When I tell people about my childhood church, they will usually insist that I was in a cult. While I strongly suspect that they are correct, I never thought of myself as a cult member. Sure, my church may have shunned the outside world and taught that it alone possessed “the truth” but we never had to swear our undying loyalty to the leaders or live in a compound or drink poison. Should you wish to stop attending the church, you were free to do so, but you had to accept that the members who remained were no longer your brothers in the Lord or even friends; you were automatically disfellowshipped and labeled an apostate.
Most who hear my story (and there is much more to it) shake their heads and tell me how unlucky I was to end up in such an “extremist” church. That is not normal they tell me. Why would your parents go to a church like that?
Frankly, I believe that these types of churches are far more “normal” then people think. Thousands of small independent fundamentalist churches dot the American landscape; you probably drive past a couple every week on your way to church. I know that I do. You don’t know about them because you don’t attend them; you have your own place of worship. But yet, these churches do exist and each one has a story. Granted, not every one has a story like mine – but many do.
“There are churches like that?” I remember a close friend of mine asking me a few months ago after hearing my story. “I’ve never heard of such a thing”. Well of course not. He grew up in a well-structured denominational church that had little contact with these smaller churches. His world was a whole another world.
So is the type of church that I grew up in really a cult? I have struggled with this question for a long time. Which line has to be crossed in order for a church to be categorized as a cult?
In his book The New Cults, the late legendary Walter Martin defined a cult as “a group religious in nature which surrounds a leader, or a group which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrines.” Hmmm. What are the essential biblical doctrines and who defines them? Who is to say if a passage is being misinterpreted? After all, we believed that we were the only church correctly interpreting the Bible. We were unique. Everyone else was cultish or cult like because they subscribed to the “wrong” doctrines. So scratch that definition. I think it just causes more confusion.
For me, the word cult has much more to do with isolation and control than with doctrine. A cult is a group of people who believe that they alone possess “the truth” and that they should isolate themselves from those who disagree with them. The members of a cult are generally expected to conform to a way of living that is consistent with that special truth. And there is always a leader, of course. A leader to guide them deeper and deeper into all that this truth entails.
Thus, a religious cult is not so much about the doctrine itself but rather about how the people guard that doctrine and claim it to be a special divine word from God. In other words, they hold up their interpretation of scripture to be inspired just like the scriptures themselves are.
My church was completely self contained. There was no accountability to any person or entity outside of the church walls. Over the years, our pastors made unilateral decisions about doctrine and church direction whenever they pleased. If you didn’t like the decisions or disagreed with some aspect of their teachings, you could leave. And many did.
But many stayed in the church, such as my family, and were loyal members for many years. They endured the control and the manipulation because they sincerely believed that no other church in the world had what we had.
So yes, as much as I hate to admit it, I did grow up in a cult. And I believe that many others today are in cults without even realizing it. May their eyes be opened to the reality of their situation and may they be granted the wisdom and boldness to flee like we finally did.