Ouch. I got tagged with the title “cult” by an indirect shot from one of my relatives. I also heard that quite a few people in the church think other people think our church is a cult! That hurts – at least when I say cult, I don’t mean it in a good way.
“Cult” is not good
Sometimes the label “cult” is just a metaphor, like when you are talking about veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or an object. Like “the cult of Elvis.” But that kind of odd devotion can turn religious too. For instance, my dear St. Francis is credited for starting eucharistic adoration in Italy which is veneration for an object: the “host” for the presence of Jesus. I suspect some people thought he was a cult leader.
Most times “cult” is used to label a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister – like “a network of Satan-worshiping cults.” I suppose the relatively small Brethren in Christ, as a whole, is considered strange or sinister by somebody. There are quite a few members of Circle of Hope who would be disappointed if we were not considered strange, but I don’t think they would like to be seen as sinister. In the Roman Empire, Christians in general were sometimes considered a cult because they worshiped Jesus rather than the Roman gods. In South Philly there are a lot of Catholics who think Protestants in general are part of a cult and vice versa.
It’s all about the Kool-Aid
The term “cult” is often used to describe any organization but particularly religious ones in which people (often young people) have a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing. People say, “There is a cult of personality surrounding the leader,” or people are “drinking the Kool-aid.” The label “cult” can hurt people who get tagged by it, for whatever reason, because the term carries so much negative meaning. A woman reported that her sister was accused of being in a cult just because she preferred hanging out with Christian friends rather than going out drinking with other friends. She might have been in with a group of people that was unlike the norm (because they devotedly followed Christ), but she certainly wasn’t following a harmful faith.
A commonly used summary lists the traits of a religious group that could be called a cult:
- Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong” and “If you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
- Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
- Restrictive or coercive. A human leader or structure expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.
- Unorthodox revelations. They distort the Bible or come up with another book as foundational.
Christians, in general, recognize that Jesus has followers in many different denominations and nondenominational congregations, large and small. We have an adaptable and variegated faith. We don’t believe that the truth is available only to a select few—instead, salvation through Jesus is open to everyone and the Lord is our leader above any human leader.
Even though we don’t qualify, we decided we needed to put a tagline of our own on some of our advertising to deter potential taggers: “Circle of Hope: affiliated with the Brethren in Christ – Pennsylvania natives since 1780.” Maybe that might roll back any impressions that we are any weirder than the people who think we are “one of those cults” like the Presbyterians or something (that’s just a joke, Presbyterians are Christians, too).
So what if you get accused?
An accusation is often as good as a conviction these days. People who are falsely accused seem to be filling up the jails. Tales of being falsely accused at work and becoming the subject of an investigation are not that unusual. Circle of Hope has been taken down with false accusations a few times in the newspaper. So excuse me if I seem a little hypervigilant when I hear it through the grapevine that we are being accused of being a cult. Here are some things suggested by Dr. Phil (really, and I am not too fond of Phil) that might help anyone feeling falsely accused:
- It can be destructive to be accused. A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28). I need to accept that it happened and deal with it. These things don’t just go away.
- There is guilt by accusation. People hear something negative and tend to believe it. If you accuse a person unfairly, he/she still has that twinge — just from having the finger pointed at him/her. I feel that. I need to admit it.
- But it is not THAT big of a deal. I may feel damaged but Jesus is still my Savior. My internal dialogue might need a redirect into more truthful and hopeful territory.
- Besides, what other people label me is not necessarily who I am. Jesus calls me by name. Am I part of a cult? The answer is no. The other person might be hurting me, but that is their problem.
- We need to talk about this (thus, this post). Sharing the problem is one thing that could help someone who is weighed down by an accusation or is scared about having a poor reputation with a few people we’d rather did not notice us (mainly because they tell lies about us).
- Maybe I should try to find the people who actually think we’re a cult and have a face-to-face dialogue. I’ve only heard a rumor; I’ve never talked to anyone who thinks I’m weird in a bad way. But conversation might dispel some questions.
- I’m mainly going to let it go and let God deal with it. If people say things behind my back, I can wait to react until they say it when I turn around. Until then, there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is possible that people are dive bombing us with their own stuff. Maybe they would like to intimidate because that is their thing. Since I don’t know, I’m not locking myself in the prison of some perverse possibility.
Has something like this ever happened to you, or have you been aware of it happening to us? If it it is just one bit of slander it can spread like poison until the whole body is tainted by it. So chances are, you may have heard this word applied to us, too. It feels bad. Try to be someone and there is likely to be at least one person who will try to get you back into the world as they know it. Try to follow Jesus in the way he is going and the takedown factor doubles.
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