We have all heard the outrageous stories: a wife forsakes her husband and children to join her spiritual leader in isolation. Students drop out of university because their spiritual leader told them the rapture is imminent. A child tragically dying at home because his parents attend a “church” that rejects modern medicine. Worse still, waking up to the gruesome death of hundreds of people overnight who were locked in a building waiting their translation into heaven. These are just some of the shocking headlines pertaining to our topic. They remind us that there are dangerous people out there, committed to deceiving and destroying human lives in the name of God. There is a word that describes the groups that have these characteristics: cults. Cults are a worldwide phenomenon and Africa has certainly not been spared their devastating lies.
Cults are a worldwide phenomenon and Africa has certainly not been spared their devastating lies
What is a Cult?
The word cult is so frequently and carelessly used that it has lost its meaning. When some people find that they do not agree with a certain group, or when they are deeply hurt by a church, they liberally label it a cult. This is subjective and can therefore be misleading, even slanderous. Although cults are responsible for much heartbreak and tragedy owing to their aberrant beliefs, many traits typical of cults are evident within groups considered orthodox and mainstream.
A cult is not an individual heretic, but a group of people. This group may be led by an individual or a select group of people. It may also be an organisation. But a group that is headed towards apostasy is not necessarily a cult. Furthermore, not every individual within a cult is an unbeliever. For deceived and genuine believers are often trapped within cultic groups. Therefore, the term cult is not meant to be derogatory to the individual. It describes a group within which certain characteristic beliefs and practices are observable. So, it is easier to identify or describe a cult by its characteristics. However, this definition is not straightforward. An easy but practical definition is that a cult is a splinter group that deviates from a parent group seeking to establish itself fully apart from the mainstream, either in content, belief or form.
Characteristics of Christian Cults
Christian cults disagree with one or more of the following core tenets of the faith: God and his nature; divine revelation; the identity of Jesus Christ; the doctrine of the Holy Spirit; the nature of man; sin and salvation; the mission and composition of the church; and the doctrine of the future. They either have an unhealthy emphasis on the non-essentials, or completely disregard or distort these essentials. These cults present a counterfeit Christian religion. Yet they claim to be Christian or to have replaced the church.
Cults present a counterfeit Christian religion. Yet they claim to be Christian or to have replaced the church.
We must be aware that all major world religions – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism – have their own cults or heretical sects. There are divisive or controversial movements, sects, and denominations within every religion. However, my focus in this article is on Christian cults.
Christianity and Cults in Africa: A Brief History
Africa can be fittingly called a religious continent. Where you do not find Islam, you meet Christianity. Alongside these are also various expressions of African traditional religions (ATR). Christianity has ancient roots in Africa, dating back to the first five centuries AD. The Coptic and Ethiopian churches are some of the oldest Christian groups on the continent. They predate colonisation and modern missions. Yet, despite these deep Christian roots, Africa entered a silent age for centuries.
The arrival of missionaries from Europe into sub-Saharan Africa can be dated to the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century there was also an influx of mission groups from America. Western missionaries converted white settlers, the Asian (or Indian) labourers, and some of the educated Africans. Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism took the majority of this spoil. Methodists and the Baptists came later and enjoyed more success with local tribesmen. The Eastern Orthodox Church fared well too. It made the horn of Africa its preferred base. In tow were the numerous splinter groups from the mainstream Christian denominations. But many of these deserve the label ‘cult’. Amongst the cults, groups such as the Mormons did not immediately reach out to Africans. For, at the time, they considered black skin a curse of God. This position was officially held until 1978.
Christianity and Colonialism on the Continent
In the face of marginalisation from the European colonial governments and the negative effects of colonisation, many Africans could not reconcile the message of Christianity with the actions of their colonial masters. Others who disagreed with Western missionaries began their own African themed Christian groups, splinter groups from the mainstream Western expressions of Christianity. A number of these would later come to be known as African Instituted Churches, now mainly under the banner of the Organisation of African Instituted Churches. Some of the African splinter groups, such as Legio Maria, would later become major cults, complete with their own African Messiah or black Jesus. Others even adopted the idea of black angels, black prophets and apostles, all the way down to exclusively black congregants in the pew! The stage was set for the battle of the African heart.
The stage was set for the battle of the African heart
Other Western cults such as the Seventh Day Adventist group (SDA) would succeed in inland sub-Saharan Africa early in the twentieth century. In certain ways, the SDAs on the continent took on such an African social expression that it could be distinguished in practice (while similar in doctrine) from Western expressions.
The Impact of Cults after Independence
Even after independence, most African nations did not rise from the levels of poverty, deep corruption and wealth gaps that prevailed. Thus, the Christian religion – cults included – played a great role in alleviating the worries and raising the hopes of the majority of Africans who were poor and marginalised. Further, high levels of illiteracy and little interest in theology left many spiritually hungry Africans as ready prey for anyone dressed like a spokesman of God. Today, foreign and home bred cults have taken root in Africa. The twenty-first century has seen certain African cult leaders, such as David Owuor of the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness, gain worldwide prominence. Evidently both biblical churches and cults continue to expand on the African continent.
I will not attempt to provide a forecast for cults in Africa. But their existence and expansion on the continent is something that the church must be aware of and proactively address. Cults are dangerous. Furthermore, they are not a problem ‘out there,’ but one that lurks at every church door. They could be targeting your fellow church members. My intent is that our African churches are equipped with the necessary information. Hence, in our next article we shall categorise the various cultic groups spread out across Africa.
In keeping with the Scriptures, Christians must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) We have the Lord’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. We must not let others rob the church of this precious deposit – truth. For it is the truth that ultimately sets all men free.