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What is a cult?

Sociological vs. Theological Definitions


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What Do You Mean When You Say 'Cult'?

The ambiguity of the term 'cult' makes it necessary to determine in what sense the word is used.

For instance, a sociological definition will differ from a religious one, and a Christian definition will differ from, say, the Mormon or Islamic view. Therefore, if and when you use the word 'cult,' you should qualify it.

In their book, "Prophets of the ApocalypseOff-site Link," Kenneth Samples, Erwin de Castro, Richard Abanes, and Robert Lyle give the following advice:

Given the fact that there's currently no universal definition of a cult, it seems best to ask one simple question whenever someone talks about cults: "Just what do you mean by the term 'cult'?" You may not agree with the way the person uses the term, but at least you'll know where he or she is coming from.

You may also want to ask yourself the same question before referring to any group as a cult. It may not be such as bad idea to begin by explaining what you mean by the term "cult" in order to avoid any potential misunderstanding. You never know. All the while you're talking about cults, the person listening may have a different concept altogether.
Source: A Cult Recipe?, in "Prophets of the Apocalypse," by Kenneth Samples, Erwin de Castro, Richard Abanes, and Robert Lyle
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That chapter - which provides additional background information on the development and use of the term "cult" - can be read here in its entirety.


Sociological vs. Theological Definitions

As if defining the term 'cult' weren't already difficult enough, there is another distinction to be aware of: the term can be defined either sociologically or theologically. Sociology concerns itself with behavior, while theology concerns itself with doctrine.

  • Sociological definitions of the term 'cult' ...

    ...include consideration of such factors as authoritarian leadership patterns, loyalty and commitment mechanisms, lifestyle characteristics, [and] conformity patterns (including the use of various sanctions in connection with those members who deviate).
    Source: Ronald Enroth, "What Is a Cult?" in A Guide to Cults and New ReligionsOff-site Link, e.d. Ronald Enroth (Downers Grove, Ill,: InterVarsity 1983), p14
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  • Theological definitions of the term 'cult' make note of the reasons why a particular group's beliefs and/or practices are considered unorthodox - that is, in conflict with the body of essential teachings of the movement the group compares itself to.

Professor Alan Gomes points out that

[t]he word cult has an established history of usage, long before the secular media or social sciences got hold of it.

Note that historically cult has been a religious term, not a sociological or psychological one.

The term cult suggests an absolute standard of evaluation, which sociology - by its nature - can not provide. It is therefore well suited to describe theological heterodoxy, which is determined by an absolute, objective and unchanging standard.
Source: Alan Gomes, Unmasking The CultsOff-site Link (Zondervan, 1995)

Christian apologist Robert Bowman defines a cult theologically as

A religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy. Adj.: "cultic" (may be used with reference to tendencies as well as full cult status).

That definition is not limited to Christian groups. Other religions also deal with such movements. For example, Alan Gomes notes that

[c]ults of Islam include the Sufis and the Nation of Islam. While these groups claim to be Muslim, they deviate fundamentally from the teaching of Islam, from which they are derived.
Source: Alan Gomes, Unmasking The CultsOff-site Link (Zondervan, 1995). Quoted here.
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By way of an example, here is a look at a theological definition of a cult of Christianity:

A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrine system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian Faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
Source: Alan Gomes, Unmasking The CultsOff-site Link (Zondervan, 1995). Quoted in this extended look at the theological definition as seen from a mainstream Christian point of view..
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It should be noted that in addition to aberrant, unorthodox, and/or heretical theology, many - but not all - religious cults also have excessive and/or abusive sociological characteristics (e.g. authoritarian leadership patterns, strict conformity requirements, manipulative controls, etc.)


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About This Page:

• Subject: Definitions of the term 'cult'
• First posted: Dec. 9, 1996
• Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2004
• Editors: Anton and Janet Hein-Hudson
• Copyright: Apologetics Index
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