Is the New Church a Cult?

I’m not a huge fan of using the word “cult” to describe religions one considers heretical, for reasons similar to those outlined by Roger E. Olson. I’m even less of a fan of people calling the New Church a cult. I’ve talked to a number of people in my congregation who have been deeply hurt by people accusing them of belonging to a cult, an accusation that seems to come along with the contempt and fear that’s usually associated with that word.

Doug Webber has a good blog post up today addressing the “cult” accusations found scattered around the internet, which often include half-truths and complete misrepresentations of Swedenborgian doctrine.

I particularly like the way he addresses the statement on one website that the New Church teaches that “all religions lead to God”:

Yes and no.  First, it must be understood that Jesus Christ is the Divine Truth in human form.  There are many other religions that contains aspects of this Divine Truth; followers just do not know God has appeared in human form. Another way said: there are many truths that lead to God, but among all religions there is one Love. Loving others is what makes all religions common. There is one religion, however, which leads people away from heaven, and that is Arianism, the modern form of which is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for they deny the Divinity of Jesus Christ. Islam is different, because they have no knowledge of the Word.  I may have to devote a separate blog for this item. It is from God’s Divine Providence that He will put bread crumbs here and there in this forest of darkness to lead us back to Him.

The whole post is worth reading.

About Coleman Glenn
  • Coleman Glenn

    I’d add that Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only ones who deny the divinity of Jesus, and that it’s this principle in particular that leads people away from heaven – this isn’t a personal attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am interested to hear Webber’s further thoughts on Islam – while it’s true that many Muslims don’t have access to the Bible, there are many who are at least aware of its existence, and many (although probably a minority of the world Muslim population) who have read it.

  • Sylvia_1

    I’ve read about aspects of cults, and I don’t know why anyone who knew what cults really were would say the New Church is a cult. A cult is not just a religion you don’t like, or that you think is false. I’ve heard people say “all religions are cults,” but that’s an extreme statement. I think the New Church is one of the farthest religions from being a cult. From what I’ve read, a cult involves manipulating and controlling its members, isolating them, and making it really hard for them to leave. They do this by not giving their members any time to think or way to think for themselves, among other things. The New Church (in my experience) does not seem coercive at all, and it doesn’t limit intellectual exploration and the questioning of its doctrine.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, I would call them a cult from things I’ve read about them. If any Jehovah’s Witness expresses questioning or doubt about their church’s beliefs, I think they are either kicked out or required to cut ties with all of their family and friends who are not in the church. They are also require to spend hours and hours doing church work so they hardly have any time and are probably constantly in a state of stress.

  • Derrick

    Hi Coleman,

    I think another factor in the cult question is a matter of term usage. I think some people use cult to mean “we think they are unorthodox”.

    “Watchman Fellowship usually uses the term cult with a Christian or doctrinal definition in mind. In most cases the group claims to be Christian, but because of their aberrant beliefs on central doctrines of the faith (God, Jesus, and salvation), the organization is not considered by Watchman Fellowship to be part of orthodox, biblical Christianity.” (

    And some people use it to mean the scary mind control thing.

    I have pondered whether it might at times be good to go on the offensive by branding our theology as unorthodox. Owning the issue in a way that takes the sting out of the term could be a powerful way to stand up and create some space for conversation.


    • Coleman Glenn

      Great point, Derrick. The blog post by Roger E. Olsen that I linked to points out the same thing, and it’s why he would be happy to get rid of the term “cult” altogether: even if the person uses it is means “unorthodox,” what people hear is something more sinister.

      As to branding the New Church unorthodox – I’ve wondered the same thing. I go back and forth on it. On the one hand, the Writings criticize “modern orthodoxy” (True Christian Religion 356) and “so-called orthodoxy” derived from the Nicene Council (TCR 639). But on the other hand, Swedenborg himself argued strenuously against his books being deemed heretical by the Swedish government, and went to great lengths to show that they were NOT heresy. As it is now, I avoid the label “unorthodox,” since I think it could imply that we deny foundational tenets of Christianity, which I do not think we do – although we do deny certain things in the Nicene Creed, which would lead some to calling us unorthodox anyway.

      • Derrick

        The blog post by Roger E. Olsen that I linked to points out the same thing, and it’s why he would be happy to get rid of the term “cult” altogether: even if the person uses it is means “unorthodox,” what people hear is something more sinister.

        [face palm] I guess that’s what I get for commenting without following links. :)

        As to branding the New Church unorthodox – I’ve wondered the same thing. I go back and forth on it . . . . As it is now, I avoid the label “unorthodox,” since I think it could imply that we deny foundational tenets of Christianity, which I do not think we do – although we do deny certain things in the Nicene Creed, which would lead some to calling us unorthodox anyway.

        I think that it depends on your audience. It would have to be a somewhat Christian target audience for the term to matter. And such a campaign could convey the wrong impression to that audience.

        On the other hand, I could imagine a comparison of “orthodox” statements with “unorthodox” statements. And claiming we are “unorthodox.” I could imagine that advertising campaign being fairly effective with the right audience.

  • Doug Webber

    Thanks Coleman for the reference to my blog – just found your blog today. I am trying to figure out how to link all of these New Church / Swedenborg blogs together (WebRing? Google Circles?) – its a bit hard to keep track of all of them.

  • Mary Thompson

    The links you provided to the question “Is the New Church a
    Cult” lacks the intellectual pursuit your question demands. Simply posing that
    question to New Church followers stating “they have been deeply hurt” by that
    label demands a discussion on “what are cults and why do so many people label
    New Church a cult”? If people’s feelings are hurt than a rational application of knowledge on cults and sects is required. When I read all the links to your posting this was the definition of cults provided: “All cults have this in common; they deny the biblical doctrine of justification by faith”. That is a Swedenborg specific definition of a “cult” and ignores the volumes of materials available to broaden and expand one’s understanding of cults. Informing yourselves of a broader understanding of the label “cult” can provide a deeper healing for followers hurt by the label.

    I would highly recommend spending time reviewing the 30+
    years of research by religious and academic scholars coupled with mental health
    practitioners with International Cultic Studies Association or ICSA.

    In the many years I’ve spent reading their scholarly works (and
    knowing many of their global scholars) I’ve never read a definition of “cults”
    to be those that deny the biblical doctrine of justification by faith”. If you
    have a sincere desire to eradicate the on-going issue of New Church being
    labeled a cult then it demands a willingness to actually FULLY educate yourself
    on the subject of cults.

    (The Vatican recognizes ICSA’s scholarly work on cults and
    sects and last year the Vatican presented at ICSA’s Italy Conference. If a
    Church with 345 MILLION followers can identify “cultic influences” within its century’s old Church then there is value for a small church already suffering from that label to identify the same).

    I am an outsider married to a direct descendant of a Founding Father of the BA New Church and have spent years identifying the differences between its FAITH and the “cult”ure that exists within it. During those years I have come to LOVE The Writings. Yet I am aware that NC communities’ do exhibit the broader scholarly definition of “cultic influences”. Those cultic influences have NOTHING to do with the faith and everything to do with the 6 generations of damage to its followers by The Principles of the Academy. When you or others ask if New Church is a cult you are only asking half the question. The other half is “what
    specifically is being said or done by NC members that lead others to label it a
    cult”. To answer that you will NEED a scholarly approach and answer beyond “deny the biblical doctrine of justification by faith” to heal the damage The
    Principles have done to its followers.

    Are you aware that The Principles of the Academy foster
    hatred and bigotry of “OC’s” or outsiders” When was the last time you read The
    Principles of the Academy? If you read them would you be able to identify the
    religious hatred and bigotry in many of the Principles? Are you aware that generations of innocent children were taught in NC schools that The Principles were TRUE DOCTRINES? Are you aware that labeling folks like “OC” or “outsider” of “little n” is religious hatred and bigotry? Are you aware that the hatred and bigotry of “OC’s is so ingrained that “OC’s” are routinely charged MORE to use NC gyms BECAUSE they are “OC”? Those “OC’s” are identified by a minister when he collects the money after the games. Have you ever asked yourself if the label “OC’s”is religious hatred and bigotry? I would guess not as I am aware of how deeply ingrained it is in the community and how it offends ALL “OC’s” when they easily identify it.

    Let’s compare some Scientology labels to labels I’ve heard in
    NC. I can directly correlate those labels to The Principles of the Academy. Scientologists call people outside their faith “Suppressive Persons”. In New Church the label is “OC” or “other church. In The Principles of the Academy “OC”s are labeled “false faith or no faith” and can’t be resurrected. OC’s and Suppressive Persons are different labels but both labels foster religious hatred and bigotry.

    In Scientology they force disconnection from family members
    if ANY family member becomes a suppressive person. The Principles establish disconnection by demanding evangelization be done by NC couples bearing NC children. The Principles continue that disconnection by stating even if they continue to believe in their faith but marry an “OC” the marriage is heinous because the “OC” is a person of no faith or false faith. Children in NC have been taught that hatred and bigotry is imperative from the moment they can learn as ANY connection with an “OC” will create a form of “disconnection” from “the sight
    of heaven”. The Principles got the disconnection part done from the onset whereas the Scientologists do it “afterwards”. (The Writings do NOT foster religious hatred and bigotry).”

    In Scientology they use the definition “fair game”. It means
    to describe policies and practices carried out by the Church towards people and
    groups it perceives as its enemies. Isn’t teaching innocent children to believe
    their “true doctrine” fosters religious hatred and bigotry of “OC’s” a practice
    of fair game? The Principles label us “OC” as false faith / no faith. That is a
    “policy practiced” by NC and validates an “OC” is perceived as an enemy.

    Again, I am NOT referring to The Writings. I am referring
    specifically to The Principles of the Academy. The fostering of religious
    hatred and bigotry in The Principles of the Academy is where the label of “cult”
    is used correctly. Fostering religious hatred and bigotry is a commonality in
    most religious cults today. For 2 decades I’ve observed the unconscious acting
    out of hatred and bigotry towards “OC”s and can confidently affirm it is deeply
    entrenched in the NC community. Yet I’m more confident your first response to
    my statement will be denial.

    Recently Rev. Jeremy stated “the principles are old and we
    don’t use them anymore”. Bishop DeCharms stated The Principles were a “revelation”; so who removed its revelatory status? Stating the Principles of the Academy are “old and no longer used” is like saying Apartheid Africa didn’t exist. Hatred is hatred and bigotry is bigotry. The Principles of the Academy has deeply
    harmed the community of New Church. The subtleties of religious hatred and
    bigotry acted upon “OC”s when visiting the communities is why NC is continuously labeled a cult. Few if ANY “OC’s” would have taken the time to separate the differences and find love for the faith and The Writings. If you seriously want to answer the question “Is New Church a Cult” then it’s time to ask ALL the questions and confront the generational damage done by The Principles.