Over the last 6 months, I’ve had multiple people contact me asking if the church they are going to is “a cult”. The frequency of the inquiry is itself cause for interest and may be related to the increasingly tribal nature of the evangelical church in North America. We may be spending so much time within our closed communities that we are losing the ability to recognize and empathize with one another. It may also be that the increased focus on unhealthy examples of church polity has made people more attuned to the possibility that they may have wandered into an overly authoritarian, insular, and “cult-like” church community.
So how can you tell if the church you are attending is “a cult” or just a little bit different than the church next door?
When I’m asked that question I usually respond by distinguishing between 3 different uses of the word “cult”.
Technically speaking, “a cult” refers to a religion or religious community regarded as unorthodox or spurious. Within Christian circles we have tended to use the word “cult” to refer to offshoot movements that have substantially departed from core Christian doctrine and belief. The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) would be a classic example of a Christian cult in that sense. Mormons believe a variety of things that stand in clear contradiction to historic Christian doctrine.
Whereas Christians believe in the Trinity (one God in three persons) Mormons believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct Gods. They also believe in a God that is higher than the Father. They have their own additional Scriptures alongside of the Bible and they believe that all human beings have the capacity to become Divine, just like God the Father did in the distant past. Clearly those beliefs place Mormons outside the boundaries of the historic Christian faith. Other examples of “cults” in this sense of the term would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science and The Unification Church.
It is also somewhat common to use the word “cult” to refer to a small, insular Christian community that holds to a variety of eccentric or heretical beliefs and practices. There are a number of churches within the charismatic movement that appear to fulfil these criteria. If a church has a peculiar view on eschatology, such as a strong belief in a particular date for the rapture, and it exerts a controlling influence over members while discouraging interaction with outside perspectives, then it will likely be viewed as “a cult” by the wider community.
The third common use of the word “cult” is to refer to a church or movement that is organized around a dominant personality and his or her immediate family. It is common in Latin or Greek ecclesiological circles to refer to “the cult of St. George” or “the cult of St. Olaf”, often without any negative or pejorative connotations. In those settings the word “cult” refers to a discipline of devotion that is focused upon or inspired by a particular saint. In Protestant settings, however, the “cult of personality” is invariably understood in a negative fashion. Any church that appears to function as little more than a preaching theatre for a dominant individual and where the needs of the group are subordinate to the promotion of the pastor, may be considered in this sense “a Christian cult”.
If you are still trying to figure out if the church you are attending is a cult I would recommend using the following assessment tool, which I have adapted from an article published in The Atlantic:
Does your church oppose critical thinking?
When you ask questions are you encouraged to take what the leader says on faith? Are Bible references displayed in support of statements made from the pulpit? If questions are suppressed and no forum is provided for dialogue or reasoned dissent, then you may indeed be involved in some kind of Christian cult.
Does your church isolate and punish dissenting or departing members?
When people question the direction of the leader are they isolated? Are other members of the congregation told not to speak to them? Is it possible to disagree with the leader on a secondary issue (something that wouldn’t show up in a historic creed or in the church’s doctrinal statement) and still serve in a ministry role? If the leader is never to be questioned and disagreement is punishable by exile, then you may be involved in some kind of cult.
Does your church emphasize doctrines rooted in extra-biblical sources?
Are the majority of sermons in your church based on issues not clearly or obviously addressed in the Bible? Are other sources (cable news pundits, the dreams of the pastor, books by non-biblical authors) treated as co-equal authorities to the Bible? Does your church make a major deal out of minor themes in the Bible? Are certain topics emphasized again and again and again, over and above the central truths of the historic Christian Gospel? Is so, then you may be involved in some kind of quasi-Christian cult.
Does your church require inappropriate demonstrations of loyalty to the leader(s)?
Are church staff required to sign non-disclosure agreements and forbidden to speak a critical word about the leader? Are church deacons and property managers required to give preferential treatment to the family members of the leader in terms of outside contracts and tenders? Are the sins of the leader swept under the rug so as not to detract from the respect he is owed by congregants and followers? Does the leader set his own compensation without oversight and limitation imposed by other non-related leaders in the church? If so, you might be involved in a Christian cult.
Does your church encourage members to break ties with family members outside the group?
Are members encouraged to sever relationships with non-aligned family members, including older parents and adult children? Is there an undervaluing of the intimate family ties commended in Scripture, such as the particular love of husbands for wives and the particular respect of wives for their husbands? Does the church seek to supplant biological family as the primary means of support and nurture? If so, you might be involved in some kind of Christian cult.
Does your church engage in practices that contradict biblical behavioural norms?
Does your church forbid what Scripture permits? Does it forbid marriage or eating certain foods? Does it encourage that which Scripture forbids? Does it encourage or celebrate certain forms of sexual activity which the Bible condemns? Does it require things that Scripture is indifferent to? Does it mandate a style of dress or a certain type of music or a certain approach to dating and courtship? If so, you might be involved in some kind of Christian cult.
Does your church effectively isolate itself from the wider Body of Christ within the world?
Does your church discourage interaction with Christians from “that other group”? Does your church only permit congregants to read from a very narrow list of approved authors? Does your church insist on singing only the songs they have written or endorsed? Does your church only support missionaries that have come from their congregation or congregations within their particular movement? Does your church generally consider believers outside the church or the movement as apostate, fallen or unregenerate? If so, you might be involved in some kind of Christian cult.
Of course, even with a checklist as comprehensive as this, a certain amount of judgment will be required. Many churches have hobby horses and pet interests, but few healthy, Christian churches will elevate those interests to the level of defining dogma. Most churches provide a recommended reading list and may even issue warnings regarding dangerous or unhelpful material but few healthy, Christian churches will say: “Unless the author comes from this movement in particular, he or she likely isn’t a true believer”. Just as there is a line at which “art” becomes “pornography” and “courageous” becomes “pugnacious” so there is a line at which the eccentric, isolated, inward church becomes an actual cult. I hope the definitions and assessments provided here can help you identify that line and make whatever changes may be required.
And may God alone be glorified!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.