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1 Defining Cults
I t is for good reason that every book in the New Testament except Philemon has something to say about false teachers, false prophets, false gospels, or heresies. Jesus Himself sternly warned His followers to watch out for false prophets (Matt. 7:15–23) and false Christs (Matt. 24:5). The apostle Paul warned of a different Jesus, a different spirit (2 Cor. 11:4), false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13–15), and those who preach “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8; cf. 2 Cor. 11:4). First John 4:1 understandably urges believers to “test the spirits.” The concern is obvious: Counterfeit prophets who speak of a counterfeit Christ who preaches a counterfeit gospel can yield only a counterfeit salvation. Because there are eternal consequences to false teachings, Scripture bears numerous warnings.
With that in mind, we can see that a study of the various cults in our midst should be a high priority for us all. But before we can focus attention on specific cults, we must be clear on what a “cult” is. This is a seemingly formidable task. Talk to 10 different cult “experts” and you may well be given 10 different definitions. Sociologists have their opinions (authoritarianism and exclusivism play big roles in their thinking), psychologists have their opinions (mind-control is a big issue with them), and theologians have their opinions (heretical doctrines are the main issue of concern). Still others, like journalists and reporters, often focus on the more sensational elements of the cults, such as mass suicides and bizarre rituals and practices.
Some people today say we shouldn’t even use theterm cult because it carries such negative connotations. Instead, they prefer terms like “new religions” or “alternative religions.”
While I understand this viewpoint, I think it is legitimate to use the term cult. I want to emphasize, though, that when I use the term in this book I do not intend it as a pejorative, inflammatory, or injurious word. 2 As it will become clear below, I use the term simply as a means of categorizing certain religious or semi-religious groups in the world. Our English word cult comes from the Latin word cultus, which means “worship.”
Linguistically a cultic action is one that involves external rites and ceremonies with a worshipful attitude on the part of the devotee. A “cult” in this sense refers to a system of worship distinguishable from others.
Of course, the modern usage of the word is much more specific than this linguistic definition. In modern times, the term cult has primarily been defined from both sociological and theological perspectives.
Those who opt for the sociological definition say that a cult is a religious or semi-religious sect or group whose members are controlled or dominated almost entirely by a single individual or organization. This definition generally includes (but is not limited to) the authoritarian, manipulative, and sometimes communal features of cults.
Cults that fall into this category include the Hare Krishnas, the Children of God (The Family), and the Unification Church. While I believe we gain some very important insights on the cultic mentality from sociology (which I will discuss later in the chapter), my long experience in dealing with cultists has convinced me that it is more accurate to define a cult from a theological perspective. As one cult observer put it, “Sociological, psychological, and journalistic observations sometimes show us the human dynamics that frequently result from a cult belief system, but they are not sufficient Christian foundations for determining a group’s status as a cult.”
Therefore, I believe the best policy is to define a cult theologically, but we can then gain some key insights into the cultic mentality from sociology and psychology. The problem is how to word a theological definition of a cult. What specific components should make up this definition? Different cult experts have offered different opinions. Gordon Lewis, in his book Confronting the Cults, suggests that the term cult “designates a religious group which claims authorization by Christ and the Bible, but neglects or distorts the gospel— the central message of the Savior and the Scripture.”
James Sire, author of Scripture Twisting, suggests that a cult is “any religious movement that is organizationally distinct and has doctrines and/or practices that contradict those of the Scriptures as interpreted by traditional Christianity as represented by the major Catholic and Protestant denominations, and as expressed in such statements as the Apostles’ Creed.”
My late colleague Walter Martin defined a cult this way: By “cult,” we mean a group, religious in nature, which surrounds a leader or a group of teachings which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrine. Most cults have a single leader, or a succession of leaders, who claim to represent God ’s voice on earth and who claim authority greater than that of the Bible. The cultic teaching claims to be in harmony with the Bible but denies one or more of the cardinal doctrines presented therein.
Orville Swenson, in his book The Perilous Path of Cultism, sug-gests that a cult is “a religious group whose doctrines involve a distortion of biblical truth; whose dedication and subservience to their domineering leaders is frequently excessive and blind; and whose attitudes, aims, practices, and teachings are divisive, creating an exclusive body of deviates from historic biblical Christianity.”
While all these definitions are helpful and are also accurate to a degree, I think a key point they fail to include is that cults always derive from a “parent” or “host” religion. As Alan Gomes put it, “cults grow out of and deviate from a previously established religion.”
Seen in this light, a cult of Christianity, according to Gomes, would be “a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which [system] denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.”
Likewise, a cult of Islam would be, for example, the Nation of Islam, and a cult of Hinduism would be the Hare Krishnas. The Nation of Islam and the Hare Krishnas both derive from parent or host religions, yet both deviate from the doctrinal beliefs of these hosts. Hence they are “cults.”