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Definitions of terms; history

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Topics covered in this essay:

bullet Overview of the Counter Cult Movement (CCM)
bullet Definitions of Terms
bullet History of the CCM
bullet In ancient times
bullet In modern times
bullet Umbrella groups and denominations which sometimes perform a CCM function

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Overview of the Counter Cult movement (CCM):

The CCM generally target groups that regard themselves as Christian but who hold some unorthodox, non-traditional beliefs. Examples of the latter are the  Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the "Mormon church), the Unification church, Christian Science, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Some within the CCM also attack non-Christian faith groups. e.g. Agnosticism, Atheism, the New Age Movement, Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions. Some in the CCM consider the Roman Catholic church to be non-Christian at best, and a Pagan cult at the worst.

The CCM is almost entirely composed of conservative Christian individuals and agencies. They teach that any new religious group which rejects one or more of the historical Christian beliefs is a danger to the welfare of its members, and to Christianity itself. This is consistent with their theology. Conservative Christians generally believe that the vast majority of humans are headed to Hell when they die. It is only by being saved that one can attain heaven. But if a person accepts the non-traditional beliefs of a new religious movement, then personal salvation may be jeopardized.

It is difficult to underestimate the motivation experienced by those in the CCM. They see tens of millions of North Americans naively believing falsehoods and being led down a path that leads to eternal suffering in Hell. They are desperate to save as many souls as they can.

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Definitions of some terms:

Religious terminology is confusing. People frequently assign different meanings to the same terms. Within the counter-cult movement (CCM), the following definitions are common:

bullet Christian:
bullet The term "Christian" generally means an individual or religious organization which accepts all of the historical beliefs of Protestantism, including the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, deity and resurrection of Jesus, virgin birth, heaven, hell, salvation by grace alone, etc.
bullet The CCM often do not regard such groups as the Roman Catholic church, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, liberal, and some mainline churches to be true Christian denominations. They are sometimes referred to as "sub-Christian."
bullet Liberal Christians, many mainline Christians and non-Christians generally regard all persons and groups who sincerely believe that they are following Christ to be Christian. This is the definition that we use on this web site.
bullet Cult: This is generally interpreted as a "snarl" word. Some of the many negative meanings of this word are used:
bullet By the media to refer to dangerous, destructive religious groups which have engineered mass murders.
bullet By the anti-cult movement (ACM), to refer mainly to faith groups who they feel engage in deceptive recruiting methods and inflict psychological abuse on their members.
bullet By the counter-cult movement (CCM), to refer mainly to Christian faith groups which hold one or more non-traditional religious beliefs. As one example, the Apologetics Index says that "A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible." 1

The term cult is almost always a hurtful term. Few groups willingly accept being called by that term. Since the word has so many different and mutually exclusive meanings, we recommend that it not be used as a stand-alone term. If you do use it, we suggest that you carefully modify the word to make its meaning clear, as in "benign cult" or "destructive cult." Even better is to use the emotionally neutral term "new religious movement." One sociologist, Jeffrey Hadden, uses the term "weird religion," 2 and finds that that term "opens minds more readily than either the language of new religious movements or cults and sects." Because the term "cult" is so ambiguous, we recommend that writers refer to groups by their actual name, rather than categorize them with the name "cult."

bullet Counter-cult movement: (CCM) An almost completely uncoordinated group of many hundreds of conservative ministries, mostly conservative Protestant. Their prime goal is to locate and expose what they perceive as the hazards of diversity of Christian theological belief. Most people in the CCM believe that they personally follow true Christianity. They oppose Christian faith groups which have one or more fundamental beliefs different from their own. Their goal is to educate the public and prevent them from accepting what the CCM groups believe are deviant, mistaken and dangerous beliefs. CCM activities can become confusing. One group's heresy is another group's orthodoxy. If faith group "A" regards group "B" to be a heretical cult, then "B" probably considers "A" to also be a cult.
bullet Anti-cult movement: (ACM) A group dedicated to raising public awareness of what they perceive are the dangers of cults. They see cults as engaging in deceptive recruiting techniques, and "in 'brainwashing,' 'mind control,' 'sinister manipulation,' 'creation of environments of totalism,' etc." 2 They consider the religious beliefs of new religious movements of minor importance. Some in the ACM have attempted to convince individuals to leave religious groups. Some have engaged in criminal acts in the past, such as kidnapping, assault, attempts at non-consensual brainwashing, etc., in order to force them to abandon their beliefs. Fortunately, such activities have now become rare.
bullet New Religious Movement: (NRM) an emotionally neutral term used to refer to recently created and usually small faith groups. We recommend this term in preference to "cult."
bullet Cult Apologists: A snarl term used by some in the anti-cult and counter-cult movements to criticize sociologists, theologians and other academics who study new religious groups. Unlike the CCM and ACM, most mental health professionals and religious academics find that almost all new religious movements are quite benign. They urge that such groups be free from religious harassment.

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History of the CCM in ancient times:

CCM groups has existed in some form since the dawn or organized religion. It has historically come in two forms:

bullet Intra-religious conflict is inevitable within any established orthodox religion. Various denominations may promote different spiritual beliefs, theological beliefs and ritual practices. Often, one group will become dominant, and declare the others to be heretics. Their motivation is to maintain doctrinal purity. In earlier years, the losers were forced to conform, or were jailed, or were exiled, or were exterminated. 
bullet Inter-religious conflict appears most frequently in countries lacking a wall of separation between church and state. Here, the dominant religious group may attempt to gain a religious monopoly by oppressing and persecuting minority faith groups - often with the help of their federal government. This has led to civil conflict, mass crimes against humanity and even genocide. The most notable recent case was the genocide perpetrated by the Bosnian Orthodox church members against the Muslim minority in Bosnia Herzegovina during the 1990s.

Perhaps the largest and most harmful counter-cult religious group in the West was the Christian church itself, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. They engaged in intra-religious wars of extermination, against Christian groups which they considered heretical, including the Cathars, Knights Templar, and others. But their prime targets were inter-religious. They carried out mass murders of Jews for not accepting Christianity.  They hunted down people who they called "Witches" and who allegedly worshiped Satan. The Christian churches burned alive (or hung) uncounted thousands of innocent people. Inspired by the teachings of the Church, civil courts in Western Europe judicially murdered tens or hundreds of thousands of persons accused of Witchcraft.

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The CCM in modern times:

Although much inter-religious conflict continues today in North America, the CCM is now largely focused on combating heresy within Christianity. There are now hundreds of groups 3 in the United States alone whose prime mandate is to preserve what they view as the doctrinal purity of Protestantism. They attempt to raise awareness among other Christians about the existence of new religious groups which are teaching beliefs different from traditional Christianity. They are sometimes referred to as "heresy hunters," "heresiologists," or "witch hunters." Although these terms are sometimes literally true, we advise against their usage, because they most people consider them emotionally laden, snarl words. The CCM views cultic activity as intentionally misleading individual believers away from the established faith to their eternal doom.

The CCM appears to be found almost exclusively within the conservative wing of Protestant Christianity, among Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals. This is to be expected, because conservative Christians tend hold fast to fundamental, historic Protestant beliefs. Most also believe that only a small percentage of the human race will attain heaven after death; the vast majority who are not "saved" will go to Hell. This motivates those in the CCM to try to convince as many people as possible to leave NRMs. Many CCM groups teach that while a person is in a NRM, their salvation is in doubt. Any groups that do not meet their minimum standards of belief are called sub-Christian, cultic or non-Christian. On the other hand, liberal and mainline Christian groups rarely, if ever, join the CCM. They tend to be more inclusive. They accept as Christian, many groups whose beliefs and practices vary greatly from their own. 

Many individuals in the CCM are ex-members of new religious movements. They entered a faith group because it appeared to offer advantages over more established denominations at the time. But, after some months or years, they became disillusioned and left. Some terminated their membership with a great deal of animosity - perhaps fueled by anger at having invested so much time and effort in what became, for them, a spiritual blind alley. Other CCM members are parents. Often their children had entered a faith group against the parents' wishes and were seen as wasting their time on spiritual matters when they should be committing their time to obtain higher education or further their work career. 

Jeffery Hadden wrote: "...counter-cultists and anti-cultists speak to different audiences. The counter-cultist aim their message at conservative Christian groups. They are prolific producers of books and pamphlets, as well as audio and video tapes from Christian radio and television. Most Christian book stores have a special section of cult literature.... Many of them are skilled communicators and they are often permitted to present their views virtually unchallenged to large television audiences." 2

Some CCM groups offer support services to persons who have recently left NRM faith groups. Sometimes, a person will be deeply involved in a high-demand religious organization and obtain most of their economic, social, spiritual, relationship, accommodation and other supports from that group. When they leave, they may need help to establish new support systems.

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Umbrella groups and denominations which are occasionally part of the CCM:

Sometimes individual denominations and national groups of denominations perform an anti-heretical, counter-cult function. A few examples are:

bullet Starting in the 1970's, the Southern Baptist Convention experienced an internal conflict between fundamentalists and moderates within the denomination. The more liberal wing lost the battle. One result was a purging of employees of the Convention on the basis of belief. Employees were required to sign a loyalty oath which specified that they held certain beliefs. For example, academics were required to affirm that they believed that the Gospels were written by four men whose names were Mark, Matthew, Luke and John -- a belief which many rejected.
bullet In the late 1990s, the membership of three congregations within the Southern Baptist Convention decided to study homosexuality. Like most religious conservatives, the Southern Baptists teach that homosexuality is chosen, changeable, abnormal, unnatural behavior which is hated by God. All three congregations rejected this traditional teaching as a result of their investigations, and decided to welcome gays and lesbians into their churches. The Convention expelled all three congregations for heresy.
bullet In late 2003, the National Association of Evangelicals, (NAE) an umbrella conservative Christian group of denominations, began an investigation of the University Bible Fellowship (UBF) on charge of heretical beliefs. An online petition was initiated tu urge the NAE to expel the group. The NAE voted to terminate UBF's membership in early 2004.

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Internet references, magazines, etc:

  1. "Cult: A theological definition," Apologetics Index, at:
  2. Jeffery Hadden, "On Cults and Sects," an essay in the "New Religious Movements" site at: 
  3. Keith E. Tolbert and Eric Pement, "1996 Directory of Cult Research Organizations", American Religion Center, PO Box 168, Trenton, MI 48183 (313) 692-7772.

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Copyright 1997 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-JUL-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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