The Definition of a Cult, and Why It Matters


Two stories have been lighting up the evangelical world over the past couple of weeks. Surprisingly, no one has bothered to connect the two. That is too bad, because they actually have a great deal to do with each other.

In the first story, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, has touched off quite a controversy with a remark about presidential candidate Mitt Romney. According to published reports, Pastor Jeffress commented that Romney is “a good moral person,” but added that Mormonism has “always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.” Texas Governor Rick Perry quickly distanced himself from the remark, as did other Republican presidential hopefuls.

Pastor Jeffress’s remark, however, is not going to be ignored. The church that he pastors was at the center of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. It is one of the most influential congregations in the United States. His pastorate gives him a platform from which to make his voice heard—and this time, at least, he has been heard loudly, if not clearly.

One of his critics is Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. SO strenuously did President Mouw object to Pastor Jeffress’s remarks that he authored a response published by CNN. Entitled, “My Take: This Evangelical Says Mormonism Isn’t a Cult,” President Mouw leaves little doubt about his thesis.

Dr. Mouw gives several reasons for refusing to call Mormonism a cult. Cults (he says) are us-versus-them. Cults think that they are the sole beneficiaries of divine approval. Cults do not engage respectfully in serious dialogue with critics. Cults do not promote scholarship. According to Dr. Mouw, Mormonism does not fit the definition of a cult in any of these ways.

Of course, Dr. Mouw’s definition of a cult includes no theological criteria whatever. It is purely sociological. Since Mormonism is sociologically warm and friendly, then Dr. Mouw opines that it is not a cult, aberrant though its doctrines may be. And he admits that they are aberrant. Even Dr. Mouw is “not prepared to reclassify Mormonism as possessing undeniably Christian theology.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Mouw avers that some Mormons are “genuine followers of the Jesus whom I worship as the divine Savior.” Perhaps Dr. Mouw simply means that people have such a capacity for inconsistency that they sometimes trust things that they deny in their intellectual systems. If so, then historic Christianity does not disagree. His words, however, seem to go considerably further, implying that some Mormons as Mormons are true followers of Christ.

Perhaps this statement should not be too surprising. Years ago, in a book entitled The Smell of Sawdust, Dr. Mouw made a similar observation about Roman Catholics. Such concessiveness is not faithful to Scripture, however, for the teachings of Catholicism constitute a denial of the gospel. Yet Mormonism goes further than Catholicism. In spite of Catholicism’s flawed understanding of justification, it at least retains the teachings of Trinitarian orthodoxy and Chalcedonian Christology in their fullness. These are the very things that Mormonism denies. The errors of Mormonism are worse by whole orders of magnitude than the errors of Catholicism.

There is a body of truth that Catholicism affirms but Mormonism denies. This body of truth constitutes the theological dividing line between cults and non-cults. Not every false religion is a cult. Not every apostate church is a cult. Historically, the word cult has been applied to those groups that claimed to be Christian while denying orthodox Trinitarianism.

Until very recently, Christians have had no qualms about defining Mormonism as a cult. All of the classic discussions of cults (J. K. Van Baalan, Walter Martin, and even Josh McDowell) include Mormonism on their list. They should, because Mormonism is not even a monotheistic religion. Every Mormon man expects to become a God. From a biblical perspective, there is more truth in Islam than in Mormonism. No Muslim expects that he will be made a God as a reward for his faithfulness.

The defining line for the pseudo-Christian cults is orthodoxy in the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines. Denials of the Trinity are not Christian. Consequently, cults are not Christian. To treat a cultist as a Christian is to engage in hypocrisy. Christians must never extend fellowship to someone who denies the Trinity.

All of which brings up the second story that has been lighting up Evangelicalism. Mormonism represents a rather new way of denying the Trinity, but some of the old ones are still around. One example is the ancient heresy of Sabellianism (Modalistic Monarchianism or Patripassionism), which shows up in Oneness Pentecostalism. Oneness Pentecostalism is the theological background and, apparently, the current theological expression of Bishop T. D. Jakes.

As a purveyor of the prosperity gospel, Jakes is already dabbling in heresy. Oneness Pentecostal theology, however, is even worse. It puts Jakes not merely on heretical ground, but on cultic ground.

Nevertheless, Pastor James MacDonald has invited Jakes into his so-called “Elephant Room” conversations. Pastor MacDonald, who serves the Harvest Bible Chapel near Chicago, has been identified as a conservative evangelical. His sermons are featured by the Gospel Coalition. Pastor MacDonald invented the Elephant Room as a conversation to create “a tribe that holds the essential tenets of the faith with a ferocious intensity and is open handed with everything else.” The watchword of the Elephant Room is “No Wavering. No Sidestepping. No Excuses.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the essentials that must be held with ferocious intensity. It is one of those teachings concerning which Christians must never waver, sidestep, or make excuses. It is a fundamental of the faith.

While Pastor MacDonald may be identified as a conservative evangelical, there is nothing conservative about extending fellowship and recognition to Jakes. Nor is there anything pastoral about it. Faithful shepherds do not let their sheep believe that wolves are other shepherds.

Pastor MacDonald’s friends have tried to counsel him. Many within the conservative evangelical orbit have expressed alarm at his recognition of Jakes. Pastor Mark Dever even withdrew from participation in the Elephant Room, and while Pastor Dever has made no public statement, his disappearance from the event is by itself an eloquent declaration.

Sadly, Pastor MacDonald’s first reaction was simply to try to discredit his critics. He referred to them as “people who have the gift of discernment and use it in their flesh to create fear and discredit brothers in Christ.” These “discernmentalists,” he said, were like fundamentalists who became “famous for rhetoric without rationale.” Such words, spoken of prominent Christian leaders and defenders of the gospel, are hardly the expression of a brother who is easily entreated.

Pastor MacDonald’s next response was to change the public statement of purpose for the Elephant Room conversations. While that conversation was once supposed to occur between those who hold with ferocious intensity the essential tenets of the faith, it will in the future be carried on “among all kinds of leaders about what the scriptures actually teach.” MacDonald adds, “We must insist on the biblical Gospel, right doctrine and practice but not isolate ourselves from relationship even with those who believe much differently.” He now sees the purpose of the Elephant Room as “getting people together within the broadest spectrum of Christianity.” Yes, Pastor MacDonald says, “broadest spectrum of Christianity”—which, to him, evidently includes purveyors of false gospels.

In other words, Pastor MacDonald has been wavering. He has been sidestepping. He has been making excuses.

If Pastor MacDonald wants to have a private conversation with a false bishop to try to convince the man to change his gospel, then may God bless his efforts. If he wants to schedule a public debate with Jakes over the prosperity gospel or the doctrine of the Trinity, then he can find good precedent. To sit down with Jakes for a fraternal conversation to which neither the prosperity gospel nor anti-Trinitarianism poses any barrier, however, is a betrayal of the very gospel that Pastor MacDonald preaches.

Whether a Christian ought to vote for a Mormon political candidate is an interesting question, but not necessarily earth shattering. Whether a Christian ought to extend fellowship to a cultist is not even discussable. It is just wrong.

Inscription for the Tomb of Mr. Hamilton
William Cowper (1731-1800)

Pause here, and think; a monitory rhyme
Demands one moment of thy fleeting time.
Consult life’s silent clock, thy bounding vein;
Seems it to say—Health here has long to reign?
Hast thou the vigour of thy youth? an eye
That beams delight? a heart untaught to sigh?
Yet fear! Youth ofttimes healthful and at ease,
Anticipates a day it never sees;
And many a tomb, like Hamilton’s, aloud


Thank you.

L Strickler

To sit down with Jakes for a fraternal conversation to which neither the prosperity gospel nor anti-Trinitarianism poses any barrier, however, is a betrayal of the very gospel that Pastor MacDonald preaches.
Thank you!

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Dr. Bauder, you have been thinking about two events that I have been musing over for the last couple of weeks, which do swirl around an Essential of Christianity - the Trinity.

I appreciate Christian men in our country defending the doctrine of the Trinity. I think we have lost the battle concerning God creating ex nihilo. And the doctrine of the Trinity might be very well the next battle which could be lost in American religious scholarship.

Thanks for the article.

But I couldn’t dogmatize this statement you made,
From a biblical perspective, there is more truth in Islam than in Mormonism. No Muslim expects that he will be made a God as a reward for his faithfulness.
First, none of my LDS friends consider that they will be made God. Technically, for them it would be gods under God (lowercase and uppercase is a very big deal in their minds that the typical evanglical seems to ignore).

Secondly, Islam does not piggyback on my American protestant, puritan heritage. In my opinion, Mormonism does. I listened yesterday on BYU radio to some unique, beautiful renditions of … “Be Still My Soul” and “How Great Thou Art”. Mormonism is singing selections of truth. Amd Mormonism is carrying truth - the KJV Bible. Last night, BYU aired the first segment of Fires of Faith…

I must say. It is very well produced. I look forward to the next two segments.

I tend to think there is more biblical perspective in the baggage of Mormonism than in Islam.

And I must say, using the term, cult, is not helpful in cross cultural missions to those in the I-15 Corridor. “Cult” is not a good conversation starter. This would be better …

LDS friend: “So, Todd are you like the Baptist pastor who says I am in a cult?”

Todd: “Do you consider me within apostate Christianity where precious truths have been lost?”

LDS friend: “Hmm … “

Todd: “Isn’t it a battle over which worldview view is to be considered Orthodox in America? Do you believe that God created matter out of nothing? Do you believe in the Triune God?”

LDS friend: “Todd, that is Christianity corrupted by Greek philosophies”

Todd: “Well, let’s go get a hamburger. Bring your KJV Bible. And I will bring mine. And let’s look at the Scriptures.”

As I stated in a previous thread, the word “cult” has the same problem as the word “fundamentalist”. In popular culture (everyday usage) and in politics, these words mean different things to different people, and are mainly used as pejoratives. They put up brick walls between people rather than helping them understand one another.

However, in venues such as this one, careful study of the meaning of words is essential. Pop-culture is mainly filled with people who “feel” what a word means. Hopefully, people who read SI make a studied attempt to rationally and dispassionately understand what a word means. “Cult” and “Fundamentalist”; useful on SI, counterproductive in pop-culture.

Thanks for the perfect example of Jude 22. Great post.