Alan W. Gomes (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is associate professor of historical theology and chairman of the department of theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
This series provides concise, biblical answers about perplexing religious groups.
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Unmasking the Cults
By Alan W. Gomes
ZondervanCopyright © 1995 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePart I: What Is a Cult?
I. The Origin of the Word Cult
A. Our English word cult comes from the Latin word cultus, which is a form of the verb colere, meaning "to worship or give reverence to a deity."
B. Cultus was a general word for worship, regardless of the particular god in question.
1. The Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible, uses the word in the general sense of worship, regardless of the deity in view. For example, in Acts 17 it is used both of the worship of false gods (v. 23) and of the true God (v. 25).
2. The word is also used in Christian Latin texts that speak of the worship of the one true God.
C. It is understandable, then, that the word cult would naturally be applied to a religious group of people, but this general meaning is too broad for the present purpose.
II. The Preferred Definition of a Cult
Throughout this book we will be using the word cult in a very specific, precise way.
A. The Preferred Definition
A cult of Christianity is a group of people who claim to be Christian, yet embrace 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.
B. Key Features of the Preferred Definition
1. "A cult of Christianity ..."
a. A cult is a group that deviates doctrinally from a "parent" or "host" religion; that is, cults grow out of and deviate from a previously established religion. b. Although the focus of this book is on cults of Christianity, non-Christian religions (e.g., world religions) have had cults arise from them as well. (1) Cults of Islam include the Sufis and the Nation of Islam. While these groups claim to be Muslim, they deviate fundamentally from the teaching of Islam, from which they are derived.
(2) Cults of Hinduism include Hare Krishna, Self-Realization Fellowship, and Vivekananda.
c. I have deliberately chosen the expression "cult of Christianity" in preference to the term "Christian cult." (1) Phrases such as "Christian cult" or "cultic Christian groups" are confusing because they send mixed signals.
For most Christians, the word cult refers to a group that is non-Christian. Therefore, the expression "Christian cult" is an oxymoron.
(2) The expression "cult of Christianity" makes a clear distinction between Christianity and cults as well as highlighting the derivative nature of cults.
2. "... is a group of people ..."
a. One individual with unorthodox views does not constitute a cult. An individual with unorthodox theology is a heretic, but he or she must gain a following before we can meaningfully speak of a cult.
b. There is no other prescribed size, however, which must be reached before a group qualifies as a cult.
(1) Some cults are quite small, having only a handful of followers, while other cults number into the millions. (2) Some cults that have started with very few members have grown into the millions (e.g., Mormonism), while others that at one time had significant followings have become all but extinct (e.g., the Shakers).
3. "... who claim to be Christian ..."
a. It is important to make a distinction between groups that claim to be Christian and those that make no such profession.
(1) For example, it would not be meaningful to speak of Islam as a cult of Christianity since it makes no claim to be Christian. Indeed, Muslims are generally anti-Christian. Islam is a world religion that opposes Christianity, but it is not a cult.
(2) Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, however, do qualify as cults of Christianity because they claim to be Christian-indeed, to be the only true Christian group on earth.
b. Note: A group that admits it is not Christian is not somehow innocuous simply because it is not a cult of Christianity.
(1) All belief systems and worldviews that deny the gospel are false, and therefore lead men and women away from the true God of the Bible.
(2) The point is that not all false belief systems are wrong in the same way: Cults are false in their claim to be true representations of Christianity, while avowedly non-Christian religions are false in their denial of Christianity. c. The distinction between cults of Christianity and openly non-Christian belief systems is not merely academic. On a practical level, one approaches a member of a cult differently from a person who is hostile to the very notion of the Christian faith.
4. "... yet embrace a particular doctrinal system ..."
a. A group must hold to a set of religious doctrinal beliefs (e.g., about God, sin, salvation) to qualify as a cult. b. A group that makes no religious statements whatever-even if eccentric in other respects-is not a cult.
For example, imagine a lodge whose members dress up each Thursday evening in moose antlers and lederhosen. The lodge president calls the meeting to order by blowing on an enormous curved horn. After reading the minutes from the previous week, members play a rousing game of bingo for two hours. The meeting closes with the lodge anthem ("a moose is kind, thrifty, and cheerful to everyone he meets"), and the members return home. Now, if our imaginary lodge makes no statements about God, sin, salvation, the afterlife, etc., then such a group is not even a religion, much less a false religion or cult.
c. In saying that the group embraces a doctrinal "system," this does not mean that the system must be highly complex, sophisticated, or thorough.
(1) The complexity of cultic belief systems varies considerably from group to group. (2) For example, the Watchtower Society espouses a relatively comprehensive system of doctrine, while the Children of God are less systematic and comprehensive in their belief system. Both groups, however, hold a belief system, and one contrary to the Christian faith.
5. "... taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization ..."
a. Some cults, such as the Children of God, the Unification Church, and the Branch Davidians, look to a strong, authoritarian "prophet" as the source of truth.
b. In other cults, authority resides in a group of leaders or an organization. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses claim that the Watchtower Society's Governing Body is the "faithful and discreet slave," who dispenses "doctrinal food in due season."
6. "... which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith...." a. "Central doctrines" of the Christian faith are those doctrines that make the Christian faith Christian and not something else.
(1) The meaning of the expression "Christian faith" is not like a wax nose, which can be twisted to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean.
(2) The Christian faith is a definite system of beliefs with definite content (Jude 3).
(3) Certain Christian doctrines constitute the core of the faith. Central doctrines include the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and salvation by grace through faith. These doctrines so constitute the essence of the Christian faith that to remove any of them is to make the belief system non-Christian. (4) Scripture teaches that the beliefs mentioned above are of central importance (e.g., Matt. 28:19; John 8:24; 1 Cor. 15; Eph. 2:8-10).
(5) Because these central doctrines define the character of Christianity, one cannot be saved and deny these.
(6) Central doctrines should not be confused with peripheral issues, about which Christians may legitimately agree to disagree.
Peripheral (i.e., non-essential) doctrines include such issues as the timing of the tribulation, the method of baptism, or the structure of church government. For example, one can be wrong about the identity of "the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19) or about the timing of the rapture and still go to heaven, but one cannot deny salvation by grace or the deity of Christ (John 8:24) and be saved.
(7) All Christian denominations-whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant-agree on the essential core. The relatively minor disagreements between genuinely Christian denominations, then, cannot be used to argue that there is no objectively recognized core of fundamental doctrine which constitutes the Christian faith.
b. Cults deny at least one central doctrine of the Christian faith. (1) Denial of even one central doctrine is enough to make the belief system cultic.
(2) Cults typically deny more than one central doctrine.
This is hardly surprising since one's interpretation of a particular doctrine affects other doctrines in the system. For example, if a group denies that people need salvation from sin, it is also likely that it redefines Christ's atoning death on the cross accordingly.
c. Some cults explicitly deny central doctrines of the Christian faith. (1) The Jehovah's Witnesses vehemently deny the doctrine of the Trinity (see their widely circulated booklet, Should You Believe in the Trinity? which argues against the doctrine).
(2) Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of The Way International, wrote a book entitled Jesus Christ Is Not God.
d. Other cults implicitly deny central doctrines.
(1) Some cults give the impression of orthodoxy, but have so redefined terminology that the doctrine is orthodox in name only. (2) For example, Mormons speak of their "Heavenly Father," as do Christians, but their Heavenly Father is really an exalted man, not the God of the Bible.
7. "... as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible." a. Some cults add to the revelation of Scripture. They may do this through prophecies or by adding new books to the Bible.
b. The sixty-six books of the Bible are the only truly inspired writings from which one may derive Christian teaching.
(1) These constitute the canon, meaning "rule or standard," against which all doctrines must be measured.
(2) The canon is closed, meaning that no additional books may be added to it. The faith has been "once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).
III. Answers to Possible Objections to the Preferred Definition of a Cult
A. Objection #1: We should use the word cult but define it sociologically.
1. Defining Cults Sociologically
a. Sociological definitions "include consideration of such factors as authoritarian leadership patterns, loyalty and commitment mechanisms, lifestyle characteristics, [and] conformity patterns (including the use of various sanctions in connection with those members who deviate)."
b. As historian Ruth Tucker observes, "Sociologists have tended to define cults more in terms of lifestyle, proselytizing practices, and authoritarian leadership, rather than in terms of belief or by any standard of orthodoxy."
c. In sociological definitions, the focus is on practices that fall outside the norms of the society in which the group is found.
2. Some Suggested Sociological Definitions a. Charles Braden
"A cult ... is 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."
b. John Lofland
Cults are "little groups" that break off from the "conventional consensus and espouse very different views of the real, the possible, and the moral."
c. Ruth A. Tucker
"A 'cult' is a religious group that has a 'prophet'-founder called of God to give a special message not found in the Bible itself, often apocalyptic in nature and often set forth in 'inspired' writings. In deference to this charismatic figure or these 'inspired' writings the style of leadership is authoritarian and there is frequently an exclusivistic outlook supported by a legalistic lifestyle and persecution mentality.... It is the attribute of a prophet-founder that very distinctly separates cults from denominations."
d. James T. Richardson
"A cult is usually defined as a small informal group lacking a definite authority structure, somewhat spontaneous in its development (although often possessing a somewhat charismatic leader or group of leaders), transitory, somewhat mystical and individualistically oriented, and deriving its inspiration and ideology from outside the predominant religious culture."
e. Ronald Enroth
"Cults are defined as religious organizations that tend to be outside the mainstream of the dominant religious forms of any given society."
3. Problems with Sociological Definitions
a. Sociological definitions are relativistic. (1) In the above definitions, cults are seen as groups outside the norms of society.
Excerpted from Unmasking the Cults by Alan W. Gomes Copyright © 1995 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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