Why It’s Foolish and UnChristian to Call Mormonism a Cult

The Democratic Party is a club for pedophiles.

I’m sorry.  I know that’s a tough thing to hear — and let me assure you, it pains me to say it.  But the truth is the truth, and there’s nothing right or noble or loving in bending the truth.

To be sure, Democrats are not pedophiles according to the standard definition.  But there’s another definition, one that my friends and I use.  We call “political pedophiles” anyone who wants to keep all people childlike and dependent upon government largesse.  Therefore it’s entirely accurate when I say that the Democratic Party is a den of pedophilia and that Democrats are pedophiles.  Right?

* * * * *

Some variation on this argument has been offered by a number of my fellow conservative Christians as a justification for calling Mormonism a “cult” — including, most recently, famed pastor Mark Driscoll.  His essay is actually one of the better treatments of the question that I’ve seen so far in defense of the “cult” designation.  I find much to like in Driscoll.  But this argument fails to pass muster.  Driscoll sets out three definitions of the word “cult”:

  1. The sociological definition: A cult, by one version of the sociological definition, is “a small informal group lacking a definite authority structure, somewhat spontaneous in its development (although often possessing a somewhat charismatic leader or group of leaders), transitory, somewhat mystical and individualistically oriented, and deriving its inspiration and ideology from outside the predominant religious culture.”  By this definition, Driscoll says, Mormonism is not a cult because it is large and enduring, highly organized and institutional.  “Mormonism,” he says, “has long outgrown the sociological definition of cult.”  (Driscoll does not note that sociologists have essentially abandoned the word “cult” because it’s now considered more a term of slander than a term of art.)
  2. The popular-sensationalist definition: Cults are “usually (1) authoritarian in their leadership; (2) communal and totalistic in their organization; (3) aggressive in their proselytizing; (4) systematic in their programs of indoctrination; (5) relatively new and unfamiliar in the United States; (6) middle class in their clientele.”  By this definition, too, Driscoll admits that Mormonism has “outgrown” the definition, though “they still are rather authoritarian,” “aggressively proselytize” and “are systematic in their indoctrination.”  (All of which can be said of many evangelical churches, by the way.)
  3. The theological definition: for this Driscoll cites the ESV Study Bible (oddly?), which says that a cult is “any religious movement that claims to be derived from the Bible and/or the Christian faith, and that advocates beliefs that differ so significantly with major Christian doctrines that two consequences follow: (1) The movement cannot legitimately be considered a valid ‘Christian’ denomination because of its serious deviation from historic Christianity orthodoxy. (2) Believing the doctrines of the movement is incompatible with trusting in the Jesus Christ of the Bible for the salvation that comes by God’s grace alone.”  Here Driscoll believes he has caught his prey.  “Mormonism is most certainly a cult theologically speaking” because it “claims Christianity while subtly subverting it in both practice and theology.  Because it claims to be Christian, uses Christian language, but is antithetical Christianity, it must be labeled a cult theologically.”

But must it?  Because the ESV Study Bible supplies a definition that is unique not only to Christianity, but to a small subset of Christianity, and we are bound to use it over against a world that means something quite different by the term?

As I’ve made clear elsewhere, I believe there is an absolute Truth, I believe that Christians are called to profess that Truth even when the world finds its offensive, and I believe that Mormonism does not represent Christianity in its original or traditional forms.  While I believe that Mormons can be Christians in the most important sense of being followers of Jesus Christ (and Driscoll agrees: “it’s certain there are some Christians in the Mormon church who love the Jesus of the Bible and don’t understand or agree with what their church teaches”), I do not believe that Mormonism is Christianity.

There are points I would reject when it comes to Driscoll’s representation of Mormon beliefs.  He refers to websites and books that often pull verses from all sorts of non-authoritative sources wildly out of context in order to make Mormonism appear ridiculous.  He culminates his argument by referring to an author (Hoekema) who interprets Mormon scriptures in a way that no Mormon would recognize.  But let’s bracket those objections for the moment.

The main problem here is that the Christians defending the claim that “Mormonism is a cult” are employing a definition of ‘cult’ that the rest of the world does not use.  They might as well be saying that all Democrats are “pedophiles” because our group takes “pedophile” to mean someone who wants citizens to remain in childlike dependency upon government.  While Driscoll or Richard Land or Robert Jeffress may intend to communicate that Mormonism is a theological cult, the world hears them saying that Mormonism is a cult in the sociological or popular senses of the term — because those are the only senses of the term the world knows.  So why persist in using the term at all?  Because we want to justify ourselves, and justify the earlier generations of Christians who referred to Mormonism as a cult?  Is that really so important?

If we want to communicate with the world in a way that brings both clarity and charity, then we have to deal with words according to their current meaning.  It profits us nothing to call Mormonism a cult.  It makes us appear paranoid, self-righteous and cruel, and it slanders the good people who believe they are following Jesus Christ in the LDS Church.  According to the popular definition of that term, we are accusing Mormons of being on a level with David Koresh and Jim Jones.  This is inaccurate, unloving, and unChristian.

It’s simple.  If all we mean is that Mormonism claims to be Christian but really isn’t, then let’s call Mormonism unChristian, or false Christianity.  Given the way the world understands the term, it makes no sense to call Mormonism a cult.  Let’s find another word.

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  • Are there other theological, biblical, or ministry-related terms you recommend we do away with given the way the world understands them?

  • Larry

    Tluc? I think your argument is a streeeeeeeetch Tim. If Mormonism were launched last week … its claims fully known would you be inclined to call it a cult. Is it the size of the organization that gives you pause? Is it to big to fail? Is it the age of the organization which prohibits the term? Is it the fact that Romney is a Mormon that makes the term so unpalatable? Was Jesus cruel when he called the false religious leaders which He encountered “White washed sepulchure’s”. Or when He unceremoniously announced “You belong to your father, the devil” … or was He merely stating the obvious in an effort to jolt them from their blindness?

  • DougH

    Something interesting that leaped out at me when I read the theological definition of “cult” – it takes *both* points to make it work, because each one alone applies to large swaths of Christendom.

    “(1) The movement cannot legitimately be considered a valid ‘Christian’ denomination because of its serious deviation from historic Christianity orthodoxy.”

    This one applies to all Protestant sects since they broke away from Catholicism, abandoning theological understandings many centuries old. Ironically, they claimed at the time to be doing the same thing Mormons have claimed from the beginning – returning to the original Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles. Of course, for them the same as us, this requires a rejection of substantial chunks of “historic” Christian theology.

    “(2) Believing the doctrines of the movement is incompatible with trusting in the Jesus Christ of the Bible for the salvation that comes by God’s grace alone.”

    This one is where the Protestant source of this definition is clear because the Catholic Church fails this test. Quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.” This actually goes farther towards the Works side of the debate than Mormonism goes. Of course, drop the word “alone” and suddenly the definition no longer applies to either Mormons or Catholics.

  • I am no fan of Driscoll on many points, but I don’t understand the point of this post. Driscoll acknowledges your main point:

    “Of course, the trouble is that most people are not Christians, do not understand the differences between Mormon and Christian doctrine, and are therefore confused or upset to hear Mormonism labelled a cult, as it simply sounds cruel.”

    He is very clear, however, in his last two paragraphs, that he is not writing to “most people”. He is warning Christians, the church, of the theological dangers of Mormonism. Theologically, Mormonism is as dangerous as any cult.

    You said, “If we want to communicate with the world in a way that brings both clarity and charity, then we have to deal with words according to their current meaning.” I have the strong impression that Driscoll would agree — but he clearly isn’t trying to “communicate with the world”, but with fellow Christians.

    If any non-comatose non-Christian reads his article, they’ll say, “Oh, ok, you aren’t calling them a Koresh-cult, you’re saying they are way out of bounds from normal Christianity. That makes sense.” A Christian, reading it, can see exactly what he’s saying.

    I don’t see the problem with what he’s said. He’s defined his terms very clearly, and specified the audience to which he is communicating.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      But Jon, we’re talking about a very public usage of the word “cult” on the part of Jeffress and others (and a continuing insistence in the public square that Christians are right to use this term). The question is whether it is accurate or helpful to refer to Mormonism as a cult, especially in the public square. I don’t believe it is. Call it an apostasy or a heresy, if you wish. But if the rest of the world hears “cult” to mean one thing, when we’re using “cult” to mean something else, then maybe we would be wiser to use a different, less inflammatory word, especially when we know that our discussion is going to reach outside the circles where that very limited definition of the term is known and understood. (On another note, presumably Driscoll knows that when he writes a piece like this, he’s not merely addressing Christians, but he’s addressing a large issue in the public square and people of all faiths and none will read what he wrote.)


      • Well, Tim, you’d already made your point clear on Jeffress, and it’s well taken. We’re told to avoid unprofitable arguments about words, and because of the differing definitions of “cult”, some of which apply to Mormons and some of which don’t, this seems a word which is tailor-made for unprofitable arguments.

        But if a person isn’t permitted to carefully define what he does and doesn’t mean when he uses a word, as Driscoll has done here, then you are going to have to go back through a lot of your writing and say, “Oops, I said that publicly, and some people might take it wrong even though I tried to define everything clearly.”

        Surely we should be allowed to A) assume our readers are somewhat intelligent and B) educate them accordingly as to what we mean when we define our terms. By using careful definitions, and by warning against misapplying other definitions to Mormons, Driscoll has gone far in guarding against unprofitable arguments. By effectively ignoring his carefulness, you seem to be dragging us back into “unprofitable” territory.

        So I’m not objecting to your response to Jeffress, it is singling out Driscoll (who has done exactly what any careful writer does) to which I object.

  • anna

    Only hyper-political evangelicals get themselves in these kinds of pickles. The unreligious American doesn’t really care what a pastor has to say about a candidate, and religious or not, you’d have to be pretty stupid to think Mormons are of the same brand of weirdness as the kool-aide drinkers. The only people who could possibly be swayed to vote for Perry by this pastor’s use of the word “cult” are those evangelicals who have been told that they need to have a “faith-based” vote and feel they’re not down with the whole WWJD if they don’t vote for the self-proclaimed evangelical. I don’t think Jesus would vote for the manipulative evangelical arse who tried to make it look like his state wasn’t getting any federal money or the well-groomed mormon who treated his family dog like so much luggage….I think he’d give Obama another chance….OBAMA 2012!

  • What other theological, biblical, or ministry-related terms do you suggest we do away with due to the way the world understands the term? If the world’s understanding is the standard then it seems we have quite a bit of revisions to make.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jeff, all words get their meaning from how they are used. The meanings of words shift over time, as well as their cultural baggage (I would not now say, for instance, “The retard was gay as he picked up a faggot of wood.”) If the rest of the world understood ‘Arminian’ to mean ‘vicious baby killers,’ then we might be wise to use a different term, at least in public settings. In the same way, it makes no sense to persist in using a term like “cult” when it needlessly confuses and offends everyone outside a fairly narrow Christian circle. IMHO.


      • “Unchristian” is terribly offensive to Mormons so I’m not sure I understand how this would be acceptable since not giving offense is your standard.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Do you honestly think that’s my standard? What about the part where I wrote that, well, sometimes we need to speak the offensive truth? You’re not reading very carefully here, my friend.

          I don’t think it’s wise to cause greater confusion and *unnecessary* offense by using a word that the rest of the world hears as a slur. Yes, Mormons do not like it when we say Mormonism is not Christianity. But they also understand that we’re just making a theological point. If not causing offense were my standard, I would not have said repeatedly throughout this conversation that I do not believe Mormonism is Christianity. But if our real point is that Mormonism is not Christianity, then let’s just say that it’s not Christianity, rather than using a word that connotes that they’re mentally weak, under mind control, and borderline insane. This doesn’t seem like it should be such a controversial suggestion.

          Given all the notes I’ve received saying, “I understand why you think Mormonism is not Christianity, and I disagree on that point, but I thank you for saying I’m not a cult member!”, I do think there’s a difference between using “cult” and “unChristian.”


          • DougH

            Speaking as a Mormon, I take no offense at people saying I’m not a Christian, so long as it is an objective rather than derogatory usage. I *do* take offense at the word cult, precisely because the word as generally understood is derogatory, and so I see no way to use it in a public setting for anything except to marginalize and exclude. Especially when the setting is political.

  • Nayajja

    Thoughtful as usual, Tim.

    One statement, however, needs a little more precision. You say: “While I believe that Mormons can be Christians in the most important sense of being followers of Jesus Christ (and Driscoll agrees: ‘it’s certain there are some Christians in the Mormon church who love the Jesus of the Bible and don’t understand or agree with what their church teaches’), I do not believe that Mormonism is Christianity.”

    No, I would say that Driscoll does not agree with you. Your definition is pretty much the definition that makes Mormons comfortable in considering sincere evangelicals to be Christian, even though they would also say that evangelicalism as a church does not represent the true church of Jesus Christ.

    Driscoll’s definition as you quote it has (1) code words and (2) qualifiers that convert his definition into basically: a Christian is someone who believes as I believe.

    The code words are “the Jesus of the Bible.” I as a Mormon certainly believe in “the Jesus of the Bible” but evangelicals use this phrase as code. I know this because I have been told more than once, when I profess my belief in Jesus, “No, the Jesus you believe in is not the Jesus of the Bible.” The explanation is usually that we Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity as interpreted by the Nicene creed, or that in addition to the Bible we have other scripture that also teaches of Jesus. If this is what the code words mean, then Driscoll’s definition says that anyone who does not believe in the Nicene creed or anyone who believes God has revealed scripture in addition to the Bible is not a Christian.

    The qualifiers in Driscoll’s definition that are not contained in your definition are: “…and don’t understand or agree with what their church teaches.” I certainly understand and certainly agree with what my church teaches, so Driscoll will feel justified in telling the world I am not a Christian. Under your definition, I would hope to qualify as a Christian, even as you qualify under my definition.

    Perhaps it would make more sense to look to the Bible to define the word Christian. As a starter, how about these verses:

    “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Acts 11:26

    “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:35

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      My point was only that Driscoll apparently believes that some Mormons are ‘Christian’ in the sense that they follow the Jesus of the Bible. In his view, however, they have to be less than fully informed on, or disagree with, Mormon teachings concerning Christ in order to follow the Jesus of the Bible. In essence, in his view, people who attend Mormon churches, but do not fully subscribe to official Mormon teaching (at least as Driscoll understands it) on Jesus, can be genuine followers of Jesus. But it remains the case that ‘Mormons’ can be ‘Christians’ in this sense, in Driscoll’s view. He and I agree on that point, even though we differ in how we understand Mormon teaching regarding Jesus.


  • Eichendorff

    Sometimes I really get completely fed up with this ridiculous discussion about whether Mormons are Christians or not. It is so stupid, it boggles the mind.

    As a believing Latter-day Saint, I am a Christian, 100% true-blue through and through. I accept the Bible as the Word of God without reservation. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the World, and that only through his Atonement is salvation possible.

    There is nothing in the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that departs or deviates from New Testament Christianity in the slightest. We reject the Trinity doctrine as expressed at the Council of Nicea because there is no Biblical support for it. We also reject the notion that there cannot be more scripture outside the Bible because the Bible makes no such claim.

    The only opinions that are relevant to whether I am a Christian are my own, because I am the world’s authority on what I believe, and God’s because he is the ultimate authority in the universe. Nobody else’s view counts.

  • Arnold

    LDS a “cult”? What about the “rapture”?

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is “not a Christian” and Mormonism is a “cult,” according to Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Dallas (TX) First Baptist Church.
    His “cult” remark is based on his belief that the Latter-day Saints church (which didn’t exist before 1830) is outside “the mainstream of Christianity.”
    But Jeffress hypocritically promotes the popular evangelical “rapture” (theologically the “any-moment pretribulation rapture”) which is outside mainstream Christianity (Google “Pretrib Rapture Politics”) and which also didn’t exist before 1830 (Google “Pretrib Rapture Diehards” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty”)!
    And there are 50 million American rapture cultists (some of whom turn Wikipedia into “Wicked-pedia” by constantly distorting the real facts about the rapture’s bizarre, 181-year-old history) compared with only 14 million LDS members.
    The most accurate documentation on pretrib rapture history that I have found is in a nonfiction book titled “The Rapture Plot” which is carried by leading online bookstores. I know also that the same 300-page work can also be borrowed through inter-library loan at any library.
    Latter-day Saints believe in fairness, which is why I feel called to share this message.

    (the preceding was spotted on the www! Arnold)

  • Chris Morrow

    There is no unambiguous “Jesus of the Bible”, so saying Mormons don’t follow him, and by extension that they aren’t Christian, is ridiculous. While the gospels (which contradict one another) do quote Jesus identifying himself as God, they also quote him in ways that distinguish the two, eg, when told that he is good he insists that there is none good but the Father, implying that he isn’t truly good.

    Meanwhile, if a cult is to be defined in terms of its coercion of obedience (eg, Scientology’s harassment of peopple who want to leave), then you have to admit that Christianity used to be a “cult” in most places for most of its history; it’s not like, pre-Rennaiscence, someone could just openly quit the Catholic church, or say “I don’t believe in Jesus anymore” in a Protestant nation, and expect nothing worse than a few dirty looks. Then again, the same applies to the history (and sometimes present) of nearly all religions, insofar as freedom of religion is a relatively new idea.