Monday, July 15, 2002

What is a Cult?

I have been meaning to blog about cults. However, before zeroing in on any specific cult, it is important to take on the difficult task of defining exactly what is a “cult”. There is necessarily a certain amount subjectivity involved. Furthermore, political correctness often rears its ugly head. You probably have read editorials excoriating some Christian who dared to call Mormonism a cult. Would a Mormon who called the Southern Baptists a cult get into the same amount of trouble? Probably not.

In addition to the Internet, I have two books I will use as references. One is Lawson’s New Book of the Cults. The other is Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults.

Here are some things are not part of the definition:

  • A cult does not always practice sexual immorality. Some do, while others are more like monasteries.

  • A cult does not always have members that are “outside” of society. Nor are they necessarily, in any sense, “disreputable”. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are prime examples of cults whose acolytes are typically well-respected members of society and the workforce.

Lawson identifies four traits shared by most cults.
  1. A centralized authority that keeps tight reigns on both philosophy and lifestyle.

  2. A “we” versus “them” attitude that emphasizes the battle between the superior insights of the group and the unenlightened philosophy of the outsiders.

  3. A commitment of the members to proselytize vigorously.

  4. An entrenched isolationism that divorces the devotee from the realities of the world at large.

Again, he (Lawson) writes that these are traits shared by most cults; this does not constitute a definition per se.

I think the last trait, in particular, should be de-emphasized. Some cults are motivated by perceived ills in society and are highly aware of the world and deeply engaged in political activity. And as already mentioned, some cult members are highly respected “normal” people. Mormons, for example, hold high-ranking positions in the military, the government, and business. They are hardly divorced from the world at large.

The problem with just using the first three traits is that it opens up the definition of a cult to be uncomfortably large, possibly large enough to include some mainstream Christian organizations.

I think we can solve this problem by including deviation from orthodox Christianity (apostasy) as another possible trait of a cult. This, of course, makes it even less politically correct, but that should not concern us. Personally I could not possibly care less whether Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or anyone else considers me to be a member of an intolerant, Christian cult, so I am not going to worry much about giving offense.

So I would add a fifth trait to Lawson’s list:

(5) A substantive deviation from Christian orthodoxy such that, judged solely on theological grounds, the views of the organization would be deemed apostate.

This trait would be ignored for organizations that do not even “pretend” to be Christian or have nothing whatsoever to say about Christ. However, it would strengthen the charge of cultism against groups like the Mormons who claim to be, in some sense, Christian.

Still Unsatisfactory

So my present working definition of a cult is a group that has “most” of these five traits; this is hardly precise. So I appeal to readers to help me out—if you have any way to improve or even replace this definition please let me know.

In particular, should another trait be related to undue psychological pressure on the members to conform, or is that already implied in the other traits?

Cults from Within

Could a truly Christian group be a cult? I think it depends on what you mean by “truly Christian.” I think there could be a cult that teaches an accurate gospel message. However, there could not be a cult that teaches (and tries to follow) the entire Bible. The Bible has safeguards against Christian cultism in its teachings about church government and the checks and balances in place to correct and ultimately remove false teachers. If the Bible’s teachings on church government are ignored and a church is taken over by a forceful charismatic leader with complete unchallengeable authority, then I think this could be considered a cult, even if the gospel message is sound.

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