When Christianity Becomes A Cult

Over the last few days, I’ve watched as some people on social media have attacked Progressive Christianity. And in doing that, they have attacked the Church community I am a part of, as well as attacking loved ones within our community as being “heretics”–A word I have grown to love. If you don’t know what “Progressive Christianity” is, I wrote a post about it (that you should probably read) called “Being A Progressive Christian, and Other Things That’ll Get You Sent Straight To Hell…” so I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time here defending it. Basically, there are some folks out there who seem to get very angry if people start suggesting that God might still be speaking, or that God might be radically inclusive (and we should be too), or that we might not be saved by our right theology, or that our brains and science might not be enemies of faith, or even that God might be way better than we ever suspected… And when Christians who are very certain of their own “rightness” see churches like ours embracing questions, doubt, and uncertainty, they often feel like our very existence is a direct attack on the idol they have made out of their own certainty. And then the names start flying. Names like “Heretic.” Names like “Satanic.” Names like “Cult.”

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The only appropriate worship is the kind that looks as though you are on a deserted island trying to flag down a passing plane.

And I get why people feel so strongly about this… They have been told that people who don’t believe the same things they believe are going to go to Hell and be tortured forever (AKA, the “Good News”). So they are willing to brave the normally uncomfortable situation of telling someone he or she is believing “a lie from the Devil that is going to result in eternal torment” in the hopes that, by telling them this, that person is going to be saved from that eternal torment. These people use phrases like “scripture is clear” very regularly (even though those “clear” scriptures have resulted in roughly 39,000 different Christian denominations). They also freely accuse people of “creating a God in your own image” and “leaning on your own understanding” instead of the “Authority of Scripture.” Though they also seem to be impervious to the irony that people using their rationality and “own understanding” is exactly what lead to the Protestant Reformation that birthed their own religious tradition… There is a deep tradition within the Church of people using their brains to figure things out. Though, after they used their brains to figure things out, they usually like to attribute their conclusions to “The Spirit.” But whatever… Let’s not split hairs.

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If being in a cult means that I get hair like these kids, count me in!

So if you believe that when people believe the wrong things, they are going to get sent to Hell because of it, it can lead to folks being very passionate about converting people. But when you believe (as I do) that God is so much better than that, and that we are safe in the love of God–regardless of our sometimes errant theology–it makes “converting” people a lot less pressing. I’m not worried that if I don’t change your mind, you are going to burn in hell. Still, there is a place for defending your position… Especially when–as part of their conversion protocol–people are told that they are garbage, and not worthy of God’s love. I think that message is inherently harmful, so when I hear it, I’m going to speak up. I’m not saying that we are perfect, or that there is no such thing as “sin.” It’s clear that there is human brokenness all around us… What I am saying is that our brokenness is not too much for the love of God. And I realize that belief might be different than some of the beliefs you might have, but that is different than “Heresy.” That is different than “Satan-worship.” And that is certainly different than a “Cult.” So I’d like to address the difference between a “Cult” and “A Church who believes different things about God than you do.”

There are a lot of different characteristics of a “Cult.” I am going to make a list of some characteristics of a cult that I will be paraphrasing from information I got from the website of The International Cultic Studies Association (and the work of Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.), as well as from the very conservative Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, or CARM. It’s not exhaustive, but these are characteristics which appear on both sites.

  • Demanding unquestioned commitment to leadership and a particular ideology, belief system, and one idea of “truth.”
  • Questioning, doubt, or dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Exclusivity: Their group is the only group that gets it right.
  • An “Us versus Them” mentality. They build vehement opposition into the framework of their beliefs, so when people say “That makes absolutely no sense,” it is taken as validation of right belief. AKA, “If the world hates us, we must be doing something right.”
  • Controlling people’s thoughts, beliefs and actions with threats of curses, separation, and loss of salvation.
  • Isolating people from “non-believers.” If there are friends or family members who don’t believe, those people have to be cut out of your life.
  • Having “special knowledge.” If people start questioning issues based on reason or a differing interpretation, the leadership claims powers of special knowledge that comes from “discernment” or a heightened ability to “hear from God.”
  • The use of shame and guilt to control members.
  • Being overly focused on money.
  • Cognitive dissonance. They will avoid inconsistencies and logical impossibilities at all costs, and if they are forced to encounter them, they will explain them away by our inability to understand. “AKA, “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
  • Being preoccupied by bringing in new members.

There are many more cultish behaviors–shunning people, making specific demands about appearance, strict enforcement of gender roles, etc… I encourage you to read the lists yourself. But more than that, I want you to think about the list I just wrote above. Look at it again. I’ll wait… Does this list sound at all familiar to any of you?

Does this list sound like it’s describing a place that is embracing the process of people having doubts and uncertainties? Does it sound like it’s describing a place that has lost over half its members by making a statement of belief about God’s radical inclusivity? Does it sound like it’s describing a place that welcomes questions about the inconsistencies we encounter in the Bible? Does it sound like it’s describing a place that has given up the very useful threat of looming damnation in order to raise money and coerce people into lining up with their beliefs? Who DOES it sound like? Let’s say two people are arguing over what they believe God is like–One of them professes openness, inclusivity, strives for intellectual honesty, and is okay with dissent, while the other demands everyone adhere to his strict and specific theology, with non-believers going to hell… Which of these two people is more likely part of a “Cult?”

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I’m still waiting on my sister wives…

I want to leave you with a video of an amazing song by the band Gungor called “Us For Them.” I really hope you listen to the words… They are so beautiful and true. And if you’re feeling like the place you’ve been worshiping has some practices that might skew a little “cultish,” you have a sense that there is something more, and you want to find a place to come together with other folks and explore the mystery and wonder of the love of God, I have written a post called “How To Find A Church When You’ve Given Up On Church” that might be helpful. Or, if you’re in the Nashville/Franklin area and you want to visit a kick ass Church who is crazy about Jesus, but also gets some people really riled up by how good we think God is, you can come visit GracePointe. But mostly, I just want you to really listen to this song:

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6 Responses to When Christianity Becomes A Cult

  1. Chris Hauser says:

    So good dude. All of it. All that you write. So good. But this one especially.

    Chris Hauser Sent from my iPhone so please excuse the crazy flipper fingers

    >

  2. Paul says:

    I love your blog. As for the definition of a cult, unless you have to satisfy ALL the above points to be considered a cult, I believe the following are almost always a common trait shared by mainline religious groups, Catholic, Baptist, evangelical, etc:

    1. The use of shame and guilt to control members.
    2. Being overly focused on money.
    3. Cognitive dissonance. They will avoid inconsistencies and logical impossibilities at all costs, and if they are forced to encounter them, they will explain them away by our inability to understand. “AKA, “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
    4. Exclusivity: Their group is the only group that gets it right.

    Some ‘mainline’ religions, such as Mormons have all of the above traits, plus a few extra on your list;
    5. Demanding unquestioned commitment to leadership and a particular ideology, belief system, and one idea of “truth.”
    6. Questioning, doubt, or dissent are discouraged or even punished.
    Exclusivity: Their group is the only group that gets it right.
    7. An “Us versus Them” mentality. They build vehement opposition into the framework of their beliefs, so when people say “That makes absolutely no sense,” it is taken as validation of right belief. AKA, “If the world hates us, we must be doing something right.”
    8. Controlling people’s thoughts, beliefs and actions with threats of curses, separation, and loss of salvation.
    9. Isolating people from “non-believers.” If there are friends or family members who don’t believe, those people have to be cut out of your life.
    10. Having “special knowledge.” If people start questioning issues based on reason or a differing interpretation, the leadership claims powers of special knowledge that comes from “discernment” or a heightened ability to “hear from God.”

    Jehovah Witness, and perhaps many evangelical groups, share this one as well:

    11. Being preoccupied by bringing in new members.

    So my conclusion, per the definition above, is that nearly all mainline US churches are ‘partially cultish’, and a few, certifiable cults. Sort of sad really. Even worse is that all US taxpayers are subsidizing cults or cult like groups. Perhaps I should start my own cult?

  3. Beth Caplin says:

    I am so glad that I found this. After being part of a cult-like group for so long you start to feel like you’re the problem, not them. It’s such a relief to know there are other people who love God but also aren’t afraid to think.

  4. Kate McDermott says:

    Bill Gothard’s ministry had many of these qualities. I tried to warn my church but the leaders took the congregation down that path. I left. Now everyone knows how wrong he was.

  5. Excellent article! I’ve recently left a church group that lines up with these descriptions 100%. I’ve started a blog dedicated to Dividing the Word and telling my story! My latest article is on a Spiritually Abusive Church https://dividetheword.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/what-is-a-spiritually-abusive-church/

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