by Al Maxey

Issue #156 ------- November 4, 2004
Here and there in the midst of American
society you meet with men full of a fanatical
and almost wild spiritualism ... Religious
insanity is very common in the United States.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)
Democracy in America

Charge of Vicious Cultism
Are the Churches of Christ a Cult?

Dr. Robert A. Morey, the founder of Faith Defenders, a religious watchdog organization operated out of Orange, California, has long been a critic of the Churches of Christ. He has maintained for years that this body of believers constitutes a dangerous and vicious religious cult. In 1987 he published a rather brief 31-page booklet titled -- Are The "Church of Christ" Churches A Cult? His conclusion is that they clearly are. He has also produced other similar works attacking this faith-heritage. One is a tract on Campbellism and the "Church of Christ" in which he lists this group as being one of the major American cults, along with Mormonism, Christadelphianism, and the Jehovah's Witnesses (all of which he claims have their roots in Campbellism, thus making this religious movement a polluted spring from which flows a river of foul fanatical factions). In this current issue of Reflections I will review Dr. Morey's charges against the Churches of Christ contained in the above two sources. Is this movement a cult? ... or is Morey just a kook?

What Is A Cult?

Before examining the specifics of Dr. Robert Morey's charge, it would perhaps be beneficial to provide a working definition of cultism. The word "cult" is, in many ways, a loaded term. It has been associated with extremist groups (such as The People's Temple in Guyana, the Branch Davidians in Texas, and Heaven's Gate in California) for so long that when invoked in religious debate it tends to bring to most undiscerning people's minds a fringe group composed of vicious, murderous fanatics and lunatics. Thus, by characterizing some group as a "cult," one has immediately marked them, in the minds of most, as a dangerous element in society to be carefully avoided or completely eradicated. To have the label "cult" attached to a group is virtually the "kiss of death" in our present culture, and, frankly, that is exactly why some seek to affix that libelous label to those groups with whom they may personally differ. Leo Pfeffer, in a rather humorous statement, but one uncomfortably close to reality, observed, "If you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps THE religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult." Thus, the use of the term often conveys more about the person applying it, than it does about those to whom it is applied.

Our English word "cult" comes from the Latin word "cultus," which is a form of the verb "colere," meaning "to worship or give reverence to a deity." Cultus is thus a general word for worship, regardless of the particular god in question. Thus, in its original usage, it was simply applied to a religious, worshipful group of people, regardless of the object or person they venerated. In the Latin Vulgate this word is used both of the worship of false gods and the one true God (Acts 17:23f, for example). The use of the term has evolved, however. Its usage today is far more narrow. The following has been set forth by some as the "preferred definition" of the term in Christendom today:

A CULT of Christianity is a group of people who,
claiming to be Christian, embrace a particular doctrinal
system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders,
or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly
or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the
Christian faith as taught in the 66 books of the Bible.

Admittedly, this too is a rather general definition, and is open to many subjective interpretations. What constitutes "the central doctrines of the Christian faith," for example? There are few groups within Christendom that do not have at least one tenet of faith about which they differ with others. Thus, based on this definition, although it is a popular one, virtually any other group with whom one differs on even one article of faith or traditional practice would qualify as a cult. "In our modern world of the new millennium, the word 'cult' has become largely overused and is now a catch-all for any group, religion or lifestyle which someone doesn't understand, or with which they happen to disagree. This is a dangerous trend, as many of the organizations labeled a cult by dissidents are truly legitimate groups. Once the taint of the term 'cult' is applied to a particular group, it is often difficult to change that image in the public perception" (Erin Poulson, PageWise, Inc.).

Having said that, it nevertheless holds true that there are some almost universally accepted characteristics of what constitutes genuine cultic behavior. This goes far beyond mere difference of theological opinion or traditional practice. For example, Robert J. Lifton, MD, in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, has identified eight basic elements of mind control that he believes characterize true cultic behavior. These include such items as: "Loading the Language" (thought terminating clichés designed to end all further discussion; it is the language of non-thought), "Doctrine over Person" (a disciple is valued only so far as they bow to the models and patterns of the cult; human need is always subordinated to the group's doctrine), and "The Dispensing of Existence" (the determination of ultimate salvation lies within the purview of the group; you're saved if WE say you are; those outside the group are generally regarded as "lost").

Similarly, in a study titled Eight Distinctives of an Aberrational Christian or Bible-Based Group, psychologist Steve Hassan discusses the gravitational process that leads a group to become "aberrant." It is asserted that not all aberrational groups will necessarily evidence all of these distinctives, but most will evidence a significant number of them. Further, "an aberrational group typically takes something minor in Christianity and makes it major, usually for the purpose of being able to manipulate or control the members." In other words, they major in minors! For example, when a group determines both fellowship and salvation based upon such matters as fellowship halls, eating in a church building, version of the Bible used, orphans' homes, One Cup, Sunday school classes, MDR, music, holiday observances, women's roles, and the like, we are clearly dealing with an aberrant group of dysfunctional disciples. The eight general distinctives of such groups are:

  1. Scripture Twisting --- Proof-texting would also fall under this category. Passages are frequently taken out of context, manipulated, misapplied, and/or forced to do duty as the justification of wrong conclusions.

  2. Controlling Leader/Leadership --- Near total submission is generally implicitly or explicitly required of the members. The leaders are "in charge" and are not to be challenged or questioned. What they say is law.

  3. Separation/Isolation of the Membership --- To protect the members from "harmful influences," the group leaders will do all in their power to isolate their disciples from others who may have differing views, or who might dare to challenge the thinking of the group in any way. Outsiders are banned from coming anywhere near the group, and the group members are banned from any type of interaction with outsiders which might cause them to doubt their beliefs or question the direction of their leaders.

  4. Spiritual Elitism --- The group perceives itself as the "chosen of God." They are the ONLY ones who have ultimate Truth all figured out. They have "arrived." They are the enlightened ones, the "one true church," the ONLY ones going to heaven. If you are not in their group, you are lost. Period! Salvation is simply not to be found outside their walls, thus these aberrant groups rarely, if ever, cooperate in any way with other Christian groups. Indeed, other groups are not even perceived as being "Christian."

  5. Uniformity --- Diversity among the membership is scorned, and the idea of having any kind of "unity in diversity" is mocked as godless heresy. The members must think the same things, speak the same things, practice the same things, proclaim the same things, believe the same things. Even in areas where Scripture is silent, uniformity of thought and practice (the standard being, of course, the traditional perceptions and preferences of the group, or its leaders) is rigidly imposed.

  6. Doctrinal Mutation --- Doctrines and practices have a tendency to devolve and mutate further and further from healthy beliefs and expressions. For example, some groups started out with a very narrow view on divorce and remarriage, which eventually devolved to the point that the leaders insisted on certain members terminating second marriages that, in their view, were unapproved by God. Thus, these aberrant groups have gone from promoting a particular doctrine to actually promoting divorce! Families are destroyed to promote the fallacious findings of the Faction's Fathers!

  7. Dissent Discouraged --- Nothing will get a member of an aberrant group tossed out into the cold more quickly than when they dare to question or challenge "the way things are" or "the way they have always been done." In non-coercive groups, differences with regard to convictions and personal preferences, perceptions, and practices are more lovingly tolerated. That is not the case in an aberrant group. Such "rebels," "liberals," and "digressives" will be ousted before they know what hit them. Dissenters are "marked" and maligned.

  8. Traumatic Departure --- Coming out of such a group is almost always an extremely traumatic experience ... the group will see to that. Painful confrontations are common; months, even years, of being mercilessly hounded and harangued by the "faithful" is typical. Shunning by former friends and family is to be expected.

"The practices and rituals of aberrational groups also tend to take on divine authority. Practices that were optional or conditional in the beginning become absolute standards whereby commitment and spirituality are measured." All of this is rather frightening and disturbing, isn't it? What is even more disconcerting is that we all know individuals and congregations just like this. I personally know of several groups, primarily on the ultra-conservative, legalistic, patternistic end of the theological spectrum, which evidence every one of these eight traits. Are these "aberrant groups"? Yes, I have to admit that they are! Thankfully, they are few in number ... and are dying out ... but they do exist. And we're not just talking about the Churches of Christ here; all of Christendom is affected; no faith-heritage is exempt from an extremist element. Thus, we all share the curse of "cultish" behavior to some degree; no one group or movement has a monopoly.

Morey's Multifarious Murmurings

Dr. Morey begins his booklet (the first statement in the Introduction) with these words, "The father and son team of Thomas and Alexander Campbell had no idea that their heretical teachings would eventually give birth to some of the most vicious cults that have ever plagued the Christian Church" (p. 3). Among these several "vicious cults" which infest the Body of Christ is the group known as Churches of Christ. Morey "generously" acknowledges, however, that a few of these congregations have abandoned their heresy and now preach the same gospel he does. "We gladly embrace them as fellow Christians because they believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Bible alone, apart from any acts of obedience on our part such as baptism" (p. 3-4). Sadly, however, he then has to admit that most Churches of Christ are "still very conservative and hold to the strange teachings of the Campbells" (p. 4). We embrace what he characterizes "the old Campbellite killer virus" (p. 5).

Dr. Morey's major complaint against the Churches of Christ, apparently, is "the Campbellite view of baptism" (p. 5). "Once this is refuted by the Bible, the entire cultic structure crumbles" (ibid). "Since it is preaching salvation by works such as baptism, then it is preaching a false gospel. Since it is preaching a false gospel, then it is a false church and falls under the condemnation of Galatians 1:8" (ibid). "While baptism pictures the atoning work of Jesus Christ, it was never intended to replace it" (ibid). "As long as the Campbellites teach that baptism is essential for salvation, they will be viewed as a cult by evangelical Christians. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from obedience to any of God's commands" (Morey, Campbellism and the "Church of Christ").

Needless to say, one has to wonder at the wealth of misinformation this man possesses with regard to the beliefs of most within our faith-heritage. Are there some among us who believe the act of baptism actually replaces the atoning work of Christ Jesus? Well, there probably are. I've never met one, but I'm sure a few are lurking about in some dark crevice. Are there those within the Churches of Christ who preach a works based salvation? Yes, there are. Is their teaching false? Yes, it is. Should an entire body of believers be characterized as a cult because of the theological misconceptions of a few factionists out on the fringe of our movement? No! ... and this is where Dr. Morey, and others like him, greatly err. I know of a few Catholic priests who have molested young boys. Should I conclude ALL Catholics are perverts?! Let's correct error where it is found, but let's not malign the many for the failings of a few. That is unconscionable!

I have taught repeatedly over the years, as have most within the Churches of Christ with whom I am familiar, that baptism is a response of faith; it is NOT a "work." It earns or merits nothing. It most certainly does not replace the atoning work of Christ on the cross. It is merely a visible demonstration of our acceptance of that free gift of His atoning sacrifice. You don't WORK to try and EARN a "free gift." That is absurd. I have never taught a "works based" salvation, and never will. Such would be heresy! I believe Dr. Morey would discover, if he ever bothered to do the research, that most within the Churches of Christ would agree completely with what I just stated. The ultra-legalistic, patternistic, extremists among us will NOT agree with what I stated above. And, yes, they often exhibit almost all of the eight distinctives of an aberrational Christian or Bible-based group. Are there cultists among us? Yes, there are. And we deplore their existence as much, if not more, than Dr. Morey!

With regard to obedience, I fear our critic from California has a rather low view of its worth in the whole salvation process. As was previously noted, he has stated, "Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from obedience to any of God's commands." Really? I wonder what Dr. Morey would make of the following statement? -- Jesus Christ "became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation" (Heb. 5:9). In his booklet, Morey takes a different view -- "While obedience to God's Law has a role to play in the assurance of salvation, it has no role to play in the way of salvation" (p. 14). I can't help but think of Paul, who informed the Roman brethren that through the Lord Jesus Christ he had "received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5). Yes, saving faith is a faith that obeys (responds).

Morey proclaims salvation by "grace alone, through faith alone." I wonder where he would include confession and repentance; how would he characterize these two items? In John 12:42-43 we find some of the rulers of the Jews who "believed in Him." This would be "faith alone," would it not? However, "they were not confessing Him." Did they have God's approval and acceptance? Not according to Scripture. Jesus said, "Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33; cf. Luke 12:8-9). "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God" (1 John 4:15). The apostle Paul taught, "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation" (Rom. 10:9-10).

In Mark 16:16 Jesus Himself declares, "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved." Is this a "work" which earns salvation? NO. It is no more a "work" than repentance of sins or confession of the Lord. These are all responses of faith!! They are the evidence of faith. James, in James 2, observes, "What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith?" (vs. 14). Anybody can SAY they have faith. James says, "I will SHOW you my faith" (vs. 18). The "works" of which James speaks in this chapter are the visible evidences of his faith; they are active, observable demonstrations. Without such evidence, "faith is dead, being alone" (vs. 17). No, Dr. Morey, most of us in the Churches of Christ do NOT teach a "works based" salvation. What we DO teach is the necessity of evidencing saving faith in an obedient response to God's free gift. There is a huge difference in this and what you claim our position to be.

Robert Morey also, in his tract, lists several reasons why baptism is NOT essential to one's salvation. Let me list just a few of these to demonstrate the "great depth" of the reasoning ability and biblical scholarship of this man:

  1. "Jesus never baptized. If baptism is essential for salvation, then Jesus never saved anyone."

  2. "Paul did not view baptism as part of the Gospel."

  3. "John's baptism did not save anyone even though it was 'unto remission of sins.'"

  4. "Since there is only one God, there is only one way of salvation. This means that whatever is necessary for salvation today was also necessary during Old Testament times."

  5. "Baptism is the New Testament parallel of circumcision just as the Lord's Supper is the parallel of the Passover. Since circumcision was not essential for salvation, then neither is baptism."

  6. "The thief on the cross was saved without baptism. The Campbellite argument that he was saved under the OT way of salvation is not possible seeing that Christ had already died on the cross and finished the atonement before the thief died. The thief belongs on the NT side of the cross and not on the OT side."

Frankly, such "reasoning" from the Word of God is pathetic. Indeed, if it were not so tragic, it would be laughable. A first year theology student could shoot so many holes through each of these statements that they would leak like a sieve. If this is a sampling of Morey's exegetical skills, then it is no wonder he is so confused about what the horrid "Campbellites" believe!! Are the Churches of Christ a cult? I think not! Is Dr. Morey a kook? I'll leave that to the readers to decide!

Reflections from Readers

From a New Reader in Alabama:

I am a member of the Church of Christ in -------, Alabama. I am fascinated by what I have read from your web site so far and want to read more. Please add me to your email list for your Reflections.

From a Reader in California:

While I am very new to your Reflections, I felt that I must respond to your recent request for thoughts on the Lord's Supper. Unfortunately, much of the spiritual context of taking the Lord's Supper has fallen into a "bite and swallow," as someone once put it. The fellowship that should be shared by those partaking of it is meager at best. The spiritual context of the Lord's Supper is brothers and sisters of like mind remembering the death and burial of our Lord Jesus, and remembering the benefits it brought to our lives. I would totally agree that having a meal together and having the Lord's Supper as a part of this meal (similar to Christ at the Last Supper) would undoubtedly encourage a greater spiritual bonding. This leads me to the deeper issue -- the love that the partakers have for one another and for Christ. The Lord's Supper is a bonding time for Christians to celebrate our unity!

From a Reader in Colorado:

I would like permission to copy and use your following Bible studies from your web site: The Silent Centuries and A View of the Versions. Thanks.

From a Minister in Arkansas:

I appreciated this issue of Reflections. I think abortion is wrong, and I hope all readers take into consideration that abortion is really nothing but a slaughter of the innocent. What angers me is that people who perform such an abomination get away with murder. When I read the statistics in your article, I cried. I think the people who perform such acts ought to be charged with terrorism. After all, what do terrorists do? They seek out the innocent and destroy those who aren't prepared to take evasive action. And those who support such a heinous crime are just as guilty as those who perform these acts of terror on an unborn child. I know one thing for sure: those who perform such acts do not know God.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Thank you for the explanation of the passage in the OT (Exodus 21:22-23) that spoke of an unborn child being injured by the actions of another. I had always struggled with this passage regarding abortion. You gave the most complete explanation I have seen. The rest of the article was very well documented. Good research material.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I just finished reading your Reflections article on abortion. I thought it was pretty well done. I really liked your perspective of choosing the lesser of two evils or choosing the greatest good. I think that pretty well defines my perspective, too. I don't think you really established the "sanctity of life" from a biblical perspective, though. Your arguments tended more to the emotional side. However, I don't think you could have done anything else. The Bible clearly condemns murder, but it also supports war and capital punishment. Therefore, there cannot be any argument for the sanctity of life, in and of itself. The issue of life, biblically, always includes extenuating factors.

I certainly agree that there is situational ethics involved with abortion. I support the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, rather than unpleasant resolutions of them. The old proverb, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is appropriate and relevant to many of life's situations. All in all, I think your article was probably about the best rendering, and the most Scriptural, that I have seen on the subject. I am sure you are going to get some heat on the "situational ethics" thought. Hang in there, and God bless you.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Thanks for having the courage to broach such a controversial topic, and for doing it in a very upfront, yet biblical, way. I appreciate your work, and I appreciate you, brother! Be prepared for a LOT of criticism. As shocking as the statistics you provided are, even more shocking is the fact that some who profess Christ actively support abortion. What's more, they viciously tear into anyone who tries to stand on what God's Word says. The same goes for the homosexual agenda and the ACLU. It completely caught me off guard when I discovered that some who call themselves "Christians" actively defend such things, and then demean and belittle those who do not share their views. So, be prepared, brother! But, ignore the detractors and keep on keepin' on!

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Another gooood lesson! Interestingly enough, the timing was coincident with the arrival of a training manual for a counseling class in which I have enrolled. We have a local faith-based group: First Choice Women's Resource Center, which is a crisis pregnancy intervention program. They offer preventive, abstinence programs for Jr. & Sr. High School groups, protective counseling for crisis pregnancies, and post-abortive counseling programs. I have signed up to become a counselor. Hopefully, the training they provide will enable me to be of service to the community as well as to any church family situations that may arise. My heart goes out to these girls and families who struggle with tough decisions. I pray that I may share God's love and forgiveness with them. Two wrongs never make a right -- it only compounds the consequences!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, thanks for so much interesting information in this Reflections article. Abortion is one of our nation's greatest moral plagues. It is perpetrated unwittingly by so many simply for the sake of convenience. If only they really understood what they were doing, and could see it through God's eyes, I believe many of them would not do it. May God have mercy on us as a nation and as a race! May we see how wrong our societal and governmental attitudes toward this subject are. The Lord's gift of life is not a disposable consumer item.

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

Al, I really appreciate your Reflections on abortion. Thank you! I have been opposed to abortion because it seemed to be against the nature of God and obviously there was life in the womb before birth. I had two main justifications: 1) terminating life, even in the womb, just seemed to be contrary to the nature of a Christian, and 2) as John showed before he was born, there is conscious life in an unborn baby. However, I was unaware that virtually all early Christian writers believed abortion to be a sin. Even more significantly, I was unaware of the inappropriate translation of Exodus 21. I studied this passage years ago when I was using the RSV, ASV and KJV, and had not looked at it in the NIV. You have provided me with much better support for my stand on abortion. Thanks again! I really appreciate your open-minded love of the Truth (2 Thess. 2:10), your ability to cut through to the heart of a matter, your research, and your willingness to speak out even when it is contrary to what most people think. God bless you in all you do as you seek Him and help others to see Him.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, for the past couple of weeks I have been anxious, restless, and unable to concentrate. Something has been nagging in the back of my mind, but I couldn't identify it. Then this morning, there is your article on abortion. Those words have brought to mind all the rage and hate my mother directed at me while she was alive. The family history (which comes from an aunt and my mother's mother) is that mother tried to abort me three different times, but was unsuccessful. She never forgave me for being born. Thanks to God, I have received help. Most of the time, I function very well. Once in a while I get "off track" and Satan comes in telling me how worthless I am since my own mother couldn't or wouldn't love me (my father didn't care for me either). Your abortion article shows me that I am not worthless. God meant for me to be born. He preserved my life in the womb. He has a plan for my life. It might take a few more hours of God's patient healing, but your words have started that process again. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

A widely used procedure to help parents have children, who have been previously unsuccessful for various reasons, is in vitro fertilization. In this process, eggs from the mother are fertilized with sperm from the father in a glass dish, and then implanted back into the mother. Excess embryos usually result from this procedure and may be destroyed if not used. If we assume that these embryos are human beings, that destruction is murder. Would it then be incumbent on us to find mothers who could use these embryos (a practical impossibility)? A Catholic Bishop said on TV that this practice was immoral, and that it should not be done. However, I have two beautiful granddaughters that wouldn't be with us today if not for in vitro fertilization. On this basis, I find it difficult to agree that this is immoral, or to feel that these embryos, which can only be seen with a microscope, are human beings.

From a Reader in Texas:

"Apostate Al" ... Sorry, I just couldn't resist that! Every time I think about you being called that I burst out laughing! I know it's very sad that some feel that way about you, but I guess I have a twisted sense of humor and simply find it funny. I wish that I had a nickname like that. Anyway ... I know you are incredibly busy so here's my question. I was reading some of your past Reflections. In Issue #79 you said that if anyone wanted a copy of Leroy Garrett's "Is Hell Fire Endless" article that you would send them one. If you can send me one through the email I would really appreciate it. Keep up the great work, and God bless you!

From an Elder in Missouri:

Another sensitive and well-written statement on a very difficult subject. I witnessed the birth of our two precious daughters and can attest to the "miracle" of birth and its being a blessed gift from the Lord. The topic of abortion seems to always draw battle lines when discussed, but needs to be addressed with the kind of sensitivity and judgment you displayed in your article. We live in perilous times and must take a stand. At the same time we must not "throw the baby out with the bath water" and condemn those who have made the terrible choice for whatever reason. Jesus promises forgiveness for them too if they repent!

From a Well-Known Author/Lecturer:

Good Morning, Al. I want to commend you for your good work in the Reflections you send out. The church needs men who will think. It helps keep us from staying in ruts. You do a lot of objective and valuable research. Your work is a good influence on the church. Of course, we are all subject to inaccuracy, even when we think and research objectively. But, it is still a healthy practice. I wish everyone would embrace it. Keep up the good work.

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