These days, you may find yourself labeled a cultist simply because you believe the Bible or affirm historic Christianity, so far has modern Christendom come from its own history. However, even within the broad bounds of orthodox Christianity, certain individuals, churches and ministries manifest cultic characteristics. I’ll mention several of those characteristics.
First, there is isolation. Because cultists believe that they alone possess the truth and that all others are wrong, they work hard to sequester their disciples from any outside “contaminating” influence. This is a fundamental distinction between the catholic (universal) church and all sectarians. This isolation can be accomplished in several ways. Often, it’s as simple as geographical isolation — going to a rural location so that folks are not likely to have contact with other (sub-standard, of course) Christians. Or, it can be accomplished by what I term “incestuous self-propagation.” The graduate faculty of some Christian colleges, universities and seminaries I know almost all hold advanced degrees from the institution in which they teach. The various regional accrediting associations (which, to be sure, have their own massive problems) correctly frown on this practice. As editor of various publications over the years, I have tried to publish writers from divergent ministries and not limit writers to those within my own ministry or located nearby geographically. This latter sort of ministerial incestuousness does indeed become self-propagating. These folks tend simply to rehash and develop the same ideas and insulate themselves from the correcting mechanism of diverse viewpoints from outside ministries. Isolation is a cultic trait we cannot afford to tolerate.
Second, there is the trait of arrogance, which often runs in tandem with isolation. I know of a rather large Christian college in northwest Florida (pointedly isolated, by the way) that would not dare allow outside criticism of its philosophy of education, well-founded and helpful though that criticism may be. Cults — like totalitarian political regimes — survive partly on the arrogant ideology that there are no alternatives. One of the main objectives of the earlier “classical” liberal arts education was to liberate students from the arrogance of assuming that their way is the only way. Of course, we know as Christians that the Christian way is the only way; but there is a catholicity in Biblical Christianity that somewhat cultic Christian churches and ministries simply cannot abide. The Bible tells us that each part of Christ’s Body has a role to play (1 Cor. 12), and we surely can benefit from their constructive criticism.
The third cultic trait is hero-worship. Paul had to deal with this vexing problem in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12,13). To be sure, we may not be egalitarians, either — God certainly gives talented teachers and other leaders to the Church (Eph. 4:11-14). But, after all, they must recognize that their talent is a gift from God (1 Cor. 4:7). I’ve had the misfortune of knowing some of these men who cultivate fulsome flattery and eventually deem themselves above criticism. (This was a striking characteristic of Mao, the communist Chinese mass murderer.) Cultists generally look to a single super-elevated figure that can do no wrong. God has a way of knocking such folks from their high pedestal, in the process often demonstrating that their ministry is rather dispensable in His sovereign plan. Of course, some of these leaders begin to believe their own press releases and get the impression that when they speak, they are speaking for the entire church. I once had a dear minister tell me that one of his intelligent acquaintances (by whom he obviously was awed) would be “the greatest theologian of the 21st century.” As someone who actually reads the greatest contemporary theologians (both the good ones and the bad ones), from Barth to Bultmann to Cullmann to Frame to Gilkey to Henry to McGrath to Moltmann to Oden to Pelikan to Van Til to Wright, I was rather embarrassed by his exuberance. When we tend to live in small, somewhat cultic cocoons, however, the smart guy around the block is easily perceived as the greatest theologian of the century.
My advice to those afflicted by these cultic characteristics is, “Get out and see a little more of the world.” There are 7000 — no, 7,000,000 — who have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kin. 19:18). There are plenty of great Christians and great leaders who don’t agree with us, and God seems to bless them and honor them even though they find some of our views rather objectionable and in some cases even amusing. God can get along just fine without us and our churches and ministry.
And if we don’t abandon our cultic characteristics, He very well might.