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.
Prime examples are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, better known as the Mormon church), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.
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).
‘Cult of Christianity,’ ‘Christian Cult’ or ‘Bible-based Cult?
- The term ‘cult of Christianity’ is more accurate than alternatives like ‘Christian cult,’ or ‘Bible-based cult‘ — both of which essentially are oxymorons. After all, ‘Christian cult’ sounds as odd as ‘Christian burglar.’ Too, ‘Bible-based cults’ often base their doctrines and practices on additional books and/or are known for their incorrect interpretation and application of the Bible. That said, the latter two terms are frequently used in references to such groups.
- It is sometimes suggested that ‘Christianity is a cult’ — usually meant in the sense that
- Christianity is a schism from Judaism and/or
- that, sociologically, Christianity has cult-like aspects.
This entry does not address such claims.
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.
A few years back, when a high-profile Mormon made clear that he was running for president of the USA, the discussion of whether or not the Mormon Church is a cult was back in the news. But more often than not the discussion was 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:
CultDefinition.com — a closer look at the definitions of the term ‘cult’.
CultFAQ.org — Frequently Asked Questions About Cults, Sects, and Related Issues
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:
- Central doctrines of the Christian faith are those doctrines that make the Christian faith Christian and not something else.
- 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.
- The Christian faith is a definite system of beliefs with definite content (Jude 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.
- Scripture teaches that the beliefs mentioned above are of central importance (e.g., Matt. 28:19; John 8:24; 1 Cor. 15; Eph. 2:8-10).
- Because these central doctrines define the character of Christianity, one cannot be saved and deny these.
- 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 3:19) 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 8:24) and be saved.
- 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“
Note: Often cults of Christianity — or groups moving into that direction — make non-essentials essentials. That is, they will place an extraordinary emphasis on non-essential doctrines and practices to such an extent that those doctrines become — to them — essential.
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.
Video: The Marks of a Cult — A Biblical Analysis with Eric Holmberg
This excellent presentation is also available on DVD.
The video features commentary by Dr. James R. White, Alpha & Omega Ministries — Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, Knox Theological Seminary — Dr. R. Fowler White, Knox Theological Seminary — James Walker, Watchman Fellowship — David Henke, Watchman Fellowship — Dr. Steve Cowan, Apologetics Resource Center — Craig Branch, Apologetics Resource Center — Clete Hux, Apologetics Resource Center — Jerry Johnson, The Apologetics Group.
Cult Experts – A Buyer Beware
In doing so they tend to focus primarily — or exclusively — on the sociological aspects of such movements. After all, most of them lack first-hand knowledge of sound Christian theology, and do not enjoy the benefits of biblical spiritual discernment.
Most experts take a professional approach — either referring their client to, or consulting with someone who is in a better position to address issues of theology (which more often than not underlie a movement’s cultic behavior).
Others allow personal biases to interfere. One particularly bad apple is bitterly hostile toward Christians.
If you need the services of a cult expert for a loved-one who is part of a cult of Christianity, make sure to look for one with with first-hand knowledge of both theological- and sociological cult-related issues.
Throughout Apologetics Index we use a color key for the resources we link to.
- 20 Ways Cults of Christianity Twist The Scriptures by James Sire
- Abusive Churches & Spiritual Abuse: This Apologetics Index entry lists many pertinent resources. While not all groups or movements whose doctrines mark them as, theologically, ‘cults of Christianity’ are abusive — many of them do engage in abusive practices, including spiritual abuse.
- Cult — A Theological Perspective, by Alan Gomes. An expanded version of the information quoted on this page.
- Essential doctrines of the Christian faith
- Charts of Cults, Sects, and Religious Movements by H. Wayne House. This well-organized book presents the teachings of various cults and sects of Christianity — as well as some religious movements — in their own words, juxtaposed with the orthodox views.
Groups covered include: Alamo Christian Ministries, Association for Research and Enlightenment, Christadelphians, Christian Identity Movement, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, Church Universal and Triumphant, A Course in Miracles, Eckankar, The Family/Children of God, Freemasonry, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mind Science groups, New Age Movement, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, Rosicrucianism, Unification Church, United Pentecostal Church, Urantia Foundation, and The Way International.
- Kingdom of the Cults by Dr. Walter Martin. Considered to be the standard work on cults of Christianity. This is the edition edited by Ravi Zacharias with Jill and Kevin Rische (Jill is Martin’s daughter). We highly recommend this edition over the one issue of the book that was edited by Hank Hanegraaff and Gretchen Passantino — both of whom have turned into cult defenders.
Dr. Martin’s books approaches cults of Christianity from an Evangelical Christian perspective.
Cults of Christianity
Listed here are some examples of groups and movements widely considered by Christians to be, theologically, cults of Christianity.
- Christian Identity
- Christian Science
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church)
- Destiny Church (Brian Tamaki)
- International Churches of Christ
- Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Seventh-day Adventist Church
- Sound Doctrine Church
- Twelve Tribes
- Unification Church
- Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF), Spindale, NC
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.
Both have extensive experience in helping people leave abusive churches and deal with the effects of spiritual abuse.
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.
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Related topic(s): Cult of Christianity, Cults
First published (or major update) on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.
Last updated on November 12, 2017. Original content is © Copyright Apologetics Index. All Rights Reserved. For usage guidelines see link at the bottom.