What is a Cult?
Definition of a Cult
Dr. Walter Martin, one of the best-known teachers of the cults, defines a cult as “a religious group who adheres to major doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity. It deviates from the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.”
I would modify that definition slightly because I believe that what Dr. Martin refers to as “orthodox Christianity” has significantly departed from what the Bible defines as true biblical faith and practice. Accordingly, my personal definition of a cult would be as follows:
“A cult is a religious group whose proponents adhere to major doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to true Biblical faith and practice.”
Characteristics of Cults
1. Cults are deviations. They are far from authentic, biblical, orthodox biblical teaching.
2. Cults are corrective attempts. Cult founders often react to a belief or practice common to the churches of their day. Mary Baker Eddy pictured a “God of Love” in contrast to the “Severe Judge-God” proclaimed by most Calvinist New England preachers of her day.
3. Cult converts come from religious backgrounds. Their journey to this new faith is from a former faith, rarely from no faith at all.
4. Cult converts were failed by their church or synagogue. Most will tell you that their spiritual journey, before they joined the cult, was in a congregation where they were disappointed or disillusioned by something that happened, such as an internal quarrel or congregational split.
5. Many cults are elitist groups. Most cults think that they are the "One True Church."
Types of Cults
There are any number of methods of classifying cults. Because of the widely diverse nature of cults, and the limits of any artificial classification system, it is virtually impossible to develop a system that will provide a completely accurate “slot” into which to classify every group. For sake of illustration, here are two possible methods of classifying cults.
Classification by Scope of Interest
One possible method to use in classifying cults is by the emphasis they place on one or more major areas of their belief system.
1. The mind cults. These cults emphasize the importance of the mind in religion. Some apply reason to religious questions. Others stress the superiority of the mental over the material. Christian Science, the Unity School of Christianity, and Religious Science are examples.
2. The millennial cults. These groups began with in intense interest in the end of the world and the second coming of the Messiah. All have a scheme of eschatology (last things) that is significantly deviant from that held by historical Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Seventh-Day Adventists are examples.
3. East-West mixes, or imports. The faith of these groups is a combination of Eastern and Western terms and thought patterns. The Unification Church and Witness Lee are examples.
Classification by Source of Tradition
Another possible method of classifying cults is by the source of their tradition, or from where they derive their authority.
1. The pseudo-Christian cults. “The term ‘pseudo-Christian’ is used with Webster’s qualification ‘deceptive resemblance to.’ Unquestionably, there are sincere born-again Christians who populate The Local Church and The Church of the Living Word. But because of their aberrational departure from historic orthodoxy and their subservience to authoritarian leadership, these bodies are included in the Pseudo-Christian category. The main criterion determining inclusion in this category [is] whether or not the cult in question [makes] any attempt (sincere or deliberately deceptive) to follow Christian teachings and traditions.” Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unity would be in this category.
2. The personality cults. “While one sociological mark of a cult is in its centralized control of dogma and practice, some groups seem to be totally structured around the charisma of one man. His teachings are incidental to the force of his personality. It is the subjective commitment to who he is—not what he says—that has formed a following. ... The decision warranting inclusion under Personality cults [is] made by observing whether most adherents were initially attracted by the man more than the message.”
3. The occult/mystical cults. “The Occult/Mystical category includes those cults which base their precepts on non-Christian traditions. The essence of their systems is founded on a mystical model. In most cases, the important factor lies in the experience offered by the cult’s philosophy, not in its objective perimeters of doctrine. Most of these groups promote an intuitional concept of reality rather than utilizing sensory perception. ... To a greater or lesser extent, most (though not all) cults in this category encourage occult and psychic exploration. As a result, this grouping is more prone to involve spiritually dangerous practices of collusion with supernatural forces.”
A major point that is missed by most
authors who write on the subject of cults, and which, therefore, affects
their cult classification systems, is that
There are a large number of groups whose
doctrinal position is not in line with the position of “historical
Christianity.” “Evangelical Fundamentalists” (labels, unfortunately, seem
to be unavoidable) embrace a rather complex set of doctrinal truths that
they see to be clearly presented in Scripture. They frequently fail to
recognize, however, that there is only one single doctrinal truth that is
absolutely essential: Salvation depends solely upon one’s personal
relationship with the
It is possible, therefore, for a person
to fully embrace the teachings of a group which falls outside the bounds
of “historical Christianity” and still be a born-again, blood-bought child
Seventh-Day Adventists are one group I
classify within the category of Heterodox Christianity, primarily because
of their erroneous teachings on future things (annihilation of the wicked
and a millennium that occurs only in heaven) and their shift of authority
from a verbally-inspired Bible to the teachings of Mrs. White. However, it
is still possible for one to be a “good Adventist” and still be a
“Christian.” Conversely, it is impossible for one to be a Mormon or a
Jehovah’s Witness and still be a Christian, because the Mormons and
Jehovah’s Witness’s worship a totally different
Refer to the handout “Essentials of True Biblical Faith” for additional information.
The Appeal of the Cults
There are many factors which make the cults appealing to those who feel that they have somehow been failed by their church or synagogue. As Bible-believers, we must make note of those factors, and determine not to fail our brothers and sisters in those areas that we can control.
1. Cults provide a sense of community. Most cults provide a tight-knit sense of fellowship. Their members know each other and support each other.
2. Cults provide a sense of status. Because they are “the one true church,” members are not too concerned if they are not leaders in their communities.
3. Cults provide opportunities for leadership not open in the “regular” churches, especially for women. Many of the cults are extremely liberal in dispensing titles and promoting members to positions of leadership, and many (such as Unity) provide positions as “ministers” for women.
4. Some cults provide a more liberal climate. Unitarian Universalists, for example, attract persons with an intense interest in social action and an aversion to doctrinal teaching or statements. For example, an acquaintance of mine who is a confessed Wiccan tells me that many Wiccans are members of Unitarian Univeralist churches.
5. Cults offer set answers to hard questions. When will the world end, and what will happen afterward? While many wonder about these questions, some cultists claim to have the answers.
6. Some cults have demanding disciplines. The Moonie salesman sets a personal goal for raising funds for the church, and strives to reach it daily. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have long lists of things that they must do and others that they must not do.
7. Some cults have a world vision. The Unification Church (the Moonies) has set a goal that by 2027 the entire world will be members of their church and will speak the “holy” Korean language.
8. Some cults “harmonize” Eastern and Western thought. Unity, Christian Science, Scientology, and many others all blend elements from Hinduism and Buddhism with Christianity.
9. Cults minister in crises. The persistent visiting of Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness representatives in American homes uncovers many individuals with needs that are not being met.
10. Cults reach minority groups. The Unity School of Christianity appeals to the wealthy because it has stressed prosperity. Jehovah’s Witnesses attract people from the lower economic scale because they teach a total aversion to “worldly” success.
11. Some cults stress human potential. These appeal to health and wealth, and do not accept man as sinful.
12. Cults involve their members. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses provide many opportunities for their members to serve.
2. This is the method used by Bob Larson in Larson's Book of Cults, and I personally use a slightly modified version of that method. However, I do not necessarily place all groups in the same classification that Larson does [see note 1, above]. The quotes which follow in this section are from Larson. [RETURN]
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