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dianoigo blog

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Christadelphian ecclesial deism (1)

Outline
Ecclesial deism defined
The Christadelphian ecclesial meta-narrative
Why the Christadelphian ecclesial meta-narrative is acutely deistic
Christadelphians' low ecclesiology
A brief critique of Christadelphian ecclesial deism


When one sets out to differentiate Christadelphians from historic Christian orthodoxy, a few key doctrinal distinctives will usually be emphasized, such as the Christadelphian position on the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, and the devil. This is true regardless of whether the author or speaker is engaging in Christadelphian apologetics, counter-Christadelphian apologetics, or is a neutral observer (e.g. a journalist or sociologist). However, there are two doctrinal distinctives which receive a lot less recognition0 but are, in my view, just as uniquely Christadelphian and just as important for understanding the Christadelphian worldview. These are the Christadelphian doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), which I would call hyper-cessationism, and the Christadelphian doctrine of the Ecclesia or Church (ecclesiology), which I would call ecclesial deism. I have described hyper-cessationism in a previous post, so I will now turn my attention to ecclesial deism. This article will be mainly descriptive, but with a brief critique at the end; I hope to continue the critique will continue in a follow-up article.

Ecclesial deism defined

Deism is
The belief that understands God as distant, in that God created the universe but then left it to run its course on its own, following certain "laws of nature" that God had built into the universe. An analogy often used to illustrate the deist view is that of an artisan who creates a mechanical clock, winds it up and then leaves the clock alone to "run out."1
Ecclesial deism, then, is deism applied not to the world in general but specifically to the Church or Ecclesia:
ecclesial deism may be considered, as the ecclesial version of deism, as an attitude towards the mystery of God. Like deism, it restricts God's activity with respect to the Church to the beginning (foundation by Christ) and, if desired, to the end of history (Reign of God). God's activity, however, is not perceived as a current event. Ecclesial deism implies that responsibility for the Church's mission and organization is considered to be human business almost exclusively.2
If you Google the term 'ecclesial deism', you will find that it is used mainly in Roman Catholic counter-Protestant apologetics, with Catholics claiming that Protestants are ecclesial deists. Our intention here is not to wade into this Catholic-Protestant debate, but simply to borrow the term 'ecclesial deism' because it is a particularly apt descriptor of Christadelphian ecclesiology.

The Christadelphian ecclesial meta-narrative

Before explaining how the Christadelphians are ecclesial deists, it will be helpful to summarize the Christadelphian meta-narrative of Ecclesial/Church history. In my own words, it runs something like this:
1) Jesus sent out the apostles, who through the guidance of the Holy Spirit established the Ecclesia in doctrinal purity.3 
2) The ultimate objective of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostolic Ecclesia was the composition of the New Testament.4 5 6 7
3) Because only the apostles were empowered to transfer the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit lapsed soon after the apostles died, and was certainly unavailable by the mid-second century A.D.8 9 10 11 The loss of the Holy Spirit may also have been a punishment inflicted by God for apostasy.12
4) The Great Apostasy, foretold in the New Testament, began to infiltrate the Ecclesia before the end of the first century A.D.13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Its influence spread rapidly in the Spirit-deprived second century Ecclesia20 and by the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), the 'Church' had thoroughly corrupted the apostolic gospel.21 The Apostasy reached its zenith soon afterward as the papacy assumed total ecclesiastical and temporal power.22 The true Ecclesia endured only as a persecuted remnant, if she always existed at all.23 24 25 26 27 28 
5) The Reformers of the sixteenth century did not rediscover the true gospel, but did reintroduce the primacy of Scripture, setting in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the revival of the apostolic gospel.29  30 31 Some groups in the Radical Reformation may have revived true apostolic doctrine in its fullness.32 33 
6) The apostolic gospel ('the Truth') was definitively recovered in the mid-nineteenth century by Dr. John Thomas using his exceptional natural abilities34 through diligent study of the Scriptures.35 36 37 It is thanks to Dr. Thomas that the Truth has been revived in modern times.38 39 Dr. Thomas achieved this without any direct influence from the Holy Spirit,40 although his life circumstances were guided by Providence.41 42
7) The sect founded by Dr. Thomas, the Christadelphians, are the latter-day Ecclesia,43 44 45 and they will persist in defending the Truth until Christ returns, through their own diligence,46 and because Scripture foretells it.47 48
Why the Christadelphian ecclesial meta-narrative is acutely deistic

Two aspects of the meta-narrative outlined above foster ecclesial deism.
i) In contrast to Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, Christadelphians have traditionally denied that God (through the Holy Spirit) actively guides the Ecclesia into truth.49 This is a corollary of the traditional50 Christadelphian doctrine of hyper-cessationismnamely, that the Holy Spirit has been totally inactive since shortly after the apostolic era. The analogy to deism is clear. In deism, God creates the world, puts natural laws in place and then observes passively as history unfolds. In the Christadelphian meta-narrative, Christ establishes the Ecclesia, the Holy Spirit gets her off and running and provides her with the Bible, and then God withdraws the Spirit and observes passively as ecclesial history unfolds (until the appointed time of the Second Coming). Hence, Robert Roberts urges Christadelphians to '[make] the most of the unprivileged circumstances of a time succeeding to a long period of divine absence and ecclesial chaos'.51 Essentially, Roberts is telling the Christadelphian Ecclesia, 'You're on your own.' It is no wonder that he placed such emphasis on Dr. Thomas' natural qualities as a necessary prerequisite for the revival of gospel truth.
ii) Most Protestant denominations accept the judgments of at least the first four Ecumenical Councils (Nicea, 325 A.D.; Constantinople, 381 A.D.; Ephesus, 431 A.D.; Chalcedon, 451 A.D.)52 This means that Protestants are comfortable affirming that, thanks to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the catholic53 Church managed to correctly define its core doctrines concerning God and Christ, and to avoid major doctrinal errors at least through the mid-fifth century. By contrast, Christadelphians affirm that the catholic Church had fallen into serious error by the late second century at the latest, and was totally corrupt by the time of the Council of Nicea. We will see in the next post why this difference of a couple of centuries is highly significant. For now, we can just note the Christadelphian contention that after the apostles died and the Holy Spirit lapsed, the Ecclesia went completely awry almost immediately: 'The Truth has survived longer with the Scriptures [i.e. since Dr. Thomas recovered it through Bible study] than it did with the gifts [i.e. in the apostolic era] (about 150 years compared to 70).'54 Hence, Christadelphians take a particularly dim view of early ecclesial history.
Christadelphians' low ecclesiology

Christadelphian theology is characterized by a low ecclesiology. While Christadelphians of course affirm the existence of the Ecclesia, a doctrine of the Ecclesia is not a major emphasis in Christadelphian literature. Due to a focus on the autonomy of local congregations, Christadelphians seem to use the word 'ecclesia' more frequently to refer to a local congregation than the collective body of Christ (though these two senses are of course not antithetical).55 It is semantically significant that Christadelphians usually write the word 'ecclesia' in all lower case, even when it bears the latter sense. A good indication of the low priority that ecclesiology receives in Christadelphian theology is the complete absence of the words 'ecclesia' and 'church' from the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, including the Truth to be Received, Doctrines to be Rejected, and Commandments of Christ, with the exception of one Doctrine to be Rejected which negates a proposition about the church.56 Besides this silence in the Statement of Faith, I personally am not aware of any Christadelphian book that has been written on ecclesiology from a primarily doctrinal point of view.

Christadelphian works which discuss or define the Ecclesia tend to focus on self-directed imperatives: what kind of Ecclesia we ought to be, and not on divine promises to the Ecclesia.57 It is remarkable that in reading Christadelphian literature in preparation for this post, I twice read that Paul's reference to the Ecclesia as 'the pillar and ground of the truth' (1 Tim. 3:15) emphasizes something the Ecclesia does for itself, with no mention of what God does for the Ecclesia.58
Christadelphian ecclesiology is anthropocentric and earthbound; it radically de-emphasizes God's active role in building, nourishing and protecting the Ecclesia.


It must be noted that although Christadelphian deism is radical, is not absolute. If it were, Christadelphians would not condone supplicatory prayer. Moreover, we have seen that Christadelphians allow a role for 'providence' in the present. But what is providence? In his book on the subject, The Ways of Providence, Robert Roberts states that the central idea of providence is 'a special discrimination and influence in the shaping of circumstances in particular cases'. Yet this seems to be little more than a reverent way of referring to good fortune, of bringing luck within the divine remit. The real effect of elevating 'providence' is to restrict the scope of divine activity and describe it vaguely enough to neutralize its threat to human autonomy. Providence is offered as an alternative to belief in the activity of the Holy Spirit. Yet the former term is never used in the Bible,59 while the latter floods its pages, especially in the New Testament.

Christadelphians appear to give short shrift to biblical passages which emphasize the Lord's care and nourishment of the Ecclesia (Matt. 16:18-19; 28:18-20; Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:18-23; 3:20-21; 5:29-32; Col. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 12:22-24), and the perpetual availability and necessity of the Holy Spirit in the Ecclesia (Luke 11:13; Acts 2:38-39; John 14:16-18; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; 12:13; Eph. 2:18; 4:4). The Christadelphian doctrine of hyper-cessationism, too, is biblically bankrupt. We cannot treat the subject here, but there are plenty of passages that straightforwardly refute the notion that the Holy Spirit would become unavailable to the Ecclesia . The notion of the Spirit as a down-payment on eternal life also militates against the Spirit's withdrawal. There is not one passage in the New Testament stating that the Holy Spirit would lapse, or become available only in the written form of Scripture. Hyper-cessationism relies heavily on an anachronistic 'New Testament Canon' interpretation of 'the perfect' in 1 Cor. 13:8 (see below).

For my part, I cannot help but think that Christadelphian ecclesial deism boils down to a pessimistic lack of faith. There is a lack of faith in Christ's promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the Ecclesia; that Christ - who has been given all authority and heaven and earth - actively rules and nourishes the Ecclesia; that the Holy Spirit would remain and guide the Ecclesia into truth. All of this is set aside in the face of passages which foretell the infiltration of the Ecclesia by false teachers. But can false teachers overcome the power of Christ? Writings from the post-apostolic era such as Ignatius' epistles and Irenaeus' Against Heresies document the many false teachings that did arise (as the apostles foretold), but also document how Christ preserved the Ecclesia from these errors. As we have seen above, Robert Roberts took the letters to the seven ecclesias in Rev. 2-3 as evidence that apostasy was rampant and the Ecclesia in spiritual freefall by the end of the first century. He assumes without evidence that the readers did not heed Christ's call to repentance, whereas the very fact of the letters' preservation suggests otherwise. These writers also overlook that the letters are addressed to situations facing specific historical congregations. There is no threat of removing the lampstand of the Ecclesia as a whole, and two of the seven ecclesias (Smyrna and Philadelphia) receive no rebuke at all.

This pessimistic spirit, which elevates the New Testament's warnings about false teachers while marginalizing the New Testament's promises from Christ to the Ecclesia, is exemplified well in Dr. Thomas' assertion that even the apostles were impotent in the face of apostates:
Nor were the apostles able to extinguish their evil influence. Their reasonings and denunciations and threatenings, although sanctioned by the Spirit, failed to check or restrain the rapidly developing apostasy... and as error always progresses more rapidly than truth, the apostles found their influence waning, and the faithful falling into a minority60
'Error always progresses more rapidly than truth'? Can any statement be more antithetical to the optimism with which the apostles undertook to fulfill the Great Commission, founded on the promise of their mighty Lord to be with them to the end of the age? Can error outpace the 'growth which is from God' (Col. 2:19)? Had the good Doctor overlooked the promise given in 1 John 4:4 in the teeth of the threat of the antichrist, 'You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world'?

For me, a statement that epitomizes the oddness of Christadelphian ecclesial deism is that of Reg Carr, who describes the Christadelphian community as
a conscious attempt to revive the teaching of the apostles and to carry on their efforts to make ready a people prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.61
An attempt? The Ecclesia of God is an attempt to revive the teaching of the apostles and carry on their efforts? This feeble ecclesiology stands in radical contrast to Paul, who writes of
the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:19-23 NASB)
In the following post, we will continue our critique of Christadelphian ecclesial deism using three lines of argument.
  • First, we will argue that Christadelphians have been unable to articulate a plausible explanation for why the Holy Spirit should have lapsed from the Ecclesia at the close of the apostolic era, and that those explanations which have been proffered are self-contradictory.
  • Second, we will draw attention to two fundamental chronological flaws in the Christadelphian ecclesial meta-narrative. Specifically, this meta-narrative implies that (1) the Ecclesia went through a period in which she was deprived of both the Holy Spirit and the New Testament Canon; and (2) that the New Testament Canon was set by a Spirit-less, apostate Ecclesia and yet remains the infallible, authoritative foundation for knowledge of Christ.
  • Third, we will argue that under Christadelphian ecclesial deism, the Lord's truth and sovereignty in His Ecclesia is mediated through a purely human process of biblical interpretation. Confidence in the Lord exists, therefore, only in proportion to confidence in the flesh, i.e., in one's own natural abilities as an interpreter of Scripture.



Footnotes

  • 0 A possible reason why these two positions receive less recognition is that they are not enshrined in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, or at least not explicitly - we can infer something from the Statement of Faith's near silence on these two topics. Because they are not enjoined in the Statement of Faith, diversity does exist in Christadelphian pneumatology and ecclesiology. My focus is on positions which are found in the writings of the pioneers (Dr. John Thomas and Robert Roberts) as well as contemporary writings and can therefore be considered historically normative or mainstream within the movement.
  • 1 Grenz, Stanley J., Guretzki, David, & Nordling, Cherith Fee. (1999). Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 36
  • 2 Witte, Henk. (2012). "Ecclesia, quid dicis de teipsa?" Can Ecclesiology Be of Any Help to the Church to Deal with Advanced Modernity? In Staf Hellemans & Jozef Wissink (Eds.), Towards a New Catholic Church in Advanced Modernity: Transformations, Visions, Tensions (pp. 121-146). Z├╝rich: LIT Verlag, p. 137 n. 21.
  • 3 'If the early churches, consisting of men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism, and without the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists, had been left to the mere power of apostolic tradition intellectually received, they could not have held together. The winds of doctrine, blowing about through the activity of "men of corrupt minds," would have broken them from their moorings, and they would have been tossed to and fro in the billows of uncertain and conflicting report and opinion, and finally stranded in hopeless shipwreck. This catastrophe was prevented by the gifts of the spirit. Properly qualified men, as to moral and intellectual parts, were made the repositories of these gifts, and empowered to "speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority." They "ruled" the communities over which they were placed, feeding the flock of God over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly, not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind, neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock (Acts 20v28; 1Peter 5v2,3). In this way the early churches were built up and edified. The work of the apostles was conserved, improved, and carried to a consummation. The faith was completed and consolidated by the voice of inspiration, speaking through the spiritually-appointed leaders of the churches.' (Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, p. 148)
  • 4 Commenting on 'the perfect' in 1 Cor. 13:8, O'Connor writes: 'This means that "THE PERFECT" had come when the Bible was complete and the original ecclesias had been developed to maturity, cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6; Philippians 3:15; Colossians 1:28. Then in the first century the gifts began to vanish' (Rick O'Connor, The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name)
  • 5 '1 Cor. 13:10 demonstrates that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit mentioned in 1 Cor. 12 "will be done away", i.e. when the canon was completed.' (Aleck Crawford, The Spirit: A General Exposition on New Testament Usage
  • 6 'This is the product of the Spirit - the ideas of the Spirit reduced to writing by the ancient men who were moved by it.' (Roberts, op. cit., p. 149)
  • 7 'Within two generations from the apostles, the New Testament had been written, and the purpose for which the Holy Spirit was given had been accomplished (1 Cor. 13:8-10)' (Carl Hinton, 
Apostasy and Revival of the Truth)
  • 8 'Seeing that the gifts of the spirit were only imparted by the laying on of the Apostles' hands, it is obvious that with the death of the last of these Apostles (John), the spirit-gifts would gradually cease to be manifested. That is what happened.' (Anonymous, The Claim to Speak in Tongues and Perform Miracles)
  • 9 'Acts 8:18 shows that only the Apostles could pass on the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (even Philip the evangelist could not pass it on). When the last of the Apostles died around the end of the first century A.D. the ability to pass on the gift also ceased. This ability was not transferred to their ‘successors’ because it was not necessary that the gifts continue any longer. The result was that those who had received a gift, dwindle away in number to nothing during the second century.' (O'Connor, op. cit.)
  • 10 'As to when, and why, the Holy Spirit was withdrawn, the following from the pens of Dr. Thomas and Brother Roberts is to the point: "It was necessary, as a confirmation of the word preached (Heb. ii. 4; Acts v. 82; iv. 29, 30, 33), and for the upbuilding of the community of believers (1 Cor. xii. 28; Ephes. iv. 11-16). When this purpose was served, the manifestation of the Spirit subsided with the death of those possessing it" - Dr. John Thomas. "There is no manifestation of the Spirit in these days. The power of continuing the manifestation 
  • doubtless died with the Apostles. Not that God could not have transferred it to others, but that He selected them as the channels of its bestowment in their age, and never, so far as we have any evidence, appointed successors" - Robert Roberts.' (F.G. Jannaway, Christadelphian Answers, p. 15)
  • 11 'The "Laying on of hands" was a rite, or ceremony, whereby the Holy Spirit was bestowed by the Apostles (Acts viii. 18; xix. 6), and sanction given for special missionary work (Acts vi. 6; xiii. 3). The "laying on of hands" ceased with the Apostolic Age; the "Gift of the Holy Spirit" having been withdrawn when its necessary work of confirming the word spoken had been completed (1 Cor. xiii. 8), and signs and wonders were no longer necessary (Mark xvi. 17, 20; Acts ii. 43; v. 12; Heb. ii. 4).' (F.G. Jannaway, Christadelphian Answers, pp. 206-207)
  • 12 Concerning Revelation 2-3, Robert Roberts writes, 'Oil symbolically used stands for the Spirit of God, as proved in many ways which we need not refer to. The Spirit of God was bestowed upon the ecclesias in the first century. It was this that constituted them the Spirit's candlesticks. Hence the threat was a threat of the withdrawal of the Spirit. The threat was duly carried into effect. The reformation desired did not set in. The Apostasy, which Paul declared to be in active progress before his death, got the upper hand everywhere, and the candlesticks were removed in all senses, since which day, the light of inspiration has been extinct, except in so far as it survives in the writings of the Spirit -- the oracles of God which are to us a treasure beyond price.' (Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse, p. 17)
  • 13 Concerning the Judaizers opposed by Paul in Galatians, Dr. Thomas writes, 'It was the beginning of that awful apostasy, the fruit of which we behold in the ecclesiastical system of our day.' (Elpis Israel, p. 209)
  • 14 'Yet in the face of triumph, there lay the threat of apostasy. So it transpired. When the apostles died, apostasy set in, and darkness returned. But even in the midst of the long darkness of Gentile power, the light of the Truth flickered, ready to be rekindled in the nineteenth century... The letters of Christ to the ecclesias in Revelation 2 and 3 witness the decline that had already commenced.' (Carl Hinton, Apostasy and Revival of the Truth)
  • 15 'The apostasy had its beginning in the first century ecclesia, otherwise it could not be a "falling away". The apostasy has continued to the present day and will continue until the return of the Lord when it will be destroyed (2:8). It is important to note that the apostasy goes back to the first century when the "mystery of iniquity" already worked (2:7).' (Abel, Ron. (1984). The Man of Sin: A Future Fuehrer in Jerusalem or Roman Catholic Apostasy? Torrens Park: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, p. 23).
  • 16 John Ullman describes Dr. Thomas' view thus: 'Through his study of the way in which apostasy began to sweep aside apostolic teaching in the first century, he had become deeply aware of the way fleshly philosophy corrupted the Truth' (Obey the Shepherd's Voice, p. 105)
  • 17 One Christadelphian writer describes the state of affairs at the end of the first century as 'a church drifting rapidly towards apostasy' (Anonymous, The Name of God in the NT)
  • 18 'The history of the "Christian" community since the first century, however, is a sad case of falling away from the simple truths believed by those early disciples of Christ—a process grimly predicted many times by the apostles themselves, speaking by Divine authority (Acts 20:29,30; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 4:3,4; 1 Jno. 2:18.19; Jude v. 18). The death of the inspired apostles, and of those who shared with them the Spirit-gifts and the Divinely appointed oversight of the household of faith, only served to contribute to this decay, as the third-generation Christians—like the children of Israel before them (Judg. 2:7)—fell into apostasy. As one writer so aptly puts it, "all trace of primitive truth disappeared, and the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from all association with an empty Christian name".' (Reg Carr, The Organisation of the Christadelphian Community)
  • 19 'If the first Century Ecclesia became apostate, can the same trends that developed into the "Apostasy" 1,900 years ago, be discerned within our Christadelphian communities today?' (Anonymous, I will place upon you no other burden: A scriptural appeal to the Christadelphian brotherhood)
  • 20 'This ministration of the Spirit, and this presence of divine authority in the ecclesias or communities, continued during the days of the apostles, and the generation next ensuing. After that, an apostasy arose in the apostolic community, after the analogy of the case of Israel, in their first settlement of Canaan; who “served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that out-lived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord that he did for Israel” (Judges 2:7). The apostasy prevailed more and more, as the Apostles, by the Spirit, predicted would be the case (2 Timothy 4:1-4; 2:17), until all trace of primitive truth disappeared, and the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from all association with an empty Christian name. Whatever genuine profession may have existed since then, has not been honoured by a return of the Spirit’s witnessing and governing presence.' (Robert Roberts, A guide to the formation and conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias); 'But the day of open communication was suspended for a time, when, after the final word by the hand of the Lord Jesus, the apostasy came in like a flood and submerged the light in darkness. It was a day spoken of beforehand, that it would come when there would be a famine, “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord,” when men should run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord and should not find it (Amos 8:11-12); when there should be “no answer of God” (Micah 3:7).' (Robert Roberts, The Ways of Providence)
  • 21 Abel provides a detailed timeline of the Church's adoption of apostate doctrines. Up to the end of the fourth century, the list runs as follows: 'Immortality of the soul (approx.) 124; Pre-human existence of Christ 124; Substitutionary sacrifice 124; Sprinkling instead of immersion 150; Greek word "trias" used for the trinity 180; The term "priest" applied to church officials 200; Millennial reign of Christ regarded as an allegory 200; Platonic philosophy introduced by Origen 200; Perpetual virginity of Mary 250; Primacy of Peter 250; Apostolic succession 250; Infant baptism 250; Monasticism founded 270; Prayers for the dead (approx.) 300; Making the sign of the cross (approx.) 300; Emperor Constantine makes apostate Christianity the state religion—wholesale inclusion of Christianized pagans 312; Wax candles 320; Jesus a person within the Godhead (Council of Nicaea—from which came the Nicene Creed) 325; Veneration of dead "saints" and angels 375; Use of images 375; The "Holy Ghost" a person within the Godhead (Council of Constantinople) 381; Emperor Theodosius makes apostate Christianity compulsory 395; "Pontifex Maximus" (formerly title of Caesar and high priest of heathen religion) taken as title of Bishop of Rome 395' (op. cit., p. 28)
  • 22 'Then we behold, succeeding, a period of great and prosperous activity among the apostles, the rapid multiplication of believers, the formation of communities of brethren everywhere, the prevalence of comfort and joy and the fear of the Lord among the thousands who received the Word. Then we see persecution and trouble; then delay in the expected judgments on Jerusalem; then the uprise of questions, strifes of words, heresies; the perverse disputing of men of corrupt minds; the death of the apostles one by one except John; the cooling of zeal among professors, the growth of corruption among them in faith and practice; then the publication of Christ's message to seven typical ecclesias in Asia, through John in Patmos, shining out in the thickening gloom with the brightness of a great light in heaven. Then John dies, the light goes out, darkness settles on the scene; philosophy and vain deceit prevail over the simplicity of the Gospel, through the ingenuities of carnally-minded teachers; Christians (so-called) turn soldiers and politicians; they become a party in the State; and in less than three centuries, they put "Christianity" on the throne by the sword of Constantine.' (Robert Roberts, Christ Past and Future)
  • 23 'Your petitioners respectfully submit that they belong to “a very small remnant” of that sect, which in the days of the Apostles was “everywhere spoken against” because of its testimony against “the world rulers of the darkness of that age; and against the spirituals of the wickedness in the high places of the State (Eph. 6:12).  This has been their testimony in all ages of their standing before the “Powers that be.”   Inheriting their principles, your petitioners are brought under the obligation of maintaining their testimony; although, as in past experience of thousands of them, it may be necessary to seal it with the loss of goods, liberty, or life. During the past eighteen hundred years they have been distinguished from heterogeneous “names and denominations” of the kingdom of the clergy, by various titles imposed upon them by their enemies. These names they repudiate; and, in accordance with apostolic teaching, that al the real children of God are the brethren of Jesus (a relationship in which their brethren in all ages have glorified), your petitioners choose to be known as CHRISTADELPHIANS, or brethren of Christ.' (John Thomas, Letter to U.S. Congress, quoted in Robert Roberts, My Days and My Ways: An Autobiography)
  • 24 'The result of these lectures will be to show that in the course of religious history there has been a great departure from the truth revealed by the prophets and apostles, and that the religious systems of the present day are an incongruous mixture of truth and error that tends, more than anything else, to perplex and baffle devout and intelligent mind, and to prepare the way for scepticism. Do you mean to say, asks the incredulous enquirer, that the Bible has been studied by men of learning for eighteen centuries without being understood? and that the thousands of clergy men and ministers set apart for the very purpose of ministering in its holy things are all mistaken? A moment's reflection ought to induce moderation and patience in the consideration of these questions. It will be admitted, as a matter of history, that in the early ages, Christianity became so corrupted as to lose even the form of sound doctrine - that for more than ten centuries, Roman Catholic superstition was universal, and enshrouded the world in moral, intellectual, and religious darkness, so gross as to procure for that period of the world's history the epithet of "the dark ages." Here then is a long period unanimously disposed of with a verdict in which all Protestants, at least, will agree, viz., "Truth almost absent from the earth though the Bible was in the hands of the teachers."' (Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray)
  • 25 'This shining of the truth in the darkness of the nations was considerably increased by the apostolic labors; for "their sound went into all the land, and their words unto the ends of the habitable."... Now, although this light was almost extinguished by the apostasy, lamps were still kept burning in its presence; so that the eclipse was not so total as that the darkness of the gentile mind was reduced to a savage state.' (John Thomas, Elpis Israel, p. 125)
  • 26 'It hath pleased God in these last times of the Gentiles, to cause a revival of promulgation of the "one gospel" which had for ages been perverted and almost-if not altogether-extinguished, by the power of that "mystery of iniquity", whose coming has been "after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish."... The revival of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus came about in the mid-eighteen hundreds through one John Thomas, whose indefatigable labors in the glorious cause of truth, have resulted in arresting the attention of many good and honest hearts.' (Thomas Williams, from inaugural issue of The Christadelphian Advocate)
  • 27 'Since the apostolic age, outside influences have led to apostasy. God has, however, preserved a remnant over the ages and has in these latter days caused the Truth to re-emerge... While this state of spiritual darkness continued, the true witnesses existed as small and persecuted minorities who were branded as heretics by "the church". They often sealed their faithful testimony with their own blood (e.g. Rev. 6:9-11). Some of these communities were known as Novations, Donatists, Paulicians, Albigenses, Waldenses and Huguenots…' (Carl Hinton, Apostasy and Revival of the Truth)
  • 28 'Reflecting the natural inclinations of human nature, false brethren advanced the cause of apostasy which became dominantly influential not long after the apostles had completed their labors and given their lives for Christ's cause. The light of the Truth was all but extinguished (Rev. 12:14, 17). This disastrous development — foretold by the apostles, but opposed by them as long as they drew breath — cost many brethren and sisters their hope of eternal salvation' (John Ullman, Serving the Law of God, pp. 335-336)
  • 29 'When the scriptures were again disseminated in the tongues of the nations in the sixteenth century, the light of truth began again to stream in upon them. The scriptures were then like a book just fallen from heaven. The world was astonished at their contents; but "comprehended them not." Men discussed it, tortured it, perverted it, fought about it; until the stronger party established the foundation of the world as at present construed.' (John Thomas, op. cit., p. 125)
  • 30 Robert Roberts writes concerning the Reformation, 'Was it to be expected that from the midst of great darkness there should instantly come out the blaze of truth? Was it not more likely that their achievements in the matter would only be partial, and that their newborn Reformation would be swaddled with many of the rags and tatters of the apostate church against which they rebelled? History and Scripture show that this was the case - that though it was a "glorious Reformation," in the sense of liberating the human intellect from priestly thraldom, and establishing individual liberty in the discussion and discernment of religious truth, it was a very partial Reformation, so far as doctrinal rectification was concerned - that but a very small part of the truth was brought to light, and that many of the greatest heresies of the church of Rome were retained, and still continue to be the groundwork of the Protestant Church.' (Christendom Astray)
  • 31 'When the right time came for a revival in these latter days, Providence could be seen at work. The invention of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into different languages meant that more and more people were able to read the Bible. As they understood, they began to challenge the commonly accepted but wrong views of the Roman Catholic Church. Men like William Tyndale in England and Martin Luther in Germany, from their Bible studies exposed some of the false doctrines of Rome. Others joined them in the struggle of protest against Rome, which was known as the Reformation and the Reformed or Protestant Churches were established. Their reforms, however, were incomplete and much of the tradition and false teaching of the Roman Church was retained.' (Carl Hinton, Apostasy and Revival of the Truth)
  • 32 'Some small groups though saw the need to take the reforms much further and some, such as the "Brethren of Christ" in 16th century Poland, came substantially to the Truth.' (Hinton, op. cit.) This work, which was written for Christadelphian catechesis in Tanzania, lists 'Novations [sic], Donatists, Paulicians, Albigenses, Waldenses and Huguenots' among the 'true witnesses' of Christian history. This remarkable claim cannot be dealt with here in detail, but one can simply point out one example of how far from historical reality it is: Novatian declared himself pope in 251 A.D. and also wrote a treatise entitled On the Trinity which survives.
  • 33 See especially Alan Eyre's book The Protesters, which attempts to paint many individuals and groups of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as proto-Christadelphians. His main point is that 'Today the Christadelphian community --"Brothers in Christ" -- is the inheritor of a noble tradition, by which elements of the Truth were from century to century hammered out on the anvil of controversy, affliction and even anguish... The purpose of this book is to tell how a number of little-known individuals, groups and religious communities strove to preserve or revive the original Christianity of apostolic times.' To Eyre's credit, he does admit reluctantly that 'Some recorded herein perhaps did not have "all the truth"'. Another Christadelphian writer, Ruth McHaffie, has criticized Eyre's findings in a book called Finding Founders and Facing Facts, which is epitomized in a work available online entitled Brethren Indeed? Her main conclusions are worth quoting here: 'If we merely wish to prove that doctrines held by Christadelphians were believed among reformers who preceded John Thomas, then we are travelling an easy road and can find ample evidence. It is entirely legitimate to select one or another and quote from him on the particular point under consideration... But if we wish to see that courageous character as one of the faithful “believers of the Truth” who were “contending for the same promises and doctrines as the Christadelphians today...” then we are travelling along a different path. We then have to investigate, as far as possible, to what extent he was in agreement with our “first principles”, and to what extent he was not. We have to consider whether, if he were alive today, we would be able to hold out to him the hand of fellowship and welcome him round “our” table... Great though the temptation might be, we cannot identify any one of those early reformers as a proto-Christadelphian if that identification demands moulding him or her like plasticine into our own shape, or, in more scriptural terminology, like clay in the potter’s hand. Though we might unintentionally misunderstand the meaning of a writer or fail to realise that he later changed his view, we should not select passages from various documents which appear to agree with Christadelphian beliefs, while choosing to shut our eyes to passages written by the same hand further down the page which modify the writer’s meaning or express beliefs to which we have grave objection.'
  • 34 'Dr Thomas was fitted by natural qualification for the great work achieved by his hand. His intellect was a fine balance between perception and reflection, adapting him for full and accurate observation and correct reasoning, while a scientific education brought out those powers to the fullest advantage... The Doctor was a remarkable man, and was the instrument of a remarkable work, which required strongly-marked characteristics for its accomplishment. The work is patent to all who know and love the truth. He performed the work of an apostle, and lived long enough to see that work placed upon a permanent basis. The peculiarities necessary to do the work were: —firstly, a clear, well-balanced, scientific intellect, and a non-emotional, executive nature, enabling him to reason accurately, and perceive and embrace conclusions in the teeth of prejudice and sentiment; secondly, self-reliance and an independence almost to the point of eccentricity, disposing him to think and act without reference to any second person, and if need be, in opposition to friend as well as foe; thirdly, a predominating conscientiousness impelling him in the direction of right and duty; and fourthly, great boldness and fluency of speech which qualified him for the enunciation of the truth discovered in the face of the world in arms... To a man of different characteristics, the work would probably have been impossible. Dr. Thomas possessed a combination of traits that enabled him to persevere in his course whatever difficulties had to be faced... such, in brief, is the history of that application of his mental powers to Scripture study and polemics which, in the wisdom of God, has uncovered the oracles of divine truth from the mass of ignorance and misinterpretation which for centuries overlaid and obscured them.' (Robert Roberts, Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)
  • 35 Dr. Thomas himself, in a published Statement of Faith no less, asserted that Christadelphians 'claim to be "the sect everywhere spoken against," in the first century, newly revived and rest their identification therewith upon the likeness of their faith and practice with the apostolic original' (John Thomas, Concerning "This New Sect," the Christadelphians, reproduced in Peter Hemingray, John Thomas: His Faith and His Friends, p. 335). 'The revival of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus came about in the mid-eighteen hundreds through one John Thomas, whose indefatigable labors in the glorious cause of truth, have resulted in arresting the attention of many good and honest hearts. Their studies caused them to embrace the one gospel apostolically delivered almost two thousand years ago.' (Thomas Williams, from inaugural issue of The Christadelphian Advocate)
  • 36 'As the era of the latter days, the end of "the times of the Gentiles", and the time for the return of Christ drew near, it was nevertheless appropriate that God, in His providence, should revive a corporate witness to the truths revealed in His Word and taught by His Son, the Word made flesh...The ferment of Bible study in the first half of the nineteenth century led to a thoroughgoing, fundamental rediscovery of those truths which Jesus and his earliest disciples believed and taught. Those who shared this understanding found themselves, inevitably, in collision with those who continued to prefer the teachings of the various ‘Christian’ churches and denominations, and thus the Christadelphian community was formed. Based on the demonstrable certainty that Christendom is “astray” from the teaching of the Bible, the community was a conscious attempt to revive the teaching of the apostles and to carry on their efforts to make ready a people prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.' (Reg Carr, op. cit.)
  • 37 'Notwithstanding the work of others, however, the history of the revival of the Truth in the latter days centres around the life of Dr. Thomas.' (Carl Hinton, op. cit.)
  • 38 Robert Roberts sets out to tell 'The interesting and instructive story of the truth’s revival in our century' and refers to Dr. Thomas as 'that man by whom that revival was effected'. He states emphatically, 'so far as we can see, but for John Thomas, those who now rejoice in the truth, would still have been sitting, like the rest of the world, in "darkness and the shadow of death"' (Roberts, Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)
  • 39 'Brother Thomas assembled the total Truth. Admittedly, others had disjointed parts, some this, some that. He revealed a beautiful, harmonious, living whole. His critics and scorners owe what knowledge they have of it to him, squirm as they may under this embarrassing fact. Intelligent men will recognize their debt and dependency, and will be humbly thankful.' (G.V. Growcott, Search me O God)
  • 40 Under the heading 'Revival of the Apostolic Faith', Roberts writes: 'In these days, when the times of the Gentiles are nearing their end, and the era of the Lord’s return has approached, there has been a revival of the original apostolic faith, through the agency of Scriptural study and demonstration. This work has been perfectly natural in its proximate features (see The Life and Work of Dr. Thomas), but thoroughly spiritual and apostolic in its results. It has been unaccompanied by any visible manifestation of the Spirit, such as characterized the apostolic era, but is nonetheless the evolution of the Spirit’s work in its individual and collective achievements. There is no reason to expect any recurrence of this manifestation of the Spirit until the Lord’s actual reappearance in the earth. On the contrary, there are reasons for believing the divine programme to be such that it cannot take place' (A guide to the formation and conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias)
  • 41 '[The revival of the Truth] came about as the effect of a providential concatenation of circumstances, without plan or anticipation on the part of the Dr... From his resolve made in the dangers of shipwreck, a providential series of events led to the consummation... [after discussing Dr. Thomas' exceptional personal qualities] Yet, left to himself, those natural qualifications must have taken a totally different direction from what they did. It required the circumstances to which he was subjected to bring him into the path of Biblical discovery' (Robert Roberts, Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)
  • 42 'Had not Dr. Thomas been subjected to the terrible antagonism he experienced in his search for the truth, he would never have found it. Had not that antagonism arisen in the Campbellite body and through his continued connection with it, he would equally have failed. There was an overruling providence in the whole matter. The peculiar mental and moral organisation of Dr. Thomas admirably fitted him for the work he accomplished. His sterling honesty, great faith, resolute will, utter disregard of human opinion, and what seemed a reckless independence of leadership of men, enabled him to do a work that would have failed under other conditions, And it was only through identification with a so-called Christian body taking the Bible alone as its rule of faith and hope and practice that the above qualifications could have full play in the discovery of the truth. There was, therefore, a providence in the whole course pursued by Dr. Thomas from the time he set out to find the truth till he discovered it in its entirety, and whoever condemns him in any part of that course condemns the providence overruling all.' (L.B. Welch, The Recovered Truth in the Latter Days)
  • 43 'The Christadelphian Ecclesia is the Bride of Christ' (Robert Roberts, The True Christadelphian Ecclesia)
  • 44 'With a creed firmly based on the saving truths found only in the Bible, and with a fellowship tightly circumscribed by a common standard of faith and practice, the members of the Christadelphian body maintain their resistance to the tempting wiles of ecumenism and continue to repudiate the many unfortunate errors of Christianity in general. For them, instead, there remains the call to single-minded zeal in the service of the Lord, the upward and often demanding path that alone can lead to everlasting life, and the humbling awareness of their privileged status as part of that “chosen generation”, that “royal priesthood”, that “holy nation”, and that “peculiar (or ‘purchased’) people” of whom the Apostle Peter speaks (1 Pet. 2:9).' (Reg Carr, op. cit.)
  • 45 'If there are divisions, then it is evident that they only exist in the minds of Christadelphians- not in that of God, for whom there is only one body. If we admit that our brother is validly baptized and in Christ (i.e. a Christadelphian), then we are intimately connected with him, regardless of what his background, colour, language, geographical location etc. may be... And so it is with those like the Dawn fellowship who say they have broken away from Christadelphians; because they say they are not of the body doesn't mean they are not of the body… The essential divide is not between Christadelphians, but between Christadelphia and the world.' (Anonymous, "Who should I fellowship?" Christadelphian Divisions)
  • 46 'The ecclesia is the “House of God”, the Pillar and Foundation of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and the Lord Jesus Christ is it's head (Heb. 3:6). We can be assured that our Master will not permit the Truth to be extinguished altogether, for in each generation there have arisen contenders for the faith: men who wield the sword of the spirit to cut down the high things that exalt themselves against a knowledge of the Truth. These are the salt of the earth – a preserving influence that keeps men from being given over to total destruction. These men are amongst “the children of light,” who cause their light to shine before men.' (Christopher Maddocks, Hidden in the House)
  • 47 'The scriptures indicate that a remnant will be waiting for Christ when he returns (1 Cor. 15:51-58; 1 Thess. 4:15-18).' (Carl Hinton, op. cit.)
  • 48 'We have the consolation that the second apostasy, which is now stalking through the brotherhood, will not be allowed to extinguish the truth a second time. It is comforting to know that the Lord, at his coming, finds some who are ready (Matt. xxv. 10); some who will not taste of death (1 Cor. xv. 51; 1 Thess. iv. 17); some, who in the midst of a general forgetfulness of the Lord's coming, will be "found watching" (Luke xii. 37); and, therefore, some who will steer safely through all the complications, snares, pitfalls, and dangers of the latter days, and remain steadfast to the end in the one faith and practice of the apostles.' (Robert Roberts, The Breaking of Bread)
  • 49 The difference between Catholics and Protestants in this respect is that Catholics affirm that this Holy Spirit guidance is infallibly manifested in a concrete ecclesiological structure, the Magisterium, while Protestants deny such an infallible and concrete manifestation of the Holy Spirit's guidance.
  • 50 The qualifying word 'traditional' stresses that this seems to have been virtually a unanimous position for the first century of Christadelphian history, but that it has been challenged by a vocal minority during the past 50 years or so. See my post on hyper-cessationism for more information.
  • 51 A guide to the formation and conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias
  • 52 Note, however, that Protestants do not regard these Councils as possessing intrinsic authority but accept their judgments because they are believed to be in line with Scripture.
  • 53 Small-'c' catholic here means universal, representing the orthodox system that came to dominate the Church throughout the Empire.
  • 54 Crawford, op. cit.
  • 55 'The word "church" (ecclesia) is clearly used in two ways: one referring to the total body of believers spanning all places and all generations, the other alluding to a specific group of believers who came together in one meeting place.' (Don Styles, Principles of Ecclesial Life)
  • 56 DTBR 12: 'We reject the doctrine - that the Kingdom of God is "the church."'
  • 57 See, e.g., two articles in the Christadelphian Advocate by David Hill (Do all to the glory of God) and Scott Cram (Perfecting of the saints); and pre-eminently, Robert Roberts' work The Ecclesial Guide. The same emphasis can be found in the Christadelphian Bible Mission's catechetical lesson on The Ecclesia of God, and in Don Styles' book Principles of Ecclesial Lifethough in these two works there is a theological emphasis on the unity of the body of Christ. Styles begins his book with the helpful remark, 'The ecclesial community is not man's idea; it is not a Christadelphian idea; it is God's idea.' One could wish that he had pressed further with this notion of divine involvement in the Ecclesia.
  • 58 'The Apostle Paul states that the Ecclesia is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). This is a grave responsibility. God’s Truth is supported by, and grounded upon, the Ecclesia, and our responsibility in these last days is to ensure that the Truth is upheld.' (Anonymous, The Statement of Faith and the Central Community); 'In this twofold aim the true ecclesia of Christ is what the Apostle Paul calls “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), where “pillar” (Gk. stulos) seems to refer to the supporting strength of the believers themselves, gained and communicated, no doubt, by fellowship together (Gal. 2:9; Rev. 3:12).' (Reg Carr, op. cit.)
  • 59 The word does occur in Job 10:12 NIV, but is in no way a technical term for a theological concept there. Other translations, e.g. NASB and NRSV, have 'care' instead of 'providence'.
  • 60 Eureka, Vol. 4, pp. 50-51, emphasis added.
  • 61 (The Organisation of the Christadelphian Community)
  • Tuesday, 19 January 2016

    Are the Christadelphians a cult, sect, or denomination?

    Depending whom you ask, the Christadelphians may variously be described as a religious group, movement, cult, sect, or denomination. The first two categories are appropriate enough but are too broad to situate Christadelphians on the sociological or ecclesiological landscape. Hence, the focus of this post will be on which of the latter three classifications is most appropriate.

    The question, 'Are the Christadelphians a cult?' is one I posed in an online article over a decade ago, when I was a Christadelphian myself. At that time I answered the question emphatically in the negative. A lot has changed in the interim: I have left the Christadelphians and become perhaps one of their more vocal critics (from a theological standpoint). It seems appropriate, then, to return to this question.

    Three senses of the word cult

    Based on a review of sociological and religious studies literature, there appear to be three distinct meanings for the word 'cult'.1 The first is anthropological, the second sociological, and the third theological. Campbell describes the first two senses as follows:
    There are two rather different uses of the term cult. General usage, as well as that common among anthropologists, implies a body of religious beliefs and practices associated with a particular god or set of gods, or even an individual saint or spiritually enlightened person, that constitutes a specialized part of the religious institutions of a society. It is in this sense of the word that one would refer to the Marian cult within Roman Catholicism or to the Krishna cult within Hindusm. There is also a distinct sociological usage of the term that, although related to this general one, has developed a more specialized meaning… sociologists came to employ the term… simply to refer to a group whose beliefs and practices were merely deviant from the perspective of religious or secular orthodoxy, and that was characterized by a very loose organizational structure.2
    The anthropological use of the term has little relevance for this article. However, it serves to remind us that the word need not carry a pejorative connotation.3 Within the sociological literature, the term cult has sometimes taken on a pejorative connotation. Zablocki and Robbins decry a 'divisive polarization' which has plagued 'the academic study of religious movements'.4 Specifically, academics are divided into 'cult bashers' on the one hand and 'cult apologists' on the other.5 These authors note that the latter group have increasingly moved away from the term 'cult' and instead used the term 'new religious movement' (NRM). Brockwell similarly states how 'In the 1970s many social scientists began to replace “cult” with “new religious movement” (NRM), which was advanced as a value-neutral term for fair-minded scholarly application.'6 However, Zablocki and Robbins feel both terms have validity, while stressing that they do not use 'cult' in a pejorative sense. They note:
    Historically the word cult has been used in sociology to refer to any religion held together more by devotion to a living charismatic leader who actively participates in the group’s decision-making than by adherence to a body of doctrine or prescribed set of rituals. By such a definition, many religions would be accurately described as cults during certain phases of their history, and as sects, denominations, or churches at other times.7
    In the same volume, Lalich notes Stark and Bainbridge's well-known definition of a cult as 'a deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices'.8 Partly because she wants to broaden the application of the term to business, political and self-help groups, Lalich's own definition of cult moves the focus away from novelty and heterodoxy:
    A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds9
    She notes that cults frequently impose 'totalistic social control...upon their members' and often feature 'separatism or withdrawal from the larger society',10 but that these characteristics are not always present and therefore do not belong in the definition. Brockwell stresses that no universal consensus exists among sociologists on the definition of the term cult and its relationship to the term sect (to be discussed below). From what we have seen so far, it could be said objectively that Christadelphians fit Campbell's description of sociological use of the term cult. However, Christadelphians would not a priori fit Stark and Bainbridge's definition of a cult, since Christadelphians claim their beliefs and practices are not novel. Moreover, both Zablocki and Robbins' and Lalich's definitions focus on the presence of a single charismatic leader, which Christadelphians certainly do not have today (though the charisma of Dr. Thomas and then Robert Roberts was certainly important to the early growth of the movement, even if to a lesser extent than the leaders of some other 19th century movements such as the Mormons).

    We have seen that some sociologists have used cult with a value-neutral connotation and others with a pejorative connotation. Perhaps as an outgrowth of the latter usage, the word cult has developed strong negative connotations in the mass media and popular culture, and has acquired a more specialized pejorative meaning in Evangelical Christian apologetic discourse. For instance, when Evangelical apologist Matthew Slick refers to Christadelphians as a cult, he is using this label to convey a theological judgment that Christadelphians are 'not Christian' because, 'Like all cults', they deny 'one or more of the essential doctrines of Christianity' (as defined by him). A google search for the terms Christadelphian and cult will yield many other websites labeling Christadelphians as a cult as a polemical judgment.

    In his book The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations (written from an Evangelical perspective), Rhodes explains in an appendix that he has not covered groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses because they are not denominations but cults. He hastens to add that 'The term cult is not intended as a pejorative, inflammatory, or injurious word'.11 He then distinguishes between the sociological and theological senses of the word, with the former focusing on a group's authoritarian, manipulative and communal features and the latter on a group's deviation from mainstream historic Christianity on one or more essential points of doctrine. He considers the theological sense to be more useful than the sociological sense; and he concludes that a group which is a cult in the theological sense is not 'truly Christian'.

    In Martin's Evangelical counter-cult book The Kingdom of the Cults, which advertises itself as the definitive work on the subject, he takes his definition of cult from Braden and Schaffer, who stress that they 'mean nothing derogatory' in the use of the word, but use it to denote a religious groups that 'differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.'12 However, Martin immediately extends the definition to include 'a group of people gathered about a specific person or person's misinterpretation of the Bible'.13

    Despite Rhodes' and Martin's assurances that they are not using the word cult in a pejorative or derogatory sense, it seems obvious that they are: cults gather around a person's misinterpretation of the Bible and are not truly Christian. Besides this apparent inconsistency, another problem for the theological use of the word cult in Evangelical apologetics is that it is regarded as illegitimate in broader academic discourse. Campbell, for instance, decries how
    the careless application of the cult concept by both the media and opponents of specific groups has made the social scientific use of the cult concept increasingly difficult14
    Similarly, Partridge stresses that he does not use this word 'in the popular, broad and derogatory sense often used by, for example, journalists and the Christian counter-cult movement.'15

    Hence, the specialized use of the word cult in Evangelical apologetic discourse to denote a heretical pseudo-Christian group is problematic for two reasons. First, these apologists claim that they are (like the wider academic community) using the term in a non-pejorative way, but both the denotation and connotation of their usage is manifestly pejorative. Second, the wider academic community rejects such pejorative usage of the term and regards it as an obstruction to fair-minded scholarship. I must stress that my objection is not that Evangelical apologists are necessarily wrong to seek out pejorative labels for other religious groups, or that the term cult is necessarily inappropriate for all the groups they so label. Rather, my objection is that Evangelicals have created a specialized meaning of the word cult that is not recognized outside Evangelical theological discourse, and thereby introduced potential confusion into the meaning of this word as applied to religious groups.

    Differentiating between cults, sects, and denominations in sociological research

    The inappropriateness of the term cult to describe the Christadelphians becomes clearer when one considers how scholars of religion and sociology differentiate it from the terms denomination and especially sect. 

    First we will deal with the difference between a cult and a sect. Scholars tend to differentiate these two concepts in one of two ways: either in terms of the group's origin, or in terms of the group's level of exclusivity. We have already encountered Brockwell's statement that there is no universal consensus on the distinction between a cult and a sect. However, he adds:
    Generally, a sect is seen as a movement related to a parent tradition, often seeking to remain within its home church, while a cult is viewed as promoting novel beliefs and practices independent of either churches or sects16
    Similarly, Partridge, referring to the work of Stark and Bainbridge, notes that in their view, 'sects are founded by persons who left another religious body for the purpose of founding the sect' whereas cults 'do not have a prior tie with another established religious body in the society in question’ and thus cults originate ‘through innovation, not fission'.17

    It should be clear to anyone familiar with Christadelphian history that, in terms of this criterion, the Christadelphians are more aptly described as a sect than a cult. Christadelphians did form, in effect, through the fission between Dr. John Thomas' and Alexander Campbell's Restorationist movement, and have always defined themselves in (negative) relation to Christian orthodoxy. Moreover, they do not regard themselves as innovators but as restorers of authentic Christianity. This self-assessment is certainly open to question, since Christadelphian exegesis of Scripture is arguably novel in some of its methods and results. However, it must be acknowledged that Christadelphians have not claimed to have received any new divine revelation, which would be the hallmark of innovation.

    Wilson, while not differentiating between sects and cults, emphasizes that 'a sect is exclusive', being typically made up of believers 'who reject the established religious authorities, but who claim to adhere to the authentic elements of faith'.18

    The second distinction between a cult and a sect found in the literature has to do with exclusivism. Wallis, as reproduced in Partridge, formulated a two-dimensional typology for differentiating between the four terms church, denomination, sect, and cult. His model consisted of asking the following two questions about a religious group:

    1) Do insiders consider their organization to be uniquely legitimate or pluralistically legitimate?
    2) Do outsiders consider the organization to be respectable or deviant?19

    Accordingly, Wallis constructed the following table:


    Viewed by outsiders as...
    Viewed by insiders as...
    Respectable
    Deviant
      Uniquely legitimate
    CHURCH
    SECT
      Pluralistically legitimate
    DENOMINATION
    CULT

    Hence, for Wallis, what a sect and a cult have in common is that they are both regarded as deviant by the dominant culture. Where a sect and a cult differ is that the former is 'epistemologically exclusivist', claiming 'unique access to truth', namely 'a particular interpretation of religious knowledge to which the believer must assent'.20 By contrast, a cult is 'epistemologically individualistic'; it does not claim unique access to truth and thus does not reject the dominant religious culture as part of its worldview. It is pluralistic, and perhaps relativistic.

    It should again be clear that, according to this criterion, Christadelphians qualify as a sect and not a cult. Christadelphians have traditionally claimed to have 'the Truth' to the exclusion of all other theological systems, and have forged their identity upon the negation of historic, orthodox Christianity. Hence, taking both criteria into account, one can say with some confidence that sect, and not cult, is the most appropriate sociological label for the Christadelphians.

    Wallis' analysis also shows why denomination is not an appropriate label for Christadelphians. For one, denominations are pluralistic, and not exclusivistic (like Christadelphians), in their self-understanding in relation to other groups. The late Bryan Wilson, well known to the Christadelphian community because of his book Sects and Society (which offered a detailed sociological study of Christadelphians), wrote the following on the difference between a sect and a denomination:
    Within the Christian tradition, the sect constitutes a distinctive, persisting, and separately organized group of believers who reject the established religious authorities, but who claim to adhere to the authentic elements of faith. A sect may be distinguished, on somewhat different criteria, from both a church and denomination. Whereas the church is inclusive of a population, a sect is exclusive; whereas church members may be “inborn”, sect allegiance is always voluntary. Dual memberships are not tolerated. Theoretically, allegiance is total and equal, and sects usually reject (especially at the time of their origin) ordained ministry, encouraging lay, and sometimes purely informal, leadership.21
    The second difference in Wallis' typology is that denominations are regarded as respectable in the dominant religious culture, and not regarded as deviant (like Christadelphians). These two differences actually to some extent go hand-in-hand, as Newman and Halvorson explain in differentiating sects from denominations:
    First, and most importantly, without exception, sects are described as religious organizations that depart in some significant manner from the religious and/or general cultural mainstream. In this sense, sectarian organizations are the religious expression of social deviance. The sociological concept of “deviance” focuses on the fact that nearly all societies contain subgroups that define themselves as different or distinct, and, in turn, are so defined by the surrounding society… Religious sects, typically focusing on elements of theological distinctiveness… describe themselves as an elect, chosen, and separate people, and the general culture adopts this as a lens for labelling such groups as well... In contrast, mainstream religious organizations – denominations – link themselves with national civic values and practices. Denominations tend to advertise not the exclusiveness, but their inclusiveness’22
    Hence, to some extent a sect, by taking an exclusivist stance, condemns itself to exclusion by the dominant religious culture (the broader Church, in the case of Christianity).

    Bearing out this characterization of a denomination as inclusive (both from within and without), Ensign-George defines denomination as 'a middle term between "congregation" and "church"... one form of intermediary structure in the life of the church'.23 A denomination thus regards itself, and is regarded, as a structure within the broader Church, and not as the very Church. As Herberg states:
    The denomination, as we know it in this country, is a settled, stable religious body, very like a church in many ways, except that it sees itself as one of a large aggregate of similar bodies, each recognizing the proper status of the others in legitimate coexistence.24
    The question arises as to whether Christadelphians might transform from a sect into a denomination over time. Wilson notes that this often does happen, but names the Christadelphians as a counterexample: a group that has persisted as a sect over several generations. I have encountered numerous liberal-minded Christadelphian ecclesias who have largely given up their exclusivist stance. In terms of Wallis' typology, this will actually shift the Christadelphians from the sect quadrant toward the cult quadrant, unless the surrender of exclusivist claims coincides with an acceptance of Christadelphians by the Church. While such acceptance is probably more plausible today than ever before, it remains very unlikely that Christadelphians will become generally regarded as a denomination within the Church unless they embrace Trinitarian orthodoxy. This may seem an impossibility, but one can point to the dramatic theological reversal of the Worldwide Church of God as evidence that it is not.

    Do Christadelphians match the characteristics of a sect?

    To summarize thus far, Christadelphians are not a cult because (i) this term has practically been ruined by its pejorative use among Evangelical apologists, (ii) Christadelphians originated through schism with the wider Church more than through innovation, and (iii) Christadelphians take an exclusivist stance in relation the wider Church. Christadelphians are not a denomination because (i) they are exclusivist in relation to the wider Church, and (ii) they are regarded as deviant by the wider Church. Thus, the socio-religious term that best describes the Christadelphians is sect.

    Brockwell lists nine attributes that usually characterize sects:
    (1) rooted in an impulse to reform or renew the parent church; (2) powerful charismatic leadership, especially in the first generation; (3) distinctive teaching well articulated by the leader(s); (4) voluntary association demanding a high level of personal commitment to doctrine, lifestyle, and the group; (5) strong group discipline; (6) a sense of being superior to those less committed to what the group sees as core values of the church; (7) a tendency to develop freestanding, even separatist, structures to ensure the continuation of the message and ministry; (8) little appeal to persons with economic, social, or political power; and (9) often indifferent or hostile to secular society and the state.25
    I would argue that all of these characteristics apply to the Christadelphians, with the following caveats. First, the Christadelphian community has a fair degree of heterogeneity, so that, for example, (5) and (6) would be much more true in some ecclesias and individuals than in others. Second, the direct influence of Dr. John Thomas' charismatic leadership on Christadelphians seems to have dwindled, i.e. Elpis Israel and Eureka are not required reading in most ecclesias. However, his indirect influence continues since much of his unusual understanding of the Bible became an enduring part of Christadelphian tradition (multitudinous God-manifestation; hyper-cessationism; continuous-historical interpretation of Revelation) or even enshrined as articles of faith (reduction of Satan to carnal impulses; no salvation for those who die as children or are mentally disabled). Third, it is not entirely clear to me what Brockwell means by (7). However, if he means that sects, having begun through schism, have a tendency toward further sectarian divisions within themselves, then this is certainly characteristic of Christadelphian history.

    The objectivity of the term

    A further reason for preferring the term sect over either cult or denomination as an identifying label for the Christadelphians is its objectivity, in that it is acceptable to Christadelphians, neutral observers (e.g. sociological researchers), and orthodox Christian apologists. By contrast, neither cult nor denomination would be acceptable to all three kinds of parties interested in studying the Christadelphians. 

    Surely virtually all Christadelphians would reject the label cult due to its negative connotations in popular usage. A good many sociologists would also reject the term for the same reason, preferring a more value-neutral term like new religious movement. Even apologists who wish to make progress in engaging with Christadelphians should recognize the wisdom in avoiding language that will needlessly offend their target audience. As for denomination, traditionally minded Christadelphians would reject this label as it implies the legitimacy of other Christian denominations that teach 'doctrines to be rejected'. Equally, traditionally minded Christians would reject the label as it implies the legitimacy of Christadelphians within the wider Church despite their repudiation of Nicene orthodoxy and their numerous heterodox teachings. And sociologists are unlikely to use this term since, in light of the above, it does not accurately depict Christadelphians' relationship to the broader Christian Church.

    Sect, however, is likely to find widespread acceptance with all three parties. Neutral observers are likely to use the term (as Wilson did) because it is an established academic term that accurately describes Christadelphians' sociological characteristics. Christadelphians have embraced this term (albeit with some qualifications), at least partly because the word is used in the Bible.26 And, as an apologist engaging critically with Christadelphians, I am comfortable using this term for two reasons. First, it is not inflammatory like cult and is thus not likely to be a distraction in theological dialogue. Second, although value-neutral, the term sect still highlights the very characteristics of the Christadelphians that the Church finds objectionable: namely, that the Christadelphians exist as a separate religious group specifically to reject the Church and her historic teachings. It is worth noting, too, that in the New Testament, the early Church never applies the term 'sect' (Greek: hairesis) to itself, and that soon thereafter, patristic writers began using this term to designate those who separated themselves from the Church's teachings.

    Conclusion

    The best term to use for the Christadelphians, both in academic literature and in theological dialogue, is neither cult nor denomination, but sect.


    Footnotes

    • 1 In fact, there are more, but I leave aside specialized meanings in popular culture meanings such as the cult following that a film may have; these have no bearing on the issue at hand.
    • 2 Campbell, Colin. (1998). Cult. In William H. Swatos, Jr. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (pp. 122-123). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, p. 122.
    • 3 For instance, in biblical studies literature about Second Temple Judaism one often finds reference to the 'Temple cult'; this is not a value judgment on Jewish religious practice but is synonymous with 'Temple system of worship'.
    • 4 Zablocki, Benjamin & Robbins, Thomas. (2001). Introduction: Finding a Middle Ground in a Polarized Scholarly Arena. In In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (pp. 3-34). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 3.
    • 5 ibid.
    • 6 Brockwell Jr., Charles W. (2005). Sect. In E. Fahlbusch et al (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 896-898. Here p. 897.
    • 7 Zablocki & Robbins, op. cit., p. 5.
    • 8 cited in Lalich, Janja. (2001). Pitfalls in the Sociological Study of Cults. In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (pp. 123-158). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 125.
    • 9 op. cit., p. 124.
    • 10 ibid.
    • 11 Rhodes, Ron. (2005/2015). The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, p. 417
    • 12 Martin, Walter. (2003). The Kingdom of the Cults (revised and expanded edition). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 17.
    • 13 ibid. Emphasis in original.
    • 14 Campbell, op. cit., p. 123.
    • 15 Partridge, Christopher. (2004). The Re-Enchantment of the West (Vol. 1). London: T&T Clark International, p. 26.
    • 16 Brockwell, op. cit., p. 897.
    • 17 ibid.
    • 18 Wilson, Bryan. (1989). ‘Sect’. In Alan Richardson & John Bowden (Eds.), A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, pp. 532-533. London: SCM Press, p. 532.
    • 19 Reproduced in Partridge, op. cit., p. 25.
    • 20 op. cit., pp. 25-26.
    • 21 Wilson, op. cit., p. 532.
    • 22 Newman, William M. & Halvorson, Peter L. (2000). Atlas of American Religion: The Denominational Era, 1776-1990. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, p. 57. Newman and Halvorson go on to discuss quantitative demographic features (population size and spatial distribution patterns) as other criteria for distinguishing sects from denominations.
    • 23 Ensign-George, Barry. (2011). Denomination as Ecclesiological Category: Sketching an Assessment. In Paul M. Collins & Barry A. Ensign-George (Eds.), Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category (pp. 1-21). London: Bloomsbury, p. 4.
    • 24 Herberg, W. (1967). Religion in a Secularized Society. In J. Brothers (Ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Religion, pp. 201-216. Oxford: Pergamon Press, p. 204.
    • 25 Brockwell, op. cit., p. 897.
    • 26 In his pamphlet The Danger of Cults, Michael Ashton, a former editor of The Christadelphian (the oldest extant and most widely distributed Christadelphian periodical), rejects the label cult due to its 'sinister' 'associations', and expresses a preference for the term sect, which is 'simply a religious party or group; and the term is normally applied to groups that are not among the "accepted" denominations'. He also points out that the term is biblical. Much earlier, Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts had written a pamphlet entitled The Sect Everywhere Spoken Against. Here, Roberts had adopted the term sect for the Christadelphians. He emphasized that Christadelphians were not a 'new sect in the ordinary sense of that phrase' because they are not innovators but are to be identified with 'the sect everywhere spoken against' mentioned in Acts 28:22, namely the early church. However, later on he argues that Christadelphians are a sect, not only because of their professed doctrinal identity with that early so-called sect, but also because their 'coming out' (separation from the wider Church) 'has necessarily resulted in the formation of a sect' (and the creation of a new and distinctive name for it). Hence, this early Christadelphian luminary concedes that the Christadelphians are a sect specifically because of their separation from and rejection of the historic Church.