At a Bible study a few weeks ago, one of the young adults in my congregation mentioned that someone she works with at the local hospital asked her where she went to church. She told him and he said, “Oh, I think that’s where so-and-so goes to church too” referring to another young adult who is a member at our church. Her co-worker followed that up with the comment, “Doesn’t that church belong to a denomination that’s sort of like a cult…but not really a cult?”
We all sort of shared a laugh at our small group Bible study, but there was a part of me, as a pastor, who thinks, “Ugh. That’s the general perception.”
Of course, I have no right to be upset about the perception if the perception is indeed accurate. So, it’d probably be helpful for us to clarify exactly what makes a cult a cult.
What is a cult?
The idea and terminology of “cults” was introduced in America in the 1930s by American sociologist Howard Becker, piggy-backing on the work of German theologian Ernest Troeltsch. Becker defined “cult” as “a small religious group lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs.” (Stark & Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, pg. 124)
Becker, however, acknowledged a difference between a cult and a sect. A sect is generally considered a portion of a larger denominational group that often denounces the parent group’s liberal trends/heresy and encourages a return to true(r) doctrine. Put differently, “sects claim to be an authentic, refurbished version of the faith from which they split” (Stark & Bainbridge, Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18, no 2: pg. 117).
So, if anything, our church is part of a sect, not a cult. So take that!
Technically, the groups in the United States that have traditionally been referenced as “cults” are those that have something of Christian roots but which deviate from the orthodox basics of Christianity. Groups like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Universalists, and Christian Science fall into this category.
Furthering our understanding of America’s perception of what a “cult” really is, Marry Ann Sieghart wrote an article on Al-Qaida back after 9/11, helpful to this discussion, in which she suggested that this Muslim extremist group possessed the classic characteristics of a cult: “Al-Qaida fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means.” (Sieghart, Mary Ann (October 26, 2001). “The cult figure we could do without”. The Times.)
The general idea, then, is that cults tend to manipulate, exploit, and control their members. Almost invariably there is authoritarian control over members, communal and totalistic organization, fairly aggressive proselytizing, and systematic programs of indoctrination. Members tend to dress alike, talk alike, and think alike, with very little tolerance for variation. There is a certain, fairly clear pressure of conformity and subsequent practical disconnect between the cult member and his/her surrounding society.
To the original point…in case you were concerned, if you belong to my church/church body, we’re NOT part of a cult! Probably not even a sect 🙂 Anyone who categorizes us as such is, for the most part, incorrect on a variety of different levels.
Furthermore, understand that at one point Christianity itself would have been categorized as a cult. Early members met privately in one another’s homes, practicing an illegal religion, consuming the body and blood of their leader. This was understandably and rightfully considered a deviation from normal social activity. And in an increasingly post-Christian climate in the U.S., don’t be surprised if orthodox Christian behavior once again starts being categorized as “cultish.” In fact, in many respects, I would HOPE that Christians would stand out in society. For Christians to actually be the glowing “city on a hill” (Matt.5:14) that Jesus intended, we need to be radical in our generosity, selfless in our relationships, pure in our sexuality, honest in our speech, kind towards all (esp. the socially outcasts), and, in general, prioritize Jesus in everything we do, from our time to our money to our marriage partners. If we get labeled as a cult as a result, so be it.
My point is NOT that we should acquiesce to culture in order to not be labeled as a cult. My point is that we SHOULD stand out culturally, but for the right reasons.
Okay, so what are the main things that cause us to stand out to the world?
The initial issue I proposed from the start here was that someone at a local business was under the assumption that several of my members belonged to a quasi-cult. But what gave him that impression? Is it possible that the whole “looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” thing applies to any degree here?
I certainly don’t want to overstate anything, yet I’d like to be as honest with my assessment as I can. I’ve gone through the entire WELS system from beginning to end – elementary school, preparatory high school, college, and seminary. As a (definite) generality, I would tend to say that conformity was championed significantly more than originality. My continually reaffirmed understanding was that tradition and compliance were good and innovation and uniqueness were frowned upon. I’ll get to the pros of this in a minute, but my fear is that this approach tends to stifle creativity and the ability of an individual to think for himself.
Furthermore, I also think this mentality tends to make breaking into our church body unnecessarily difficult. For instance, a church body that does not allow for any recognition of individuality is probably not going to attract many from the African-American community, where virtually every sociology textbook will tell you that “stylistic self-expression” is merely a part of the culture.
Now, if you’re WELS, look around. You see A LOT of people who look like you on Sunday, don’t you? This fact is not a secret to anyone who is WELS, but the cause, I’m afraid, remains a mystery to many.
Longstanding conformity in church culture might be comfortable to those on the inside, but is it biblical?
I don’t know about you, but I’m actually pretty tired of playing the old “six degrees of WELS separation” parlor game, except that in our church body its sometimes like two degrees. I’m exhausted of hearing, “It’s a small world in the WELS.” And it’s not that I think it’s bad to have a familiar connecting point. It’s that I just don’t want this to be a small world. I think we have a remarkably pure proclamation of the gospel we’re holding onto and I hate the thought of anything standing in the way of sharing it. I don’t want students at synod schools concerned about marrying their cousins (I wish I was making this up). If we can recognize the unnatural nature of this amongst the Amish, we probably should be sensitive to it (or the perception of it) for ourselves.
We also probably want to be careful about the way we use the word “Synod.” I was first alerted to this when I started dating my (now) wife, who was not WELS originally. Attending seminary at the time, apparently I’d gotten into the habit of referring to this nebulous, higher power known as the “Synod.” As a result, when I was talking to her about some decision I was making, she’d occasionally jokingly prod, “Hmmm…what does the Synod have to say about that?” She’s funny like that. But I learned my lesson. I was speaking as though I belonged to a cult. At least that was the perception.
Now, to be fair, I recognize the concerns about individuality. A MAJOR part of Christian conversion is the recognition that my life is not about me, it’s about Jesus (Matt. 16:25). Additionally, the reason I’m here in this church body is the high regard for Scriptural integrity, which does not allow for wiggle room on countless clear doctrines. When it comes to Scripture as authoritative, one of the biggest weaknesses of American Christians is the refusal to leave personal bias, feelings, and interpretations at home. Our church body does a VERY commendable job of keeping our doctrine on track.
I’m simply suggesting that this all does not/should not come at the expense of stripping anyone of his uniqueness as God’s child, nor of promoting the perception that we are a “cult that’s not really a cult.”
I think Christian churches need to ask themselves what exactly they’re asking people to convert to? Am I converting to faith in Jesus or to a more conservative haircut? Both? It’s got to be clear.
As additional evidence, Harvard professor Lamin Sanneh wrote in Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West that one of the aspects of Christianity that led to its spread being successful in Africa in the 20th century is that while other religions required Africans to relinquish their culture, Christianity redeemed their culture (i.e. added additional meaning and value). Yes, it was a shift in beliefs, but Africans were still allowed to express those beliefs through their own native cultural forms.
It’s a beautiful thing for the name of Jesus to be praised in unique languages, through unique cultures, by unique people.
A Broad Color Palette is Part of the Beauty of Christianity
The Bible is very clear about establishing unity in Christ Jesus, but diversity within that same body of Christ.
1 Cor. 12:7,11 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good….All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
Our uniqueness, given by the Spirit, is intentional.
Gal. 3:26-69 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Our uniqueness as individuals boldly contrasts, and therefore actually shines a spotlight on, our uniformity of faith in Jesus.
Rev. 7:9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
Our uniqueness, in the end, will demonstrate the gathering power of the gospel call.
Am I being too harsh on us? I hope not. Actually, I sort of wish I was just delusional and this was all in my head.
But I’m asking you to see this from the perspective of a pastor whose church has had the mildly embarrassing charge of “cult that’s not really a cult” lobbied against it. And since so many of our churches are nearly identical, I’m guessing my church is not the only one. But that’s sort of the point.
I fight day-in and day-out to try to convince young adults that “church” is not some obsolete institution they’ve inherited from their grandparents, but a necessity for all Christians of all time. Cult comparisons don’t help.
If I’m way off base, let me know.
Otherwise, I’m going to try my best to love you for our unity in Jesus AND for the individual he’s made you.