I formerly taught a course entitled Christianity & the Cults. It is a topic requiring definition. In this regard, we are informed: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). This would imply that at the time of writing the term was already widely used, and served to indicate that the disciples were followers of Christ.
Since the designation has come to be used imprecisely, persons not uncommonly opt for some means of clarification. For instance, the prominent Anglican John Stott employs the term evangelical not in a sectarian fashion but to verify that he, like the early Christians, is “devoted to the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42).
Conversely, the term cult is characteristically used concerning some pronounced deviation from the norm. Certain groups are alluded to as Christian cults, to set them off from such as compromise some other religious tradition. Now while this commonly relates to core beliefs, it can also involve praxis.
As for the latter, I reasoned on another occasion:
If the group isolates members from family and friends, it might be a cult.
If it interferes with the ability of the individual to think matters through on his or her own, it might be a cult.
If it is dominated by a leader said to have unique qualifications that sets the group apart from the rest, it might be a cult.
If it requires that persons suppress their individuality to achieve group goals, it might be a cult.
If it instills in its members a fear that leaving the group will have disastrous results, it might be a cult.
If two or more of the above pertain, it is likely to be a cult.
Consider a case in point. A certain couple’s marriage was in jeopardy. They were referred to a counselor, who attempted to repair their relationship. In the process, he fostered a dependency situation. This involved, along with other features, alienating them from their families. Reconciliation was permitted only under the supervision of their mentor. Meanwhile, he subtly engaged in introducing false memories—which served his emotionally abusive purposes.
In sharp relief, the German martyr/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted the temptation to encourage a personal following. Instead, he earnestly engaged in discipling persons to Christ. “What, after all, is Apollos?” Paul accordingly inquires. “And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Cor. 3:5).
Is there hope for the person caught up in a cult? Certainly so, although the recovery will likely be difficult, and not uncommonly with lingering effects. See in this regard Ronald Enroth’s insightful text Recovering from Churches that Abuse, as a sequel to his earlier Churches that Abuse. He initially allows: “As you will see, the road to recovery is different for each person; there is no prescriptive formula to follow or predictable pattern” (p. 10).
Meanwhile, C. S. Lewis reminds us that only God knows when additional time will serve no constructive purpose. Consequently, we should make good use of the opportunities that present themselves.
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