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21 April 2008

“Cult” is one of the most frequently misused words in English. I get tired of hearing people say that this or that religious group is a “cult”. Used in that way, the word “cult” is almost meaningless. All it means is that the speaker disagrees with the beliefs or dislikes the activities of the group so described.

There is an accurate and meaningful way of using the word, provided we remember that it refers to what people do rather than to what they are. People may practise a cult, but a group of people cannot be a cult.

I was reminded of this by Michael, who wrote in The Euphemist: Theological eccentricities meme: “non-Lutheran churches which have influenced (or at least nudged) my thinking have included the Seventh-Day Adventists (I’m of the school of thought that agrees with Walter Martin that they are a legitimate Christian denomination and not a cult, as some claim).”

What do those terms mean?

What constitutes a “legitimate Christian denomination”? By what criteria and by whose standards is this “legitimacy” determined and conferred?

It’s like that other meaningless term “mainline churches”. What makes a church “mainline”, and what makes a church “branch line”? Who decides, and by what criteria?

A few years ago someone asked, in a discussion forum, “Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult phenomenon?”

How does one answer it?

One can say that Jehovah’s Witnesses practise the cult of Jehovah, just as Elvis Presley fans practise the cult of Elvis Presley, and there was a cult of Che Guevara, Princess Diana and Britney Spears. But it is really meaningless to say that the people who practise these cults are a cult in a collective and ontological sense.

As an Orthodox Christian I can say that the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are heretical: they deny the Holy Trinity. But that doesn’t make them a “heresy” or their members “heretics” any more than it makes them a “cult”. A member of the Orthodox Church who held such beliefs would be a heretic, and if such a person persisted in holding and teaching such beliefs could be labelled as a heretic and excommunicated. But that would because such a persons has deliberately chosen to hold and to teach something contrary to the dogmatic teaching of the Church.

As an Orthodox Christian, I practise a cult, the cult of the Holy Trinity. In that sense, I’m happy to acknowledge that I am a cultist.

As we sing every Sunday at the Divine Liturgy:

We have seen the true Light!
We have received the heavenly Spirit!
We have found the true Faith!
Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

That’s my cult.


This post is part of a synchroblog on the theme of “Emerging heresy”. You can read more about the theme here: Synchroblog “Emerging Heresy”.

There it says that “The emergents and emerging church has been accused of heresy, sometimes this is explicit and at other times it is in the subtext of what people are saying and writing.” I haven’t mentioned the “emergents” and “emerging church” in the body of my post, simply because I do not know what heresy they have been accused of, and by whom. It should be clear from the body of my post why I am not going to try to formulate such accusations.

Another reason is that the “emerging church” movement is pretty amorphous and diffuse. They seem to be as diverse as non-emerging Protestants, so there doesn’t seem to be any dogma that can be identified as “emergent” and pinned down and described as heretical.

Here are links to the other posts:

Ther list will change as others add their contributions.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 April 2008 12:00 pm

    Sociological and psychological definitions of the term “cult” has always seemed more usefull than religious or theological definitions.

    I’m not that clued-up with them anymore, but according to these views cults would be movements which have a high tension with society, exists around one person, who constrain the information that a person within the group may recieve, and where the group has a tendency to entrap people in such a way that they are not allowed to leave the group.

    We need the definition to help us notice dangerous forms of religion, but when the term is applied because of theological differences, then I become highly uncomfortable.

  2. 21 April 2008 4:58 pm

    Yes, cult is a very loaded word, thanks to the same sources as that piled meaning upon perjorative meaning on top of “mad”, “saved”, “heresy”, “hell”, “damnation”, “apostacy” etc.

    The etymolgy must relate to “culture” which for me is the sum total of a peoples practices and beliefs, and a word that is generally helpful because it refers to the actual outcome of peoples choices and the actual quality of their lives, not just the theory.

    I’m supportive of redefining “cult” and taking it from the clutches of (pardon my use here, Steve, I am not referring to your tradition) the cult of orthodoxy.

  3. 21 April 2008 5:04 pm


    Thanks for re-appopriating the word “cult”.

  4. 21 April 2008 5:28 pm

    Actually I blame the sociologists for initiating and propagating the misuse.

    A cult is basically an organised system of religious worship. By concocting the idea that that it was somehow dangerous or abusive the sociologists have hijacked and almost skunked a perfectly good word.

    We had some incense in our church that had printed on the box “Pour la culte”. And that’s what it means. The sociologists turned it into something pejorative.

  5. 21 April 2008 7:45 pm

    I once met a seminary professor who taught a class on what he called “sects”, but, upon being referred to frequently as “that sects teacher”, he very reluctantly started saying “cults”.

  6. 22 April 2008 12:11 pm

    “Pour la culte” – now that I LOVE.

    I’ll even buy a censor and have it engraved on it just so I can have the phrase.

  7. tduffie permalink
    22 April 2008 4:08 pm

    What, then, in our modern English would be the best word to describe our sort of “collective” view of a “cult”? As the MSM would have it, the word should conjure up images of David Koresh and Waco or some zealous religious group associated with criminal activity… maybe.
    As far as what is Christian and what is not, in my attempt at simplification, I just think of it as Trinitarian (=Christian) and non-Trinitarian (=something else). But that’s just my personal view.
    I guess my true cult is that of the Trinitarian cult. However, along with many of my generation, I’m a part of the “Star Wars Cult Phenomenon” as well.

  8. 22 April 2008 4:38 pm

    How can anyone be serious following comments like these. I personally feel you have touched a live wire here Steve. Let me try to be brief. Is not cult one of those labels used when we want to dismiss a group from any serious consideration for who they really are?

    Is it not the very popular way of destroying the character of the “enemy”, in this case, the enemy of the orthodox faith (notice small o, not as in your tradition)? The reason I love your post is simply because I have found on numerous occasions evidence that led me to believe there were true members of Christ in what religious leaders were labeling cults. The Seventh Day Adventists have already been mentioned. Not going by some “authority” who has declared them to be in or out of the Christian Faith, I have been able to find much that I can respect both as a Christian and a Missiologist. I have great admiration for Ellen G.White and what she accomplished in mission history. And I have had precious fellowship when I did attend an Adventist service and clearly heard the Word of God faithfully preached. Of course there was the expected “denominational” pitch as there is in all traditions.

    My own tradition would label these thoughts “heretical” perhaps, but I don’t think I’ll be in danger of excommunication, just labeled as someone to stay clear of.

    John Paul Todd

  9. 24 April 2008 8:27 pm

    Thanks for the helpful thoughts, which will certainly sharpen my choices of words in the future. During my first year of seminary I roomed with a fellow seminarian from Mexico. His Spanish Hymnal was entitled Culto Cristiano.

  10. The Corporate Executive permalink
    24 February 2010 1:43 am

    The problem is that there is no specific definition for the word cult. It can mean so many different things which makes it subjective. I think the best definition I have heard for cult is where the object of worship is the leader or another human being or animal. While it may sound like Christianity is then a cult, it would not fit under this definition because Jesus is The Lord in human form (for the record, I am not a Christian). Even if you do not agree with this definition, you can often tell a cult by their suppressive manor. People often feel worse going out of a cult then they did coming into them. Plus, they tend to be much poorer. Maybe that is a way to determine cults.

    Unfortunately, there are a great number of cults in the world. Most people don’t even know they are in one until after the fact. That is part of the deceit of cults. I know because I was in one myself. There is a blog called Missing Deerfield where we detail the actions that happened there. You can find it here: Even if you don’t agree on a definition of a cult, you would agree this was one. I hope all the people who are in cults can get out without too much damage. The best we can do is continue to talk about cults and their damaging effects. Thank you for this blog. Continued good luck with it.


  1. Another synchroblog – Emerging heresy « Notes from underground
  2. Calling the “H” word and dropping the “H” bomb | Life-Ecstatic

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