January 9, 2013

So…is Mormonism a cult or what?

by Jesse Johnson

A few months ago Franklin Graham found himself in all sort of evangelical hot water when he removed a page from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s website that had labeled Mormonism as a cult. The timing of the removal—a few weeks before the presidential election and a few minutes after Billy Graham gave his presidential imprimatur to Romney—made any nuanced reasoning behind the Graham’s move impossible.

Always good news

They compounded their problems when their defense of the action was “God has not called us to call other people names”—a defense which is about as thoughtful and persuasive as saying “Mormons really are nice people after all.” As Dan Phillips  over at Pyromanics pointed out, how can you possibly argue with someone when they say that God has not called them to do what you think they should be doing? Doesn’t that mean you are arguing with God? Who, exactly, do you think you are?

But there remains an obvious question that bears exploring: Is Mormonism a cult? I want to put forward a nuanced answer: it depends on what you mean by Mormons, and it depends on what you mean by cult.  

First the cult part:

I read dozens of blogs skewering the Grahams for their defrocking Mormonism of its cult status, but I don’t remember seeing anyone lay out what exactly it means to be a cult. Certainly there are several definitions of cult. What are they, and how does one qualify?

In Walter Martin’s classic The Kingdom of the Cults, he borrows a definition form a book published in 1955 which defines cult as “any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.”

mormons converting arabsBut that definition is obviously inadequate. First, it hinges on the word significantly. Second, it is way too broad. It basically defines any group which has as a different “practice” than the “normative expressions of religion in the total culture.” What does “total culture” mean in an era of immigration and satellite TV? I’m sure that was a suitable concept in the 1950’s, but I don’t see how it works today. By that definition, Hinduism could be a cult in Florida, but not in Michigan, and certainly not in India. Meanwhile, Christianity itself would be considered a cult Nepal or Rome.

Martin was aware of that weakness of the definition, and so he added his own criteria: “A group of people gathered about a specific person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.” So for Martin a cult is a religious group that:

  • has significant differences in practices from normative expressions of religion in “total culture”
  • is built around a specific misinterpretation of the Bible

But that definition also fails on some pretty basic levels. Do two Baptist churches that disagree on dispensationalism get to label each other as cults? It also fails because it defines cult specifically in relation to Christianity. What about Islam? Certainly there are cults in Islam—most Muslims consider The Nation of Islam a cult, for example. Yet that is not possible with Martin’s definition.  [Note: Martin does not seem to follow his own definition very carefully. He considers both the Baha’i movement an d Buddhism cults, even though they don’t seem built around a specific misinterpretation of the Bible.]

So are there any better definitions of cult?

The dictionary defines cult as “any particular system of religious worship” (Webster’s Dictionary). This is why when reading OT commentaries (or NT Wright…) there are constant references to the OT temple worship as “cultic.” It doesn’t mean that it was a false religion, but simply means that it was “religious.” Obviously the dictionary definition of the word is so broad that it is not really helpful. After all, by that definition every religion is a cult.

There is a better definition of cult. Many sociology books describe a cult as being a religious group that has the following distinctions:

  • Built around a charismatic leader (or his successor) who is generally infallible
  • A break off of another religion, and claims that it is correct while the group they left is apostate.
  • Considered on the fringe of society, and outside of social norms (often aided by a sense of secrecy to the inner workings of the religion).

This definition is repeated in many sociology text books, and is quite helpful. For example, you can see how Catholicism would fit the first two, but not the third, and thus is rightly not considered a cult. Meanwhile, it is narrow enough that it does not include all false religions, while being broad enough that it can also include groups like the Nation of Islam or Baha’i.

So that moves to the category of Mormonism. Does Mormonism fit these distinctives? They are built around a charismatic leader and their prophet is considered infallible (he has direct revelation from God, of course). It is obviously an apostate form of Christianity, so check there as well.

But are they considered on the fringe of society? That leads to the second question:

BryceWhat do you mean by Mormon?:

Mormons essentially fall into two categories. Latter-day Saints (LDS), and Fundamentalist LDS. For the LDS, their temples are tourist attractions, Bryce Harper is a baseball phenom, Romney ran for President without his Mormonism being as big of a deal as Kennedy’s Catholicism, and Senate Majority Leader  is a LDS (to say nothing about the fact that college students idolize American Idol David Archuleta). Every year, it is becoming tougher and tougher to argue that the church of LDS  is on the fringe of society.

But the FLDS is another story all together. They are the fringe groups of Mormons in Texas, the Utah Arizona boarder, and parts of Canada. They practice polygamy, have their own prophets, are break-offs from the the church of LDS , and have been anathematized by the LDS. This group seems to fit every definition of cult, and even the LDS regard them as a cult.

So when people ask me “is Mormonism a cult?” I answer with two questions: “It depends on what you mean by Mormons. If by Mormons you mean the polygamists in the hills living in isolation, then yes. If by Mormons you mean LDS, then it depends on what you mean by cult.”

The dictionary definition calls Mormonism a cult, right along with every other religion in the world. Sociological definitions, along with Martin’s own definition, all hinge on if Mormonism is considered outside the norm of our culture. It is certainly a grey area. After all, it ,would be very difficult to say in Salt Lake City or Provo that Mormonism differs from the “normative expression of religion” (Martin’s definition) in that community. When you add the concept that Martin uses of “total culture” then certainly you have to consider politics (Mitt Romney, Henry Reid), music (David Archuleta), and sports (Bryce Harper). When you consider those categories, it becomes harder and harder to be dogmatic on the word cult. Even if it is one today, how many more years does that label stick? How many stars do there need to be before something is no longer on the fringe of the culture?

What is clear is that Mormonism, whether LDS or FLDS, is a false religion. It teaches a false way to God, and leads to eternal judgment. It is built on lies, and spreads through propaganda. And the only way for Mormons to be saved is to repent from their false religion, and find refuge in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what God has called the Grahams to preach, and who knows? Maybe that is exactly what they said to Romney before they took their webpage down.

Regardless, it is essential for Christians if they understand the uniqueness of the gospel and how to invite those who don’t know it to believe it—whether or not they are part of a cult. The real battle is over the gospel, not over a sociological category about whose religion is more influential in the culture.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Adam C

    Q: Is Mormonism a cult?
    A: That’s a clown question, bro.

    (Just kidding, that’s a Bryce Harper reference)

  • Jamie

    I like this post, but I think you said everything you needed to say in the penultimate paragraph. It doesn’t really matter whether it is a cult or not – that’s just a label. It doesn’t affect how believers should think about Mormonism.

  • Great post. I had a good buddy in college whose family was Mormon, so this hits close to home.

    And I love how you delve into the definition of “cult.” Too often we Christians live by labels, which can often hinder conversation. We may prove our point with labels, but we are not making a difference.

  • This was some good and helpful background information about LDS. Thanks.

  • george canady

    would you have used the word cult to discribe mormons a year ago. If so, what has change about mormons in one year.

    • Great question George. For the last six years I have taught an evangelism class, and every year I say that the “cult” label is tricky because it is defined by how accepted something is in the culture, not by theological standards. So a year ago, and even six years ago, I would say exactly what I said above. If anything, in the last year, LDS has become MORE accepted, thus less cultic. It is still a false religion, but a widely accepted one.

      • disqus_i49hn6Dtrd

        “…widely accepted.” Yes, and if I were to call Mormonism a cult publicly I would lose credibility with some non-Mormons to whom I should be talking positively about the gospel. Unfortunately, even some evangelicals, churches and individuals, uninformed or misinformed, “accept” the increasing insistence of Mormons that they are Christians.

      • george canady

        Thank you Jesse for the clarification and the bold yet gracious way you discuss topics…. I learn.

  • Drew Sparks

    Thanks for the great Harper reference Adam C.

    Jesse, first thanks for the post. I like what you said at the end, “The real battle is over the gospel, not over a sociological category about whose religion is more influential in the culture.”

    Obviously, you believe Mormons need to the gospel, and that is the key issue. I am in 100% agreement. However, I do have a question for you, why did you choose to define a cult by social status instead of a theological status? I agree that Martin’s definition is lacking, but there are other definitions apologists have put forth that are more well suited for this task. Even Martin used other definitions in his writings. Maybe a theological definition of a cult is too hard to formulate, so marks of a cult should be used instead. Or, maybe it is time for a new theological definition of a cult. There has to be definitions somewhere, otherwise you cannot label anyone anything, including false religions, or even christians.

    Also, do you consider JWs a cult but the standard that you have put forth?

    Interested to hear your thoughts and would like to add that this is probably the best blog on the internet. I come back to it every day because it is thought provoking, insightful, comical at times (mostly Clint), and theologically sound. Thanks to the whole cripplegate team for your ministry.

    • Thanks Drew. And Clint always makes me laugh too. Most of it is intentional, I’m sure.

      I hard a hard time finding any theological definitions of a cult that seemed to capture the intent of the word. I found one from James White on aomin.org, but it ended by arguing for why certain forms of dispensationalism qualified as a cult. Especially in the context of Mormonism, I think it is important to distinguish between LDS and FLDS, and allow some definition that shows that FLDS really is a cult by every sense of the word.

      JW’s I think are still a cult. They religiously meet the definitions and marks, and culturally they are still certainly on the fringe. Do you agree?

      • Drew Sparks

        First, I think the problem that you mentioned with James White lies in the fact that dispensational theology, or lack there of, does not make one a Christian since it is not a fundamental doctrine. The thrust of the definition needs to lie in denial of fundamental doctrines.

        Second, I agree with the fact that there must be a distinction between LDS and FLDS. I train and lead a group of college students to Utah and constantly deal with the issue of Mormons becoming more mainstream. They are doing a good job at deceiving many people in that regard as they blur the line between Mormonism and evangelical christianity.

        Third, I do agree that JWs are a cult. I asked to see if you would differentiate between Mormons and JWs on this point, or if you were seeking to avoid labeling, instead, being concerned about the fact that these are people lost as they are without the true gospel.

        Interestingly, you point out that FLDS still practice polygamy, but so do LDS. Not in this life, but in the next. It is possible for girls to have a temple ceremony where they are wed to Joseph Smith. Obviously, they are not physically wed to him in this life, but will be one of his many wives when he becomes a god. LDS leaders have never renounced this doctrine of polygamy for the next life, and still allow for actions like these to take place. However, I think this is still meaningless when defining a cult because it is sociologically based. What do you think about this definition from Alan Gomes in unmasking the cults:

        “A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrine system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian Faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.”

        I think this is a good starting point, but work still needs to be done in this area. I think it lacks the idea of exclusivity found in Cults. The idea that you MUST go through their religious organization in order to get to God. For example, it is not good enough to be mainstream Christian, you MUST be an LDS.

        It is good to define a cult sociologically, because there are sociological aspects involved, but a working theological definition is also necessary.

        • Great point about polygamy in the next life. I hadn’t really thought about that.

          I totally agree that a better theological definition is necessary. Someone should get to work on that.

          • disqus_i49hn6Dtrd

            What Christians really need is a better definition of Mormonism (modern-day Latter-day Saints). For most Mormons, the religion is not what it used to be, and Christians trying to talk with Mormons are often baffled when Mormons deny beliefs and practices of which they are accused.

            As for polygamy, then-Senator Jake Garn volunteered to me, and publicly elsewhere, that his first wife, killed in a traffic accident, had sworn that she would never share her husband with another woman in eternity, but the LDS prophet had assured him that after her death she was learning and accepting the eternal polygamy doctrine and would be delighted to share him forever. So he married a second woman “for eternity.” But—

            Most Mormons today don’t know or care about the doctrine of multiple eternal wives—and would reject the doctrine, anyway, if they learned of it. What’s more important is this: Mormons believe that marriage in a Mormon temple (at least once) is one of many requirements to “earn” eternal life, which is defined as a continuation of family life forever—whether monogamously or polygamously.

      • Steve

        “Most of it is intentional, I’m sure.” – That’s hilarious! Thanks for the laugh!

  • disqus_i49hn6Dtrd

    Telling a Mormon that his religion is a cult is a quick way to kill opportunity to present the gospel and effective Christian testimony. A literate Mormon will recognize the differences between Mormonism’s “restored gospel” and a positive presentation of the gospel of grace. Don’t tell a Mormon that his religion is a cult; explanations and definitions after the fact won’t cut it.

  • Pauline Yates

    Interesting post. The true definition of a cult is this. Do they preach another gospel ? I was a Seventh Day Adventist . They have worked very hard to be accepted by mainstream Christianity. I have met almost no one since leaving this cult who realises this or will even say much in a negative tone about them. There is much good in the SDA , they do have a right understanding of the Deity of Christ for example but mix this in with their false prophet , who they deny is on a par with scripture, their reliance on the law to save them, they deny this too, their belief in soul sleep ,annihilism , their remnant mentality of them being the only true church etc etc. is this enough to qualify them as a Cult ? Oh but everyone says they are so genuine and sincere well sorry folks they are sincerely wrong. !!

    • I agree on the SDA thing. Here is a question though: is “preach another gospel” an adequate definition? Or is that so broad? By that standard, Catholicism is a cult then, right? Along with every other religion in the world. At that point, is it a helpful term?

      • Pauline Yates

        Yes Roman Catholicism is a cult. Full of idolatry and Mary worship. And of course the pope who is their false prophet. I think I would be right in saying that all those false religions ; JW,S , Mormon , SDA, etc have false prophets in their systems. Other mainstream religions may have some false doctrines and a weak view of scripture but would not be in the category of cult status.Also cults usually have a faulty view of the atonement and Justification , Deity of Christ. Most if not all of them are not orthodox. And all believe they are the one and only true Church. I wish someone had confronted me with the thought that Adventism is a cult. You can’t soften the gospel when confronting them. They know their bibles well and can argue any point , so I would never argue their doctrines Just speak the truth of Scripture to them. How many times did people try to show me that keeping the sabbath was no longer required by Christians, I had all the answers. Unless the Holy Spirit prepares a heart willing to hear truth You will go around in circles.

        • elainebitt

          I think the point that Jesse was trying to make (and he can correct me if I am wrong) is that not every false teaching is a cult. Every cult is false teaching, but not vice-versa. To be labeled as a cult, as per the article, you have to fulfill the 3 points he mentions.

  • Heather

    Jesse, with all due respect, I found this article surprisingly wordy. Usually you’re right on and bold, but I can’t make out why you seem to beat around the bush on this one? What statement are you trying to make exactly? Just that Mormonism is NOT a cult?

    “What is clear is that Mormonism, whether LDS or FLDS, is a false religion.”

    Why? What specifically separates them from us? There’s the good stuff to talk about…open a lot of eyes to the truth too, especially Mormons.

    • Thats a great idea for a future post. I’ll keep it more succinct next time. Thanks Heather.

      • elainebitt

        Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I thought that your article addressed the title question perfectly and succinctly.
        Thanks by the way. It was really helpful.

  • theslypig

    As to the exclusive nature of LDS – Mark Spence of Living Waters made a good point about this recently. When Joseph Smith received his ‘divine visitation’, he was in a quandary as to which church he should be a part of. As the story goes, he was instructed that all other churches were apostate, the true church had been destroyed long ago and he was to reinstate it. This is in direct contradiction to Christ’s affirmation that his church would always be preserved in Mat 16:18, “…and the gates of Hades will not overpower it”.

  • Daniel J. Phillips

    Thoughtful and helpful, thanks, Jesse. I’ll fire off a surrejoinder over at my own blog, mainly so that we can have a triangle of awesomeness.

    By the way, this is really worth wide discussion. Do the other high-traffic blogs make as if Cripplegate’s posts don’t happen, like they do ours?

    • Well, the word “surrejoinder” was just used in the comment thread, so I don’t know if it can get more awesome than that.