Christianity Today posted the following statement the other day: “The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) recently removed an article from its website that listed Mormonism as a ‘cult.’ The change followed Mitt Romney’s home visit to Billy Graham last week, where the evangelist pledged ‘help’ to the Mormon presidential candidate’s campaign. The BGEA later explained, ‘We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.’” (Authored by Ruth Moon on October 19th under the title “Should the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association have Removed Mormons from ‘Cult’ List?” and followed by “A Roundup of Expert Views”). The opinions by the experts vary, as one can imagine. This media controversy provides Evangelicals an opportunity to rethink the issues and labels. It also provides the BGEA and other Christian organizations an opportunity to reassess issues related to our approaches to evangelism in a multi-faith, post-Christendom environment.
Whether or not one thinks that Mormonism is a cult, hopefully one agrees that we should not construe a Mormon’s faith or anyone’s faith or frame terms like “cult” with ulterior political connotations. Beyond that, terms like “cult” have so many derogatory associations. Sometimes Evangelicalism (a religious movement with which Billy Graham, Christianity Today and I are associated) is accused of being a cult group. The associations bound up with "cult" today are rarely if ever flattering, and are often derogatory. Who wants to be associated with drinking spiked Kool-Aid with Jim Jones or camping out with David Koresh? Those are the kinds of immediate associations many people have of those affiliated with "cult" groups. Surely, there are better terms and expressions we can use to unpack the fundamental differences between various religious groups, including key distinctives that distinguish historic Christian orthodoxy from Mormonism (such as the teachings on the identity of Jesus Christ and salvation).
We should describe rather than label groups. Such descriptions must certainly account for various religious movements’ teachings, but should not be limited to the important analysis of doctrines. One must also account for a particular movement’s web of experiences, rituals, sacred narratives, practices, and group dynamics. As I argue in the chapter on Mormonism in Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths,
Our faith and our identity are more than thoughts. Faith and identity involve experiences, relationships, and an entire web of cultural particularities. While Mormonism has traditionally been called a cult in evangelical circles, it is more meaningful and missional to consider Mormonism a religious culture or subculture with different beliefs and distinctive religious practices. When we view Mormonism from this perspective, we are better able to build relationships and share our respective views in meaningful ways. And when we think of Mormons as people like us seeking life-changing spiritual experience, relational security, and vibrant and lasting community, we are better able to see ourselves in them, and to journey with them in pursuit of the truest understanding and richest experience of Jesus.
When we are better able to see ourselves in Mormons, we will be less prone to stereotype and demean them. We will come to see that if we demean Mormon teachings and their customs, we are demeaning them as persons as well as their familial and tribal ties. I must confess that I have tended to look at Mormons with suspicion and consternation, treating them as “the other” whom I can objectify and classify and don’t need or want to know. This distorted perspective now causes me grief. Jesus never objectified, labeled, or wrote anyone off. He always got beyond stereotypes and moved through doctrinal formulas to engage people graciously and truthfully, to bring the good news home, and to bring people home to be with him in his Father’s house in eternity. (page 127)
The more we politicize the religious and spiritual paths of others rather than personalize faith in dialogical engagement with them and the more we use terms that demean rather than describe their various teachings and traditions, the more we are distant from them and further away from inviting them home to be with Jesus in the Father’s house.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (which can be found wherever fine books are sold), and is a charter member of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.