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.
P.S. The image is from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, one of my all-time favorite films with a timeless performance from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, of course, played the part of a cult leader). I will be writing a piece for A Deeper Story soon on the way this movie changed my life by revealing the true nature of the cultish churches and family of my youth. I’ll let you know here when the piece is published.