'All for ourselves and nothing for other people' seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. -Adam Smith "All the 'truth' in the world adds up to one big lie." Bob Dylan "Idealism precedes experience, cynicism follows it." Anon

October 25, 2010

The Cult With No Name

Chain The Dogma   May 3, 2010

by Perry Bulwer

This past February there was a brief report in the Michigan newspaper, Huron Daily Tribune, on the sentencing of a Christian minister for the sex assault of an 11 year-old boy. It's the kind of story that is all too common these days, as my fast-growing archive of news articles related to religion-related child abuse demonstrates. The details in the article are similar to other cases of child sexual abuse in a religious context, except for one thing. The report makes no mention of the name of the organization to which the minister belonged, simply referring to “a non-denominational Christian organization” and “the ministry”. But have you ever heard of an organization with no name? When people organize themselves into groups, even for trivial purposes, one of the first things they usually do is decide on a name. So, who is this Christian organization and why do they claim to have no name?

One clue as to who this group is comes not from that news article, but from one of the comments posted at the end of it by a person named Sal who writes: "This ministry, known as the Two by Two's needs to be exposed.” Well, Sal, here's my little effort. After an easy web search, that clue leads to the revelation that this secretive group that claims to have no name does have a name after all; in fact, it has many names. It is referred to both by members and outsiders by many different names, including “The Truth”, “The Way”, “Two-by-Twos” and several others, and it is officially registered in the U.S. as “Christian Conventions” and in Canada as "Assemblies of Christians", and various other names in other countries. This particular religious ruse is used to perpetuate the conceit that this group has no modern founder, but can trace its origins back to the first Christians, and therefore it is the true church, not a sect or cult. However, as a survivor of a Christian fundamentalist cult I've heard that story before, so when I now hear people claiming to have "the only truth" and living "the only way" cult alarm bells sound off to warn me of the dangerous deceit.

When a reader of my blog recently alerted me to that news article mentioned above, she referred to some of those names for the group, but it was “The Truth” that most sounded familiar to me. I checked and, sure enough, just over two months ago I posted in my news archive an article from the student newspaper of the University of Illinois. It tells the story of a student, Jennifer Hanson, who escaped from the fundamentalist Christian sect she was born into so she could attend university and live her own life. Her's is a familiar story of religious repression, suppression, indoctrination, spiritual abuse and denial of human rights, but familiar only because of media reports of similar religion-related abuses in other more well known groups.

Having no name, or actually, many different names, helps this group fly under the radar by causing confusion as to who they really are and making it difficult for outsiders to 'connect the dots'. It is a common cult tactic, changing names or using many alternative names in different countries or for different aspects of their ministries. It appears to have worked for this no-name cult because “... none of the University professors of religion contacted had heard of Hanson's former group.” Get that? Professors (plural) of religion had never heard of this Christian organization that numbers at least in the hundreds of thousands and possibly in the millions worldwide.

So, is this no-name group a cult? According to the Apologetics Index, [see Update Note below] which keeps track of such groups, “... from an orthodox, evangelical Christian perspective, the movement is considered to be a cult of Christianity.” And according to a Canadian lawyer representing the father in a child custody case the group is a cult:

"We compiled a list of 47 different cult characteristics," says lawyer Arends. "The Two-by-twos meet all the points. They are extremely secretive, have no written doctrine or records, you can't get a straight answer from them, and yet they claim to be the only path to salvation. Their 'friends' must give unconditional obedience to the workers, or they're guilty of backsliding. And if they backslide, they're damned." Mr. Arends says his case is bolstered by California academic Ronald Enroth's work Churches That Abuse, Port Coquitlam author Lloyd Fortt's In Search of 'the Truth', and the testimony of a dozen former members in Alberta.

But it is the next paragraph in that magazine report that convinced me that the cult designation is an appropriate one. That paragraph cites J. Gordon Melton, a notorious cult apologist who thinks there is no such things as cults, only 'new religious movements':

However, Gordon Melton, the California-based editor of the Encyclopedia of American Religions, argues the Two-by-twos are simply an "old-line, 19th-century Christadelphian sect," an isolated subculture of non-Trinitarian Christians. They are not a cult because "there's no real threats or violence," he says.

Alberta Report, "Doubts About a Mystery Church", September 15, 1997

Of course, the absence of real threats or violence are not enough to determine whether or not a group is a cult. Furthermore, what does he mean by “real threats”? Melton seems to imply that spiritual threats, common in such fundamentalist groups, are not real threats, therefore they don't count. As the Canadian lawyer pointed out, he compiled a list of 47 cult characteristics and of those he mentioned none involved violence or real threats, as opposed to spiritual threats. There are many sociological and theological characteristics used to determine whether a group is a cult or not, which Melton, a supposed expert on religion, is well aware of, yet he simplistically dismisses the evidence. It's not the first time he's done that. Here's part of what I wrote about his working regarding the cult, the Children of God, now known as The Family International:

In both the 1986 edition and the revised 1992 edition of the Encyclopaedic Handbook of Cults in America, Melton wrote critically about The Family for five pages, concluding that “The sexual manipulation in the Children of God has now been so thoroughly documented that it is doubtful whether the organization can ever, in spite of whatever future reforms it might initiate, regain any respectable place in the larger religious community.” 20 Yet just two years later, in 1994, he co-edited a collection of essays favourable to The Family entitled Sex, Slander and Salvation; Investigating The Family/Children of God. 21 Kent and Krebs describe 22 how that book was a result of Family representatives seeking advice from certain scholars, including Melton, on how to create a positive public image in the face of negative publicity revolving mostly around allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation. They also describe the substantial efforts The Family took to make sure any potentially discrediting information, such as sexual material involving children, was not available to researchers, and that researchers had access only to special, sanitized ‘media homes’ that were not at all representative of regular Family homes. Unsurprisingly, The Family touts that book, which they offer for sale on their Website, as “…proof of its legitimacy and the group has distributed copies to media in an attempt to gain favourable press.” 23 The Family considers Melton, as well as Chancellor, experts on the group, 24 and in 2000 Melton received USD $10,065.83 from The Family. 25

A Response to James D. Chancellor's "Life in The Family: An oral history of the Children of God"
By the way, I used the term “researchers” lightly as the book of essays is merely propaganda that was entirely financed by The Family cult. In other words, they payed apologists like Melton to write favourable essays for public relations purposes in the wake of child sex scandals. So, if J. Gordon Melton says “The Truth” or the “Two-by-Twos” or the church with no name is not a cult, it probably is. From what I've read about it so far, and comparing it to other well-documented cults, there is no question in my mind it is. Jennifer Hanson's story provides enough details and warning signs for me to come to that conclusion, but there are also other stories out there that corroborate her's, many at the websites listed below. It turns out that a cult by any other name, or no name at all, is still a cult.


University of Illinois student shunned by 'cult' for sake of education

Veterans of Truth - information about abuses in "The Truth" ministry.

WINGS For Truth - created by victims/survivors who have suffered sexual abuse within the "Truth" Fellowship along with individuals who have been both directly and indirectly impacted by CSA.

Christian Conventions - wikipedia entry

Apologetics Index - Two-by-twos [see Update Note below]

Apologetics Index - J. Gordon Melton [see Update Note below]

Rick A. Ross Institute on the Apologetics Index [see Update Note below]

Alberta Report, "Doubts About a Mystery Church", September 15, 1997

A Response to James D. Chancellor's "Life in The Family: An oral history of the Children of God"

xFamily.org - a collaboratively edited encyclopedia about The Family/Children of God cult.

exFamily.org - a source of truthful information about The Family

Cult survivor reveals deceptive recruiting tactics used by Scientology and similar cults

 Update on Friday, May 7, 2010

Note on the Apologetics Index, a source cited in the post above

After asking the question, "So, is this no-name group a cult?", in the post above, I provided two sources to illustrate two different perspectives on that question. One source is a lawyer who provides an answer from a sociological point of view. The other source, the Apologetics Index, provides an answer from a particular Christian perspective. My purpose was to show that regardless of their position, many people would view this group as a cult.

However, it has now come to my attention that the person behind the Apologetics Index, Anton Hein, is a fugitive from U.S. law and is a registered sex offender in California for committing "lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14 years.” That child is his niece, who was 13 at the time. There is an outstanding warrant for his arrest should he ever attempt to enter the U.S. again.

Hein is not a credible source of information, and I should have been more careful to check into his website before citing it. I was in a hurry, but that's no excuse, because a quick search of cult expert Rick Ross's website would have alerted me to the problem with Hein. He has a page on Hein that would have been enough for me to omit any reference to or quotation from him. Lesson learned.


  1. Friends and enemies, truth and lies

    By Chris Johnston, The Border Mail Sept. 23, 2013

    Elizabeth Coleman grew up in Canberra in the furtive religious sect known as either the Friends and Workers, the Two by Twos, or The Truth. Most people have never heard of them - and this is how the sect likes it.

    They have no churches or headquarters and no written policies or doctrines. They are highly secretive and paranoid about scrutiny: when questioned about new allegations of child sexual abuse within the sect's ranks, the ''overseer'' for Victoria and Tasmania, David Leitch, 56, of Heidelberg, says: ''We are not an organisation.''

    Members are told to either deny the existence of the sect or, next best, deny it has a name. Yet the ''non-denominational'' Friends and Workers has 2000 members in Victoria, making it a global stronghold; internationally there are about 200,000 members. Core beliefs come from a very literal reading of certain sections of the Bible. But they don't call themselves Christians because they consider themselves the only true religion.

    The sect is sometimes called the Cooneyites, and while the two have much in common, the Friends and Workers are strictly speaking an offshoot. The Irish founder of the Cooneyites was the Protestant evangelist Edward Cooney, who moved to Mildura and died there in 1960 - hence Victoria's strong membership.

    In Canberra in the 1970s and '80s, Elizabeth Coleman's father was a sect elder, which meant Sunday morning worship was held at their home. There were always the same 20 or so people there, she says, no outsiders allowed, very formal and dour. ''No one greeted each other as they walked in. No one talked.''

    Women wore long hair pinned up on their heads; short hair is still forbidden on sect women. Long hair is forbidden on men. Television, radio, movies, dancing and jewellery were banned back then, and in most sect families still are. If they do have a TV, it is often hidden in a cupboard.

    These Sunday mornings at the Coleman house were about singing hymns and saying prayers and there was also a series of confessions called ''testimonies''. Coleman remembers these mornings as being very closeted and unwelcoming.

    Then on Sunday afternoons were the more open ''mission meetings'', still held throughout Australia today as they were then, in public halls, organised by the religion's itinerant ''workers'' - the highly ranked ministers who, in pairs (hence the sect's Two by Two name), go into communities, country towns or regions and stay for up to a year in the homes of lesser-ranked ''friends'' such as the Colemans to do ''the Work''.

    None of this is in any way wrong. Unusual, but not wrong. However, when Elizabeth Coleman turned 19 she wanted out because while she remained under the sect's control she was not allowed to believe anything other than what they preached.

    Children in the sect are told that if they stray, bad things will happen - a lightning strike, for example, being hit by a runaway bus, or an illness.

    ''They believe that all other religions in the world are the work of the Devil,'' Coleman says. ''Going to worship at another church or finding another set of beliefs is considered worse than leaving the religion.''

    When she did leave - because she wanted to explore other more open kinds of Christianity - she says she was called ''the Antichrist'' by sect members, was sent offensive mail referring to her ''coldness'' and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder on account of the ''fear'' she carried into her decision.

    continued below

  2. But what worried her most were the persistent rumours of male ''workers'' and elders sexually abusing young - some very young - sect girls and getting away with it. There was, she says, a culture of secrecy, cover-ups and denial, and a dismissal of outside authority, which meant sex crimes stayed hidden.

    ''If something happened between a minister and a young girl, or a young boy, it would be swept under the carpet,'' she says. ''The minister would be moved away and nothing would be said. The families would be outraged - but they would also be scared of being kicked out of the tribe. I have reason to believe this is still going on.''

    The sect's method of sending itinerant, celibate ministers into family homes for extended periods of time, she says, was, and still is, dangerous.

    The Victorian and Tasmanian leader of Friends and Workers, David Leitch, is known to be close to Chris Chandler, the former senior sect member who Fairfax Media today reveals will face 12 child sex charges in a Morwell court next month.

    Chandler grew up in Dromana. He lives now on French Island in Western Port and describes himself as a ''self-employed ecologist''. Last year he came back from 14 years as a ''Christian teacher and counsellor'' in Uruguay and Brazil, according to his LinkedIn profile.

    Last June, Chandler and Leitch wrote a letter to all Victorian sect members announcing Chandler would step down ''from the Work'' because police in Gippsland had begun questioning him about the allegations that have now led to charges involving several alleged victims.

    The charges all relate to alleged indecent acts on young girls in the 1970s when Chandler was aged about 20. Some alleged victims were under 12. Chandler claims in the letter he was not a sect member at the time - but he joined only three years later.

    Sources say senior members of the sect knew of the allegations that had already been made about him within sect circles at that time, but did nothing. In fact, in 1991 they promoted him to the senior position of ''worker'' - meaning he was travelling throughout Victoria and Tasmania and staying in family homes.

    ''He was around lots of children from that point on,'' a former sect member says. From 1991 until 2004, Chandler was in Wodonga, Shepparton, Launceston and rural Tasmania.

    Sect sources have confirmed that later in his time as a ''worker'', he positioned himself within the sect as a counsellor and a point of contact for victims of child sexual abuse.

    ''People were drawn to him as an advocate,'' the source says.

    Fairfax Media understands that after he announced he was standing down last year because of the police investigation, Chandler attended an overnight sect convention where children were present at Speed, near Mildura, and continues to attend sect meetings at Crib Point near Hastings, the closest town on the mainland to French Island.

    The convention at Speed is the biggest in the state; the others are on a farm belonging to the Lowe family - sect stalwarts for several generations - at Thoona near Benalla, in Drouin and also in Colac. In New South Wales the strongholds are at Glencoe, Mudgee and Silverdale.

    David Leitch denies sect leaders knew of Chandler's alleged past.

    ''If that had been the case he wouldn't have been involved in the way that he was.''

    Leitch says he does not know if Chandler has continued to attend sect meetings since resigning.

    ''We would not tolerate any matters that were not upright and in accordance with the teachings of the Scripture,'' he says. ''You might have seen it in the Catholic Church and so on, but we would not tolerate any such stupidity.''

    continued below

  3. In 2011 another senior Victorian ''worker'', Ernest Barry, was convicted in a Gippsland court on five indecent assault charges over four years on a girl, a sect member, in the 1970s.

    He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail, but was given a suspended sentence on appeal after Melbourne forensic psychologist Wendy Northey - who has also profiled gangland drug trafficker Tony Mokbel for an assessment used by his defence lawyers - gave a psychological profile of Barry to the court.

    Police say they knew of another 12 alleged victims, but could not lay further charges against Barry, who now lives in Warrnambool, because the additional alleged victims would not come forward or press charges. Police also say David Leitch wore a wire to help convict Barry.

    Leitch says he ''greatly assisted'' police in their investigation - to improve the sect's image, sect sources say - but he declined to confirm whether he recorded conversations with Barry for the police. ''I don't think that's a proper question to be putting to me,'' he said.

    When Chris Chandler was a ''worker'' in Wodonga in 1995, the co-''worker'' with him in family homes was Ernest Barry.

    Then last year - this time in South Australia - the issue of child sexual abuse emerged in the secret sect again. A South Australian ''worker'', who has now moved to Victoria, alleged to David Leitch that another fellow ''worker'' had been allegedly sexually abusing children.

    Leitch sacked the worker who raised the allegations because he says the allegations were not true and he knew they were not true because he investigated them himself.

    ''I investigated with the actual people involved, with the people who were supposed to be the victims. They said nothing happened. [The worker] brought forward false child sexual abuse allegations and he was removed from his posting.''

    Leitch says if further allegations against sect members were raised he may or he may not tell the police.

    ''First I would assess how genuine the allegations are. I wasn't going to involve police in that other case because I know it was totally wrong. That would be a waste of resources and it's not common sense, it's stupidity.''

    In the Bible, Matthew 10 sets out much of what the sect believes. In it, Jesus sends out his disciples to cleanse the world of ''impure spirits''. Jesus ordered them to go with few belongings and seek out the homes of worthy persons to ''let your peace rest on it''.

    But ''be on your guard'', Matthew 10 says, and ''when they arrest you do not worry about what to say or how to say it … for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.''

    continued below

  4. A former Victorian sect member now living in NSW says that during her time in the sect as a child and teenager it was ''95 per cent wonderful'', but the older she got and the more aware she became she realised the clandestine culture she was born into was ''misguided''.

    ''The culture fosters generational abuse,'' she says. ''There's little knowledge of legal matters, there's a real naivety about the wider world. Workers were highly trusted and held in the highest esteem. They had absolute authority. Worship was and still is highly conservative.''

    As young sect members got older, she says, they could feel trapped and silenced. In 1994 at Pheasant Creek near Kinglake, a 14-year-old girl, Narelle Henderson, and her 12-year-old brother Stephen, shot themselves with a rifle to avoid attending a four-day sect convention.

    Narelle's suicide note read: ''We committed suicide because all our life we were made to go to meetings. They try to brainwash us so much and have ruined our lives.''

    That year the then leader of the sect in Victoria, John ''Evan'' Jones, then 84 years old, made a statement to police at Surrey Hills in Melbourne confirming he knew the children, but adding: ''I cannot for the life of me think of any reason why they would do such a thing.''

    His statement said the sect was ''financially well-off'', with donated money controlled by a trust fund of three elders. Jones died in 2001 and is buried at Narracan East cemetery in Gippsland.

    David Leitch declined to elaborate on the sect's financial affairs now, but sources said it is still well-off, with money held in private bank accounts rather than a trust, to pay for senior members' overseas missions.

    In New Zealand and the United States the sect has registered companies called either United Christian Assemblies or Christian Conventions, but no such companies exist in Australia.

    A heavily redacted submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups by an organisation called Wings - an online group of former members - says the sect is ''haphazard'' in dealing with allegations from within its ranks and ''the main focus has been on protecting the reputation of the Workers and not on helping victims''.

    (The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began in Sydney last week.)

    According to the submission, contact by sect leaders with victims has been minimal and ''threatening, unwelcome and intimidating'', according to Wings' submission. Victims are discouraged from making contact with police or lawyers.

    One recent victim, the submission says, was asked if she ''really wanted to open that can of worms'' when seeking advice about what to do; another victim was told by sect leaders to ''heal herself in silence''.

    Elizabeth Coleman, who now works at a Christian school in Canberra, says speaking out was considered the gravest of betrayals in the sect. ''You would be widely seen as selling the group out.''

    But like all whistleblowers, she knew about the secrets within and knew they needed to be revealed.



    Criteria for Recognizing a Religious Sect as a Cult

    by Roger E. Olson, Patheos May 21, 2015

    Note: If you are pressed for time and cannot read the whole essay below, feel free to skip to the end where I list 10 criteria. The essay describes my own history of interest in and research about “cults” and new/alternative religious groups.

    Developing Criteria for Recognizing a Religious Sect as a “Cult”

    Many religious scholars eschew the word “cult” or, if they use it at all, relegate it to extreme cases of religious groups that practice or threaten to practice violence. “Extreme tension with the surrounding culture” is one way sociologists of religion identify a religious group as a cult. By that definition there are few cults in America. No doubt they still exist, but when one narrows the category “cult” so severely it tends to empty the category.

    In the past, “cult” was used by theologians (professional or otherwise) to describe groups that considered themselves either Christian or compatible with Christianity but held as central tenets beliefs radically contrary to Christian orthodoxy as defined by the early Christian creeds (and for some the Reformation statements of faith). Given the diversity of Protestantism, of course, that was problematic because it opened the Pandora’s Box of deciding what is “orthodoxy.”

    A Supreme Court justice once said that he couldn’t define “pornography” but he knew it when he saw it. Many evangelical Christian writers of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, couldn’t quite define a “cult” but clearly thought they knew one when they saw (or read about) one. One evangelical radio preacher published a book on the “marks of a cult.” He was not the only one, however, to attempt to help people, in his case evangelical Christians, identify groups that deserve the label “cult.” Many have made the attempt. In the 1950s and 1960s (and no doubt for a long time afterwards) “cult” tended to mean any heretical sect—judged so by some standard of orthodoxy. That standard often seemed to be little more than a perceived “evangelical tradition.” Some anti-cult writers called the Roman Catholic Church a “cult.” Many labeled the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints a cult. One controversy erupted among fundamentalists and evangelicals when a noted evangelical anti-cult writer published an article arguing that Seventh Day Adventists are not a cult. Most Protestants had long considered Adventism a cult—theologically. (Just to be clear: I do not.)

    Still today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a difference exists about the word “cult.” It is used in many different ways. Following the trend among sociologists of religion most journalists tend to use the label only of groups they consider potentially dangerous to the peace of community. Theology rarely enters that discussion. Still today, many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals use the label “cult” to warn fellow believers away from religious (and some non-religious) groups that espouse doctrines they consider heretical—even if the groups pose no danger to the peace of the communities in which they exist.

    Psychologists often regard any group as a cult insofar as it uses so-called “mind control techniques” to recruit and keep members. Sociologists of religion quickly point out that most religious groups could be accused of that depending on how thin one wishes to stretch the category of “mind control.” Would any religious group that claims members who leave are automatically destined for hell using “mind control?” Some psychologists have said yes to that question. Sociologists of religion point out that would make many peace-loving groups cults.

    continued below

  6. The debate over the meaning of “cult” has gone on in scholarly societies for a long time. Now it has settled into an uneasy acknowledgement that there is no universally applicable, standard definition. But there is a general agreement among scholars, anyway, that “cult” is a problematic word to be used with great caution. Calling a religious group a “cult” can mean putting a target on it and inviting discrimination if not violence against it. For that reason many religious scholars prefer the label “alternative religion” for all non-mainstream religious groups. My own opinion is that has its merits, especially where there is no agreed upon prescriptive standards or criteria for determining religious validity, where no idea of normal or orthodox is workable—as in a diverse context such as a scholarly society. Even that label, however, assumes a kind of norm—“mainstream.” If postmodernity means anything it means there is no “mainstream” anymore. But religion scholars cannot seem to abandon that concept.

    I have more than a scholarly interest in the concept “cult.” For me it is personal as well as professional. It’s professional because, over the thirty-plus years of my career as a theologian and religion scholar I have taught numerous classes on “cults and new religions” in universities and churches. I’ve spoken on the subject to radio interviewers—especially back when “cults” were all the rage in the media (after the “Jonestown” and “Branch Davidian” and similar events happened). I’ve published articles about certain “alternative religious movements” in scholarly magazines and books. While rejecting so-called “deprogramming” practices, I have engaged in sustained discussions with members of groups about their participation, even membership, in groups their families and friends considered cults—to help them discern whether their participation was helpful to them as Christians and as persons.

    It’s personal because I grew up in a religious form of life many others considered a cult. And I had close relatives who belonged to religious groups my own family considered cults.

    The professional and the personal came together recently—again. I became acquainted with a man who grew up in (but has left) a religious group to which one of my uncle’s belonged. My uncle’s religious affiliation was always a bit of a sore spot in my large and mostly evangelical family. (I say large because when they were all alive I had sixty-five first cousins. That’s a large family by most standards. I remember family reunions where over a hundred people attended and they were all fairly closely related. And that was only one side of my family!) Among my close relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins) were members and ministers of many relatively non-mainstream religious groups. But my uncle stood out as especially curious to me and to my parents (and, no doubt, many of his siblings). At family reunions, when prayer was said over the meal, he would get up and walk away and turn his back on us. My father explained that his brother believed praying with unbelievers was wrong. So I set out to discover more about my uncle’s and cousins’ religion. My uncle would not talk about his religious affiliation with anyone in our family, so he was not a source of information about it. (My father knew some about it because he was “there” when his brother converted to the group.) Over a period of years I discovered some fairly reliable information about the group even though it is somewhat secretive. The group exists “off the radar” of most people including many religion scholars, but researchers have labeled it the largest house church movement in America and possibly the world.

    continued below

  7. Some have called it the church without a name because its adherents and leaders give it no name but only call themselves “Christians,” “the Truth,” and “the Brethren.” (It has some similarities and possible historical connections with the Plymouth Brethren but is not part of that movement.) They have no buildings, no schools, no publisher, no headquarters. They believe they are the only true Christians, but they live peacefully among us and pose no physical threat to anyone. They do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity, but they use the King James Version of the Bible only.

    My acquaintance who grew up in the group asked me if he grew up in a cult. (His parents still belong to it.) I found that difficult to answer because of the many definitions of “cult.” Which definition should I pull out of my religion scholar’s/theologian’s grab bag of labels? I couldn’t give him a clear answer. “It depends on how one defines ‘cult’” is pretty much all I could say. I don’t think that satisfied him. It doesn’t satisfy me.

    Certainly my family thought my uncle belonged to a cult, but that started me thinking, even as a teenager, what “cult” meant. At school I had been told by friends who were fundamentalist Baptists that my church was a cult. I began to conduct what research I could into the concept of “cult” and found two radically different but contemporary treatments of the concept. One was Marcus Bach, a well-known and highly respected scholar of religion who taught religious studies for many years at the University of Iowa. (I think he founded the university’s School of Religion.) I read every book by him I could get my hands on and they were many. Eventually I had the privilege of meeting him in person and having a brief conversation with him. Bach grew up Reformed, became Pentecostal, and eventually ended up in the Unity movement. His book The Inner Ecstasy tells about his religious pilgrimage in vivid detail. He wrote many books especially about what scholars now call “alternative religions” in America and it was from him that I first learned about most of them—everything from New Mexico “Penitentes” to The Church of Christ, Scientist. I was especially fascinated by his descriptions of Spiritualism—the religion focused on séances as the central sacrament. He claimed that at one séance he did actually have a conversation with his deceased sister and asked the medium questions that only his sister would be able to answer—from their childhood. The apparition answered his questions correctly. He drew no metaphysical conclusions about that, which was typical of Bach. He was interested in, fascinated by, alternative religious movements and groups but held back from prescriptive judgments of any kind.

    The opposite book was by a Lutheran pastor named Casper Nervig and the title tells much about his approach to this subject: Christian Truth and Religious Delusions. In it I discovered that the Evangelical Lutheran Church was the “church of truth” and that both my uncle’s religion and my family’s were “religious delusions”—tantamount to “cults.”

    continued below

  8. This launched me on a lifelong search to understand so-called “cults” and “alternative religious movements.” Had I grown up in a cult? Was the faith of my childhood and youth an alternative to some mainstream religion of America? We considered ourselves evangelical Protestants, but I discovered many religion scholars (including Bach) considered us “alternative” and even some evangelicals (to say nothing of mainline Protestants and Catholics) considered us a cult.
    As a passionate Pentecostal Christian in junior high school and high school I was relentless teased, even sometimes bullied, by schoolmates who belonged to many different religious traditions. I was called a “holy roller” and “fanatic.”

    So my acquaintance’s question has often been my own: Did I grow up in a cult? Apparently it depends on what “cult” means.

    When I taught courses on cults and new religions in universities and churches I often began by telling my students and listeners that “nobody thinks they belong to a cult.” I also pointed out that if the concept “cult” (in our modern sense) had existed in the second century Roman Empire Christians would have been called “cultists.” (Of course the word “cultus” did exist but simply meant “worship.”) We should be very careful not to label a group a “cult” just because it’s different from what we consider “normal.”

    My preference has become to not speak of “cults” but of “cultic characteristics.” In other words, religious groups are, in my taxonomy, “more or less cultic.” I reserve the word “cult” as a label (especially in public) for those few groups that are clearly a threat to their adherents’ and/or public physical safety. In other words, given the evolution of the term “cult” in public discourse, I only label a religious group a cult publicly insofar as I am convinced it poses a danger to people—beyond their spiritual well-being from my own religious-spiritual-theological perspective. To label a religious group (or any group) a “cult” is to put a target on its back; many anti-cult apologists still do not get that.

    On the other hand, at least privately and in classroom settings (whether in the university or the church) I still use the label “cult” for religious groups that display a critical mass of “cultic characteristics.” Of many non-traditional groups, however, I prefer simply to say they have certain “cultic characteristics” rather than label them cults. And, in any case, I make abundantly clear to my listeners that if I call a group a cult, I am not advocating discrimination, let alone violence, against them. In the case of those groups I label cults publicly I am advocating vigilance toward them.

    So what are my “cultic characteristics”—beyond the obvious ones almost everyone would agree about (viz., stockpiling weapons with intent to use them against members or outsiders in some kind of eschatological conflict, physically preventing members from leaving, harassing or threatening critics or members who leave the group, etc.)? Based on my own long-term study of “alternative religious groups,” here are some of the key characteristics which, when known, point toward the “cultic character” (more or less) of some of them:

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  9. 1 Belief that only members of the group are true Christians to the exclusion of all others, or (in the case of non-Christian religious groups) that their spiritual technology (whatever that may be) is the singular path to spiritual fulfillment to the exclusion of all others.

    2. Aggressive proselytizing of people from other religious traditions and groups implying that those other traditions and groups are totally false if not evil.

    3. Teaching as core “truths” necessary for salvation (however defined) doctrines radically contrary to their host religion’s (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) orthodoxy broadly defined.

    4. Use of conscious, intentional deception toward adherents and/or outsiders about the group’s history, doctrines, leadership, etc.

    5. Authoritarian, controlling leadership above question or challenge to the degree that adherents who question or challenge are subjected to harsh discipline if not expulsion.

    6. Esoteric beliefs known only to core members; levels of initiation and membership with new members required to go through initiations in order to know the higher-order beliefs.

    7. Extreme boundaries between the group and the “outside world” to the extent that adherents are required to sever ties with non-adherent family members and stay within the group most of the time.

    8. Teaching that adherents who leave the group automatically thereby become outcasts with all fraternal ties with members of the group severed and enter a state of spiritual destruction.

    9. High demand on adherents’ time and resources such that they have little or no “free time” for self-enrichment (to say nothing of entertainment), relaxation or amusement.

    10. Details of life controlled by the group’s leaders in order to demonstrate the leaders’ authority.

    By these criteria I suspect that I have been involved in religious organizations with cultic characteristics in the past. The college I attended displayed some of them some of the time (depending on who was president which changed often). The first university where I taught displayed some of the characteristics. I remember a faculty meeting where the founder-president (after whom the school was named) called on individual faculty members by name to come forward to the microphone and confess “disloyalty” to him. I would not say, however, that the religious form of life of my childhood and youth was or is a cult or overall has cultic characteristics. There are specific organizations within it that do. My recommendation to people caught in such abusive religious environments is to leave as quickly as possible.