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Am I in a cult?

This post is adapted from an original on 7 November 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. It asks what a cult is and how to recognise if you’re in one, and applies a simple test to Bishop Brian Tamaki and Destiny Church.

On the corner of the street to my house, there is a church who sends out missionaries door to door asking others if they have ever thought about death and if there’s a heaven. Down the road to my church there is a different church that meets on Saturday and has similar missionaries who speak about how the church is our mother and part of the trinity. There has been talk in the media that Bishop Brian Tamaki, who leads the Destiny Church of New Zealand, is in fact a cult leader. But to these people, I am the one who is down the road, attending the ‘other’ church and in a congregation similar to the Bishop’s. They might think I’m the one in a cult! So it’s important to understand just what a cult is and how to recognise one when you see it.

The language we use is really important. Traditionally, “cult” just means deviation from the mainstream of its historic representative, but common usage of the word also denotes something sinister. “There’re a group of religious fanatics,” we might have said of the followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh before the unspeakable happened. Ever since if did happen, being labeled a ‘cult group’ is something everyone wants to avoid, not to mention actually being in one. It’s evident from clear examples that the problem with being in a cult is not that the religious adherents are insincere or sincere: their motivation is not a factor. The problem is more what people are motivated to do with their beliefs. Do they keep their faith private, or do they knock on the door and declare themselves, or do they drink the cool-aid?

Our language can also define who we are and how we interact with the world. Our use of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in various situations will influence not only who we marginalise and choose to unify with, but also how we view ourselves in relation to other groups. This will provide either a positive or negative self-image, which will be internalised and projected to the world.

Since it’s so important, we need a guide to evaluate what makes a group a “cult”?

As mentioned, traditionally a cult is a ‘deviation from mainstream,’ but that word deviation is problematic because deviations come in a spectrum and orient themselves in contrast to the mainstream which is often hard to identify. Accordingly, there are at least four different methods people have used to evaluate if a group is a cult.

  • the Top-Down approach. This looks to the cults that we know of and seeks to find the points of dissimilarity and similarity between them and compare them to orthodox, historic Christianity. This is a good approach, but it has its weaknesses. For instance, when another group pops up, you always have to consult your definition of what it is to be a cult. If it doesn’t fit, you might have to expand your definition, and you can never be sure you’re not reasoning in a circle – arguing from your conclusion instead of to it.
  • the Bottom-Up approach. This formulates a list of criteria from scratch and evaluates each group to see if they meet each criterion. This is also a good approach but the danger is you miss one or two groups that refuse to fit the mould you constructed for them.
  • the Theologically approach. Like the Bottom-up approach this formulates a list of criteria, but restricts the list to certain doctrines. This is an excellent approach, but again has its weaknesses. I’ve seen lists of up to fifteen essential doctrines, where if on any point there is disagreement, then the whole group is written off as cultic and never to be associated with again. Besides, it’s difficult to evaluate the importance of one doctrine over another. It’s also difficult to discern if one should take the official statements of belief, the general spoken beliefs of a preacher who is in the moment, or the beliefs of the people in the congregation as normative.
  • the Sociological approach. Here one would look for signs in the community, like religious enthusiasm, gathering around a strong leader, strict codes of behaviour, separation of the laity with the leadership, a distancing of the community from the world around them. The weakness is here is that none of these things are overtly wrong, and every Christian community has elements of each. All of these elements however can be taken to the extreme end of the scale. Also, when a variety of them compound exercising caution is advisable. The problem is one’s own preference and prejudices for their preferred style of church too easily an influences one’s judgement, making this approach is the least conclusive.

What I think is most valuable is a combination of the above methods. The late Dr. Walter Martin, author of Kingdom of the Cults, utilises mainly a combination of the Top-Down and the Theological method, with some consideration given to another method – Psychology, associated with the attraction to strong leadership, and manipulative methods of evangelisation and maintaining group membership. With that in mind, I formulated a long time ago a quick litmus test to see if a group were a cult. I suspect it’s not perfect, but for me it’s been helpful. In order of importance;

(1)  The Doctrine of the Trinity.

It appears that every cult gets the doctrine of the Trinity wrong. Belief about the Trinity is like a yardstick for the historic, orthodox Christian position. If they get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, it’s a fair indication they get other important things wrong as well.

(2)  One True Church

Cult groups usually believe they are the only ones who will attain salvation. Mainline Christian denominations do not believe this. Anglicans, for instance, have their own style and distinctive theological beliefs, but freely accept that their Baptist neighbours are brothers in Christ and saved even as they are. Pentecostals believe they are members of the body of Christ which is much larger than any label a church chooses to print on their letterhead. Most will say that those who never attend a church service in their life (though detrimental to their faith in practice and inadvisable if avoidable) can be saved.

(3)  Attitude when Leaving

A good indication to see if you are in a cult is to look at the attitude of those who leave the church to start attending another, or those who abandon their shared beliefs altogether. Do they experience a severing of relationship with those who remain? Would others who do remain be instructed to shun or separate themselves from their former friends and members of the church? If the answer is “Yes,” then this is not a good sign.

(4)  Encouraged to Question.

Another good indication is if members are encouraged to question and seek out answers for themselves. Consider, if you were to ask your pastor or church leader the trickiest, stickiest question your could think of – that really hard one you’ve been trying to avoid – would you be told you shouldn’t ask such questions? Would you be given a resource produced by your own denomination and told the answer is here – don’t look anywhere else; refrain from visiting certain websites; only attend bible-studies that are approved by us? Or would you be encouraged to search widely, and educate yourself on the issue; to read the scriptures without interpretive aids; to go to university or attend an inter-denominational Bible school? Are your questions stonewalled, or respectful disagreements ignored, or are you told you just have to accept some things and stay quiet? Are you given a pat answers that overly critical of other groups, or unsatisfying – perhaps illogical or unscriptural? Questions are powerful things. But the truth is not afraid of being asked questions. Cults generally are, and do what they can to subtly dissuade people from enquiring.

So put the litmus test to the test. Is Destiny church a cult? Emphatically, NO! (1) They are theologically conservative according to their statement of doctrinal beliefs, (2) do not consider themselves the one true church, (3) are not isolationist in orientation to other churches, and (4) are encouraged to question with respect.

So when people call Destiny a cult, I wonder if they have ever thought the meaning of the word, or are using language as power-game to shout down a group they don’t like. What should be emphasised here is that Destiny may have cultish-tendencies sociologically (like many other large churches) yet remain not a cult. A good biblical response would be to pay careful attention to what they say and do rather than what the media says about them, balance their more extreme tendencies in our own churches, pray for our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and cultivate a friendship with them that exemplifies our love for Christ and his church.

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