Are We Cult or Christian?

blog - cultAt 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.

9 thoughts on “Are We Cult or Christian?

  1. Sarah H. says:

    I appreciate your comments on the importance of celebrating diversity in our churches–an excellent reminder for us all as we evangelize. However, I don’t think that our frequent conformity is the root cause of anyone’s impression of WELS as a “kinda-cult.” An example: My Evangelical friend was shocked and dismayed after a (loving, gentle, Bible-passage-laden) discussion I had with her re. fellowship. She could not believe that I could neither worship nor pray with her. After all, both of us hold the Bible and Jesus as paramount in our lives as Christian wives and parents! She surfed the web and found an ex-WELS member’s comment that WELS is a “cult.” The comment resonated with my friend, and it had nothing to do with our church stifling individuality. Her impression of the “cultishness” of WELS has everything to do with our fellowship practices: we don’t pray or worship or commune with fellow Christians who aren’t “one of us”, we don’t take part in the Christian community’s effort to build unity through ecumenical activities. In her mind, WELS is a “closed society.” And it is THAT perception, in my experience, which is the root reason behind WELS being labelled a kinda-cult. It is an impression we can perhaps soften by celebrating the individual in our midst, but not one we can change without the intervention of the Holy Spirit as we explain our fellowship practices and the high value we place on Scripture.
    (On another note, in my experience the farther you are from the WELS heartland, the more you appreciate making a “WELS-connection.” I’ve been out of country for 14 years and am thankful in many ways for links to the “small world of WELS,” since we are so often distanced from that world. And I went to school with your sister-in-law. I’m just sayin’.)

    • Hi Sarah,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, wherever you may be! “Out of country for 14 years” is something most of us can’t imagine. I have no doubts that points of familiarity are even more appreciated in that instance.

      I still disagree with the idea that conformity does not contribute to anyone’s impression of WELS as a “kinda-cult.” I disagree because that is a trait that is fairly consistent in cult behavior. So it’s only natural that it might give someone the impression of cult.

      But no, I don’t think it’s the ONLY point. I think it’s a number of points taken together – and I don’t know if that’s better or worse than one point. To some degree, if it is a bunch of smaller points that overlap with cultish behavior, that’s a bit more alarming!

      So, again, here’s some of the similarities that I think give people a general impression…

      1) Strong top down regulation (i.e. “The Synod says….”)
      2) Systematic indoctrination (I’m NOT suggesting a healthy school system is a bad thing. Not at all. It’s a blessing. So PLEASE don’t take what I’m about to say in the wrong light. But cynics on the outside would probably look at our aggressive schooling system and say, “Well yeah, you pound your way of thinking into children’s heads from early on, right through high school and college.” And the fact that a very high percentage of our synod school attenders are multi-generation families might seem to reinforce this idea.)
      3) Demographic conformity – No one should ever apologize for their ethnicity. But a church probably should apologize if we’re such a homogenous unit that it’s nearly culturally painful for others to find their way in (this, by the way, was the whole Jerusalem Council thing in Acts 15). I CERTAINLY don’t think it’s intentionally malicious or anything like that. As I said, I think that, for most, it’s a head-scratching oversight for some or perhaps others getting a bit religious about traditional forms. But unless we honestly identify that this is a problem and own that, we will never repent of anything, and subsequently we will not grow beyond it. Again, I don’t think we need to target demographics or anything like that (a la Republican party mentality). I think we need to simply be honest that, generally speaking, there is something (NOT the gospel) about who we are that drives people who are not culturally like us away. And like we do every day with every other weakness, repent of that. The gospel is the ultimate cross-demographic unifier. If that’s not represented in a congregation, the question “why?” needs to get addressed.
      4) Doctrinal Elitism – you’ve heard the jokes about how WELS people perceive themselves. I have too. My feelings aren’t going to get hurt by jokes. However, I do get angry about unpleasant truths. I’ve heard denomination bashing at every level (I’m certainly guilty of it at some point too). But it’s painfully unproductive. And it creates proud, pharisaical hearts. Cults tend to have a blindingly proud attitude toward their practices, incapable of perceiving any fault within their borders, demonstrating visceral overreaction whenever something they hold dearly is criticized.

      I could go on, but these are just a few thoughts. I’m trying to say that I’m not surprised that some people might perceives us to be a bit cultish. I don’t think that assessment is entirely unfair. I don’t think we’re perceived as “cultish” for only the right reasons. And ultimately, this all bothers me some because nothing disgusts me more than the idea of something (especially me) standing in the way of someone meeting or better knowing their Savior.

  2. Kate says:

    It’s very unfortunate that the WELS has the label of “cult” or “cult-like” attached to them by certain people. It is a hard label to shake off and could possibly, in the right circumstance, cause a roadblock in evangelizing to the unchurched or seekers of the community. It would be hard for a WELS person that may be evangelizing to be taken seriously and have what they say “hold water” so to speak when they are perceived as a member of a “cult”. Perception can be powerful and wide spreading. How can members of the WELS change that perception?

    Sarah, you touched on the” praying with others topic” which is something I have never been able to wrap my head around completely even though I was born and raised WELS. I can where your friend was “shocked and dismayed” when you told her that.

  3. I am also a long-time WELS member who went through the system through high school, have multiple family members who are pastors and teachers, and so on. In that sense, I am a very typical WELS. On the other hand, the one factor that makes it difficult personally to stay in the WELS and can make the WELS a lonely place to be is the many ways I am NOT homogenous or conventional. Aside from being an outspoken woman as far back as elementary school, I have married a non-WELS man. Twice. And have been divorced. Also twice. I’m middle aged, so I don’t fit in with the school crowd, am too old and seasoned for the singles group, and am too young for the seniors crowd. I have a child who also went through the WELS system, but is seriously mentally ill and about as not homogenous and boundary challenging As you will ever meet. I sat alone at many school events as other parents muttered about my strange child, hoping she wouldn’t come to the lock in or ski trip or whatever was next. Haven’t seen it heard from her in years and have never met my grandson. Very not WELS and hard to talk about the kids and grand kids after church! Then I work overnights and overtime. I come to church not too dressed up or even in my scrubs. Personally, the homogeneity scares me off the WELS most.

    As I have boldly shared my faith with others over 50 years, my experiences would lead me to agree with Sarah, that fellowship practices are a major factor in others’ negative perception of the WELS.

  4. Adam Goede says:

    A couple thoughts:
    1) I understand what is being discussed but don’t paint with too broad a brush. My church in the Milwaukee area has a decent diversity of age, race, and creativity (in worship, programs, abilities, etc.). The leadership is good about letting people run with ideas. It’s not stifling. There seem to be many churches in the area like this.
    2) We can’t be too sensivite to criticism and think it’s our problem. Jesus said that if the world hated him it’s going to hate us too. They’re going to misinterpret acting morally as acting strange, trying to follow the Bible as being exclusive, and so on. It’s worth considering what others think but don’t get too down just because we’re mostly Caucasion and value our church body’s tight grasp on Scripture.

  5. Adam Goede says:

    I want to add one more thought–just as there are critics there are also people who find in WELS a real gem of a church body. Just read the “Confessions of Faith” article each month in Forward in Christ (or find past articles online). These people were searching and searching and only when they found a WELS church did it finally click because what we have in making Scripture central is so rare and valuable among Christian churches today.

    • Hey Adam,
      Thanks again for reading and responding.

      As you pointed out, the danger in making generalizations is just that – generalizations don’t apply to each specific entity, but is a truism for a group as a whole. I’d like to think that my own church doesn’t fit the generalization either (but it is something we’ve worked tremendously hard at – because it is easy to become a caricature of yourself).

      Additionally, I tried to point out that I’m not worried about criticism…for the right (and by that I mean “biblical”) reasons. If someone wants to call me “narrow-minded” for holding to the biblical assertion that only those who believe in Christ are saved, then so be it.

      However, if someone wants to call me ageist because I construct my church in a way that will likely appeal exclusively to elderly people OR if someone wants to suggest I’m not being all things to all people if I construct my church in a way that is only navigable to conservative white people OR if someone wants to call me elitist because they hear members of my faith community regularly making condescending remarks about Christians of other denominations…..I probably need to listen to that. In other words, yes, it’s important for Christians brush of unjust criticisms, but it’s also important for Christians to be attentive to FAIR criticisms.

      I love the blessings of our Synod. But if our Synod is above criticism, then it is a god to be repented of like all other false gods.

      What I’m attempting to do with the post is get people to carefully think through and differentiate between just or unjust criticism, with the hope that I would not cross that line myself.

  6. Jon says:

    I am a convert to WELS from LCMS so I can talk about this from both sides. When I was LCMS, the joke was that WELS stood for “Wacky Extremely Legalistic Society”. The fellowship practice of not praying with people that do not share our confession of faith probably was the biggest factor in this. It is unfortunately our society that we live in that has sort of adopted an ecumenical world view that minor differences do not matter viewpoint. People do not realize that this was the early church operated and that ecumenicalism is a relatively modern concept. For me what did it was when I was suffering the grips of an addiction that nearly destroyed me and I started going to 12 step groups and I got a sponsor and found that he was WELS and found that he was not such a bad guy after all even though he would not say the serenity prayers in our group. At the time I was having troubles with LCMS because I found no consistency in their practices so it left me more confused than ever so my sponsor invited me to his WELS congregation and I found the loving people that were there and the pastors were certainly not legalistic at all. They cared for me and helped me fight my addiction. They were able to explain unit concept in a way that made complete and total sense and they did it in a loving way. I am now WELS all the way through even though my extended family which are all LCMS think I am looney. I think the WELS needs to figure out a better way of explaining unit concept to the public so that the cult mantra can be gone. I have often wondered what will happen some day if a WELS Lutheran gets elected President of the United States and on inauguration day they have to do away with the traditional prayer that is given during the inauguration ceremony. I do not know how to do it but I think a better way of explaining unit concept is needed.

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