What is a Cult?

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.

6 replies
  1. Robin Boom
    Robin Boom says:

    A good evaluation Stuart. However on point four I think many churches and church leaders/pastors would fail the litmus test.

  2. D Hall
    D Hall says:

    Good work, Stu!
    A cult of personality perhaps? I don’t doubt there are many good fruit to be found, but is there an encouraged tendency be enthralled by personality at the possible eclipsing of Christ? Clearly it’s too hard to answer definitively.

    I think public critique arises from four main areas.
    1) Absurdishness of the titles Bishop, “spiritual father” and “tangible expression of God”, which tread softly on the outskirts of self-deification.
    2) Dubiousness of the economic doctrines about the purpose of giving money and what it should be used for.
    3) Politicisation of the church with theocratic leanings.
    4) Mesmeric sermonising that obfuscates and baffles through repitition, bordering on the hypnotic instead of the … well, instead of like everyone else, BT has a style I’ve not encountered elsewhere.

  3. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Robin Boon,

    You may be right that many churches and church leaders/pastors would fail the litmus test, and that is why I wish to make a few comments regarding this test.

    First, let me restate that the test isn’t a prefect indication of whether a religious group is a cult.

    Second, the fourth point I regard to be an important indicator, but as it is placed fourth I consider it the least important indicator listed there.

    Third, that point reflects the draw backs of a Top-Down approach. It appears to me to be that case that all cults subtly try to dissuade people from questioning, but that doesn’t mean a church who does the same is a cult as well. They would be wrong to do so, and do so unnecessarily if they do, but failing (4) would simply mean a warning light and closer inspection is needed on points (1) through (3) which rank higher as important indicators. Failing four would be like an alarm bell that sounded, tipping you off that something is wrong, but that bell doesn’t mean there is actually a emergency.


  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello D Hall,

    Christ of course should be the foremost personality at church. Is there a tendency to eclipse Christ with other powerful personalities? This is indeed a difficult question, but one that is drifting away from the field of play here. The pointed question would be is there a tendency in Bishop Brian Tamaki to eclipse the personality of Christ? Well, without knowing the man personally I don’t think I am in a position to judge. But I can offer tentatively these theological observations in the form of rhetorical questions. (1) Is not Christ bodily absent at present, and we therefore his representatives? (2) Is not Christ ultimately responsible for forming Brian’s personality such that it reflects a similitude of his own personality? (3) Is the not the more significant worry the role of Christ?

    I think you are right that the public critique arises from those four main areas. This to me shows, if indeed the media presents those four points as you have, that the media is bias, and that to the media theology is trivial. Take two for instance – Tithing is hardly a dubious economic doctrine! Take three for instance – Destiny church does not have theocratic leanings. On inspection, without the hype for the media to distort and for people to overstate whilst they’re in the moment, you’ll find Destiny simply has a high social concern and expresses their social agenda – which is ethically conservative and Christian – through being involved in politics – a legitimate political party the offspring of such a concern. As for four, the style of preaching may be different than what you’re used to and have heard before, but is the content scripturally sound? That is the standard we should judge by. That it borders on the hypnotic (which, based on my own experience, I find to be a ridiculous claim) is irrelevant. A lot could also be said on the ridiculousness of the first point of critique you suggest the public has, but I’ll hold it as I think I have made the point I have been trying to make – that is in short you can hardly expect the media to give a fair description of a church that is radical in its expression, and offer a balanced critique of its theological distinctives.

  5. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    I’d like to clarify this statement,

    What should be emphasized here is that Destiny has ‘cultish tendencies’ sociologically yet remains not a cult.

    Predicated on the assumption that the story we have received from the media is an accurate description of what happened, what I have written is correct – I think – but there is room here for misinterpretation of my own personal view.

    First, that is an assumption I am not yet willing to grant. I think anyone with their brain switched on should be able to see through most of the garbage being flung around. And that which appears genuine I first suspect it to be sensationalism (which is easy to make sound bad, without context, which we never get). In this case however I suspect there is some fabrication, lies and slander involved.

    Second, a “cultish tendency” would be anything that a regular, mainstream, Christian church would have in common with a cult, that strikes any outsider (Christian or Secular) as slightly odd. So meeting together to sing songs might be an example of a sociological “cultish tendency.” Placing an emphasis on the giving money in a church service would be a “cultish tendency,” if any cult did actually do this. Theologically a “cultish tendency” might be tithing itself, but that, I hope it is clear, is nothing to be wary of. We all, at least as Christians who gather together, and perhaps Tithe, share some cultish tendency – so having a “cultish tendency,” is in mind, not a slur.

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