CULTS (INSTITUTIONALIZED HERESIES)
We recommend that the term "cult" not be used (except in specific and controlled situations) because today it is usually associated with extremist groups like Jonestown and the Branch Davidians. It is because of this faulty understanding and the weakness of language that groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unity School of Christianity, etc. have made themselves acceptable to large segments of the Christian Church. Conversely, it could also be said that the designation "cult" has in the past been saddled on orthodox groups, merely out of ignorance or fear. Thus the term "cult" can be a misleading term. It is our opinion that the term cult is most applicable when a group exhibits destructive sociological behaviors that create extreme psychological damage, physical abuse, or even loss of life.
An Institutionalized Heresy is an organized group of people who have set themselves up in opposition to the historic church by their heretical beliefs. In most instances Institutionalized Heresies contain three elements. One element is always present, the other two may or may not be present, and they usually vary in degree.
A. First Element - Theological Deviation. This is the one characteristic that is always present. All Institutionalized Heresies take major orthodox Christian doctrines (nature of God, person of Christ, why He came, the Trinity, sin, etc.) and make them minor, or deny them althogether. Thus, they undercut the very foundations of historic Christianity.
B. Second Element - Sociological Aspects. Often these groups manifest extreme authoritarian patterns, unusual lifestyle characteristics, forced conformity patterns, subtle mechanisms to create intense loyalty and commitment to the organization or leader, elitism, etc. These groups are usually culture rejecting in their approach.
C. Third Element - Sensationalistic Accounts. These are the journalistic reports in the popular press that focus upon the dramatic and often bizarre aspects.
ABERRATIONAL CHRISTIAN GROUPS
Christian truth is like a plateau, there is much room for movement. Institutionalized Heresies are groups that have "fallen off" one end of the plateau. Aberrational Christian groups are on top of the plateau, but living on the fringes. Thus, they embrace the basics of Orthodox theology. However, whereas Institutionalized Heresies take that which is a major doctrine and make it minor, Aberrational Christian groups take that which is minor within Christian doctrine and make it major. This may be manifest in a stricter separation from the world, an over emphasis on the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, the use of only one translation of the Bible (KJV Onlyism), etc.
A recent phenomenon within this category is the growing number of highly destructive, essentially orthodox groups. These groups exercise a high degree of control over their members that subtly shifts their allegiance from Christ to the organization. To disobey the organization is to disobey Christ. To leave the organization is to leave the Kingdom of God. Thought reform, an elevated sense of guilt, the control of information that is critical of the group or its beliefs are common characteristics of many of these organizations. For a more detailed look at what consitutes an aberrational Christian group, please see "Eight Distinctives of an Aberrational Group"
Next: Heretical or Controversial Groups