Let’s Talk about Cults—Theologically
The word “cult” has been stretched to the breaking point. Today, many people label any group a “cult” if they think it is strange. It may be religious or no-religious; either way it is a “cult” if it appears to them “weird.” This is the pedestrian notion of “cult.” On the other hand, religious scholars who study “new and alternative religions” are very reluctant to label any group a cult because of the extremely pejorative connotations of the term. And some religious groups (possibly also some non-religious ones) keep lawyers on retaining to sue anyone who publicly calls them a cult!
It was not always so. Let me go back and talk about the evolution of the word “cult.”
The word itself is neutral and simply means any ritual adoration or celebration of a god or gods or something or someone sacred. In that original sense of the word, the “dictionary meaning,” every religion “has cult” or “practices cult” or “has a cult.” A high church liturgy, for example, can be called “cult.” But, of course, almost no “person in the street” knows that meaning of the word.
When I was a kid, growing up in an intense religious group in Middle America, I knew that some people considered us a cult and that was bad. After all, nobody thinks they belong to a cult. That’s the first thing I tell students about cults. We, the church I grew up in, learned about so-called cults and we were not among them. Cults were those other religious groups that were strange to us. Usually, the label “cult” was then attached to some religious group that was perceived to hold heretical beliefs and/or engage in deceptive and/or abusive practices.
One of the first major book about cults—from a conservative Christian perspective—was The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin and I devoured it when I was in high school—hoping not to find our church there! That book has gone through several revisions since its original publication in 1965. All of them have covered a lot of “ground”—sweeping up into the category of “cult” numerous religious groups considered by Martin and his successors heretical and/or deceptive and/or abusive.
Another book written around the same time as The Kingdom of the Cults was The Four Major Cults by Anthony Hoekema of Calvin College and Seminary. Hoekema focused on only four that he considered pseudo-Christian religious organizations.
My point is that, during the 1950s through the 1970s most of the attention to “cults” was by Christian theologians and focused on the groups’ religious beliefs and practices which were considered pseudo-Christian.
Then came the bombshell of Jonestown and then the second bombshell of the Branch Davidians. In between and afterwards, several religious groups committed mass suicides. During the 1970s and 1980s attention to “cults” spread beyond Christian anti-cult theologians to all kinds of people. Psychologists chimed in with their marks of cults. Sociologists of religion chimed in with their marks of cults. Much of the attention to “the new cults” of the 1980s and 1990s focused on violence or potential violence, “brainwashing,” conflict with the dominant culture, etc. Theology began to fade into the background except among fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians who continued to churn out books and magazines and newsletters warning Christians against the “pseudo-Christian” and non-Christian cults. If a group was non-Christian, what made them a cult (to fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals) was (and is) their intense recruiting techniques.
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Attention to cults had died down in the last two decades. It seemed that nothing could “top” the Branch Davidian followers of David Koresh. And for the past two decades there have been very few major tragedies or scandals involving cults. Which is not to say cults don’t still exist. But which organizations are really cults? What one deserve that label?
Allow me to lay my credentials on the table. I have taught courses on “Deity, Mysticism, and the Occult” and “America’s Cults and New Religions” (“unsafe sects”) at major universities and I have spoken to numerous church groups about the subject. I have written on the subject and had several scholarly articles published in edited books and journals. Still, one of the hardest things to do is define “cult.” It’s tempting to say I can’t define the term but I know a cult when I see one!
I haven’t given up the word altogether, but I use it with extreme caution. I have no qualm about labeling The People’s Temple under Jim Jones a cult. I have no trouble labeling The Branch Davidian sect under David Koresh a cult. So with the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate and other groups that committed mass suicide or practiced violence in the name of God, etc. But after them, things get, well, grey.
One of my favorite ways of handling this “greyness” is to use a kind of “sliding scale” about cults—saying that a particular religious group is “more or less cultic” or “has cultic features.” As a theologian I still bring theology into it, but rarely do I call a group a cult solely because it is unorthodox doctrinally. There I prefer a label like “aberrant Christian group” or “heterodox Christian group.” And that is usually because of its view of Jesus Christ; to me Christology is the center and heart of Christianity—doctrinally.
Years ago I thought up a great book title: “Unsafe Sects.” The book never got written and probably will never be written. But the phrase served me well in advertising my elective course “America’s Cults and New Religions” to college students. But not all cults are unsafe—except to people’s spiritual health and well-being. But so are some orthodox Christian groups—detrimental to people’s spiritual health and well-being.
If you ask me if a group is a cult (don’t), I will probably say something like “I believe it has cultic features.” I certainly can think of two or three or four that I would not hesitate to label cults privately, not publicly. What are “cultic features?” Among them are: over emphasis on a religious personality as a messianic figure—one who does not deserve that status. Elevation of a particular heterodox doctrine to the status of an essential of true, authentic Christianity. Rejection of all but its own members as truly Christian or truly saved. (Remember, here I am talking about particular religious organizations, not world religions!) False promises made to potential members to recruit them and keep them. “Brainwashing” techniques used to keep members inside the group of subservient to the leaders. Use of spiritual abuse for the same purpose.
I could go on, but I want to end with my main point. A church or other religious organization may look perfectly normal on the “outside” and to visitors and even new joiners and yet be a cult. Sometimes it takes years to discover that you belong to a cult. I cannot begin to tell you how many people I have known who joined a church or other religious organization, believed it was good and right, and devoted themselves to it, and then discovered that when they pointed out a serious moral or ethical or doctrinal failing among the leaders was shamed if not shunned—merely for asking the wrong kind of question. It may not be a cult, but it has cultic features—especially “spiritual abuse.” The classic book on spiritual abuse is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. Spiritual abuse is a cultic feature even within an orthodox, even evangelical Christian church or organization. Read the book. It’s about the use of shame to control people. It is one of the most important books I ever read. It gave me a name for something I had experienced during my college years and that I saw being practiced on people at a major Christian university.
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