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Originally written for Shepherd of the Ridge Lutheran Church, apply these ideas to your local context.
The word “cult” gets thrown around a lot these days. I’ve discussed the term with my Mormon friends, and every time Scientology rears its head, the term tends to accompany it. Some call Christianity a cult. Others refer to any religion as a cult. But a difference exists, and it’s an important one. Some parents have come to me and said, “My child has joined a particular church. Is it a cult? I heard it is.” Cults have certain characteristics, and contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with size. Cults can have less than a dozen or millions of members. What makes a religion a cult comes down to how it treats its members, not any specific teachings, however strange they seem. (We believe in one God Who is three distinct persons, that He became human and died while still remaining God, and that He will forgive all sins. Even Scientology’s belief in an alien invasion isn’t as strange as that!)
Cults all share, to a greater or lesser degree, these characteristics:
- Brainwashing: When joining a cult, the cult will hold back some of its teachings from you, only giving it piece by piece. Questions tend to be discouraged, especially if the question expresses doubt of the organization’s teachings. Anyone who suggests an alternate view faces reprimand or is gently encouraged to just trust the leadership without asking questions. Those who ask too many questions can be threatened with expulsion.
- Members are allowed limited information, such as being discouraged or forbidden from viewing mainstream media, allowed only to read or view materials approved by the organization’s leadership.
- Members who consider leaving the organization face ostracism from other members of the organization. Remaining members are encouraged to avoid the ex-member, and often, spouses are encouraged to divorce the exiting spouse.
- Members are discouraged from contact, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, with family or friends outside the cult except during proselytizing activities.
- They often have a single charismatic leader, although as cults age or grow, this can change or disappear or be replaced by a hierarchical structure. Regardless of the structure, the leadership is seen as infallible, often considered to be divine or receive immediate (i.e. without means like a book, rather directly through visions or dreams) revelation from the divine.
So take a look at your church. Is it a religion or a cult? Let’s take a look at The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, of which Shepherd of the Ridge is a member.
- I always tell students and members, “When you become a Christian, don’t check your brain at the door.” Keep asking questions. Keep reading and talking. Feel free to read the opponents of our beliefs and consider their arguments. I’m even running a study on Sunday mornings to consider the arguments of an atheist who claims to prove the Bible to be fallacious. If what we believe is true, and I believe it is or I wouldn’t have this job, then we have nothing to fear from opposing viewpoints.
- When someone wants to leave to join another church or leave Christianity altogether, while we will miss them and are concerned about them being deceived by false teachings, we encourage all to love them and continue to pray for them and help however we can. Spouses should always stay married.
- We see family and friends as blessings from God, and short of an abusive relationship or one wherein friends are causing someone to get into some kind of trouble (with the law, a marriage, etc.), we would never tell people whom they should or shouldn’t be friends with. In fact, we actively encourage friendships with those outside the church as an opportunity to serve those not being served, whether their needs are spiritual or physical.
- While we believe Jesus is God and thus infallible, we don’t consider our pastors infallible, and I always encourage people to correct me when they disagree with me and am always happy to discuss those issues and learn more.
The International Cultic Studies Association has a more comprehensive list if you’d like to see other common characteristics. Note that what constitutes a cult is not always black and white, but more like a sliding scale. Most religions express one or two of the characteristics on the ICSA checklist, but when those characteristics start adding up, the organization can be considered more cultic.
Think about some of the groups that are considered cults at times. Do they fit the description? Talk to your friends who may be involved in these groups, and ask what they believe and why. Talk about how your beliefs differ, and discuss together the merits of both. But most of all, love them. These are not your enemies—they are people Jesus died for. So love them as He has loved you.
I said above that we encourage questions, so feel free to post questions, comments, or dissent in the comments below.