Every once in a while, a Facebook post, tweet, or news article pops up with accusations against a particular church. These accusations are often punctuated with the dreaded 4-letter c-word: Cult. The word “Cult” has become an easy disparaging term to throw around. It’s a heavy word with lots of nasty implications, perfect for dragging a church’s name through the mud. In many instances, the cult accusation is well deserved. In others, it does nothing more than tarnish a church’s reputation needlessly.
So what is a cult? According to Dictionary.com, a cult is:
A religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
There have been many cults throughout history that fit this definition perfectly. In 1993, the FBI raided a compound in Waco Texas that was home to a cult called the Branch Davidians. Leading the group was a man named David Koresh, who considered himself a direct descendant of King David and a messiah figure. Following the disastrous and bloody raid was a 51-day siege of the compound. The siege ended with the deaths of Koresh and 80 of his followers, 22 of whom were children.
The Branch Davidians serve as an extreme example of a cult, but there are others that have similar elements. In 2011, Harold Camping incorrectly predicted the rapture and coming of Judgment Day, much to the embarrassment of his followers. Camping also held the belief that every other established church was apostate – his alone held the keys to true spiritual life.
A friend of mine left my church to join a group out west that preached the end times are immanent. They cut themselves off from the rest of the world to prepare for the coming judgment day. The group was lead by one man who had complete control over his members. Questioning his teachings was considered blasphemy.
So how do we tell the difference between a legitimate religious community and a cult? Mike Bickle, Evangelical minister and leader of the International House of Prayer, provides 7 signs of a cult:
- Opposing critical thinking
- Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
- Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
- Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
- Dishonoring the family unit
- Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
- Separation from the Church
From time to time, my church is subject to the “cult” accusations, but these accusations are groundless and are just meant to hurt feelings. As a church, we hold true to orthodox Biblical teaching that is in accordance with millions of Protestant churches worldwide. We are governed by these scriptural principles that help keep us in line with orthodox Biblical teaching:
- Plurality of leadership instead of leaving it in the hands of one individual.
- Weekly exegetical teachings based on careful interpretation of the Biblical text. We do not add on to what scripture says.
- Open communication on church practices with all teachings available online, in contrast with the secrecy you would expect with a cult.
- Open communication and cooperation with other Bible-believing churches instead of closing ourselves off.
- Encouraging members to promote unity within their family.
If you are in an active, Bible-believing, church, you will not avoid the cult accusation. It has become an easy 4-letter curse word that people throw around haphazardly and inaccurately. Active and especially smaller churches are easy targets for these accusations because members can be passionate about doing ministry. Our culture can’t understand why anyone would devote their lives to Christ in substantial ways, such as attending several meetings each week and growing close together in a tight-knit community, however, the Bible is clear that these should be markers of true fellowship (Hebrews 10:24-25, Acts 2:42-44, Ephesians 5:15-16). Our culture is so confused on issues of morality that they are equally flabbergasted when the church takes Biblical, moral stands as opposed to enabling people in self-destructive lifestyles by declaring that “anything goes.” The cult accusation will follow an active Biblical church wherever it goes.
So what do you do if your church is faced with cult accusations? In Matthew 5:44, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This means we do not fight fire with fire. The proper biblical response is to pray for the person who seeks to do you wrong and to love them. The Apostle Paul also tells us in Romans 12 to repay evil with good. What can those who seek you harm possibly do against love?
Excellent article, Kyle. It’s great to have the definition of a cult in comparison to what we actually do, believe and teach. Weirdly enough, it’s the accusers who often lack the critical thinking. Compassion and prayer…yes, that’s the correct response.