The Church Of Christ--Is It A Cult?

Recent exposure in the news and on talk radio and TV has brought back around the charge from Baptists and Presbyterians that the “Church of Christ is a cult”. Immediately, the connotation of “cult” brings to mind such mind-control groups as Jim Jones and the People’s Temple or David Karesh and other far-out groups. The term is loaded with prejudice, and is often so vaguely defined that anyone, including the Baptists and Presbyterians, can be charged with being a cult. Of course, it does not feel as well to them when they are on the receiving end of the accusation.

Several years ago, about 1980-81, a local Presbyterian, formed an organization called “New Life, Inc.” It was a group of Presbyterians who wanted to “expose” the “cults”, without people knowing that they were members of the Briarwood Presbyterian Church. Briarwood did not want the negative publicity of putting down other area religious groups. So, they supported New Life to do the dirty work and take the heat under the name New Life. New Life would be viewed as a group of Christians exposing the cults, and the Briarwood Presbyterian Church could be viewed as clean and loving and harmless.

New Life began advertising a list of the “cults” in the Birmingham News and Post Herald. The Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahai, and Churches of Christ, were lumped together as “cults” to beware of. The list made no attempt to explain the definition of a cult, or to explain why the Baptists and Presbyterians were not listed also as cults. It was an underhanded tactic to use a scatter-gun approach to prejudicing the public mind against any group that New Life claimed was a “cult”.

Not willing to let these guys get away with their accusation without a challenge, I called Craig Branch, the head of the New Life organization in Birmingham, and asked why he said that Churches of Christ were a “cult”. He was evasive, and so I asked for a public discussion of the issues. He would not consent to a public debate, but, after much pressure from Larry Rouse and myself, he agreed to meet privately for some discussions of the issues. We got some brethren to help us put some counter advertisements in the paper exposing New Life as a front group for the Briarwood Presbyterian Church and challenging them to retract the charge that Churches of Christ can be legitimately classified as a “cult” or to meet us in public discussion to prove their accusation. This was embarrassing to area Presbyterians, because they knew members of churches of Christ to be level-headed and decent people, and that the term “cult” should not have been thrown out so loosely and haphazardly. The Webster dictionary definition would have made all religions, including Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Presbyterians, come under the word’s meaning. However, the New Life organization was not using the basic dictionary definition.

In our discussions, it became clear that “mind-control” was not the issue. There was no church built around a single man who sought to control the individual lives of every member. The issue was not that we tried to make our members live in a bubble or in a commune. Nor, was it an issue of how our Bible classes or worship was conducted. The issue, according to Craig Branch and New Life, was that we taught that one has to be baptized in order to be saved. When he said that, I asked, then, if Peter was a member of a cult, since he told people to be baptized for remission of sins (Acts 2:37-40)? It was amazing how different Peter’s teaching was from that of Craig Branch, New Life, and the Briarwood Presbyterian Church. I told him that I was glad to stand with Peter, but that he should be honest and advertise that Peter and the early church were also what he was calling a “cult”. This point made it apparent that Craig Branch’s brand of religion was different from Peter’s, and that therefore his own religion was no more scriptural than the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups he called “cults”. New Life fell out of existence for a while. Craig Branch later started his efforts again under a new name. The group is now known as “Watchman Fellowship”.

Prejudicial terms were used against the early church. They were called “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5) by Jews wanting to prejudice people against them. If we stand for the same truth they stood for, it is unavoidable but that we too will be maligned or accused with terms loaded with prejudice. We cannot keep people from prejudice and preconceived, erroneous notions, but we can live honorably before all men and teach the truth without compromise. We can even love our enemies, but we must remember that it was prejudice and unfairness that caused our Lord’s crucifixion. If the most perfect man could be mistreated and falsely accused, we must be mentally, spiritually, and emotionally ready to be recipients of the same.

There is a danger in using words that are loaded with prejudice, and that leave undefined the particular issue that caused one to select the particular term. No one today usually thinks the term “cult” is a compliment to another person or group, and all confess that it has the power of striking fear and suspicion about any group so accused or described as a cult.

Michael Lagrone, a leading spokesman about cults, confessed that there is a tremendous amount of ambiguity associated with the term. He wisely remarked: We also hope that in your own endeavors you apply the term “cult” judiciously and with an acute awareness of its ambiguity and limitations. (The Definitional Ambiguity of “Cult” and ICSA’s Mission).

Was The Early Church a Cult?

If we take the earliest meaning of the term cult, then the early church was a cult, and the term did not necessarily have any negative connotation to it. One writer researched the origin of the word and found it was very positive or neutral. Any group would not have been offended to have been referred to as a cult. One writer said:

Perhaps the most confusing and dangerous religious term is "Cult". The word is derived from the French word "culte" which came from Latin noun "cultus." The latter is related to the Latin verb "colere" which means "to worship or give reverence to a deity." Thus, in its original meaning, the term "cult" can be applied to any group of religious believers: Southern Baptists or Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses or Catholics, Hindus or Muslims. However, the term has since been assigned at least 7 new and very different meanings. The original meaning of "cult" remains positive; more recent definitions are neutral, negative, or extremely negative…

The word “cult” is the noun of the verb “cultivate”. What has been cultivated is the cult. The church is about cultivating hearts and souls. Hearts and souls that are cultivated to serve God and others are the “cult” of what is being cultivated. All churches should be trying to cultivate hearts and souls for the development of the fruits of the Spirit. Thus, all churches SHOULD be “cults” (that which has been cultivated). If this is the connotation being used, we should not and would not object. However, terms have a way of changing, and often the user of a term has developed a new slant on the word. Do you remember the days when the word “gay” was a fine word and had nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation? The same has become so with the word “cult”. It has been given some negative connotations, and often the user is totally wrong in his doctrinal outlook that moves him to call another a cult of error. Often the user is so blinded by his own erroneous doctrines that he sees only through the glasses of his own cultivated beliefs, and speaks negatively of what has been cultivated (rightly or wrongly) in another who differs with him.

If the original meaning was “to worship or give reverence to a deity”, then what church would have felt insulted by the term? This meaning is very positive. Even Craig Branch (Briarwood Presbyterian’s own), would have to admit that he was a member of a cult. But, as mentioned earlier, it was the arbitrary and newly created definition that urged that he classify churches of Christ as a cult. He determined that if a group says that salvation is at the point of baptism into Christ, instead of by “faith only”, then he believed he had the right to classify that group as a cult on newly contrived charges and with a new and negative connotation of the term.

But, this negative definition backfired on Craig Branch. It was his definition that put him in the position of having to (if he wanted to be logically consistent) call the Biblical writers as “cultic”. James, for example, said a man is NOT justified by “faith only” (James 2:19f). He said a faith that does not work is dead and does not “save”. Thus, being at odds with Presbyterian doctrine of salvation by faith only, James taught what churches of Christ are saying, and the opposite of what Branch teaches. So, if one man or the other is justly called “cultic”(under the new and negative definition), would it be James or Craig Branch? Furthermore, Peter told people they had to “do” something to be saved (Acts 2:37-40). He told them that they must repent and be baptized for remission of sins. Branch would have had to have told them that they were already saved at the moment of conviction, by “faith only”. Because Peter differed with Branch, which person should get the modern dishonor of the word “cultic”? Peter? Or Branch? Peter also said “baptism does also now save us” (1 Pet.3:21). Branch says it does not. So, who gets the modern dishonor of the term “cult”?

Several weeks ago a preacher of a “Church of Christ” was shot by his wife. The media took the story and tried to make sense of the shooting. A Baptist preacher was asked if the Church of Christ was a “cult”, and if this might have some bearing on understanding why the wife behaved the way she did. Of course, the Baptist preacher could not go to the Bible and show evidence that there ever was a Baptist Church in the first century. Thus, it is very strange that a religion foreign to the Bible (Baptists) could sit in on a critique of another religion and call them a “cult” (in a negative sense). The old saying that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” would be very fitting here.

Has a Baptist preacher ever been shot or killed by his wife? If so, then do we neatly label the Baptist Church as a “cult” to explain the killing? Has a Presbyterian minister ever been killed by his wife? If so, then do we neatly label the Presbyterian Church as a “cult” to explain the killing? Obviously, the purpose of bringing out the term “cult” was of no value in explaining the incident. It was simply a convenient opportunity to take a prejudicial stab at all Churches of Christ.

I would encourage people to study the teaching of any group, including Churches of Christ, to find out if it is scriptural or biblical in teaching and practice. The name of a group is a give-away as to whether it is biblical in other areas of teaching or practice. If the group does not mind being different from the early Christians in name, then they will also be very lax and indifferent to biblical truth and authority in other areas of teaching and practice. A good rule to remember is “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). If the very name of the group cannot be found in the “oracles of God” (the Bible), then it is unscriptural and therefore a false religion. Jesus did not authorize the existence of various denominations and the various names attached to these later developments.

This means that a representative of an unscriptural church or organization has no business talking about other religions as unbiblical or unorthodox. However, the fact that a group tries to be scriptural in name, does not mean that they are automatically scriptural in other areas of teaching and practice. Various denominations venture away from the teaching and example of the early church in various degrees. Some are further away from the Bible than others. But, all modern denominations are “cultic” in comparison to the early church. They all teach people to be different from the original model. It is not good or safe to venture away from the original pattern to any degree.

If a group tries to identify itself in name, teaching, and practice by the model of the early church, give it a fair chance. Look into it carefully. Study it! If the teaching is identical with the Bible, then either the early church was also a “cult”, or the term “cult” is pejorative, and prejudicial in the hands of a man who needs to be busy pulling the plank out of his own eye. Demand truth above all else, and God will see that you either start or help support a scriptural church.

by - Terry W. Benton

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