Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Mormonism Is a Cult, and Should Be Called One

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.


Tim G said...

What I am getting from the sudden change on cult status dealing with Mormonism is that I think we have so trumpeted the "run from the cult" ideology that now the pressure is upon them to change that so that rather than running, we can vote. I worry we are selling ourselves out for political gain.

I don't like this whole situation and yet it is teaching me to realize that we have sold fear well in describing other religions and cults but we have poorly discipled our people in knowing what Truth is and how to discern the difference.

We are also facing the firsts of many challenges to come in this arena. We are not starting well!

Good post!

Tom Parker said...


Did you ever think you would read from me the following words from me--Bart, Excellent Post!

I've been SB 38 years of my life and always until recently have I been told that Mormonism was a cult by my Pastors, etc, in the SBC.

But now I'm being told that Mormonism is not a cult.

Does this change have to do with politics?

I think it does.

What other major positions will the SBC change for political or other gain?

Dwight McKissic said...


I am so thankful for this post.

The embracing of Mormonism as a "World Religion," the "fourth Great Abrahamic faith," and the declassifying of Mormonism as a cult by high profile Southern Baptists, has done serious public relations damage to the SBC in my judgement, perhaps beyond repair.

The image of the SBC being viewed as the Republican Party in a prayer meeting is now solidified in the minds of many people, who yet certainly view Mormonism as a cult,(theological and sociological) and view the recent descriptions of Mormonism by SBC personalities as purely driven by politics.

If the SBC unequivocally labeled Mormonism a "cult," without the strangely timed lofty additional labels-"world religion" and "fourth great Abrahamic faith"--and also labeled their authoritative text as racist--Americans and African Americans would respond to Mormonism just as the African tribal chief did that you alluded to.

David Rogers said...

In Spain, many people confuse Evangelicals with Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. They basically place all non-Catholics in the same category (unless they're Muslims, Buddhists, etc.). The Catholic Church itself has not helped as in their rhetoric they often refer to Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and "Protestant sects" ("sectas protestantes") as "creating problems" in places like Latin America. In Spanish, the term "secta" is somewhat ambiguous. It may mean, simply, a religious minority group, or it may mean something analogous to what we mean by "cult" in English. Sometimes they add the qualification "secta peligrosa" (i.e. "dangerous sect"). I think, for evangelistic purposes, though, in many places around the world it is in our interest as Evangelicals to maintain the category of "cult" (or "secta" whether "peligrosa" or not).

In the end, people will call us whatever they choose to call us, and there is not much we can do about it. But I believe it is helpful for us in our own discourse to maintain the difference between "cult" and "religious minority." And I think the "fourth great Abrahamic faith" terminology is especially unhelpful.

One Salient Oversight said...

I do not think Mormonism is a cult.

It is a completely different religion to Christianity.

peter lumpkins said...


I think you make points worthy of discussion. I am not convinced, however, you've made your case, for until you actually get around to informing us all some idea about what warrants a group to be exclusively categorized a "cult" in the first place, a gargantuan feat in itself I would add, you have but made an extended proposition in begging the question.

And, as for the 'kinder, gentler' approach to addressing Mormonism, I can tell you I am no sympathizer (not to imply you suggested I was). Ideas are what they are, and if the ideas are either "heretical" or "cultistic," then we surely may be justified in using the appropriate adjective.

Grace, brother. And, even though you didn't actually deal with what I wrote on this issue directly, in light of your well-stated criticism, I may put up a piece clarifying my thoughts more fully (Both Drs Land and Stetzer are on their own!)

With that, I am...

P.S. The chances again of Land, Stetzer, and Lumpkins together on one side and you on the other remain unfathomable...

Debbie Kaufman said...

Thank you for this article Bart, good stuff and I agree. I want the Bible to be our only guide. Even on this subject.

Matt Brady said...


I imagine that I have the same hopes for the Presidential election as those promoting a kinder gentler terminology toward Mormons, but political expediency should never trump truth. Why can we not just point out that we are at absolute odds with Mormonism and Mitt Romney concerning the first table of the law but that we are in agreement with them concerning the second table? The President of the United States only deals with the second table. There is no reason for us to compromise our language regarding man’s relationship to God. All we have to point out is that when it comes to man’s relationship to man, we have a President who shatters the second table of the law and a challenger who at least promises to uphold that second table. We can strongly condemn Mormonism and still vote for righteousness(Proverbs 14:34).

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Mormonism is a false religion among many false religions. That doesn't qualify it as a cult.


Matt Brady said...

While it may be difficult to differentiate between a religion and a cult, Mormonism is not just another false religion. Not all false religions claim to be Christian as do the Mormons. For that reason our response to Mormonism ought to be all the more clear. They are leading people to Hell, and they are doing it in the name of Jesus Christ. I can't see any justification for mincing words about that.

David Rogers said...

Thinking through this some more, I think the big question is coming to a common definition of the term "cult." Otherwise, we will always be talking past each other. Labels are almost always problematic in this way. It is probably going to be really hard to come to such an agreement in this case, as there are already many different understandings of what "cult" means floating around out there.

Even if we were to come to such a common definition, though, there is still the problem of changing our understanding of the term in the middle of a political campaign, when the use of the term may have political repercussions.

Anonymous said...

All false religions are leading people to hell with a false message. We should always be clear regardless of which religion we are encountering. I simply don't see the need to isolate Mormonism in its own corner. A false religion is a false religion. As I stated, I simply disagree.

Bart Barber said...

I drove 942 miles yesterday. That's why I was pretty much unavailable for comment. My apologies.

The major outstanding question, as David has noted, is Peter's request for a definition of a cult.

Dr. Stetzer is correct that there is a theological definition for a "cult" and there is a sociological definition for a "cult." Theologically, a cult is a group that claims to belong within a larger faith group but does not embrace the core claims of orthodoxy within that group.

I would argue that there is no reason for the theological definition to give way to the sociological definition; that if there were a reason to do so, we would need a new word that actually means what "cult" has meant theologically, rather than abandoning the concept of the distinction altogether; and that Mormonism has met all of the points of even the sociological definition of a cult at points of its history, although it may not meet all of them today.

Bart Barber said...


Nobody is putting Mormonism in its own corner. The only people treating Mormonism uniquely are those who still call Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, et all, as cults, but will not do so (this year) with regard to Mormonism.

By the way, lest anyone think I am just manufacturing my definition, consider a standard resource like Josh McDowell's "Handbook of Today's Religions," which defines the four categories of "world religion," "cult," "occult," and "secular" to enumerate the various faith traditions. I'm simply following the schema employed by this resource and so many others—by a unified evangelicalism until 2010 or so.

Ron Phillips, Sr. said...


Regarding a definition for cult...

I seem to remember being taught that the most basic definition of a cult was any belief system that purported to be Christian that adds or takes anything away from the Person and/or Work of Christ.

I think we all agree that Mormonism is a cult when cult is defined theologically. I also find that I am leaning towards your argument here. But can we ignore the societal definition? Most people, even in churches, think of a cult with the likes of the Manson family, David Koresh, Rev. Moon etc.

So how do we reclaim the theological definition of cult from the masses who have a different understanding? For that matter, how do we reclaim the definition of evangelical?


Ron P.

kws said...

Thanks, Bart. As a pastor of a church that has planted a church in Utah, I can tell you that we need to speak clearly on this subject. I was reading my daily Spurgeon sermon this morning and was surprised that he took on Mormonism as a young pastor calling it "this imposter of the West come lately."

SAGordon said...

What I have found is that we need to start, even within our churches, by saying, "Mormonism is not Christianity." We can then move to defining as cult & false religion. I want to be emphatic in the most direct negation of the current claims of Mormon apologists. When they say Mormonism is Christian, I want to clearly say NO and then label Mormonism for what it is.


Bob Cleveland said...

2 TIMOTHY 2:14:

"Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen."