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Showing posts with label NRM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NRM. Show all posts

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...
  Uniquely legitimate
  Pluralistically legitimate

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.


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


  • 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.