One is bound to fall for the deceptive lure of a leader who claims to have normative spiritual encounters with God if they have an insatiable desire for spiritual experiences. Especially if such a person isn’t grounded in sound theology,

In Matthew, Jesus says this:

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 ESV

This shows that not everyone who claims to walk in the supernatural is from God:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness. Matthew 7:21‭-‬23 ESV

It’s important to keep in mind that even demonic entities pretending to be angels of light (2 Cor 11:14) can perform signs and wonders with the aim of deceiving people.

How to Avoid Being Lured into a Cult

The only fireproof way to avoid the allure of cults is by prayerfully studying the word of God. The Bible is the final authority for truth. 2 Tim 3:16-17 says:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV

It’s by having a sound doctrine that we can discern doctrines of demons (1 Tim 4:1-3). Every teaching we hear should be examined through the lenses of Scripture. You should never accept any teaching that the Bible cannot verify.

The Bereans only agreed with Paul’s teachings after verifying them in the Bible. Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

The Bereans are a great example of what we should do. Moreover, Christians are encouraged not “to believe every spirit but to test the spirits to see if they are of God because false prophets have gone out into the world with the aim of leading people astray” (1 Jn. 4:1). 

Final Thoughts

The unsettling case of Pastor Paul Mackenzie and the tragic events at Shakahola indeed force us to confront the disturbing reality of cults and their destructive influence on people and communities.

I hope that the signs of a cult, as explored in this post, provide valuable insights into identifying such groups and protecting yourself from their manipulative tactics.

So even as we reflect on the tragic events at Shakahola, let us not only mourn the lives lost but also commit ourselves to a deeper understanding of the Word, seeking discernment, and encouraging others to do the same.

In the face of deception, the light of truth provided by Scripture remains our most potent weapon, guiding us away from the shadows of false teachings and towards the path of genuine faith and knowledge in Jesus Christ.

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