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.” 


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