WHAT IS A CULT?
People often call Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult. Is this an appropriate term? The word cult can have multiple definitions, both sociological and theological. It seems when people hear the word cult they think of a crazy individual leading people to do bizarre things, like Jim Jones ordering his people to drink poisoned fruit drink or David Koresh hold up in Waco Texas. These groups are called cults by most people and in these cases the word cult is defined from a sociological definition; having to do with an authoritative leader, communal life, psychological manipulation, and so on. So in minds of the general public, these cases the word cult has a negative connotation.
On the other hand there is a theological definition of the word cult. A cult of Christianity is a group of people, claiming to be Christian, who embrace a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one of more of the central (essential) doctrines of the Christian faith, as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
Key elements of the definition:
- A group of people claiming to be Christian
- Who embrace a particular doctrinal system
- Taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization
- Which denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one of more of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Some core doctrines include:
- Only one Triune God
- Jesus is fully God and fully man
- We are sinners and deserve judgment
- Jesus is the Messiah/Christ
- Jesus rose bodily from the grave
- Salvation is by grace through faith
For our study, the accurate label for Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons would be to call them a cult of Christianity. They claim to be Christian, they were started and taught by individuals, and most importantly they deny all or some of the essential doctrines of historic or classical Christianity.
Word order is important when referring to groups like these. The reason we don’t call them a Christian cult is because you have to answer the question, are they Christian or are they a cult? You could say it is similar to ordering jumbo shrimp. The correct word order is to say they are a cult of Christianity.
That being said, I believe it is inappropriate when speaking to Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses to call them cultists. The reason is they will see that term as name calling, associated only with wacked out groups mentioned above. It is best we understand the theological definition and keep it to ourselves when sharing. Utilizing the term will only erect barriers and end the conversation.
 Gomes, Alan, “Unmasking the Cults,” Zondervan Publishing, Michigan, 1995 pg. 7