What is a Cult?
NCW 69: August 2000 - January 2001
Q. So many people use the word "cult" when referring to people and groups who don't agree with their theology. Could you define what a cult is, please? And is this a biblical term?
A. No, the word "cult" does not appear in the Bible. The nearest word is "sect" (Gk. heiresis) meaning a "party" or a grouping within a main body. The early Christians were described as members of a sect within Judaism (Ac.24:5; 28:22) just as the Pharisees and Sadducees were described as belonging to different sects (Ac.5:17; 15:5; 26:5). The nearest equivalent to the biblical concept of a "sect" would be a "denomination". Thus according to biblical definitions, the Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans and Methodist all belong to "sects" even though they wouldn't like that all. As described in one of our pamphlets, Cry Wolf! the words "sect" and "cult" have simply become words of abuse possessing little objective content. In Switzerland, for example, if you are not a part of the mainstream Catholic or Reformed churches you belong to a "sect".
Since our language keeps changing, we are forced to define these words in terms of modern dictionary definitions. Thus a sect would be a "subdivision of a larger religious group (especially the Christian Church as a whole) the members of which have to some extent diverged from the rest by developing deviating beliefs, practices, etc." (The Collins New Concise English Dictionary, Guild, London, 1987, p.1042). This is certainly the most accurate definition. Thus each Christian denomination, believing itself either to be the only true representative of Christendom, or the truest, may justifiably regard all the others as "sects". Each will argue that it is being truest from the Bible and/or tradition. Nobody will ever agree as to who is, and who is not, a sect. Of course, some denominations have banded together (like Evangelical Christians) and have decided that all the others are sects, ignoring their own internal differences. In the end, though, it is all subjective.
Secondary definitions for "sect" are "a schismatic religious body", "a religious group regarded as extreme or heretical", and "a group of people with a common interest, doctrine, etc." (Ibid.) In the end, you can take your pick and be as polite or rude as you want to be.
The word "cult" has come to take on more sinister overtones. In an academic sense, "cult" is a morally and religiously neutral term meaning simply "a specific system of religious worship" (Ibid., p.272). Thus you will not uncommonly find the system or religion in the Old Testament described as the "Israelite cult". Indeed our own society may be said to be a "cult", from which we derive the word "cult-ure". Thus if you belong to the American or British culture, you belong to a cult. That makes everybody, no matter who they are, a cultist. Indeed, originally the word implied "cultivation" and "refinement". How things change.
Like the word "sect", though, nobody pays much attention to the proper definition of words anymore and infuse new meaning (usually hostile) into them in order to create new verbal weapons with which to club people over the head with. The word "cult" has thus come to possess several sub-meanings including "a sect devoted to the beliefs of a cult, idea, or activity", "intense interest in and devotion to a person, idea, or activity", "the person, idea, etc. arousing such devotion", and "any popular fashion or craze" (Ibid.). Thus a true, sincere and devoted follower of the Lord Yah'shua (Jesus) could, by these definitions be called a cultist
Although I know even we sometimes slip into using these unfortunate words because they are such common verbal currency these days I honestly think it would be better if we could avoid them altogether. Of course, it won't happen, people being what they are, but we can either try hard to or spend time defining exactly what we mean.
When a Bible-believing Christian refers to someone as a "cultist" he usually means someone who does not adhere to historical Christianity. The trouble is, who is going to define that? The Catholics and Eastern Orthodox claim to be walking in historical Christianity, as do the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. Every now and then, though, someone presses me into defining what a cult or cultist is and so once more I am going to enter the fray, albeit reluctantly, because I know it won't please everybody, not even Bible-believing Christians. Today I offer the very nice definition of John Gerstner who said:
"We define a cult as a religion which claims to be Christian while emptying Christianity of that which is essential to it" (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Brentwood, Texas, 1991, p.150).
Thus in my book anyone who denies the absolute deity of Yah'shua (Jesus) or that salvation is possibly only through Him, may be said to be a cultist. Thus a Jehovah's Witness who claims that Yah'shua (Jesus) is only a "god", a Mormon who claims that Yah'shua (Jesus) is one of three Gods (or more if you are a fundamentalist), or that He failed or only partly succeeded and that someone else is now a christ (like Sun Myung Moon), I will call them cultists. A Church that claims that it is the one and only true Church on the earth through which, or through whose sacraments, alone salvation is possible, I would term a cult - that bags the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, and a number of other Churches. Any Church that claims that acceptance of a modern-day prophet or other leader is essential in order to be saved (Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Mary Baker Eddy, the Pope, a guru, etc.) I would call a cult. Any Church that claims that you must accept other books of Scripture or writings other than the Bible in order to be saved (like the Book of Mormon, the Watchtower, the writings of Ellen White, etc.) I would term a cult.
The trouble is other people will want to add other conditions. Personally, I would add that anybody who denies any part of the Bible to be a cultist too but then you can end up in unresolvable debates because this will often depend on your personal interpretation in the more difficult, grey zones. Some Christians say that anyone who claims to have prophecies or visions is a cultist, particularly if they write it down and call it scripture, and this is perhaps an area which leads some to call us cultists, notwithstanding the caveat we make that everything we present as inspired is only in a secondary sense to the Bible and that it must absolutely square with what the Bible has already revealed. We don't insist that other Christians accept them in order to be saved. Another thing some Christians don't like is that we claim that we hope to become the one and only true Church at some future time, though why that should bother them, I don't know, because every Christian surely hopes that! Perhaps they think it will go to our heads like the Mormons? I think not, for we are only too aware of our weakness and fallibility.
In short, a "cult" is what you want it to be. I offer my own definition which you can take or leave as you please since there is no definition of such in the Bible. What we may do is call someone an apostate or heretic (other abusive words in the wrong mouths) who flatly denies what is concretely and unambiguously said in the Scriptures. Thus if someone reading the Shema, which says that there is only One God, then claims there are two or three, then I would not hesitate to slap a label like "cultist", "sectarian", "heretic" or "apostate" on him (or her). If another says that some people are saved through faith in Christ but others (like the Jews) are saved by obedience to the Mosaic Law (as the vast majority of dispensationalist evangelical Christians believe, sadly) then I will slap the same stickers on them. If someone says that God's Name is "Allah" when the Bible says it is "Yahweh", or that the apostle Paul is a heretic because he insists that salvation is only through Christ, then I will do the same. If a liberal Christian says he is saved and yet rejects those parts of the Bible which he doesn't like because they aren't politically correct, or if a homosexual Christian says homosexual behaviour is OK in the clear light of what the Bible teaches, then I will call both cultists. If someone says I'm a cultist don't accept is own favourite particular version of the Bible, claiming it to be the only true translation (like the KJV-only Cult) , then I'll pooh-pooh him. Finally, if someone says I am a cultist because I don't wear striped pants on Sunday, or don't drink alcohol, or because I don't agree with every non-salvational doctrinal position he teaches because he believes he has a special biblically untestable "anointing" or "authority", then I'll glue the label right back on to his own nose. And I don't care whether he has 5 million members in his church when there are only half-a-dozen in mine because nobody can see the true Church of Christ, or has a membership roll of it, not even him.
The cult-bashers ought to be careful when in their zeal they start crossing the boundary of genuine cultism into realms that do not concern salvation because they will not only give Christianity a bad name but drive a lot of honest and sincere people from Christ and salvation. I'm reminded of a self-appointed defender-of-the-faith who calls himself "Balaam's Ass" and pours the most foul and vituperative language on anyone who doesn't agree with him. His web-site, which contains a lot of useful materials, incidentally, tends to attract admirers of the worst sort. Christianity isn't about mudslinging but bringing the message of salvation to a desperately needy world.
Also see Critics and Wolves in Sheep's Clothing.
This page was created on 22 January 2001
Last updated on 22 January 2001
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