During the Spring 2014 semester I am studying Modern Religious Sects as part of a Master of Arts in Apologetics through Luther Rice Seminary.
Establishing a clear definition of what constitutes a cult or sect is an essential place to begin when studying religious movements and gatherings. This is more true in 21st Century America, where many traditionally understood labels have been co-opted by mainstream media, bloggers, and even by our government. As Tal Davis states in his article, Cult/Sect Overview, “most [Christians] do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes a cult or a sect.”
Do a simple Internet search on the word “cult” and the search results show a blending of both a traditional understanding of a cult and contemporary cultural understandings of a cult. For example:
- Group Starts Cult … Er, Religion Based on Kanye West
- Veronica Mars Cult Show to Have New Web Series
In the article on “Veronica Mars,” writer Chris Bacavis states, “On Wednesday, the CW also revealed that the cult show ‘Veronica Mars’ is going to have another new series of its own on the web.”
This leads to the question, what is a “cult show?” Is it a reality show that follows the lives of a group of Jehovah Witnesses? Unlikely. According to the lead sentence in an Entertainment Weekly cover story the author states, “How do you know when a TV show has become a cult phenomenon? When its (often comparatively small) ratings are eclipsed by the wild ardor of its fans.”
To further complicate the matter, recognized Christian leaders can muddy the waters by relabeling recognized cults for ulterior motives. During the 2012 presidential election cycle, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed the cult label from Mormonism. Following the election, Franklin Graham, head of the organization stated during an interview:
“We have 10,000 pages [on our website] and I don’t write the 10,000 pages. Other people have written it. There was a discussion as to what a cult was and they (the article) had a definition of a cult and then they gave some examples and when I found out there were examples they took them off. But I was shocked that we even had that on there,” Graham said, as he described the “cult” reference as name-calling.
“If I want to win a person to Christ, how can I call that person a name? That’s what shocked me, that we were calling people names.”
So, according to Graham, defining a group as a cult is equal to name calling, which is a form of bullying.
The media was quick to put its own spin on the story. Time Magaine declared, “Billy Graham No Longer Thinks Mormonism Is a Cult.”
In another highly publicized incident, megachurch pastor Joel Osteen declared that Mormonism is a part of the Christian Faith. During an April 2012 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Osteen stated, “When I hear Mitt Romney say that he believes that Jesus is the Son of God–that he’s the Christ, raised from the dead, that he’s his Savior–that’s good enough for me.” During the same interview, Osteen noted, “Mormonism is a little different, but I still see them as brothers in Christ.”
The point to made is this: if a Christian does not have a solid understanding of what constitutes a cult, confusion will abound, and doctrinal error is the result. When recognized leaders like Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen speak about Mormonism in nuanced terms, it is easy to assume that the differences between funamental Christianity and Mormonims are no different than the differences between a Baptist and a Lutheran.
Of the multiple definitions cited by Ron Rhodes in Chapter 1 of his book The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions , the one that rang most true to me was offered by the late Walter Martin:
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.
As pastors and Christian leaders, it is essential that we equip our congregations with the necessary discernment tools to navigate through today’s muddy doctrinal waters. There is no better place to begin than with a clear, easy-to-understand definition of what constitutes a cult.
Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 21.