Thinking Out Loud

January 30, 2017

What are the Criteria for Calling Something a Cult?

cults

 

Years ago, I recall hearing about or reading a book titled The Mark of a Cult. One factor I remember specifically was exclusivity. Recently I talked to someone who had a family member converting to a fringe sector which prohibits fellowshipping with outsiders; ie. Christians from other denominations. I gave him what was on that day my best advice, but as the days have passed I have grown more concerned about their exclusivity doctrine.

I went off in search of this factor in lists of “marks of a cult” or “signs you’re in a cult” and didn’t see it listed. However, the internet offers many rabbit trails and I thought you might like to see some of the lists. I never did find the book reference I was looking for either, but decided to compile all this material on one page so it could be helpful to many of you. The term cult is often used differently in the broader population than it is among Christians, so it’s good to define your context when discussing this topic.

These are excerpts from much longer articles.

At the website BBFOHIO:

There are four identifying marks that a person should avoid when joining himself or herself to a church (assembly, congregation, organization, etc.). We have them outlined with a simple acronym:

A-D-D-S

Authority other than Scripture.
Deviation from the Trinity doctrine of God.
Departure from the true Bible Doctrine of Jesus Christ.
Salvation by works and not by grace through faith alone.

From Questions We Wanted Answered (.pdf):

1. Supplementary Revelation
2. Spurious Leadership
3. Faulty Christology
4. Financial Pressure
5. Dubious Hope

The DVD The Marks of a Cult as reviewed by Tim Challies:

Add: Cults add to Scripture.
Subtract: Cults subtract from the person of Christ.
Multiply: Cults multiply the requirements of salvation.
Divide: Cults divide the loyalty of believers.

From the website Christian Courier:

1. Unquestioning commitment to a domineering leader
2. Dissent and discussion discouraged
3. Cult members lavish the leader in luxury
4. Polarization of members
5. Rebellion against other sources of authority
6. Alteration of personality

From the website ex-cult.org (greatly edited):

1. Their leader/s may claim a special, exclusive ministry, revelation or
position of authority given by God.
2. They believe they are the only true church and take a critical stance
regarding the Christian church…
3. They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep members
loyal to their ranks…
4. Members will be expected to give substantial financial support to
the group…
5. There will be great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its
teachings…
6. There will be total control over almost all aspects of the private
lives of members…
7. Bible-based cults may proclaim they have no clergy/laity
distinction and no paid ministry class…
8. Any dissent or questioning of the group’s teachings is discouraged.
Criticism in any form is seen as rebellion…
9. Members are required to demonstrate their loyalty to the group in
some way…
10. Attempts to leave or reveal embarrassing facts about the group may
be met with threats…

I thought it was interesting that this last point also contained:

Some may have taken oaths of loyalty that involve their lives or have signed a “covenant” and feel threatened by this.

That reminded me of some of the “survivor” and “spiritual abuse” websites I often read.

Finally, from Christian Arsenal:

1.  Does it attempt to attack or change the person, work or Deity of Christ?
2. Is salvation by a new unique non-scriptural method, works, or something other than faith in Jesus and His work on the cross?
3. Is membership with this group required for salvation?
4. Is the Doctrine of the Trinity compromised?
5. Does it attempt to change the teaching about the person, Deity, and/or work of the Holy Spirit?
6. Is the Holy Spirit credited with revealing things that are contrary to what He has already revealed in the Bible?
7. Is God being made to seem more like man?
8. Is man is being made to seem more like God?
9. Is someone or something being presented as an authority equal to or superior to the Bible?
10. Is the teaching or interpretation of one person or select group of people seen as the only acceptable material or guide by which you are to study the Bible?
11. Does it edify the Church and build up the body of Christ or does it seek to give glory to a person or organization?
12. Are claims and/or prophecies made that cannot be substantiated or that have failed to come about?
13. Are terms commonly used in “Christianity” redefined and given new “non-biblical” meanings?
14. Is the teaching or activity consistent with the New Testament?
15. Is this a matter of tradition, culture and emotions or is it Bible?
16. Does this group or teaching force interpretations of scripture passages that make the Bible contradict itself?
17. Does movement or group produce healthy well-balanced growing Disciples?
18. Is the teaching, movement or group focused on the entire message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or are they focused only on a few specific issues? (For example end time prophecy, deliverance ministry, healing campaigns, prosperity teachings etc.)


The graphic image used above is from CultWatch.com (the article linked goes into greater detail than space allowed us here.)

June 1, 2014

Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?

Instead of including occasional devotional or teaching articles, as I once did when this blog started, I started Christianity 201 to force myself to either write or find something every day that involves Bible study or devotional material. A couple of days ago, I used the occasion of my birthday to discuss an issue which has come up a few times in the last few months.  Since we’re still busy sheep-sitting — we don’t actually watch the flock by night, though — I thought I’d include this here…

Over the last twelve months I have had discussions with two people who feel very strongly that we’re not to celebrate birthdays. There are some Christian groups that teach this, and membership in their group is dependent on agreeing to cease celebration of wedding anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. Much of this is based on a passage in Galatians:

8 Before you Gentiles knew God, you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist. 9 So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world? 10 You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. 11 I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing.
NLT – emphasis added

Two things are evident here:

  • Paul sees the keeping of special days — and it’s the Old Covenant feast days he has partly in view — as going back or reverting to a series of rituals they had been freed from.
  • The Galatians were doing this to try to please God. They were adding to what Christ’s death and resurrection had made no longer necessary. They were wanting the structure of religion with it’s dos and don’ts.
  • Others of Paul’s converts may have come from pagan religions which each had their own feast days. Old habits die hard. Imagine if you had a family tradition that had been practiced for generations that was suddenly stripped away. These pagan feasts day were incompatible with Christian faith and could not be retained in a Christ-following life.

Happy BirthdayBut clearly, Paul is not speaking of wishing someone a happy birthday. In celebrating my birthday, I trust that my family had these aims:

  • I’m not being venerated. Their purpose isn’t sacred. Their actions are not sacramental. Some people argue that we can’t separate life into the sacred and the secular, but some things we do are merely perfunctory, like getting dressed, brushing our teeth, checking the mail, etc. A birthday serves no spiritual purpose.
  • Recognizing and celebrating the encouragement that someone’s life brings you is scriptural. Over and over we are told to encourage one another, to build one another up. A sincere expression of thanks and appreciation — personal, not what the greeting card writer came up with — should really be an everyday occurrence, not a yearly thing; but we we do need prompting to do this.
  • We are reminded of the passing of time. Our lives are “but a breath;” we are “here today and gone tomorrow.” We live sometimes in the “myth of continuity;” believing that things will always be as they are, but in fact, age will eventually catch up with us, it will happen quickly or when we are not looking. It’s good to be reminded of the fragility of life. That may seem to make a birthday bittersweet, but as you get older, it really is.
  • It’s not wrong to buy people things. We are to be good stewards of the resources that God gave us. Going to a dollar store to buy something that will be broken a week later is not wise stewardship. (Perhaps the earth’s resources should never have been used to manufacture the item in the first place.) But there are things people both need and desire, and having an excuse at least provides a context to nudge someone to acquire something that might be beneficial to their hobbies and interests, but that they might hesitate to purchase for themselves.
  • Children need to identify and celebrate friendships. If you can do a birthday party without excluding anyone, and at the same time not incurring great expense, it’s nice for kids to gather their friends around them. You can also do a party where instead of gifts, people make a contribution to a charity of the child’s choice. (Try Compassion International, Partners International, Christian Blind Mission, etc.)

Some of the same people also do not believe in celebrating Christmas or Easter. While this needs to be the subject of a different discussion, my short answer would be that our family does not celebrate Christmas or Easter, we recognize and stand in awe of incarnation and atonement.

I don’t like birthdays. The thought of another year passing scares me, but only because I realize that there are things I have wanted to accomplish that have not happened, and in fact may not happen. But I don’t want to over-spiritualize this and make it seem that I am being pious or devout by asking my family to skip this year’s birthday observance. We should never let tastes and preferences appear to be deeply spiritual principles.

Including birthdays and anniversaries in the “special days” category Paul is referring to here is to miss the context of the passage, and really amounts to poor Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics).

February 11, 2013

Westboro: Two Phelps Family Members Flee

Megan Phelps-RoperTwo members of Fred Phelps’ family have exited Westboro Baptist Church including one who was considered an heir apparent to give greater leadership to the clan in the future.  Megan Phelps-Roper and her younger sister Grace have posted their news online and Megan has given several media interviews.

The Toronto Star reported last week:

“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes,” wrote Megan Phelps-Roper. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.”

The Westboro Baptist Church was started in 1955 by Fred Phelps, Grace and Megan’s grandfather, exclusively for the Phelps family. The parish has been lambasted for protesting the funerals of American soliders, whom they claim died because of America’s acceptance of homosexuality.

The family gained notoriety after a 2007 BBC documentary by Louis Theroux, The Most Hated Family in America, was broadcast. Since then, they’ve gone on to protest at Michael Jackson’s funeral, gay pride parades and other churches. A White House online petition to have the church declared a hate group has garnered more than 330,000 signatures.

Megan Phelps-Roper, 27, was an active voice in the church; she spearheaded the church’s social media presence and was often the brain behind the controversial protests, including one in Newtown, Conn., after the Sandy Hook school shooting.

“She was the visible presence for the younger generation at that church, she was a leader,” said Nate Phelps, Megan’s uncle…

…“The rapid percentage of young people leaving has left this fragmented group,” Phelps told the Star, saying that the [church] has shrunk from 100 members to about 50. “Eventually this will die off. It can’t survive.”

continue reading here

In her online post, Megan Phelps-Roper demonstrates a very balanced perspective on her situation:

In a city in a state in the center of a country lives a group of people who believe they are the center of the universe; they know Right and Wrong, and they are Right. They work hard and go to school and get married and have kids who they take to church and teach that continually protesting the lives, deaths, and daily activities of The World is the only genuine statement of compassion that a God-loving human can sincerely make. As parents, they are attentive and engaged, and the children learn their lessons well.

This is my framework.

Until very recently, this is what I lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached – loudly, daily, and for nearly 27 years.

I never thought it would change. I never wanted it to.

Then suddenly: it did.

And I left.

Where do you go from there?

I don’t know, exactly. My sister Grace is with me, though. We’re trying to figure it out together.

continue reading here

The Christian Research Network points out a danger inherent in coming out from a group such as Westboro:

Here lies the tragedy of Megan’s story. In escaping a false, legalistic expression of Christianity, Megan Phelps-Roper finds herself without the saving truth of the gospel. Here it sounds as if she rapidly is wandering into a softer version of the common, yet damning, gospel of good works and a “right life.” And just as Westboro Baptist removed Jesus Christ from their message, so too is Megan Phelps-Roper, now separated from WBC, in danger of proclaiming a gentler message that is just as erroneous if it does not proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

continue reading here

In the view of Westboro, the sisters are now consigned to the same fate as those they regularly picket, they are going to hell. The Kansas City Star reported:

Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, said in an interview Wednesday that the sisters had rejected the Lord.

“We can’t control whether or not somebody decides, when they grow up, that they don’t want to be here,” Drain said. “Those two girls were kind of straddling the idea that they wanted to be of the world but that they would also miss their family, the only thing they ever knew. If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell.”

Megan and Grace are among 11 children of Brent and Shirley Roper, who is the daughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps.

continue reading here

In an article subtitle, Salon asks, “[W]here do kids raised in hate go now?” The article continues:

And now … two members of the Phelps clan have shown that old Phelps’ revolting influence may not persist into a new generation…

…It’s almost impossible to imagine what it must be like to be that deeply steeped in a culture that almost anyone on the outside looking in would understand to be reprehensible. How strange and confusing it must be to grow up loving and depending upon people who would stand outside a dead soldier’s funeral screaming…

…Megan says, “The environment we grew up in was very ‘us vs. them.’ It’s been nice to see that the ‘them’ have been overwhelmingly kind — as we’d kind of hoped and suspected.” Welcome to the other side of the picket line, Megan. Welcome home.

continue reading here

Indeed, welcome home.

Related article at Thinking Out Loud: The Westboro Children (story of Lauren Drain)

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