Question:I have just viewed your web site, and once again have seen cults included in a listing of Christian denominations. I fail to understand why church of Christ folk do this. I have emailed a few different ones, asking for an answer, but no one seems to want to respond. As someone who has studied the cults for 40 years, I am appalled that such groups as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists, and others are included under the heading of "Christian denominations." There is quite a difference! Do the church of Christ folk not understand the difference, or do they simply assume that everyone who claims to follow Jesus Christ is a "denomination"?
I am aware of the churches of Christ stand against denominations, but this does not make such a blatant disregard for proper "labeling" of cults and denominations. Would you care to "enlighten" me on the reason for lumping the two together?
- A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. [Google Dictionary]
- "According to cult expert David Halperin, most cults are groups organized for the purpose of venerating an authoritarian, usually self-proclaimed leader. This leader claims to have a special relationship with God or with some other supernatural force, a relationship that imbues him or her with special powers." [A Parent's Guide To Teens And Cults].
- A group or branch of any religion
The two definitions allow overlap. Some groups start out as cults, but then develop into a denomination. For example, the Mormons started out as a cult following of Joseph Smith, the Jehovah's Witnesses started out following Charles Taze Russell, the Seventh-Day Adventists started out following Ellen G. White, and the Christian Scientists follow Mary Baker Eddy. While their beginnings were cultish, these groups have morphed into something else. Among other things, they are no longer small groups, which is a common factor in a cult. Some have added additional "leaders" to their groups.
Unitarian-Universalists have never been defined as a cult. They did not form around a dynamic leader who claimed power from God. It was a merger between a Unitarian and a Universalist group. I will agree that their teachings are so liberal that few would recognize them as Christian, but extreme views is not what defines a cult.
All of these groups consider themselves to be a branch off of Christianity. All claim to follow the New Testament, but add documents to define their particular group. This is no different than any denomination with statements of faiths, creeds, handbooks, etc. to define why they are different from other denominations. When a cult claims to be following the Bible, though they flock around a dynamic leader, it is still a division off of Christianity.
The problem I have with this is, that the definition of "cult" which I use in my research is much more detailed than the two definitions you give from the Google Dictionary and Halperin's work. It is a theological definition, as opposed to the popular or media definition, or that used by sociologists. As such, groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Science, Unitarian-Universalists, etc., are still classified as cults, and not as Christian denominations. Here is the definition I use:
"A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible." [Alan Gomes, Unmasking the Cults]
Thus, by this definition, the groups mentioned above are all "cults of Christianity," not denominations of Christianity. I say "cults of Christianity" because there are other groups, such as the Hare Krishna group, that are cults of other religions. (Krishna would be considered a cult of Hinduism, as its "parent" is the Hindu religion). These groups (Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormon, etc.) all claim to be the true representative of the Christian religion, yet they deny most - or all - of the central doctrines of the Christian faith, most notably the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Person and work of Christ.
I am not saying that the definitions you gave are wrong; Halperin's definition is from the sociological or behavioral perspective (see also the work of Ronald Enroth). While it serves its purpose, it should be complemented by a theological definition (such as Gomes') to get a more complete picture. Not all cults will demonstrate the sociological aspects, although they may initially show such signs (the Mormons come to mind).
I see no problem with the various denominations stating their doctrinal positions with such things as creeds and handbooks, etc., as long as what they state is consistent with the Scriptures as they understand them. Denominations are in agreement on the central doctrines of the Christian faith. Some of the minute details may differ slightly, but again, it is as the Scriptures are understood. This does not warrant placing denominational groups in the same category as the cults, for again the cults deny these central tenets of the Christian faith.
I am sure that you and I do not understand the Scriptures the same on every doctrinal issue. As I have researched the church of Christ, I have discovered several areas with which I disagree - and I am Restoration Movement as well! For example, I am premillennial in my eschatology; I understand the instrumental music question differently; I do not hold to the idea of an "adulterous marriage" as some church of Christ folk teach it; baptism is another area in which I probably slightly differ. But I hold to the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, salvation through His finished work at Calvary, the bodily resurrection of Christ and His physical return. I could go on, but this should suffice.
The problem is that by altering the accepted definition of a word in order to claim a point, language no longer has meaning and the point is not made. As William Pickney once observed, "A definition is no proof."
You claim to use a theological definition for the word cult -- one that you acknowledge is not how people use the word in the English language. Yet you asked a question without indicating that you use an altered definition. It is no wonder you don't accept people's answers or they yours. You are not talking the same language.
In reality, a theological definition is one based on religion and in Christianity such definitions must come from God. But God didn't define "cult," so, therefore, the definition you wish to use is arbitrary.
The definition is also meaningless as it is based on "the central doctrines of the Christian faith." The decision as to which doctrines are central is a choice made by man. God doesn't state that some of His commands are critical and others are optional. As you pointed out, the various denominations all teach different doctrines. So who determines which brand is the correct doctrine? As an example, a number of denominations teach that salvation is by faith alone -- a teaching not found in the Bible; in fact, it is a direct contradiction of "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). By your definition of cult, I should be calling most of the world's denominations cults because they disagree with a direct statement of God's.
In reality the definition you gave basically states that any group that a person disagrees with strongly is a "cult" and any where the disagreement is mild is a "denomination." It elevates an individual's personal judgment as the standard that others should follow.
Members of the Lord's church recognize that Jesus is Lord and his covenant -- the New Testament, is the only standard. "Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus" (II Timothy 1:13). We measure ourselves and everyone else against that one fixed standard. That you disagree with God's teachings on a number of issues doesn't make your view correct. You will notice that in my teaching I try to carefully cite what God says on issues and draw conclusions from that. After all it isn't about you or me, but God alone. "For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ" (Galatians 1:10).