What is a Cult? What is a Sect? What is a Church?

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Introduction

Whenever we are confronted with a new problem, our first instinct as Christians ought to be that of turning to the Scriptures. What does the Bible say about this? And in our current mayoral election, since one of the candidates is running on the platform of fight the cult, referring to all of us, perhaps it would be a good idea if we turned to Scripture in order to hammer out a few definitions.

The Text

“For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).

Summary of the Text

Paul is here speaking to the elders of the church at Ephesus, and he is preparing them for the days to come, after he is no longer present with them. He says that “grievous wolves” will come, and they will savage the flock (v. 29). He also says that corruption will arise from within their own ranks, and that some of them will start teaching twisted things, in order to gain their own following (v. 30). If you want to carve off a following for yourself, you will need to come up with something distinctive, something to set you apart—which is why heresies frequently start. The Ephesian leadership apparently took Paul’s warning about corrupt doctrine to heart, in that years later this same church was greatly commended for their doctrinal watchfulness (Rev. 2:2, 6). But the apostle John then had to warn them about a new danger, that of falling away from their first love (Rev. 2:4-5).

Some Definitions

We have two basic categories here. They are orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which translated into ordinary English, refer to straight doctrine and straight living. For example, Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and his doctrine closely. Those two things are meant to go together..

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

1 Timothy 4:16 (ESV)

Now we should want our definitions to be objective, and not emotional and subjective. Unless we are careful, we will wind up defining a cult as any intense religious group that we don’t happen to like. But we are not the standard. To the Scriptures, always to the Scriptures.

There are four basic options. A group can be orthodox and holy (a church). A group can be orthodox and unholy (a sect). A group can be heterodox and externally moral (a legalistic cult). And a group can be heterodox and immoral (an antinomian cult). And because one sin always leads to others, groups can always morph from one category to another. That happens also.

Also be aware that we are using the word cult here in its common sense, meaning a religious group that has something seriously wrong with it. But the word comes from cultus, which simply refers to worship, without any pejorative sense, and is also behind words like culture and cultivate.

Things to Watch Out For

You are in a church now, but the price of keeping it a church is constant vigilance. Maintain your first love (Rev. 2:4-5). Hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Grow in grace (2 Pet. 3:18).

As you do this, here are some of the things to watch out for, things that signal sectarian or cultic temptations ahead. At the same time, guard against tagging the work of God as cultic, remembering that the cults and sects are always counterfeiting something. That good “something” should not be abandoned simply because somebody might charge you with being one of the counterfeiters. In the examples below, I am giving you a sample of each.

Imperious rule: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not” (3 John 9). But church discipline is not to be equated with imperious rule. In the next verse, John says that if he comes there, he would deal with Diotrephes, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Weird teaching: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:19). But weird “by what standard?” We don’t want anything to do with the “deep things of Satan” (Rev. 2:24), but the meaning of sovereign grace has its own fathomless depths (Eph. 3:18; 1 Pet. 1:8).

License to sin: “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols” (Rev. 2:20). We want nothing to do with such antinomian license, but repentance, forgiveness, and restoration are not antinomian license—although the older brother in the parable thought they were (Luke 15:30).

Complacency: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15–16). But steadiness at the helm is not complacency. Refusal to panic is not this complacency (John 14:27).

Abusive leadership: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face” (2 Cor. 11:19–20). But dealing with wolves is different than dealing with lambs, and you must make distinctions. When Paul says that he wishes the Judaizers at Galatia would overachieve and cut the whole thing off, that was not abusive language—because in the next verses, he urges the Galatians to a life of love (Gal. 5:12-15). You must not bite and devour.

True Koinonia Fellowship

In many cases, cults are a fleshly attempt to counterfeit what God gives to His people by grace.

Individual Christians are not the only ones summoned to follow the Lord in obedience. Churches are also called to live together in a particular way. Think of all the one anothers that we find in Scripture. The New Testament presupposes godly life together in community, and that community is required to have a particular flavor to it.
For example, we are told to have fervent love for one another (1 Pet. 4:8). We are commanded to strive for like-mindedness (Rom 15:5; Phil. 2:2). We are enabled, by the grace of God, to gather together with other sinners, and yet still be characterized by gladness and simplicity of heart (Acts 2:46). Our lives together are marked by a deep attraction to music of a kind that glorifies God (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Our worship of God together is disciplined and focused (Col. 2:5). The morale is really high, and is characterized by great gladness and loud instruments (2 Chron. 30:21).
And all this fervent love, and like-mindedness, and simplicity, and singing, and liturgical rigor, and great gladness—all of it—is suffused with the fear of God.

“And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.”

Lev. 9:23–24 (KJV)

The word shouted here can be rendered as to rejoice, or to exult. Something terrifying happened here, and yet the people shouted for joy. The glory of the Lord, the weight of His awesome holiness, was manifested to all the people—the people saw. The glory of the Lord was located in a particular place, because fire erupted from the place right before where the glory was, and that fire shot across and incinerated the sacrificial animal that was on the altar. And what was the reaction of the people? It was an exultant shout of joy.

If Christ is There

So remember this, Christian. Christ is your altar. Christ is your high priest. Christ is your temple. Christ is your sacrifice. And Christ is the consuming fire that takes all of it up to your God.

And so the striking thing about a faithful church is that Christ is there. Christ is always there. And if the bridegroom is present, you can be sure that the bride is there also. She is His church, and not a sect, and never a cult. How could she be, when Christ is preached in this way?

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The Commenter Formerly Known As fp
The Commenter Formerly Known As fp
1 month ago

In defining what a cult is, it can be helpful to use names:

  • Orthodox and holy (the church down the street)
  • Orthodox and unholy (the Southern Baptist Convention)
  • Heterodox and externally moral (the Jehovah’s Witnesses)
  • Heterodox and immoral (the Democrat party)
SaoPaolo
SaoPaolo
1 month ago

I’m still lost why Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien would not fit the definition of “heterodox.” The RCC beliefs they all had (for Lewis at lest purgatory), Denial of God’s Word as true and authoritative, seeing a fainter form of revelation in pagan myths, and denying Christ was punished in our place all seem to make it questionable why they are used as Christian exemplars. These were blatant affronts to God that it seems a sincere Christian cannot consistently hold

Ken B
Ken B
1 month ago

I have thought for a long time there is such a thing as an ‘Evangelical cult’. The issue is not that its members may not actually be Christians, but rather its structures. The hallmark of such a ‘cult’ is that the loyalty the individual believer should give to Jesus himself gets transferred to a greater or lesser extent to the church, its leaders and/or particular sometimes pet doctrines. The old shepherding covering discipleship error was an example of this, something I have had some personal experience of, though much watered down in the UK. Worldly, authoritarian church government. My eldest… Read more »