The word cult gets thrown around a lot these days. For the most part, a Christian definition of a cult is a group that believes something close to Christianity but misses on an essential doctrine that puts it firmly outside of orthodoxy (and we all know what our dads said about close…). A more precise definition of a cult is any group, whether orthodox or not, that closely controls its members behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions.
Using this method, and taking it is a general truth that orthodoxy does not necessarily equal orthopraxy, it’s easy to see that many churches can become cultic in practice, to the detriment of the Gospel. (And I’m using the word cult in the modern sense of the word, not the original meaning.) So, what are some ways that a church can become a cult and what can we as Christians do about it?
First, when a church fosters an us-vs.-them mentality. To a certain extent, this will happen in any church, because of what we believe, but it can be taken to an extreme. “The world is against us and we alone are holding onto true Christianity.” “Modern Christianity has given over to worldliness, but we stand true.”
Whether it’s the world, other denominations/sects, or other churches, this kind of thinking can lead to a distrust of outsiders and greater reliance on the grace dispensed by the church. Think about it, if you are constantly taught that only your church/group remains true to the Gospel, how could you ever leave? A church can become a cult when its members are only a part of a small, insular community, never a part of the world at large.
Second, when submission to leadership is paramount and dissention is not allowed. I know that we are to submit to the authorities above us, but often times leaders use that to force church members into unbiblical matters. They are told what to wear, what to read, what kind of music to listen to, who to associate with, which doctrines are essential (invariably, they all will be), and ultimately what to think. Anyone who dissents, even lovingly, is branded a trouble maker and ostracized.
Often times, this is couched in “protecting the sheep” language, but it is more accurately a form of control. Consider approved reading lists, which some churches have been known to employ. If the pastor believes his people will easily fall victim to every wind of doctrine, then he either does not believe in his own doctrines or is not doing his job in teaching the members. Either way, the people lose.
Finally (and this isn’t intended to be exhaustive), a church runs the risk of becoming a cult when the preacher/pastor/head guy is the leader, with no other accountability. An elder is not to be a dictator, but rather a servant. Too many churches are led by men with way too much power, too many yes men, and zero accountability. What do many ultra-conservative churches more resemble, Branch Dividians or the church at Jerusalem?
This is not to say that every church is a cult, or even close to becoming one, but that many churches have the potential to becoming very cult-like in their practices. All the while, they maintain their orthodoxy, but do the members no good because the Gospel isn’t actually lived out. We, as church members and leaders, must be on constant guard to keep from this error and promote the community Jesus founded.