Yesterday I was looking at a bit of the history of the Children of God cult, also known as The Family. I’m not including a link here because parts of the story simply are not edifying. Like many Made-in-America cults (and some in Western Europe) the thing that is often highlighted is a very liberal view of appropriate sexual behavior.
Sometimes these organizations begin around the distinctive doctrines of a very small-c, charismatic leader. But other times there is a drift away from Christian orthodoxy that happens bit by bit, year over year. (It’s also possible for an organization that has drifted to have a reformation and return to orthodoxy, as happened with the core membership of The Worldwide Church of God.)
Here’s an analogy. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If I decide to visit my neighbor across the road and two houses down, and I line myself up from my front door to his front door, and I am in fact 5% off, I will still make it to his door. Five percent isn’t much when you’re only taking about a hundred steps. But if I am a rocket scientist, aiming toward the Moon, and I am out even 1% on my calculations, I could easily be wrong as to where the Moon is going to be on the day I need to begin orbit.
So it could be argued that some organizations move, over time, into false cult status. The adjective false before cult was common in previous generations because, by definition, any separated group could be considered a cult; today the word has shifted and the false — plus the implications of wrong teaching, authoritarian leaders, separation from society, etc. — is assumed. Did they start out 1% or 5% off course or did something happen that bent the straight line they were on? It’s interesting that a tendency, disposition or inclination is called a “bent.”
Christian bloggers and watchdog ministries are very quick to point out the perceived error of everyone else (but themselves) but we don’t have many mechanisms in The Church that would be considered preventative. You don’t know someone is sick until they exhibit symptoms, but maybe we should have a ‘blood test’ that would tell us if someone is going off the rails.
However, it can also be argued that bank tellers know how to recognize authentic currency not by looking at counterfeit bills, but carefully studying real ones. Spending time immersed in the weekend teaching and mid-week Bible studies connected to mainstream Christian churches is sufficient to keep us all on the right path.