The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jul 28, 2018

What, then, is a "Cult"?

This coming week I have the privilege of attending and presenting a paper at the "Bible Faculty Summit," which consists of self-identifying Christian Fundamentalists (broadly defined). We represent a wide array of schools including my own Baptist College of Ministry, Bob Jones University (which is technically nondenominational, and this year's host), Maranatha Baptist University, various independent Baptist schools (though radical [emphasis on "radical"] KJV-only types are not attracted to our Summit), and even one Methodist school in Ohio.

It occurred to me, while perusing theological blogs, that many people misuse both the term "fundamentalist" and "cult." Those that may have once attended a fundamentalist church (or gone to a fundamentalist school) may have reacted strongly against it and labeled it a "cult." Conversely, many people think that fundamentalist Christians are somehow the evangelical counterpart to ISIS, minus the suicide bombers. Recently I saw a comment on a well-known theologians' blog suggest that fundamentalists are not even real Christians (ironically, the comment itself imitates some of the very people it tries to attack!). Elsewhere online I've seen the suggestion that fundamentalists are miserable, joyless people (all because a young child tried to offer this particular person a Gospel tract!).

An extremely important axiom exists in scholarly circles: "Always describe somebody's position in such a way that, if they heard you describe it, they would agree that you have understood it properly." I believe this resonates strongly with NT teaching which warns against slander (Gr. blasphemeō), e.g., Titus 3:2 (not to mention one of the 10 commandments!). 

Consequently, when critiquing fundamentalism, one should make sure they can define it properly and represent its views in such a way that a reasonable fundamentalist would agree they "get it." When accusing somebody (a church or a school) of being a cult or "cult-like," one must be able to give a definition of this and offer verifiable proof ("before 2 or three witnesses . . .") This is something of a personable matter, since my own church has been accused of this by the disgruntled; we are talking about the internet, of course, where everybody can be accused of anything—I'm sure somewhere online Mr. Rodgers has been accused of being the antichrist! (and, in all fairness, fundamentalists of quite a different stripe than myself often, on their websites, basically declare with vitriol that  Brooke Westcott was the reincarnation of Attila the Hun and responsible for more damage done to the church than anybody since the Emperor Diocletion.

This post I will be focusing on the definition of "cult" and its misuse. Next post I will do the same for "fundamentalism."

What, then, is a "cult"? (Yes, there is a point to this post and I'm getting to it!) First, notwithstanding the many disgruntled people who leave fundamentalist churches and immediately start venting online, let me suggest what a cult is not.

1. "Strong leadership" does not make a church a cult. 
Let me repeat: simply because a pastor has a lot of responsibility and a lot of influence and generally runs the show does not make his church a "cult." We are not talking about radical authoritarianism here, where any dissenting note in a business meeting results in somebody being kicked out of the church. However, simply because "the buck stops here" accurately describes the head pastor of a church, that does not make him a cult leader--at least not until he starts making the congregation drink cool-aid or keeps referring to the "Mothership" that will come to pick them all up right after the next blood moon eclipse.

I acknowledge that much debate exists about church structure and hierarchy, or even about how much authority a pastor may have. This is not the place to get into that here. I do believe in a form of congregational government, but I also believe that pastors are by their very nature leaders (though as Jesus taught, servant-leaders), and leaders make decisions, and sometimes those decisions will not be popular with everybody. One may disagree with decisions made, but this does not make your church a "cult."

Now, I am not saying that there have never been Christian leaders (both fundamentalist and broader evangelical) who were "cult-like." One pastor (years dead) once attempted to have the missionaries his church supported sign what was essentially a "pledge of loyalty" to him and his ministry. To his eternal credit, my father refused to sign. (This particular pastor also, right after my father had finished preaching at his church, told my father, "Now you're going to hear some real preaching").  However, I suspect this is not limited to fundamentalism, anyways. My point is: a pastor who wields a lot of authority is not necessarily cult-like, until it gets to the point where he has the power to physically prevent people from leaving.

2. Stricter standards do not make a church a cult.
Once again, I do not deny that legalism can be in issue in some fundamentalist churches (as Jesus defined it in Matthew 15:9b). Yet simply because a church has certain requirements for ministry (i.e., every preacher wearing a tie) does not make it a cult (otherwise the Apostle Paul was a cult leader! See 1 Corinthians 11:4-5). Everybody has standards of some kind, and your standards will always be both stricter and less strict than somebody else's. Now, how those standards are enforced may or may not be "cultic," but that's a different matter altogether.

Consider the Didache, one of the earliest non-canonical church documents and very influential in the early church. In chapter 7, this document states, "But before the baptism, let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before." (Trans. M. B. Riddle).

Wow! Fasting for one or two days! What a strict standard! But, does this make the authors of the Didache cultists? Hardly.

Now on to an actual definition (albeit one that could be improved on, I believe). Here's a good place to start:
 = "A relatively small, often transitory religious group that commonly follows a radical leader. A cult, unlike a "sect," espouses radically new religious beliefs and practices that are frequently seen as threatening the basic values and cultural norms of society at large. . . . The three dynamics of a cult are sociological, psychological (behavioral), and theological." s.v. "Cult," page 86 in Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult, ed. George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993). [I hasten to add: every church will have its own theological quirks; what we're talking about with "radically new religious beliefs" are those that, essentially, originate with the group itself].

Let’s focus on that phrase “radical leader.” This is not simply “that pastor” that you don’t like because he turned down your idea for a Cappuccino Bar in the foyer, or because you don’t always agree with his preaching, or because things generally get done his way. Rather, the key word is “narcissism.” Former FBI agent Joe Navarro, in a fascinating study for Psychology Today, has examined famous (and diabolical) cult leaders such as Marshall Heff Applewhit, David Koresh, etc. He states, “They were or are all pathologically narcissistic. They all have had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. The demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged.”

This is a helpful summary, and I suggest it is radically different from what most people have really experienced in a church when they refer to a church as “cultic.” Once again, this is not to deny that there are “bad apples” out there. My point is simply that words like “cult” and “cultic” are thrown around too carelessly simply because somebody has had a bad experience.

I am grateful that in all three fundamentalist, independent Baptist churches I have been a member of in the US, the leadership has always exhibited humility and kindness, two features which you will not find in a cult leader. This does not mean that no Baptist preacher has ever exhibited "cult-like" tendencies; my point is simply that those venting on the internet need to be more careful with terminology; simply because you had a bad experience (by your definition) at a church does not make it a cult. Finally, to those who are always looking for an excuse to jump on the bandwagon and call another church a "cult" (if it does not meet whatever theological-ecclesiological criteria you have, which of course is the standard for all of Christianity [note: that's sarcasm]), remember, there's always another side to the story.

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