What is a Cult? 

Logo There is nothing more inflammatory that one can say about a religious organization, say for instance the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, than this: 'it's a cult.' It's hard to fathom why this is so. The word 'cult' is by heritage a neutral word:

"cult, cult, n. [Fr. culte, L. cultus, worship, from colo, cultum, to till, worship.] Homage; worship; a system of religious belief and worship; the rites and ceremonies employed in worship."
(Webster's International, 1965)

The Latin word 'cultus,' related also to 'cultivate' and 'culture,' occurs in the Vulgate translation of the Bible, for instance, Numbers 4:4, "hic est cultus filiorum Caath tabernaculum foederis et sanctum sanctorum. . ." translating the Hebrew abodah, service: "This shall be the service of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of the congregation, about the most holy things:. . ." Yet when a religious outfit is described as a cult, people react as if they've been shot.

According to Walter Martin, whose use of this term did much to popularize it, the term's very neutrality was a selling point. He borrowed it from earlier, liberal authors who had examined the new religious movements from more of a sociological standpoint. He quotes one of these authors, Dr. Charles Braden:

  • "'By the term 'cult' I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified.  A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice, from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.'"
  • (Dr. Charles Braden, quoted p. 11, Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults).

Russian Icon

Logo There's no denying the word is inflammatory. See the reaction the mere word gets:

"By the end of the call, she said firmly, 'Jocelyn, you are in a cult. You need to leave as quickly and quietly as you can. They will try to take everything from you.'
"When I got off the phone, I sank down on the floor of my walk-in closet and sobbed. I knew the truth now." (Jocelyn Zichterman, I Fired God, Kindle location 3164).

This is the reaction from hearing from the total stranger who answered the cult hot-line, herself a refugee from a Mormon polygamist sect, that the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists were a "cult"? The author survived an abusive childhood with a cruel and sadistic father who impaled a kitten on a pitchfork in front of her. And so she has to take the whole religion down with her in order to come to terms with her background? Perhaps a word so powerful, a verbal nuclear bomb, should be used sparingly.

The liberal scholars quoted above saw much that was positive in the cults, as the orthodox Dr. Martin did not. Dr. Braden's definition leaves the Christian reader bewildered. What has "our. . .culture" got to do with it? Whose culture? (This is a word, incidentally, which springs from the same root as 'cult'! Should we not be equally indignant at the implication we have a 'culture'?). Certainly the church of the apostles rubbed against the grain of Roman imperial culture and was accordingly persecuted. The Emperor Nero did not see the value Christians contributed to "our total culture," and so used them as torches to light his garden parties. The Christian church in India today is tiny and decidedly counter-cultural; the dominant culture of that pagan land is a vibrant, tropically proliferating polytheism. However one cannot be sure the church will always be small and persecuted, reasoning from Christ's parable of the mustard seed:

  • "Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof."
  • (Matthew 13:31-32).

  • "And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it."
  • (Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:19).

Rael Scientology
Cryonics Communism
No True Atheist Common Characteristics
Tu Quoque Buddhism
Ayn Rand Liberalism
Jim Jones Temple of Reason
Astrology Ram Dass
Zeitgeist the Movie

Atheist Cults

Holy, Holy, Holy

Logo Evidently 'cult' must mean, 'not the church.' But any cultural definition of a 'cult' will over-shoot the mustard shrub in one direction or another, either when it is a tiny planting or when it has grown to a mature, respectable size which dwarfs nearby plantings. Culture, as a human production, is not a category into which Christ's body can be fitted in any case. If "our total culture" is the culture of Noah's day, just before it started to rain, then heaven help practitioners of the 'religion' considered 'normative.'

Somehow or other the term 'cult' has lost the studied neutrality which recommended it to the liberal authors from whom Dr. Martin borrowed it. The mainstream media use the term themselves for groups who endanger civil tranquility, like the terrorist Aum Shinri Kyo, or David Koresh's Branch Davidians, but label as 'bigots' those who label larger groups like the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses as 'cults.' Unsure what the term is supposed to mean, I try to avoid using it, except when talking about Raelians and other atheists.

Any word, however faultlessly neutral in itself, applied to the category of the new religious movements will take on a pejorative cast simply from guilt by association. Groups like the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses are like each other in a meaningful way, in their novelty and intentional distance from Christian orthodoxy; and yet they do not want to be in the same category. Each wants to be contrasted with Christian orthodoxy, as if their own unique views were the 'default position' that the Bible student must adopt if convinced of the failure of orthodoxy. They want to enter the ring alone against one opponent; bringing this unruly mob all into the building together somehow dampens the atmosphere and ruins the effect. Categorizing them together high-lights the cacophony of inharmonious voices assailing orthodoxy from every conceivable direction. Once the inquirer understands that the doctrine of the Trinity is encompassed about by error, not in one direction, but at all compass points, this causes him to reflect. Certainly no one person can adopt all the heresies, as they contradict one another and cancel each other out.

  • "Division and dissension, contention, confusion and discord — these are among the prevailing characteristics of the sects of Christendom. These various sects or denominations — all holding to their particular creeds and practices — will never unite, except on one point: all will join hands to fight the truth and stand in opposition to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Jos. Smith 2:20-25).
  • "Existence of the sects of Christendom is proof positive of the universal apostasy. Truth is one; Christ is not divided; those who enjoy the Spirit, all speak the same things; there are no divisions among them; but they are 'perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.' (1 Cor. 1:10-13.) When Joseph Smith retired to the Sacred Grove, it was to ask the Lord which of all the sects was right and which he should join. The answer: 'I must join none of them, for they were all wrong.' (Jos. Smith 2:14-20)."
  • (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 699).


Logo Adopting a different term to replace the studiously neutral 'cult,' say 'new religious movement,' would soon be met by the same cries of 'bigotry!' The reader will notice in the above discussion from Bruce R. McConkie's 'Mormon Doctrine,' that the complainant sect, Mormon in this case, demands to be placed on a plane equivalent to Christendom, which category must expand to include every other Biblically deviant sect. Thus it is Christianity, not Mormonism, that stands accused of sectarianism! The complainant sect positions itself as the default choice versus 'apostate' Christianity. It should be apparent that 'apostate' Christendom cannot adopt a classificatory system of this sort, because these varied unbiblical novelties, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science et al, cannot all occupy the default position versus Biblical Christianity! If the toll to be paid to avoid hearing the cat-call 'bigot' is to adopt an impossible classificatory system in which every small dissident group in receipt of 'new light' must be placed on an equal correlative plane with Christendom, which must then in turn re-absorb this aberrant group before turning its attention to the next, then rational minds must resign themselves to hearing the cat-call of 'bigotry.' Classifying the 'cults' together, even though they hate it, at least allows the central category of 'Christendom' to remain stable and uniform.

Which of the new religious movements does not agree that the doctrine of the Trinity is absurd: 'ATHANASIAN CREED. . .Of all the major creeds, the so-called Athanasian is by far the most incomprehensible and difficult to understand. Of it Elder James E. Talmage says: 'It would be difficult to conceive of a greater number of inconsistencies and contradictions expressed in words as few.' (Articles of Faith, p. 48)." (Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce R. McConkie, p. 57). And yet if you ask them what, by contrast with orthodoxy, is the solution, the answer is a bedlam of ever-rising voices: polytheism, no Arianism; though perhaps the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses can agree on 'henotheism.' But then the Unitarians and  'Oneness' Pentecostals will not agree.

One cannot agree with the Catholics that the Bible is the root cause of this confusion, because the men behind these start-ups are not learned Bible scholars. Neither Mohammed ibn Abdallah, nor Charles Taze Russell, nor Joseph Smith, ever in his life gave an accurate verbal summary of this doctrine, nor isolated the scriptures used in its defense, nor explained them otherwise. Joseph Smith was a man who gazed at peep-stones hidden in his hat to find buried treasure. Mohammed ibn Abdallah was a camel thief. Charles Taze Russell was the most respectable of the lot, but he was a man without knowledge or insight. If there is, as they claim, some insufficiency in God's revealed word, then why is it left up to men like these to discover it?

Logo Moreover, surveys reveal that the Catholic Church provides a disproportionate share of recruits for groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses and 'Oneness' Pentecostals. They would do better to provide their own people with scriptural grounding to resist error rather than teaching them the Bible is inadequate! They insist upon teaching in particular that the doctrine of the trinity is not Biblical, an implanted misconception which ripens in time into the bitter fruit of allegiance to heresy. To judge by the statistics, if reliance upon scripture alone is not a fail-proof defense, reliance upon tradition leads to rout.

Where then, does heresy arise, if not from any ambiguity or inadequacy inherent in scripture? Part of the problem is 'over-correction,' as when a motorist, suddenly aware he is drifting into the oncoming lane, yanks the wheel and ends in the opposite ditch:

"We do not admire all the opinions of the man [Dionysius of Alexandria], and there are some we disagree with altogether. In fact, as regards this present impiety which is being spread abroad, I mean that of the doctrine of unlikeness, this man is, as far as we know, the one who first furnished its seeds. Still, I think the cause is not perversity of judgment, but the excessive desire of opposing Sabellius. At all events, I like to compare Dionysius with a gardener, who, in endeavoring to correct the distortion of a bent young tree, misses the mean entirely by excessive counterpull, drawing the plant over to the opposite extreme. We find something similar has happened in the case of this man. For, while vehemently opposing the impiety of the Libyan, he has by his excessive love of display been unconsciously carried over to the opposite evil." (Basil the Great, Letters, Letter No. 9).

Beside the force of 'over-correction' by well-meaning people, there is the matter of empire-building. Starting one's own religion has its attractions:


Logo It should be apparent that words like 'cult' and 'heresy' are applied to different targets by various adherents of 'orthodoxy.' Which 'orthodoxy'? In this Catholic author's mind, fundamentalists fit snugly with the 'New Age;' they are all heretics, to him:

"It was a golden age if you wanted to talk about UFOs or crystals, the Kama Sutra or the I Ching. It was a fertile period if you said 'Christianity' but meant fundamentalism or Marxism or the New Age, the gospel of the flower children or the gospel of health and wealth." (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Chapter Two, Kindle location 1218).

Needless to say, fundamentalists do not perceive that they belong in this company. Isn't this the $64,000 question: What is orthodoxy? Even the criteria by which to recognize it are themselves matters of controversy. Roman Catholics do not admit the scriptures are a self-sufficient, self-authenticating standard. That the Bible has convinced, and continues to convince, millions of its own truth is a fact outside their experience:

"The Book will prove itself if you will let it; there is living power in it." (How to Study the Bible, Dwight L. Moody, Kindle location 164).

To those who do uphold such Bible standard, however, it imposes a very strict discipline; it is by no means true that scripture is vague, imprecise, or elastic. The fact that many denominations, including the Catholics, look to other sources for information introduces a 'wild card' into doctrine which cannot be blamed on the Bible.

The reader may wonder why another 'apologetics' web-site is needed; don't they abound? Isn't 'apologetics' pursued by many in our modern day, very successfully, with great expertise? Certainly there are geniuses at work, like Sam Shamoun. But personally, when I heard the heretics disputing with the orthodox, I often felt the heretics spoke better. The 'apologists' relied upon very weak arguments from authority. Everything is made to depend upon certain hermeneutic principles, rules for scriptural interpretation, taught in evangelical seminaries, but neither self-evident, nor self-authenticating, nor taught in the Bible: 'A text without a context is a pretext,' etc. The heretics quite properly ignore these rules, which were ignored also by the apostles, who routinely cite cherry-picked, decontextualized verses. These principles arise from the liberal belief  that the Bible is a man-authored production, which is at best a partial truth.  So I give you, Dear Reader, a web-site guaranteed to be free of the Argumentum ad Verecundiam.