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The Exclusion by Name-calling

by Stephen E. Robinson

In textbooks dealing with logical thinking the ad hominem fallacy is described as indulging in name-calling rather than actually answering an opponent's arguments. Ad hominem is Latin for "against the man," and an ad hominem argument focuses on the emotions and prejudices felt toward a person or group rather than on the logic of their arguments. Ad hominem arguments can be quite effective at winning support for an otherwise weak position by obscuring the real issues involved. Name-calling has often been used in religious controversies. Catholics called Protestants "heretics"; Protestants called Catholics "Papists"; both called Jews "Christ killers"; and all three have been labeled "infidels" by Muslims. But intellectually speaking the ad hominem tactic amounts to nothing more than saying, "Boo for your religion, and hurrah for mine."

The LDS Church as a "Cult"

The nasty name most frequently flung at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by its detractors is "cult." Undoubtedly the term is meant to call up images of Druids burning captives alive in wicker baskets, of painted priests flinging virgins into volcanoes, or of satanic rituals performed in the dark of the moon. When critics call the LDS church a "cult," the implied logic seems to be that there are objective criteria for distinguishing "cults" from "religions," and that since Mormonism is a "cult" and Christianity is a "religion," Mormons can't be Christians. One flaw in this logic is that there are in fact no such objective criteria for distinguishing cults from religions, as a quick look at Webster's Third New International Dictionary will show. There the pertinent definitions under the entry "cult" are as follows:

1: religious practice: worship 2: a system of beliefs and ritual connected with the worship of a deity, a spirit, or a group of deities or spirits 3a: the rites, ceremonies, and practices of a religion: the formal aspect of religious experience b Roman Catholicism: reverence and ceremonial veneration paid to God or to the Virgin Mary or to the saints or to objects that symbolize or otherwise represent them 4: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: a minority religious group holding beliefs regarded as unorthodox or spurious: sect. (1)

One can clearly see that in definitions 1, 2, and 3 there is no distinction between a cult and a religion --the terms are in fact quite synonymous. It is only definition 4 that comes close to the meaning desired by anti-Mormons. Use of the term cult in this latter sense, however, says nothing objective about a religion itself. Such language merely communicates a speaker's negative evaluation of the religion in question. With its negative connotations the term cult does not describe what a religion is, only how it is regarded, and simply means "a religion [usually one smaller or newer than mine] that I don't like." It is a word that communicates information about the speaker rather than about the thing described. Cult is therefore a totally subjective rather than objective term. To both the pagans and the Jews, earliest Christianity was a "cult," but this says nothing objective about Christianity except that it was disliked by those who so described it. There is no objective definition for the word cult in standard English that does what the anti-Mormons want it to do.

Nevertheless there have been many attempts to define cult in an objective way without losing the term's negative connotations. So far all these attempts have failed. Let us take, for example, the last and most ambitious definition proposed by the late Walter Martin. I single out this one only because, from a non-Mormon view, Martin is certainly the consensus expert on this subject, and in his latest and longest definition of cult he renders his most complete explanation of the term. In his proposed objective definition Martin lists ten characteristics common to cults which he believes distinguish them from legitimate religions. (2) At the conclusion of his list the author assures the reader that "we have presented here all of the essential marks which distinguish many of the new cults from the rest of society and from the biblical Christian church.'' (3)

The flaw, however, in the proposed definition--and the Achilles' heel for all such definitions of cult--is that any objective definition of cult that can be applied to THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints can also be applied to the Christian church of the New Testament and to most of today's mainline denominations when they were in their infancy. Let's examine Martin's ten points one at a time.

1. "Cults, new as well as old, are usually started by strong and dynamic leaders who are in complete control of their followers.''

Certainly Jesus Christ must be reckoned a strong and dynamic leader. Is there any doubt that Jesus was in complete control of his followers, or that the disciples would have done anything for him, including the giving of their lives? Jesus asked his followers to give up everything (see Matthew 19:27-29; 16:24-26), and on occasion refused permission to his disciples even to carry out social obligations to their families (Luke 9:57-62). Was New Testament Christianity a "cult" because Jesus was a strong and dynamic leader in complete control of his followers?

2. "All cults possess some Scripture that is either added to or which replaces the Bible as God's Word."

A major claim of the early Christian church was that the new covenant of the gospel and the New Testament that records it superseded the old covenant of the law of Moses and the Old Testament that records it (Galatians 3:24-29; Hebrews 8:7-13; 10:8-9). To the scriptures accepted during Jesus' lifetime as the word of God the Christians added at least four Gospels, a book of Acts, twenty-one Epistles, and an Apocalypse. The Jews were just as incensed at these spurious (from their point of view) additions to God's word in the period of the early Church as anti-Mormon critics are at the Book of Mormon today. Since the early Christians both added books to the previously accepted canon of scripture and insisted that the New Testament fulfilled and superseded the Old, this is another indication, using Walter Martin's definition, that early Christianity was a "cult."

3. "The new cults have rigid standards for membership and accept no members who will not become integrally involved in the group."

According to Jesus, "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7: 14). The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthian Christians that "if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat .... Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." (1 Corinthians 5:11, 13 .) Apparently the conditions for fellowship at Corinth were fairly strict. Paul went on to tell the Corinthians that "neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Surely if insistence upon high standards makes a religious movement a "cult," then early Christianity qualifies.

Furthermore, if insisting that members become integrally involved in the group is characteristic of "cults," what shall we do with Paul's demand in 2 Corinthians 6:14, 15, and 177 "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? . . . Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you."

It is hard for me to understand how anyone versed in the New Testament could believe that Jesus did not require a high standard of righteousness of his followers, or that he found a partial commitment to his gospel as acceptable as a total commitment. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. But because early Christianity demanded high standards and a total commitment, was it therefore a "cult"?

4. "Cultists often become members of one cult after membership in one or more other cults."

This part of the definition is circular, since you already have to know what a cult is before you can use the term. Even so, let us consider it briefly in an ancient context. From the viewpoint of the Jews and Romans both the movement of John the Baptist and that of Jesus were "cults." John 1:35-37 tells us that two of the disciples of John the Baptist later became disciples of Jesus, and it is likely that many others did as well. According to Martin's reasoning, this change of affiliation could indicate they were cultists.

5. "The new cults are actively evangelistic and spend much of their time in proselytizing new converts."

According to Matthew 28:19-20, after his resurrection Jesus told his disciples: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." The Apostle Paul certainly spent "much of [his] time in proselytizing new converts." Again the New Testament Church qualifies as a cult under this definition.

6. "Often we find that the leaders or officials of the new cults are not professional clergymen."

The Jewish high priests noticed this very thing about Peter and John, "that they were unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts 4:13). Jesus was a carpenter by trade; and Peter, James, and John were fishermen.

7. "All the new cults have a system of doctrine and practice which is in some state of flux."

Flux is a relative term. During the forty-day period following the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostles certainly learned a lot of new things that they hadn't known from the beginnings in Galilee (Acts 1:3). Some years after the resurrection of Jesus, Peter received a vision changing the Christian attitude toward Gentiles and the role of the law of Moses (Acts 10). Paul's private opinions about remarriage became Christian doctrine and biblical teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 12, 25, 40. In New Testament times the Church held a council to decide whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised (Acts 15); and beyond the New Testament period "orthodox" Christianity held many councils to determine or to clarify its doctrines and policies, from the Council of Nicaea to the Second Vatican Council in our own century. All of these councils settled questions neither asked nor answered in the Bible. Was Christianity "in flux" and a "cult" because its earliest leaders continued to receive revelations even after the ascension of Christ, or because the later church was still working out its view of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost centuries after the death of Jesus?

8. "In harmony with Christian theology, the new cults all believe that there is continual, ongoing communication from God. However, the cults differ from the biblical Christian church in believing that their new 'revelations' can contradict and even at times supersede God's first revelation, the Bible."

According to Walter Martin the contradiction of previous revelation by new revelation is a sure sign of a cult. Yet God has often given one commandment to his children at one time and then later replaced it with another. He did this to Abraham merely to test him (Genesis 22:2, 12). But the best example of God exercising his prerogative to command and then revoke comes in the case of the law of Moses, given to Israel by God and recorded in the Bible. This law was both contradicted (compare Genesis 17:7, 14 with Galatians 5: 1-4) and superseded (Galatians 3:24-29; Hebrews 8:7-13; 10:8-9) by later revelation. The early Christians simply believed that although God had spoken once upon Sinai and had given them scriptures, he now spoke to them again and had given new revelations that superseded the old ones. Many Jews continue to be scandalized that Christians, who worship the God of Israel, could ignore the law given to Israel on Sinai.

9. "The new cults claim to have truth not available to any other groups or individuals."

On one occasion, when many were offended at Jesus and were leaving him, the Savior turned to the Twelve and asked if they would also go away. Peter responded, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." (John 6:66-68.) The early Christians knew that there wasn't any other source for divine truth but Jesus. Jesus himself said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). In other words, Jesus offered to the early Christian church "truth not available to any other groups or individuals" from any other source. Again early Christianity qualifies as a cult under the proposed definition.

10. "The last major characteristic of the new cults concerns cultic vocabulary. Each cult has an initiate vocabulary by which it describes the truths of its revelation. Sometimes the 'in words' of a particular cult are the words of orthodox Christianity, but invested with new meanings .... At other times the cult may coin new words or phrases."

Much of the vocabulary of the New Testament Church came from Judaism. Some of the vocabulary retained its Jewish meaning (for example, Messiah and resurrection), but many of the old words (such as Israel, covenant, and grace) were defined and used in new ways. Older Jewish practices were given new meanings: the Sabbath meal became the Lord's Supper; the Jewish purification rite became Christian baptism; the Sabbath became the Lord's Day. Eventually new terms were coined, such as Millennium, Advent, Second Coming, or Trinity.

Thus we see that out of the ten characteristics proposed as objective criteria for identifying "cults," the early Christian Church manifests all ten--a perfect score. What does this tell us? Only that as an objective means of distinguishing false "cults" from legitimate "religions" the proposed definition fails, not because it's badly done but because what it attempts to do cannot be done. The word cult, used with negative connotations, is simply not an objective term, and attempts to make it such lead to absurd conclusions: by the ten-point definition proposed above, early Christianity was a "cult."

Now, certainly there are religions that many outsiders dislike, and we might all agree to call these religions "cults," but the label still describes only our common opinion of that religion and not the religion itself. There are simply no objective criteria for distinguishing religions from "cults."


To summarize, cult is a subjective word meaning, to the particular person using it, "a religion I don't like." When someone refers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a "cult," that simply tells us that the speaker doesn't like the Church. Christianity itself was once a new religion with dynamic leadership, strong in-group bonding, high moral expectations, and additional scriptures, all of which greatly offended the mainline religions of its day. Its leaders were not professionally trained clergy, but they did attempt to convert the world to a truth no one else had. By most of the objective definitions that have been proposed for the term cult, early Christianity was one. And so far any general definition of a cult that would fit the Latter-day Saints will also fit New Testament Christianity. But that's not bad company to be in.

(See Response to Criticism home page; General Criticism home page; Are Mormons Christians? home page)


1. The rest of the definitions under this entry refer to nonreligious uses of the term.

2. Walter Martin, The New Cults, (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1980), pp. 17-21.

3. Martin, New Cults, p. 21; emphasis added.

Are Mormons Christians?, Chapter 3

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