by Richard Mansel, managing editor
Do the doctrines and practices of Churches of Christ make us a cult? People have made this charge for years. We need to give it some thoughtful consideration and provide an answer.
The first consideration is that we need to know what we are talking about before we make such an accusation. Using partial knowledge, rumor, innuendo or information provided by disgruntled members constitutes insufficient parameters for study.
Addressing stereotypes while ignoring the reality of what members of a group are doing is useless and highly prejudicial. We need to know what the faithful members of a religious group practice and believe. Finding unfaithful church members or those in doctrinal error and claiming them as our standard, will always deliver tainted results.
In order to answer the question, we must determine the definition of a cult. The most prevalent definition of a cult is, “a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.”/1
The first problem arises with the wording of the definition itself. A cult is a “A religion or sect” that is considered “false.” If so, by whom?
This definition is too subjective to form a basis for judgment. A religious group is a cult because we think they are? A better definition is needed. It is far too easy to project our feelings and prejudices onto this definition. Scripture should be our basis for truth, not opinions (2 Timothy 3:16-17; John 12:48).
Beyond this, we go to the definitions of individuals and they reflect their own set of prejudices. One said, “Any group which deviates from Biblical, orthodox, historical Christianity. They deny the Deity of Christ; His physical resurrection; His personal and physical return to earth and salvation by faith alone.”/2
Since James says that we are not justified by faith only (James 2:24), we can dismiss this definition as biased. We are justified by the blood of Christ and saved by grace through faith, not by faith alone (Romans 5:1-9; Ephesians 2:8-10).
Since Scripture nowhere teaches that salvation comes by “faith alone,” that would make Jesus a cult leader, by their definition, since the early church did not teach faith alone.
Admittedly, brethren have not always been precise in their terminology in discussing salvation. Too many preach that salvation arises from obedience, without the proper context. They give the impression that salvation comes as a result of our faithful attendance, giving and morality.
In truth, we cannot do any of these well enough to force God to save us. God’s grace will still be necessary (Luke 17:10).
Obedience is indeed required for the child of God. We must come to Christ and submit to him before we can have our sins remitted. We do all that he has asked us to do because we are so grateful for what he has done for us. Moreover, we must strive always to bring glory to Christ by our lives, which means that we walk worthy of him (Ephesians 3:20-4:1).
By misunderstanding or misrepresendting what we teach, people make erroneous charges against the Church of Christ and sway the minds of those who are ignorant of truth.
We must be very attentive of what we teach and write. Instruction does not happen in a vacuum and we must be cognizant that our words have consequences. People are listening and we need to choose our words very carefully.
We will consider in our next installment the basic identifying marks of a cult, and match that with what Scripture says and what we believe in Churches of Christ.