Friday, October 14, 2011

Definition #3?

Or, "Another 'Is Mormonism a Cult" Blog Post"

No one denies that Mormonism and Traditional Christianity are different.  But, perhaps because of some high-profile national political figures, many Christians have taken to calling Mormonism a "cult".  Is this true?  Is it good for us to do so?

I won't take time to build the case that Mormonism is far different from traditional Christianity.  Others have done that sufficiently well.  Check here, for one good summary.   So I guess we could say, it's fairly straightforward to define "what is a Mormon".  They have certain stated beliefs.
But the word that causes heartburn is "cult".  It's a loaded term with lots of pejorative connotations.  Is Mormonism a cult?

I think for most of us, we associate the term with some of the infamous cults, like Heaven's Gate, Jim Jones & co.  Small groups of brainwashed followers with a manipulative leader.  The cult leader abuses, even sexually abuses, his followers and cuts them off from family and the outside world.  He becomes the center of worship, the sole arbiter of truth - and often the cultists claim to be the only "true believers" while all other religion is corrupt. Sometimes suicide or self destructive behavior ensues.  David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.  But that's the picture in our minds.

Certainly modern, mainstream Mormonism doesn't fit this picture.  Honest Christians will note a distinction between the above paragraph and the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints".  Most Mormons are fully integrated members of society, fairly sane, decent people just like the rest of us.  They don't seclude themselves, and they are about to kill themselves and catch the next comet that passes by.

But not so fast.  A careful study of Mormonism's origins, and of its founder, Joseph Smith, tells a different story.  Smith's questionable character, polygamous lifestyle, dubious and conflicting accounts of his miraculous visions and experiences are just the beginning.  Early Mormonism matched the cult-like connotations we've described far better than it does today.  And honest Mormons should be willing to take a fair look at this history - from sources that don't simply parrot a white-washed party line.

So one might make the case, that while Mormonism began as a cult - under our working definition of such - it has grown into something -else.  Isn't it now a full-fledged religious system?

While thinking about the always helpful "definition of terms", I came to the dictionary definition of the word "cult".  You might be surprised to find several definitions, including:

1: formal religious veneration : worship
2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents 
By the dictionary definitions 1 and 2, even Christians would be considered a cult!  
But it's definition #3 that may be most applicable.  Here we could define any false-teaching religion.  Here we have to get into the nitty-gritty of what is false and what is true.  Here is where one's confession of faith and doctrinal assertions come to bear.  Is Mormonism a cult?  By definition #3, a right-teaching Christian would say, yes.  But is this really helpful?

And the related question - "Are Mormons Christians?"... well, likewise, it depends on your definition of terms.  Are they a religion that believes in Jesus?  Yes.  Do they follow his teachings?  They think they do.  And so they think of themselves as Christians.  Traditional Christians would disagree, and point to the many ways Mormons get Jesus wrong.  "You can't have the word Christian," we argue, "it's ours."

What I suggest is that neither of these arguments are fruitful in most public discourse.  Many people don't know what a "cult" is or isn't.  And which definition is in play?  Even Christians can't always agree on what it means to be a Christian.  
Do these arguments - whether they are a cult, and whether they are Christian - really help the discussion?  Are these the real issues?  Or do they amount to a form of name-calling that distract from the real issues?

I think the real issue is this:  Mormonism, whatever you call it, is different.  It is a distinctly different religion than traditional Christianity.  And that's a good enough starting point for me.  
Of course I think they get it wrong.  As a confessional Lutheran, I believe I get it right.  But maybe there are better ways for Christians to bring all this up in the public square - ways which don't needlessly offend with questionably applicable categories.  
It's offensive enough to tell someone they are wrong these days, without calling him a cultist.


Jim Pierce said...

Hi Pr. Chryst,

Good article and a timely topic. When it comes to describing Mormonism as a "cult" I believe the definition for the word cult being used is not the popular definition of the word you point at and which is also used by the media.

I believe the definition used, in this case, is theological, rather than sociological. In the context of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Moonies, etc. "cult" is short hand for "a group teaching anti-Trinitarian heretical doctrinal." I could be wrong, but I believe the meaning for "cult" is this context is appropriate for Mormonism. Mormonism is outside of Christianity, since it fully rejects the fundamental orthodox teachings of historical Christianity as expressed by the three ecumenical creeds. They reject the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, they reject the teaching that there is only one God, they reject the teaching that Jesus is the one God made flesh, and hold to many more anti-Christian doctrines.

Indeed, this is important to point out, because if we gloss over the errors of Mormonism, then we can't hold a conversation with those caught up in the heresy of this non-Christian religious organization. I think it is important to discern why Mormonism is dangerous so that we can better communicate the Gospel to Mormons.

Scott Diekmann said...

I agree with Jim.  You wouldn't tell a Mormon they're a cult member - that would be counterproductive, but yes they are a cult, in any Christian apologetics sense of the word because of their beliefs. If taken to their logical conclusion, there beliefs will lead you astray.  They also demonstrate many of the classic cult characteristics: shunning, us versus them attitude, a "prophet" at the top, their own lingo, redefinition of claasic Christian terminology, deception, monetary demands, you can't read anyone else's materials, they are the only way to ultimate salvation, doctrine contrary to Scripture, suspension of disbelief, secrets that only the higher-ups can know, misrepresentation of what they believe to outsiders, works-based salvation,  revisionist history, etc.  I lived in Salt Lake City and spent a lot of time studying Mormonism and witnessing to them.  They need to hear the true Gospel, which is difficult for them to understand.  It takes time, patience, and hopefully a relationship with whomever you're speaking with.

Sage said...

Having been married to one early in my life, I know Mormons pretty intimately. They truly think they worship the real Jesus, the issue is how they define Him. They have begun changing what they publicly promote in order to not appear so different, but fundamentally it is a cult any way you slice the pie.

The best way to open a Mormon up to where they err is to have them define God and Jesus. They believe God was once a man as we are and that we all existed together as spirits before the creation of the earth. Jesus and Satan are our brothers and God evolved as a man into a God (which makes Him fallible). Those are pretty easy inroads to show scripturally where they are confused.

The average member never takes the initiative to really understand it all and winds up accepting it on face value.

The LDS church demands much servitude and money as an indicator of faithfulness. The temple ceremony is more like a Masonry induction than a religious ceremony. But, Mormons are touchy about the temple, garments and their beloved prophet - who is esteemed the same as Jesus, if not above.

They are very adept at twisting the scriptures to support their position and also indoctrinated to view any other denomination as "less enlightened" than the LDS. Those that leave and have family, friends or business relationships in the church are shunned much as the Amish do. Many lose their businesses and contact with family.

The LDS church has a saying attributed to Joseph Smith, a religion that doesn't demand all from you can't save you. They use that to control every aspect of your life, every day of the week and every dime you earn.

Their "bishops" are just laymen called to the position for a time. None are trained, many make horrible decisions and abuse their authority. They ask searching sexual questions, alone, to their youth and adults which has lead to many issues. The leadership is made up of men who have money and means to basically buy their way to the positions. It's a cult. A very dangerous cult.