Non-denomination, cult or sect?

Those who have left the hardline “churches of Christ” often ask the question: Was I in a cult? They ask this because of the many cult-like attributes of their previous church:
1. Exclusivity: they believe they are the only ones saved. It is not okay to worship with any other religious groups. The only contact with other religious groups allowed is to evangelize them. Constant sermons and lessons on how bad other religious groups are, and how good the in-group is.
2. Control: they withdraw from those who leave or at least threaten withdrawal, and pronounce loss of salvation and the certainty of eternal hellfire for the one leaving the group.
3. Obedience: Three times per week attendance is mandatory, though only enforced by private and public rebukes.
4. Many areas of one’s life is proscribed: dating, sex, marriage, divorce, clothing, hobbies, alcohol use, language, movies, music, child-rearing, women’s submission to men, obedience to the preacher and elders.
5. Ten percent of one’s income is considered the minimum for contributing to the church, though this is usually not enforced, except for the threat of loss of salvation.

But this is only enough to define them as a sect. For instance up until Vatican II in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was considered a sect, having many of the same symptoms.

These symptoms are not quite enough to define the hardline Churches of Christ as a cult. There was a wing of the Church of Christ that did qualify as a cult for a period of about 20 years: the International Church of Christ. A cult has more control:
6. Telling each member where to live, usually communally.
7. A rigid mult-layered hierarchy: prayer-partner, house-leader, team leader, etc.
8. Daily worship times mandatory.
9. All dating, college course choices, friends, hobbies, and money spending supervised.
10. Constant pressure to give more money, to evangelize more.
11. Constant double-bind communication: You have to feel guilty either way you choose.

What ex-church of Christ members mean when they wonder if it is a cult or not, is that people underestimate the amount of stress generated when one leaves the “Church of Christ.” Family members are rude and make visits unpleasant. Invitations to family occasions and get-togethers are not forthcoming. Every area of one’s life becomes judged. Many ex-members exhibit the symptoms of PTSD, reluctant to go to any church of any stripe, for fear of getting into the same quagmire with another group, yet missing the pseudo-closeness of the group they left.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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14 Responses to Non-denomination, cult or sect?

  1. D says:

    That is exactly (sadly) how it is.

  2. Dawn Thomas says:

    oh wow! the person talking about their ptsd being worse from going to that church hit me. I have borderline personality disorder that has gotten seriously worse to the point of hurting myself and they could care less. I have to leave that place or I’m going to go crazy!

  3. I attend the churches of Christ, and have all my life. None of this is true, Except possibly 10% of your income going to the church. The OT commands this, and even though the churches of Christ are a non-cult NT church, we use the number as a guide. It is very Biblical to give with sacrifice. And no, threatening to take away salvation does not occur in most churches of Christ–because of the principal beliefs in the C of C is that man is not the head of the chruch, man does not decide doctrine, but that the Bible does. We don’t believe a human can give or take away Salvation.
    Also, the proscription of life, is wholly true. The Bible does give us a guide to a righteous life, and that’s what we follow not the words of some preacher but the Word of God. Even though not everything we deal with is in the Bible, the Bible offers a guide for every part of our life–but we don’t claim to be perfect.
    Never once has an Elder said or a preacher preached that only the C of C members are going to Heaven, at least in my experience with the C of C’s in the Northwest. The Bible–we always turn to the Bible–proscribes a Salvation plan. If you follow that, you’re in–but you don’t need to be a part of one church or another. Even if you had bad experiences, understand that that is not the doctrine of the C of C, but of sinful man. If you want to know what the C of C believes, read the New Testament.

    • Mark says:

      Hi Jake, Only about 20% of the Churches of Christ are hard line fundamentalist, 80% are more mainstream evangelical. You say you are not in the hard line group, but you use the same code words: We only follow the Bible, the Bible decides the doctrine, The Bible proscribes a Salvation plan, If you want to know what the C of C believes read the New Testament, etc.
      1. These are phrases that assume the C of C reads the Bible correctly and that anyone who disagrees with the C of C has not read the Bible correctly.
      2. These phrases also assume that the primary relationship of the Christian is with the Bible (and more specifically the New Testament, and even more specifically, the examples of how the early churches worshipped and organized).
      3. These phrases assume also that the doctrine that is supposedly contained in the New Testament is of primary importance. Not mentioned is that fact that Jesus did not ask for a format for worship services or an organization for congregations, yet the C of C maintains those are the most important doctrines in the New Testament. Yet the New Testament nowhere commands a specific format for worship. C of C churches that affirm this also affirm that the worship service formats were all the same throughout the New Testament churches. This cannot be proven, nor is it what Jesus asked for.

  4. garycummings says:

    It is amazing that the COC denies a lot of the religious crap to the outside world and to those who left, I was there for 6 years in the COC. I know this to be so. The ICOC/Kip McKean cults are [harder core] than the regular COC. I think personally about 80% of the COC is hardcore, and 20% are becoming evangelicals.
    Thanks, Gary

  5. Quinn says:

    I go to a Calvary Chapel and none of this is true and we identify as non-denominational so, before condemning all of non-denominational churches as “controlling” through “threats” check to make sure that every church does that and fyi I’ve gone to many Calvary Chapels and none of them have ever told be to go to church 3 times a week and that i cant watch a movie

    • Mark says:

      Hi Quinn, I certainly was not saying that all religious groups are sects or cults. I was only referring to the Restoration Movement group called “Churches of Christ” (acapella singing). I’m glad that you have found an encouraging place to worship and fellowship that is not a cult.

    • garycummings says:

      I have seen Calvary Chapel pastors in action and all I have seen are dictators.

  6. Tim says:

    Please tell me this…if the gospel was hidden from the world, until Christ used Campbell and Stone to “restore the church”, then why did Campbell seek out a baptist preacher to baptize him? Just askin’.

  7. Ken Ashworth says:

    Well. You’re incorrect on some things.

    • Mark says:

      Hi Ken, What things? The definitions of denomination, cult, or sect? Or the doctrines and practices of the hard line Churches of Christ?

  8. garycummings says:

    The Churches of Christ started by Daniel Sommer in 1889 is a cult. It isbased on a flawed understanding of faith and baptism, and has a mechanical “5 steps of salvation” and a “mechanical 5 acts of worship”. It is m y estimation that 80% of the COC is still hardcore.

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