After first learning about the doctrines held to by those of us in the body of Christ, referring to what is sometimes known as “Concordant” theology, some Christians will accuse us of being in a cult, which is pretty ironic, for reasons that should become clear after reading this post.
Now, to be fair, any group of people dedicated to a particular topic can, by definition, be called a cult. Anyone who is as big a fan of Star Trek as I am, for example — referring to those of us who are sometimes known as Trekkies — can legitimately be said to be in a cult, but it’s not a cult by the typical understanding of the word, and it’s basically a harmless cult (die-hard fans of specific sports or other sorts of activities can also be said to be in a similar sort of cult). I’m talking about harmful, authoritarian cults in this post, however, and for the most part, fans of specific sports and/or science fiction series aren’t harmed by enjoying these things, so we’re going to basically leave the more general definition of “cult” (which is perhaps more helpfully labelled as a “sub-culture”) aside for now and focus on the harmful, religious sort of cult that most people think of when they hear the word.
When it comes to these harmful sort of cults that I’m discussing in this post, Dr. Steven Hassan is generally recognized as the leading expert on the topic, and he’s come up with what is known as “the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control” for recognizing whether one is in such a group or not, with “BITE” standing for: Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. You can find a lot of the details explained on his website here, and I’ll be using the breakdown of each of the four parts of BITE listed on that page for the rest of this article, so please go check it out before proceeding.
Once you’ve looked over that list, you can take a look at some of the points in the four categories and see if they apply to the Christian religion, as well as to the body of Christ. We’ll do them in order:
B — Behaviour Control
- Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates: This doesn’t necessarily apply to all denominations within the Christian religion, but some of the more conservative denominations definitely do, especially when it comes to marriage (they misapply the advice to not be “unequally yoked” to marriage, and while it is helpful for spouses to have common ground, this wasn’t specifically what Paul was talking about in that passage). As far as the body of Christ goes, we don’t tell anyone who they can or can’t live or associate with. Some of us might choose not to fellowship with specific individuals who have left the faith (in the “gathering as the church” sense), but it’s far more common that those who stop believing as we do simply stop fellowshipping with us.
- When, how and with whom the member has sex: This has somehow become the most important part of the Christian religion in most denominations, or at least it sure seems that way based on what they say. Most Christians insist that only people of the opposite sex from each other who happen to be legally married to each other in a monogamous relationship are allowed to have sex with each other. Those of us in the body of Christ, for the most part, do not have these rules. As long as one isn’t breaking the law of the land or worshiping other deities in their sexual activities, we generally don’t care what one does with their genitals.
- Control types of clothing and hairstyles: While most Christians don’t have specific dress codes (although some do), Christians often insist that women shouldn’t dress in “provocative” clothing that might cause men to “lust.” And just try showing up to a Christian church service in a bathing suit. Meanwhile, most of us in the body of Christ know what “lust” in Scripture is actually a reference to, and we know that it has nothing to do with how one dresses, or to do with enjoying the way someone looks, or even to do with fantasizing about someone in a sexual manner.
- Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting: Not really an issue with most denominations, but a small number of them do have dietary rules, as well as prescribed times of fasting (such as Lent). As for us, well… we don’t.
- Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence: Not a problem with all denominations, but some do require tithing, as well as other sorts of monetary “offerings,” and those that preach the so-called prosperity gospel often do manipulate their members into giving the leaders more money than they can afford to. Meanwhile, few of us ever ask anyone for money, aside from the few of us who might charge for a book we’ve written (and even then, many of us tend to give them away for free), or to help cover the cost of a conference one might attend (but it’s never mandatory).
- Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet: Some are worse than others, but anyone who hints that they might attend less church meetings is familiar with the guilt they’ll feel, or that will be imposed upon them, for thinking about “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” (A phrase that has nothing to do with “going to church” at all, by the way.) Few of us in the body of Christ, on the other hand, live close enough to other believers to meet at all regularly, and many never even meet another believer in person throughout their life, other than perhaps at the odd conference (which is never required).
- Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative: Aside from the obvious threat of never-ending torment or permanent annihilation after death if you don’t do or believe the right thing(s), some of the more strict denominations also practice this to various extents in other manners too. You definitely won’t find that happening in the body of Christ, though, since we believe that all actions and beliefs are predetermined anyway.
- Discourage individualism, encourage group-think: I think it goes without saying that this is how the majority of Christian denominations act, at least it sure does in my own experience. As for those of us in the body of Christ, we basically have 7 “core doctrines” that nearly everyone holds to, but these aren’t even a statement of faith one is required to sign so much as what everyone in the body comes to eventually believe by the guidance of the Holy Spirit (although most of us would argue that one does need to understand and believe Paul’s Gospel to be a member of the body of Christ), and beyond those, one can interpret Scripture basically however they like and still be considered members.
- Impose rigid rules and regulations: Rules and regulations are an important part of most Christian denominations. Those of us in the body of Christ do tend to encourage following those of Paul’s exhortations that are relevant to us, as we understand them, but they aren’t rules one is required to follow “or else,” since “all is allowed us,” even if not everything is expedient.
I — Information Control
- Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information: This isn’t something all Christian denominations do, but I have met quite a few Christians who believe that they should only read the Bible and nothing else, as far as studying theology goes. There are definitely no such restrictions among those in the body of Christ (you can read whatever you want, as far as we’re concerned).
- Encourage spying on other members: I doubt this is practiced in most denominations, but gossip is definitely a big problem among Christians, and spying does happen in some churches. There’s no reason for this to happen among the body of Christ, though, since we generally don’t care much what others are doing (we tend to mind our own business).
T — Thought Control
- Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth: Very true in most Christian denominations. To be fair, it would be weird for a religious group not to encourage this, and even the body of Christ encourages it as far as our own doctrines go, but we certainly don’t require it of anyone.
- Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words: This is basically the basis of the Christian religion. You’ll hear all sorts of loaded language, including phrases such as ”damned to hell” or ”free will,” not to mention that you’ll hear people saying things like, “Ask Jesus into your heart,” or “God is a gentleman, so He wouldn’t force salvation on anyone,” among other unscriptural and meaningless expressions that keep one from understanding the truth. In fact, there are so many terms which Christians use that outsiders don’t understand without having them explained that these phrases fall under the label of “Christianese.” Now, to be fair, I don’t think this is necessarily a sign of a cult on its own, since all groups use lingo that outsiders won’t necessarily be familiar with, and those of us in the body of Christ use language that is unfamiliar to most Christians and others ourselves (although the reason some of the language many members use is so unfamiliar to most Christians is simply because, until very recently, most English-speaking members of the body have tended to favour literal translations of Scripture over the less literal Bible versions over the last century, since the less literal versions can lead to cognitive dissonance and other confused and contradictory conclusions if one isn’t extremely careful about how they interpret these versions), so it’s more a matter of whether it’s used in conjunction with a number of the other points mentioned in the BITE model or not.
- Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts: Enough said, as far as Christians go, whereas we aren’t into that sort of mind control.
- Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member: Have you ever attended a “worship service” prior to the taking of the offering and the sermon at church? It’s all about getting you into a mindset of being open to suggestion. And the more liturgical church services have similar results. Meanwhile, at the odd gathering of our ecclesia, you’ll rarely even hear any music, and you definitely won’t be put into a trance state prior to a discussion, or prior to listening to a presentation by one of our teachers.
- Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism; Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed: Don’t criticize the “man of God” or the pastor — or any doctrines in the statement of faith, not to mention the various creeds — under any circumstances in most Christian churches. Meanwhile, if you follow the public teachings of any of our brothers for very long you’ll find plenty of public disagreement when it comes to certain topics, but we’re still able to remain friendly with each other (for the most part, although there are some exceptions to this, unfortunately, since some teachers are a little less thick-skinned than they probably should be, but nobody is rejected).
- Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful: To be fair, I don’t actually see this as necessarily being problematic, as long as we’re careful not to take it too far. Anyone with any form of doctrines is going to do this to some extent, and I think it’s fine as long as it isn’t labelling good things as evil or evil things as good (which, sadly, a lot of Christians do).
E — Emotional Control
- Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish: I’m sure it goes without saying that this happens in most Christian denominations. That said, some things are evil, wrong, or selfish. The problem is, most things Christians tend to think fall into those categories often aren’t.
- Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault: So true in so many Christian denominations. As far as the body of Christ goes, we don’t actually have any leaders or human hierarchy to begin with (we have some teachers, but none of them have any authority whatsoever over anyone else in the ecclesia), and “the group” that makes up our ecclesia is so diverse that it would be difficult for anyone to ever blame it for something, but if we could somehow be blamed for something, I feel like we’d take responsibility (at least I sure hope we would).
- Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness: That’s basically the main point of most of Christianity, whereas most of us in the body of Christ will tell you that you should reckon yourself dead to sin (meaning that sin no longer has any authority over you, and that one should just ignore sin altogether rather than worry about it at all), so why would you still feel guilty when sin has been entirely dealt with for almost 2,000 years?
- Instill fear: There’s so much fear within the Christian religion of things like never-ending punishment in “hell,” of “losing one’s salvation,” of being punished by God even in this lifetime, not to mention fear that one was never truly saved to begin with. We, on the other hand, will point out that everyone has already been guaranteed salvation (at least from an absolute perspective), and that God is not reckoning our offences against us.
- Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner: This isn’t necessarily the norm among all denominations, thankfully, but it is still common in some of the more strict churches. As far as the body of Christ goes, see the last point.
- Phobia indoctrination — inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority: Again, not necessarily the norm within Christianity, but it definitely does happen more than it should, whereas you won’t find this in the body of Christ at all (especially since we believe in “eternal security,” even as far as relative salvation goes within the body).
I didn’t cover every single point in the list, but that should be enough to point out how the Christian religion seems to fit the definition of a harmful cult, and why membership in the body of Christ is extremely different. Of course, I’m well aware that the idea that only a relative few are chosen by God to believe the truth in this lifetime, as we teach, and that even all the other Christian Universalists out there who don’t understand and believe Paul’s Gospel as we do aren’t a part of the body of Christ, is a pretty exclusivist claim, and it’s easy enough to see why this might make the body of Christ seem like a cult to some. There are lots of small churches or denominations within the Christian religion that we left behind which make similar sorts of claims, after all, stating that only they are among the elect and that everyone else is going to suffer in hell forever (even all the other Christians), and they definitely are cults.
One thing that makes the body of Christ different, as the above breakdown of the BITE model helps makes clear, is that there’s no threat of never-ending torment in “hell” for those who haven’t been blessed with faith by God to believe Paul’s Gospel, and the whole point of Paul’s Gospel is that everyone, even those who don’t believe it, will still be saved whether they believe it or not. Because Christ died for our sins, was entombed, and was roused the third day, every single person will one day be resurrected (if they’re dead) and made immortal, and hence sinless (no longer subject to corruption and failure), which is what salvation is ultimately all about (it has nothing to do with being saved from an imaginary torture chamber called “hell,” and everything to do with being saved from subjection to mortality, death, and failure, also known as sin). The only real difference between believers and unbelievers from this perspective is that God chose to let some people believe the truth now and experience salvation a little early, but everybody is still going to experience it at their appointed time.
Another thing that differentiates the body of Christ from the Christian religion is that there are no authoritarian leaders telling us what to do in the body. Yes, we do believe (for the most part) that there are certain things one must believe in order to know they’re in the body of Christ (but not that those beliefs are what save us or bring us into the body; we believe the truth only because God has elected us for membership in the body, and has then given us knowledge of the truth as evidence of said membership), but nobody is telling us what to do, or begging us (or forcing us) to give them money, or making us shun our family members and friends who don’t believe similarly to us, or threatening us with negative consequences if we stop attending our local assembly on a regular basis (as if many of us can even find enough brothers and sisters to fellowship with in person where we each live to make up a local assembly).
So if you’ve ever worried that you might be in one, as a member of the body of Christ, you can rest assured that you’re not in a cult (outside of the broader definition of “cult” that every group falls under). And yes, I’m sure that many cult leaders give the same sort of reassurance to their members. Fortunately, the only ones we’re following are Paul (from a relative perspective) through his epistles, and Christ and God (from an absolute perspective) through Paul’s writings and by the leading of the Holy Spirit. We might have other teachers who help us understand what Scripture means a little better, but none of them are expecting you to obey them or even believe that what they teach can’t possibly be wrong in some regards.
Although, if someone does want to try to argue that our ecclesia actually is a harmful sort of cult, I’d certainly be curious to hear what it is we do that leads you to believe that’s the case.