Q – While I am completely comfortable with your teaching and the lessons we have been learning from your messages, I am curious how to detect a cult vs. a reformed belief system.
Jim – It seems that whenever someone does not understand what we teach, or they understand it enough to disagree with it, rather than deal with the substance of our position they simply resort to name-calling. And, of course, the most popular epithet thrown around in religious circles is “cult.”
Oddly enough, the original definition of the word “cult” is quite different from the connotative meaning the word now has. The word came into the English language from the Latin “cultis,” which denotes everything that is involved in worship, ritual, and liturgy. In other words, “cult” actually applies to any denomination or sect, so pretty much every religious movement would, by definition, be a cult. But nowadays it’s used liberally to designate any group or movement that seems to fall outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy.
You specifically asked about the difference between a cult and reformed theology, but the fact of the matter is that genuine cults are not confined to any particular theological system. There may be Reformed Churches that incorporate cultic practices just as easily as any Catholic, Mormon, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist church. The earmarks of a cult are defined by certain activities and practices more than by their doctrine, although their doctrine may be part and parcel of their whole method.
The reality is that any organization can have the telltale markings of a cult, regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack of one). Many anti-cult organizations have branded Amway as a cult because of how they manipulate people. Or, programs like Lifespring, Scientology/Dianetics, or the Unification Church have been identified as using cultic techniques.
Every cult, by definition, has certain traits in common. When you see any organization display those traits, you’re dealing with a cult. Inversely, if you come across an organization that you don’t understand, but which does not have those traits, you are not dealing with a cult. So, let’s look at some of those traits.
The first sign of a dangerous cult is any organization or religion that has a powerful, charismatic person at the top of a pyramid-like organizational structure. In religious applications, he or she may claim special knowledge or special status with God. They are normally above questioning. They are unassailable because they claim God-given authority.
The second sign of cultic activity is when that person at the top uses his power to abuse the conscience of those who follow him. He will typically intrude on every area of their life, including where they live, what job to work, who to marry, etc. To question any of his decisions or dictates is tantamount to rebellion against God-ordained leadership. Such rebels are usually disciplined, driven out of the fellowship, excommunicated or consigned to eternal punishment.
That leads to the third sign of a cult: mind control. Sometimes this is called “thought reform,” but the result is the same. Through the use of systematic dictates, social pressure, fear and intimidation the adherents of the group are made to think monolithically. There is no room for self-decision or independent thinking. This results in the leadership having genuine control over their members in order to keep them locked into the group. This abuse of individual freedom may be spiritual, social and/or psychological.
The fourth sign of a cult is their propensity to separate the members from their family, friends, and anyone who may try to talk them out of the group. Often this includes television, newspapers, movies, etc. Anything that may present an alternative view is forbidden and deemed evil or spiritually dangerous. Consequently, most cult members wind up not only breaking all contact with their family and friends, but also actually considering them evil and dangerous. The member will defend the group above defending their family, parents, husband, wife or children.
As often as not, cults will insist that members give up all their “worldly” possessions, normally by selling them and giving the money to the leadership. It is not uncommon to see the leader living in splendor while the adherents live at poverty level. Usually, this is accomplished by convincing the members that their worldly goods will keep them from reaching some spiritual plateau – like Nirvana, Ultimate Reality, or Heaven.
Cults normally have an elitist view of themselves as contrasted with others. They may have a “unique cause” that sets them apart. They believe they are the only ones who are right or who know “the truth.” Everyone else is wandering in darkness for refusing to adhere to this truth. The “us against them” mentality is fostered and utilized to control the members. Paranoia and persecution complexes permeate most cults.
Often times, sleep deprivation is used – perhaps along with strict dietary rules – to deplete the will of the individual and keep them in bondage to the group. And, most cults make examples of people who have left in order to threaten current members against leaving. They may even threaten ex-members in order to keep them quiet and stop them from revealing what actually goes on inside the group.
To the watching world, friends and family, there is a marked change in the personality of someone who is under the influence of a cult. Parents often say, “It’s like he’s a different person.” They often don’t understand the powerful influence that has invaded their child’s life. The cult member will take on an air of righteousness and will heap abuse and rejection on those who are not in the group. Some groups even insist on members changing their names to create their new identity within the cult and outside of their family and heritage.
So, allow me a moment to defend GCA. I don’t normally feel it’s necessary to mount a defense, considering our history and openness, but since the subject has come up. If you consider what goes into genuinely cultic activity, I think you’ll recognize easily that GCA fails to qualify in any of the above areas. For instance, we do not interfere in people’s personal lives. Where spiritual matters are concerned, we teach the Bible and leave it up to you and God to work it out.
We do not exercise any sort of mind control. In fact, rather than be unquestionable and unassailable, I welcome questions, comments and interaction even as I preach. I am a great fan of individual freedom of thought and conscience, and anyone who has listened to our teaching for any length of time will find themselves encouraged to think and read the Scripture for themselves.
We do not insist on financial support. In fact, we don’t even take up offerings. We have a box attached to the wall in the front foyer. People give according to their hearts, as the Apostle Paul taught. They give in order to keep the ministry going and pay our bills. But, even after seven years, I have refused to be paid for my work. I certainly do believe that Christians ought to support the body they worship with and give where they are taught (again in line with Paul’s teaching), but I don’t personally know how much any individual gives. The officers of the church handle the money and I never see it or count it.
The structure of GCA is designed specifically to avoid any appearance of a pyramid style organization. I am responsible to the officers of the church and cannot impose my personal theology or any corrupt doctrine without the officers intervening on behalf of the body. No one is psychologically persuaded or made to feel guilty for disagreeing with us or leaving the fellowship. In fact, I’m happy to say that, even though folk have left for various reasons like school, job transfers, etc, no one has ever left us in anger or because they thought we were dangerous or in any way cultic.
And, of course, we are very pro-family and have never encouraged anyone to argue with his or her loved ones over what we teach. Yes, we believe in sound doctrine and “the faith once delivered to the saints.” But, we also understand that it is the grace of God that opens people’s hearts to understand His word. So, we do not denigrate or insult family and friends who fail to see things our way. And, it is my firm conviction that man’s first ministry is to his family.
It is always fun when family members come to visit. Some are pensive because we meet in a converted house. Some are concerned over the fact that we use biblical terms like “predestination” or “election.” Then they meet us, spend time listening, and realize that we’re just people digging into the Word and following after Christ to the best of our ability. I’ve never had a single visitor – family, friend or stranger – who did not come away saying they enjoyed our time together. They have not all returned, but they’ve never left angry, scared or upset.
So, in conclusion, I suppose we will always have to deal with people who do not understand us. And, they – for lack of a better term – may brand us a cult. All that shows is that they do not understand the term “cult” and how a cult is identified. Nor do they understand their Bibles very clearly.
When we first moved into our new property one of the neighbors came out and asked us what kind of church we were. I told them we were Reformed. That didn’t seem to help. I said that we were Calvinistic. Still nothing. She asked if we were Charismatic and I said no. Then, she asked the question that was really on her mind. “Do you handle snakes?”
I answered, “Only the two-legged kind.”
We’ve been friendly neighbors ever since.
Thanks for asking. It’s a good question. I hope this cleared things up.
Yours in Him,