What Makes a Religious Group a “Cult?” Part 1

What Makes a Religious Group a “Cult?” Part 1 May 13, 2019

What Makes a Religious Group a “Cult?” Part 1

One of the questions I am asked most often is whether a specific religious church is a cult. Most often the questioner is not satisfied with my answer. That’s because they want a simple “yes” or “no” and, is so often the case in matters religious (and other matters), there is usually no such simple answer. And a big part of that is the change in the meaning of the word “cult” in the past forty years—beginning especially with “Jonestown” in 1978.

I became obsessed with “cults” when I was in high school. I had heard about “cults” in church many times. Our church library, which I perused and borrowed from often, contained several books about cults. Back then, 1960s, for the most part, a cult was an extremely unorthodox form of Christianity. That is, a group that called itself Christian but was not really Christian—from the point of view of most traditional Christians.

One day, while perusing a used bookstore in town, especially its “Religion” section, I discovered a book about Christian Truth and Religious Delusions. In effect, the Lutheran author labeled my church, the whole Christian movement of which it was a part (viz., “Full Gospel”) a cult. I gradually became aware that many people in our small Midwestern city considered my church a cult—probably without being able to express exactly why. (It was Pentecostal-turned-charismatic-turned Jesus People church.) Most of the church-going people in our city were either Lutheran or Catholic. To them, I discovered, we were a “cult.”

The books in our church library, mostly standard books about “sects and cults,” tended to restrict that category (or those categories) to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists and Seventy Day Adventists. One book that I read in high school was The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin. Of course, that book included more than “the four major sects” mentioned above. I became intrigued by the subject of “cults” and made a major presentation in a high school class about the subject. (The class was about sociology and had a mini-course within it about religion.)

Then I came across another book in a Christian bookstore and heard the author speak. The book, which I bought and devoured, was The Marks of a Cult. I really wanted to know whether “my church”

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Now, bear with me as I step back and add a few factoids about my obsession with “cults.” I remember even as a kid in elementary school, fourth and fifth grade, being fascinated by a particular author and his books. Some of them were in our church library or in the pastor’s library (to which I had access as he was my father). The author in question was Marcus Bach—a professor of religion at The University of Iowa’s School of Religion. I discovered in him a kindred spirit in that both he and I were obsessed with little known religious groups (in America) like ours. The closest he came to writing out ours was a chapter in one book about Aimee Semple MacPherson and The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Our denomination was an offshoot of that and so I grew up hearing stories—both flattering and not very flattering—about “Sister Aimee.”

Again, even in fifth grade, I was devouring every book by Marcus Bach I could get my hands on. (Later, when I was in college, he came and spoke at a Unity church near the college and I attended and met him and we had a brief but fascinating conversation. I found him to be a very gentle and gracious man who was actually more interested in me and my denomination than in himself and his work. He was retired at that time.) Bach did not call any of the unusual sects he wrote about “cults.” He strictly avoided that word (so far as I can remember) which piqued my curiosity. So many others who wrote about the same kinds of churches and religious groups had no hesitation calling them “cults.”

One other thing I must mention here that helps explain my fascination, even obsession, with cults and unusual religious groups is this: As I was growing up I had an uncle who belonged to what my father and others called a cult. His two boys were near my age and I played with them at family reunions. I noticed one time that when the family prayed over a meal that uncle got up from the table and walked away. He came back when the prayer was ended. I asked my father about that and he explained that his brother belonged to a religious group that did not believing in praying with unbelievers—people who didn’t belong to their sect of Christianity. Then, at some point, my father labeled his brother’s group a cult. I once tried to ask my uncle about his religious faith and church (which met in his home) and he declined to discuss it with me. My father explained that this particular heterodox Christian group did not talk about their religious beliefs or practices with outsiders who were asking out of curiosity.

So my obsession with “cults” began very early—sparked by a book that more or less labeled the church I grew up in a cult (by implication if not using that exact label), given impetus by my uncle and cousins, set on fire (so to speak) by Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults, informed somewhat by the book The Marks of a Cult, and then…really deepened into my bones by encounters with “new religious movements” (the later proper term for cults used by scholars) that flooded the American scene in the 1970s.

During that decade, my eyes opened to the phenomenon of so-called “cults” and still extremely curious about the subject, I came into direct contact with several groups that I suspected were cults (by the definitions given by Martin and Breese and implied by Bach) that other people, Christians, seemed not to notice (at first)—except perhaps with some curiosity. Among them were emissaries from Korea selling flowers door-to-door and on street corners and talking about a Korean prophet who they considered the “Lord of the Second Advent.” Among them were young men wearing clerical garb (but too young to be priests) wandering the streets of downtown inviting mostly young people to come to their “house” to learn about the religious teachings of a San Francisco based prophet of the New Age. Among them were strange looking and acting young men and women wearing saffron colored robes dancing and chanting and handing out literature about a Hindu guru who they believed was in touch with the god Krishna. Among them were followers of an American Bible teacher who denied the deity of Christ and seemed to condone free sex among his followers. Among them were the devoted followers of a man who organized numerous converted “hippies” into communes and claimed to be a special prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ. He also seemed to condone if not encourage sex outside of marriage.

These and other groups “like them” were obviously, to me, the new crop of “cults” and I felt it my calling to study them and teach Christians to avoid them or at least be knowledgeable about them. One thing that sparked that “calling” in me was that I discovered many of this new “crop of cults” hid things about their religious beliefs and practices from outsiders and sometimes even from insiders! Some of them pretended to be orthodox (or at least “biblical”) Christians but held and taught beliefs that were anything but orthodox. And word began to leak out that some ex-members of some of these groups were claiming they had been “brainwashed” with tactics like “love bombing” and then abused by leaders or members of the group. Some of them talked about “escaping” the group and one man even offered his services to kidnap and “deprogram” young people who joined a “cult.”

There was no internet or world wide web at that time, so discovering dependable information about many of these “new cults” (or “new religious movements” as scholars preferred to call them) was not easy. Somehow, I don’t remember exactly how, I stumbled across the name of a man in the Chicago area who was known as an “expert” and even a “scholar” in this area. I quickly made contact with him and asked about the church of my uncle. He provided me with the first printed information about it and he and I kept up a correspondence about “cults and new religions” for several years. He was (and still is) a walking (and writing and speaking) encyclopedia of information about non-mainstream American religious groups and movements.

In 1978 I graduated from seminary—after trying my best to inform the ministers of the city about that new religious group whose local leaders wore clerical garb and believed in reincarnation but claimed to be orthodox Christians—and moved to one of America’s largest cities to pursue doctoral work in religious studies at a nationally recognized research university.

Around that time I began to worry that I might have grown up in a cult. Well, it was perfectly orthodox in doctrines, but in practice “loyalty”—to the group—was strongly expected of members and any questioning of leaders was quickly labeled “disloyalty” or “being negative” which meant exclusion from the group (or at least marginalizing that I call “inside shunning”). I found that during my college career I had asked too many and the wrong questions and was labeled “disloyal” and virtually excluded from any chance of ever pastoring a church within the denomination. The board of the college even considered refusing to grant me my earned degree because of my “harassment” of teachers and administrators with questions. (As it turned out, some of the teachers and administrators were of extremely dubious character or extremely unqualified to teach!) I think the board could not decline to grant me my earned degree because my uncle was president of the denomination.

I cannot say that the denomination or churches I grew up in were/are cults, but I do believe the college I attended had several marks of cults—the main one being arbitrary and authoritarian religious leadership and practice of spiritual abuse toward students who dared to ask unwelcome questions.

When I found myself firmly settled into my new place—away from the denomination of my birth and childhood and youth—I began seriously to consider the possibility that, in some ways, I had been brainwashed. Not by “love bombing” or sleep deprivation or any of the tactics so many anti-cult experts talk about but by spiritual abuse that shut down any questioning. I was always an “inquiring mind” and could not help asking questions when I saw or heard things that didn’t seem right. The common response was shaming and marginalizing. I tried conforming but was simply unable to accomplish it. I saw and heard and knew things that were wrong and couldn’t help pointing them out.

One of my first assignments as a first year doctoral student in religious studies at a major secular research university was to teach an undergraduate course called “Deity, Mysticism, and the Occult.” I jumped at the chance and dived eagerly into it. That was just the opportunity I had been looking for.

Next up—my experiences of “cults and new religions” during the late 1970s and early 1980s and how I became an “expert” on cults and new religions, at least locally, throughout the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

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