In the 60s and 70s new and foreign spiritual and religious ideas and practices began to gain a foothold in the West. “Moonies,” Hare Krishnas, and others. They were strange, perplexing, and sometimes just plain annoying. The devotion of their new found followers, more often than not, previously normal, middle class and educated people, mystified many. Then, in 1978, one group, the People’s Temple, committed mass suicide in their compound in Guyana. Over nine hundred people drank cyanide laced Kool Aid at the command of their leader, Jim Jones. Time magazine’s headline was “Cult of Death.” The word cult may well have a long and varied history, but since then its popular usage has been pejorative. To label a group a cult is to warn others against associating with it.
In recent years it has become to habit of some within the Evangelical movement to label anyone who is different as a cult. One site I visited listed everything from other religions (Buddhism, Hinduism) to handwriting analysis and the martial arts as cults. Even some aspects of Judaism. Typically, a cult has become defined as any group that veers from traditional doctrinal beliefs. This is a definition that raises two immediate problems. The first is that it is less than honest. When a group is called a cult, it is done knowing the term will raise alarm and distrust amongst those unfamiliar with the group. It is a derogatory term and it is being used as such. The second problem is that there is more than one tradition within Christianity. There are, in fact, a great many traditions and even within each tradition a great deal of variety and interpretations. That doesn’t mean they are all right, that you should accept all doctrinal teachings as equally valid, but it does mean that the practice of denigrating others as cults is essentially to replace apologetics with slander.
As an example of the ridiculousness of all this, I return to the first question, is the Baptist Church a cult? The Baptist Church has long taught that baptism plays no role in our salvation. Instead, it represents an outward sign of an inward act. We are saved once we accept the Lord as our saviour and are baptized out of obedience to His commands. But is this really a traditional Christian doctrinal belief? Let’s look at five Churches. I start with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. I realize that many in the Evangelical movement reject much of what these two bodies profess, but they are the oldest Churches, with the oldest traditions. To counter these concerns I also look at three of the oldest Protestant Churches, the first to turn from Rome. What I have done is looked up their statements on baptism. I don’t mean to assert that all of them hold identical beliefs or that there aren’t differences within the groups, but they all agree that there is more to baptism than it simply being an outward sign.
It forgives all sins that may have been committed prior to a person's baptism including original sin and it relieves the punishment for those sins.Orthodox:
Christian baptism is the mystery of starting anew, of dying to an old way of life and being born again into a new way of life, in Christ. In the Orthodox Church, baptism is "for the remission of sins" (cf. the Nicene Creed) and for entrance into the Church; the person being baptized is cleansed of all sins and is united to Christ; through the waters of baptism he or she is mysteriously crucified and buried with Christ, and is raised with him to newness of life, having "put on" Christ (that is, having been clothed in Christ). The cleansing of sins includes the washing away of the ancestral sin.Calvinist (Presbyterian):
the faithfulness of God,
the washing away of sin,
putting on the fresh garment of Christ,
being sealed by God's Spirit,
adoption into the covenant family of the Church,
resurrection and illumination in Christ.
From the Thirty-Nine Articles:
XXVII. Of Baptism.Lutheran:
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.
Holy Baptism is God’s gracious act by which He bestows on the baptized the gifts of forgiveness of sins and adoption into His family.Again, I am not saying that these Churches hold identical views on baptism, or even that every church within their fellowships holds the same view (at least, in regards to the Protestants), but all of them have traditionally accorded baptism some role in our actual salvation. Unlike the Baptists. If a cult is any group that teaches something other than traditional Christian doctrines, where would that place the Baptists? Let’s look at two responses Baptists may make. The first would be to point out that their position can be dated as far back as the Anabaptist movement of the early Reformation. This is true, but it does raise the fact that there is more than one tradition in Christendom. A perfectly legitimate position for anyone to make, in fact, it’s the one I am making, but it that undermines the argument that anyone who teaching doctrines that differ from those of my tradition is in a cult.
A second response is to turn to scripture. A foundational Christian principle (at least within the Protestant traditions) is sola scriptura: by scripture alone. The Bible is the final authority on doctrine. All others are subject to it. Only teachings that are in the Bible, or can be logically deduced from scripture, are true. Anything that contradicts scripture cannot be accepted as true. What does the Bible say about baptism and salvation?
(I am quoting the ESV.)
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.Just as the ark saved Noah and his family from the flood, God’s judgement on mankind, so baptism now saves us.
And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.Acts 22:16
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.'In the first scripture (2:38) Peter has just preached and the crowd responded by asking how to be saved. He told them to repent and be baptised and that God would fill them with the Holy Ghost. Why were they to be baptised? “For the forgiveness of your sins.” In the second scripture (22:16) Paul is recounting his own conversion. Jesus had stopped him in his tracks and revealed Himself, and calling Paul to preach the gospel, but Paul still had to be baptized and have his sins washed away.
I have known Baptists respond to these scriptures by asserting that we are saved by faith alone. That anything else is ‘works’. That doesn’t really explain how these scriptures could mean anything but that baptism is a part of God’s salvation plan. It’s a teaching, formally called sola fide, goes all the way back to Martin Luther. But what did Luther have to say about baptism?
To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save. No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to 'be saved.' To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever.Obviously he say no contradiction in the ideas the we are saved by faith in Christ redemption alone, and that Jesus requires all His followers to be baptized in order to enter into that redemption. Baptism is not a work of the flesh.
If our doctrines are to be built on scripture alone we must not try to explain away what these three scriptures - 1 Peter 3:18-22, Acts 2:38 and 22:16 - say. Each explicitly link salvation and baptism. To say otherwise is to distort the literal, obvious, plain meaning of the text.
Before moving on I want to talk about two examples of just that kind of behaviour. There are two other scriptures linking salvation to baptism and some responses I have heard could only be asserted by someone desperately wanting to put their preconceptions ahead of what the scriptures say. I point this out because I realize that those who don’t have an interest in this debate may have trouble believing these arguments are put forth in any serious manner and I don’t want you think I am selecting them because they are so obviously weak. People actually make these arguments.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."Most would say that the water and spirit Jesus is talking about is baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Not so, reply many wanting to diminish the role of baptism. According to them Jesus is talking about natural birth. The water is the woman’s water breaking prior to birth and the spirit is the baby’s first breath. If so, is Jesus saying to Nicodemus, ‘Yes, you must enter a second time into your mother’s womb’ or is He saying that all who are born are saved? I’ve never heard a Baptist come right out and teach either position.
And, Mark 16:16:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.Its hard to think of a more obvious scriptural teaching than this one: to be saved you have to believe and be baptized. Oh, but the doubters reply, just because those who believe and are baptized will be saved, that doesn’t mean those who believe and aren’t baptized won’t be saved. That’s like arguing we are saved by faith, but not having faith doesn’t mean you aren’t saved! The reason baptism isn’t mentioned in the second half of the sentence because those who don’t believe won’t be baptized, but the meaning of the first half is clear and obvious: those who believe and are baptized will be saved.
The fact that the last two arguments could be made without being met with scorn and derision reflects another aspect of this problem. Not only are there different traditions, but many of them have built up networks of schools, institutions, and media that allow them to operate without interacting with other traditions. They are all in their own little bubbles - the Evangelical bubble, the Catholic bubble, the Mainstream, or Liberal, Protestant bubble - and they can see each other, but the don’t interact in any meaningful way and their preconceptions about the other groups are rarely challenged. Everything they come in contact with reinforces their own views and preconceptions. Some bubbles are bigger than others. The Evangelical bubble dominants much of contemporary Christian culture, certainly pop culture, and it in turn is widely influenced by Baptists. That’s why I chose the Baptist Church as my example. No, the Baptist church is not a cult, but the five churches that I quote in support of the importance of baptism represent four out five of the world’s Christians! That’s right. Most Christians belong to churches that believe baptism serves a role in God’s salvation plan.
When anyone argues that a group is a cult because their teachings don’t reflect traditional Christian doctrines, it is the speaker and not the group we should first be wary of. They lack either a basic knowledge of Church history and the many traditions that exist within Christianity, or the ability to defend their own views in an honest manner, or both. I don’t believe all traditional teachings are equally valid. No one could. Many churches have adopted contradictory views on a variety of issues. To know which are true, however, requires careful, and prayerful, study, so be careful when someone resorts to slander to end discussion. Truth doesn’t reinforce itself with dishonesty.