The foregoing scriptural warnings form the biblical basis for recognizing the existence of cults, but the modern definition of a cult has been greatly influenced by an event that occurred in 1978.
In November 1978, the death of more than nine hundred men, women, and children in Jonestown, Guyana, shocked the world. Pictures of bloated bodies and the startling account of the incredible mass suicide-murder appeared on front pages of newspapers in major cities of the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, Japan, and other nations. Several books and even a movie probed the horrible episode of Jonestown, focusing upon the sociological structure of discipline, mind control, and financial exploitation and upon the despotic "prophet" rule of a mentally diseased and morally twisted dictator who made his disciples religious and political slaves.
Before Jonestown, the general public had been exposed to esoteric Eastern religions and to other cultic groups in North America, but after the bizarre happening in Guyana, the public came to associate the word cult with religious slavery, mind manipulation, financial exploitation, and dangerous social behavior. The media continues to project this image of a cult in news items that attract attention across the nation.4 Therefore, the word cult in our society today is loaded with psychological and sociological implications that create fear and prejudice against any group so labeled.
The modern religious usage of the word cult apparently emerged out of the fundamentalist movement that began in the early part of this century as a protest against liberal theology and higher criticism. Evangelical writers often refer to The Chaos of Cults (1938) by Jan van Baalen to establish a doctrinal test to determine a cult, thereby defining a group to be a cult on the basis of evangelical theology.5
Both fundamentalists and evangelical wage war against what they considered to be the enemies of orthodox Protestantism.6 The Fundamentals (1912-15), a twelve-volume series setting forth the doctrines of the fundamentalist movement, listed its enemies to include "Romanism, socialism, modern philosophy, atheism, Eddyism, Mormonism, spiritualism," and especially liberal theology.7
By 1923, fundamentalism had come to identify five doctrines as essential to Christianity: (1) the inerrancy of the Scriptures, (2) the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, (3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, (4) Christ's bodily resurrection, and (5) the historicity of the miracles in the Bible.8 Later the second coming of Christ or the premillenarian doctrine was sometimes substituted for miracles, and the deity of Christ sometimes replaced the virgin birth.
By 1940, fundamentalism had divided into two groups: those who continued the earlier emphasis and those who wished to regain fellowship with mainline Protestants. The latter group referred to themselves as "evangelical equating the term with true Christianity. In 1942, a group of "evangelical formed the National Association of Evangelicals, whose goal was to promote orthodox Protestantism both as individuals and as a united effort of evangelical denominations. Some writers referred to the new movement as neoevangelical.9
The distinctive beliefs of evangelicals include the sovereignty of God, the infallibility of the Scriptures, the illumination of the Holy Spirit in understanding the Scriptures, the sinfulness of humanity, Christ's substitutionary atonement, salvation by grace through faith in Christ, progressive sanctification, and the visible, personal return of Jesus Christ. According to R. V. Pierard, evangelicals also "share many beliefs with other orthodox Christians," including the trinity; Christ's incarnation, virgin birth, and bodily resurrection; the reality of miracles; the church as the body of Christ; the sacraments as signs or means of grace; the immortality of the soul; and the final resurrection. Their aim is to affirm the central historic beliefs of Christianity.l0 To emphasize the difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists, some evangelical writers "maintained that fundamentalism was orthodoxy gone cultic because its convictions were not linked with the historic creeds of the church.''ll
Irving Hexham stated that Ernest Troeltsch in his book, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912), defined cult as "a mystical or spiritual form of religion that appeals to intellectuals and the educated classes," a spirituality that attempts to bring life to a dead orthodoxy.l2 To Troeltsch, early Lutherans, many Puritans, and Pietists were cultic. Later, some writers used Troeltsch's arguments to propose that evangelical Christianity is a cult.l3
Evangelical writers differ about identifying groups as cultic. For example, Walter Martin and Donald G. Barnhouse have taken the position that Seventh-Day Adventism is not a cult, but Anthony A. Hoekema listed Seventh-Day Adventism as one of the four major cults and devoted a section of his book to argue against the position taken by Martin and Barnhouse.l4 Later Martin defended his position on Seventh-Day Adventism against Hoekema's views.l5
Hoekema distinguished between the use of cult and sect, stating that sect is a broader term for any dissenting or schismatic religious body while cult refers to a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.l6 In other words, he would call Protestant churches a sect of Roman Catholicism, but he would identify Christian Science as a cult since it holds views regarded unorthodox by mainline Christianity.
Other evangelical writers adopt a similar definition of a cult. For example, John Allen wrote, "For our present purposes I am describing as a 'cult' any religious group which is an offshoot of a major religion, with its own peculiar twist to the teachings of that religion; a group, in other words, which does not stand within the main stream of orthodoxy of its parent faith but has developed dogmas of its own which are foreign to the parent faith's original understanding.''17
The application of the word cult is therefore relative, depending upon the view of the writer. For example, Christianity could be considered a cult by the Jews, the Lutherans could be called a cult by Roman Catholics, and the Methodists could be a cult in the view of the Episcopalians. In fact, the Reformers Luther and Zwingli would have probably called each other cultists.18
Cult ministries are a recent evangelical innovation, springing up across North America to alert and warn the "Christian" community of "cults" they detect as a threat to their brand of Christianity. While those involved readily admit that cult is difficult to define, that it has many shades of meaning, that it is applied with different standards, and that the general public associates it with sociological and psychological aberrations, many evangelical cult ministries still insist on using the word cult as a weapon against any group they view as heretical according to their own particular doctrinal positions.l9 It also appears that some of those who claim to be exposing cults themselves use tactics that border on dishonesty and deceit.20 -as
Since the tragedy of Jonestown infused a sociological and psychological meaning to the word cult in secular society, Irving Hexham suggested that the word should be used sparingly in discussing religious movements.21 Christians should be concerned about both the methods and teachings of cults, but they should not create a cult phobia that may result in curtailed religious freedom for Christians. He suggested that Christians should follow the academic practice of calling Eastern religious groups "new religious movements" and to return to the biblical term of "heretic" or even use "spiritual counterfeit" for groups they oppose on theological grounds.22
He also expressed that using alternative terms would correct the practice by some evangelicals of using the word colt as a propaganda weapon in their war against those who differ with their theology.23
Christiantty Today recently took a similar position in an editorial by Terry Muck (February 5, 1990). Muck gave three reasons why Christians should not use the pejorative label of cult: (1) "The spirit of fair play suggests it is best to refer to groups of people as they refer to themselves." (2) "There is also a theological reason for avoiding" the label, for it wrongly implies that certain sinners "are the worst kind." (3) "It simply does not work well to use disparaging terms to describe the people whom we hope will come to faith in Christ.... In fact, we are commanded to love them as ourselves."
Although The Chaos of Cults (1938) by Jan van Baalen shaped the modern evangelical meaning of cult, the flood of books on cults did not begin until after 1950, with a noticeable increase in cult ministries after the tragedy of Jonestown in 1978. After 1978, most cult books have concentrated on cultic behavior such as fraudulent claims, immorality of leaders, and deceptive tactics to gain and retain followers, but they also include theological arguments to identify groups as a cult.
Josh McDowell and Don Stewart identified eleven characteristics of cults:24
While Anthony A. Hoekema qualified his list of cultic characteristics by pointing out that they were not found exclusively in the cults but also somewhat in Christian churches, he listed five distinctive cult characteristics:25
John Allan reduced the list of cult characteristics to four main questions:26
In defense of classifying nontrinitarian groups as cults, many evangelicals refer to creedal statements and to "historic" Christianity. They contend that the church developed the doctrine of the trinity to refute the doctrinal errors of both Arianism and modalism. Since the creeds define "right belief," any person who does not believe in the trinity of God as stated in them is considered lost and under a curse of God.27 Since historic Christianity from the fourth century has made belief in the trinity a cardinal doctrine, they view a denial of the trinity as a denial of historic Christianity. In their view, therefore, a nontrinitarian group is not Christian but a cult.28
While evangelicals acknowledge that the creeds reflect only the thinking of early church leaders and are not authoritative or binding upon Christian theology, they often use the creeds to defend "true" Christianity against "cultic" beliefs. In other words, they classify a group to be a cult if it interprets the Bible differently from the creedal statements, including the doctrine of the trinity.
It must be pointed out, however, that most evangelicals do not accept all doctrinal positions in the ecumenical creeds. For example, most reject the doctrine that water baptism remits sins, a position stated in the creeds and believed by orthodox, mainline, historic Christianity. Not only do Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox adhere to this position, but Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, did so as well. He even advocated infant baptism on the basis that water baptism effects remission of sins and initiates the infant into the Christian community.29 Of course, the Lutherans struggle with the problem of reconciling the practice of infant baptism with their doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Most cult ministries fail to reconcile the inconsistency of accepting some doctrinal deviations from the creeds as orthodox while contending that other deviations are cultic. It appears, moreover, that they should address their primary doctrinal concerns biblically rather than relying on the creeds to define Christian doctrine. In returning to the Bible to determine doctrine, they will avoid the cultic practice of using an extrabiblical source as the authority for interpreting the Scriptures.
4 For example, in January 1990, the media reported the murder of five members of a small cult who were allegedly sacrificed under the "prophetic" direction of the leader, Jeffrey D. Lundgren.
5 Jan van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company,1938). For a discussion of the evangelical definition of cult, see J. L. Hall, "Cults, Orthodoxy, and Biblieal Christianity," in Symposium on Oneness Pentecostalism 1988 and 1990 (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 1990).
6 T. C. MeIntire, "Fundamentalism," Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 433.
9 Ibid., 434-35.
l0 R. V. Pierard, "Evangelicalism," Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 379-80.
11 Ibid., 381.
12 Irving Hexham, "Cults," Evangelical Dictionary of Theology ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 289.
14 Anthony A. Hoekema, The Foyer Major Cults (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), 388-403.
15 Walter Martin, TheKingdo7n ofthe Cults, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1965, 1985), 409-500.
16 Horkema 374
17 John Allen, Shopping for a God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 13.
18 Bruce Tucker, Twisting the Truth (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1987), 17. See also A History of Christian Doctrine, ed. Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978),370, which states that Luther called anyone who disagreed with his interpretation of the Lord's Supper a heretic. Timothy George quoted Luther as saying that Zwingli "is seven time more dangerous than when he was a papist.... I publicly maintain before God and the whole world that I neither am nor ever will be connected with Zwingli's doctrine." Theology of the Reforsners (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 149.
l9 Hexham, 289.
20 Observers at the taping of a cult ministry television program debate between two United Pentecostal Chureh ministers and Walter Martin and Calvin Beisner point to the manipulated format, the biased treatment by the moderator that became open antagonism at times, and the broken agreement that the tapes for the program would not he edited without the approval of all participants.
21 Hexham, 289.
24 Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Understanding the Cults (San Bernardino, Cal.: Here's Life Publishers, 1983), 21-29.
25 Hoekemax 377-88
26 John Allan, 151-63.
27 The three sections of the Athanasian Creed begin and end with a "damnatory clause." The end of the first clause reads: "This is how to think of the Trinity if you want to be saved."
28 Margret Thaler Singer, "Coming Out of the Cults," Psychology Today 12, no. 8 (January 1979): 72; Walter Martin,21, 63; MeDowell and Stewart, 117; Allan, 13; and others.
29 A History of Christian Doctrine, ed. Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 346-47.
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