Safe and Unsafe Sects (and What To Call Them!)

Safe and Unsafe Sects (and Problems with Terms for Alternative Religious Groups)

My interest in “cults and new religions” began when I was still a child with my uncle who belonged to a religious group my parents considered a “cult.” I also had a cousin who joined a movement that calls itself a “world faith” but is considered a cult by many people. Somewhere along the way I began to realize that the religious group we, my immediate family and some of my extended family, belonged to is considered a cult by some people. That really got my attention and launched me on a nearly lifelong avocation of studying so-called cults.

When I was still a teenager I began to read books by Marcus Bach (1905-1996), professor of religion at the University of Iowa’s School of Religion. Among them were: Report to Protestants (about non-mainline religious groups, their growth, beliefs, attractions, etc.), Faith and My Friends, Strange Sects and Curious Cults, They Have Found a Faith, and Strangers at the Door. I was especially interested in Bach’s spiritual autobiography The Inner Ecstasy which told me of his conversions to Pentecostalism and then Unity. Eventually I met Bach after he spoke at a Unity church in the city where I was attending college. We chatted for almost half an hour. I found him to be a most engaging person even though I was disappointed to learn of his commitment to New Thought.

When I was still in high school I read a little book entitled Christian Truth and Religious Delusions by Lutheran minister Casper Nervig. The contents are broken down into “truth” versus “error.” For example, Chapter V is “Pentecostalism: Some Truth—Much Error.” Naturally I read that chapter with interest and found that Rev. Nervig knew almost nothing accurate about Pentecostalism. So that made me suspicious of his treatments of other groups such as “Adventism,” “Russellism,” Etc. But what really attracted me to the book was its Chapter IX “Christian Science, Spiritism, Two-By-Twos, No-Creed.” My uncle belonged to a group discussed there. It was the first time I found anything published about the group. But I took what I read there with a grain of salt because of Nervig’s misrepresentations of Pentecostalism. (My uncle would not discuss his religious beliefs with any of us which piqued my curiosity to know more.)

Nervig’s book was almost humorous. I still have that copy that I bought at a used bookstore while in high school. Chapter II is “The Evangelical Lutheran Church: The Church of Truth.” Chapter III is “The Reformed Churches: Much Truth—Some Error”—evidence that the divisions of the Reformation were still not healed when the book was published by a major Lutheran publisher in 1941.

During my college and seminary years I read books about cults and alternative religions voraciously. I read everything I could get my hands on such as Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults, Anthony Hoekema’s The Four Major Cults, Van Baalen’s The Chaos of the Cults, William Peterson’s Those Curious New Cults and many, many more. Eventually I began to read more sociologically treatments of cults and new religions and realized that sociologists and theologians work with different definitions and marks of cults.

During doctoral work at Rice University (1978-1982) I taught an undergraduate course (together with the chairman of the department Niels Nielsen) called “Deity, Mysticism and the Occult.” Our primary textbook was one very sympathetic to minority, alternative religious groups (a label preferred over “cult” by most sociologists of religion): Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America. I invited representatives of many “alternative reality traditions” (another popular sociological label for what others call “cults”) into the class. Houston was rife with them: followers of ISKCON (“Hare Krishnas”), Sufis, Bahais, etc. We took field trips to the Zen center and other locales. I invited an expert on alternative religious groups to speak to the class and we opened that session to the public. He was J. Gordon Melton—later to become known as perhaps the leading expert on cults, new religions, alternative religious groups in America. He flew to Houston from Chicago and I picked him up at the airport. One of the first things he said to me was “Let’s go find some witches.” (His topic was Wicca and Neo-Paganism in America.) Within thirty minutes he had found a true wiccan “store” (almost a coven meeting site) in Houston. His presentation that evening to a large audience was exotic, informing and entertaining. (The trip to “The Occult Shoppe” was for the purpose of illustration during his talk that there were “real witches” in Houston.)

During my tenure as a professor of theology at a well-known evangelical Christian liberal arts college I taught an annual elective course on “America’s Cults and New Religion” that I advertised to the students as “Unsafe Sects.” (The dean wouldn’t allow that course title in the catalog!) After the Jonestown mass suicide and the Branch Davidian disaster students flocked to the course. I always had more students wanting in than I could allow in. I invited speakers from various non-traditional religious groups into the class and also took the students on field trips to meeting spaces of groups such as Scientology, Eckankar, Zen Buddhism, etc. I even found some rather mild “witches” (wiccans) who would speak to the class. For the most part they were funny. (One was a high priestess of a Dianic coven who called herself “Lorelei” and who talked about her all-female coven “sacrificing” pomegranates because they are symbols of male fertility.)

I wrote some scholarly articles and book chapters on alternative religious groups little known to most Americans including Eckankar (“The Ancient Science of Soul Travel”) and Anthroposophy (Rudolf Steiner’s form of “esoteric Christianity”). I tried for fifteen years to find a Rosicrucian to speak to the class without success. However I did find a professor of psychology at a Lutheran college who talked about esoteric Christianity. He would not admit to being a Rosicrucian (nor would he deny it) but I had reason to believe he was.

For those of you becoming concerned about inviting these representatives of alternative religious groups into an undergraduate class at a Christian college let me say that I always used the opportunity of being the teacher to discuss with the students what I believed to be an evangelical Christian assessment of the groups’ beliefs. We also prayed for them before and after they came. And I did not allow them to do anything in class except talk. They were not allowed to chant, hand out food, cast spells, read auras, whatever.

A few times I received calls from concerned parents. (The college president knew all about what I was doing and directed calls to me if they came to him first.) Here is what I always asked the parents that ended their objections: “Which would you rather have your son or daughter experience first—encounters with these people here, in a Christian context bathed in prayer and explanation of why what they believe is not what we believe or encounters with them outside this context? Because they will encounter them.”

Once a student said he did not want to be in the same room with a wiccan; I permitted him to skip class that day (of course).

Getting some speakers to come to my class was an ordeal. I remember calling the local branch of the Church Universal and Triumphant and inviting them to send someone. The woman I spoke to, presumably the leader of the local church, said “Oh, no. That’s a fundamentalist college. We don’t want anything to do with that.” I said “Well, if you don’t come and talk about your movement, the only person they’ll hear talking about it is me. Which would you rather have them hear talk about your group—you or me?” Needless to say, she came and talked to my class. But it was awkward—especially when I asked her to explain the relationship between CUT and the I AM movement and the “Ascended Masters.”

Most of the speakers attempted to ignore their more exotic beliefs and practices, but I pressed them to talk about them.

Through all these experiences, I gradually began to drop the word “cult.” That’s because the media (bless their little pea-pickin’ hearts) took over the word and turned it into something it had not previously been—exclusively an appellation for a dangerous religious group—dangerous like Jonestown and David Koresh’s Branch Davidian group. Not “spiritually dangerous” but dangerous to people’s physical or mental well-being.

Before Jonestown, “cult” was a term primarily used for theologically extremely unorthodox religious group. A group could be perfectly peaceful and prosperous and use no means of “mind control,” etc., and still be a “cult” in the theological sense. Suddenly, or in a relatively brief period of time, “cult” came to mean something else. And groups began to sue people who called them a “cult” even in only the theological sense because the term took on connotations that could bring stigma to them in the wider society—not just among Christians.

I still use the term “cult” for some religious groups but only those that do, indeed, pose a threat to their members’ and/or others’ safety and physical well-being.

However, I think there’s something unfortunate about this.

It’s another example of how a useful religious category has been taken over by pop culture and mass media and changed such that it is hardly useful anymore. If “cult” refers only to truly dangerous groups, groups that pose a physical or extreme psychological threat to people using means of coercion such as sleep deprivation, etc., what term shall we use for religious groups that promote beliefs directly contrary to historic, orthodox Christianity (broadly defined) and that cast aspersions at historic, orthodox Christian denominations and churches and that seek actively to recruit people away from them into their own groups that teach heretical beliefs?

Some religious scholars have proposed these be called “sects” rather than “cults” as the former is less pejorative and you’re less likely to be sued that way. I have myself at times taken that approach. Others use only neutral terms for all non-traditional religious groups such as “alternative religions” and “new religious movements.”

It seems to me that the label “cult” has two radically different meanings. There is first its theological meaning—any religious group that grew out of or poses a direct challenge to orthodox forms of a religion. Second is its sociological meaning—any religious group that exist in strong tension with its surrounding culture and poses physical and/or psychological threats to person’s well-being by, for example, subjecting them to suicidal tendencies in the face of fears of persecution. The problem is that this second meaning has totally replaced the first so that the first can hardly be used anymore.

That leaves those of us concerned to defend orthodox Christianity (broadly defined) against aggressive groups that seek to recruit people away from it by, for example, deception (e.g., that the Trinity was a belief invented by theologians under Constantine in the fourth century) without a label for that category except, perhaps, “heterodox sects” or “unorthodox religious groups.”

But these still exist and insidiously recruit especially among the uninformed Christians. Some of them claim, for example, that their belief in reincarnation and karma is “compatible with Christianity” and that the early church fathers believed in them. Many churches have dropped their defenses against such tactics partly because, I suspect, the word “cult” has been taken away for exclusive use for dangerous religious sects like The People’s Temple (Jonestown) and Koresh’s Branch Davidians (now pretty much extinct and what’s left is not dangerous).

What I am suggesting is that this change in nomenclature is more significant and influential than many people have realized.

So, in the absence of any useful label like “cult,” what shall we do if we Christians want to speak out among ourselves against religious groups we consider spiritually dangerous? We will have to learn to use lists of characteristics:

1) Watch out for pseudo-Christian groups that seek to recruit you or your children (for example) for a radically alternative version of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a radically alternative version is usually signaled by a claim for the actual or potential divinity of human persons (equality with God), and/or belief that salvation comes through esoteric knowledge taught by an “enlightened” person whose theology is directly contrary to historic, orthodox Christianity, and/or denial of the Trinity, the unique deity of Jesus Christ, resurrection (as opposed to reincarnation or “spiritual evolution”), the closed canon of Scripture, etc.

2) Watch out for groups whose worldview and belief system are rooted in some other religion but claim their beliefs and practices are “compatible with Christianity.” These usually promote some religious experience that implies the deity of the self.

3) Watch out for groups who seem orthodox in their Christian beliefs but put down all other churches and denominations as not truly Christian and exalt the spiritual status of a human leader whose pronouncements are beyond fault or flaw and must not be challenged.

4) Watch out for groups that seem orthodoxy in their Christian beliefs but use spiritual abuse (manipulation of persons using shame) to stop all critical questioning of the leaders.

We can’t call these groups “cults” anymore, so we will simply have to settle for calling them unorthodox and alternative forms of Christianity (or some other world religion) or, as one “cult watcher” labeled those with orthodox beliefs who fall into “3” and “4” above—T.A.C.O.s (Totalistic, Aberrational, Christian Organizations).

I have noticed over the past decade or two a definite decline of interest in teaching about such groups among even evangelical churches, publications, speakers, etc. I suspect it has to do with the problems of terminology but also with a desire not to appear “intolerant.” But some of those groups are still active and recruiting naïve and untutored Christians away from evangelical and mainline churches into their folds.

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  • gingoro

    “Such a radically alternative version is usually signaled by a claim for the actual or potential divinity of human persons (equality with God)…” The Eastern Orthodox talk about “Apotheosis”, but I assume that this is different from what you are talking about? If so how?

    • rogereolson

      EO theosis/deification in not way implies (when rightly understood) that any human can be or become God as God is God. It is simply God’s sharing of his divine immortality with us through his uncreated energies, but the divine essence will always belong to God alone.

  • The terminology and methodology Evangelicals use among certain religious groups is an important topic for consideration. As an Evangelical scholar and missiologist specializing in this area, as the co-editor of the Christianity Today award winning book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic, 2004), and the co-facilitator of the Lausanne issue group on the topic, I speak with some expertise on the subject. A growing movement among Evangelicals can be found who wish to more accurately understand those in certain religious groups, and to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks to communication. They have adopted the terminology of scholarship in referring to certain groups as new religious movements or minority religions rather than the term “cult” which is viewed as pejorative. Further, while serious disagreement in doctrine is noted, such groups are better understood as dynamic religious subcultures rather than as heretical deviations. In terms of methodology of engagement, instead of drawing upon an apologetic paradigm of conflict and refutation, this new movement is drawing upon the insights of cross-cultural missiology, and seeks to contextualize the gospel in the framework of the new religions. This may incorporate a contextualized apologetic element, but it does not focus on apologetics of worldview annihilation. Those Evangelicals interested in exploring these ideas further should download the free Lausanne issue group paper for 2004 available at

    • rogereolson

      That is exactly the approach that is making me nervous for reasons I explained. Somehow we must combine 1) teaching our fellow Christian believers to be discerning with regard to cults and new religion and 2) loving response to people who belong to cults and new religions including genuine dialogue with them to make sure we understand before we say we disagree. “New Religion” is simply too neutral a term for some groups that fall into that category (IMHO)–from a theological perspective.

  • Fascinating discussion.

    I appreciate you sympathetic treatment of these movements, or at least the people on the inside of them. Sounds like God prepared your heart for ministry in this area via your family experience, especially your tight-lipped uncle. Wow.

    But I also appreciate that you have an interest in warning the flock. I’m sure your students have been befitted in long lasting ways by the frank (memorable?) discussions.


    Plant Seed

    • rogereolson

      I hope so. Thanks.

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, I was subjected to ” word of faith’ when I was a new believer. Looking back, it took me ten years to come out from its influence, to a place where I can accept another believer who is involved with the movement without considering them a cultist. I still shy away from churches that are pro- prosperity and divine health. I thought that Kenneth E. Hagin could do no wrong, but as I began to see that he plagiarized a lot of his teachings, the hero worship slowly subsided. Do you think those of us who have been involved with aberrant teachings will every overcome criticism completely?

    • rogereolson

      Nor should you/they. Somehow a way must be found to be generously critical–especially toward those caught up in cults and new religious movements.

  • Unlike many articles on the subject of proper terminology in relation to ‘cults’ and ‘sects’ this one is well-informed. A breath of fresh air.

    Couple of comments:

    Using ‘sect’ instead of ‘cult’ — as some scholars propose — ignores the etymology of those terms. That said, throughout Europe ‘sect’ already is used instead of ‘cult.’

    I like the fact that you point out the fact that the term ‘cult’ can be used from both a theological and a sociological perspective — which is part of the confusion surrounding the label. This is a point most often missed by people who try to address cult-related terminology.

    When we use the term ‘cult’ at Apologetics Index or Religion News Blog we try to always place the word within its proper context, and to explain from what perspective the term is used. For instance, a movement that is a cult from a Christian theological point of view is a ‘cult of Christianity.’

    • rogereolson

      As you alone will recognize, I edited your comment. I agree with this part. The part I omitted could stir up some problems I’d rather not deal with.

  • How fascinating!

    I’m curious. How would you find/choose the guest speakers for your class? I don’t think you could just look up “Articulate Satanist” in the yellow pages in those days (if you even had a Satanist). Lol

    And did you have to be extra welcoming to them so that they wouldn’t feel like they were walking into an “evangelical” trap?


    • rogereolson

      First, I never even attempted to find a Satanist speaker and I wouldn’t have invited one even if I knew of any. I found my wiccan/neo-pagan speakers through articles in the local newspapers. Every October 31 the local newspapers would publish big, front page articles about “local witches” (always wiccans). One gave her name. I called her. She recommended the coven high priestess I mentioned (“Lorelei”). Both she and the male wiccan who spoke were obviously romantic worshipers of nature. They didn’t really believe in a literal “Mother Goddess” or any such thing. Their “witchcraft” was a pastiche of neo-pagan tree-hugging and “white magic.” They both insisted (quite convincingly) that they feared and rejected “black magick.” I and my students were mostly just amused by them. They seemed like social misfits who found an outlet for their alternative beliefs and lifestyles in wicca. Yes, I had to bend over backwards to be non-threatening to get some speakers to come, but I never engaged in deceit or subterfuge. I had many fascinating experiences in this fifteen year long project of teaching my course and taking field trips and having speakers come to the class. But not once did any student express interest in experimenting with or joining any cult or new religion. If anything, the speakers and field trips convinced them how silly most of the groups really are. I took them to the world headquarters of a new religion that specializes in “soul travel.” The students broke out laughing when the speakers there talked about their beliefs and practices–some of which struck the students as ridiculous. Needless to say, the religion invited me not to bring students there anymore which I thought was clear proof of their insecurity about their beliefs.

  • TerryJames

    I was introduced to the Bible by good friend in high school–a Jehovah’s Witness. I was married to a Christian Scientist for almost 25 years (widowed). A good professional friend is a Mormon bishop. I find the “cult” word very unhelpful. Of course their understanding of important doctrines are outside of orthodoxy (I have issues with Roman Catholic beliefs too), but the people are the goal and not the enemy. Using the cult word ends the conversation.

    • rogereolson

      But you haven’t suggested an alternative label for the category to which those groups belong–from a Christian theological perspective. That was the thrust of my post: What is a good alternative term to use that indicates those groups (and others’) radical alternatives theologies (to orthodox Christianity)?

      • TerryJames

        I suppose “people of faith with unorthodox beliefs”. Not very succinct or catchy, but that seems to be what it is (I’m not addressing sociological cults.) Of course, using the word “unorthodox” will eventually carry the same baggage as “cult”. I suppose too that calling someone an “unorthodox Christian” is an oxymoron.
        I’m better at commenting than coming up with solutions 😉 .

  • Steve Rogers

    I applaud your willingness to invite spokespersons from other sects to your classes. My guess is that on more than one occasion you’ve found them to be kind, engaging and non-threatening people sincere in their faith journey. Yes, prayerful discernment is required to navigate the marketplace of spiritual theories and practices. Not all are equal or beneficial. However, with very slight modification your list of characteristics that define the groups to be avoided could be applied by those groups to much of evangelicalism. Perhaps you will remember one of our Bible College texts that listed Roman Catholicism as one of the cults. If the starting point in a dialogue is I’m right and you are wrong or we are true you are false, we will seldom end up being the “friend of sinners” as was Jesus. Also, some of the concepts we fear in such sects or cults are not as different as we might think. Their differentness is in the semantics and emphasis more than the root belief. Every group, including evangelicalism, has its forms of “gnosticism” that requires adherents to acquire special knowledge from recognized teachers (masters). Finally, a group does not have to be religious to be dangerous, thought controlling and etc. Such social pathology should always be dealt with cautiously.

    • rogereolson

      I suspect you will agree with me when I say (as I have said many times over the years) that the college we both attended had “cultic characteristics.” I can remember one semester (at least) when I would say it fell into being a cult. The president publicly forbade us from leaving campus except to go to church and work. He was a control freak and used spiritual abuse to attempt to control us. It was one of the most surreal and painful experiences I have ever endured. My room mates (who you know) went to him to ask about some problems and he attempted to exorcise demons from them–merely for asking questions.

      • Jeff Hayes

        Roger, I love your response! I want to remind you that you were the one who was always stirring the pot! Who was it that posted a picture of Billy Graham on the bulletin board with the caption…”This man wouldn’t be allowed to come to our college!” You pointed out the length of his hair wouldn’t be within the guidelines at the college. Those were interesting, memorable, educational (in more than one way) days! “LOL”

        • rogereolson

          Actually, I didn’t post that there! But I do remember seeing it and agreeing with the message. Yes, I did stir the pot because it needed stirring. See today’s post. I was threatened with expulsion because my hair touched my collar and went over my ears (not far). Many of the rules weren’t about anything moral or ethical or doctrinal; they were about showing who was in control.

      • Steve Rogers

        Thankfully we were able to break out of that orbit. You sooner than I.

        • rogereolson

          That it was so painful and humiliating, though, says something about the culticness of what I left behind. I assume that has been true for you as well.

  • Becca

    The exact nature of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, the connection between faith and works, predestination vs. free will, New Testament’s relationship to the Old Testament, the nature of the relationship between humans and God, the extent of God’s involvement in the world, eschatology, nature of the afterlife, etc., created disagreement and controversy from the very beginnings of Christianity, leading to many “heresies,” and something like 1300 years of religious wars and religious persecution.

    Each of these Christianities, including the ones we now call “orthodox,” were started by influential human beings who claimed to be able to interpret the word of god better than other influential human beings. Many such people, like Paul, Luther, Wesley, Smith, claimed to have had a mystical experience that led to their interpretation. Many of these Christianities, including “orthodox” Christianities, demanded obedience to the doctrine created by these God-gifted, influential human beings, and claimed that those who disagreed with their doctrine were wrong to the point where they could be shamed, shunned, imprisoned, tortured, or executed.

    #1, 3, and 4 on your list can be applied to the history of every form of Christianity we know as “orthodox” today.

    • rogereolson

      A predictable response. But maybe you’d like to give specific examples of how and when Paul, Luther, or Wesley “shamed, shunned, imprisoned, tortured, or executed” people who disagreed with them? Or perhaps you think church discipline, polemics and excommunication are all automatically cultic practices? I don’t think so. To the best of my knowledge, none of those people did any of those things to people who merely dared to question them.

      • Becca

        @roger, I am not going to attempt to summarize the history of various Christianities over the last thousand+ years. I have better things to do, a life to lead, kids to take care of.

        Please read some history. We could go back to the very beginnings of Christianity, but let’s not. Nestorians, Arians, Albigensians might be alien concepts for you, and you might find it difficult to sympathize with whatever you consider alien; people ignorant of history find whatever is more recent and closer to their experience easier to “get.”

        Let’s stick to how Protestants and Catholics treated one another through the 16th and the 17th centuries. You must have heard of Protestants and Catholics, and 16th-17th centuries are relatively recent. Lots of info on Google; do read.

        Had the Catholics stopped with excommunication, and had the Protestants been satisfied with shunning, it would have been pretty bad, but not as bad as reality turned out to be. Sadly, both sides commonly resorted to imprisonment, torture, and executions, which grew into full-scale war. Do read about the Thirty Years War while you are at it.

        Ignorance/denial of history is not a good thing, as I fully believe that people are people, and history repeats itself. READ.

        • rogereolson

          Hah! Apparently you don’t know anything about me.

  • This is one of your most informative posts, Roger. Well done! It’s very diffi-“CULT” (pun intended) to convince someone who has been indoctrinated with weird spiritual teachings. Jesus understood the problem, saying, “I have many things to tell you, but you’re not able to bear them at this time.” However, there is assurance that truth will ultimately prevail over ALL error. As Jesus promised: “Howbeit when he, the ‘Spirit of truth’ is come, he will guide you into ALL truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you” (John 16:13-14 KJV). Let us always remember that Jesus loves dysfunctional people, too. He came into this world to straighten all of us out.

  • Jane Atkinson

    I grew up in the anthroposophical movement, which I’ve since left. One of the biggest issues for me was the fact that they do have a theology of Christ. It seemed at the time to be close enough to orthodoxy to be plausible and to justify the label of Christian. It would have been much easier for me to leave earlier if the whole thing were completely based on eastern spirituality. I was fortunate at the time that I was rethinking my theology to be surrounded by people who were willing to let me take my time. I think that an impatient apologetics-style response would have been counterproductive. Many people need time to deconstruct a complete world-view, especially if it involves reassessing a highly authoritative leader/prophet.

    I’d very much like to read your scholarly article on Rudolf Steiner’s esoteric Christianity. (Even-handed critiques of anthroposophy seem rather hard to find.) Where can I get a copy of your article? My searches and inquiries so far have drawn a blank.

    • rogereolson

      It was published in a journal called Syzygy. I don’t think it’s being published anymore. If you send me your address I’ll mail you a copy.

  • Rus Hooper

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I have a question though, in light of considering this post in the context of your other writings. In terms of the “centered set” approach you articulate in your writings, I believe this posting would mean there truly are certain “boundaries” to the centered set, rather than the “center without circumference” way of looking at the family of believers. Is that right? Or have I missed your point (re: Reformed and Always Reforming)?

    In my own wording for trying to describe the wideness of God’s mercy ecumenically, but also realizing there is a place beyond safety (beyond the boundaries), I have used three ideas: (1) faithfulness is for believers to move toward the Triune center (or Jesus and the gospel as you have stated), (2) imbalance is being off-centered in some direction from the Triune experience of God (without breaking the essentials of the faith, but differing over disputable matters) and (3) apostasy is standing separated or apart from the Triune center.

    Just as “cult” gets picked up and redefined, so the word “apostasy” has been mis-appropriated as well. But in terms of biblical theology and its use there, could it be rehabilitated in this discussion?

    Rus Hooper

    • rogereolson

      I thought I made clear in Reformed and Always Reforming that being “centered” does not mean a set is compatible with anything and everything. It recognizes the inevitable ambiguity in defining movements. It doesn’t mean “anything goes.” The center guides discernment.

  • William Huget

    Valid points. Just because cult can be pejorative or ‘born again’ cliche does not mean we have to abandon the terms, necessarily. We are to speak the truth in love. We are to defend and proclaim the gospel (Jude 3), have an apologetic bent with pseudo-Christian ‘cults’ (JW, Mormon, etc.). We should not be too euphemistic to avoid offense, nor should we put up unnecessary barriers.

  • “Once a student said he did not want to be in the same room with a wiccan; I permitted him to skip class that day (of course).”

    May I ask why you permitted him to skip that class? I would think that that would be what we in the education biz call a “teachable moment.” Was it really preferable for him to continue in his ignorance, rather than receive information from a presumably reliable source?

    • rogereolson

      For his conscience’s sake. As Christians we are encouraged by our Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians) to bend over backwards not to cause a “weaker brother” to experience offense by our liberty. He truly believed he might somehow be infected by an evil spirit by being in the same room with a wiccan. Also, given the denominational control of the college, forcing him to be in the room with a wiccan would have caused serious repercussions for my course if not for me. Let me ask you–would you allow a fundamentalist Christian to visit your coven?

      • Thank you for your reply. Perhaps I should correct one apparent misapprehension: I am not a Wiccan, but a Christian. I have been involved in inter-religious relations with the Pagan community for a number of years, and one group apparently has come to trust me enough that they made me one of the administrators of their website.

        Regarding your question: although I am, of course, not completely qualified to answer it, I can tell you that there are a number of covens that hold open rituals where all are welcome. As far as I know (and I could be corrected on this), all of the rituals of the Reclaiming Tradition, for example, are open to all who wish to attend. At what might be considered the other end of the spectrum, there are some traditions, such as Gardnerians, who don’t admit even Wiccans of other traditions to their rituals.

        As for the substance of your response, I understand your concern regarding potential issues with the university administration. I wonder, however, if your student is aware that he might have occasion to be in the same room with Wiccans more frequently than he realizes. Apart from their religion, they are (mostly) pretty much the same as anyone else. None of the ones whom I know wear Goth makeup, and few of them wear a pentacle. The server who waits on your student’s table, the doctor who administers his annual physical, the clerk at the bookstore in town–any of these could be a Wiccan. I would hope that courses such as yours, perhaps together with a bit of counseling, might perhaps serve to quiet his apprehensions.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, I told him all that (or told it to the whole class). But when he wanted to opt out that day I felt it was best to respect his conscience. He read the material (Ellwood’s Spiritual and Religious Groups in Modern America which covers neo-paganism and wicca).

  • Jack Harper

    Roger would you consider Calvinism cultic? The reason I ask,I was reading an article on Mark Hill, who is an evangelist and is very active in street ministry. He has become an outspoken Armenian and some Calvinist feel he is being divisive. What are your thought on were do we draw the line between heretical to aberrant?

    • rogereolson

      Of course I don’t consider Calvinism cultic. I can’t imagine what I’ve ever said here or elsewhere to give that impression. I don’t know anything about Mark Hill. And I doubt he has become an “outspoken Armenian!” 🙂 (Arminian, maybe?) Being “cultic” is much more than being divisive. I posted on “heresy” not long ago. Maybe reading that post would help.

  • rebecca w

    Thank you for this helpful article. I am curious as to how Zen Buddhism was equated with Wicca for example. (Equating as to world influence? numbers of adherents?) Did you include Hinduism? Islam etc.?

    I had a friend asking about this and so I wondered what your criteria was for a group to be non-traditional or alt-reality?

    • rogereolson

      Zen was in the book we read (Ellwood’s Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern Amerca) and definitely “alternative” in that particular religious ecology.

  • rebecca w

    Thank you, that helps. 🙂

  • John Osborn

    I also have a personal interest in this topic as a member of one of the churches (Seventh-day Adventist) that has at times been targeted by the evangelical cult apologists. I did a term paper once on the Evangelical-SDA conferences in which we convinced Walter Martin (who was working on a book about us if I recall correctly) and Donald Barnhouse that we were legitimately Christian. Our leaders who had represented the church in these meetings, put together a book addressing the questions that had been raised about our teaching called “Questions on Doctrine.” This book turned out to be quite controversial in our church, as some believed the leaders had compromised truth to curry favor with evangelical leaders. This was in the mid 1950s and I doubt most Adventists have even heard much about it these days, but some of the old-timers still see it as having been heretical and the point at which all things went downhill. While many were eager to be accepted as mainstream Christians, others wore the scorn of the broader Christianity community with pride and as a sign that we really had the truth. So there’s a bit on what the cult apologetics can look like from the inside of the movements targeted.

    I fully agree with you that the word “cult,” is no longer theologically useful an it troubles me that some people have not caught onto this fact. We should be able to differentiate having serious theological differences and even anti-Christian heresies, from being suicidal, homicidal, or enslaving people. As for what to call them, why not go with the old classic term “heretics?”

    I sympathize with the need to stand up and identify heresy, but it seems like the line is largely created by tradition. The Ecumenical Councils didn’t create the orthodox doctrines of Christology and the Trinity, but they did settle disputes regarding them, and if a group comes to the conclusion that the losing side of these disputes was actually the one interpreting Scripture correctly they are likely to be identified as a cult. I believe in the Trinity and the Divinity and humanity of Christ and so am in basic agreement with the orthodoxy of these creeds. However, it still seems a bit ironic to me that Protestantism has a history of telling people to read the Bible alone and for themselves (a cannon that itself was declared by a council at some point), but if they come to conclusions that differ too much from Catholic creeds then they’re heretic.

  • John A

    I was raised traditional Arminian non-denominational then set out in the world myself and joined or tried out many groups from Buddhism,to Baha’i, to Wiccan. Each of these groups rituals and practices are no more silly than Christian ones. The Wiccans laughed at Christians for their difference from Christ and say communion as similar to their rituals. The SGI Buddhist see Christians as misguided believing false dogma. The Baha’i were more Christlike than most Christians. To any group anything outside the group seems misguided and silly. From a neutral perspective all religions are equally silly.

    But I have found my way back to Christianity because of how Christ had a impact on the Baha’i teachings.The Gospels are quoted in many of their sacred texts. The Baha’i are more like Ebonite Christians than their original roots as a Babi sect.

    If it was not for the Christ like behavior of the Baha’i and reexamining Christ because of the gospels in their writings I would not have come back to Christianity. This is due to the mess I have seen in Christian groups I have been involved with.

    • rogereolson

      Welcome back. God moves in and through mysterious ways. Augustine finally came to be open to Christianity as a result of reading the “books of the Platonists” (neo-Platonism). All truth is God’s truth and God can work through anything; he’s not bound to human instruments he has not bound himself to.

      • John A

        Very true 🙂

  • Orthodoxy signifies not necessarily considering — not really wanting to think

    • rogereolson

      Not necessarily. Orthodoxy can be flexible, generous and self-critical.