I had the immense privilege this past semester of taking Historical Theology II with Dr. John Hannah. One day, we had a discussion about classic American cults and he talked about common distinguishing factors of these cults of which five major themes were identified.
Now I am not sure anyone reading this would voluntarily enter a cult. If there is an advertisement hung over a building or there were pamphlets distributed that were labeled “cult”, we would probably run as well as if the elements listed below were glaringly obvious. However, one of the deceptive tricks of cults is to gain members by promoting something attractive that will respond to the desires, wants, and lack that individuals experience.
What I found fascinating is that these elements can (and sadly do) exist in some evangelical churches. No, not in full bloom that would label the ministry a cult – there are still beliefs founded on the work and person of Christ. But there are symptoms, I believe, that can create a cult-like ministry. So here are the five points that were raised in our notes and class discussion that I think make a compelling case for cult-like influences, or even worse, may point to the very existence of a “church” being a cult.
1) Time Factor – teaches new ideas: major cults have developed new ideas about what Christianity is that deviates substantially from the historic understanding of the faith of “what has been believed always, everywhere and by all”. Christianity has existed for over 2,000 years. It is founded on the work and person of Christ, and we have his written revelation that provides the foundation according to the apostolic witness. While understanding of that revelation has certainly grown and developed, the foundation has remained the same. The first four centuries experienced a refinement of definition of what exactly is Christianity through the ecumenical councils based on the apostolic witness transmitted through an oral tradition and sacred writings. What is interesting, is that this refining process was a result of unique ideas that were confronting the church at that time.
In the quest for cultural relevance today, tenets of the Christian tradition can be ignored or rejected in favor new ideas about what Christianity is about. Some might go so far as to project error on the work and position of the councils or the process by which key doctrine was established. If church leaders reject that foundation as irrelevant in favor of new doctrines and interpretations, especially where they deviate from what has been handed down, this could be a warning sign.
2) Doctrine Factor – denies some essential of the faith: with cults, some element of the faith is majorly distorted or eliminated, such as sin, grace or Christ.
The cult-like ministry will probably not overtly present distortions. But little twists can be introduced that start to uproot the faith. I believe this is compatible with the time factor, that relies on new ideas and new “revelation” as the presentation of truth. One reason this could happen is by isolating certain passages, lifting them out of context and/or not correlating them to the unified message of scripture.
Doctrine is important. It is not some boring academic exercise but is a set of teachings about the tenets of the Christian faith. Some may even dismiss doctrine as irrelevant and this could be a warning sign. I love what Spurgeon says about this
Some say such and such doctrine need not be preached and need not be believed. If it need not be preached, it need not be revealed. You impune the wisdom of God when you say a doctrine is unnecessary. For you say that God would reveal something that is not necessary.
Moreover, if a ministry determines that essential Christian doctrine is not valid because of some new or unique interpretation, it could be a sign that the interpretation of scripture is askew. I think what is important to realize is that scripture serves as the foundation for all distorted doctrine but whose meaning has been subject to faulty hermeneutics. This makes a solid case for leaders to get properly trained in Bible study methods and hermeneutics, church history and even the original languages to understand what has been handed down based on the complete witness of scripture.
3) Leadership Factor – elevates leadership to the level of authoritative spokesman: Cult movements have risen on the backs of the leaders that have founded them. There is something special about the leadership that addresses the needs and desires of people. Typically, they possess a charismatic personality that facilitates persuasion. People will follow this person unquestioned.
I am not saying that just because a leader has a magnificent presence, they are automatically suspect. Rather, this kind of leadership demands unquestioned obedience. You must believe what this person says as the dispenser of truth. Questioning their authority would be like questioning the very authority of God.
The church receives gifted leaders for the equipping of the saints (Ephesians 4:11-14). Those leaders are to train others regarding their growth and participation in the body of Christ to create maturity. It is not for the sake of promoting the leader, but promoting Christ, as Paul indicates in Colossians 1:28 – “we proclaim him, teaching and admonishing every man, so that we may present every man complete in Christ”. A leader that is truly pointing others to Christ will get out of the way, so that others see Christ and not the leader. That will include teaching the flock to examine scripture for themselves, promoting love and unity among the body that will provoke a willingness to serve other. But if we are talking more about what the pastor said or any other leader that has put himself in an authoritative position, it could be because that leader has exalted their position and teaching over scripture.
4) Biblical Authority Factor – there is a need for additional authority outside of the Bible: usually this has come in the form of direct “revelation” from God that has elevated the leader. It is what I call the Jesus Plus authority, which requires some performance or obedience to a written or verbal code outside of scripture.
The cult-like ministry will tend to undermine the authority of scripture and may have a low view of scripture. This can be intrinsically linked to the leadership factor that makes obedience to the leader on par with obedience to scripture. There may be an insistence that the leaders’ interpretation of scripture is important, which also may be fueled with other requirements that he insists are needed. Because there are extra factors incorporated into the fabric of faith, the members’ faithfulness to the ministry may be contingent on performance and result in a legalistic and grace-less community. Members may get worn out trying to live up to all the standards set for obedience prescribed by the ministry.
By grace are we saved through faith in Christ; it is a free gift due to God’s rich mercies (Ephesians 2:4-9). Sanctification is orchestrated by God in response to him (Philippians 2:12-13) and we are warned in scripture to accomplish ministry through life in the Spirit as opposed to humanly motivated works (Galatians 3:1-5; Colossians 2:16-18). That does not negate our human responsibility but there should be a culture of grace and promotion of brotherly love that encourages support and trust in Christ.
5) Organization Factor – they are the only dispensers of truth. Cults make the claim that they have an exclusive claim on the truth. Cults will insist they everyone else has missed it. This is compatible with the leadership factor whereby the leader has been given some kind of special divine “revelation”.
The cult-like ministry may not be so direct as to proclaim it’s teaching as exclusively true, but it may elevate their teaching above others. There may even be comparison’s drawn to other churches or doctrines, with an emphasis on how good the ministry’s interpretation is and that no one understands “Christianity” better than this particular ministry.
The truth is, only God is truth and he has revealed his truth through scripture. His word is truth (John 17:17) but our capacity is fallible. I believe a pastor that seeks to dispense God’s truth should be on a continual learning path and utilize whatever tools are available to understand God’s word better. While there should be a confidence in scripture, there has to be the humility to recognize that interpretive errors can, and do, occur.
A big warning sign is when leaders insist that they be the only voice of reason and teaching and discourage instruction from other sources. In fact, I would say this is a huge red flag. Why? Because we learn in community and no one person has a corner on truth. I believe the pastor that is committed to seeing his flock grow in grace and the true knowledge of Christ will encourage instruction from other sources, including voices of the past. This is why commentaries and systematic works are so valuable.
In closing, I think the cult-like ministry may take various forms based on one or a combination of these five elements manifested in a range from the mild to the extreme. I am not sure that leaders even set out to establish cult-like ministries but can end up taking detours somewhere along the way that results in ministries with these symptoms. But it ends up having the same devastating impact, nonetheless. I thought this quote is very revealing of cultish lure in this regard,
But the more secretly they conceal themselves under shelter of the Divine Law, so much the more are they to be feared and guarded against. For they know that the evil stench of their doctrine will hardly find acceptance with any one if it be exhaled pure and simple. They sprinkle it over, therefore, with the perfume of heavenly language, in order that one who would be ready to despise human error, may hesitate to condemn divine words. They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison. (Vincent of Lérins, The Commonitory)