Letters to UMC.org–Thinking about Cults

Picture by Alonso Javier Torres via FlickrNot too long ago, I received the following e-mail asking for a response to the following question:

Are the Amish and the Mennonites cults? Do we Methodists believe they are?

Here’s my response:

Dear friend,

   To start off, you need to define what you mean by cult. In one sense, ALL religious movements can be technically defined as cults in that we develop rituals and practices focused around a figure of worship (in our case, Jesus Christ). I’ve found the Wikipedia article here helpful in providing an overview of how the word cult has come into usage, and may help you think about your own definition.

   My sense is that you are asking if these groups engage in practices that are bizarre, abnormal, or out of the mainstream. Again, this may not be a helpful definition since there are many religious groups whose practices seem abnormal when measured against modern culture, but who aren’t tarnished with the word "cult." In example, I just spent a week in a Roman Catholic, Benedictine monastery with a group of 130 monks who gave up all their possessions, committed themselves to a life of moderation and celibacy, and who gather together five times each day for prayer. These practices are abnormal when compared to modern, American society, but only the most conservative fringe groups would say that they are a part of a cult.

  Ultimately, my definition of cult is related to three things — the degree to which authority is placed in a single, charismatic, leader with little or no system by which to hold that leader accountable; the unwillingness of the community to be in relationship with other believers and the world; and consistency in practices with the witness of scripture and church tradition.

  In example, consider the Branch Davidians in Waco, or the Jim Jones group in South America. In both cases total trust was placed in charismatic leaders who claimed to have special revelations from God, who isolated individuals from their families, and who engaged in sexual practices with members that were inconsistent with the witness of the bible. In both cases, these leaders had no means by which to be held accountable by the community, and worked to separate these communities from contact with the outside world. In both cases, this led innocent people to their deaths in their misplaced devotion toward these leaders.

   So, in thinking about your question, do the Amish or Mennonites fit this description?

   Not at all. While both groups maintain a particular interpretation of the scriptures in defining their practices, these practices are in fact rooted in the scriptures and their traditions of faith. In both cases, trust is placed in God, but not in a specific leader who defines the parameters of faith to the community, and there are communal systems of accountability to ensure that insane leaders cannot abuse their power. In both cases (more so with Mennonites than Amish) there is contact with the outside world, albeit one that emphasizes their radical approach to faith and life. Both traditions are belief systems which hold out choice in adopting the lifestyle, in fact, Amish kids of a certain age are encouraged to live with abandon in the world prior to taking the final community vows so that they can fully understand what they are agreeing to.

    Do these groups have radical understandings of faith, beliefs and practices which connect their worship of Jesus with how they live their lives? Absolutely, and the Kingdom of God could benefit from more people who embrace faith in Jesus Christ holistically as they do. They have understood that the call to follow Jesus is not simply a Sunday thing, but a lifetime thing that involves their whole lifestyle. While I may not interpret the scriptures in the same way so as to have a lifestyle similar to theirs, I absolutely respect their commitment to living out their faith with their whole lives.

    Are these groups Christian? Given their response of forgiveness to the family of a crazed killer’s family following that killer’s murder/suicide of 12 young girls in an Amish community school house, I don’t think there is any way that you can keep from understanding them as followers of Jesus. THEY take seriously Christ’s call to forgive, and they practiced what they preached in offering love and support to a wife and kids of a man who had just taken their kids from them. If that’s not sacrificial love in action, I don’t know what is.

    I hope you are well,


How would you have responded to this question? What are the parameters that define the difference between a cult with that of a group that simply has a radical and counter-cultural approach to faith? What is your witness about the faith of our Amish and Mennonite brothers and sisters?

Picture by Alonso Javier Torres via Flickr

One thought on “Letters to UMC.org–Thinking about Cults

  1. Jay,
    Having produced a memorable research paper on “cults” during my college years (we will not discuss how long ago), I must wholeheartedly agree with your three point summation of what makes a cult. The primary point and ultimate determinative factor being the “one” at the top and the group’s ultimate view of the true “One” that sits at the right.

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