Cult

Back when I was actively promoting the Iglesia ni Cristo to my friends and family who were outside of the faith, I would occasionally be told “That’s not a real religion, it’s just a small fringe cult.” At the time, it was easy to show that, although the church’s doctrines were definitely not “mainstream Christian,” the church was nonetheless a “real religion” and not a cult. However, given the ways in which the church has fundamentally changed under the leadership of the current executive minister, it is worth asking the question “Is the Iglesia ni Cristo now a cult?”


There are many different definitions of the (generally derisive) term “cult” which can range anywhere from “a small, unpopular religion” to “any Christian group that denies the Trinity” and beyond. However, the most respected definition of a “cult” within the psychological and sociological research communities is a checklist first proposed by Michael Langone, Ph.D. in the 1990s and widely quoted since. Dr. Langone asserts that this checklist is not a “definition” per se, nor does it provide a “cultic score” for any particular group. However, it is the result of the contributions of numerous researchers over the past 20+ years to identify those attributes which are common among groups which are considered cults because of the physical, psychological or emotional abuse and damage that their members or former members have suffered.

The most current revision of the checklist can be found here and is reproduced below in its entirety:

Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.

Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine whether there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine whether a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
  • 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.
  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Note: This checklist has gone through many revisions since the author first presented it in the 1990s. Many people have contributed suggestions and feedback to the various revisions, in particular Carol Giambalvo, Janja Lalich, Herb Rosedale, and Patrick Ryan. The current, slightly modified version of this checklist was published in ICSA Today, 6(3), 2015.

About the Author: Michael D. Langone, PhD, a counseling psychologist, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He has written and spoken widely on cult-related topics and is Editor-in-Chief of ICSA Today.


Let’s consider each of the items in this checklist in the context of the Iglesia ni Cristo under the leadership of the current executive minister.

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Need I say more than “One with EVM”? The unquestioning obedience to every whim of the executive minister is the hallmark of the current administration.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

How many people and entire households have been expelled for asking questions, expressing doubt or just “liking” a Facebook post which expresses dissent against the church administration? (Seriously, I’m asking because I’ve simply lost count…)

Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

The worship services themselves have become repetitive denunciation sessions – with the lessons now almost exclusively focused on the importance of unquestioning obedience, worship service attendance and abundant offering – filled with anger and scorn towards every member (both in attendance and absent) for not being obedient enough, not attending enough church functions, not having enough offices, not being active enough in general and/or not giving enough money in any of the umpteen “voluntary” offerings. In addition, the ever increasing requirements on the officers (especially in some of the smaller locales) are approaching “debilitating work routines.”

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

There have always been some aspects of this characteristic within the Iglesia ni Cristo and it is not unique to this administration. The church has always required members to get permission to marry and has always had strong recommendations on where members should live, etc. It is only with the recent emphasis on unquestioning obedience to the leadership that these characteristics take on a more worrisome tone.

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

This is absolutely the case for the Iglesia ni Cristo, but has been so since the very beginning. Ka Felix himself asserted that the members of the church have a special exalted status over all other religions of the world.

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

How many times do I need to hear I Corinthians 5:13 (“God will judge outsiders. Expel that wicked man.”) read from the pulpit? The church has always held itself in a state of “us versus the world” (“The church is of Christ, but the world is of the Devil”, “Do not focus on worldly things”, etc), but the vitriol reserved for outsiders (especially those who have been expelled) has reached a fevered pitch under this administration (“Those outside can do nothing good”, “Do not offer so much as a drink of cold water to one who has been expelled”, etc).

The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

If even a small fraction of the allegations against EVM and the Sanggunian are true (intimidation, kidnapping, torture, bribery, human rights violations, money laundering, tax evasion, etc, etc, etc), then the leader is definitely acting more like a mob boss who believes he is above the law than one who believes he is accountable to any authority (whether earthly or divine).

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

The ends of adding more members to the church justifies lying to or bullying prospective members into joining. The ends of collecting more money for the church justifies lying about the purpose of offerings (The Lingap is for helping victims of Typhoon Haiyan, not lining Jun Santos’ pockets. The local fund offering is for the needs of the locale, not for shipping off to central. The year-end and mid-year Thanksgiving offerings are for building houses of worship, not funding lavish lifestyles for the leadeship.) The ends of attaining worldly recognition and status justifies lying about the multi-million dollar loans taken out to build the Philippine Arena. Participating in tradeshows, bazaars and other commercialized events on church property is not unethical or reprehensible because it is justified by the needs of the church to attain more money and worldly status.

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.

The church is masterful at this… almost as good as the Catholics! 😉

Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.

This is the only characteristic on this list that I can honestly say I do not think the current Iglesia ni Cristo shares with other abusive cults. With the exception of expelled members, the church does not require new members to cut ties with family or friends. Unless your goals and activities violate church teachings (e.g. being a bartender or casino dealer) or take you far away from any locale, then the church does not require new members to alter their own personal goals or activities. The situation is definitely different for officers, whose ever increasing number of responsibilities and requirements may prevent them from partaking in many of the activities that they had before they joined the church. However, for the regular member, this is not necessarily the case.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

The church has always been focused on propagation, but lately “intensive propagation” has definitely become a “preoccupation” within the church.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

The questionable management of offerings, the commercialization of the church, the presence of multi-million dollar loans, and the relentless focus within the worship services on “abundant offering” and “generous fund offerings” has illustrated just how money-focused the current church administration has become.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

The church absolutely prides itself on the devotion of its members and praises those who are the most active and who are “always at the chapel.” It is expected that every member should be “as active as possible” and take on at least one office within the church. Members are pressured to attend all of the bible studies, social events, devotional prayers, etc – and officers are absolutely required to attend most/all of those. Encouraging members to be active has always been a part of the church teachings, but lately the church has been pushing these requests much harder as a way of exerting additional control over the lives of the members. In some districts there is significant pressure to make sure that every “head of a household” has at least one office within the church.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Members are strongly encouraged to socialize only with other members in order not to be “led astray by the people of this world.” This is exemplified by the “us versus them mentality” discussed above and, as discussed above, has gotten significantly more intense in recent years.

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

I have spoken with many “true believers” (OWEs) who deeply believe that there is no life outside the church because there is no salvation outside the church. They are terrified of the possibility of being expelled and would never consider leaving the church, no matter what happens or what the church administration is accused of.


Although the authors of this checklist state that it does not provide a “cultic score” for any particular group, the fact that the current Iglesia ni Cristo demonstrates 14 out of the 15 different characteristics of abusive cults should give all current members pause. I, for one, can no longer honestly say that the Iglesia ni Cristo is not a cult.

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4 thoughts on “Cult

  1. Yep, the INC has almost all of these signs of being a cult. This is the very reason I stepped down from my duties. Because the more active you are in the church activities, especially if you’re awake about what’s going on inside the church right now, the more they will choke the life out of you.

    It’s better to be a normal member of the church, at least it’s just between you and God only.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I very much can relate to your earlier anecdote where people accused the INC of being a cult. Now, the very reasons I no longer invite visitors is because I have no response prepared for such accusations. Before, it was always a matter of leading by example, and where the truth would be like medicine, stinging at first but eventually making everything better. Now, with lessons focused on obedience and offerings, it’s hard to make the case that the INC isn’t a cult.

    I no longer hold offices in the INC. While I sometimes feel guilty about this, I don’t feel that I can’ truly perform my duties with all my heart and with a clear conscience while the church is in its current state.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You note that with regards to the following characteristic,

    “Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group”

    that the Church does not necessarily enforce this. I disagree. With every expulsion comes the requirement from remaining members to not associate with these people, or allow them into their houses. The requirement even pertains to members of the same family, that perhaps even live under the same roof. Additionally, people who have family or friends that do not agree with their decision to join the church are indeed encouraged to cut ties with them. I know many brethren that have, all in order to ‘gain’ salvation.

    And with regards to personal goals, personal achievements are rarely encouraged unless they can somehow benefit the church. If goals and achievements distract a member, even in the slightest due to other ‘worldly’ commitments, they are greatly discouraged.

    So, yes – you can go ahead and add this onto the cultish characteristics and you would not be wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just like studies or work. Granted, before if it will affect the WS, you just need to adjust. Now, if it will affect the WS, office duties, activities, then just forget about it.

      Like

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