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What Is a Cult?

There has been much discussion of so-called "cults" in recent years, mostly since the Jonestown tragedy in 1978. Interest in cults revived with the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco in 1993 and the Heaven's Gate suicides in 1997. The word "cult" has come to mean different things to different people. Today it seems to be used mostly as an insult in reference to various religious organizations that are small, different, or generally despised by larger, more "mainstream" groups.

To illustrate the confusion over what is a cult, one web site lists nine different definitions of the word, depending on the perspective of the user! For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary defines cult as: "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings; a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies; devotion or homage to a particular person or thing." This is a generally positive definition, being the historical meaning of the word, but it is rarely today used outside of religious discussion.

Another general and neutral definition is "a small, recently created, religious organization which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as a spiritually innovative group. A cult in this sense may simply be a new religious movement on its way to becoming a denomination."

A third, but negative, definition is "any religious group which accepts most but not all of the historical Christian doctrines (the divinity of Jesus, virgin birth, the Trinity, salvation, etc.), implying that the cult's theology is invalid; they teach heresy." This is often the perspective of mainstream and fundamentalist Protestants.

The most negative usage of the term is often heard in the media: "a small, evil religious group, often with a single charismatic leader, which engages in brainwashing and other mind control techniques, believes that the end of the world is imminent, and collects large amounts of weaponry in preparation for a massive war. Often used as a synonym for a mind-control religious group or for a doomsday cult." (These definitions are copyright © 1996 to 2002 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance; author: B.A. Robinson.)

The New Testament church of God undoubtedly would have been classified as a cult by most of the people who use the term today. The church was widely spoken against by the religious establishment of that day (Acts 28:22).

We believe it is best to look to the Bible itself for guidance in seeking out and proving which is the true church described in Scripture. Once one knows which church is indeed the one God raised up, then there is no danger of being lured into the various man-made religions of this world.


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