Why We Sometimes Need to Say “Cult”

After my post on Monday went a little bit viral, I received quite a bit of feedback along the lines of, “Be careful about using the ‘cult’ word – that’s a big accusation.”

And I get it. Those outside the church who have interest in dogging the church have been prone to promiscuously throw “cult” at any expression they don’t particularly like or understand. If it’s a new church that looks or feels different from traditional churches – cult! If people meet in a home instead of a historic church building – cult! If folks seem to be super-dedicated to their faith and their church, to the point that they sacrifice other things to be a part of it – cult! If there’s a charismatic leader - cult! Heck, if there’s any kind of leadership structure or hierarchy at all – cult, cult, cult!

And, like playing the Hitler card in a political discussion, the cult card shuts down the conversation fast.

But here’s the thing. I’m convinced we are living in a time of reformation in the Western church, and abuses that have plagued segments of the church are being exposed en masse for the sake of greater health, justice, and renewal going forward. (Note: this is precisely what occurred in the Protestant Reformation, catalyzed by the democratizing information advance of the printing press; could the democratizing information advance of the Internet be the catalyst this time?) Perhaps conservative evangelicalism in particular is experiencing significant “eruptions of the Real”, and certain ideologies and hypocrisies are increasingly unable to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Perhaps – and there are plenty of people who will dismiss this – there is a growing prophetic corrective making it very difficult for blatant arrogance, excess, inequality, and abuse to persist.

To be clear, it was not my intention on Monday to say that Steven Furtick is leading a cult. However, it was my intention to point out a trajectory or trend towards that status because of certain cultish factors that are emerging. But that begs the question: When is it ok to use the “cult” word? Is it ever ok, or is that a critique too harsh for Christians to levy against other Christians? Two factors will help us to answer that question:

1) Evidence. The fact is, the biblical prophetic tradition is replete with confronting arrogance, excess, inequality, and abuse (all as proofs of wayward religion and idolatry) in a strong and fearless manner – all happening within the community of faith, i.e., from “believers” to other “believers.” But one important element in partaking in that tradition is a proficient grasp on the evidence available. For me, what qualifies a prophetic voice is deep, personal, firsthand experience in the types of errant movements and churches that are being critiqued, as part of a deep calling from God to bring that critique based on the evidence. If the evidence is there, the “cult” word can be a prophetic word.

2) Faith, Hope, and Love. While it is a popular trope (especially among the new prosperity preacher-boy club) to call all critics “haters” and accuse them of being “unloving” or “cynics” or “cowardly bloggers” (a jab usually lobbed on Twitter via said preacher-boy’s smart phone), faith, hope, and love are necessary factors in speaking with a true prophetic voice. None of these require that a weak or hedging tone be used (because the prophets, and Jesus, never did), but rather that the motive is the faithful correction of the church, hope in the potential future of the church, and love for those deceived and victimized as well as any deceptive leader (that he might be rehabilitated and rescued from his own path). Where faith, hope, and love for the church exist, pointing out cultish trajectories or a full cult status is a true prophetic act. Where those things don’t exist, it becomes a cynical and cold accusation.

I’m sure there’s more to say on this, but I wanted to get this out there in regards to my recent writing. And let me say that there are some clear cult exposures taking place right now: Sovereign Grace Ministries, Bill Gothard’s ministry/movement, and the International House of Prayer, to name a few. To suggest that the new prosperity preachers and the mega-churches they pastor may be in the midst of cultish drift is not a stretch, as there are elements in common with these more obvious cult examples.

And, the goal in saying so is rescue, reformation, and renewal in the church.

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is an Author, Preacher, and Content Creator who writes and curates here at The Apocalypse Review. You can also catch him at his author blog, zhoag.com.

  • Al Cruise

    I think for the mega-church/ prosperity types, the word “business” may be a better fit. Western style free market capitalism, makes more sense, complete with the leader in positional power, a marketing dept. that sells itself by appealing to the human senses. They are clearly nominal Christians [in name only] . I understand what your saying, but I see a cults main purpose is to gain total control over people’s souls, many cult’s have had little in the way of financial resources or public acceptance. Often after reaching a certain size, they will resist further growth, satisfied with controlling those they have. The mega/church wants control over your wallet, and to look like and be accepted like, the affluent secular businesses of the world, like a Las Vegas casino or a modern vacation resort. There definitely are some overlaps though. One other major difference is leaving a cult is usually non-negotiable, when one leaves a mega/church the only contact that takes place from them are letters asking for continued financial support.

  • Rusty Leonard

    Zack – can you send me links/info about IHOP being a cult? Rleonard@stewardshippartners.com

  • Agni Ashwin

    Its cultishness is evident, once you compare your experience at an IHOP with your experience at a Waffle House. It’s like comparing night and day.

  • BW

    I was wondering why you threw IHOP into the parting short list of cults? After reading your caveats about when to label people, it seems they would have to have some major doctrinal heresies to wind up on your short list. Have you reached out to them or the other two cults, or even the mega churches you deride so that you are not a hypocrite when you say the reason for listing them is to restore them?

  • Agni Ashwin

    I think he’s using sociological, not doctrinal, criteria for determining culticism.

  • Al Cruise

    I concur.

  • Darren Beem

    The word “cult” is incredibly loaded for me, in part, because I spent a good part of my life at a church that, if it was not a “cult”, was extremely “cult-like.”

    I think you’re right that this word can be used prophetically, and it can be used with faith, love and hope. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced this word more in the context of hurt. As such, I’m somewhat ambivalent about it.

    I’ve sometimes wondered, “Maybe, if I was more spiritual, or courageous, I could have done things differently. Maybe I could have helped other people.” Yeah, I could be prophetic and try to fight the battle in love, but as someone who has been there, I’ve realized that sometimes it’s better to walk away. This might not make any sense to some people, but until you’ve been there, it’s hard to understand.

  • Daniel Gingerich

    This is America. Just choose a different friggin word. Colt will do it. “That church is horsing around with clean women making their men dirty.” As for me and my house, we will continue to tell it like it is. If it looks like a cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult. Whine whine whine. Politically correct America needs to grow some real balls. So far they’re all soft and fake. So called churches are abusing their members because of this lame bulls hit. Everywhere I look. There is nothing but mushy brain mass that can’t see anything.

  • Daniel Gingerich

    IHOP and Waffle House are definitely cults. Ha!!!! Coke will definitely make that list. Coke is protecting that cult for almost a century. This is the most childish crap I’ve seen.

  • Daniel Gingerich

    Most churches have cultish characteristics. But food shops. Lmao

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I hear you.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Hey Rusty, if I have the time I will. In the meantime, search around – there’s a ton of stuff circulating right now to that effect. I also have personal experience in the movement that has me convinced.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    BW (if that’s your real name), I have no power to singlehandedly “restore” a giant conglomerate like IHOP. I can add my voice, however, and that’s what I’ve done. And trust me, there is PLENTY of sociological and doctrinal evidence that leads me to this conclusion. But that’s for another time.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    are you drunk?

  • http://www.kenranderson.com/ Ken R. Anderson

    IHOP, seriously? With their strong emphasis on prayer, holy living, the teaching of the Word of God in depth, and servant leadership? I don’t think so.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    yes, seriously.

  • http://www.kenranderson.com/ Ken R. Anderson

    Curious as to why. I have never been there but know people who have. They came back with good reports and lives impacted. And they reported on Mike Bickle’s humility.

  • BW

    zhoag (if that’s YOUR real name), I’ve looked at the doctrine of all three “cults” you listed and they seem pretty Biblical. I’m open minded to hear if you have some firsthand knowledge of cult practices. If you have reached out DIRECTLY to Bill Gothard, Bickle or one of the IHOP leaders, or Sovereign Grace Ministries, let me know. That would show faith, hope (of their restoration), and love for these sincere believers. Otherwise, if “adding your voice” means merely writing these blogs, it would seem you’re guilty of lobbing a “cynical and cold accusation.”

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    My name is Zach J. Hoag, and it’s plastered all over this blog. Anonymous commenting is an interesting enterprise. That said, you just called Bill Gothard a “sincere believer” which I think means this conversation is done. Thanks.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    there’s a lot circulating right now to reinforce this – a google search would get you to most of it. however, i have firsthand experience in the movement as well. it’s a sum total kind of perspective. i may write more soon, but can’t go into depth here.

  • BW

    1. I was joking about your name since I had no idea why you questioned mine. I was not trying to be “anonymous;” I simply didn’t bother to fill out the Disqus profile. My actual initials are BW, but sorry my joke didn’t translate. 2. I did not intend to specifically endorse Bill Gothard; I didn’t realize he had a scandal at the time I posted and in fact never heard of him before your essay. I simply said that I looked at his and the others’ statements of faith and found no glaring heresy. What I meant by “sincere believers” are the thousands of people who follow ATI, IBLP, IHOP and Sovereign Grace Ministries. Most likely, they, like most Christians, are sincere and do not believe themselves to be in a cult. They are not actively deceiving anyone to gain and control members. Those thousands are the ones you should care to “redeem” out of their respective groups rather than just labeling them as cult members. 3. I was hurt by your curt dismissal of myself based on a misunderstanding. You were judgmental and rude, but I still hope this is in fact NOT the end of the conversation. 4. You still never answered my question. Have you or have you not addressed anyone directly? Have you prejudged these so-called cultists and believe they wouldn’t reason with you? Maybe the head director of a large ministry would be hard to reach, but surely there are others leaders with whom you could share legitimate concerns.

  • Y. A. Warren

    There seems to be no consensus on the correct definition of the term “cult.” I tend to view all social movements that require suspension of intellectual judgement and acceptance of “group-think” as cults.

  • canadian789

    Very simply; a cult is when family member who are in one, stops taking to family members. Period.

  • cken

    Perhaps a cult is as the Apostle Paul warned when you are following a person other than or rather than Jesus. However when Christianity first started it was considered a cult, and that is true of most religions. Perhaps a cult is simply a variation beyond what is accepted as the norm. The more rigid definition may be a theosophical/religious organization from which you aren’t allowed to leave without fear of serious retribution both physical and mental. Ever notice how those who say they escaped a cult never mention the name of the “cult”.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Oh, well, people write stuff on the Internet. Gotta be true.

    I have no opinion on the individual or church in question. I just grow weary of the idea that adverse comments by the disaffected add up to evidence of anything. There are always two sides to the story.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Don’t forget Apple electronics. THOSE people are crazy!

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I’ve posted a few comments that were sort of lighthearted, but I’ll offer something serious too. The term “cult” carries so much connotational baggage that it really ought to be avoided in discourse across doctrinal or denominational lines, so that legitimate criticism doesn’t become lost amidst name-calling. The article posits some possibly necessary characteristics for a minister to have if he (or she? – different topic, I guess) is to speak with “a true prophetic voice.” But why is Rev. Hoag’s idea of the minimum requirements for a prophet better than anyone else’s, and is there any other way to look at that issue? Protestants have a tough time answering questions like that because they have long since done away with the idea of prophetic or priesthood authority; “sola scriptura,” as a practical matter, is a recipe for doctrinal and ecclesiastical incoherence. Ephesians 4 explains that prophets, apostles and other priesthood offices are spiritual gifts or callings that are bestowed by Jesus Christ, with the purpose of achieving unity of the faith. The splintered world of Protestantism moves in the opposite direction, as every pastor of every church feels at liberty (after consulting his principal donors anyway) to preach almost anything he likes.

  • Matt Moran

    The only definition for “cult” is a minority religion. Most widespread sects were at one time or another (or still) called cults. Or you could say all religions are cults in that they believe in things that cannot be demonstrated and have practices that are ritualistic.

  • Joe

    With ya trytoseeitmyway. Lots of slander swirling around with the truth. Sifting it is hard, rendering blanket judgments easy. Constructive criticism for the purpose of remodeling is hard, demolition easy. IHOP, Elevation Church, Gotthard, and your particular charismatic upbringing, zach (mine too FTR), definitely emphasize and underline authority. This is a complicated phenomenon that is both a reaction (bad) and a counterpoint (good) to the rampant anti-authoritarianism and almost complete lack of respect for any authority figures, except notionally where ladder climbing demands a facade of deference.

    Each of these movements have some theology that is questionable when held against the millenia stream of traditional Christian orthodoxy. But what animates each of these movements, so far, more so conforms to this orthodoxy than diverges. The real distinctive of these movements, unnerving for many critics, is the cultural difference, the differences in way of life, shared jargon, sense of humor, posture of worship, exegetical perspective.

    Back to authority, castigating these movements for overemphasis on authority, and bandying the word cult around, is rather low hanging fruit. When you go there, you immediately have the sympathies of our all pervasive anti-authoritarian zeitgeist. Scripturally, do they transgress boundaries of spiritual direction reserved for the individual conscience and the Holy Spirit? Maybe–probably in some way. But do they also recapture a Scriptural vision for the true respect that the Bible asks to be given to their elders? More importantly, do they revitalize the idea of discipleship? Churches today pander shamelessly through every marketing trick in the book, trying to buy people through the front doors with perks. People are free to rootlessly migrate. This engenders pervasive superficiality and weak faith in the pandering and the cosumption. If any person is actually confronted with their sin–let me backup–made to feel at all uncomfortable, they are free to bail out instantly. A concept of authority, where the church asks for a kind of Scriptural loyalty that would survive confrontation with its own sin, in the flesh, face to face by a pastor or elder or –saints forbid!– small group leader who actually knows something about your life and is willing to call you on the carpet, only survives, and only imperfectly as you know, in these kind of movements.

    When you rail against these movements, you throw away something our culture needs more than ever, and carelessly pander to the zeitgeist all at once. In the future maybe, get out the scalpel, seek to carefully cut away the unhealthy reactive accretion (yes those 4 references to the lead pastor (where is Jesus?) are messed up–but do not necessarily call into question the top to bottom validity of elevation) and to affirm, support and build up all that you recognize as healthy tissue the stuff within the purview of traditionally orthodox Christianity, even if it is something you would disagree with. The question of how authority functions in church, aside from the formalized abstract (still good) discussions of polity, are much neglected and (because of that?) much mishandled in churches today. How to have authority function much more Scripturally, a function that deserves the name discipleship, but has very visible strong boundaries to guard from cult characterstics is an open question. Still, I respect the above movements for bringing it to bear. They took the counter-cultural road and too often pay for it unnecessarily because of careless accusations that tickle the ears of culture.

    Lastly, you live in Vermont. As a fellow New Englander, I know that you know first hand the tide of popular secularism you are up against. Leveling very generalized, lightly researched, barbs against conservative Christians plays right into the hands of this tide. Better we eat our own than emphasize unity with constructive criticism as a witness to unbelievers. Better we focus our attention and energy on deconstructing variant cultural flavors of our own Christianity, than work at the more-rapidly-changing-than-ever, task of cultural exegesis and contexualization with the goal of bringing the Gospel to bear on the current flavors of unbelief. Please don’t invest too much more energy in demolition, seductive as its boost to self estimation is. Your clearly capable efforts could be used to build, to offer remodeling tips, and mostly to stay local, to work to contextualize the Gospel for Burlington. If modern psychology has taught us anything, it is that over-reaction to an upbringing is dime a dozen and often doesn’t have much to do with the merits of that upbringing or with those of the new identity. Maybe you can take a second look at the good in your upbringing, sift and burn the bad, and seek to uproot any bitterness that motivates your criticisms.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Really Matt? Maybe in an academic or scholarly sense, but not in the common psychological or legal sense. Here’s a decent resource: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703529004576160363526909654

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Joe, you are certainly eloquent (and verbose) here, but you’re making just as many judgments and assumptions (primarily about me) as you claim I’m making about Furtick. As a fellow New Englander I disagree with your perspective on New England. And I disagree with your perspective on what constitutes a concern for and defense of unity. And I disagree with your desire to confuse critique (even strong critique) or the suggestion of cultish activity with “anti-authoritarianism” – and then demonize it all as “the zeitgeist.” Finally, it is precisely because of my authentic relationships with the “unbelieving secularists” you categorize in your comment that I care about the frighteningly unchristian behavior of people like Furtick and others within the Celebrity Christianity trend. Once such close friend recently confided in me that such leaders and such churches are exactly why she could never feel safe becoming a Christian or being part of a church. If that’s not reason to speak up – loudly and clearly, without all the mud you are putting in the water – then I don’t know what is.

    Oh, and in the future, save your faux-psychoanalysis of the author – and stick to the content of his argument.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Hey! I’ve got an idea. If you’re soooooo weary of it – stop commenting!

  • Matt Moran

    The resource you link states that cults have financial control and extremist leadership. It also states that religions should be easy to enter and exit and doing so should not cause undo hardship (unlike a cult). Unforuntately, many mainstream religions share those characteristics to one degree or another. Many Christian and other groups require a percentage of one’s income go to the religious organization (tithing) with the threat of public shame if you do not. I am not sure what extremist leadership means, or where to draw the line, but Jesus was certainly described as an extremist leader at the time of his life, as was Smith, Muhammad, Confucius, etc. Just pick your leader. Today extremist is tomorrow’s mainstream hero. The author also states that a religion must be easy to enter and exit. How many Christian groups practice shunning? I have known families from mainstream Christian sects to disown their children because they chose a religion different from their parents, or no religion at all. Losing your family is certainly a great deal of hardship. I have found that those willing to through around the cult label usually need some serious evaluation of their own beliefs.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Matt, I’m not sure what your motive is for casting all religions as cults in some form or another, but as a survivor of a cult and a member of a church that is not a cult, your point rings quite hollow. I’m sure other survivors would agree. Peace.

  • Matt Moran

    My motive is to point out that “cult” is an almost undefinable word. Typically it has been used to disparage religions that a mainstream religion does not like. After all, many Protestants call the Catholich Church a cult. My point is that most religions share some common features like charismatic leaders, control of one’s behavior, and ritualistic requirements that are often use to define what a cult is. A better discussion would be weather a group helps promote a healthy, rewarding, and meaningful life to its group members and others. It is not clear that religion passes that test.

  • houstonschic

    Mr. Hoag, have you heard the term TACO? For “totalist abberant christian organozation?” It defines a church that, on paper, practices orthodoxy. However, in their day to day interactions with the flock, they “interpret” orthodoxy in controlling, restrictive, intrusive, and non-biblical ways. I totally agree that ANY church who puts this kind of emphasis on a single person is headed down the cultic pathway. The “TACO” term may be a good interim definition for that. Google it for some more accurate, less-sleepy explanations. :).


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