Dr. Bart Barber’s latest piece states the following proposition in its title: “Why Mormonism Is a Cult and Should be Called One.” Bart begins his piece by stating his principled disagreement with three Southern Baptists over the issue of whether “cult” is a proper and useful category in which to place Mormonism. He states >>>
“I find myself today disagreeing with Richard Land, Ed Stetzer, and Peter Lumpkins… 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).
The subsequent criticisms Dr. Barber makes toward those he named focuses primarily upon Dr. Ed Stetzer’s piece on Between the Times blog, a piece I commended to readers as a helpful contribution in developing a healthy perception toward Mormons and Mormonism. So, while I offer below a brief response to Dr. Barber’s piece, in doing so, I am defending neither Dr. Stetzer nor Dr. Land’s understanding of this issue. Rather I only desire to further clarify my own thoughts about the issue while brotherly scrutinizing Dr. Barber’s.
First, Barber states categorically that Mormonism is a cult and that all three men with whom he disagreed at least agreed with him on that point. The difference, according to Barber, is the precise context where “cult” is actually used. Presumably Barber is alluding to Stetzer’s pragmatic approach to evangelizing Mormons in contrast to theological discourse:
So what is my advice for being on mission during this “Mormon Moment” and beyond? When we are setting out to theologically define religions, we should call it what it is– a theological cult. But if you want to reach people (particularly Mormons) for Christ, then drop the cult language as your starting point.
In response, I cannot agree with Barber’s categorical pronouncement that Mormonism is a cult—at least at this chapter in the story and certainly not without reservations.1 Recall Barber desires to inform his readers why Mormonism is a cult and therefore should be called a cult. Even so, Barber offers little convincing evidence for his pronouncement as to why Mormonism is a cult but insists nonetheless we ought to call Mormonism a cult.
If I read Dr. Barber correctly, it appears he proposes at least two reasons for employing “cult” as a definitive category for Mormonism. The first reason is pragmatic. In response to Stetzer’s focus on turning down the rhetorical volume if we want to win Mormons to whom we personally witness, Barber responds with an insightful personal experience overseas:
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.
In response, while I’m sure there are numerous occasions which call for missionaries teaching on various “cults” and “world religions,” I personally find little comfort in a Senegalian animistic chief simply being informed that a particular group is a “cult.” Not to come across simplistically, but shouldn’t our missionary focus be on teaching correct belief about Who Jesus is before we begin making pronouncements about other thoroughly Americanized “cult” groups? What would a Senegalian animistic chief actually know about what constitutes a “cult” anyway? In short, I am just not as joyous about it as Bart appears to be.
More significantly, Bart seems to embrace the clear presumption that witnessing in a difficult context remains “a little bit easier” if the people-group a priori had been warned not to be hospitable toward certain religious folks. Granted. But that is a sharp blade which slings both ways, for I’m quite sure there are global contexts where we Southern Baptists would have loved to have been, at minimum, on a level playing field with say, Roman Catholics, who in some contexts, reference us as a dangerous, deviant group, if not an outright cult. I remain convinced that our missionaries would have appreciated it had they not been a priori dismissed from the village before they could unpack their bags since they were dubbed so "dangerously deviant" by enemies of our commission.
For my money, making it a “little bit easier” to witness is not necessarily a strong reason to categorize Mormons as cultists. On the other hand, let’s suppose Barber is correct; that is, the missionary who named JWs a “cult” made it a “little bit easier” for Barber to witness. But is this not precisely Stetzer’s point? He says, “if you want to reach [Mormons] for Christ, then drop the cult language as your starting point.” Stetzer wants the same result as does Barber—“a little bit easier” to witness. The difference between Stetzer and Barber is neither result nor context per se as Barber suggests. Rather the difference is what works in different contexts. Both Stetzer and Barber, at least at this juncture, dip from the very same pot—pragmatic evangelistic strategy. In short, Barber is not as far from Stetzer as he imagines.
Added to pragmatism--the first reason Barber employs as to why he thinks Mormonism is a cult, and therefore we should call it a cult—is a second and more worthy reason, a biblical reason. Barber indicates that if we look to Scripture as our guide, then we will be forced to be stronger rather than weaker in our assessment of Mormonism. He writes:
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?
In response, we assume Barber is referencing Galatians 1:6-9 and applying it to Mormonism. The text reads:
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (NASB).
So, who disagrees with the Apostolic anathema? Neither Land nor Stetzer decategorized Mormonism as holding to a “false gospel” or a “different gospel.” Nor did they imply Mormonism has not and does not “distort the gospel of Christ.” Nor do I, of course. What Barber fails to show is how holding to a false gospel or distorting the gospel requires that the offenders be particularly and definitively categorized as a “cult.” Leaving aside the fact that Barber nowhere in his piece informs us what a cult is, he nonetheless wants to associate the anathama specifically with Mormonism.
Understand: I haven’t the least reservation in classifying Mormonism as embracing a false gospel, a false religion, and indeed constitutes an accursed religion. Anathama if you please. But I would say the same thing about Roman Catholicism and perhaps even Judaism. Paul may be speaking of those preaching a false gospel or distorting the gospel but that doesn’t make Mormonism a cult because they also hold a false gospel any more than it makes Roman Catholics a cult because they hold a false gospel.
Imagine us arguing John F. Kennedy was a member of a cult; or, Richard John Neuhaus was involved in a cult; or, why not blast Vice-Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, as equally belonging to a false-gospel “cult” group as does his senior, Mitt Romney, since Ryan is a Catholic? Even so, since “cult” is nowhere to be found in the Galatians passage, it hardly does Barber’s cause any good to appeal to the Apostle.
Nor does Barber’s appeal to Jesus’ words to the seven churches of Asia assist his point. While Jesus did have harsh language for the Asian churches—“synagogue of Satan” and “Jezebel”—Barber seems to forget Jesus’ words were to the churches’ own members inside the fellowship. Hence, His words weren’t intended to necessarily instruct believers on how to relate to those outside the church. But even if the application to those outside the church is warranted, there is no reason for us to necessarily apply the term “cult” to Mormonism. It simply does not follow.
Therefore, I can only conclude that since Dr. Barber offers little, if any, substantial reason to categorically identify Mormonism as a cult, then it does not seem expedient that we should identify them a cult. Another way to state it is--if we are not biblically required in principle to do so, it seems to follow that Dr. Barber has no warrant to insist we do so.
Perhaps Dr. Barber or another will, in the future, offer biblical, theological, and sociological evidence so compelling that conservative Christians can do no other than state unequivocally Mormonism is a cult. I gladly welcome the discussion.
Until then, however, the jury is still out for me.
1the obvious question is, have I ever considered Mormonism a cult and/or have I ever referenced Mormons as belonging to a cult? The simple answers are yes and yes...