Theology and Cultism Mutually Exclusive?
Michael D. Langone,
I do not
understand how a church adhering to the tenets of sound theology can be
considered cultic because of the methodology it employs to
implement its goal or to carry out its mission. Please explain.
The answer to this question depends upon how one defines cult. If
one defines cult theologically (i.e., a cult is a �religious group
with a doctrine heretical according to traditional Christian�), then by
definition, a group adhering to a correct theology is not a cult.
However, another way of defining cult � the one I prefer � is �an
exploitatively manipulative and abusive group in which members are induced
to serve the group�s leader(s).�
According to this second
definition, a church with sound theology can be cultic when its
practices are not consistent with its theology. I assume here that
Christianity�s belief in the sacred nature of Man and consequent respect
for his mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity imply that cultic modes of
relating to others are unchristian and, therefore, a group cannot be
cultic and practice Christianity in a manner consistent with
The problem with the first
(theological) definition is that a church resembling a cult in its
practice, but which preaches sound theology, ought, nevertheless, to cause
concern. Dr. Ronald Enroth calls such groups �abusive churches� in order
to avoid the confusion that results from the two definitions of cult.
From an evangelical standpoint, this is an intelligent choice of
phraseology, because evangelicals tend to employ the theological
definition of cult. Those employing the second, psychological definition
of cult will really understand what Dr. Enroth is talking about. Hence, a
church expounding sound theology can be considered cultic if
its practices are exploitatively manipulative and abusive, and if the
person making the judgment employs the second, psychological definition of
This seems pretty straightforward. However, I suspect
that there is another implication of the question; namely, the belief that
the preaching of sound theology somehow inoculates one against cultic
behavior. This view is in the same general class as the �prosperity
gospel� and other notions endowing belief with quasi-magical properties.
Questioners subscribing to
this quasi-magical view of correct theology appear to misunderstand
Christian theology, as I understand it. Because individuals may preach
correct theology, they are not thereby incapable of sinning. On the
contrary, Christians expect to sin, however much they may desire not to do
so. This is the �fallen nature� of man. A church is a collection of
individuals with a pastor/priest at the head. Because the individuals
within the church (including the pastor/priest), however correct the
theology, can sin, the church can corporately make sinful decisions. How
much the church strays from the Christian ideal depends upon many
factors. But if it strays sufficiently far and in the direction of
exploitative manipulation of congregants by the pastor/priest, then the
church may become a cult or an abusive church, depending upon which
definition of cult one embraces.
This state of affairs may
occur when the professed doctrine is not as sound as it appears. Or a
group may be abusive/cultic when the leader does not practice the sound
theology that he preaches and incorrectly interprets Bible verses to
support his hypocrisy.
Understanding the Psychological
Definition of Cult
An advantage of the
psychological definition of cult is its capacity to explain how leaders
get away with hypocrisy.
Those who focus on the
theology alone may become puzzled when a group professes sound theology
but seems to abuse members. These observers may search vainly for some
theological explanation of the abusive behavior. In essence, they assume
the preacher must advocate unsound theology because his behavior does not
sufficiently appreciate the psychological subtleties of the relationship
between pastor and his flock or the capacity for self-deception of all
involved. Thus, a pastor, in the name of love, may systematically
undermine the confidence of a congregant by repeatedly and obsessively
drawing attention to that person�s sins in order to increase his
dependence on (and, consequently, tendency to obey) the pastor. He need
not necessarily advocate heresy in order to do this. He need only
abuse orthodox doctrine, just as he abuses people.
In a fundamental sense, the
pastor�s theology is unsound if one examines how this theology is
implemented on a personal level. But usually, one tends to examine a
group�s theology by reading its doctrines, not by observing how people
relate to one another. Thus, unless a theological approach subsumes the
psychological approach by paying attention to the subtleties of behavior
and how that behavior relates to the outward theology of the group, it
will simply miss the point in those cases where the theology is ostensibly
sound � but where the practice is exploitively manipulative.
This story appeared first in
the column �Social Concerns� in the April/May 1994 Savannah Parent
(now the Low Country Parent) to whom we are grateful for permission
to reprint it here.
Vol. 11, Nos. 9 & 10, 1994