The Church of God has since its inception been regarded as just another Cult! Many smaller unaffiliated groups face this same accusation. Just what IS a CULT? What Would it Do to Your FAITH if You Were Found to be IN One?
It wasn’t all that long before the emerging early New Testament Church began to be everywhere regarded in a profoundly negative way. Even within the first decade, followers of this ‘Jesus’ were labeled a ‘sect’ that was “everywhere spoken against”! 1 The elements for that situation were present from the foundation of the Church era. 2
Not a New Phenomenon
The Church originally was labeled as a “sect” of established Judaism. It wasn’t the only one. There were many: the Sadducees (Acts 5:17), the Pharisees (Acts 15:5) and as attested to by Paul the Apostle, referring to his former persuasion in Acts 26:5. The Church was called ‘the sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24:5). Each of these sects had variations in beliefs, but within an overall belief system and an accepted establishment. At first, the Church was regarded as just another Jewish sect. The change came later!
Where this is important is to consider what it’d do to your Faith should you be accused of ‘being in a cult’, without having a clear conception of just what that means or not knowing how to withstand or how to respond to the accusation.
I don’t usually prefer to insert dry dictionary definitions, but in this case, it is essential we define just what a ‘cult’ is. Opinions can vary significantly, depending on what we perceive the term to mean.
Dictionary (Thorndike Barnhart, 1954)_____
Cult (kult), n. 1. a system of religious worship.
2. great admiration for a person, thing, idea, etc.;
worship. 3. the group showing such admiration; worshippers. (Expanded definitions: 1. those who separate themselves from orthodoxy to pursue a narrower definition of Truth, 2. those who align themselves with an elevated leadership, 3. an op
opressive system of religious dictates and control.)
Sect (sekt), n. 1. group of people having the same principles, beliefs or opinions. 2. a religious group separated from an established church.
Dictionary (American Heritage, 2000)3
1. a. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
b. The followers of such a religion or sect.
2. A system or community of religious worship and ritual.
3. The formal means of expressing religious reverence; religious ceremony and ritual.
4. A usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.
5. Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.
6. An exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric, usually artistic or intellectual interest.
[Latin cultus, worship, from past participle of colere, to cultivate; see kwel- in Indo-European roots.]
1. a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other
products of human work and thought.
b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population:
d. The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.
cult – a system of religious beliefs and rituals; (e.g.
“devoted to the cultus of the Blessed Virgin” )
cult – an interest followed with exaggerated zeal; “he
From the above, we can understand that there’s a rather wide range of definition of the term ‘cult’. I include the definition for the term ‘sect’ also, as that’s what the early Church was called. But, the term ‘sect’ identifies a somewhat distinct segment of a previously established religious persuasion. When we move on to the definition of ‘cult’, it is apparent that there’s a perceptual shift from acceptability toward a tacit contempt.
Most of us regard the name ‘cult’ to have a very negative connotation. Few would feel complemented being called a ‘cult member’! Calling any particular group a ‘Cult’ casts a very negative regard toward all of its beliefs and practices, justified or not. This is a result of how we, in this society, are programmed to think.
What Is a CULT?
From the above definitions, we can see that the term has a wide application. If we take it all at face value, it appears that few could escape being identified as a cult at least to some degree. Interesting that the thesaurus’ definition gives an example of a ‘sect’ within the most populous Christian denomination as being a ‘cult’! (The cultus of the Blessed Virgin) In their example, they don’t necessarily intend a negative connotation, though our perceptions may inject one.
Refining-out the useable components from above, we see that a “Cult”, as we need to define it, is and can include all or a number of basic elements:
■ A religious group which embraces non-traditional thinking or unique doctrine (unorthodoxy),
■ That venerates unique teachings or personalities,
■ That takes its unique qualities to an extreme,
■ That tends to be exclusivist,
■ That in some cases practices ceremony or ritual.
To these, modern definition has added:
■ Whose teachings are substantially false,
■ Who employs abusive tactics, including various mind controlling methods.
■ An interest followed with exaggerated zeal
It is these latter factors that come to the fore in our thinking when we perceive of what a cult is.
The problem is, the more serious of these accusations, such as ‘teaching things that are false’ are highly subjective. Christ made it clear that the main stream (the broad way) would not be the most correct in its teachings. The ‘true way’ would be one that few would enter.4 Truth is not the exclusive domain of the impressive and popular organizations. Also, instances of ‘abusive tactics’ or ‘mind controlling methods’ are known in even the most respected organizations! Since they are by no means limited to just the ‘cults’, the presence of such tactics can not be the definition of a cult, unless we accept a broader definition, one which could include major and accepted organizations.
The True Cult?
The teenage son of a former Church family who attended years ago opined to our teens that the WCG was ‘only a cult’. Such a conclusion is obviously one way of dealing with any second thoughts. It automatically trivializes anything of importance the Church ever taught. All of its teachings and observances can be dismissed without concern, once it is established that the Church was just the ideas of over-zealous or manipulating men. Who’d hesitate to opt-out of that?
Reflecting on that, my thought was, what if the Church was the TRUE Cult? (We don’t usually allow that any ‘cult’ could be ‘true’!) But is there any remote possibility that the TRUE Church, where ever it may be, could ever be misidentified as merely a ‘cult’, and summarily dismissed in the minds of people as being right about anything? After all, that happened in the first century!
That Natural Aversion
Where the term ‘cult’ is useful is in the negative impression it creates in the minds of the hearers, and the resultant desire to distance ones’ self from it. But, we are always at risk of mis-identifying or mis-labeling a particular group. If we were to encounter a group that accurately represented the beliefs and practices of the Apostles and early New Testament Church, would Christianity in general regard them fairly? Probably not! The accuser is prone to evaluate other groups based on the belief system to which he subscribes, not by the fundamental source of the Bible alone. This is a major part of the problem.
So to avoid the automatic negative impression that carries with the use of the label ‘cult’, we need to consider a more neutral term. Not all cults are false in all of what they teach and practice. In fact, it’s the smaller groups, independent of the constraints on beliefs imposed by rigidly established religion (orthodoxy = ‘right thinking’), that are often more free to embrace biblical truths that have become excluded from the main stream. Being a ‘cult’ or being ‘cult-like’ is not always the bad thing it is understood to be. It all depends on how close to the true religion of the New Testament that group remains, though they’re rarely evaluated on that basis.
To set aside the negative connotation inherent with the label, ‘cult’, I suggest we substitute the word, ‘culture’. Sometimes the conformity that often forms among a group of believers is made out to be more than it really is. Culture is a word that can convey a meaning closer to the original meaning of the word ‘cult’ in our time. We understand cultures as being the life styles of groups of people, based on the standards of conduct accepted within their various societies. We accept the fact of different cultures without regarding them as ‘false’ or ‘unacceptable’. In fact, people generally venerate cultural diversity. It’s called ‘multiculturalism’. Without specific investigation into a group’s beliefs and practices, we shouldn’t automatically regard all cults negatively either, but typically,that’s how it is!
Among any people of like mind, or like situation, a ‘culture’ of a sort develops. When among those of a certain denomination, certain tendencies and manners become evident. In religious cultures, these, often as not, are a product of their belief system, structured around their particular doctrines and ‘cultured’ by a certain community ‘peer pressure’ that interplays between individuals. This is not suggesting anything improper is at work, but merely to explain that people of similar beliefs and practice usually mutually coerce one another in subtle and not so subtle ways. To a degree, and within certain bounds, this is as it should be. We are each instructed to ‘provoke one another to love and good works’. 5
Those who are Catholics understand what it means to be Catholic. Mormons understand their distinct Mormon beliefs and practices. What could better illustrate a cultural conformity than say the Amish community? If one were to become an Adventist, he or she would expect and be expected to make some dietary adjustments and observe certain things differently. A free-will Baptist would notice some differences if he were to mingle among Presbyterians. Some differences are political, some are doctrinal. There is a definable ‘culture’ among each of these. Some more pronounced than others. The fact of there being a ‘cultural difference’ is not in itself indicative of right or wrong. In fact, God made clear from the beginning that man was free to live in whatever culture he preferred. (The essence of the statement: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat”. (Gen.2:16-17) We are free to choose and live whatever life style we wish, except avoiding that central ‘tree’, the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, which represents our deciding for ourselves what is right and what is wrong!). Truth is not exclusive to or determined by any single cultural expression, it is determined another way.
Each of these, whether Catholics, Adventists, Jews, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish, Mormons, Evangelicals, and for that matter, the Masons, the Mafia, Evolutionists or the Green-peace movement, each exhibits a certain degree of ‘exclusivity’, and could be construed to represent some aspects of ‘cult-like’ behavior. Each imposes a certain ‘peer pressure’ upon its members, to focus their loyalty to the interests and the cause of their particular organization. Again, this, though each a visible ‘culture’, by itself is not the sole definition of what a Cult is. Maintaining a distinct culture alone isn’t it.
When is a Cult Not a Cult?
So, when the Worldwide Church of God set upon making significant doctrinal changes, one of the tools, self-imposed, was to accuse our former conduct as being ‘cult-like’. Others had said that of us for years. What few noticed at the time was the ‘cult-like’ tactics used to impose those changes!
With some, it worked. The mission was accomplished in a most unbelievably successful way. With others, their faith was crippled or demolished, perhaps permanently!
Rexcella VanImpe, in September of 1996, said on her husband’s TV broadcast, “The Worldwide Church of God has made significant doctrinal changes. They have joined the evangelical main stream, and that we really ought to embrace them.” They and others like them were considering the doctrinal changes being pushed through in the early nineties, as though doctrine was the source of their cult-like characteristic. But others, such as one of their own, more accurately observed that in the ‘cult’ department, little had really changed.
David Covington, a long-time member of the WCG and a minister, in his May 11, 1996 letter of resignation, though professing full agreement with the doctrinal overthrow, observed and admitted that the Tkach administration of the WCG “…shows no willingness to address the core, most damaging cultic aspects of the WCG system.” He, a favored ‘insider’, their ‘spiritual abuse “guru”’, went on in a lengthy letter to illustrate detailed specifics of what he meant. The Church had, in fact, NOT abandoned its cult-like ways. 6
This brings us to a significant consideration. Is a cult a set of beliefs, or is it a mode of operation? Here, a supposed “Cult” revised all of its unique doctrines to correspond more to main stream Christianity, yet it was seen as still being a ‘cult’ by an ‘insider’, someone in a position to know. In this case, we can conclude, doctrine really had nothing to do with it!!
But what the accusation of being a ‘Cult’ did for most people was to cast dispersions on the doctrine of the Church! It was that doctrine that the religious world despises. But instead, it was the political structure and its employed methods that defined the ‘cultishness’, not so much its doctrines. Though the ‘culture’ within the WCG was derived in part from its’ doctrinal positions, that apparently wasn’t the component that made it a ‘Cult’ in the minds of many and in practical reality! But the accusation served its purpose. Most major doctrines were up-ended and repudiated by a self-conscious, closed, under-confident and uninspired regime. Their long-stated intent of gaining the embrace of main-stream evangelicals proves ever elusive, as those core components of a cult-like system remained intact. The problem really wasn’t the doctrine, though doctrine took the fall!
A Highway of No Return
Their former pastor general observed correctly. In the last line of his last letter to the general membership, just weeks before his unexpected and untimely death from a brain aneurism, he wrote, concerning the doctrinal changes, “There is no turning back.” 7 What he wrote proved prophetic!
We can conclude that same thing from what happened to the early New Testament Church when it drifted from the faith once delivered and embraced the doctrinal positions adapted from the world around them. Abandoning and repudiating the True Faith has no return access ramp! Truth and understanding is a Heavenly Gift, a natural by-product of the indwelling of God’s Spirit. Letting go of it has its price.
But, let’s consider those qualities that earn an
organization the label: ‘Cult’. Let’s consider these with the Early New Testament Church in mind.
■ A religious group which embraces non-traditional thinking or unique doctrine (unorthodoxy), Did the early Church embrace a whole new way of thinking? 8 Did it possess and promote unique doctrine?
■ That venerates unique teachings or personalities, Did it venerate (hold in especially high regard) any unique teachings and prominent personalities, One in particular? 9
■ That takes its unique qualities to an extreme, Does the fact that many throughout history paid with their lives, choosing martyrdom at times, rather than renounce their beliefs, illustrate any degree of extremism? 10
■ That tends to be exclusive, Christ plainly described those religious types with whom His Saints should not fellowship. 11 He listed those characteristics which made an individual ‘one of His’! 12 Being exclusive of certain elements in society is openly promoted in scripture, both Old and New Testament. The early Church was clearly exclusive toward non-Christian cults!
■ That in some cases practices ceremony or ritual. Christ and the Apostle Paul openly advocated certain specific observances, both weekly and annual. Most noteworthy: the Passover, with its renewed symbology. Christ instructed His disciples to continue to observe Passover, 13 and the Apostle Paul later gave specific instructions to a Gentile congregation as to exactly when and how to now keep it! What about the ceremony of baptism? 14
In each of these, the Early Church could be seen as exhibiting the prime characteristics of a Cult! For that matter, well respected religious groups today exhibit the same! Does that make them worthy of being labeled a ‘Cult’? But, it’s the other definitions that put any group over the top in this regard.
■ Whose teachings are substantially false, As stated above, this determination is highly subjective. Who has sufficient wherewithal to determine what is true and what is false? We can’t look to the main stream orthodox religions, as they all pose differing answers. Christ Himself explained that the ‘broad way’, the ‘accepted’ forms, would not preserve the components of His true ‘way of life’! It would be a small ‘minority’ who’d find and pursue that ‘narrow way’. 15
■ Who employs abusive tactics, including various mind controlling methods. Here we have a key element, but one not absent from even the most highly respected organizations. Even secular ones have a problem with this item, as it is a component of our human natures. All those books written, dealing with ‘abusive groups’, are written about a number of organizations, of all persuasions, large to small, that have had to deal with this problem. It isn’t the Church of God only. In fact, it’s to much lesser extent there than in most ‘main stream’ churches. On this particular item, we have all the big pots attempting to over-blacken the kettle!
■ An interest followed with exaggerated zeal. In most situations, zeal is afforded a high regard. It seems that in pointedly promoting any doctrine not generally approved by the main stream, one risks being labeled ‘cult-like’ on the basis of personal conviction. Even more so when the organization evokes this exaggerated response!
The point of this is to illustrate that the early New Testament Church could be construed by some people as having been ‘Cult-like’. It’s modern counterpart, no less so!
Then, there’s also the ‘eye-of-the-beholder’ component. An evangelical would define a cult differently than would an agnostic. The evangelical would base his verdict in reference to his personal accepted belief system, whether Biblically accurate or not. (Our modern religions have the added perspective of a ‘refined theology’, having been subjected to generations of ‘rational’ analysis, incorporating many extra-biblical ideas, such as those borrowed from Gnosticism.) 16 Then, the agnostic would use a much broader brush, even including, and especially including, the out-spoken evangelical!
It was asked above, that if the True Church were to be encountered today, wouldn’t it possess the same general characteristics as did the early Church? If that Church could have been construed as exhibiting ‘cult-like’ characteristics, then isn’t it likely its modern counterpart would be labeled the same? Does this suggest how we ought to regard being labeled a Cult?
So, Can We Escape?
The original question, posed at the beginning, Can we escape being labeled a Cult? Well, if we are labeled as such, we’re in good company. The Early Church was regarded negatively as a ‘Sect’ by society in general, which in that day was much the same thing. But, so long as we firmly hold to the doctrines of the New Testament, and especially those rejected by the majority (many of which have an Old Testament origin, such as Holydays and the Sabbath), we are subject to that ever-present negative assessment. And, if we filter out those extra-Biblical contaminants, drawn from Gnostic philosophy, such as the immortal soul, we can’t help but paint a target on ourselves. It comes with the territory! This is one of the motivating aversions which fired the WCG’s ill-fated engine of change.
The only hope a group could have of immunity, especially a small group, would be if it possessed no unique beliefs, exhibited no zeal, and went with the flow in every practice and doctrinal position. The more benign its conduct, the more innocuous its doctrine, the more likely it’ll be able to escape being labeled. But does this condition remotely satisfy the unique requirements of our calling?
Ironically, it seems the standard of who is and who isn’t is set by the most obvious Cult of all time and especially by her ‘protesting’ daughters, who came out of her! 17But none dare call her one! Most who’ve been in the Church for a long period of time, at least, those who are fulfilling their ‘Berean’ obligation and thoroughly proving its doctrines, are relatively unfazed by our being called a cult. Our primary concern, then, in being labeled, must shift to how it would impact a new person. We need to become fully conversant in the Truth, to be able to support one another’s faith and to face any presumptive questions.
Though some would prefer to allege so, with the Church of God, it isn’t really about our organizational structure, per se. That changes from place to place and from generation to generation. And, yes some of the negative political factors can affect us that affect nearly every other religious group from time to time. 18
In that it’s possible to make a good case for the most populous religious body on earth meeting all the definitions of a Cult, it seems no-one is fully immune from being labeled by someone some-where. Our first obligation is to identify and follow the True Way, irrespective of the regard of others. It’s one of those ‘hanged-if-you-do / hanged-if-you-don’t’ situations. Paul illustrated the problem we face in his poignant observation in Romans 6:16-17. “Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey;…But God be thanked, that you were the servants of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.” He continues the thought in the first chapter of Galatians: “I marvel that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ…As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.”
Our problem is to decide which “master” it is we prefer or seek to please? The true Saints of the Most High are personally called to be the “Pillars and grounds of the Truth” 19 If we seek to accommodate the doctrinal positions and opinions preferred by the majority, we risk losing our way in serving the Truth. We are the servants of whom we choose to obey! Keep in mind that averting Christ’s proscribed service is placing ourselves in bondage to another!
Whose embrace is it we seek? The answer to that question is greater than man’s opinion of us!
1 Acts 28:22 Addressing the chief of the Jews in Rome who said to Paul: “But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, we know that every-where it is spoken against.”
2 Matthew 10:22, Luke 21:17, John 7:7, 15:19, 17:14 etc.
4 Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads unto life, and few there be that find it.”
5 1st Thess. 5:11, Heb. 3:13, Heb. 10:24
6 Quoted from the “Servants’ News” 6/96, Vol.2, No.5, Pg.4, copies of the entire resignation letter are available. Mr. Covington possesses a Masters Degree in counseling and served in important capacities in the WCG ministry with particular focus on matters of dealing with ‘spiritual abuse’.
7 The Pastor General’s letter of 8/28/95. He lost consciousness as a result of an unanticipated brain aneurism about three weeks later, and died just before the next letter was sent out, though it bore his signature, he was not its author.
8 Philippians 2:5
9 Ephesians 4:15, Colossians 2:19, Mark 12:10
10 Revelation 12:11, Hebrews 11:35-38
11 Eph. 5:11 & 2:12, 2nd Cor. 6:17
12 Rev. 14:12, Rom. 8:9 & 14 & 16, 1st Cor. 12:13,
1st Pet. 1:2-5
13 Luke 22:19, 1st Cor. 11:24-29 & 5:7,
14 Matt. 28:19-20
15 Matt. 7:13-14
16 Request my article on “Gnosticism and the New Testament Church.”. Much of what is believed today is cross-pollinated with pagan concepts, more than most would like to admit!
17 Revelation 17:1-18 “The Mother of Harlots”! This Biblical epithet identifies a woman who has daughters in the same line of work as herself!
18 3rd John: 9-10 There is always that individual who seeks to be the pre-eminent ‘leader’.
19 1st Timothy 3:15 Paul, the tentmaker, uses the basic tent structure to illustrate the Truth’s doctrinal support elements.