Are Christadelphians a Cult?
The following is a transcript of a lecture given in 2019 that examines 22 characteristics of a cult and compares them against the beliefs and practices of the Christadelphians.
A Reply to Christian Research Institute: Are the Christadelphians a Cult?
So, are Christadelphians a cult? I admit that the title that I have chosen is a bit provocative, but I think the title best describes what I wish to talk about this morning. Regarding the title of this talk, notice that it is in the form of a question. My job this morning is to tackle the question and provide an answer.
But first, some background. Many years ago I came across this fact sheet, which is printed on a single sheet of paper. It is titled, “Christadelphianism.” It has a date of 1979 on it, and it was printed by an organization in California called the Christian Research Institute, or CRI. The first sentence of the first paragraph of this pamphlet sets the tone. It starts out, “The cult of Christadelphianism was founded in the United States in 1833 by John Thomas, M.D., and later grew in England and many other countries.” The very last sentence on this document concludes, “Christadelphianism stands in direct opposition to the teaching of Scripture and to historic Christianity, and cannot be considered truly Christian.”
Last year, myself and some other brothers and sisters went out to lunch after memorial service and this topic came up. During lunch we discussed how others outside of our community view and talk about us. Unfortunately, the name “Christadelphian” isn’t very well known outside of our community, which of course presents problems when we share with someone that we are part of a community called the Christadelphians.
One common response by such people is to go on the Internet and perform a web search on the word Christadelphians. Here’s what you will get if you visit Google’s web site and type in the search term “Christadelphians.”
The first two search results are from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), and the second one is from Wikipedia. After these results you will see a section called “Videos” (which you can see towards the bottom of this screen). If you were to scroll down on this search page, you will see some captions underneath these 3 videos.
On the first video the tag line/caption reads, “Who Are the Christadelphians?” If you look closely you will see the letters “CRI” at the bottom left corner of the video thumbnail. If you were paying close attention earlier, “CRI” is the same entity that produced that 1979 “Christadelphianism” pamphlet. So you can easily guess what the viewer is going to encounter if they were to click on the hyperlinked thumbnail.
But let’s continue... If you keep scrolling down on this we page, you will also find the following.
I’ve highlighted 3 search results which describe the Christadelphians as a cult. So perhaps you now have a better understanding of why I have chosen to title my talk, “Are Christadelphians a Cult?”
So, enough with the background for the motivation behind this talk. Let’s now move forward and try to answer this question as objectively as possible. Are the Christadelphians a cult? The first thing that we should do in attempting to answer this question is to define our terms. Whenever you get into a religious debate without another person, my first word of advice is to define your terms. When debating another person, if you and your opponent don’t stop and define what you mean when you use a key word or phrase, then you both run the risk of misunderstanding each other during the discussion. Let’s not make the mistake here. So what does this word “cult” mean? How do you define the word “cult”? How would I define the word “cult”? How do our adversaries define the word “cult”? How does the dictionary define the word “cult”? How does CULT-ure define the word “cult”?
In the 17th century, the English word “cult” was used to describe “a particular form or system of worship,” derived from the French word culte, which itself is derived from Latin cultus, which means “care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence.” We get the word “cultivate” (that is, the care of the soil) from this Latin word cultus. When used in the context of religion, cult originally meant the “care” owed to deities and to temples and shrines. After the 17th century, the word “cult” was a rarely used term. For example, the word does not appear in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Despite its absence in the English dictionaries of the time, the word did exist, and when it was used, it meant “worship,” or “homage,” a sense which is now obsolete.
Despite the word’s simple etymology, the term cult, when used outside of academia, is often loaded with great emotion and/or bias. There is now a great deal of prejudice when this word whenever it is used in the narrower context of religion. In the 20th century, the term has significantly morphed from its original meaning, and these days, when used in a popular religious context, the word “cult” is mostly used as a pejorative label. Today, when religion is the context, the word “cult” is used to describe any cohesive social group which the surrounding society considers outside the mainstream way of thinking. If the mainstream perceives a social group as possibly dangerous in some sense, the word cult is now being applied to it. This, however, is not how the word was originally used.
The change in the meaning of the word is partly the result of the rise and fall of headline-grabbing religious groups known for mass suicide and murder to which governments and news media in the U.S. have applied the label “cult.” Accusations of mind control, economic and sexual exploitation, and other forms of abuse were routinely levied against these groups in the aftermath of their atrocities. Here are some examples... Remember in 1978, when 918 people died in Jonestown, Guyana, at the hand of Reverend Jim Jones? Since then, the public imagination has been captured by several major events which have all shaped the meaning of the word. For instance, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993, was involved in a shootout with the federal government which ended in a fire that led to the deaths of seventy-six of its members. Then there was the Order of the Solar Temple in Europe and Canada in 1994 & 1995, which was responsible for dozens of murders and suicides. Also in 1995, there was a sarin gas attack carried out in a Tokyo subway by a group called Aum Shinrikyo, which killed 13 commuters, and seriously injuring 54 others. Then there was the UFO cult called Heaven’s Gate, which in 1997, thirty-nine of its members committed mass suicide in Santa Fe, NM. And there have been other similar events, which have all contributed to the reshaping the term. As a result, “cult” now carries with it significant negative and sinister connotations.
But here’s what is both odd and so frustrating about this word. The word “cult” can have a nefarious and evil association while at the same time the word can be used in such a way as to describe basically a “fan club.” For example, the following definitions have also been provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary with regards to the word “cult”:
- great devotion to a person, idea, object or movement
- a group united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure
Unfortunately, definitions like these make it possible for everything from Barbie doll collectors to Apple Macintosh computer devotees to be labeled also as cults. So if you’ve been paying close attention, we have a problem at the outset in attempting to answer the question, “Are the Christadelphians a Cult?” The problem is best described by one modern commentator who wrote this, “Given its connotative breadth, it [the word cult] may be the most ambivalent monosyllable in the [English] language.” In other words, we have a word which is being applied to the Christadelphians that varies and fluctuates in its meaning. In short, this word “cult” can be applied to Elvis Presley fans while at the same time be used to describe suicidal and murderous religious groups. Do you see the problem?
But we can’t throw up our hands and refuse to answer the question, “Are the Christadelphians a Cult?...” simply because the word “cult” has become ambiguous. We will need to get over our frustration, embrace the confusion and toss overboard the superficial definitions that pertain to fan clubs and devotees of artistic and creative persons and movements. When we do toss out the silly, what is left over is the sinister. So in order to answer our original question, we need to cross over to the dark side. We will have to throw out the dictionary, along with the original French and Latin roots. They aren’t going to help us here. We need to get our feet dirty. What I mean is that we need to look at how our CULT-ture identifies a religious cult.
Over the past 6 months, I have been trying to do just that. I have searched high and low for traits or characteristics of a religious cult in general, and traits and characteristics of Christian cults in particular. What I have come up with is a collection of twenty-two identifying characteristics of a Christian cult as defined by today’s society. This list of 22 traits are not traits that I have dreamed up. And just because I share these 22 traits with you does not mean that I agree that these 22 characteristics of Christian cults should be used as a test to determine whether a group should be labeled a cult or not. What I have done is simply collect what other people are using as tests of determining whether a Christian group is a cult. So I hope I have made myself clear. For what I want to do next is share these 22 characteristics with you, and I want to hold them up and use them as a mirror for us to look into, and to do as Paul exhorts us... I want us to examine ourselves, collectively, in this mirror. But as I go through this process, step by step, don’t forget that these 22 traits of a Christian cult are not my definitions. OK, so let’s get started.
Cult Characteristic # 1 — A Charismatic Leader
One of the most common characteristics of a Christian cult is that it displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to a leader (whether dead or alive) with regards his/her belief system, ideology, and practices. The leader of a cult may be considered as a Messiah, a one-of-a-kind being, or viewed as a person who is on a special mission to save humanity. The leader is not accountable to any authorities. All of these features of a cult, however, do not apply in the case of the Christadelphians, for we have never had such a leader in our 150+ year history. Jesus is the only authoritarian figure over each ecclesia. So when it comes to answering whether the Christadelphians are a cult, we can respond that Cult Characteristic #1 doesn’t apply to us. But what about this next one?
Cult Characteristic # 2 — Cults are Centrally Organized
Cults are frequently centrally organized. For instance, the Catholic Church has Rome, the Jehovah’s Witnesses has its Watchtower Society in Brooklyn, the Mormons have Salt Lake City. In contrast, Christadelphians do not have a headquarters. We are de-centralized. Our ecclesias do not answer to any central organization or headquarters. So Cult Characteristic #2 doesn’t apply to us. Let’s move on to...
Cult Characteristic #3 — Dishonoring the Family Unit, Isolation is Encouraged and Distancing Oneself from Outsiders
Subservience to a cult leader or his or her group often requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and sometimes with society as a whole. Cults encourage or require members to live and/or socialize only with other group members. Christadelphians, in contrast, maintain social connections with those outside of our faith community. Christadelphians may maintain relationships with unbelievers just as long as that relationship does not discredit our Christian witness, or cause us to take our eyes of the kingdom of God, or cause a weak member among us to stumble. Christadelphians are also encouraged to keep up-to-date with world events, particularly as they relate to Bible prophecy and Jesus’ return to earth. So this characteristic doesn’t apply to us. Scratch it.
Cult Characteristic #4 — Peer Group Pressure
Group pressure is one sign of a cult. When a person is carefully managed, monitored, and manipulated through peer pressure, specifically through peer monitoring that looks for any signs of dissent or non-conformity, resulting in the threat or use of punishment—if these things are present, we have the potential for a cult. In contrast, as Christadelphians, we believe that we must live and act according to convictions we form from reading our Bibles and not from trends from outside or pressure from within. Whether it be matters of externals (such as clothing, fashion, education, entertainment, career), or matters of internals (doctrinal beliefs or opinions), we seek first what the Scriptures say rather than what man says. Christadelphians are encouraged to think for ourselves, to question and debate issues and to make reasoned decisions. So let’s scratch this trait off our list too. It doesn’t apply to us.
Cult Characteristic #5 — Loss of Independence
In a cult, the leadership dictates—sometimes in great detail—how members should think, act, and feel. For example, members must get permission to have a girlfriend or boyfriend, to date, to change jobs, or to marry. Often, leaders in a cult prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth). In contrast, Christadelphians exercise a great deal of independence and do not have rules placed upon them pertaining to such matters. So let’s scratch this trait off our list. It doesn’t apply to us.
Cult Characteristic #6 — Manipulating Emotions/Feeling Over Thought
Cults often manipulate a member’s emotions through group-ecstatic practices, including repetitious chanting, hand clapping, dancing, laughing fits, shouting, highly charged musical performances, flag waving, outbursts, mystical insights, private revelations, and miracle cures—all of which are targeted to trigger an emotional response rather than encourage rational conclusions. Christadelphian services, as you can quite plainly see this morning, do not involve any such methods. So let’s scratch this trait off our list.
Cult Characteristic #7 — Fear Tactics and Coercion to Convert
Scaring would-be members into conversion or using threats of excommunication to keep a person from questioning their group’s roots or their doctrines are signs of a cult. But these are absent from Christadelphian communities. Within our community, no one is asked to commit him or herself quickly. Everyone is given ample time to consider carefully the implications of accepting God’s gracious offer of salvation, and of the responsibilities of discipleship. Let’s scratch this trait off our list.
Cult Characteristic #8 — Time Manipulation
Time control is used by cults to keep their members so busy with meetings and activities that they become immersed in the manufactured cult environment to the point of having no free time. Christadelphians, on the other hand, spend just as much time with family, in leisure activities, in sleep and pursuing education and career as the average member of society. Let’s scratch this trait off our list.
Cult Characteristic #9 — The Use of Mind-altering Practices
Cults often encourage their members to alter their minds through the use of transcendental meditation, mantras, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines, or the taking of drugs. The only mind-altering practices that Christadelphians encourage are the reading, meditation, and studying of the Holy Scriptures, along with regular prayer. Let’s scratch this trait off our list.
Cult Characteristic #10 — Preoccupied with Bringing in New Members
The preoccupation with trying to gain new converts can be a sign of a cult. Perhaps somewhat to our shame, Christadelphians rarely attempt to evangelize through door-to-door canvassing or public events. So with a sense of remorse, we’ll have to scratch this one off our list.
Cult Characteristic #11 — Preoccupied with Asking for Money
A primary focus on raising money for the benefit of the leader or for the organization is one sign of a cult. However, since Christadelphians have no central organization, or headquarters or paid clergy or staff, the focus on raising money is absent in our community. Scratch this one off our list.
Cult Characteristic #12 — Unique Scripture
Cults often have unique writings and books that they place on equal footing with the Bible. Christadelphians, on the other hand, embrace the same 66 books of the Bible as do mainstream Protestants and we add nothing more to the collection of God-breathed writings. So scratch this off the list.
Cult Characteristic #13 — Unique Translation (Only One Version of the Bible)
Christian cults will often rely upon one Bible translation, and stress that their members use that Bible version at the exclusion of others. Christadelphians, in contrast, do not rely on any particular translation of the Bible to support their beliefs. Scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #14 — Unique, Novel, One-of-a-kind Doctrines
Emphasizing special doctrines or practices that are outside of the Bible is one trait of a cult. Doctrines such as the belief in Purgatory, or the belief that the Kingdom of God is currently centered in Salt Lake City, Utah, or that the Native American Indians are one of the lost tribes of Israel. These might be considered examples of strange, and novel doctrines that characterize a cult. In contrast, there is no doctrine embraced by the Christadelphians which was not already taught, practiced or believed in the first ten years of the 1st-century Church. Scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #15 — Unique Practices
Roman Catholics have celibate priests, rosaries, confessionals; Jehovah’s Witnesses have a prohibition against blood transfusions and birthday celebrations; Mormons have baptisms for dead people and ban the consumption of alcohol and “hot drinks”—yet Christadelphians hold to no peculiar or unique practice associated with their faith. Therefore, scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #16 — Leaving the Cult (also known as, Breaking Up is Hard to Do)
One characteristic of modern cults is their unreasonable control of individual members. Great emotional pressure is applied to any who wishes to leave the group. If this pressure is resisted and all formal ties with the group are cut, the individual is completely shunned and treated as an outcast. All social contact is ended and the person is considered as good as dead. In contrast, if an individual wishes to leave the Christadelphian community, they are free to do so. Naturally, we will wish to discuss this decision with them, but we will not force our presence on the one who wishes to leave, or coerce the dissenter from leaving. So scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #17 — Hidden Finances
Religious cults frequently hide their financial records from its members. No meaningful financial disclosure exists regarding its budget or expenses. In contrast, any Christadelphian ecclesia of sizeable number will have a treasurer who will report the meeting’s finances at an annual business meeting to which all its members are welcome to attend and review. Therefore, let’s scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #18 — The End Justifies the Means
Religious cults often teach or imply that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible, unlawful or unethical before joining the group. In contrast, Christadelphians are in agreement with the apostle Paul’s response, expressed in Romans 3:6, “shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.” So scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #19 — Communal Living and Forfeiting of Private Property
Extremist cults are in varying degrees, communal in nature, withdrawing from the world and isolating themselves in private tight-knit communities. Such societies swear off private property and have all worldly possessions in common. Christadelphians, although willing to share with others, maintain private property and do not live communally. There are no Christadelphian monasteries, or communal houses. Therefore, scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #20 — Distortion of Human Sexuality
One of the hallmarks of a cult is the corruption and distortion of human sexuality. This is manifested either in excess or in deprivation. In contrast, Christadelphians have always taught against premarital sex, adultery, polygamy, homosexuality and bisexuality and other forms of sexual immorality. Nor do Christadelphians advocate celibacy or singleness above marriage. Scratch this one off the list.
Cult Characteristic #21 — Paranoia, Bunker Mentality and Date Setting
When criticized or attacked from outsiders, a religious cult quickly responds defensively, believing that they are being wrongly attacked or criticized by others rather than examining whether there be any truth in the criticisms. Repeated attacks lead to unreasonable fear about the outside world. Evil conspiracies are then put forth by the group and the outsiders’ actions are labeled as persecutions. Often the fears extend to a belief of impending catastrophe. In contrast, Christadelphians are open to criticism. They practice self-examination in their periodicals and in the Internet age, through online discussion groups and forums. They invite investigation. With regards to doomsday predictions, Christadelphians are too independent and too skeptical of self-proclaimed revelators to fall in lockstep with private interpretations of the prophetic calendar, or to sell all their possessions and gather on some mountain-top awaiting Jesus’ descent to carry them away. Nor have we ever stockpiled weapons and foodstuffs to carry us through some upcoming apocalypse. So scratch this one off the list.
Twenty-one and Counting
So, let’s pause here to catch our breath. We’ve now gone through 21 characteristics which our society identifies and associates with a religious cult. Yet not one of these 21 traits applies to the Christadelphians. So what gives? What’s going on here? If none of these traits apply to us, why then is the label “cult” used by other Christians to describe the Christadelphians? To get the answer to that question, let’s go to straight to the horse’s mouth.
Do you remember towards the beginning of this talk that I showed you this snapshot of a web search page? Remember that these search results are what you get if you type the word “Christadelphians” at Google’s web site? Do you remember this thumbnail of a video which had the letters CRI on it? I want to go back and click on that link and watch the video. By doing this, we will get the answer to the question, “Are the Christadelphians a Cult?” This video is only 3 minutes in length, so stay with me just a bit longer.
A Difference of Opinion
So this is what it basically comes down to when others label the Christadelphians as a cult. It is because of any misbehavior that Christadelphians are pejoratively labeled as a cult, but rather we are labeled as a cult because we reject at least one doctrine which the current majority of Christians view as a fundamental Biblical truth. According to the “Bible Answer Man,” Christadelphians are a cult because we deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and because we deny “the possibility of being eternally separated from the love and grace of God.” There you have it. This is all it takes in the 20th and 21st centuries to be labeled a religious cult. Reading the Bible and having a different view on the identity of Jesus and the state of the dead is why, according to this CRI organization,...this is why Christadelphians “cannot be considered truly Christian.” We are given the label of “cult,” a term that is used to describe groups that commit suicide and murder, because we do not subscribe to the belief in a triune God. The “Bible Answer Man” also takes the Christadelphians to task for calling Jesus our brother, despite the fact that Hebrews 2:11 states, Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers” and despite the fact that Jesus said after his resurrection, “Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God,” (John 20:27).
You know it is very common after the exhorter finishes his message for the presiding brother to read from First Corinthians chapter 11 in preparation for partaking in the Lord’s table. Here are the words that are commonly read: “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup,” (verses 26-28, KJV). In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in chapter 13, Paul writes, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (vs. 5, ESV).
This morning I have shared with you the charges that have been brought against our community by those who are outside of it. I have tried to share with you some of the characteristics of a cult, in the eyes of modern society. I have brought to your attention how mainstream Christianity views the Christadelphians. I have held up a mirror and asked us, collectively, to look into it. The apostle Paul has told us at least twice, to examine ourselves on a regular basis. First, Paul was referring to an inward contemplation and examination of ourselves individually, when we partake of the emblems. But in a second way, Paul was also telling us to examine ourselves collectively, to make sure that we are in the faith, as taught by Jesus.
We should not be afraid to look in the mirror. We should not be afraid to hear the accusations of those outside our community against us. If we love truth, then the truth has nothing to fear. What we should fear, however, is neglecting to examine ourselves on a regular basis. And I believe this examination should apply to us individually and collectively. For neglecting to examine ourselves can lead to our ruin.
We need to examine ourselves because we are told that in the last days, many will depart from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1). Paul wrote that “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day [the day of the Lord] shall not come, except there come a falling away first,” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Paul also wrote that, “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables,” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). John wrote that we should “...test the spirits to see if they are of God, for many false prophets have come out into the world,” (1 John 4:1).
We need to test the spirits, that is, we need to examine closely what we hear, what we read and what we believe. Don’t believe something just because 99% of mainstream churches believe something. Don’t be forced to conform due to peer pressure. Instead, we need to be like the Bereans of old, who “received the word with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
So, let us not just examines ourselves around this table. May our lives be ones of careful examination, to see whether we are in the faith. As Paul wrote, “Test yourselves,” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
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