This column appeared Sept. 12, 2012, in The Pathway, the official news service of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
With the national conventions behind us and the November elections on the horizon, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism increasingly finds its way into conversations. And that’s a good thing because it prompts all of us to learn more about a belief system that remains shrouded in mystery despite its American roots nearly 200 years ago.
At the end of the day, your friends may ask you point-blank: Is Mormonism a cult?
It’s a dicey question. If you answer yes, you may be accused of political incorrectness – or worse, religious bigotry. If you answer no, you may be tacitly approving of Mormonism as just another Christian denomination, which it’s not.
Here’s a better response: Ask your friends to offer their definition of a cult. Then take the initiative to lead the conversation.
Merriam-Webster defines a cult as “formal religious veneration,” or “a system of religious beliefs and rituals.” But in common vernacular, the word “cult” has been used to denigrate bizarre belief systems, from Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple to Heaven’s Gate, founded by UFO-gazer Marshall Applewhite.
No doubt, Mormons would take offense at efforts to lump their faith in with such extreme religious systems. Even so, Mormonism fits a classic definition of a cult, and we should not be too eager to toss the term aside.
A working definition
Here is the definition I use when teaching on the cults:
A cult is a religious organization whose members claim to be Christians, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historic Christianity.
More to the point, a cult is counterfeit Christianity.
This definition of a cult has four key elements.
First, a cult is a religious organization. That means rock-star groupies, sports fanatics and other secular groups – no matter how bizarre their behavior – are off limits. They may paint their chests and wear cheese on their heads, but they are not cultists.
Second, a cult isan organization whose members claim to be Christians. This means Muslims are not cultists, for Islam does not claim to be a form of Christianity (it is, however, a false religion). Neither are Hindus cultists, nor Scientologists. But it does mean Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and members of the Unification Church are members of cults because they claim Christianity as their faith.
Third, members of a cult use the Bible and Christian terms. Mormons claim the Bible as one of their four standard works. Jehovah’s Witnesses use the scriptures to support their doctrines, although they rely on the badly flawed New World Translation and on writings from the Watchtower as their primary guides.
Finally, members of a cult deny the central beliefs of historic Christianity. The core doctrines that have defined our faith since the days of the apostles include the deity of Christ, the triune Godhead, the authority of scripture, the bodily resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, resurrection and final judgment for all people, and the imminent personal return of Jesus. Mormons profess belief in some of these doctrines but deny or redefine others.
So, is Mormonism a cult? According to our definition, yes. But there’s no reason to go out of our way to disparage sincere people who are seeking the truth and believe they have found it.
A kinder, gentler approach
So, when asked if Mormonism is a cult, first respond by requesting that the questioner define the term. Then, you can say something like this:
In my view, Mormons are sincere people who consider themselves Christians. They are to be commended for their support of traditional marriage, the sanctity of life, and acts of charity. At the same time, many of their beliefs are in conflict with the Bible, specifically their views about the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, and salvation. In short, Mormon teachings are not consistent with historic Christianity.
We can further affirm our concern for our Mormon friends and use the opportunity to provide a short synopsis of orthodox Christianity: our belief in the Bible as the complete written revelation of God; in Jesus as the unique Son of God; in His finished work on the cross; in His physical resurrection from the dead; in salvation by grace through faith; in future resurrection and final judgment for all people; and in Christ’s imminent bodily return to fulfill all things.
Don’t let the question corner you. Use it as an opportunity to sharpen your apologetic skills – and more important, to tell your questioning friends about Jesus.