dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label sect. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sect. Show all posts

Thursday 5 July 2018

Three Great Ironies of Restorationism

Restorationism, otherwise known as primitivism, is an ideology that "involves the attempt to recover some important belief or practice from the time of pure beginnings that believers are convinced has been lost, defiled, or corrupted."1 In a Christian context, restorationism rests on two main premises: (1) that the earliest period of the Church represents a golden age, an ideal to be replicated; (2) that following this earliest period the Church was defiled by a great apostasy (usually dated soon after the apostles died, at the beginning of the second century).

Christian restorationists have generally regarded the Roman Catholic Church, together with some or all Protestant denominations, as perpetuating the great apostasy and thus beyond hope of reform. For this reason they have tended to dissociate themselves from established Christianity, opting for a fresh start, a new religious community composed of people with a shared vision for recreating primitive Christianity and an agreed blueprint for reconstructing the long-lost beliefs, practices, and/or spirituality.

While elements of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation—especially the Radical Reformation—could be called 'restorationist' with some justification, restorationism really came into its own three centuries later in the "New World" of the United States, a nation built on the value of liberty, including religious liberty. Rapidly growing literacy rates and the onset of the Industrial Revolution meant that more people than ever before had both the ability and the time to read the Bible and other religious literature and to form and disseminate their own personal theological views. Early nineteenth-century America was also in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious fervour, and so a talented religious orator or writer could attract a considerable following. The nineteenth century was also a time of great optimism about the progress and potential of the human race, as well as of the American nation with its rapid industrial development and ever-extending frontiers. These socioeconomic factors converged to make nineteenth-century America an unparalleled breeding ground for restorationist movements, many of which survive today as denominations and sects.

The best-known American restorationist movement was the Stone-Campbell Movement, which was actually a merger of two movements led respectively by Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell (the latter building on a theological foundation laid by his father, Thomas Campbell). Several contemporary religious groups have their roots in this movement, including the Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, and the Christadelphians (the sect in which I was raised).2 Other notable restorationist movements of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America include the Latter Day Saints movement (a.k.a. the Mormons), the Bible Students movement (from which arose Jehovah's Witnesses), the Adventist movement (from which arose Seventh Day Adventists), and the Pentecostal movement (with its many resulting denominations and sects). All of these movements, and many other lesser-known ones, began from the historical premises mentioned above: an idealised primitive church that had subsequently been defiled by a great apostasy and thus needed to be restored.

In this article, I want to offer a brief and broad critique of restorationism. In particular, I wish to point out three ironies in restorationist movements: (1) the irony of many conflicting restorations; (2) the irony of anti-sectarian sects and anti-denominational denominations; and (3) the irony of anti-traditionalist tradition.

Despite beginning from a common premise about the need to restore primitive Christianity due to a subsequent apostasy, restorationists have differed widely on both the methods and results of the restoration. All the restorationists proclaimed to the world that they had restored authentic Christianity in its simple purity, but they could not agree among themselves over what this simple purity should look like. In the words of Martin Marty, "They bade others come into their clearing but soon fell out with each other and fought over the boundaries and definitions of their exempla."3

For the Latter Day Saints, new revelation was required; for the Pentecostals, a "latter rain," i.e. a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Stone-Campbell movement and the Christadelphians, however, did not claim any special divine gift but believed that interpreting the Bible using common sense would enable believers to reconstruct the unadulterated beliefs and practices of the apostolic age. Perhaps more significantly than their methodological differences were the differences in results, i.e. the doctrines and practices that each restorationist movement arrived at in "restoring" primitive Christianity. These differences boiled down to hermeneutics, i.e. methods of biblical interpretation. Let us, by way of illustration, consider Alexander Campbell's monumental effort to restore primitive Christianity through common-sense biblical interpretation. As Bill J. Humble explains, Campbell's life's work was to determine in practical terms what it meant to restore the primitive church. He was "an iconoclastic, pragmatic restorer whose task was to apply the restoration principle to the practical questions of faith and life."4 Campbell's efforts are on display in a series of thirty articles he wrote from 1825-1829 entitled A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things, in his periodical Christian Baptist. Campbell's articles explored various subjects, such as creeds, church organisation and discipline, worship and hymnody, the Spirit, requirements for membership, the Lord's Supper, etc. One of the pressing hermeneutical problems that he acknowledged was
the question of determining which practices of the primitive church are important for today. What does the New Testament bind on all ages? And what may be dismissed as the culture of an ancient world?5
Specific problems that Campbell or later restorationists wrestled with here included trine immersion, foot-washing, greeting with a holy kiss, sharing all goods in common, the charismatic Spirit gifts, and the simplicity of ancient life (i.e. the absence of modern technological innovations). All of the restorationist movements displayed selectivity, restoring some primitive practices but leaving others "un-restored".

A broader problem than selectively restoring ancient practices was that of disagreement over what the primitive church believed and practiced, and also how to handle such disagreements. The main idea was to restore the essential doctrines of the primitive church and permit difference of opinion on non-essential matters, but where was the line to be drawn between essential and non-essential? Restorationists disagreed with one another on doctrines as fundamental as the Trinity, and many others besides. Campbell's own movement faced ongoing controversy over the issue of infant baptism. Campbell himself "believed, after 1812, that immersion of believers was the only valid form of the ordinance,"6 and his movement contained many former Baptists who shared this position. However, Campbell believed that his movement was destined to reunite the Christians of various Protestant denominations under a common banner. In his optimism he began a new periodical called The Millennial Harbinger (implying that the Millennium itself was dawning through the restoration movement).7 Yet "to require believers' baptism as an essential ordinance would seriously impede his efforts toward unity,"8 since his ecumenical vision included denominations that practiced infant baptism. 

Campbell made some theological qualifications that allowed him, "in effect, to hold to the necessity and to the non-necessity of believers' baptism at one and the same time" and supplemented this with "a great deal of theological double-talk concerning baptism".9 As Hughes observes, baptism was a flash-point in a conflict, within Campbell's mind and within his movement, between two competing ideals: that of radical restorationism (restoring primitive Christianity—as Campbell understood it—without compromise) and that of ecumenical unity (ending denominationalism and uniting all Christians, or at least all Protestants, under a common denominator of belief and practice). As time went on, Campbell "increasingly lost faith" in the power of his restorationist movement "to produce ecclesiastical and societal unity," even as he showed greater willingness to compromise radical restorationism for the sake of unity.10

Disagreements over doctrine and practice, and disagreements over how fundamental these disagreements were, caused numerous schisms not only between restorationist movements but within them. Thus, each of the major nineteenth-century restorationist movements listed above has several descendants each claiming to be the legitimate heir of the parent movement, or the true restoration of primitive Christianity.

A convinced restorationist who surveys the landscape of restorationist movements must conclude that all such movements besides his or her own have been misguided and mistaken. This calls to mind the line from the great American humorist Mark Twain: "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." How can one be sure that one's own restorationist movement has succeeded when one is equally sure that all others have failed? Of course, in the age of postmodernism some will prefer to concede that all religious movements (including all restorationist movements) contain much subjectivity, that all—including one's own—have some merit and some demerit. However, such a position differs so radically from the ideals of the founder of any restorationist movement that it calls into question the reason for the movement's existence, and the reason for any person to continue to belong to that movement. If, for example, I am not convinced that the Christadelphians are uniquely the restoration of primitive Christianity, then what justification can I give for the Christadelphian movement to continue to exist, or for myself to continue to identify as a Christadelphian? Inertia, sentimentality, and lack of a better option are all poor reasons to belong to a religious movement.

Thus, the first great irony of restorationism is that it proffers a vision for restoring the purity and simplicity of primitive Christianity—but in reality restorationists have produced many accounts of what restored Christianity should look like, and their witness does not agree.

Wacker writes that primitivist movements are characterised by "an antistructuralist impulse: a determination to destroy the arbitrary conventions of denominational Christianity in order to replace them with a new order of primal simplicity and purity".11 When Alexander Campbell began his periodical The Millennial Harbinger in 1830, he declared it to be "devoted to the destruction of Sectarianism".12 Yet he was aware of a risk: "While endeavoring to abolish the old sects, let us be cautious that we form not a new one".13 As history would show, this is precisely what happened: Campbell's movement ultimately became just another established denomination, which later broke into several denominations.

Campbell's critical awareness that by opposing sectarianism one might end up only adding to it seems to have escaped his erstwhile protégé, John Thomas, who broke away from Campbell's movement to found his own (which became the Christadelphians). Thomas wrote of his disgust with "sectarianism" and with all "the sects," which are characterised by dissent and heterogeneity.14 In his earlier writings (before the final break with Campbell) he declared his resolute intention to maintain his "independence of all religious sects in America," opting instead for the "spirit of liberty."15 In a pre-Christadelphian periodical, he declared that he would "advocate no sectarian formula of faith," disavowing any "favor or affection of any sect, save that of the 'Nazarines' [i.e. the primitive church]".16 Again, he wrote to Campbell that he "labours for no denomination; it is for the truth as he believes it, independent of all sects or parties...The party he belongs to is a church of Christ...[who] worship God in spirit and in truth according to His word, and not according to the dogmas of this or that reformation or denomination."17 By the end of his life, after having founded a movement called the Christadelphians, Thomas straightforwardly identified his movement with the primitive church, i.e. "'the sect everywhere spoken against' [Acts 28:22], in the first century, newly revived". He contrasted this "newly-revived sect of antiquity," the Christadelphians, with "the sects of the apostasy," namely all other churches, within which "there is no salvation."18 These statements were made, ironically enough, in the context of laying out the Christadelphians' sectarian formula of faith in 24 propositions. Thomas apparently thought that he could escape the charge of sectarianism by dogmatically asserting that his sect was identical with the true church, while all others were apostate. However, such dogmatism is a feature of most, if not all, sects!

Every restorationist movement, while claiming to be unique and incomparable to other "sects" and "denominations," perhaps even claiming that they would abolish the phenomenon of sects and denominations, eventually congealed into one more sect or denomination among many. Marty states the irony succinctly: "They did not want to see denominationalism thrive and ended up creating new denominations".19 Hughes incisively observes that all the restorationist movements represented in his book "began their careers with a strong restorationist emphasis, but virtually all have now abandoned their restorationist moorings for a modern project that renders the restoration vision essentially powerless",20 i.e. by becoming part of the religious furniture, just another established denomination or sect.

Wacker defines primitivism (a term more or less synonymous with restorationism) as "any effort to deny history, or to deny the contingencies of historical existence, by returning to the time before time, to the golden age that preceded the corruptions of life in history".21 Similarly, Hill states that restorationism is concerned with the normative primitive Christian period and the present time; "It repudiates all intervening history, rarely as fact, but as holding any theological significance...such-Christianity-as-there-was is ignored (at best) in the practice of authentic church life and sometimes branded as a centuries-long aberration."22 Hughes states that "Without question, a profound 'sense of historylessness' often characterizes self-proclaimed restorationist or primitivist movements" and that this historylessness often engenders "illusions of innocence,"23 and "a rationalized self-reliance, set free from the constraints of history".24 Restorationism thus involves a "naïve attempt to avoid the power of history and culture."25

A major issue distinguishing restorationists not only from Catholics and Orthodox but from most other Protestants is "the extent of history's jurisdiction."26 For restorationists, church history between the time of the apostles and the contemporary restoration has no jurisdiction, no normative value. It is either ignored or used as a cautionary tale of all that can go wrong. Restorationists give no deference to post-biblical Christian tradition. It is not "our" history and tradition; its personalities are not "our" forefathers. They can safely be ignored or repudiated, and no debt of gratitude is owed to them.

This anti-traditionalist, historyless perspective of restorationist movements contains a great irony.27 As restorationist movements come of age, they rapidly develop their own history and tradition that the movement deems to be important and to some extent normative. Thus, for example, one finds "traditionally minded" Christadelphians exhorting one another to adhere to the teachings of their "pioneers" and to seek the "old paths"—paths that are barely 150 years old! Histories, often idealised, unscholarly and uncritical, are written of the movement's origins and founders, painting the age of restoration and the subsequent development of the movement as instructive and inspiring, even as they ignore or belittle many previous centuries of Christian history. By closely studying any restorationist movement, one could identify numerous examples of traditionalism relative to the movement's own history.

In short, the "historylessness" and aversion to tradition that characterises restorationist movements is not sustainable. It inevitably gives way to a history and a tradition that is confined to the post-restoration era. As Marty aptly puts it, "They did not want to be fallen into history, but they made history and became part of its stream."28 They were anti-traditionalist until they had their own tradition to maintain.

There is no denying that restorationism has a certain allure. It is the allure of a fresh start, of freedom from the baggage and messiness of church history. Unfortunately, it is a deceptive allure. I may think, whether out of self-reliance or misguided reliance on God, that I can start from scratch and work out the pure, unadulterated doctrines and practices of primitive Christianity for once and for all. However, many others have thought they could do so, and disagreed in their methods and results. Am I wiser, more diligent, more pious or more gifted than all of them? Disillusioned with the many dissenting sects and denominations on the Christian landscape, I may say, "Away with them all!", but if my solution is to start a new movement that restores the simplicity of primitive Christianity, it will inevitably become yet another sect or denomination with its own idiosyncrasies. Confronted with the complexity, messiness, and even horrors of Christian tradition and history, I may say, "Away with it all, give me only the Bible and its history!", but if my solution is to start a new movement, it will soon develop its own history and tradition, and may well repeat some of the mistakes of the previous Christian history that it has disowned.

Catholicism is an alternative to restorationism that I have found to be compelling. It is unique among Christian movements in that it does not trace its origins back to a schism with a parent movement; it traces its origins directly back to the apostles, both via unbroken history and via apostolic succession.29 It also has a uniquely objective claim to being the custodian and guardian of Christian doctrine, through its continued exercise of the prime ministerial office that Christ bestowed on Peter. Admittedly, it has a checkered history. However, I have written previously on why this is an asset and not a liability. 

Finally, there is great capacity for restoration and reform within the Catholic Church. St. Francis of Assisi in 1206 heard Christ telling him to rebuild His Church, which He said was in ruins. The Church also introduced many reforms that acknowledged merit in the some of the criticism brought against her by the Reformers of the sixteenth century. More recently, commentators on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) use the term "reform" frequently with reference to changes that were enacted there. The difference between this kind of restoration and "restorationism" is that Catholic restoration is not sectarian or schismatic. It does not start from scratch; it respects what has gone before and what is, and introduces necessary changes while preserving essential continuity. If one thinks of the Church as a dilapidated old manor house, the Catholic model is to undertake a painstaking restoration project, while the restorationist model is to tear it down and start fresh. Easier, yes, and therefore tempting; but the result will not be half as beautiful, and something priceless will have been lost.


  • 1 Richard T. Hughes, ed. The Primitive Church in the Modern World (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), x-xi.
  • 2 It should be noted that the founders of some of these restorationist movements were immigrants from Great Britain, such as Alexander Campbell and John Thomas (founder of Christadelphians), and their movements were active on both sides of the Atlantic. There were also restorationist movements that were primarily British phenomena, such as the Plymouth Brethren.
  • 3 Martin E. Marty, "Primitivism and Modernization: Assessing the Relationship," in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, 7.
  • 4 Bill J. Humble, "The Restoration Ideal in the Churches of Christ," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church (ed. Richard T. Hughes; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 223.
  • 5 Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 226.
  • 6 Richard T. Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion: The Millennial Odyssey of Alexander Campbell," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44 (1976): 94.
  • 7 Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 224-25.
  • 8 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 94.
  • 9 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 94-95.
  • 10 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 95-96.
  • 11 Grant Wacker, "Playing for Keeps: The Primitivist Impulse in Early Pentecostalism," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 209-210.
  • 12 Quoted in Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 88.
  • 13 Quoted in Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 226-27.
  • 14 Quoted in Robert Roberts, Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work (London: Christadelphian Book Depot, 1873), 77; cf. John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 4th edn (Adelaide: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 98, 352; cf. Peter Hemingray, John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith, 2nd edn (Christadelphian Tidings, 2008), 331.
  • 15 Quoted in Roberts, Dr. Thomas, 77.
  • 16 Quoted in Hemingray, John Thomas, 94.
  • 17 Quoted in Roberts, Dr. Thomas, 82.
  • 18 Quoted in Hemingray, John Thomas, 335-38.
  • 19 Marty, "Primivitism and Modernization," 7.
  • 20 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, xiii-xiv.
  • 21 Wacker, "Playing for Keeps," 197.
  • 22 Samuel S. Hill, Jr., "Comparing Three Approaches to Restorationism: A Response," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 233-34.
  • 23 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, x.
  • 24 Hughes, "Introduction," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 12.
  • 25 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, x.
  • 26 Hughes, "Introduction," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 5.
  • 27 There is actually a second great irony, namely that restorationist movements are, in fact, heavily indebted to the very post-biblical Christian history and tradition that they repudiate. For instance, most restorationist movements have uncritically assumed a particular biblical canon, which was only cemented by the fourth century A.D. (and revised slightly by the Reformers in the sixteenth century). Furthermore, restorationists use the text of the New Testament as their primary resource for restoring primitive Christianity. However, they have no texts from the apostolic era but only later manuscripts, copied by scribes and monks from the "apostate" era. Similarly, most restorationist movements have assumed, as their starting point, pre-existing Protestant positions on doctrinal issues such as the Lord's Supper (a purely symbolic view) and church polity (usually, but not always, a decentralised, congregational structure). Yet restorationists did not for this reason regard earlier Protestants as their forefathers, but repudiated them along with Catholics.
  • 28 Marty, "Primivitism and Modernization," 7.
  • 29 The Eastern Orthodox Church can at least plausibly make the same claim, since it is as old as the Roman Catholic Church, and which of the two is the parent movement depends on the disputed issue of papal authority that precipitated the Great Schism of 1054. However, none of the Protestant movements can plausibly claim to trace their origins directly back to the apostles.

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.