Thursday, January 10, 2013

A cult by any other name stinks as foul

First, over at Pyro I used Franklin Graham's lame rationale for removing Mormonism as a cult from their web page as an opportunity to launch twin salvos. First, I targeted his organizations playing of "the Calling card." Second, I did a riff on thoughts expressed in verses such as Titus 1:9, revealing the nature of God's actual "call" to Christian leaders.

Then, Jesse (not "James" but) Johnson over at Cripplegate singled out the issue of what a cult actually is, and then the sub-question of whether Mormonism fits the definition.

I think Jesse agreed with everything I said (which wasn't really about the meaning of the word "cult"), and used it as a launching pad for his related discussion.

That said, I am going to commend the article to you and say that I fundamentally agree with everything Jesse says in it, and with the difficulties he raises. Then for my part, I'll use his article as a launching-pad for a proposal to address the issues he raises. I'll do it here because Frank has hijacked Pyro this week for a terrific series on Passion 2013, and I have some hot items already on-tap for Pyro. And this blog has been too idle. So:

What if we were to abandon the use of the word "cult" as too non-specific and too-problematic? Leave it to the OT scholars, with their special little use for their special little world.

What if, instead, we were to use three basic categories? To wit:

Category One: 
False World Religions

Basically, this would be every world religion other than Biblical Christianity. There is no Gospel, per se, in these religions whatsoever — except insofar as you want to stretch that term to its snapping-point as a catch-all for false religions' diagnoses of and prescriptions for the human dilemma. So this is the category for Hinduism, Buddhism, Confuscianism, and the like.

Category Two: 
Damning Perversions of Christianity

These are religions that pervert the Gospel and other central Biblical truths to the extent that any adherent who embraces the official position is unsaved, is still under God's wrath, and will go to Hell.

This is where we would easily categorize Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and Islam, for starters. Full preterism would go here as well, denying the cardinal doctrine of the bodily return of Christ, and so mangling hermeneutics as to render the Bible meaningless.

Category Three: 
Aberrant Christian Teachings

These would be movements that are right on the Gospel and the core doctrines, but vary to a harmful degree on other important teachings. I would categorize leaky-Canonism here, partial preterism, and other teachings.


Now, this is just a proposal for discussion.

What I like about it is that it resists postmodernistic temptations to find neutral definitions. It is not motivated by a burning desire to remove the offense of the Cross, and to be well-liked. It puts the Cross and God's Word front and center, where they should be. Dainty accomodationist elitists may not like it for that very reason.

But against it is the fact that it still doesn't answer all possible questions.

Where, for instance, would Seventh Day Adventism fit? I'd argue that some Seventh Day Adventists fit under the second category, while others fit under the third. And certainly the third category would require a lot of argumentation and discussion. Blindered covenant-theology hardcores like would put dispensationalism under the third, all the while eyeing the second with a fond sigh. Dispensationalists in turn would put those hardcores under the third. And some reconstructionists would put them both under there.

However, given that no humanly devised taxonomy would be without problems, is this a preferable way forward, an improvement over the less-nuanced "cult"?


Glade Diviney said...

Speaking as an ex-Mormon convert to Christianity, I think calling Mormon doctrine a "damning perversion of Christianity" has an edge over the term "cult". Your phrase is more precise.

However I think there are still problems. Calling something a "perversion" of anything is sure to offend, and perhaps for the wrong reason. Then you have on top of this the term "Christianity", which is so badly diluted that blog authors must modify it with an adjective to clarify what they mean by it :)

What about categorizing religious communities, and the doctrines they push, in relationship to Christ Himself?

There are religions that bear little or no relationship to Christ at all. These Christ-less.

There are religions that teach about Christ in such a way as to actually exclude people from His blessings. For example, the Judaizers Paul spoke of. They are Christ-excluding.

There are religions that preach Christ but get certain parts wrong. Perhaps dangerously. But they preach salvation in Christ by Faith and do their best to follow what was taught and handed down by the Apostles. These are Christ-following, to various arguable degrees.

Christ-excluding might offend Mormons as much as the term "cult"...but perhaps for the right reasons?

DJP said...

First, praise God for His work in your life! Wonderful, wonderful to hear.

Second, fair enough. My goal is not to not offend, though of course I don't want to offend unnecessarily. The dainty elite seem to have as their goal the avoidance of hurting anyone's feelings, and want to make sure no false teacher goes away feeling bad about his false teaching. That isn't my goal. To say the least.

I wonder whether "distortion" would serve just as well, or better? And I'd be okay with "Fatal Distortions of Christianity" — the point being to indicate that these are not peripheral quibbles, but central catastrophic errors.

I do like your idea of targeting; but still of course Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons would reply that they aren't Christ-excluding. And they aren't. They "include" a false Christ. So I think that has to go in there somewhere.

For instance: Christless and False-Christ?

But still, what to use for the third category, to indicate that they may be brothers in Christ, but their teaching is false and harmful?

Mizz Harpy said...

I have to ponder this but am wondering what ever happened to the words 'heretic' and 'heresy'? What did the early church fathers call those people, what we call cults today, who denied the Trinity or had very peculiar views on the Trinity? Aren't most things we call cults today such as Mormonism, Jehovah's Witness or modalist recycled heresies? I'm not calling for burning here but maybe for a response that makes folks run naked from bath houses rather than associate with 'damnable cult members'.

DJP said...

Right, but those terms are used with imprecision as well.

Glade Diviney said...

Thanks for your response Dan!

You make excellent points. False-Christ is probably an improvement. However, in many conversations I have seen, when we go the "your church preaches a false Christ" route, we quickly end up with a kind of doctrine-wonk debate (e.g. was Athanasius right?) that is rarely helpful.

The perfect term for category #2, I think, would focus the discussion on the most important difference: does your church try to substitute itself in the place of Jesus? Does it demand things that Jesus never demanded? Then it excludes YOU from a direct, unmediated relationship with Him, where you can receive grace and grow in true faith. If your faith-object is your church, not Jesus, then something is badly amiss.

As for Category #3, your sharp eyes picked up my intentional blurring between Christ-confessing churches that endorse damaging but non-damning error, and churches that don't. That's because I know of no church that is free of error. And I guess I don't feel qualified to judge between what is a "dangerous" or "non-dangerous" error, and too often see arguments about that difference lead to pointless division. Of course, YMMV.

Ken said...

I don't see why or how you put "partial preterism" in the category of aberrant Christian teaching.

I guess you would include Amillennialism and an Evangelical Postmillennialism (not the liberal brand) also as "aberrant"; right?

Charismatic Christianity and Pentecostalism also? ( I disagree with them also, and pretty much agree with McArthur and Cessationism (because any openness - "opens" one up to too much subjectivity and goofiness in a worship service or meeting), but also I appreciate the way Piper handles "continuationalism" - but I am uncomfortable with Grudem's take on prophesy (it is weird and doesn't seem seem right) and I don't like Sam Storms Vineyard connections and attitude of "if you believe you cannot say those sign gifts have ceased, then you have to take risks in seeking them diligently - I Cor. 12:31; 14:1" kind of thing. Piper does not seem to operate that way in his preaching. but his going to the Toronto Blessing and being open was really, really weird.

Category 3 does not seem to even go with the title and subject of your post - why not a separate article on "secondary issues" - that good Christians can disagree on? (like infant and believer's baptism)

What is "leaky Canonism" ?

is that your term or an official designation?

Ken Temple

Ken said...

I would also say that Islam goes in category 1; although it is also something that took from the previous revelations of Judaism and Christianity. It is more of a Judaism/law/theocracy type of world religion and polticial state system. It only takes a few little things about Christ as true, but distorts them - that He is called Messiah, Virgin Birth, did miracles, great prophet.

I would put the Word of Faith movement in category 2.

threegirldad said...

Dan: Now, this is just a proposal for discussion. What I like about it is that it resists postmodernistic temptations to find neutral definitions. It is not motivated by a burning desire to remove the offense of the Cross, and to be well-liked.

Glade Diviney: Calling something a "perversion" of anything is sure to offend, and perhaps for the wrong reason.

Dan: My goal is not to not offend, though of course I don't want to offend unnecessarily...I wonder whether "distortion" would serve just as well, or better?

distort (v.), 2 give a misleading or false account or impression of

pervert (v.), 1 distort or corrupt the original course, meaning, or state of (something)


Dan: And I'd be okay with "Fatal Distortions of Christianity"

As someone famous likes to say: "Aha!"

Mizz Harpy said...

I don't think the terms heretic or heresy are so imprecise when referring to incorrect views on the Trinity or soteriology (as far as law vs. grace). The arguments and creeds were made a long time ago the dust has settled and the reappearance, near acceptance and tolerance of these heresies is inexcusable. I guess I don't know how to define a cult other than a group that is separated with it's own peculiar beliefs that may or may not be heretical as far as the Five Solas, the inspiration of scripture or the Trinity ex. some charismatic groups or KJV onlyists would be examples of cults.

I remember reading Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults and thinking that maybe he was a little confused on how to classify Seventh Day Adventists. It seems they are abandoning or down playing some of their more peculiar beliefs and we're left with something that's basically sound at least as it is practiced in most of their churches.

Some writers who encountered Islamic teachings during the 7th to 9th century (ballpark figure here) thought Islam was a Christian heresy since some Islamic beliefs were derived from Christian and Jewish teaching.

Jesse said...


I like your post, and agree. Those catagories are helpful. I'm also totally cool with the word "heresy" and "heretic."

I'm also fine with using the category of those that deny the Nicene Creed as being heritics or even a cult in the Christian sense of the word. But then you have to deal with the whole descended into hell thing, and that just becomes a tangent...

Thanks for your work on this topic. I'm thankful.

Solameanie said...

The apologetics ministry with which I was formerly affiliated used the following definition - designed to be as non-litigious as possible:

"Two or more people who have a real or imaginary need that they are trying to meet or fulfill by believing that which is false about the person and work of the biblical Jesus Christ."

We would have loved to see a judge rule on that in a court of law.

JG said...

Dan seeking nuance? Are we still on earth? (I kid, I kid)

I heard something once I hope you don't mind me sharing:

To figure out if a group is a cult, of any stripe, there is a simple "mathematical" formula:
>>Does it ADD to the Word of God, that is the 66 cannonized books of the Bible?
>>Does it SUBTRACT from the divinity of Christ, co-equal with God the Father?
>>Does it MULTIPLY the requirements for salvation, beyond "by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone?"
>>Does it DIVIDE the believer's loyalty between God and man?

As far as using the actual label "cult," well, if I am speaking in a public forum (like my blog) or with one of my Mormon friends, I don't use it. Hopefully the reasons are obvious. That's if I was speaking to someone either A) non-religious/a member of the belief system in question or B) a Christian who isn't very well-grounded in basic doctrine.

However, if I am talking to a Christian who understands the importance of those above distinctions, I would answer yes, that's a cult. Not because they sacrifice cats, but because if all those 4 conditions above are present, they are generally accompanied by cultural restrictions that we would normally identify with cult-like behavior: fashion and diet restrictions, discouragement from significant relationships outside the belief system, etc.

Along that vein, I was disturbed that the Graham people removed Mormonism from their list. I *get* the whole "it's an impediment to evangelism" side. But it unfortunately muddies the waters and confuses young/weak believers and non-believers. And I do know of at least one instance where the accusation was that, based on the timing, it was done for political advantage. "You people thought Mormonism was a cult till a Mormon was running for President against a black man." (Direct from facebook) I think, if it was going to be done at all, it either should have happened during the primaries, or after the election.

Steve said...

Please add radical dipensationalism to the "aberrant category".

Steve said...

How about a general category of NON BIBLICAL world religions?

DJP said...

Why? It's not a category I've ever heard of and wouldn't carry any meaning.

However, for those who understand the meaning of the technical term, hyperdispensationalism would fit as an aberrant, harmful teaching.

Cathy M. said...

I like these categories, especially "damning perversion of Christianity" as a substitute for "cult." The phrase is much more descriptive than the word which many people don't understand.

"Aberrant" is also a good description of a lot of silly stuff in the charismatic realm. In my limited experience, many charismatics also deny the trinity, and leap into the "damning perversion" category. They seem to be well tolerated in charismatic assemblies even when the official position is trinitarian (or maybe that's just in my area.)

DJP said...

Sad but true. "Yeah, but he speaks in tongues" seems to get people a pass just with some people as much as skin-color does with others in the political realm.