It is not easy defining what we mean by a cult. The term is sometimes used of a group of dedicated followers of fashion who unthinkingly embrace the latest offering from a particular designer and who must have the item at all costs. It can be used of the followers of a particular sports team, who perhaps believe the unbelievable facebook statement by Bill Shankly that ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that’. However, I want to home in on a particular use of the term as it relates to religious groups.
It is sometimes used when a group is considered heretical in its beliefs, perhaps denying the Trinity or proclaiming salvation by works instead of grace. A religious cult may indeed be heretical, but they can also be surprisingly orthodox when it comes to matters of doctrine, so that is not a good definition. Accepting that the term may have wider meanings, I want to consider how a Church can become a cult when it denies the meaning of a key aspect of the New Covenant. The particular aspect I have in mind is the clear prophetic statement in Jeremiah Ch 31and re-stated in Hebrews Ch 8 v 10 – 11
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbour,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
The key element in this passage is the fact that God will teach us individually without the need to rely on our neighbour or anyone else. He will be able to do this because He will have given the Holy Spirit to all followers of Jesus in order to enable us to understand Him. In I Corinthians Ch 2 v 9 -12. Paul says:
“No one has ever seen this. No one has ever heard about it.
No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love him
But God has shown us these things through the Spirit.
The Spirit knows all things, even the deep secrets of God. It is like this: No one knows the thoughts that another person has. Only a person’s spirit that lives in him knows his thoughts. It is the same with God. No one knows the thoughts of God. Only the Spirit of God knows God’s thoughts. We did not receive the spirit of the world, but we received the Spirit that is from God. We received this Spirit so that we can know all that God has given us.
It is a common fallacy to believe that Churches go wrong when everyone ‘does what is right in his own eyes’. That was indeed true in the Old Covenant before the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, but in the New we can all hear from God for ourselves. That does not mean that we can do what we want – pursuing our own agenda is a pretty sure sign that we are not hearing the voice of the Spirit. But it does mean that anyone of us who has fully surrendered to Jesus and become his disciple has the potential to learn directly from him.
The main mark of a religious cult is the denial of this possibility. It is where a man or women usurps the role of the Spirit and insists that others must listen to them and obey them, as they (and by inference they alone) are the mouthpiece of God for the Church. It is not uncommon for such a person to have begun their walk in great faith and perhaps be used of God in areas of healing or the miraculous, but the perverting factor is very often pride. This alone can turn a good church leader into a leader of a cult. The only sure fire safeguard is humility, without which even the best of us are in constant danger.
We do need great leaders, we do need those with the gift of prophecy, we do need bible teachers, but there is a proviso. What they say and do needs to find an echo of truth in the hearts and minds of all who are walking in the New Covenant. If a Church is walking in life and seeking the mind of God, a suggestion by a leader should come like plucking an apple when it is ripe – it will yield to the hand with little or no resistance and be evident that it is of God. When a leader begins to cajole, insist or stress their position, even to the point of bullying, it should be received with caution. If it is a temporary trait – well we all get it wrong sometimes, but if it becomes a long term attitude, then it may well be that the church is changing into a cult.