Should we reconsider our use of the word “cult” in describing the Mormon faith? Michael Otterson, head of public relations at the Mormon Church thinks we should, complaining that “it’s a neat, shorthand and rather lazy way of putting a whole group into a box.”
Two Mormon candidates for high office are running in the 2012 US elections and, writing in the Washington Post, Otterson warns, “I have a message to political journalists who over the course of the current campaign may be tempted to throw out this nasty word with abandon. Expect to be challenged.”
He does raise some good points, such as the fact that Googling “Mormons” and “cult” is no more helpful than Googling “Evangelicals” and “cult”, “Methodists” and “cult” or “Manchester United” and “cult”. And it is certainly true that the word is a neat shorthand and lazy way of dealing with a group for some in some contexts. But is it right to characterise the word as lazy, indiscriminate and all-too-convenient in its every usage?
How do we define “cult?” Otterson goes to that fount of all wisdom and truth, Wikipedia, and finds the very convenient definition “cult” as a pejorative term insisting that respectable folk (academia) don't use it, preferring the more neutral “new religious movement.” The implication, of course, is that only the uneducated and/or ill-informed and prejudiced use the word and only because they are too lazy to engage with the real issues. But what are the real issues?
In ministry “cult” is used, not in a lazy way, but in a specific way, not indiscriminately but thoughtfully. The dictionary definition of “cult” is:
1a a system of religious beliefs and ritual, or the body of adherents of one: the cult of the Virgin Mary b a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious, or the body of adherents of one 2 (often before a noun) great devotion, often regarded as a fad, to a person, idea, or thing, or a group showing such devotion. (Penguin English Dictionary)
Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones defines it thus:
A heretic is a man who is a professed Christian but who goes wrong with regard to some particular doctrine.
A cult is not Christian at all, but a counterfeit of Christianity.
Apostasy is when the general body of Christian doctrine was held but there were certain things which rendered it null and void.
In the cults this general body of doctrine is not held at all.
“Cult” as it is used in ministry appeals to these definitions, a faith or movement wherein the general body of Christian doctrine is not held, a counterfeit of the truth as described in Gal.1:6-9.
There is a long-established body of teaching and any body of believers purporting to be worthy of the title “Christian” will have its teachings closely examined and compared with this received biblical doctrine, preserved and transmitted down the ages. So there is an established truth and a test (2 Cor.13:5; 1 Jn.4:1) or plumb line by which any truth claim is tested. Those that fail the test are to be named and the name we use, according to carefully considered definitions, is “cult.”
People in Glasshouses
Some examples of this approach are to be found in Mormon history.
Joseph Smith, founder and first president of the Mormon Church, insisted that the churches of Christendom had become completely apostate and that Mormonism was the restoration of those truths lost in apostasy. Apostasy is the most serious charge one can level against any church but Smith did not pull his punches in describing apostate Christendom. He described the church and its creeds as an abomination in God's sight and Christian believers as corrupt and hypocritical (Joseph Smith-History 1:19)
John Taylor, third president of the Mormon Church declared, “We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense...Myself and hundreds of the Elders around me have seen its pomp, parade and glory; and what is it? It is a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol; it is as corrupt as hell; and the Devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (Journal of Discourses, vol.6, p. 167)
More recently Mormon apostle Bruce R McConkie described the Catholic Church as “the mother of harlots” (cf Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 13:6-8) and the Protestant churches as “the harlot daughters which broke off from the great and abominable church”, apostate churches. (Mormon Doctrine, 1958 ed. Pp314-315)
It all seems rather harsh but at least it is honest! Christians, believing themselves guardians of “the faith once for all delivered to the Saints” (Jude 1:3), testing all things (1 Thess.5:21) contend for that faith (Jude 1:3) calling false worship a cult. So Mormons once took up a position that clearly distinguished them from other churches, calling those churches, without exception, apostate, abominable, corrupt, and insisting they were harbingers of a message of apostasy and restoration. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Book of Mormon which declares,
“Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.” (1 Nephi 14:10)
“Creedal Christianity” as a pejorative term
Anxious not to be seen as a complainer Otterson writes,
“Lest anyone think I am unduly thin-skinned, it’s the insult implicit in the word “cult” that I am objecting to, not the reasonable point that some Christians are indeed uncomfortable with aspects of Latter-day Saint theology. Of course they are. I am equally uncomfortable with some aspects of traditional, orthodox Christianity, which was the very issue that gave rise to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place. Such differences, however, should be examined thoughtfully, reasonably and respectfully in any national conversation about a particular faith. And they should be examined alongside the enormous doctrinal and practical similarities between these different branches of Christendom.”
But he has sneaked into the post, perhaps unconsciously, significant dismissive comments about Christian churches today. In describing this conversation he is anxious we should have he suggests we address, “Why Latter-day Saints consider themselves New Testament Christians, rather than creedal Christians whose doctrines were formalized in the centuries following the foundation of Christianity.”
Mormon watchers will be familiar with the term “creedal Christianity.” It has entered Mormon-speak recently like a trend, a fad, an idea of the moment, a cultic piece of terminology designed to be pejorative of Christian churches in that it implicitly claims that “creedal churches” are, by nature, not authentic in the same way as the “restoration church.”.
Underlying this is the fundamental claim of Mormonism, that Christian churches derive their doctrine from later, non-authoritative church councils and the creeds they produced, while the Mormon Church derives from the Bible and is a restoration of the original New Testament model of church. This neat little trick simply postulates what is still in dispute and is yet to be proven. Mormons do it a lot.
There are reasons why Mormonism is a cult and there are reasons why Mormons regard other churches apostate and life was much easier on both sides of this divide when Mormons were happy to declare themselves neither catholic, nor protestant but uniquely a restoration church. Times have changed as Mormons run for office and seek respectability and acceptance in the wider society of churches that they once rejected as “a perfect pack of nonsense.”
Unwilling as Michael Otterson is to hear it, Christians will continue to highlight the stark differences between Mormon teachings and historical biblical doctrine and American voters will continue to have the opportunity to vote on all the issues and not just the ones these candidates and their supporters are comfortable talking about.
When Salt Lake City Calls is an excellent commentary on this issue
Mormonism 101 by McKeever and Johnson is a good introduction to Mormonism
The Mormon Mirage by Latayne C Scott is a very good study
Inside Mormonism by Isaiah Bennett is a good study from the Catholic perspective