The highest search term this site receives consistently has been “Christadelphian cult” and a search across the net shows many articles consistently call them a cult. This is therefore a subject of great interest to many people and worth some consideration. It is also one that Christadelphians themselves have found necessary to address. In seeking to dismiss such claims they usually define their own criteria of what constitutes cultic behaviour. They will suggest for instance a cult has to have a central leader, engage in emotive appeals and shun former members. In fact the difficulty with the word and concept of a “cult” is the lack of meaningful definitions and a good consideration of this can be found on the Religious Tolerance website. To put it simply, there is no objective classification of what a cult actually is and without that the term is best avoided as a label.
The word is used very often by the mainstream media for any unconventional or non conformist group and makes for easy sensationalism. Unfortunately much media reporting is sensationalist, doesn’t give itself over to careful consideration of issues, nor does it address important issues in society that well either. Any group therefore with non conventional worldviews makes for an easy target. If therefore the measure of a cult is its unconventional worldviews, high commitment or different behaviours or beliefs then the Christadephians are undoubtedly a cult. But orthodoxy, normality and convention are not automatically the measure of truth or rightness. Societies themselves change with time. Fifty years ago in the UK a person went to prison for being a homosexual, today a person can get fined if they discriminate against homosexuals. Fifty years ago people thought the environmental movement eccentric, today it is becoming mainstream. Many accepted religious and social movements start being considered radical and end up becoming mainstream.
I believe it is important that groups have the religious freedom to follow views which are unconventional and the right to follow them has been an important freedom we should value. We should therefore be careful to avoid simplistic labels that portray only negative associations. In some countries “anti-cult” legislation limits beliefs to a set of state approved churches and that would be a dangerous route to follow. In any case such laws do not work. They simply force new and existing movements underground and suppress liberty of conscience. It has also been noted by sociologists who study religious sects that many new movements arise as a result of perceived and real weaknesses in society and existing religions and they sometimes reveal real weaknesses in both of them. Using the word “cult” to separate “normal” from “cultic” and “good” from “bad” can be too simplistic a division. In fact many of the aspects considered cult-like are present in everyday society to varying degrees. To suppress new movements on account of their difference would therefore be to suppress both religious freedom and also the ability to protest at evident weaknesses in churches and society. Orthodoxy alone is no measure of truth or goodness. In practice groups (like mainstream society) have strengths and weaknesses and the Christadelphians are no different. They have strengths and weaknesses. They promote their strengths, they have a difficulty overcoming their weaknesses. In a way that is no different than the wider society or even our experience as individuals.
Orthodoxy and the status quo therefore are unreliable indicators of truth, balance or anything else, because with time they change. Religious groups such as the Christadelphians exist because of a protest against mainstream beliefs and orthodoxy to various degrees. If no right exists to be different then there is no freedom of belief, association or speech. Likewise if truth or error is the measure of a cult then there needs to be an agreement of what truth is. Since there are vast numbers of religions, churches and denominations by that measure most must be cults. For a society to judge on that basis it also would need to have perfect truth. To create the perception that a group is bad simply on account of its non orthodoxy of belief or behaviour requires total objectivity of what is good and what is bad. In practice it is rarely that simple. If society had it all worked out, for instance, we wouldn’t have crime, violence, war, environmental damage, persecutions of minorities and many other issues. This doesn’t mean every unorthodox belief and behaviour is beneficial and having religious freedom does not mean all views are valid and equal.
What we really need is open information about how different religious and secular systems work in practice, including how mainstream society works in practice. This helps people make considered judgements about joining different groups and reveals behaviours which cause them to alter in response. Unfortunately some religions use high paid lawyers and libel laws to seek to suppress openness of information and it should be acknowledged here that whilst the Christadelphians find certain considerations unwelcome they do not adopt this approach to criticism.
The negative connotations the word “cult” portrays means no group wants to be called a cult and since no meaningful definition exists to accept that label is to accept whatever meaning the word may have in the minds of others.
It should be noted many mainstream Christian groups in particular use the word freely to describe any group with non conventional Christian beliefs, particularly any group which denies the Trinity. The Christadelphians would fit their definition in that sense and in that sense it can be paralleled with the word apostasy used by many Christadelphians to describe them. It is a purely religious definition that has little value to us here, although it is an interesting theological consideration to consider which group is the true representation of Christianity and on what basis it can be decided. Here the question seems to revolve over the issue of authority – the Bible alone, creeds, Christian traditions, being Spirit-led, principles of interpretation etc. (need some work to connect the various ideas here)
In some aspects religious groups behave like miniature societies and there is no person or authority uniquely placed to differentiate the differences between a cult and a valid religion. In many respects as a movement the Christadelphians have moved from being a new religious movement to being an established denomination. They have toned down their rhetoric against other churches and are more willing to accept being considered as another denomination. They are also more willing to leave open the possibility other Christians may be saved than they were at their start. Like many other Christian groups the disparity between historical moral values and mainstream society has increased and this alone causes them to seem more “cultic” to outsiders.
We must also be aware that what exactly is bad in a group is defined by the worldview of the person who is considering them and their beliefs. It is not surprising that orthodox Christianity therefore wishes to label groups which reject their positions. It is not surprising some former Christadelphians who feel hurt and struggle to find ways forward also use the term.
The words “sect” or “denomination” are technically valid, but have some weaknesses of their own in the area we are considering. The word pictures attached are mild, but they downplay the high degree of isolation the community creates to other people in many respects. This can be a real difficulty for those who leave in particular and which is why some former Christadelphians would consider the term “cult” valid. It requires a total re-evaluation of worldview, often without any emotional support from anyone else to move forward.
The term “high commitment group” is therefore also a valid description and it can affect families if people join or leave. Like a huge number of similar groups any difficulties and stresses will be seen as a validation that members are following the commands of Christ, which Jesus said has a cost.
The term “new religious movement” is also a valid description and they are part of a large number of groups called restorationist. Like many similar groups they claim that mainstream Christianity went into apostasy at its origins and the founder recovered the true, original position of Christianity. It is an extension of the idea of Protestantism and is a natural result of the view of Biblical infallibility being the sole guide.
There is no historical evidence however that other groups have interpreted the Bible as Christadelphians have throughout history. In this sense it also reveals one of the flaws of the Protestant idea of “the Bible alone” and independence of thought. It has created thousands of churches all claiming the same basis but different interpretations and the historical idea has been it took a very unusual, exceptionally independent minded man to get to the real saving truths. If that honestly is God’s method then we all have to be independent minded, almost to the point of autism. And it has been noted that the Christadelphian body in adopting an intellectualising, non emotional approach in some ways can aptly be described as “Christianity at the autistic end of the spectrum.” This characteristic is also noted in other churches which also claim to be “the One True Church” and many of these can be shown to have their origins in 19th century America.
Although we note the limitations of using the word “cult” some of the ideas that are frequently attached to the word are worth our consideration. The primary element is probably control and a common acronym used is the phrase BITE:
B stands for control of behaviour.
I stands for control of information.
T stands for control of thought.
E stands for control of emotion.
By controlling all these elements it is possible in theory to completely control other people. In practice total control of other people isn’t easily possible. No matter how controlling a group is people do leave and it should be noted one person’s control is another’s high commitment. There is also some question over where control starts and influence ends. We also have to ask what true freedom actually is and to what degree such a thing as freewill exists. So even when we come to the idea of control, some deeper questions emerge. It should also be noted that no one ever believes they were recruited or are unduly influenced until after they leave a high demand environment.
Let’s put this another way. High control groups are seen to uniquely deprive people of their ability to exercise free choice and to use intuition and they are seen to become dependent upon the group in a way which is not in their best interests.
Christadelphians would suggest they do not control. They believe everyone comes to their beliefs through an independent analysis of the Bible and at best are helped by those already in the community. They do not believe people are unduly influenced by them. They would suggest anyone is free to leave and in a sense this is true. Nevertheless many who have left find it hard to fit in anywhere else, can lose all social supports and can find it hard to make friends and another life outside of the community. This is particularly true for those who were raised within their midst. Many also believe they have suffered emotionally. It is worth having some consideration of why they believe this.
We will start by considering a few elements which are sometimes associated with cults which aren’t present within the Christadelphians. These are usually stressed by Christadelphians. Firstly there isn’t a leader or small group controlling everyone else. It’s congregational form means it is largely democratic, although some members get higher status as exceptional speakers or more influence in their congregations than others. That doesn’t mean that the movement therefore allows more free though. It simply means it is non hierarchical. There is a strong pressure to conform to accepted beliefs, to be seen to not question those believed fundamental, to accept certain views about life and society, the role of women and many other things. This would be true for many religious groups and indeed some agreement is the basis of most groups in society. Additionally there is no underlying aim to gain financially from converting people and most of their different practices would be considered strange rather than harmful.
When we consider control, we also have to consider whether there are exit costs to leaving a movement. A general principle is that the higher commitment a group is, the higher the entrance costs and the higher the exit costs if a person leaves. The only one actively imposed is disfellowshipping and to a degree disassociation. Even then, a former member is allowed to attend activities and active shunning is not generally observed.
Most problems seem to be as a result of people finding they can no longer remain. This happens for many reasons. They may have difficulties the community doesn’t have any ability to address. They may find that emotionally the community does not work for them. They may find they have unanswered questions that they do not find satisfactorily addressed and which they cannot easily raise. The common difficulty afterwards is that many then struggle to integrate outside the community due to the mindset inculcated from being a member, often as a result of upbringing. They find it difficult to re-evaluate their worldviews and suffer a loss of orientation. They also lose social supports and friendships lose value. To understand these aspects it is important to grasp the exlusivism of the community and the prevalent mindset it creates.
The Christadelphian movement is generally a very closed and exclusive one. This is as a result of the historical belief (like many churches) that they alone have “the saving Truth.” Whilst some today fell less certain than historically at saying only Christadelphians will be saved this has not generally filtered into a wider adoption of viewpoints considered acceptable. In “Sects and Society,” Bryan Wilson, the author, studied the Christadelphians academically from a purely sociological angle without any attempt to make any judgments. He generally used moderate language, yet described it casually at one point as “totalitarian.” This was because of the high exclusivity and mental constraints engendered by its system of organisation. He expressly avoided using the word “cult,” seeing instead in high commitment groups such as the Christadelphians varying degrees of good and bad elements. His description of the Christadelphians in the 1960s as totalitarian was not an emotional assessment, but a rational one based upon the claim of the community to be the sole possessors of saving truth and maintaining that through strict mechanisms of discipline and disfellowship.
To outsiders these elements can make the community seem fairly cultic. To those within it is held to be simply upholding the truth of the Bible. Rather than simply labelling a group a cult to some degree these underlying beliefs need some thought and consideration. There needs to be some assessment of underlying claims regarding such issues as the authority of the Bible, its inspiration and meaning. For those who fully believe all positions the group may be limiting, but it does not seem controlling. There are also undoubted social benefits for those who are both willing and able to conform both mentally and to practice.
The theological principles of groups which believe they are restorations of the apostolic gospel are often fairly similar, although the mechanisms of church authority can work very differently. In the case of the Christadelphians it is a lay community and has worked through a strong creedal system of organisation,with a strong status quo and a strong emphasis on correct doctrines as the basis of salvation. Although there is no form of central control, this doesn’t mean the group does not suppress individuality or free thought, rather it isn’t done by a totalitarian leader. This is rarely a factor for those who choose to join initially, but can become factor if at some future stage they re-question positions, reassess or discover not everything is as black-and-white as they initially were led to believe.
It is therefore an example of a group which operates as a very closed system. The high entrance costs are its high intellectual requirements and the difficulty becoming fully convinced through a primarily academic approach that centres upon becoming convinced Christadelphians have “the Truth” through a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible. Once a person has committed and has been baptised they are expected to separate from the world. This concept of “the world” isolates them from everyone else in the world and particularly for the children of Christadelphians creates a strong pressure to “search out the Truth.” Even association with other Christians of differing belief is portrayed as undesirable. In such closed systems of thought you are either in or out and everything is understood as black-or-white.
Leaving or questioning therefore carries a high social risk and involves having to theologically re-examine every element of one’s worldview whilst having a lack of social, emotional or practical support in the process. Any perceived change of position often results in censorship which can lead to the process of disfellowship, because although there is no form of central control, there is a form of church authority based around statements of faith, the status quo and the repeated emphasis of the exclusivity of the truth possessed and the importance of maintaining it. This means that there is very little freedom to re-examine in practice.
It is worth noting that all religious, political and social groups seek to present themselves in the best possible light and the Christadelphians are no different here. They will not tell the new prospect about their history of division, the lack of people pre-19th century America holding their beliefs in full or why people leave. They will instead set out their own basis upon which they believe they should be assessed. Sites like this one help by providing an alternative source of information so that people can judge for themselves. In addition whilst people should be free to join high commitment groups, very often there is a gradual process of conversion that leads to commitment where facts are progressively given.
On the coercive scale the Christadelphians would be medium, although for the children of Christadelphians or those in relationships with Christadelphians it is more significant than for those who are assessing them from outside the group.