Are “Sound” Theology and Cultism Mutually Exclusive?
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Q: I do not understand how a church adhering to the tenets of sound theology can be considered cultic because of the methodology it employs to implement its goal or to carry out its mission. Please explain.
A: The answer to this question depends upon how one defines cult. If one defines cult theologically (i.e., a cult is a “religious group with a doctrine heretical according to traditional Christian”), then by definition, a group adhering to a correct theology is not a cult. However, another way of defining cult – the one I prefer – is “an exploitatively manipulative and abusive group in which members are induced to serve the group’s leader(s).”
According to this second definition, a church with sound theology can be cultic when its practices are not consistent with its theology. I assume here that Christianity’s belief in the sacred nature of Man and consequent respect for his mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity imply that cultic modes of relating to others are unchristian and, therefore, a group cannot be cultic and practice Christianity in a manner consistent with Christian doctrine.
The problem with the first (theological) definition is that a church resembling a cult in its practice, but which preaches sound theology, ought, nevertheless, to cause concern. Dr. Ronald Enroth calls such groups “abusive churches” in order to avoid the confusion that results from the two definitions of cult. From an evangelical standpoint, this is an intelligent choice of phraseology, because evangelicals tend to employ the theological definition of cult. Those employing the second, psychological definition of cult will really understand what Dr. Enroth is talking about. Hence, a church expounding sound theology can be considered cultic if its practices are exploitatively manipulative and abusive, and if the person making the judgment employs the second, psychological definition of cult.
This seems pretty straightforward. However, I suspect that there is another implication of the question; namely, the belief that the preaching of sound theology somehow inoculates one against cultic behavior. This view is in the same general class as the “prosperity gospel” and other notions endowing belief with quasi-magical properties.
Questioners subscribing to this quasi-magical view of correct theology appear to misunderstand Christian theology, as I understand it. Because individuals may preach correct theology, they are not thereby incapable of sinning. On the contrary, Christians expect to sin, however much they may desire not to do so. This is the “fallen nature” of man. A church is a collection of individuals with a pastor/priest at the head. Because the individuals within the church (including the pastor/priest), however correct the theology, can sin, the church can corporately make sinful decisions. How much the church strays from the Christian ideal depends upon many factors. But if it strays sufficiently far and in the direction of exploitative manipulation of congregants by the pastor/priest, then the church may become a cult or an abusive church, depending upon which definition of cult one embraces.
This state of affairs may occur when the professed doctrine is not as sound as it appears. Or a group may be abusive/cultic when the leader does not practice the sound theology that he preaches and incorrectly interprets Bible verses to support his hypocrisy.
Understanding the Psychological Definition of Cult
An advantage of the psychological definition of cult is its capacity to explain how leaders get away with hypocrisy.
Those who focus on the theology alone may become puzzled when a group professes sound theology but seems to abuse members. These observers may search vainly for some theological explanation of the abusive behavior. In essence, they assume the preacher must advocate unsound theology because his behavior does not sufficiently appreciate the psychological subtleties of the relationship between pastor and his flock or the capacity for self-deception of all involved. Thus, a pastor, in the name of love, may systematically undermine the confidence of a congregant by repeatedly and obsessively drawing attention to that person’s sins in order to increase his dependence on (and, consequently, tendency to obey) the pastor. He need not necessarily advocate heresy in order to do this. He need only abuse orthodox doctrine, just as he abuses people.
In a fundamental sense, the pastor’s theology is unsound if one examines how this theology is implemented on a personal level. But usually, one tends to examine a group’s theology by reading its doctrines, not by observing how people relate to one another. Thus, unless a theological approach subsumes the psychological approach by paying attention to the subtleties of behavior and how that behavior relates to the outward theology of the group, it will simply miss the point in those cases where the theology is ostensibly sound – but where the practice is exploitively manipulative.