What is a Cult?

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Much controversy has arisen in recent years concerning “cults.” There has been much discussion attempting to clarify what a cult is and which groups are cults. These questions have become especially important in light of the loaded nature of the word “cult” and the suspicion that arises around any group labeled as such. Tragic events, such as those involving Jim Jones in Guyana, are often the first thing people think of when hearing “cult.” It is certainly true that there are a large number of organizations, both religious and non-religious, that are destructive cults. Unfortunately, it is also true that the term “cult” is liberally used by mainstream Christians to label any groups who disagree with their ideology and theology.

It is generally accepted that a cult is a group of people who unite around the charismatic leadership and ideology of a particular leader or group of leaders. Those leaders often manipulate people in the organization in order to achieve their desired results. A genuine cult characteristically holds that the ultimate vision of the organization justifies any action, even if it is unethical. Steven Hassan, a leading exit-counselor and author of the book, Combating Cult Mind Control, writes, “Any group that engages in outright deception to pursue its ends, whether religious or secular in its apparent orientation, I define as a destructive cult.” The International Cultic Studies Association website provides the following:

One of the more commonly quoted definitions of “cult” was articulated at an ICSA/UCLA Wingspread Conference on Cultism in 1985: “Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986, pp. 119-120). [1]

People in cults have a high risk of abuse due to the excessive praise and glorification of their leaders. Often this environment leads to corruption and abuse of the members as the leaders gain in their power. [2] It is important that we stay far away from any organization as described above, because there is no purpose that justifies the practices of cultic control and manipulation.

Not everyone is in agreement with the above definition for “cult.” For mainstream Christianity specifically, the definition of a cult has expanded to mean any group that is outside of its current orthodox beliefs concerning God. Walter Martin (now deceased), author of the popular book, Kingdom of the Cults, writes, “I may add to this that a cult might also be defined as a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.” [3] It is unfortunate that the loaded term “cult” is used to describe those who dissent theologically. In an effort to create unity, many in the Christian Church have employed fear tactics. Christians today are given the option: orthodoxy or damnation. How sad that “orthodox” teaching is now the standard for salvation. By this standard, is there any Christian movement that would not be a cult when compared to the shifting sands of orthodoxy throughout history? Given the drastic theological shifts in Church history, orthodoxy is not safe ground upon which to base our judgments of truth. We assert that it is arrogant to designate all groups that vary theologically from one’s own group or theology as a “cult.”

Because of our stand for Jesus as the Son of God, but not “God the Son,” Spirit & Truth Fellowship International has been called a “cult” by mainstream Christians. It saddens us that there are Christians who may be afraid of our ministry simply because we differ from the “majority position” in Christianity. Our ministry is structured similarly to many mainstream Christian organizations, and we base our doctrine on the Word of God. This being true, secular sources correctly refer to us as a religious organization, a designation we gladly accept.

We are proud of the ministry we have, and we encourage you to get to know us, and to examine the way our ministry is organized and how it functions. We are arguing for biblical positions that have been held by many Christians throughout history. It is our commitment to set a new tone in theological debate, one of freedom to think without fear of exclusion or being labeled. We sincerely desire to be a support to you as you grow in your relationship with God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Please visit http://www.STFonline.org/ for more information concerning all aspects of our ministry.


Endnotes:

1. Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Cultic Studies Journal, 3, pp. 117-134. Found on ICSA “International Cultic Studies Association” website: http://www.csj.org/infoserv_articles/langone_michael_term_cult.htm. Back to top

2. Ibid. Back to top

3. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, (Bethany House, Minneapolis, MN, 2003) pp.17. Back to top