Talk of late has been centred on the controversy of Bishop Brian Tamaki and the Destiny Church of New Zealand, and whether it is a cult. So the question I’m going to ask today is what is a cult? Or how do we recognise a cult when we see it? The topic could be greatly complicated if we were to start thinking of world religions and their cults, so today I’ll be looking specifically at Christian cults.
Like all things definitions are important, and will influence how precisely one goes about evaluating what makes a cult a cult. Cult just means deviation from the mainstream of its historic representative, but common usage of the word is to denote a sinister group of religious fanatics – notice the word sinister neither means insincere or sincere: their motivation is not a factor. Its that word deviation which is problematic, because deviation comes in a spectrum and the mainstream is so hard to define. On reflection I’ve identified at least four different methods one can use to evaluate if a group is a cult.
The first method is the Top-Down approach. This looks to the cults that we know of and seeks to find the points of dissimilarity with the orthodox and historic Christianity, and the points of similarity between them. This is a good approach, but it has its weaknesses. For instance, when another cult comes along you always have to re-examine your definition of what it is to be a cult and possibly expand it. And you can never be sure your not reasoning in a circle – which is fine if your in that circle of logic but from the outside it just an informal fallacy.
The second method is the Bottom-Up approach. This formulates a list of criteria from scratch and evaluates any religious group to see if they fit the criterion. This is also a good approach but what invariably happens is you miss one or two who refuse to fit the mould you construct for them.
Third, you can evaluate them theologically. Like the second approach this formulates a list of criteria, but restricts the list to doctrine. This is an excellent approach, but again has its weaknesses. I’ve seen lists of up to fifteen essential doctrines, where if on any point there is disagreement, then the whole group is just written off. It’s difficult to evaluate the importance of one doctrines over another, and its also true that some church just have bad theology, yet remain not-cults. Its also difficult sometimes to discern if one should take the official statements of belief as normative or the general spoken beliefs of a preacher in the moment and the people of the congregation.
Fourth, you can evaluate them sociologically. Here one would look for signs in the community, like religious enthusiasm, gathering around a strong leader, strict codes of behavior, separation of the laity with the leadership, a distancing of the community from the world. The weakness is here is that none of these things are overtly wrong. Though every Christian community has elements of each, all of them can be taken to the extreme end of the scale. And it’s when a variety of these elements are pushed to the extreme when we need exercise caution. The problem is counter-examples can always be found, and ones own preference (prejudice?) for their own particular style of church is too easily an influence on ones judgement, and so this approach is the least conclusive.
What I think is most valuable is a combination of the above methods. The late Dr. Walter Martin, author of Kingdom of the Cults, utilises mainly a combination of the Top-Down and the Theological method, with some consideration given to another method – Psychology. I formulated a long time ago a quick litmus test to see if a group were a cult. I suspect it’s not perfect, but for me it’s been helpful. In order of importance;
(1) The Doctrine of the Trinity.
It appears that every cult gets the doctrine of the Trinity wrong. Belief about the Trinity is like a yardstick for the historic, orthodox Christian position. If they get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, it’s a fair indication they get other important things wrong as well.
(2) One True Church
Cult groups usually believe they are the only ones who will attain salvation, and one has to be a member of their church to belong to the select group. Mainline Christian denominations do not this belief. Anglicans have their own style and distinctive theological beliefs, but freely accept that Baptists are saved and even members of the same wider church body. Most will say that those who never attend a church service in their life (though inadvisable if avoidable) can be saved.
(3) Attitude when Leaving
A good indication to see if you are in a cult is to ask yourself this question; if I were to abandon the faith and leave this church, would there be a severing of relationship with those who remain? Would others be instructed to shun or separate themselves from me? If the answer is “Yes,” then this is not a good sign.
(4) Encouraged to Question.
Other good questions to ask your self are these; if I were to ask the pastor or any church leader the stickiest theological question I could think of, would I told I shouldn’t ask such questions? Are people encouraged to educate themselves? Read the scriptures with no interpretive aids? Go to university or attend a Bible school? Refrain from visiting certain websites with religious information? If I were to disagree with something a leader said or did and I respectfully enquired about it, would I be ignored? Or told I just had to accept some things? Or would I be stonewalled or told not think about it? Or would I receive a pat answer – perhaps one that’s illogical or unscriptural?
Questions are powerful things. But true Christianity is not afraid of questions. Cults generally are, and do what they can to subtly dissuade people from enquiring.
Now is Destiny church a cult? According to my test I’d have to say NO. (1) They are theologically conservative. (2) They do not consider themselves the one true church. I have first hand knowledge of this. (3) I have no knowledge of, so can’t say with authority, but strongly suspect not. (4) Yes, Definitely.
So when people call Destiny a cult, I have to wonder, what method of evaluation are they using? I suspect a strong reliance on the Sociological approach – but this I concluded was the weakest indicator of whether a group is a cult. When Destiny church responds to the accusation of being a cult, what method do they use? I suspect they have strong preference to the Theological method, which is in my view one of the best. What should be emphasized here is that Destiny has ‘cultish tendencies’ sociologically yet remains not a cult. We should pay careful attention to where they are headed and the things that they do, but the solution is probably not confirming the biases of the media, nor flushing the baby out with the bath water. Instead it is good biblical theology and practice to balance their more extreme tendencies in our own churches, pray for our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and cultivate a friendship with them that exemplifies our love for Christ and his church.