Is “cult” a label we should stop using?

 

After introducing Gov. Rick Perry at the recent Values Voters Summit, Robert Jeffress (senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas) caused significant (and unnecessary) national controversy. Speaking with reporters, the pastor said,

“Rick Perry’s a Christian. He’s an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, Mitt Romney’s a good moral person, but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.” In another interview, he explicitly said that, “Romney is part of a cult. Mormonism is a cult.”

When selecting a president, the pastor said that “Every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” Later the pastor indicated a preference to one who would lead biblically over one who would not. 

I cringed when I heard these remarks. First, labels like “cult” are no longer helpful. To most people, in our present cultural context, such labels unnecessarily convey a divisive, sectarian spirit. Perhaps it would be best for the label to be left behind altogether. Labels of this nature are more derogatory and alienating than helpful for humbly engaging people about truth. They run the risk of conveying an air of religious chauvinism rather than the shared recognition of human depravity that leads to the gospel.

The term “cult” is a pejorative label that has been traditionally (and rather recently) used among Christians to expose groups who deny the deity of Jesus Christ. A cult is more widely thought of as an excessively authoritarian group of radicals who follow a dominant leader who often separates individuals from their families. Although cultic tendencies and spiritual abuse are more pronounced in some groups, they are not limited to any particular religion.

I recommend that we (as Christians) discontinue the use of the label “cult” and explain our differences in more helpful ways. By using more clarifying and less pejorative terms, we can avoid unnecessary alienation.

I realize that there are times when false teaching and false teachers must be exposed. But the pastor should have considered the medium he was speaking in before using ill-chosen terms. If he needed to say anything, it would have generated less confusion to say that mainstream Christianity holds a different understanding of Jesus Christ from Mormonism. Other differences could also be noted as necessary.

Secondly, the notion that we should prefer a “born-again” president is bound to create misunderstanding. Most people do not understand what the label “born-again” means. In fact, I am not sure that many Christians would know how to define “born-again.” When Jesus spoke of being “born from above” or “born of God,” he used terms he expected to be understood by a religious leader. The pastor should not have used the label “born-again” in the venue of national media.

Apart from this, I assume the pastor realizes that a person must have other important qualifications for being an effective president. Simply being a “born-again follower of Christ” does not qualify one to be President of the United States.

Finally, as for the pastor’s preference for one would lead “biblically,” I am not sure what he meant. But I am sure that there are different understandings of what the term “biblical” means or how to apply it. It may have been better for him to say, “I’d prefer a president who takes the Bible seriously”? We can be sure that many heard the preference for a president who leads biblically as a desire to impose Christianity on the nation. There are much better ways of expressing concerns and preferences than the ones used by the pastor. We simply cannot waltz into the public square unleashing terms and labels without more thoughtful reflection on how those terms will be heard. 

I find much to agree with in Peter wehner’s recent comment:

“What Robert Jeffress has done — quite unwillingly, I’m sure — is to damage his own Christian witness by weighing in on politics with simplistic and unreflective comments. That is something that has happened time and time again when it comes to politics and prominent Christian ministers and activists, both liberal (like Jesse Jackson and Jim Wallis) and conservative (like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell). Often these individuals will take criticism of their views as a badge of honor and as a sign of their Biblical faithfulness rather than what it is: a sign of their shallowness and even, at times, ungraciousness of spirit.” 

Postscript:

The controversy raised by these statements also reminds us of one of our more pressing challenges. Can democracy co-exist with the kind of diversity we’re experiencing in western cultures? As a political process, democracy invites all citizens to participate in the process of making laws and policies. This means that a diversity of values, morals, beliefs and experiences will be brought to the table.

Is it possible (with such diversity) to have robust and respectful conversations in reaching collective agreements about the common good? We’ve tried to use a socially imposed distortion of tolerance as a gatekeeper to civility but it doesn’t appear to be working. I suggest that a restoration of the social virtue of honor is necessary for diversity and democracy to co-exist. See Restoring a culture of honor.

Steve Cornell
Senior pastor
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA. 17551

7 comments on “Is “cult” a label we should stop using?

  1. Would you choose a Christian over a non-Christian as the bus driver for your kids? Or would you first thought be, who has a driver’s license? I think that religion has blinded many well intentioned people to the realities fo their world. Their naivite has made them easy marks for con-artists.

  2. Jeff Hartzler says:

    Steve, I appreciate your thoughts and words here. I recently have been studying and preaching through Titus chapter three in which I find what I believe describe how we should live and minister in an ungodly society and the things we find there describing how we should love and minister fit very well with your encouragement in this article. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Dick Stone says:

    Excellent post.

  4. Paul says:

    It sounds like this pastor lives in a sort of insulated religious cocoon, out of touch with the world around him. But, after all, what would we expect? People by the thousands give him money and come every week to hear him editorialize and give his exclusive opinions on whatever strikes his fancy that week. His reality is a bizarre fantasy. A reporter asking for his comments is just an extension of that fantasy.

    So long as mere men are allowed to be “professional” theologians and large groups of people allow themselves to support and be led by self-appointed “men of God” at the top of some man-made clerical hierarchy called a 501c corporation – we will continue to be exposed to this sort of tragic foolishness.

  5. […] battle, presenting himself as the defender of the faith.I agree with this statement, from Pastor Steve Cornell:I recommend that we (as Christians) discontinue the use of the label “cult” and explain our […]

  6. The label CULT is very relevant and useful today as it has always been throughout history. The Cult of Hitler, Stalin. Are we to deny the F.L.D.S sect of Mormonism is a Cult? How do they differ from Romney’s Mormonism? Because the openly practice polygamy and the rest of Mormonism does covertly?

    Both sects of Mormonism belief that God was once a man and all Mormon “Men” can become Gods in the next life, creating their own planet, having thousands of celestial brides.

    No, the word “Cult” is very useful and useful in today’s world and should be used correctly in all instances where cultic mind control is being used including within the body of Christ.

    Are you aware of the world’s largest Cult? Communist, atheist China.

    Stop being milque toast Christians and discern what is a Cult and what is not. Mormonism is a Cult and it would be very dangerous for America to have a Commander in Chief who believes that in the next life he will be a God. Will he distinguish that belief in his actions in this life versus the next?

    Only Cult apologists / defenders want to lose the word Cult. A cult is a cult is a cult. Any religion that treats it’s women like breeding stock, whether it be Islam or Mormonism is a Cult. Wake up to the CULTS around you! Expose them, label them, warn all you can to beware of Cults. That is doing your Christian duty!

  7. Robin says:

    The FLDS church is their own fallen church. They are not at all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I assure you that polygamy is not at all found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed the Mormon church). It is un-Christian of you to bear false witness. That is what you are doing if you post lies especially with the intent to discredit a Church of God. Every protestant church interprets the Bible differently, or there would be only one protestant church. We love Jesus Christ, He alone is our Savior. It is only by and through Him that we can be saved. It is this belief that makes us all Christians. We must band together in this world of secularism and not throw those who want to do good and keep the commandments out because some beliefs are different. Let us celebrate what we have in common and fight the good fight together in love as Jesus would have us do.

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