What is the meaning of the word cult?


I'm confused about the meaning of the term "cult." Can you help? Should we use it within the confines of Christianity?


The word "cult" has various definitions. In French the word is culte and means "worship," originating from the Latin word cultus, also meaning the same. As it applies to religion, it may refer to a religion whose beliefs differ from other religions. For instance, a group like Christian Science denies the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the fact that Scripture is infallible, so they may be called a cult because this differs from Protestants who affirm these biblical truths. It may also refer to a religious group that sees itself as being rather exclusive. At times, this category may include secrecy and authoritarian figure head(s). But the term can also describe the fans or followers of certain music groups who are “idolized.” .

On the other hand, religions in general may be each classified as cults since religions are a particular group of individuals that have a certain set of beliefs that differ from other religious groups. Even Christianity itself may be properly referred to as a cult as it is a group of people who believe in a particular set of doctrines, distinguishing itself from atheists, agnostics, and others that practice various religions with differing beliefs. Interestingly enough, Augustine in essence declared that the Christian religion is nothing other than the cultus of God (The City of God, 10.1). Decades ago the printed schedule for Sunday worship for Protestant churches in newspapers in France used the heading Culte Reforme and for Catholic churches Culte Catholique. Therefore, when it is properly understood, the term "cult" is not derogatory. It is just descriptive in setting group beliefs apart from one another.

So, the word may be used in more than one way, but within Christianity it rightly describes those who do not agree with “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

This said, there is a biblical phrase that describes those that are more than a mere cult. It not only describes those that are different, but are of Satan himself. It describes the workers of iniquity (cf. Matt. 7:23). John calls them "the spirit of antichrist" (1 John 2:18-19, 22). These are those that have left "sound doctrine" (cf. Tit. 2:1) and the faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 1:3). These have embraced false doctrine (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1) and have denied in various way that Jesus is the Christ (cf. 1 John 2:18-19; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). Denominations such as Jehovah Witnesses, the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and even Christian Science which was mentioned above embrace the "spirit of antichrist." As Leon Morris states:

For John it is basic that in Jesus Christ that we see God acting for man's salvation ... When a man denies this he is not simply guilty of doctrinal error. He is undercutting the very foundation of the Christian faith. He is doing the work of Satan in opposing the things of God. At the end of the age this will characterize the work of the supreme embodiment of evil. And those who in a small way do the same thing now demonstrate by that very fact that they are his henchmen. [1]


[1] Quoted by Dr. Trent Casto in a sermon called "Real Enemies" on 4 Nov. 2018 at Covevant Church, Naples, Fl. (https://www.covenantnaples.com/Sermon-Series). Last accessed 10 Nov. 2018.

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).