What is a Cult?

A mate recently mentioned that he had a conversation with someone about our gathering of belivers we loosly call the Joondalup Thing. This person seriously suggested that what we had going was a cult. Now we have joked about this comment in the past, but the feeling was that this comment was no joke. We suggested taking like water off a ducks back and letting it slide, but I can’t get it our of my head. I think it is a pretty serious suggestion. But then again I understand that the early Church was also seen as a cult, so maybe we are doing something right!!

What is a cult? A real cult, one that we should be wary of. As believers we should be aware of these things and the people meeting together here in Joondalup should know if we are heading down some odd paths too. So I looked up our favorite ‘demon buster’ Adrian Van Leen’s book “The Problem of Extreem Christian Fringe Groups”. A book about groups one step away from being a true cult and here is the list of what makes up one of these “fringe groups”.

  1. The Preaching of Fundamentalist Revival
  2. The Leader’s/Pastor’s Domination
  3. Arrogant Authoritanism
  4. Regular Calls to Submission and Obedience
  5. Strong Emphasis on Tithing
  6. Narrow Outlook and Perspective
  7. Poor Theological Training
  8. Distorted Theological Emphasis
  9. Insensitive Simplistic Solutions
  10. Agressive Recruiting/Proselytising
  11. Intense Confession
  12. Promotion of Guilt
  13. Alienation
  14. Exclusiveness

Hmmm, based on that list there are one or two churches within walking distance of my house that could tick a few of those on that list!! :0 But sadly for the gossip mongers, our little gathering of Christians in Joondalup rarely gets a look in on that list. But I am open to anyone making a comment if they ‘have heard anything’ about what I am involved in here that looks like the above list at any point. As far as I can see we are a small group of believers living out Christ’s mission as best we can in our streets and work places, meeting together at least weekly often more for communion, prayer, word, discipleship and so on. Seems like a cult to you?

Ref – The Problem of Extreem Christian Fringe Groups, Rev. W.A. (Adrian) Van Leen 1989 CCGM Aust.


40 thoughts on “What is a Cult?

  1. i love Adrian Van Leen! He is a great “fountain of knowledge”! The only thing I would maybe suggest for your group is maybe exclusitivity? I dont know much about your group, but sometimes without knowing it we can become a bit exclusive. correct me if im wrong, but i wouldnt feel comfortable/welcome if i wanted to join your group.

  2. Aghh yes, thanks for your comments and honesty Bek. It was one of the ones I wondered about when I looked honestly at he list about our group. The thinking about our group is that it isn’t a ‘church’ in the sense that people understand church, a community building that people can come to, drop in to. In my opinion, our church, is more a group pf people being church rather than a place to be. Most people who have come to a gathering time have come out of invite through relationship. Those who remain do so usualy from forming a close relationship with people in the group or they already have one. They usually live close by as some interact together a bit outside of formal gathering. So some of these things do indeed make it exclusive, proximity, relationship, common faith journey etc. It’s hard not to be exclusive as even my kids school is exclusive in the sense that they are not taking any students who are 40 years old!! Or the tennis club is exclusive as they only welcome people wanting to play tennis. Our openness is hopefully along the lines of the fact that we say ‘anyone’ can join our circle of friends, no matter your faith your interpretation your practice and so on…but, as to whether you will feel a ‘fit’ with us is another matter altogether. One of the challenges I have with a more conventional church model is that so many have what would be considered a very exclusive membership/covenant model that requires people to agree to a set of values (tithing, ministering, attendance etc) before being allowed to be ‘one of us’ or a ‘member’ of the club…church. This to me reeks of exclusivism more so than a natural ‘we feel connected here’ or ‘we do not feel connected here’.
    Not sure I explained this well, but I gave it a go.
    Thanks again Bek.

  3. but i think churches need memberships otherwise you would have no commitment from people. people joining ministry and then disappearing, it can even go along the lines of safety (you could have some lunatic in charge of sunday school doing who knows what to the kids) i know thats extreme, but dont we need some sort of line in the sand?

  4. Yes, indeed membership to a body, be it a tennis club or a church is a part of making the machine work, it is a practical issue. “Will we have enough people and the right people to man the kids club” etc. But lets never make it a biblical issue. We are called to membership (if you like) to the body of Christ, The Church. Through our submission to Jesus. I ‘belong’to you in Christ. “Joining ministry” is joining a programme run by an organisation. Many people minister in many ways outside of their expected fulfillment in their local church to keep it all running. I think I would like to see a local church have nothing going on but for a weekly simple worship service and spend the rest of their time as leaders/pastors trying to work out how to best serve their people, best discover how they as leaders and pastors can discover what visions exist in the congregation and see how to equip all the people in their own visions. We normally have the opposite. The leaders climb the mountain, and bring back to the people a vision from God for everyone to submit to and we as leaders create a multitude of programmes for everyone to “do”, that somehow relate to the single vision. A machine mindset is established, everyone serving this one vision. Any other thinking or “ministry” contrary to the “master plan” is contrary to the vision and is deemed discenion or rebelious or cross-purposes to the main aim. So if you have a vision to reach your suburb and it take so much of your time that it actually effects your attendance at worship rehersal or leadership nights etc then you are not fulfilling your membership covenant effectively, in fact you tithe is being diverted to the widow down the road or the need God called you to in Iraq or whatever, so now you are not “serving” in your local church, and not giving to it either so you cant be a member.
    The truth is you may well be “serving” Christ in far more creative and effective way than you ever have in the past when you were a part of the machine in an organised institutional church.
    Now…rant over, I must say that there are lots of insitutional churches that have membership and programmes that minister through a very different paradigm that works to serve the average lay person rather than getting the average lay person to work to serve the leaders vision.
    In sum – Most times membership is a function to make people keep the machine of “church” run well. Fund it, work for it, attend its programmes.
    The line in the sand is my commitment to Christ and His Kingdom. I have never seen such a high level of committment to a body and to Christ than in our small group of 25 or so people, and formal membership in this group is the furthest thing from my mind.


  5. “…best discover how they as leaders and pastors can discover what visions exist in the congregation and see how to equip all the people in their own visions.”

    Amen to that! I think churches are full of un-tapped people who have been ministering out there in the workplace, neighbourhood etc as part of their everyday life but have never had anyone come alongside them and say “hey look at what God’s got you doing!”. Often, they’ve felt guilty about these things because they didn’t fit under the banner of any church programme!

    That’s the kind of leadership I love to see happen. When the leader is all about identifying, equipping and releasing people for what God is already doing in and through them. When people realise their everyday passion and inclination is a God-purposed activity they will see it go to a whole new level!

    (Ok, so I’ve left the original topic of your post for dust, but I liked your comment!)

  6. “I have never seen such a high level of committment to a body and to Christ than in our small group of 25 or so people, and formal membership in this group is the furthest thing from my mind.”

    Im not suggesting that you have formal membership. And I have seen a huge commitment to a body and to Christ in church. Im not saying that the “organised church” is perfect, its not! But that doesnt mean that we give up on it so easily! Yes I stuggle with the church but that doesnt mean im going to leave it! I may in years to come, but not now. We need to remember that Christ loves the Church with all its flaws

  7. So true Bek and I love the Church and would never dream of leaving it, in fact it is the driving passion in my life.
    I must admit to all readers, that I feel a bit convicted over the comment “never seen such a high level of commitment” – This was not a comparative statement, but it sure sounds like one on second reading. I meant not to judge and compare. And in fact I think I am not sure it reads as it should. I simple meant that in a smaller group it seems you have a greater ability to ALL ‘own the processes’ of the group. In a large group it is more practical for the elders or appointed leaders to “do the process”, then present it to the people and hope everyone likes it.
    Thank God for a God who never gives up on us, his Church!!

  8. The reason I ask if the reference was 18 years old was because I was wondering if the Extreem Christian Fringe Group was actually the beginnings of the pentecostal movement that certainly raised a few eyebrows around 2 decades ago and probably still does today???

    I could be completely off track, (I should ask Mr Van Leen) I wonder (if he was referring to the pentecostal movement) if he still feels the same today given the transition from a fringe group to quite a public and popular movement.

    At Uni – I’m not allowed to use referrences that are more than five years old.

  9. Yes Bergs – it was Christine who first noticed your comment about the age of the book and guessed it may have been from a uni perspective. She is ‘cautioned against’ using books older than 5 years in her uni too. On ly there are certain things that don’t change and some areas of study that you would certainly be disadvantaged if you only went for the latest and newest, as the opposite would be true in other disciplines of study ie requiring the latest stats and figure and theories etc.
    I for one am finding writers on spirituality who wrote longer than 20 years ago more enriching than the more modern ones.

  10. Oh and Gav…”The Emerging Church” you refer to…any particular one? Saying this about a movement that I think encourages diversity and the willingness to let people think outside the box and with freedom is kinda rough. Like saying “All Churches of Christ churches are conservative” Or “all Penticostal Churches think that unless you speak in tounges you are not saved”. The emerging Church is confused, as in it does not have it together? Doesn’t preach “right” doctrine? Does not meet on Sunday for worship? Does not have buildings? Does not preach tithing? Can you say all of this about every emerging church…what is an emerging church in your opinion?
    Lots of questions…just very curious.

  11. I hear ya, and agree – but like georgey barna’s radical shift in church thinking, your change of thinking, my change, etc, etc maybe Van Leen has changed as well concerning fringe groups – if (A BIG if) he was actually referring to the pentecostal movement in the first place. I know it sort of leaves it open. Maybe he could do a guest post on your blog, maybe I could ring him but its late and I will forget about it tomorrow.

  12. Hey Scotty – I wonder which “Gavin” has written it? This is Gav C here. I didn’t get the chance to say it the other day at the park but i am really excited for you guys and the journey you are on.

    Also to the other “gavin” – Maybe put your surname in as well.

    Peace – GC

  13. Self Righteous / Confused

    Well the vibe you put off is;

    You think you own values like authenticity and community, and that a church large enough to fit in something bigger than a house could not possibly be serious about them.

    Be anti-consumerism in churches then blog about all your greatest new toys, laptops, couches, etc, etc.

    You spend as much energy trying to avoid buildings (making it a core-value) as some churches spend on trying to aquire them, Yet your so happy to go to covenents and catholic buidlings (that cost a fortune to build and maintain – maybe cause it was money spent so long ago that the conviction has worn off)and reflect on God but squirm when entering some of the churches you used to attend (I know… generalisation).

    You hide behind independant thinking as a justification to bitch and moan but as soon as someone else has a traditional opinion they are bombarded and ganged up on.

    Your probably defensive because you think that everyone in conservative/institutional churches thinks your a pack of nutters but your not and I don’t think they think that – your just pissed and your aggresive response makes you sound self-righteous. It doesn’t help that 95% of your reflections on your previous church experiences are negative, even though they played a significant role in your own salvation and getting you to the place you are today.

    You think that this response regarding the emerging church is generalisation “gone-made” but the fact is that it is only a reflection of the generalisation that has come from your own lips. You celebrate diversity unless it is the traditional church.

    I think the emerging church is great – just a little self-righteous and confused. I hear there is already talk of the post-emerging church, what’s next?

  14. WOW a charge of hypocripsy from the gallery! I front myself with that charge regularly. Who isn’t a little self righteous at times, A little cocky in there “Savedness” and pity how if others could just see what they see they would be closer to the real truth and therefore closer to the real god.
    As the little saying goes “To kill is to be animal, to judge is be human and to forgive is to be divine.” As humans we judge and compare and discuss our judgments and comparisons with like minded peoples and ocasional go to war and “kill” those that disagree and/or piss us off with their different signposts to God.

    So to the charge of hypocripsy I plead guilty as charged as I think any human would. Is it unique to the emerging church?
    Is it unique to the traditional church?
    Is it unique to the post-emerging church?
    Should the emerging church pack up and return to the pews of traditional churches because they need to learn to be church with out hypocrispy?

  15. GC – I did wonder if it was u. But after that chat the other day, it is amazing just how much of the same page we are on. Great to be with ya for lunch matey!

  16. Gavin – you win!! My wife and I think your comment, although pretty tough and filled with some generalisations about an entire movement (as my previous comments), it had some spot on points. I stand as Jarvo convicted of hypocracy. I certainly don’t begrudge building, structures, systems, programmes etc etc These all fulfill function needed as the church begins to grow in a single location as has yours has Gavin (I am guessing your id:) ). And you, and our friends further south in Mandurah know that when a group grows in one location your buildings need to stretch and this all costs money…I do not resent this, I just choose not to be part of this. I like what Northam COC are doing with their new building programme and celebrate with them the building of the new “Community Centre – The Home of the Northam Church of Christ”. I think my comments are more directed at motivations and attitudes behind leadership and structures.
    If I put off a vibe that suggests that “real community” can’t happen outside of a house sized gathering, I am sorry, but I do think you have to work much much harder at it. No doubt the very reason larger churches encourage smaller groups, usually in homes…to enable this to happen.
    I can be comfortable in nice new buildings as much as I can squirm as I enter a monastry in New Norcia especially knowing the atrocities suffered here by the indigenous people of our land.
    As I said above Gavin, all good points and worth me reflecting on!
    Having been in a more traditional setting for a decade on staff and brought up in that environment, I also preach and visit with these churches regularly, I feel I know and appreciate the good and cringe the not so good. I also have the pleasure of mixing with the emergent scene regularly too. I visit these churches, attend stimulating and positive discussion at Forge intensives on mission and church. I feel I have benifited from being open and experiencing both sides of this fence I wish didn’t exist.
    Gavin, I would love you to join me at one of the Forge events as my guest, just to bring some of your thoughts into this environment, it would be great for us and yourself.

  17. I think Gavin was spot on with his comment too. its good to hear from someone who can express themselves so well. (i have a lot of trouble with this) great comment mate. i think everyone has made very valid comments and points.

  18. Thanks Jarvo, I appreciate your honesty. I would like to hope that somewhere in the future we can all be righteous, or at least strive to be, whether emerging, traditionalised, post-emerging, pentecostal and truly celebrate each other. We should never let our acknowledgement of our humanity prohibit us from a journey of holiness though.

    Hamo – I feel that you are self-righteous and confused, no returns this time.. Your self-righteous, no… your self-righteous, no you are!!!. Grow up – your response only amplifies the point. You asked for explanation, you got it – deal with it, don’t be a child.

    I admit that I’m self-righteous, and confused at times, I don’t think I said anything to the contrary.

    Vawz – I appreciate your response, I’m not sure whom you are referring to in Mandurah but the Northam Church sounds great. I’m sure you don’t begrudge these things – that would be quite a stressful exercise, but you don’t celebrate it either. It’s a big call to judge peoples motivations and attitudes toward leadership and structure – how do you or I know a man’s / women’s heart – I think we best leave that to God.

    It’s great that you think that community happens easier in a non-institutionalised setting but since when do we make judgements on how easy or hard something is, and surely you can respect if someone thinks different to you about community.

    “I feel I have benefited from being open and experiencing both sides of this fence I wish didn’t exist.” – Now I love that, good, real good. Imagine tearing down the fence – that’s it. Play your part, even if you have to be the grownup. The rest will come around.

    Not so sure about the forge thing, maybe in time.

    Bek – thanks for your encouragement, never think that the articulation of words moves more than the power of the Spirit. I’m sure your life expresses what you believe.

  19. Gavin, the concept of celebrating these things (building extensions etc) is an ongoing issue for me and those I work with. I have many friends who are in the process of building church buildings, in fact my best mate in Melbourne is pastor in a church in the midst of multi million dollar extension in a very healthy church. Do I celebrate their building? No, not always, not usually. But I try to celebrate with them in their excitment. They gain great joy from being part of a big growing church, I enjoy their journey in that. This is not always as smooth as it sounds, my friend from Mandurah and I have had some differences over time that have caused us to get face to face and share our differences. But I continue to try to focus more on the relationship stuff than the external stuff, it adds a different and sometimes challenging aspect to our relationship than if we all were doing the same thing and agreeing with the same stuff, but I think it brings a depth and a level of community that is a pleasure to experience.

  20. Hi again Gavin

    The point of my comment was not to pick a fight with you!

    But it was to be provocative, so please forgive me for a very personal comment. I wouldn’t normally say something like that online. I don’t know who you are so it was a very unfair and unjust comment and I have no idea whether it is true or not.

    I actually knew that when I said it, so you have fair reason to be angry at an uninformed assessment of your character.

    As do all those who (whether they like it or not) fit under the Emerging Church label and were so labelled by you. It was a ‘personal’ comment because you spoke of people not a faceless entity.

    The point is this:

    We are all ‘self righteous and confused’ to some degree.

    All churches and denominations are ‘self righteous and confused’ to some degree.

    So it really doesn’t help anyone to say those kinds of things, nor does it achieve anything.

    It wasn’t ‘being a child’ and I don’t think I need to ‘grow up’. I said what I did, not because I know that of you, but to point out that generalisations always fit – to some degree – but they always ‘don’t fit’ to some degree either.

    FWIW you are right Gavin. I am self righteous and confused. Its like admitting I am right handed… ho hum… However I am also committed to Jesus and the church in its many diverse expressions as it seems you are.

    In working with Forge and (for better or worse) being associated with the Emerging Church I have taken a fair few hits from people along the way – most of them very unjust and uninformed – or in the form of broad generalisations that usually apply to everyone.

    So now when people make statements like yours I usually choose to ignore them – but occasionally I do respond because I am tired of seeing the ‘little guys’ get kicked in the nuts time and time again. I’m willing to have a fight if I have to because I see and hear this stuff too often (And FWIW I didn’t leave the established church with any beef nor am I angry at the church)

    You didn’t seem happy that I suggested you were self righteous and confused… Fair enough! BUT this is how many quality people in the EC would feel when they read your comments. Your ‘explanation’ says some good stuff, but it does seem unfortunate that you made your judgements first and your explanation was only by request.

    Earlier this year I was involved in a conversation with Don Carson (author/theologian) who wrote a fairly strong critique of the emerging church. The only problem was that Don hadn’t done his homework and said as much to me over our breakfast when he conceded that the emerging church in Oz was a very different beast to the one he was concerned with. This is an all too common occurrence.

    When I make criticisms of the established church that are not fair and accurate I expect to get called on it (and I have done this in the past) so I have no hesitation in responding in kind.

    If you’re a Perth local why don’t you take up Scotty’s offer and actually attend some of our Forge stuff. That would leave you in a very fair position to assess the work we do?

    BTW is this ‘Gav the Anglican’ writing? If so why don’t we talk over a coffee? It might be a bit easier to hear each other

  21. Wow!!! – gavin’s got jingyjanga’s

    Thanks Vaws, may get around to calling Mr Van Leen, but right now I’m feeling the call to head to Augusta for a couple weeks break – its been a year since the last. Have a great Christmas brother and I look forward to hooking up early next year – cant’ believe it. It was 9 years ago that we shut down and restarted the youth ministry at Whitties and were planning our first trip to Planet Shakers. Good times!!! Love ya!

  22. Hamo – I just thought it was a bit odd for you to ask me to explain myself and when I do, you respond with what could easily be interpreted as a childish response. I admit in hindsight that I should have explained myself originally a little more.

    Provocation has never been a great strategy for open and authentic communication. That’s for me and you to reflect on.

    I apologise for any offence felt.

    The church whether emerging or institutionalised is not faceless, all you have / should have is faces.

    I disagree that my response doesn’t achieve anything, at least two people have responded acknowledging the need to self-reflect and consider their behaviour.

    Just remember – you wont always be the “little guys” and better to stand in times to come and say that you got there with sore balls but the character of Christ, rather than kicking and fighting.

    I only made an honest observation that has caused some to honestly reflect and hopefully be better people for it, as your (detailed) response has made me – hopefully.

    I’m not much of a coffee guy, but I appreciate your invitation.

  23. Thanks Gav

    I appreciate your response.

    Yes – provocation is a dicey business – you never know quite what will emerge.

    Anyway I imagine we are all better at face to face stuff so if you have time in Jan then let’s catch up.

    Coffee, beer, hot chocolate (that Bek’s a creative thinker!) or whatever. I’d value the space to talk more openly and at lenght.

    What do you say?

    I believe that as we speak with each other and hear each other we understand each other better than on here.

    Drop me an email if you would prefer hamo@brightontown.com.au

  24. I feel like there’s so many boxes that everyone gets so caught up on. Imerging, institutional, traditional, conservative, pentecostal . . . all so we can better explain what we are or aren’t associated with. The Instituional church then argues with the emerging etc etc What’s with this!??
    My beautiful wife is a person who works with horses (stay with me for a second) at a youth campsite. These horses are very programmed, they know exactly when to trot, walk, canter, depending on what witch’s hat they pass in the arena. The other day the rules changed for the horses, the hats were moved. :O Some horses really found it hard to cope and were scared not knowing what was going on and were visibly uncomfortable. Other horses seemed to be free’d and loved the new change and lapped it up with a new lease of life. I reckon we as people are like this so much. Sometimes we are so uncomfortable about change that we have to box everything to make what we do feel comfortable. So we say we are part of this group or that and the labels go flying. I believe God is moving the witch’s hats, some of us feel very comfortable with that, while some of us find it hard to cope. I don’t think this means we need to label or even be part of a group of witch-hat changers but simply to find out where God wants us to move as individuals and what it means to be a part of His mission, in our local community or wherever God has placed on our heart. The important thing to understand though is that the witch’s hats are changing whether we like it or not, no matter what label we come under and we need God’s grace more than ever to support the fact that God is moving through people and groups that we may not be comfortable with.

  25. or if you were more serious than pot shots from the side lines (blogs) what about tea…water or a milkshake? Come on Gavin, I think you have done some serious thinking about this issue.

  26. “Pot Shot’s” – great way to appreciate anyone who has ever commented on your blog!!! ; )

    Maybe give me some time.

  27. Aghhhh, yes I knew I would get in trouble with that one. I really eas refering to the ease at which anyone, including blog authors, could just sit and make ‘comments’ and criticism without entering relationship. I count myself in this. It was more an anti blog comment, or a ‘blogs can be dangerous places’ comment. Please refer to “Are Blogs Toxic” discussion. here – http://www.backyardmissionary.com/2006/12/are-blogs-toxic.html

  28. Glen M – The horse thing…GOLD, this is a great illustration. Great to her from you bud, Merry Christmas to you and the crew in “The East”.
    …may be in SA this coming year for something!

  29. Hey all,

    very intersting read,

    all I can say, is that coming from a regular church, to now being involved in our “joondalup thing” It has been the most interesting, growing, at times frustrating, and rewarding year of my life! We have made great friends, developed real relationships and most of all, had to take real responcibility for our walks with Christ!!

    Coming from the generation of “discipleship training, schoools, leadership responsibility’s and rules…all those john maxwell books and motivational camps, to being in a group where suddenly I feel i need to make my own decisions, and look inside and outside the box, I find it liberating and excellent for my relationship with Christ!

    My husband and I are very committed to this group and enjoy the whole experience, It does upsett me that we are talked about or considered as a “cult” as we really just wanted to be a part of a community, and reach the people we live with!

    I will say that for me and my walk, I love going to our local church and still feel the need to attend, even if not on a regular basis! but the majority of our fellowship and peer discipleship comes from either within our group or from relationships we have had to work at maintaining….side note…its interesting to see that you really choose your friends when you dont attend church as regularly as you used to! we have really had to work at maintaining strong relatioships, and finding new friends, challanging but really great!!!

    I am not writting to create argument, just to say how I feel!!

    Merry Christmas all!!!
    Jacky Creelman/Barbara

  30. Yo Jacky, there’s someone I haven’t heard of / seen for about 7 years good to hear from ya, pray you’re doing well!

  31. Hi all (esp. Bek, Jacky, and Glen – go the Thorns connection), I just want to say thankyou to all of you for this discussion. I’m working through some of these issues (if only inside my head atm) and every time I try to talk to my friends (members in traditional churches) about what I’m thinking they seem to get defensive and start telling me my thoughts will lead me to being part of a cult. The discussion I’ve just read has articulated for me both my own thoughts and those of the people who get upset with me when I talk about these things.


  32. 10-28-08

    This is a simplistic view of cults listed

    At the time of this writing, 2 Timothy 4:1-4
    is the state of the western church with lies
    throughout it. Some: “once saved”, prayers
    to Mary, the gifts have ceased, grace being
    turned into something else, Jude 3, etc.

    The “once saved” heresy is still taught in
    seminaries, so going to school did not help.
    Romans 11:20-22 is 1 verse that contrasts
    this heresy.

    Hence: most groups could be considered cults
    today if they were compared to scripture, since
    they lack obedience.

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