What is a Cult and a Non-Christian cult in Christianity?

In todays debate between differing religious groups, it is inescapable to hear the “cult” label thrown around towards the opposing religious group. The word “cult” is used as an insult and is completely misused in today’s language. This leads religious groups to defend themselves against the epithet.

It is important to know what the word “cult” means, what it means to be in a “cult“, and what is the difference between Christian and Non-Christian cults. Also, it is important to identify false labels placed upon religious groups for the sole purpose of defaming them.

The common claim that a certain religion is not a cult

You will often hear specific religions referred to as a cult, while others escape this label. This label is used against Mormons (Latter Day Saint or LDS) and the Jehovah witnesses. In response, Mormon and Jehovah witnesses try to prove that they are not “cults.” Mormons state:

There are a few problems with classifying Mormonism as a cult. First is that we’re no “small religious group.” In fact, we’re 15 million members strong—and more than half of those are outside the United States.
9 More Things People Get Wrong About Mormons – lds.net

The Jehovah witnesses similarly defend themselves against the claim that they are a cult.

No, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult. Rather, we are Christians who do our best to follow the example set by Jesus Christ and to live by his teachings.
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult? – jw.org

The truth of the matter is, the size of the organization or the doctrinal beliefs of the religion do not negate the fact that they are a cult.

The definition of the word “Cult

Before we get into the actual definition of the word “cult“, we will observe the modern day definition of the word “cult” that Christians have developed.

Modern usage of the word “Cult

The great late Walter Martin, one of my favorite modern apologists, gives us a definition of the word “cult“.

A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.
Kingdom of the Cults, Chapter 1 pg 11 by Walter Martin

Like wise, Matt Slick from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, defines the word “cult” as the following.

Generally, it is a group that is unorthodox, esoteric, and has a devotion to a person, object, or a set of new ideas.
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry Cults! An outline analysis Matt Slick

These definitions of the word “cult” are extremely problematic. The definition of “cult” has been altered to mean something other than what it originally meant. This alteration has turned a harmless word into an attack word for insult.

The problem with the Modern definition of the word “Cult

These definitions are problematic in that they do not clearly distinguish between the cult and non-cult an turn a simple concept into a terribly convoluted one. Wikipedia states this well.

In the sociological classifications of religious movements, a cult is a religious or social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices. However, whether any particular group’s beliefs and practices are sufficiently deviant or novel is often unclear, thus making a precise definition problematic. In the English speaking world, the word often carries derogatory connotations
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia – Cult

So here we see the word “cult” currently has a derogatory meaning. These definitions are flat out incorrect.

The true definition of the word “Cult

The definition of the word “cult” is simple. “Cult” means:

A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object:

The cult of St. Olaf

Early 17th century (originally denoting homage paid to a divinity): from French culte or Latin cultus ‘worship’, from cult- ‘inhabited, cultivated, worshiped’, from the verb colere.
Oxford Dictionary – Cult

So a cult is a group of people who worship God or a person who is highly venerated. With this clear definition, not only are Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses a cult, Christianity itself is also a cult. Christianity is a cult because Christians: worship, have rituals in obedience to (Baptism and the Lords Supper), and maintain devotion to Jesus Christ. This is not negative or a bad thing what-so-ever.

A common misconception is that “cults” are manipulative “brainwashing” religions that will destroy your life and soul. This is not true.

Not all Cults brainwash people

An example of allegations that cults (specifically Christianity) are “bizarre”, “mind controlling”, “social outcasts” is the article called “The Christian Cult: Brainwash And Mind Control In The Name Of The Lord?.” The author, Tim Whiston paints Christianity as a “brainwashing” cult because, according to him, they: have “Irrational Beliefs,” “Isolation From Society,” “Recruit Others,” “Obtain Self Esteem From The Cult Collective,” and “Loss Of Logic, Individuality, And Objectivity.” While Christianity may fit some of these descriptions (It seems Tim Whiston has no idea what a Christian actually is), none of these characteristics define a cult or brainwashing.

To say Christians, Mormons, Jehovah witnesses or any other mainstream religion in a civilized country “brainwash” people, is to be ignorant and well misinformed on what brainwashing is.

Brain Washing

A forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas

Merriam-Webster Dictionary – brainwashing

Brainwashing is forced upon people not simply recruiting, vocalizing beliefs, salesmanship, or propaganda. If this were true then everyone who turns on the television is brainwashed by the U.S. government. If someone does not like Christianity, they can simply leave the organization and not come back. The people in religious cults willingly learn the doctrines.

Dangerous criminal cults

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. The Klu Klux Klan, Aum Shinrikyo, Children of God, Branch Davidians (David Koresh), and The People’s Temple (Jim Jones) to name a few. This is equally true for non-religious followings as well. Raëlism, Scientology (some may argue that they are a religion), Heaven’s Gate, Order of the Solar Temple, Villa Baviera, and the Cargo Cults are but a few. It is important to distinguish between a criminal organization and a normal religious cult. Just because a religion is a cult does not make it dangerous or criminal. None of these are accepted as christian in Christianity.

More allegations placed upon religious systems

As far as the other allegations made by Tim Whiston:

Irrational Belief: Atheistic Evolution is as irrational and unscientific as it gets, and they are not religious at all. As a matter of fact, mathematics is full of irrational concepts like Pi, Imaginary numbers, and so forth. Holding irrational beliefs is not wrong and in some cases, is the only way to solve problems. Irrationality of beliefs has nothing to do with cults or brainwashing.

Isolation From Society: Most cultists do not teach isolation from society at all. Christianity teaches “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.” (Joh 17:15 NAS) and “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.'” (Mar 16:15 NAS) Tim Whiston seems to think that if you voice your opinion about your convictions, then you are a brainwashing cultist. This would label the peace protests by the American people during Vietnam as cult activity.

Recruit Others: So if you recruit people to: donate blood, feed the homeless, go into the military to defend our country, or any other important issue in the world, then you are a brainwashing cultist according to this thinking. Having conviction and a desire to teach others morality does not make you a cultist. People that have no religion at all are against immorality.

Obtain Self Esteem From The Cult Collective: So if you go to an A.A. meeting and get encouragement to stop drinking, attend scout meetings, volunteer for hospitals or animal shelters, you are a brainwashed cultist according to his thought. All these activities are perfectly acceptable socialization solutions for helping a persons self esteem. Going to church or being a part of a religious establishment is no different.

Loss Of Logic, Individuality, And Objectivity: Christianity teaches plainly to be logical. The Bible says, “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD (Isa 1:18 NAS) There are countless cries from Christians for everyone to have a “personal relationship” with Christ. “There are reported to be approximately 41,000 Christian denominations” in the world that have differences in theology and thinking. This claim is generated from ignorance and a genuine hate for religion without presenting facts.

Everything Tim Whiston attributes to cults and brainwashing is completely off base. Believing in God and following a religion is not a bad thing. In fact bashing and hating people because they follow a religion is unacceptable, bigoted behavior.

Whats the difference between a Christian cult and Non-Christian cult

So now we understand what a cult is, we can go further to rightly label cults. Those cults who do not adhere to orthodox Christianity are called “Non-Christian Cults“. While Christianity is the “Cult of Jesus Christ,” Non-Christian cults are followers of a different religion all together. To be considered a Christian cult, the organization would need to believe the following teachings.

  1. There is only one God in Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit
  2. Christ was born of a Virgin
  3. Christ is sinless, 100% God and 100% Man
  4. Christ died for our sins
  5. Christ rose from the dead in 3 days in His literal body
  6. Christ ascended to heaven
  7. Christ sits at the right Hand of God
  8. Christ will come to judge the living and the dead.

These are absolutely essential for someone to claim Christianity. Anything different, even though they say they follow Christ, are labeled as Non-Christian cults. For example, If Hitler claimed to be a Christian, the Christian church will reject him and label him as a Non-Christian cultist, regardless of what Hitler claimed. Why? Because he taught nothing remotely close to Christian doctrine.

Why Jehovah witnesses are a Non-Christian cult

Jehovah Witnesses are Non-Christian cult because they teach the Holy Spirit is just a force and that Christ was created by God.

Is the firstborn Son equal to God, as some believe? That is not what the Bible teaches. As we noted in the preceding paragraph, the Son was created. Obviously, then, he had a beginning, whereas Jehovah God has no beginning or end.
Who is Jesus Christ – jw.org

The holy spirit is God’s power in action, his active force.
What is the Holy Spirit – jw.org

To deny the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit is against Christianity. Nobody will be accepted as a Christian if they deny these teachings. They are some other religion.

Why Mormon ( Latter Day Saints ) are a Non-Christian cult

The Mormons claim that Christianity is Apostate and the LDS church is the only true church. They teach that The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate gods.

The true doctrine of the Godhead was lost in the apostasy that followed the Savior’s mortal ministry and the deaths of His Apostles. This doctrine began to be restored when 14-year-old Joseph Smith received his First Vision (see Joseph Smith—History 1:17).

The Church’s first article of faith states, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” These three beings make up the Godhead. They preside over this world and all other creations of our Father in Heaven.
Godhead – lds.org

Mormons also teach that believers will become gods.

Latter-day Saint beliefs would have sounded more familiar to the earliest generations of Christians than they do to many modern Christians. Many church fathers (influential theologians and teachers in early Christianity) spoke approvingly of the idea that humans can become divine.
Becoming Like God – How have ideas about divinity shifted over Christian history ? – lds.org

Any teaching that there are multiple gods and that humans can become God, is completely apposed to Christianity. No Christian will ever accept this teaching. In fact, these teachings are Antichrist.

Conclusion of the usage of “cult

To use a word improperly as an insult is unacceptable and immature, especially if the word applies to your own religion. It is most important to point out the issue and not throw out words improperly in an attempt to win arguments. Instead of calling deviant, unorthodox, non-christian religions a cult, it would be more effective to point out the facts. In the case of the Mormon and the Jehovah witness, explaining why they are not Christians is more important than yelling “cult” and slamming the door. These religions think they are Christians and few actually call them on the anti-christian doctrines they hold.

Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved.
(1Co 10:32-33 NAS)

For more information on the difference between Non-Christian cults and Christianity, See Matt Slicks Cult Comparison Chart.