The Problem of Sects and Cults
At the beginning of 1993 the world was shocked by the dramatic events surrounding the mass suicide and murder of men, women, and small children of the small Seventh Day Adventist break-off group called the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh in Waco, Texas. It was the worst case of religious fanaticism since the Jonestown massacre in South America when a whole colony posioned themselves -- men, woman, and children -- at the command of their religious leader, Jim Jones.
Since the collapse of communism, Eastern Europe has experienced a wave of cultic invasions -- strange religious groups offering a quich route to salvation through total and absolute obedience to their leaders. In Bulgaria, where the New Covenant is active, there have been many suicides by desperate youths after their experiences with these groups.
This short pamphlet seeks to understand just what a "sect" or "cult" is and to warn Christians and others to be careful in their search for religious truth and how they condemn others.
What is a "Cult"? What is a "Sect"?
The words "cult" and "sect" are highly charged terms that tend to mean different things to different people. So what is a cult or a sect?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines these words as follows:
CULT: A system of religious worship; devotion or homage to a person or thing (expecially derogatory or transient fad). From the Latin cultus, meaning "worship".
SECT: A body of persons agreed upon religious doctrines, usually different from those of an established or orthodox church from which they have separated and usually having distinctive common worship; nonconformist or other Church as described by opponents; party or faction in a religious body; religious denomination; followers of a particular philosopher or philosophy or school of thought in politics, etc.. From the Latin, sequi secut, meaning "to follow".
To the Jews, the first Christians were a Jewish cult or sect, a break-off of orthodox Judaism. As Christianity became more established it became orthodox and break-offs of the dominant church were stigmatised as cults or sects.
The first Protestants were termed a sect by the Roman Catholic Church. When the Methodists and Baptists, for example, broke away from the "orthodox" Church of England they were known as cults and sects. Today Methodists and Baptists call modern Christian groups cults and sects. In a hundred years today's "cults" and "sects", if they become established, will call break-offs from their groups "cults" and "sects". (We will here use the word cult to describe both "cult" and "sect" as in the public mind they are used interchangeably).
In more recent times, as various groups have become more "fundamentalist" militant, a reverse usage of the word "cult" has begun to appear. For example, many fundamentalist Protestants now call the Catholic Church a "cult". Indeed, some of the more right-wing fundamentalist groups call anyone a "cult" who does not agree with with their doctrine. In short, the word "cult" (and "sect") is simply a term of abuse.
FUNDAMENTALIST: Someone who strictly maintains traditional orthodox beliefs such as the inerrancy of Scripture and literal acceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of Protestant Christianity; someone who strictly maintains the original beliefs of a denomination or group in the wake of reformation or evolving doctrine and practice. From the Latin fundamentum meaning "buttocks" or "anus".
In a similar vein, Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) call all other churches "apostates" much as orthodox Christians call those who disagree with them "heretics":
HERETIC: Holder of an unorthodox opinion (originally in the matter of religion). From the Greek hairetikos, meaning "able to choose (a contrary opinion)".
APOSTATE: One guilty of abandoning religious faith, vows, principles, or a party. From the Greek apostasia, meaning "defection".
In modern language the words "sect" and "cult" have tended to replace the more mediaeval terms "apostate" and "heretic" though these do continue to be used.
So who is an "apostate" or "heretic"? Do you belong to a "cult" or a "sect"? The answer is: everyone is an APOSTATE and a HERETIC, and everyone belongs to a CULT or a SECT.
It is all relative.
What Should the Christian Approach Be?
Since, by definition, every Christian is a "heretic" or a member of a "cult" to someone else, what ought our approach be? Unfortunately, the use of words is in the hands of those who use them. Language evolves and we usually have little control over that evolution. Since the terms "cult", "sect", "heretic", and "apostate" are going to continue in use, how should we use them? Or should we stop using them altogether?
Because all these words are largely terms of abuse in the modern mind, it is the opinion of New Covenant Christians that these words should be abolished. Since that is, in practice, impossible, New Covenant Christians have, with the exceptions outlined below, elected not to use them since the spirit of abuse inherant in these terms is incompatible with the Christian faith. Every group, by definition, considers itself to be "orthodox" (not to be confused with the Eastern Church -- Russian, Romanian, Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian -- which accepts the Patriarch of Constantiple as their head) and which uses this as a church title (the Orthodox Church).
ORTHODOX: Holding correct or currently accepted opinions especially on religious doctrine, not heretical or independent-minded or original; generally accepted as right or true expecially in theology, in harmony with what is authoritatively established, approved, conventional.
In the Middle Ages anything that was not orthodox was usually violently persecuted. People were killed who did not tow the official line. Nowadays, with the evolution of a more tolerant attitude in the West, the freedom of religious expression is almost taken for granted, a tradition started in the United States of America. With this tolerance of other religions the door is automatically open for almost any religion under the sun. Secular-based western societies generally only require religious organisations to obey the secular law.
The Minimum Requirement
What people are generally afraid of -- and with good cause -- are those groups whose teachings are so psychologically warped that they breed a kind of fanaticism that leads to brainwashing, sexual abuse, mass suicide and murder. If a "cult" or "sect" were to be exclusively defined in these terms, then New Covenant Christians would go along with such a definition. I suspect that the average man-on-the-street sees a "cult" in just such terms.
But we must be careful again. What is a fanatic? Are you a fanatic? Most people would recoil in horror at being called a "fanatic". Again, like "cult", "sect", "apostate" and "heretic", this has become a term of abuse.
FANATIC: A person filled with excessive and mistaken enthusiasm especially in religion. From the Latin fanum, meaning a "temple".
It is from this same term that we get the term "fan" as in "football fan" or "pop star fan". To the Roman Catholics the first Protestants were "fanatics", and to modern Protestants many of the new Christian groups are "fanatics". Everyone who disagrees with others who are enthusiastic calls them "fanatics".
Are you an enthusiastic disciple of your religion? Then the chances are you are a "fanatic" to someone.
To be an actively committed Christian in a particular group means that you belong to a "cult" or a "sect", or are an "apostate", "heretic" or "fanatic". It is comforting to know, then, that the Lord Jesus Christ -- who warned true Christians to expect to be persecuted (e.g. Matt 5:44; Luke 21:12) -- was Himself also an apostate, heretic, fanatic, and the founder of a religious cult or sect!
The True "Cultists": A Menace to Society
There is no doubt, in the opinion of New Covenant Christians, that there are many groups which are dangerous to society. We hope that this pamphlet will be the means of stimulting discussion and allowing a new concensus of opinion to emerge that is consistant with the high ethical standards of the ideals of an enlightened society.
John J. May, a former member of one such "cult" in the Irish Republic, identified twelve characteristics or symptoms of "cultic" activity which New Covenant Christians concur with. We recommend these be studied and used judiciously in examining new groups.
12 Symptoms of Modern Cultic Activity
Cultic activity (if this is how we are to define it) can then (if it is allowed to go further) lead to a general decline in Biblical morals. Some of the symptoms of extreme cultic activity are as follows:
- 1. Total dependance on the leader or leaders of the group;
- 2. Blind obedience (and since compliance with every instruction is taught as maturity, many find themselves doing and saying things they would never have done before joining the group);
- 3. Constant repetition which eventually and inevitably creates an artifical atmosphere of unity where pretentions replace reality and noboy dares venture a different opnion because of unadulterated fear of what the group many think;
- 4. The idea that all in the "family" (group) are "good" and all outside are "bad"; therefore tiny infractions of rules are obviously magnified and necessarily punished;
- 5. Fear to displease the leadership and their sycophantic officials becomes the fuel that fires the mind which dulls the heart, so consequently injustice finds the climate to breed in;
- 6. Everyone ends up watching each other to report perceived infractions or to measure their purity (worthiness) against the less zealous;
- 7. Rewards and chastisements are constantly placed before the unfortunates to spur them on to more and more work;
- 8. Intolerance of other people's viewpoints which is intensified through misrepresentation and ridicule at official level (yet always predictably denied!);
- 9. Definite feelings of superiority over all other people in various faiths regardless of their sincerity. This is particularly sad when one realises the rampant abysmal ignorance most of these people have regarding other persuasions (faiths);
- 10. Constant feelings of uselessness;
- 11. Suppression of true feelings along with the consequent guilt;
- 12. Pathetic and hysterical demands for unity by habitual portrayals of any who question as apostates/heretics. (It is interesting that most hard line groups use this "whipping boy" to terrorise all into submission to their cruel dictates).
- 1. A rapid decline in sexual morals. The nuclear family is threatened, marriage covenants are rendered null and void, and free sex (often leading to orgies) is frequently the result -- typically, cults try to draw young people away from their homes and rebell against the authority and protection of their parents; or they may force celibacy, make men give up their wives to the cult leader, encourage soddomy, and other sexual abberations;
- 2. An extreme form of fanaticism in which cult members are willing to be killed, kill, or offer their own lives, for the cultic leader;
- 3. The neglect of, and physical and emotional abuse of, children sexually and psychologically;
- 4. Total brainwashing leading to an inability to discern between right and wrong; many groups stoop to extortion, theft, prostitution, and other vices in order to "further the cause", justifying the long-term aim over short-term deception;
- 5. "Protecting their own" -- because they are afraid of exposure, cults normally keep their "less experienced" members isolated from the rest of society -- particularly the youth from their parents as they fear the moral influence of the latter.
These are the real "cultists". The New Covenant therefore makes this plea to Christians to stop "crying wolf" whenever someone comes along with a viewpoint different from their own, especially if it is a modern one. Every idea was "modern" at one time. Christians have a long history of theological and practical diversity: let us maintain our individual beliefs in a spirit of tolerance but unite on the fundamentals that are common all true Christians -- ethics -- the moral principles by which honorable men and women have been commanded to live by, by the Lord Jesus Christ in the Bible: the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are a good starting place.
We therefore invite all true Christians of all denominations to unite in countering the true "cultists" -- the brainwashers, the sexual abusers, the marriage- and family-destroyers, the murderers and suicidal fanatics -- these groups, who threaten the very core of society, need to be contained and their victims helped. Let us no longer quarrel over theology but focus on ethics. Theology is of no interest to society in general but to Christians themselves. It is ethics that form the foundation of a moral or a corrupt society -- honesty, the sanctity of the home, industriousness, etc..
If you or your Church would like to discuss these matters with the New Covenant, please get in contact with us. Your viewpoint will be listened to and respected. We have much to learn from each other.
Also see, What is a Cult?
This page was created on 16 October 1997
Last updated on 22 January 2001
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