CULT! It seems such a pejorative word and certainly in ministry it is not intended as a compliment. But is it an insult? Is its use an example of disagreeing while being disagreeable? To listen to many there is no excuse for using it. Especially when what people see as sensible alternatives are available such as sect, or the more acceptable “new (or alternative) religious movement.” So is “cult” used out of nothing more than spite? Or is there a legitimate application in ministry terms?


“Cult” comes from the Latin, cultus, from colore, to cultivate or to worship. Colore is the same root for the Latin cultura, from which we get culture. One of many ways of defining culture is, “the behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” Culture may be said to denote the system of values within a group, how a society defines itself. It identifies what is important to its members, and how they view the world. It teaches and evaluates the group’s history, evolution and values, and is essential to the understanding of that society.

The U.S. educator and author Jacques Barzun said:

“A culture may be conceived as a network of beliefs and purposes in which any string in the net pulls and is pulled by the others, thus perpetually changing the configuration of the whole. If the cultural element called morals takes on a new shape, we must ask what other strings have pulled it out of line. It cannot be one solitary string, nor even the strings nearby, for the network is three-dimensional at least.” (Jacques Barzun (b. 1907), U.S. educator, author. “The Bugbear of Relativism,” The Culture We Deserve, Wesleyan University Press-1989)

The word cult as we understand it originally meant a system of ritual practice. It first appeared in the 17the century and meant homage paid to a divinity. It was revived in the  19th century to describe ancient or primitive rituals. It gained its present usage in the 1930’s as a sociological classification to describe a deviant religious group. It is by this definition that we describe groups as cults.

Sociologists distinguished between three types of religious behaviour: church, sect and mystic. “Church” is the mainstream body of believers. A “sect” is a break-way from that body, where we get the idea of sectarianism, it is division. Mysticism goes even further, putting forward the idea of enlightenment, or mystical attainment regardless of faith. Later, church was split into ecclesia and denomination, and sect became sect and cult. Cult then came to mean a deviant religious group “deriving their inspiration from outside the predominant culture or denomination.”

Are We Correctly Identifying Cults?

Sociologists say that sects are products of religious schism. They maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices while cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. It is, then, a legitimate sociological category we are using when we use the term cult and when we define a cult as a deviant religious group.

Many of the groups we scrutinise place themselves in the category of cult. By their own admission, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, do not stand in the tradition of Christian culture and practice. They claim to be a distinct entity, a restoration of the original church/truth lost in apostasy. 2.2 billion Christians today would not agree that there was an apostasy. They insist that their faith is the faith of the earliest believers, maintaining a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices.

Christianity is “church” in the sociological definition, the mainstream body of believers. Cults historically pride themselves in not belonging to that body. This is not a particularly controversial point although it is key. If a group is not part of the body of believers contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude:6) it cannot then be a Christian denomination.

There are sects within Christianity but the cults insist they are not among them. Cults typically claim to be the “only true church/believers on the earth today” so they don’t fit the definition of mystic. That leaves cult, a deviant religious group. A group deviating from the mainstream body of believers. A group deriving their inspiration from outside the predominant culture or denomination. Any other definition, palatable as it may sound, would be misleading. It would also be as unacceptable to most groups as is cult.