I find myself today disagreeing with Richard Land, Ed Stetzer, and Peter Lumpkins.
There's a sentence nobody has ever uttered before, nor will again.
Mormonism is a cult, and if I read and understand these gentlemen correctly, they all agree with me on that point. Where we differ is in whether, or in what contexts, we should actually call Mormonism a cult. I think I understand their arguments and I appreciate what I understand to be their motivation (presuming, as I choose to do, that it rises above merely influencing the outcome of a political election).
That having been said, I'd like to interact with the fullest explanation of that point of view—the one Ed Stetzer gave in his article "Mormonism: Richard Land, NAMB, and a Southern Baptist Plan." Although I respect the arguments made by Stetzer, I'd like to show why I think he is in error.
First, I think Stetzer has too small an understanding of his audience. Stetzer wants Mormons to leave Mormonism and come to the gospel. So do I. And he correctly observes that most Mormons would rather that we did not refer to Mormonism as a cult. To drop the word "cult" is to do something that would make Mormons happier with our discourse. So far, we agree.
However, Stetzer's article makes no allowance for the fact that Mormons whom we would see converted into gospel Christianity are not the only ones within earshot of our conversation. Mormons are laboring hard to win people to Mormonism out from under the noses of Evangelical Christian churches (or even off their rolls, but that's a topic for another day). If "cult" is an accurate descriptor of Mormonism, and it if is a strong enough word to dissuade the non-Mormon lost people under our influence from being wooed away by Mormonism, then I'm in favor of using it.
In a village in Senegal, an animistic chief forcefully said to me, "You're not Jehovah's Witnesses, are you? Because if you are, you need to pack up right now and leave." Someone had told him to stay away from Jehovah's Witnesses because they are a cult. I was thankful for the person who had told him that. It made the job of sharing the gospel there a little bit easier. I'm glad that their aversion against Jehovah's Witnesses was not just technical, but was strong and emotive.
Second, I think Stetzer's analogies to other situations are bad analogies at key points. He compares Mormons' relationship with Christianity to Christians' relationship with Judaism. And yet there is an obvious difference between these two situations, and it is the very hinge upon which the choice of terminology turns: We Christians do not claim to be Jews, but Mormons do claim to be Christians. Stetzer's desire is that Mormons should not claim to be Christians at all, and so he suggests simply referring to them as another religion. But Mormons are not heeding Stetzer's instruction at this point. This is precisely why stronger language is in order here: The clarity of the gospel is at stake. Who is the "church of Jesus Christ?" Are they, or are we? Or are we all? When we are in dialogue with Muslims or Hindus or atheists, the definition of the ministry of Jesus Christ is not (quite so much) at stake as it is when we are in dialogue with or about Mormons.
Stetzer also appeals to an analogy with an adulterous neighbor, implying, basically, that using the word "cult" to refer to Mormons is like ordering in a supply of scarlet A's to distribute throughout your neighborhood in response to the prevalence of divorce in your cul-de-sac. A more accurate analogy would be to imagine that your neighbor was Noel Biderman, the founder of the company Ashley Madison, which proudly calls itself "the world's leading married dating service for discrete encounters." Mormons aren't just being something; they're selling something to others. And if your neighbor Biderman, the adultery salesman, were telling everyone that a little one-night stand on the side actually is monogamous marriage, then you'd have an analogous situation.
Wouldn't that situation be a bit different than the Hester Prynne story that comes to mind in Stetzer's article? In such a situation, where the very meaning of marriage and adultery were being confused in people's minds, wouldn't you have some obligation to speak up and say, "No, I'm sorry, but what you're promoting actually is adultery."
Third, if we're going to shift terminology, I think we have biblical warrant to go with something sterner rather than something kinder and gentler. Which sounds worse to you, "Mormonism is a cult," or "Let Mormons be accursed"? If Galatians 1 does not apply to Mormonism, then I'm hard pressed to figure out where it applies at all. Indeed, that's the challenge that I place before those who would like us to be more polite in our dealings with those who purport a different gospel of Jesus Christ: Would you list for me the groups for which you think we should speak of them in a Galatians 1 sort of way? Can you explain for me how those groups differ from Mormons? Or have we just entirely lost our nerve for such things altogether?
Consider also the language from Jesus Himself to the seven churches in Asia. Jesus commended the Ephesians for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans, told the church at Pergamum that he would wage war against the Nicolaitans with the sword of His mouth, called a false teacher in Thyatira "Jezebel," and referred to Jewish groups in Smyrna and Philadelphia as "a synagogue of Satan." When people start to mess around with the truth of the gospel, Jesus doesn't mince words. Why, again, should we?
In conclusion, Stetzer is right that we cannot avoid the topic of Mormonism in this election season. It's a challenge. It is also an opportunity. An opportunity to speak truth about Mormonism. Ed Stetzer clearly said that we should not cease to call Mormonism a cult if pressed to do so, and I appreciated that principled stand on his part. My aim in this article has been to demonstrate why I think it is a biblical and strategic practice to include, as a part of our discourse about Mormonism, an intentionality about identifying it as a cult.