Differentiating Between ‘Cult’, ‘Cultic’ and ‘Spiritual Abuse’

Differentiating Between ‘Cult’, ‘Cultic’ and ‘Spiritual Abuse’ August 20, 2015

Undermuchgraceby Cindy Kunsman cross posted from Under Much Grace

What is the difference between “cult” and “cultic?” (Sociologically Speaking) It’s a matter of degree. Defining terms is vital.

Concerning things “cultic” versus a “cult.” If you’re the average guy (or gal) sitting in a church or a concerned significant other of someone in a group, the first thing you generally notice is that something bothers you about the group. This realization is true of any subtle deception or of insidious problems such as something wrong with your car. You hear an unfamiliar noise and the right side of your brain become sensitized and unconsiously starts putting things together (as a built in defense mechanism). It is a general, intuitive and a type of inductive reasoning.

So on this type of general level, the term “cultic” applies. There are very general similarities between the group in question and what is commonly believed about other well-known cults. It is informal and not based upon specific criteria or perhaps only one criterion. People tend to perceive “cultic” as softer and less threatening language than “cult,” connotating somthing like the Amish versus Jim Jones. A term that is perceived as synonymous with “cultic” is “Spiritually Abusive” (discussion of the same dynamics but with Biblical language vs secular) which is also softer langauge, especially more palatable to those who would not readily receive the message about the dynamics of a group if it were flatly declared to be a cult. Also consistent with the term “Spiritual Abuse” and “cultic” used in this sense, the term “aberrant” is often used, indicating that the core teachings are logical (or largely consistent with Scripture) but do not represent mainstream, orthodox or conservative interpretation of either doctrine and/or practice.

“High demand group” may also be used in place of “cultic,” “abusive” or “aberrant”, using secular language to describe a group that is highly legalistic and collectivistic; however, all these terms are often used interchangably. It also does not carry the stronger negative connotation of “cult.”

A “cult” implies satisfaction of critera for inclusion within a group of religious movements that holds a much different, extreme social connotation essentially differing only by degree or a commentator’s preference for the term. Most people recognize the term “cult” as synonymous with those in the media and often attach the group with a morally reprehensible leader; however, few people actually know the criteria used to determine whether a group is a cult. The trouble is that many cults and cult leaders, meeting criteria, go unrecognized because their abuses do not extend to the extreme end of suicide on behalf of their followers. Also, their abuses may go unreported in light of the concurrent, very helpful and positive outcomes produced byt the group. This is probably true of multi-layer marketing groups and some of the new age oriented human potential groups. And then we have people like Doug who make very valuable contributions to precious causes, so the abuses and inconsistent behaviors and character traits are likely to be dismissed. Humans like consistency, so our desire to find and maintain consistency overrides our ability to recognize what may be obvious to others who have emotional distance.

“Cult” then, versus “cultic” implies more left-brained, analytical processes and some process of deductive evaluation of specifics, indicating that some informed and expert party/board/conference has evaluated and determined that the group in question is indeed a cult. “Cultic” then preceeds “cult” in most cases. Lifton’s criteria, the psychiatrist who counseled and treated the Korean POWs who were subjected to Chinese thought reform technique provides the definitive standard, as it was the first standard. A group in question need not meet every one of the criteria, but depending on the degree of abuse and the behavioral effects (both through group behavior and through negative/common symptoms in those emerging from the group) all contribute to the applicability of the term. Spiritual Abuse can and is used for both “cult” and “cultic” however.


Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

Read everything by Cindy Kunsman!


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  • Friend

    Thank you. This helps to sort out the severity of one’s own situation (past or present), and to figure out how to help friends and relatives.

  • You might find this a useful tool. It was developed by my late husband after the Jim Jones tragedy, and is useful across a broad spectrum of groups. It’s not based on theological or philosophical criteria, but on psychological issues.

  • Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

    Thanks! The next time I update I’ll add it to our list of helpful links! Looks like a valuable resource