One glaring red flag we missed in our abusive church situation was the fact that our pastor seemed to have no real relationships with pastors in the local area. He knew pastors, but I do not recall him saying he respected any of them. How could a pastor in his first pastorate have no need for accountability or connection with other pastors?
Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. 1 Timothy 3:7
Our former pastor told us that other local pastors did not evangelize properly, did not have the right gospel message, allowed youth groups, did not do authoritative preaching, etc. No pastor measured up and so he was basically alone in his superior ways. He did, however, respect pastors at Grace Community Church (John MacArthur's church), but these were not men he rubbed shoulders with locally, so they could not provide input into his life or challenge him or be available to him.
Our former pastor was affiliated with the larger Grace Brethren assemblies, but he refused to have anything to do with those pastors, having a fall-out some 4 years ago while we were there. I remember how he denigrated those pastors from the pulpit. It wasn't pretty. Hmm, denigrating pastors from the pulpit?
Take a look at your pastor's life. Ask your pastor who holds him accountable, who he calls for guidance, if he has mentors who speak into his life, etc. Anyone who sets himself up in an authority position over people who does not allow someone to speak into his life is treading in dangerous territory. Cultists listen to no one. They have no need for anyone speaking into their life because they are above everyone. Beware of lone pastors who have no need for real accountability. I've mentioned this before, but when we met with the elders, we asked them if they ever had a need to bring any issue to the pastor's attention in the prior 10 years. Both replied "no" - no such issue ever came up. In other words, they said he had no anger issue, no personality issue, etc, absolutely nothing that they could find that they could bring correction to their pastor. That is also another red flag. No one is perfect.
"Following the biblical model, elders must not wield the authority given to them in a heavy-handed way. They must not use manipulative tactics, play power games, or be arrogant and aloof. They must never think that they are unanswerable to their fellow brethren or to God. Elders must not be authoritarian, which is incompatible with humble servanthood. When we consider Paul's example and that of our Lord's, we must agree that biblical elders do not dictate; they direct. True elders do not command the consciences of their brethren, but appeal to their brethren to faithfully follow God's Word.... They guard the community's liberty and freedom in Christ so that the saints are encouraged to develop their gifts, to mature, and to serve one another. " Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership
We've read other stories here of lone pastors. My personal experience is certainly not the only one (Personal Story of Spiritual Abuse by Eric Starkey and Can Spiritual Abuse Destroy a Marriage? Paul's Story).
Cults indoctrinate their members that they alone are right. The top leader who is portrayed as perfect and therefore beyond reproach is the bearer of God's truth.
Elitism is the main reason why cults are very divisive among Christians. Anyone outside the group is suspect. Even one's own family is no longer to be trusted. The cult leader's word is more important than anyone else's.
How is your church controlled? What sort of control is exercised on ordinary members? Are they allowed to disagree? 1 Peter 5: 2-5; 2 Corinthians 7:2
How is your church defined? Does it have a fringe? Is there a sense in which everyone is clearly in or out? How exclusive/elitist is it? James 2:1-7
How is your church advertised? Is there a note of triumphalism? A note of comparing selves with others? An element of competitiveness?
How does your church regard/ is your church regarded by other churches? Does your church work together with other churches, or is it so exclusive that it regards all others as inferior? Is its attitude to other churches one of co-operation or confrontation?
How easily is your church left? Can a person leave the church without bringing down upon themselves the criticism and abuse that accompanies those leaving the cults? Is your church content that a person should join another church?