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).