Friday, September 27, 2013

What is a cult?

An intense local "stand-off" has been an active news story in East Texas for a month or so now. Parents of 26-year-old Catherine Grove of Arkansas claim their daughter is being "brainwashed" and held by members of The Church of Wells. Groves' parents and others have called The Church of Wells a cult. As a parent, I wouldn't want a religion to separate my children and me. On the other hand, Catherine is an adult and free to choose what she will do, where she will spend her life, and who and how she will worship.

Even though Wells is an East Texas town less than an hour's drive from my home, I have no direct knowledge of this church or this situation. I am not going to try to figure who is right and who is wrong (or what percentage of right and wrong might accrue to either side). My point in bringing this up is not to assess the problems in Wells, but to consider the oft-thrown-out accusation of a religious group being a cult.

What is a cult? Yesterday I heard Ron Rhodes on the radio speaking about this very thing. His view of a cult was a group that derivative from a "host" religion, claiming to be the true version of that religion while denying one or more orthodox and historic essentials of that religion. This is pretty much in accord with how I was raised to view a cult. For example, our church understood groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology to be cults because they denied certain orthodox essentials generally agreed upon by those denominated Christians.

In discussions about groups like the church at Wells, I believe a different definition is used (and maybe no definition at times). 

On web site says that cults are: [1] Exclusive (we're the only ones with the truth); [2] Secretive (certain teachings are not available to outsiders and sometimes only to certain members) and [3] Authoritarian (leader or leaders expect "total loyalty and unquestioned obedience").

One motivation for calling a group a cult is when they differ from the prevailing "status quo" of their surrounding society. They may look different, act different, maintain separation, or any number of things their "neighbors" find suspicious or offensive. It is dangerous for Christians to buy in to calling groups that are different cults according the new prevailing attitude. Yes, we may think that a group is unbiblical and outside the norm, but in a free society that holds freedom of religion, these believers have the right to follow their convictions. They must answer to God, but not to me. 

This latter way of describing a cult is popular in the secular media. Label a group a cult  -- like the Branch Davidians -- and suddenly it is widely popular for citizens to agree with sending troops to arrest or kill them and then justify it as a necessary action. 

Beware of buying into this mentality. One day "historic Christians" who desire to obey God rather than men may look like cults to the average American. Those who blend in will not be offensive. Where will you be?

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