Cults in Culture: How is the Term Defined and Applied? (Part 1)

A multipart series on religious groups commonly associated with Christianity

The word "cult," once simply used by certain groups to denote a system of religious practice, has become a topic of intense national debate. After Dr. Robert Jeffress' explosive comments in October regarding Mitt Romney, Mormonism and cults, defining the term may even be a crucial factor in the 2012 presidential race.

The inflammatory word is also quickly fueling a need to clearly distinguish the difference between biblical Christianity and religious groups who claim to be of the same faith.

"Defining terms is really important when addressing live cultural issues," said preeminent evangelical theologian R. Albert Mohler, Jr., in a March 3 radio broadcast of "The Briefing." Christians need to "make sure we know what we're saying," he said.

James Beverley, professor of Christian Thought and Ethics at Tyndale University, said there needs to be a proper Christian response to cults and other religions. He noted, "Virtually every religion offers love, identity, and meaning to its followers."

Beverley, who described himself as an evangelical Christian scholar, referred The Christian Post to his book, Nelson's Illustrated Guide to Religions:

"For the last three decades it has become popular to make a distinction between religions and cults. According to this distinction, some groups are so strange or dangerous or heretical as to deserve a special term or category to distinguish them from real religion. Thus, the word ‘cult’ has been used in reference to hundreds of different groups, most often describing new religions that have arrived in the West since the mid-1960s."

Some theologians believe that "cult" may appropriately describe religious groups that claim to be Christian. The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions defines a cult as: "A separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and who practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity."

Most minds tend to turn to groups led by Jim Jones, David Koresh or, more recently, Warren Jeffs, when the topic of cults arises. But the word "cult" can also describe a benign religious group that claims to be part of Christianity but whose belief system strays from the biblical gospel.

"By common understanding the word 'cult' is viewed as a really negative description," Beverley explained in an email to CP. "The term is usually reserved for groups that claim to be Christian but are a long way from basic, true Christianity; or the term is used for groups – Christian or otherwise – that engage in practices that are regarded as abusive, nasty, and disgusting. It is not usually helpful to use the term of non-Christian religions, like Hinduism or Buddhism."

"It depends on who you ask," said Kurt Goedelman of Personal Freedom Outreach (PFO), a Christian education organization, in a telephone interview with CP. "The secular media would refer to Jim Jones, David Koresh or Herb Applewhite, but they wouldn't see larger religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons as being cults."

PFO has been educating Christians about cults and evangelizing cult members since 1975. Goedelman said when he became a Christian, he made it his life's work to study cults and how to reach those who cling to them.

Goedelman, meanwhile, said that a psychologist would define a cult as a group that deviates from cultural norms. "That's a fluid understanding," he said, "because what was a cultural norm in the '50s may not be a cultural norm today."

Charles Braden, in the book Kingdom of the Cults, defines a cult as "... any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture."

However, Mohler stated in the March 3 broadcast, "If you use this sociological definition of a cult, there are many people who would try to claim that orthodox Christianity is a cult."

Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School, said he would add that organization, leadership and methods also determine whether or not a group can be considered a cult.

The issue of semantics becomes tricky from then on. Evangelical Christians seem to agree, however, on one key determinant: doctrine.

Religious groups that "deny doctrines that are necessary to the Gospel" are cults, said Mohler. "A sect is a group that holds to orthodox Christianity but adds additional practices or eccentric beliefs." He gave the example of the Amish as a sect.

There are those who hold to "aberrant or unhealthy doctrine," Goedelman said, but he would not label those groups as a cult. "Then there's aberrant Christianity" – such as Pentecostals or Roman Catholics, who hold extreme beliefs, but still adhere to the same orthodox gospel.

The key is "What do these people say about Jesus?" said de Vries, who is also the founder of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College.

Both Goedelman and de Vries assert that in addition to deviating from doctrine, cults have other key traits. Goedelman distinguished three identifying factors of a cult.

First, he said, "They attack Scripture or attack the sufficiency of Scripture."

"They don't say the Bible is sufficient ... Mormons believe you need ongoing revelation ... Jehovah's Witnesses say you need the Watchtower material to explain the Bible, and that it supersedes the Bible," Goedelman said.

"Secondly, a cult attacks the deity of the Trinity," he continued. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses believe Jesus is "not God but actually Jesus is Michael the archangel."

"Mormons lessen His deity because we can also become gods and God was once a man too," he added.

The third distinguishing factor, according to Goedelman, regards the understanding that salvation is a gift of God from faith alone. Many cults, however, say performing deeds also lead to salvation.

"Faith is in the wrong place in the equation," he said. "They believe that faith plus works equals your salvation. But as you study Scripture you see ... it's faith and from faith comes works."

De Vries also mentions the element of manipulation.

After coming under much fire from the media for his inflammatory statements, Texas pastor Jeffress later defended his views to Fox News, saying, "I do believe Mormons are good moral people, but they've never been considered a part of mainstream Christianity. When I'm talking about a 'cult,' I'm not talking about a sociological 'cult,' but a theological 'cult.'"

Whether or not Christians agree with Jeffress, he is correct in saying Mormons – as well as followers of many cults or aberrant religions – are good, moral people. While a Christian can base the definition of "cult" on doctrine and theology, the ultimate test of a true Christian will be in heaven, by God.

"All religions and philosophies are to be measured by the final revelation of God in Jesus Christ," Beverley stated.

"However, if the shoe fits, that is, if the group claims to be Christian but is so far from the clear, plain teaching of the Bible, then the word ‘cult’ can be used. I think here of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, for example. As well, if a particular group is quite good on basic beliefs but the leader or leaders engage in abuse, then the word ‘cult’ would fit. Thus, a particular local church could be a weird isolated example of a cult even though the larger denomination might be okay."

Beverley added, "Evangelical Christians should be careful in judging, as the Lord taught (Matthew 7:1-6). We should apply the word ‘cult’ very carefully since it is such a loaded term."

Editors' note: This is the first in a multi-part series examining cults, Christianity and belief systems that claim to be Christianity. The Christian Post will be looking at several belief systems that are commonly associated with Christianity and providing expert opinions and research on those belief systems. While CP recognizes the issue of semantics when using the words "cult" and "Christianity," for our purposes, we are defining those belief systems outside of Christianity whose proponents claim to be Christian to be "cults."

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