A young person recently wrote to me with a seemly simple question: “Is the Worldwide Church of God a cult?” I’ve decided to repost my response here.
I wish I could give you a simple “yes” or “no,” but the question is a bit more complex than that.
I don’t object when contributors to the blog call the WCG a cult— I understand the hurt and anger so many feel, and the term is definitely useful as a “snarl word” used to express that pain. But the word “cult” is one I personally try to avoid because it has no single clear meaning. Some people who study “high demand religions” prefer that term instead of “cult,” because it better describes what members go through. I have seen “cult” defined by one “anti-cult group” as, “A closed system whose followers have been unethically and deceptively recruited through the use of manipulative techniques of thought reform or mind control.” But in my opinion, this definition could also be applied to most “mainstream” religions as well. A better definition I’ve seen is simply, “Cults are religions that espouse an alien belief system that deviates strongly from the traditional faiths with which most people have grown up.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that the WCG lay on a spectrum of demand, between extremely low-demand religions and extremely high-demand religions. In my experience, the WCG as it was when I grew up in it was in the moderately high-demand range, but there have certainly been other organizations that were much more demanding, and destructive. Organizations can also change their demand level over time, on one end becoming “death cults” that demand the sacrifice of its members and/or the death of its enemies, and at the other end becoming moderate religions that tolerate open society and that are tolerated in turn. Fortunately, this latter direction is the one in which the WCG (now GCI) has moved.
A final thing to consider is that different people have had very different experiences within the WCG over the years. The organization’s doctrines and practices established a certain level of demand, but some individuals had it far worse at the hands of elders, ministers, and congregational cultures that were far more oppressive or abusive in some times and places than others. Again, I think this is nothing unique to the WCG— many religions contain abusive elements that are not readily apparent and that do not affect all members equally.
I hope this discussion helps. You can find more information on the benefits and problems of the Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) on the web site of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.