I received a sad email from a friend a little while ago. For many years he had served a small gospel church sacrificially as pastor.
His eighteen-year-old son had recently left home to go to university and was attending a church in the university town. He had been admitted very quickly to the membership and seemed enthralled by what he had found there. And my friend was alarmed. He described the way his son had changed; how uncommunicative he had become, how dismissive of the church where he had grown up. Apparently, his father didn’t really understand the Reformed faith whereas the church he now attended was a ‘true Reformed church’.
The lad had written to some of the younger members of his home church to explain to them that the church they attended was unbiblical in its teaching and that that was why it had seen little fruit from its outreach.
His confidence in the distinctive teachings of his new church was unbounded. Every question was met in the same way. He would simply quote the words of one of the leadership team: a man known as a theologian of great ability and charisma. Or if he wasn’t sure of the answer, he would go away and consult that leader, and then report back the official line.
Apparently, he had been advised to distance himself from his family and his home church. And he made it very clear that he would be home as little as possible: the church he was attending was now his true home. My friend finished his letter by saying that the grip which that church – and particularly that leader – had on his son was ‘almost cult-like’.
Orthodox but cult-like?
Cult-like! The word took me aback. I know that the church he was talking about is a Bible-believing church, an evangelical church, a Reformed and Calvinistic church. The leaders of that church – including the so-admired leader – would be completely orthodox in their views of Scripture, the Trinity, the person of Christ, the atonement, election, justification, sanctification, the return of Christ. And yet my friend felt that his son was being drawn into something sinister and ‘cult-like’.
What did he mean? I understood straight away what he meant. And having talked with other pastors who have had dealings with that church, I can see why he labelled its influence on his son as cult-like.
What do we mean when we talk about a ‘cult’? We need to be careful because the word has several different meanings. I’m going to list three.