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Cult of Christianity



The term 'cult of Christianity' is used of a group, church or organization whose central teachings and/or practices are claimed to be biblical or representative of biblical Christianity, but which are in fact unbiblical and not Christian in nature.

The term can also be applied to groups, organizations or churches whose 'statement of faith' or 'statement of beliefs' may sound orthodox, but who add aberrant, heterodox, sub-orthodox and/or heretical teachings to such an extend that the essential doctrines of the Christian faith are negatively affected. (Examples: Seventh-day Adventist Church, International Church of Christ).

Note:

Theological vs. Sociological Definition

As we explain at one of our sister websites, CultFAQ.org, the term 'cult' has different meanings in different contexts.

Improper use of the term generally leads to much confusion, which is one reason why some people -- including those who defend organizations that have been labeled as cults -- advocate against using the term at all.

In our view use of the term 'cult' is legitimate and correct, as long as the user explains in what sense it is used.

For instance, the term 'cult' can generally be defined theologically and/or sociologically.

Theology has to do with the doctrinal reasons why a particular group's beliefs and/or practices are considered unorthodox.

Sociology takes into consideration the actions of a group or movement (e.g. deceptive recruiting, undue pressure on members, forced separation from family and friends).

If you simply call a particular group a 'cult' -- without stating whether you do so based on theological and/or sociological indicators -- you are not making yourself clear.

An Example
Ever since a high-profile Mormon made clear that he is running for president of the USA, the discussion of whether or not the Mormon Church is a cult has been back in the news. But more often than not the discussion has been muddled by the incorrect use of the term 'cult'.

For instance, Evangelical Christians consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormon Church) to be, theologically, a cult of Christianity.

In other words, the Mormon Church's doctrines differ to such an extend from the central, essential doctrines of the Christian faith (i.e. those doctrines that make Christianity Christian and not something else) that it must be considered to be -- from an Evangelical Christian theological perspective -- a cult of Christianity.

At the same time, most Evangelical Christians (and others) do not consider the Mormon Church to be a cult as defined sociologically. While the church has a strict belief system that includes a sometimes heavy-handed approach to church discipline, that in and of it itself does not make it a cult in the sociological sense of the word.

For more on this see:

arrow CultDefinition.com -- a closer look at the definitions of the term 'cult'.
arrow CultFAQ.org -- Frequently Asked Questions About Cults, Sects, and Related Issues

Theology

In determining whether or not a particular group or movement is a cult of Christianity the emphasis generally is on the group's theology.

In his book Unmasking The Cults, Alan Gomes -- working from the perspective of an Evangelical Christian -- defines a cult of Christianity as follows:

A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
- Source: Alan Gomes, Cult: A Theological Definition, excerpt from "Unmasking The Cults"

Let's take a closer look:

  1. Central doctrines of the Christian faith are those doctrines that make the Christian faith Christian and not something else.
    1. The meaning of the expression "Christian faith" is not like a wax nose, which can be twisted to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean.
    2. The Christian faith is a definite system of beliefs with definite content (Jude 3offsite)
    3. Certain Christian doctrines constitute the core of the faith. Central doctrines include the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and salvation by grace through faith. These doctrines so comprise the essence of the Christian faith that to remove any of them is to make the belief system non-Christian.
    4. Scripture teaches that the beliefs mentioned above are of central importance (e.g., Matt. 28:19offsite; John 8:24offsite; 1 Cor. 15offsite; Eph. 2:8-10offsite).
    5. Because these central doctrines define the character of Christianity, one cannot be saved and deny these.
    6. Central doctrines should not be confused with peripheral issues, about which Christians may legitimately disagree.

      Peripheral (i.e. non-essential) doctrines include such issues as the timing of the tribulation, the method of baptism, or the structure of church government. For example, one can be wrong about the identity of "the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19offsite) or about the timing of the rapture and still go to heaven, but one cannot deny salvation by grace or the deity of Christ (John 8:24offsite) and be saved.

    7. All Christian denominations -- whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant -- agree on the essential core. The relatively minor disagreements between genuinely Christian denominations, then, cannot be used to argue that there is no objectively recognized core of fundamental doctrine which constitutes the Christian faith.

    - Alan Gomes, Cult: A Theological Definition, excerpt from "Unmasking The Cults"

Practice

A wider definition of the term 'cult of Christianity' takes actions and practices into account as well.

A movement that appears theologically sound with regard to the central doctrines of Christianity, but whose actions and practices are -- sociologically -- cultic in nature, can still be considered a cult of Christianity (a prime example is the International Churches of Christ, a movement whose Statement of Faith made it appear soundly Christian in nature, while in practice both its behavior and its theology was far from Christian in nature).

Citing Jan Karel van Baalen, a Christian minister known for his book The Choas of Cults: Studies in Present Day Isms (first published in 1923) -- Alan Gomes notes:

Bad doctrine produces bad fruit behaviorally (e.g., Mark 7:7-13; Col. 2:20-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 2:14-15, 20, 24), which is as true for Christians as it is for cultists.

As Van Baalen stated, 'If practice follows from theory, if life is based upon teaching, it follows that the wrong doctrine will issue in the wrong attitude toward God and Christ, and consequently in warped and twisted Christian life.'
- Alan Gomes, Cult: A Theological Definition, excerpt from "Unmasking The Cults"

In Life's Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Ronald Nash recounts an anecdote about a California gangster named Mickey Cohen. Cohen went forward in a Billy Graham crusade, and made a profession of faith. But when, after a few months, people began to ask why his lifestyle did not change, he said that just as there are Christian politicians and Christian movie stars, he wanted to be a Christian gangster.

Sound theology ought to result in sound practice. Unsound practice is an indication of unsound theology.

Therefore, a movement that - while adhering to the essential doctrines of the Christian faith - adds unbiblical and extra-biblical teachings may, in doing so, place itself further and further outside orthodox Christianity.

Articles

Books

Cults of Christianity

Listed here are some examples of groups and movements widely considered by Christians to be, theologically, cults of Christianity.


Editor

Anton Hein

This entry is written and maintained by Anton Hein, founder and team member of Apologetics Index.

He lives and works in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with his wife, Janet.

Anton's interests vary from Christian apologetics to reading murder mysteries. When you spot him in his native environment he is usually either drinking coffee, taking photos in and around Amsterdam, concocting home-made Mexican salsas, or working online.

Anton can be contacted via our feedback form, or directly at anton@dutchintouch.com

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This post was last updated: Sep. 22, 2012