The accusation that one is a member of a cult is one that is usually taken in offense, and for a good reason. The word “cult” as normally used is a pejorative term that is relative in definition. Many people use the term to insult a group of people with whom they disagree. Most of these people would be hard pressed to define the word. A perusal of web sites and Facebook groups which accuse the churches of Christ of being a cult reveals a wide variety of reasons for the accusation, and as wide a variety of definitions attributed to the word. Dictionaries give several meanings for the word “cult.” The Oxford Dictionary entry that is most relevant to this discussion is: “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.” The reader may notice that even this definition is relative, as illustrated by the phrase, “regarded by others.” It is beneficial to observe some of the characteristics of cults and see if churches of Christ fit the description.
Cults usually follow a single human leader or authoritative organization. The leader’s word is considered gospel by the cult. His teachings constitute the basis for their belief. Some cults have such a strong belief in their leaders that their members will follow them to their deaths. Some examples are the Branch Davidians who followed David Koresh and were killed in a standoff with FBI agents in Waco, Texas, the Heaven’s Gate cult which committed mass suicide at the arrival of the Hale-Bop comet, and The People’s Temple, which is famous for the mass murder-suicide which occurred in Jonestown, Guyana at the behest of its leader, Jim Jones. There are other religious groups that are defined by their strict adherence to the doctrine of their human leader or organization.
In contrast, churches of Christ decry the elevation of any man. Jesus Christ is the only person followed by those in the churches of Christ, and He is not merely a man, but deity (John 1:1). Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6 NKJV). It is ironic that many of those who accuse churches of Christ of being a cult are associated with denominations that were begun by men and whose doctrine is based on the teachings of that man, or an authoritative organization. Such is not true of the churches of Christ. A plea of the churches of Christ is to “have no creed, but Christ.” In many denominations, there is a separation of “clergy” from the “laity.” The “clergy” is revered and attributed such titles as reverend, pope, father, and priest. Churches of Christ follow the command of Jesus to avoid elevating men in such manner (Matt. 23:2-12).
Cults usually have the practice of deceptive or manipulative discipleship practices. People are often misled concerning the teachings of the cult. They often find out the true nature of the cult only after having committed to it, at which time it is hard to leave. Those who teach and preach in the churches of Christ are often known for their willingness to invite others to examine their teachings to be sure what is taught is in accordance with the Bible. Members of the churches of Christ generally expect to be given the “book, chapter, and verse” in the Bible to verify for themselves that what is taught is from the Bible. Since churches of Christ do not follow any creed or manual written by men, only the Bible is used as a basis for doctrine. This author is a preacher in the churches of Christ, and as such knows many preachers in the church. All the preachers known by this author take very seriously the injunction given in 1 Peter 4:11: “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God.” It is believed and practiced that members in the church have the responsibility to “test the spirits, whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1) and should be like the noble Bereans who searched the scriptures to be sure the things they were taught were true (Acts 17:11).
Another attribute of cults is that they often exercise extreme control over their members. Members of cults are expected to follow without question the directives of their leaders and are often emotionally manipulated to ensure compliance. Churches of Christ are the opposite of this. It is believed and taught that members should follow only Christ and should do so out of love and of their free will. The scriptures forbid certain things as sins, and it is taught that Christians should obey the scriptures. When someone does sin, they are entreated in love to repent of that sin and seek God’s forgiveness. Unlike some religions, churches of Christ do not require a person to go through a man to receive forgiveness by God. On the contrary, it is taught that all Christians are priests (1 Pet. 2:5,9) and as such may go to God directly through our mediator, Jesus Christ (Phil 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5).
Churches of Christ are clearly not a cult, but this accusation against churches of Christ is nothing new. A similar accusation was made against the church by its enemies in Acts 24. The enemies of the church accused Paul of being “a creator of dissension” and “a ring leader of the sect of Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). Paul confessed that he worshipped “according to the Way which they call a sect” (Acts 24:14). This Way to which Paul referred and which his enemies called a sect (cult) was the church which Jesus established (Matt. 16:18). This church was referred to as “the churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16).
Jesus warned His disciples that they would be hated for His sake (Matt. 10:22). He then stated: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!” (Matt. 10:24-25, NKJV).
If such terms of derision as “cult” are hurled at His church, so be it. He suffered much more for us. It is fitting that we should suffer such insults for Him. Rather than return evil for evil, let us love and pray for those who use such words with malice. Perhaps when they see our love, they will know we are His disciples (John 13:35) and will want to be one too!
Michael preaches at the Boiling Springs congregation in Boiling Springs, SC. He is vice-chairman of the board of directors for the Carolina Messenger.