A friend asked what or how do you define a “cult”. So I will post this quick definition followed by a letter to a long-time friend that was being swayed into the Kingdom Hall (Jehovah's Witnesses). There are different definitions in my minds eye. There are what I term theological cults. These are religious bodies that claim to be the true Christian representation on earth but distort the historic, orthodox Christian faith. Then there would be cults that are dangerous, one’s that have some murderous doctrine in their dogma, like the Heaven’s Gate cult. Believe it or not, and I can explain if asked, I include J-Dubs (Jehovah's Witnesses) in this group of murderous cults. Many “New Age” cults have deadly doctrines. And then there is the “occult” addition to cults that even cross into world-religions, which technically are not cults – like: Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism Judaism, Christianity, and the like. These are world-religions and shouldn’t be considered cults.
First one of my favorite quotes. I want to leave the reader with this thought by Robert Hume. In his book, The World’s Living Religions, he comments that there are three features of Christian faith that “cannot be paralleled anywhere among the religions of the world” [I can add here, the cults either]. These include the character of God as a loving Heavenly Father, the character of the founder of Christianity as the Son of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Further, he says:
“All of the nine founders of religion, with the exception of Jesus Christ, are reported in their respective sacred scriptures as having passed through a preliminary period of uncertainty, or of searching for religious light. All the founders of the non-Christian religions evinced inconsistencies in their personal character; some of them altered their practical policies under change of circumstances. Jesus Christ alone is reported as having had a consistent God-consciousness, a consistent character himself, and a consistent program for his religion” (p.285-286).
Good definition of a “theological cult”:
What is a cult?
I will first go to the secular sources on this definition, and then to the Christian view of it [].
Until recently the term “cult” in a general sense referred to groups that exhibit “great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing,” and in a more specific sense referred to “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious” []. The public concern of the past two decades, however, demanded additional clarification of the concept. One attempt to do such came about at a conference of the American Family Foundation, The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, and the Johnson Foundation:
“Cult (totalist type): a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family [JWs, LDS], debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience [JWs], powerful group pressures [JWs], information management [JWs], suspension of individually or critical judgment [JWs], promotion or total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it [JWs], etc), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community” [].
The above fits the Jehovah's Witness organization. Your mom, if she was found reading, say, Crisis of Conscience, by Raymond Franze (an ex-Jehovah's Witness), a former member of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the son of the former president of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization, she would be asked to not continue reading it. If she persists, and the Jehovah's Witness elders know of it, they will disfellowship her from the Kingdom Hall. In other words, she has no way to be “saved” (i.e., allowed to live on earth for eternity).
I could bring my copy of Critiques of God: Making the Case Against Belief in God, to my church, the pastor could see it, and simply inquire, “if you have any questions, I am here for you.” I could ask critical questions, inquire, even challenge his faith, but never be asked to leave the church. Or I could leave the church, never go again, and my faith in Christ as the Bible lays out is sufficient for salvation. The church has nothing to do with it. The same cannot be said of the Kingdom Hall. You must go to the source of salvation, the Watchtower, in order to be granted permission for entrance into paradise (earth).
[] Within the context of a major religion (for example: Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity), a sect is a smaller group that adheres to a particular position on a point of doctrine. Webster defines a sect as “a faction of a larger group that follows a common leadership and a set of doctrines.” The key to the definition of a sect is the fact that it remains within the larger group.
Christianity has its sects (usually referred to as “denominations”), such as Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian. The sects of Judaism include Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc. Within Islam, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites are the major sects. Buddhism has Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. In each of these religions, the members of the different sect acknowledge that they are all part of the same religion, despite their differences on a few doctrinal points or their denominational distinctions.
Within mainline Christianity, however, there is no such acknowledgement that the “blended beliefs” of the cults are part of the same religion. The doctrinal differences are too far apart on too many major points.
The word cult comes from the Latin word cultus. Its original definition referred to members of an organization who cared about the same things. (The English word culture is derived from the same Latin word.) When used in a religious context, the word cult defines a group that holds certain ideas and practices in common, but the specifics of its beliefs are either so new, or so different that they take it way beyond the religion from which it started.
Theologians Dr. R. C. Sproul and Tim Couch have identified ten characteristics that typically distinguish groups that fit into the category of a “cult.” Here is their list (with user-friendly explanations):
- An abrupt break with historic Christianity and its confessions. Cults usually view historical Christianity as being off base for all of those centuries since Christ until their founder came along. (for our purposes, Charles Taze Russel, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses; or Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons.)
- Autosotericism. This is theological lingo for “self-salvation.” Cults usually specify that salvation is obtained by following certain rules and regulations – those that are specific by the cult. (be it going door-to-door like the Jehovah's Witnesses, or not drinking caffeine and being married in the temple, like Mormons.)
- A deficient Christology. Christianity is premised on the belief that Jesus was God; if He was something less than God, then salvation by His death on the cross wouldn’t work. Cults, however, take a lesser view of Christ. They might admire him as greater than a human, but they don’t consider Him as the one true God. (Jehovah's Witnesses believe Jesus to be merely an angel. Mormons believe Him to be merely the first son born by sexual relations between Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.)
- Syncretism. This is more theological jargon that simple means the blending of different elements from several religions into one synthesized belief system. (Charles Taze Russel took from Christianity, occultism, Second Day Adventists, and other sources. Joseph Smith took from Christianity, Mennonites, Freemasonry, as well as occultism.)
- An emphasis on their own distinctiveness. Rather than stressing the major doctrinal points of Christianity, a cult will put disproportionate emphasis on its distinguishing doctrines. Those things that mainline Christianity considers to be essential take a backseat to the cult’s unique characteristic.
- Perfectionism. Most cults teach that it is possible for a human to be prefect (a doctrine that flies in the face of Christianity’s view that humans are sinful and can never achieve God’s standard of perfection). Moral perfection is usually attainable by following the cult’s prescribed conduct (doing some things and abstaining from others) and by adhering to the teachings of the cult’s founder and leaders. (Both JW's and LDS are prime examples of this.)
- An extra-Biblical source of authority. While many cults recognize the Bible as a sacred piece of literature, they have additional holy books. These other writings usually take precedence over the Bible (or they at least give the authoritative interpretation of the Bible). If there is a conflict between the two, the Bible comes in second place. (I already gave an example of the extra-Biblical addition that interprets the Bible correctly… the quote from Charles Russell about reading the Bible alone causes you to fall into darkness. Also, the Jehovah's Witnesses read every week in the Kingdom Hall from the magazine Watchtower. In fact, they give these away when they go door-to-door or stand in front of shops [why not give the Bible away if they are so Bible based?]. This is the source of truth and interpretation that the Jehovah's Witness adheres to when conflict arises between the Bible and the Watchtower teachings. The Mormons have added the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrines and Covenants. Not to mention that the prophet of the church gets direct revelation to give the church.)
- A belief in exclusive community salvation. A cult teaches that it is the only true church. Unless you believe all its teachings, you won’t be saved. In contrast, a sect of traditional Christianity won’t claim exclusive rights to salvation; most denominations differences don’t pertain to the qualifications for salvation. According to the prevailing Christian viewpoint, joining a particular denomination is not a prerequisite to get to heaven. For most cults, however, you won’t make it unless you are one of their members. (You must be a member of the Kingdom Hall [in good standing] in order to meet one criteria to make it to paradise [earth]. The Mormons also believe that all who are not Mormons married in their temple and in good standing with the church cannot make it to the best [of three levels] heaven.)
- A preoccupation with eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the end of the world (or “the end times,” as Christians like to call it). In the perspective of the time line of Christianity, most cults are brand-new (having been formed after Christianity had been rolling along 1800 years or so). Cults often explain that their founder brought the last word from God to prepare mankind for the end of the world. With this perspective, cults often emphasize urgency about the end of the world. (Jehovah's Witnesses are the well-known for their false doomsday prophesies made about 1914, 1918, 1942, 1975, etc. Mormons too are well known for their backyard bunkers in lieu of Armageddon… the Y2K bug found many of them already locked in them.)
- Esotericism. Something is esoteric if it is beyond the knowledge of most people and understood by only a select group of individuals. This is what separates cults from traditional Christianity. Each cult claims that its founder and/or leaders have access to special truth that was previously hidden. (Both Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons fit this bill as well.)
I am going to quite here, as this paper is long already, if, after you read this, and you wish the question about hell to be addressed, I will do so. Although, it is thoroughly addressed in one of the books I got you, Jehovah's Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse. This is one subject that Jesus taught about more than any other.
Much Thought and Love Pamela, SeanG
- Captive Hearts Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships, by Madeleine Landau Tobias, M.S, R.N., C.S., is a psychotherapist and exit counselor in private practice since 1979. She is a former member of an Eastern meditation cult and a psychotherapy cult. Janja Lalich (co-author), a former member of a political cult, is associate editor of the Cultic Studies Journal.
- Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, by Michael D. Langhorn, Ph.D., is executive director of the American Family Foundation and editor of Cultic Studies Journal. His other book include Cults: What Parents Should Know (with Joan Ross).
- Cults In Our Midst: The Hidden Menace In Our Everyday Lives, by Margaret Thaler Singer, who is a clinical psychologist and emeritus adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkley. Jamja Lalich (co-author), is a former cult member and is now a writer, consultant, and cult information specialist.