It was a good question.
I was teaching a seminary’s doctor of ministry course on church planting and administration, and the topic moved to problems of transparency in churches. Soon, the word “cult” was thrown around to describe churches that operate on secrecy and manipulation. Of course, the students were intuitively aware that such practices in churches are spiritually and corporately unhealthy.
But as the conversation developed, the students began to grasp that “cult-like” practices are not limited to the deviant religious groups we’ve all heard about — the ones that employ brainwashing, coercion, psychological abuse and even kidnapping to indoctrinate their members and keep them from questioning authorities or leaving. A few extreme cases — such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas (led by David Koresh), and the FLDS Church in St. George, Utah (led by Warren Jeffs) — come to mind.
Then the question from a bright United Methodist student from South Carolina: “Professor, when does a church start behaving like a cult?”
You see, the student was becoming aware that practices bordering on “cult-like” can also be employed by more mainstream churches in nuanced and less overt, obvious ways. In fact, many theologians have now adjusted their definition of “cult” such that we would all do well to consider the implications for our spiritual and religious life, particularly as many of our children leave Effingham and encounter a culture with more diverse forms of religious expression. Here are some key differences between cults and a true church:
1. Special knowledge. Cults often teach that their members have access to knowledge only available to those in that church. Therefore, members are told that no other church is valid – regardless of their Biblical beliefs – except that one church. A true church sees itself as part of a larger, universal church, expressing the same foundational beliefs of salvation through Jesus Christ that the worldwide church shares. It has no special knowledge other than scripture.
2. Powerful leaders. Cults have charismatic, powerful leaders that set themselves up as the sole interpreter of spiritual truth and moral authority. In so doing, these leaders often end up being “worshipped” by their members, and members typically defend their leaders relentlessly, even to their own demise. A true church sees its leaders as human and worships God alone.
3. Ultra-strict rules. Cults often define membership on the basis of an arbitrary list of ultra-strict rules. The fact that the rules are very hard to follow is just another way the cult keeps people feeling unworthy and under their thumb. Anyone unwilling to adopt the list of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” rules is shunned and treated as an outsider. A true church encourages members to adopt positive, healthy Christian behaviors — not so that person may conform to the organization — but so that person may conform to Christ.
4. Secrecy. Most importantly, cults try to keep everything that goes on inside their walls a secret, often closing themselves off from the outside world. A cult will tell its members, “What goes inside our doors is none of anyone’s business, so don’t talk about it with non-members.” Run from that church. Secrecy hurts. Secrecy kills. That’s how physical and sexual abusers operate as well.
There are no “secrets” in true Christian churches. They are transparent and open. Instead of believing they are under threat from people outside the church, a true church engages the community, confident — not in their ability to hide in self-protection — but rather in the promise of Jesus, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.