What is a “cult”?

I’ve been working on a series of lectures I’ll be giving for a ministry training program called Church Birthing Matrix. The title of the class they’ve asked me to lead is “Cults and Apologetics.” So I’ve been thinking about the definition of “cult” – and how that applies to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  (I also address this in chapter 1 of my book “Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor.”)

There is no single definition of a cult that everyone finds useful or acceptable. Typically, two kinds of definitions are given: sociological and theological. (For a detailed analysis, see this article.)

Sociological Definition
Sociologically, a group is considered a cult if it has socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices. It may emphasize the authority of a charismatic leader, promote isolation of its members, and exercise a high degree of control over them. Types of control might include behavior control, as when members are pressured to conform to high expectations, or when leaving the group is strongly opposed. Cults also practice information control, as when alternative sources of information are forbidden or people sharing alternative ideas are vilified. A cult may exercise a degree of control over thoughts and emotions as well. Of course, no one can control another person’s interior life, but a cult uses various techniques to covertly exercise dishonest influence. For example, the group might say, “If you leave you will lose all your family and friends” or “If you don’t comply you will be put to shame before others.”

Theological Definition
Theologically, a cult is a group whose beliefs and/or practices are considered unorthodox compared to the essential teaching of the mainstream movement to which the group compares itself. Thus there can be cults of Islam, like Sufism or the Nation of Islam. A cult of Christianity, then, is a group of people claiming to be Christian, but who embrace doctrines which deny (explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the historic, biblical Christian faith. Cult groups usually deny biblical teaching in one or more of these six key areas:

  • How God has revealed himself
  • The nature of God
  • The nature of Jesus
  • The nature of salvation
  • The nature of the church
  • What happens in the future

Should We Even Use the Word?
The LDS Church certainly qualifies as a cult of Christianity on theological grounds. Many people believe it qualifies on sociological grounds as well. But in popular usage, a cult is a group of strange people, out of step with ordinary society, brainwashed to believe and do bizarre things, and being held emotionally captive by some magnetic leader. People think of Jim Jones’ followers drinking poison Kool-Aid. These negative stereotypes – and the emotional tone associated with them – render the term “cult” less than useful for any meaningful discussion.

It is no surprise that Latter-day Saints are offended when their church is called a cult. If we want to have real conversations with our LDS neighbors that open up opportunities to share our faith when them in a positive way, labeling them as cult members is unnecessary and counterproductive. Besides, Mormonism is much more than just a theological position. It is a way of life, an identity. This calls for a broader approach to faith-sharing than resorting to perjorative labels.

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