"It has been said, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that the difference between a cult and a religion is about a million members." (David V. Barrett, The New Believers, p.21.)Is Armstrongism a cult? The gut reaction for many of us is to respond with a rousing 'yes!' But then Armstrongism comes in a seemingly endless assortment of flavours. Is PCG a cult? What about the Church of God Big Sandy? Toss in the UCG and Ken Westby's ACD and there's the making of a red-eared argument. The reality is that some COG groups are far more objectionable than others, and it helps to tease out the reasons why.
"... Evangelical Christians tend to use words such as 'cult' and 'sect' to show that such movements are, in contrast with their own true faith, false religions." (Barrett, p.25.)The problem is criteria. What makes Dave Pack's RCG so different from Laestadian Lutherans? Why is Thiel's micro-sect different from the Church of God (Seventh Day)? To broaden the discussion, are Southern Baptist churches different in essence from their more progressive Northern brethren. Where do you draw the line?
Doctrinal fanatics tend to hunker down behind Trinitarian barricades. If it's not Trinitarian then it's a sect or cult. I guess that lets the loopy Laestadians off the hook. Those of us who view the doctrinaire types with a jaundiced eye are more likely to cite patterns of abuse and manipulation. But then, is there a single Pentecostal prosperity gospel group which isn't rotten to the core when it comes to blatant snake-oil manipulation?
For some of us, finding an alternative term to replace 'cult' is political correctness gone mad. But then again, maybe not. Maybe, by falling for the popular usage, we're allowing the rats who hide under mainline labels to escape scrutiny.
Which is the argument advanced by Jonny Scaramanga on his Leaving Fundamentalism blog.
"Churches are not either good or evil, either ‘cults’ or ‘Christian’. That kind of binary thinking is for Sith Lords and fundamentalists. Church practices exist on a continuum... When we divide congregations into ‘churches’ and ‘cults’, as if there is a clear distinction between the two, it absolves ‘churches’ of the need to consider ways in which their own practices might be controlling, harmful, and abusive."Read it through for yourself (it's not a long piece). Maybe we should reframe the problem. It's cathartic to call Armstrongism - whether in the whole or in its peculiar splinters - a cult. The reality is that many of these groups are abusive, controlling, manipulative and deceptive, but a few (too few!) are not really in that ballpark. Perhaps we should first be calling them out on their practices rather than reaching for convenient labels handed to us by people who are often just as guilty of these things as their targets.