What’s a Cult? Who’s a Christian?

Lately, there has been much discussion about whether the LDS religion is a cult, mostly by mean-spirited people who do not want to see Governor Romney elected president. I think it is time to explain what a cult is.

I dislike commenting on these things, because some will feel I am being critical of the LDS religion and start an argument with me.

That said, …

“Cult” is one of those slippery, multi-meaning words. When the LDS hear the word, they associate it with the Branch Davidians, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, and the like, and they rightly take offense. I don’t blame them.

When a theologian uses the word “cult,” the word means a religion which:

a. Has as scripture literature other than the Bible,

b. Has religious beliefs or practices which stem from that literature and are not found in the Bible, and

c. Has a charismatic person as a leader.

I think the LDS would proudly agree that the three characteristics listed above would apply to their religion. They just do not like the word “cult” because most people think it means only the first definition.

When the LDS religion began, it was indeed a cult by the second definition. Later, as it grew, it became a “classic cult” which is a cult which has gained respectability. Now, it has lasted long enough to be regarded as a religion.

When people say that the LDS religion is not Christian, what they mean is that it does not follow the beliefs of the Athanasian Creed, especially that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one and eternal.

I think the LDS people would agree that they do not believe this.

Another accusation hurled at the LDS is that they are not Christians. What those who say this mean is that the LDS do not believe what the Athanasian Creed proclaims, that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one God, eternal, and uncreated.

I think the LDS people would proudly agree that they do not believe this.

What people may not realize is that, even in the days of Athanasius, back in the fourth century C.E., there were those Christians who also did not agree with the creed. The followers of Arius, known as Arians, did not believe in the trinity. For this heresy, they were exiled by the Roman emperor to an island.

I think it is a waste of time to argue these points. What we are supposed to be doing is what Jesus commanded in two passages: Matthew 22:37-40, “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself….’ and Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Those trumpeting loudly that the LDS are not Christians should look to what Jesus himself said in Mark 9:38-40: “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

This same story is also recounted in Luke 9:49-50.

This instruction of Jesus is often twisted around to read, “Whoever is not for us is against us,” but Jesus says exactly the opposite, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Pastor Benjamin Tomczak of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Duncanville, Texas wrote, in a sermon titled “It’s not a competition,”

“A … reaction to this “He’s not one of us” attitude is an arrogance that fills the whole body of Christ. Not just the clergy, but the people start to look around and realize how wonderful they are. “Hey, not only am I a Christian, but I’m a Lutheran. That doofus over there following the pope, or his ‘God told me to start a church,’ miracle working whirling dervish of a preacher doesn’t know what the heck is going on.” It’s just a short step from Lutheran pride to a Lutheran arrogance that says there are no Christians outside the Lutheran church, outside the Wisconsin Synod, outside St. Mark. An attitude like that puts us on the outside of Jesus’ way of thinking, because He said that whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40, NIV84).

So, what should we do? We should stop calling names, for one thing. One of my friends on Facebook has suggested that the word “cult” has come to have so many negative associations that it should no longer be used, relegating it to the dustbin with the n-word, the s-word, and the like.

But another thing to remember is that is more important to live a life of Christian example than it is to be a judge of others’ Christianity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

So, let’s not worry about who’s a cult and who’s a Christian and get on with living in such a way that others will know that our relgion is not a cult, and that our religion is indeed truly Christian.




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17 Responses to What’s a Cult? Who’s a Christian?

  1. D. Michael Martindale says:

    The three-part definition of a cult appears tailor-made to justify including Christian religions who are not Protestant mainstream.

    Maybe I’ll define as a cult anyone who believes that merely accepting Jesus as your Savior saves you. There, now Southern Baptists are a cult! Surely they can’t argue that they don’t believe that.

    In other words, Dave is right. This whole divisive process is pointless and un-Christian.

  2. Erick says:

    I have found the term cult to be absolutely useless. I have heard this explanation of it many times, and agree that if this is what the word actually means, obviously then by definition, Mormonism is a cult. Still, I tend to see it similar to D. Michael Martindale, that the word cult was probably in existence long before this succinct definition was attached to it.

    The strange thing about this whole discussion however, is that Mormon’s have within their cultural vernacular a similar label that they have used since inception, to categorize their (other) Christian neighbors, ie, apostate/apostasy/apostate Christendom/etc. I am seeing this term used less and less, but as recent as my own LDS mission in 2000 – 2002, our discussions made a clear claim that after the last Christ’s apostles, the “Church” fell into “apostasy”. Hence, this whole notion of a “restoration”. Quite literally, Mormonism loses all theological relevance the minute you distance it from the necessity of a “universal apostasy”.

    The point is, given this I just don’t see what the big deal is over the terms. Perhaps if we dropped the labels relations could improve…but, I think your actually still left to contend with the crux of the argument, ie, who are the real Christians and whose Church is actually “true” as we like to say.

  3. Heather Rothey says:

    Ummmmmm….. don’t forget too Dave, that Mormons also have the impression; “all gentiles are Mormon”, just some have yet to be baptize as such. Something that can work for or against one’s self in proclaiming thy self as the true religion. :}

    • Mark says:

      Hmmmm, in my 50 years, I have never heard nor read that all gentiles are Mormon in my church before . I’m not quite sure what it is supposed to mean as it’s just not true.

  4. Mark says:

    Dave, thank you for your thoughtful article. You represented our position fairly – that is rare. I think that the word cult has simply become a pejorative used to insult and dismiss. It is predominantly meant to be offensive under the facade of a technical definition. From your definition, the Church that Christ organized was also a cult. Come to think of it, what church wouldn’t be a cult. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is not in the bible and the creeds, which are the foundation of this belief seem to fulfill both a and b of your definition demonstrating that the word really is meaningless except to insult. I hope we can finally move past this as there is so much more that unites us than divides us and we really need to work together towards those commonalities as our society is crumbling. A house divided will not stand.

  5. Tim R says:

    “‘This instruction of Jesus is often twisted around to read, “Whoever is not for us is against us,’ but Jesus says exactly the opposite, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’”
    I’m afraid you’re completely wrong here. It’s not that people twist it around, it’s that they sometimes (as you have apparently done) get these parallel passages confused with the entirely separate Matthew 12:30, which DOES say “whoever is not with me is against me.” Perhaps being a little more thorough on biblical study next time (and less emphasis on the “let’s all get along” mentalities) will make your arguments a little more solid.

    • Dave Thomas says:

      Tim, your comment illustrates the drawbacks to quoting a verse out of the Bible without its context.

      To properly interpret a passage, one must look at not only what is said, but who said it, and to whom.

      In the passage you cited, Jesus is talking about the Pharisees who have criticized Him and his disciples for doing work on the sabbath. The Pharisees were a group of well-intentioned Jewish men whodid many good things in their communities. But they had made worship of the rule more important than the worship of God. This is the group Jesus refers to when he says, “whoever is not with me is against me.” (Matthew 12:30)

      For the entire context, one should read Matthew 12:1-14 and 30-37.

      In the passage I cited above, Jesus is talking to His own disciples and referring to a man, not one of them, who is exorcizing demons in Jesus name. This tells us that there are believers in Jesus who are not part of his band of disciples, another sect of Christians, if you will. And Jesus does not condemn them, but tells his disciples to allow the man to proceed with his work.

      • Tim R says:

        I appreciate your reply, but I wasn’t speaking to matters of context or interpretation. I was calling into question your claim that people “twist around” the passage you cited, when the more likely scenario is that people sometimes confuse “your” passages, as it were, with the passage where Jesus does say what you present as the “twisted around” saying. If you do know of actual situations where people twist it around, then I suppose I am wrong; however, I still strongly suspect that your cries of contortion are ill-founded. In any case, while I would usually applaud encouragements to look at context for proper interpretation of Scripture, bringing it up now is simply a red herring.

  6. Because the theology of “Historical Christians” is based on non-New Testament beliefs (Trinity, Salvation only by Grace, etc.), Catholic and Protestant denominations should be referred to as “Creedal Christians.”

    Mormons could therefore be referred to as “Restorationist Christians.”

  7. cken says:

    Like all religions Christianity started out as a cult. When a cult becomes popular enough it is no longer called a cult; rather it is referred to as a religion. Remember Luther and the other heretics which started cults during the reformation. We have entered an age of spiritual renaissance which has been and will continue to be deleterious to both organized religion and secular humanism. Religions rules have become more important than the spiritual growth of the soul. This has caused people to look else where for answers. For those truly seeking, labels such as evangelical, charismatic, humanist, or any other label used to put you in a certain box, are superficial and inane. it is seeking, growing, and finding your own path which is of utmost importance.

  8. Dave Thomas says:

    cken, Luther was branded a heretic and an outlaw by the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire respectively. He could be killed on sight, without a trial.

    However, it’s impossible to know whether Lutheranism would have been considered a cult, because the word was not in use in 1517, appearing only first around 1580. (http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=cult&year_start=1500&year_end=2008&corpus=0&smoothing=3&share)

    Luther never sought to establish a new, separate religion. His goal was reform the existing Roman Catholic Church. (Hence the term, “reformation.”) There are those who say he would turn over in his grave if he knew there was a religion named after him rather than after Jesus Christ. Some call Lutherans “reformed Catholics.”

    There are no new religious literature nor beliefs associated with the Lutheran religion, thus failing to meet points a and b in my original blog. Luther was indeed a charismatic leader. In fact, when year 2000 rolled around, the History Channel named him as the most influential person of the last thousand years.

    All three criteria must be met for a religion to be considered a cult, not just one of them.

  9. Stormin Norman says:

    Enjoyed your article. You said “He said that whoever is not against us is for us”. How do you interpret Matt 7:22-23 —– Many will say unto me in that day have we not prophesied in thy name? …cast out devils and done many wonderful works? Then he says to “them” —– I never knew you depart from me ye that work iniquity! What are these people that have done good works in His name doing that is so wrong given your quote that he who is not against us is for us? Please enlighten me as I get confused too easily.

  10. Stormin Norman says:

    Based on the no response to my above comment/question. Apparantly the New testament is not perfect. And the Old Testament ——- well good luck on what is true/valid there. Hopefully, Christ is perfect and was misquoted in one instance!

  11. ZEN WORDSMITH says:

    Yes. In our latter day era, the entire U.N. G-7 Nations
    [Thecrium] is a Theocratic [Cult].
    [Jesus of Galilee] {circa’ 02 CE} manipulated a cult, in that it employed “ritual and practice” in the throngs of souls that surrounded, “One Grand Head”. Namely, our Lord and [Savior Jesus Christ.]
    This Priesthood at the time, {Judeo Christian/Buddhist} had in its’ Gestalt or Alpha field; the fortitude to control its’ adherents. Not only affecting the “eb and flo” of the Ocean’s tides, but its’ “tech plate” ground faults. The “will” of Heaven, in the name of [Melchezedek].
    No need to fear the linguistic called “Cult”.
    It was derived by the [Scribe and Fairisee] of primitive time, in “slango” to what [Jesus] was riding upon when entering the gates of Juerusalem: A “Colt”. And then Upon a bed of “Palm-Leaves”.
    Happy Palm Sunday this Year. May You have an Eternal Easter!!!

  12. Dave Thomas says:

    Sorry, Norman. I didn’t reply because I stopped following the thread. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your question well enough to respond. Could you ask it again and make it very simple for me? I’m not at all certain what I wrote that you are questioning.

    I will comment on your statement that the Bible is not perfect. I am a member of the ELCA and the position of the ELCA is that the Bible is reliable, nor inerrant. The Bible is 100% authoritative as teaching how to obtain salvation, but as for accuracy of history and science, sometimes those writers got it wrong, especially in areas where we have learned things they did not know in their time.

  13. Howard says:

    Cult: Adherence to the teachings of a Man
    Jesus Christ: God and the Word made Flesh; the sole source of the Holy Ghost.
    Jesus Saves; Man Deceives

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