Is Mormonism a Cult?

Last week, Pastor Robert Jeffress introduced Rick Perry to the Values Voter Summit. Right afterward, Jeffress was interviewed by a gaggle of reporters about Mormonism and his opposition to Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican nomination for President. Jeffress shocked the secular press covering the event by labeling Mormonism a cult and by arguing that Christians ought to support Christian political candidates over non-Christian ones.

There has already been a lot of debate about pastors endorsing political candidates and about whether calling Mormonism a cult in this setting might actually have hurt Perry’s campaign. Those are important conversations, but that is not what this article is about. What I want to address briefly is the underlying question: Is Mormonism a cult?

The answer to the question depends entirely on how you define the word cult. It turns out that the term is used one way in popular culture and a different way among evangelical Christians. Even among those who study cults, there is a good bit of controversy about how to define the term. In fact, many academics eschew the term cult altogether because they view it as a loaded term with negative connotations (e.g., Irving Hexam, Encountering New Religious Movements, p. 17). Others—especially those within the evangelical tradition—are more comfortable using the term than their secular counterparts (e.g., Walter Martin and Ravi Zacharias, Kingdom of the Cults, pp. 17-18).

In her book Another Gospel (p. 17), Ruth Tucker suggests at least three different ways to define a cult: sensational/popular approach, a sociological approach, or theological approach. The sensational/popular approach is based on media accounts of bizarre religious behavior. The sociological approach focuses on the authoritarian, manipulative, totalistic and sometimes communal features of cults. The theological definition focuses on deviation from some standard of orthodox Christian belief. Popular culture tends to define the term using the sensational approach, while evangelicals typically define the term according to the theological approach.

In popular usage, the word cult is associated with bizarre and sometimes threatening behavior (think David Koresh and Jim Jones). The term is seen as pejorative and an unfair attack when applied to groups who don’t live in exclusive communes and commit mass suicide. Most people would acknowledge, for instance, that the average Mormon cuts a different profile than a Branch Davidian.

The theological approach focuses the entire conversation on what is most important—the competing truth claims of the different religions. On a theological definition, cults manifest several characteristics. Typically they are founded or led by a person who claims to have received direct revelation from God that supersedes the Bible. The theological error inherent in cults usually involves some aberration of the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of Christ such that the resulting belief system is no longer Christian. The ESV Study Bible provides a good example of how evangelicals commonly define the word cult, and it is clear that it follows the theological approach. Here is what it says:

A “cult” is any religious movement that claims to be derived from the Bible and/or the Christian faith, and that advocates beliefs that differ so significantly with major Christian doctrines that two consequences follow: (1) The movement cannot legitimately be considered a valid “Christian” denomination because of its serious deviation from historic Christian orthodoxy. (2) Believing the doctrines of the movement is incompatible with trusting in the Jesus Christ of the Bible for the salvation that comes by God’s grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). [p. 2631]

Under that definition, the article lists several religious groups that fit this description: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and the New Age Movement.

On a theological definition, how do Mormons measure up? Mormons deny the doctrine of the trinity and favor polytheism. They believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct gods and that there are many other potential Gods besides these. Mormons deny that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. Mormons also affirm a kind of universalism (ESV Study Bible, pp. 2631-32). Focusing on what Mormonism actually teaches in contrast to orthodox Christianity, we can come to no other conclusion than that Mormonism is a cult.

Christians have an interest in defending the faith delivered once and for all to the saints (Jude 3), and we are not neutral observers when it comes to truth claims that contradict the Bible. To use terms that obscure that there is a difference between Mormonism and Christianity is not helpful (e.g., Richard Mouw). Maybe cult isn’t the best communicative term since so many people only think of the sensational and sociological approaches. It’s the concept, not the term, that matters most. If someone wants to call it “organized heterodoxy” that’s fine—but I doubt the term will stick. The important thing to emphasize is that Mormonism is not Christianity.

When Christians use the term, we need to be clear about what we mean. We need to be careful not to use the term because we want to score points for this or that agenda, but because we love our lost neighbors and we want to focus attention on the only message that can save them—the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. And that message is for anyone who will have it—including Mormons (Revelation 22:17).

32 Responses to Is Mormonism a Cult?

  1. Donald Johnson October 10, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    We need to be careful in our words, since it is too easy to claim that “my” group are the true believers, “your” group is a sect, and “their” group is a cult. This is because for whatever group someone is in, they believe the statements of that group are truth. Some may not know it but the Mormons have had splits and so have sects/denominations similar to Christian groups.

    Perhaps a better way to state it is the core truth claims of Mormon groups and Christian groups are not compatible. And one needs to assess these core truth claims, just like the core truth claims of other religions or no religion.

    • Arthur Sido October 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

      Donald, there is more to being a cult than incompatible truths. As someone who left mormonism I saw first hand the cultic practices used to scare and manipulate people to prevent them from leaving.

    • Noah October 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

      “whatever group someone is in, they believe the statements of that group are truth.”

      Donald, It seems I’m on you every time I visit here, so I apologize about that. I only desire to do a little push back on your thinking. So here goes…if you agree with Denny’s post, then you would have to agree that it doesn’t matter what the group says is true because the group’s grasp of the truth is not the standard. The standard is what the Bible says it is, therefore the label is warranted if the group deviates from the standard. By its doctrine the LDS have earned the label since Smith got them started off on the wrong foot to begin with. For the orthodox church to call them a cult is fully warranted since they started under the claim that they are the true church and every church since the apostles was false (not to mention their additions to scripture). That is quite the claim.

      If you don’t agree with the post, then I assume (from your words) you’re coming from a position that espouses a post-modern view of how one can know (or not know) the truth.

      So do you agree with the argument of the post?

      • Donald Johnson October 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

        Do I think most (all?) Mormons are followers of the Jesus of the Bible? No I do not. However, I am not the final judge. From where I sit I think LDS redefine the meaning of words used in the Bible and do it to such an extent that the result is outside the faith; but, of course, they do not see it that way, they think we have left the faith.

        Armstrong’s Church of God was considered to be off the track and yet with his death, the new leadership has taken most of them into something more aligned with evangelicals, altho they still have distinctives. And there are some holdouts who declined to make the changes. But from my viewpoint they went from most out of the fold to most in the fold.

        My point is that no matter how far out some group might be, there is hope, but in the normal scheme of things this takes discussion along with the work of the Holy Spirit.

        • Noah October 13, 2011 at 10:04 am #

          I appreciate your comment about the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit, but you dodged the question. Thanks for your time, though.

          • Donald Johnson October 13, 2011 at 11:10 am #

            I am willing to call the LDS church a theological cult and if I recall correctly, they use similar terms for my beliefs. I would also have called Armstrong’s Church of God a theological cult, but not any more once he died and they changed. This is my hope for LDS and JW and similar folks.

  2. David Cosand October 10, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    This was a very thoughtful and helpful article. I appreciate the distinctions made by Ruth Tucker. I do sense that people use the term “cult” almost as haphazardly and flippantly as others use the word “Christian”. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Aaron S October 10, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    If there was one thing I could point people to … for them to see just how different Mormonism and Biblical Christianity are, it would be http://www.GodNeverSinned.com

    It is a video project of mine where I have interviewed Mormons, asking them if they believe God was once perhaps a sinner.

    • Dillon October 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

      You must have been posing as a Mormon to have gotten honest answers to that question Aaron.

    • David Cosand October 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      Aaron, I appreciate your work. I found it a few weeks ago and have been meaning to reach out and say hey. So… hey.

    • Aaron S October 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

      Thanks, David. “Hey” to you too!

      Dillon writes, “You must have been posing as a Mormon to have gotten honest answers to that question Aaron.”

      Absolutely not! It’s a lot easier to get honest answers on the street from lay Mormons than it is from blog-brooding defenders of Mormonism on the internet.

      • Dillon October 10, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

        ” Absolutely not! It’s a lot easier to get honest answers on the street from lay Mormons than it is from blog-brooding defenders of Mormonism on the internet. ”

        I just couldn’t believe it Aaron. I’ve debated Mormons on and off for 10 years on the internet and couldn’t get a single, solitary, one to admit what pretty much all of them did on that video.

  4. Paula October 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    There were several debates on RedState (a conservative political site) over the weekend and it was extremely frustrating. The Mormons were out in force demanding to be recognized as “true” Christians because they “trust in Jesus as their savior” and say that “Jesus is the begotten son of the Father.” Many Christians find enough familiar vernacular to satisfy them that Mormons are just like them, so they’re on the team. Throw in a bunch of Catholic cheerleaders to say “me too!” and you’ve got a big ecumenical stew of error. While they think it’s OK to call themselves Christians, they would object to me running around saying I’m a Mormon and they won’t let me attend their secret ceremonies. I’m not a full-fledged Mormon until they say I’m a Mormon.

    I think some of the other issues that separate the LDS church into cult territory are the secret ceremonies (and handshakes), baptism of the dead, the oaths and allegiances the members swear to the church, and the authority given to revelations by church leaders, whose revelations are to be obeyed if one wants to make it to the celestial kingdom.

  5. donsands October 10, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Have had some very incredible talks with Mormon young men. You know, the two by two guys who walk about and knock on doors.

    They asked me after we had argued the Scriptures and the truth about the law, righteousness, and grace; and who Christ is, “Would you pray to God tonight before you retire, and ask him if Joseph Smith is not a genuine prophet of his? Would you please do that for us?”

    I said sure. Then I said: “But I can tell you with firm assurance that Joe Smith was a false-prophet. He was hoodwinked my friends. But I will pray tonight.”

    They smiled and thanked me.

    I agree that we need to speak mainly with love and lowliness of heart. Always being confident in our Lord’s truth, but always remembering that but for the amazing grace of God, we would be worse off.

  6. Shaun October 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Thanks for the article, Denny. I think that Pastor Jeffress did well in his follow-up interview with MSNBC. He clarified and articulated that Mormonism is a theological cult. I think that the term, “cult” needs to continually be used in our vocabulary for such practicalities, especially when Mormons claim that they are Christians.

    I also agree that by defining the term properly, it will clear up misunderstandings.

  7. Donald Johnson October 12, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/12/opinion/obeidallah-mormon-christian/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

    is a CNN article on how an Islamic comic thinks Mormons are Christians.

  8. Ryan October 15, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    For clarification Denny, how do “Mormons deny that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God”? I’d like to have Aaron S. ask that question to Mormons so we could get to the bottom of this.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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