Judging by many modern descriptions of what a cult or totalist aberrant Christian organization is, Jesus and His discipleship group and Paul with his discipleship group would be classified as cults or totalist aberrant Christian groups.
“Totalist” means “centralized control by an autocratic leader; dictatorial” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). “Aberrant” means “deviating from the usual, normal, or right” (Webster).
Today, many religious and Christian people and churches are defining/describing/classifying a cult in terms of its organization, leadership, and methods rather than by its teachings/doctrines/beliefs. Traditionally, a Christian cult was a group that identified itself as Christian or with Christianity but deviated from orthodox, biblical Christian beliefs.
Dr. Charles Braden, professor of History and Literature of Religions at NW University, stated, “I define a cult as any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture” (The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 11). Though this definition is of a cult in general, Dr. Braden does focus on the belief system as the major determining factor as to whether or not a group is cultic.
Bob Larson, president of a well-known religious organization dealing with contemporary culture, evaluates a group as cultic, “if they ignore or purposely omit central Apostolic doctrines, or if they hold to beliefs which are distinctly opposite to orthodox Christianity” (Larson’s Book of Cults, pp. 31, 32). The word “orthodox” means “conforming to established doctrine” – what the Bible states and the New Testament Church taught.
Elliot Miller, cult researcher with Christian Research Institute, states that, “From the standpoint of orthodox Christianity, … a cult is a group of persons polarized around a heretical interpretation of religious truth.” The word “heretical” means “unorthodox”.
Bob and Gretchen Passantino, directors of an evangelistic resource ministry in California, state that, “Christians have usually defined the term ‘cult’ by doctrinal or theological standards” (Moody, Nov., 1992).
The Cult Awareness organization of Colorado states that, “A cult is a group of people around some one’s interpretation of the Bible and/or life. When examined under the light of the Bible and orthodox Church history, they always end up denying one or more of the foundations of the Christian faith.”
Ed Hindson, writing in Dr. Jerry Falwell’s Fundamentalist Journal, Oct., 1985, p. 21, states that religious cults “are heretical schisms from orthodox belief and practice”.
Brooks Alexander, research writer for the Spiritual Counterfeits Projects organization in their Jan/Feb 1979 newsletter Vol. 5, No. 1, states that the meaning of the word cult “designates a teaching, group, or movement which deviates from orthodoxy while claiming to represent the true faith. In this sense, a cult can be recognized by defining it in relation to some standard of orthodox belief. In the Western world that standard has usually been one of orthodox Christianity …” “…when the Christian Church first appeared as such on this planet, it was technically a ‘cult’ of Judaism insofar as it differed from the dominant ‘orthodoxy’ of its day. In any event, this concept of ‘cult’ as an unorthodox deviation has prevailed until recently. Within the last decade or so, however, sociologists, popular authors, and the secular press have begun to use the word in new and often poorly defined ways. Today controversy seethes in the academic world as to what (if anything) the term cult does mean.”
“We can at least identify and exclude uses of the term that are plainly inaccurate, inadequate, or misleading. In the first place the concept of ‘cult’ should not be equated with the intensity of commitment or involvement which is characteristic of the so-called high-demand group. Nor is an aggressiveness of proselytizing cultish in itself. Both of these qualities – in one form or another – are basic to authentic Christianity, for example. Jesus’ call to discipleship is nothing if not high demand, and His command to ‘preach the gospel to all creation’ (Mk. 16:15) certainly proposes an ambitious scheme of evangelism.”
If the standard of measure in determining what is right and, therefore, what should be normal or usual is the Bible properly interpreted, then what is normal/usual today in terms of the typical church and Christian life may be (and in fact is) wrong and abnormal, while a minority Christian group or follower of the Bible correctly interpreted will be right/correct. What a majority thinks, believes, or acts out doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right, as the Bible abundantly shows (Gen. 6:5-13; Ex. 23:2; 32:1-10; Num. 12:1-12; 1 Ki. 18:21-40; 22:2-18; Jer. 2:8, 13, 26-28; 32:32; Dan. 9:6, 10; Matt. 23:27-34, 37; Rev. 3:1-4).
If the overwhelming majority of churches and Christians today are carnal, worldly, materialistic, disobedient, and misinformed as to the truths of the Bible, then an obedient Christian or group might be labeled a cult, when in actuality they are the biblically correct ones.