Well, it seems I’ve crossed some sort of tripwire I didn’t know existed between civil discourse and hate speech by using the word “cult” to describe Stanton, and apparently I’m now labeled as vicious, cruel, vindictive, bitter, bloodthirsty, a vigilante, oppressive and tyrannical according to commenter Martin Luther. Wow, tell me how you really feel!

I know, and hopefully you do too, that all these things are untrue, but I’m hopeful that after reading this, you will at least understand my heart a little better. You may not agree, but agreement is not a condition of brotherly love. Remember that?

I have to say I was a bit shocked by this over-the-top denunciation. I consider Martin Luther a friend, although we’ve never met. I know who he is; we’ve talked and corresponded a number of times about the abuses of Stanton, and he’s provided a number of digital files of lessons. I’ve never once wanted this blog to be a blunt instrument of vindictiveness or personal attack, and have always made every attempt to make that clear. So to see my motives impugned like this is a little discomforting–did I come across that way to anyone else, or just Martin Luther? I’d like to know your honest opinion.

But I obviously stepped on a nerve. So come, let us reason together.

Let me first start with an apology for offending you, Martin Luther, and anyone else who was truly offended to the core. It was not my goal to attack anyone or to otherwise be incendiary by use of this term. For me, it was just a natural progression of how I’ve come to view the sect. (Is “sect” a more politically correct term, or do we need to have a “safe space” to avoid this trigger word as well?)

I will more fully explain my use of the term later in this post, but first, let’s rewind and respond to some of Martin Luther’s comments:

“Yet, ironically, the very one’s (sic) claiming on here that Stanton is so oppressive and tyrannical, are the same ones oppressively and tyrannically labelling (sic) them a cult.”

“I respect the opinion of those who admit their own faults, which hurt all of us the most, and then highlight Stanton’s, but I have no respect for the vigilantes who bloodthirstily pursue Stanton no different from how the Jews once pursued Eichmann. The Jews had a reason, you don’t.”

“I do realize hurt people hurt people, so I understand it, but if the intent of this site is to heal and not to rip apart further than using the word cult is not the way to go. There are no rewards for viciously attacking ones enemies.”

“Of course injustice needs to be addressed, this is indisputable, yet it must be addressed with understanding and not cruel vindictiveness.”

“…let it never be said of me that I attacked people and organizations rather than the ideas that caused the behaviors. To say Stanton is an evil wicked cult is exactly why they won’t converse with many of us. When debating an opponent, using insults, and the word cult is a supreme insult, is guaranteed to lose the debate.”

First and foremost, “enemies?” Really? Can you find anything in my writing that indicates I consider anyone enemies? I love these people. I don’t know most of them very well anymore. Some of them knew me as a child, but personally speaking, I don’t have a relationship with enough of them to be hurt by what they say or think, much less consider them enemies.

Second, and this is extremely important; this has never been a debate. A debate requires a dialogue, and not once has Stanton transparently engaged me or this audience in friendly conversations, much less debate. As Gary so famously said in his Labor Day talk, Not Ready To Give An Answer:

“Someone told me here just recently that ‘Gary, do you realize what’s happening, under cover? People are coming out and expressing what it is that they feel, their disdain and contempt for what you believe. I’ve got to know how to respond.’

And I know how I respond. That’s the basis of this lesson. I refuse. I refuse, to the uttermost of my being to dignify the absurdity of the questions and the challenges in which it is that people will present. What I mean by that is that I will not honor, they are not worthy of my consideration. …

[M]y whole estimation was to not give it a nickel’s worth of consideration. But I want to give you what it is how I deal with things like this. How I respond. Because I don’t. I don’t.

So to say that using the word “cult” will shut down debate isn’t exactly the strongest argument I’ve heard. Yes, I do want to dialogue about the Scriptures with people in Stanton, but attempts at dialogue have literally never worked. The only hope of reaching the people still in the sect is to present truth in love, and hope that something here inspires a little more investigation of God’s Word.

Third. Does use of the word “cult” necessarily indicate that I’m vicious, cruel, vindictive, bitter, bloodthirsty, a vigilante, oppressive and tyrannical? Objectively, I hope it’s apparent to everyone that the answer is negative. Those labels are judgments of what’s going on in someone’s heart. I think it’s important to constantly remind ourselves that we as humans can only judge actions, not motives, because someone’s motivations are matters of the heart. Only God can judge motives.

I can be magnanimous about Stanton, giving them the benefit of the doubt about their intentions and motivations, and still conclude that the word “cult” is appropriate, because that word does not impugn their motives or intentions of the heart. I have to assume they sincerely believe they are following God. But I can at the same time believe them to be in a cult, and I’ll explain that later.

Martin Luther says:

“Has anyone ever met the person who was told they were in a cult in Stanton and they changed their life around and are now happy and blessed by God? Who was persuaded absolutely by being told they are a cult follower?”

This argument is what kept me from using this word for many years. I didn’t believe it would be effective in convincing people, so I stayed away from it, even though I believed it to be true. However, I believe this is a personal decision that everyone has to make about what is going to be the most effective in their relationships with people in the group (here’s another politically correct term I think we can all agree on). So this is an argument about the pragmatism of using the word, not the veracity of it.

Before getting into the accuracy of the term as applied to Stanton, let me first explain my increased use of it. I started off, as I’ve said, avoiding the term. I opted for the word “sect.” This was intentional, because I felt that it would be a turn-off to some people and they wouldn’t listen past that. Perhaps that was the best route, and I’ve erred in straying from that.

But let me add another side of this. My family has been divided by this sect’s authoritarian teachings for nearly 48 years now. I’ve seen it tear countless marriages apart, spiritually and sometimes physically. I’ve seen it estrange fathers from their children for generations, with new generations raised to think that is OK. I have, during the past 20 years, attempted various ways of reaching my family members in the group with a more accurate view of God, the Bible, grace, love, forgiveness; all the things I’ve written about on this blog.

But this avoidance of the term “cult” hasn’t produced the intended fruit. My mom remains in her bondage to the unbiblical “counsel” of fallible humans, as do many other subjects of the various teachers in the group. Using the word cult was a considered decision, one taken as a result of my strong belief that more and more generations are getting roped into Stanton’s divisive teachings, and that needs to stop.

I’ve used this analogy before: Stanton’s throwing people into the river, and I’m tired of simply trying to pull people out down river. I want to stop them from throwing anyone else into the river, and empower people who might be on the verge of letting themselves be thrown in the river to say “wait a minute, this isn’t right.” And hence my increased use of the word “cult.” I believe it is accurate, the only question is if it will be more effective than the alternative. The jury is out on that one. I’ve spent at least 20 years of trying the one approach. My mom may not have many years left. She’s 83 years old. For me—and maybe it’s just for me, but maybe others are at this point, too—it’s time to try something different. They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. So this is me trying something different.

Maybe after trying this approach, it will also prove to be ineffective. That’s a very real possibility. I just don’t know. What I do know is that I use the term in good conscience, and with no desire to offend anyone. For me, I’m making a sincere application of this verse:

Jude 22-23 – Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

For you, maybe you’re not there yet. Maybe you don’t see your situation as urgent, needing to pull someone out of the fire. That’s OK. Just try to be patient with me, then, because that’s where my heart is.

So let’s talk about the definition of a cult


Stanton has often cited a dictionary definition of “cult” to say that by this definition, Jesus was in a cult. Martin Luther wrote:

“Cult: a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. That means everyone who follows Jesus is in a cult. LOL.”

“If Stanton is a cult than (sic) Martin Luther, and Alexander Campbell were cults too, but I don’t suppose you’ve bothered studying them have you?”

Actually, Martin Luther, I have read Campbell extensively, dating back to my teen years, and I’m 48. I own and have read dozens of his books, debates, and periodicals. I’ve read all seven years of his Christian Baptist magazines in an effort to understand the roots of the movement I was raised in and decide for myself what is Biblical and what’s not. I’ve read volumes of that publication’s successor, Millennial Harbinger, as well as books and articles about the movement and about Campbell himself.

I can tell you unequivocally that Stanton bears almost no resemblance to the movement that Alexander Campbell was instrumental in starting.

  • Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it’s silent? Are you kidding me? Stanton’s the opposite of this, adding layer upon layer of their teaching for doctrines, the commandments of men.
  • Campbell’s was a unity movement to unite “the Christians in the sects.” Stanton denies there are even Christians in those sects, outsides its own hyper-sectarian walls.
  • Campbell was an advocate for freedom of conscience devoid of bondage to human creeds. Stanton “rabbis” enforce the radical antithesis of freedom of conscience.

But I digress.

Using Martin Luther’s preferred definition of “cult” doesn’t hold up to reason. We agree that neither Jesus nor Alexander Campbell were members of a cult. Therefore, I know we agree that this particular definition of cult is not the one we’re really discussing.

Instead of cherry-picking the most benign definition to argue from, let’s look at Webster’s full definition of cult:

1:  formal religious veneration :  worship
2:  a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also :  its body of adherents
3:  a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also :  its body of adherents
4:  a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
5 a :  great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially :  such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
b :  the object of such devotion
c :  a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

There is a lot of room in these definitions for different types of cults, and different (but accurate) uses of the word. The worship of the ancient pagan gods were cults. They were a system of religious beliefs and rituals, also including an object of devotion (the supposed deity, or the physical idol it represented).

The one that I would use in reference to Stanton is #3, a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious, as well as #5a, a great devotion to a person or idea, and #5c, a small group of people characterized by such devotion.

Could mainstream Christianity, if you stretch the meaning of words, be shoehorned into some of these definitions? Of course. But we all know exactly what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an undue idolization of a group above all other groups. I sincerely believe that Stanton has become the modern equivalent of idolatry for many members.

Martin Luther says:

“The Bible does teach if you don’t obey the church it designed, you are going to hell. What do they [Stanton] have to apologize for?”

And that’s where it becomes idolatry, I would argue. The Bible does not say to obey Stanton. Our obligation is to obey God rather than men. It is never sacrilege to disobey unbiblical doctrines, no matter who teaches them. If the church as a human institution is in authority over our lives, then we must all become Catholics and return to the Mother Church, seeking to reform it.

I’ll choose instead to expend my energies trying to reform my own heart and the hearts of others I may have an ounce of influence on. I don’t really care about the institution of Stanton. I care about the people within its walls who are being enslaved by its ideology; the ideology that in it alone can truth be found. That’s just patently false and destructive to the souls of men every time it’s tried.

One person told me recently that he had a conversation with someone in the group and pointed out a factual string of abuses of the church. The response was absolute horror that he would dare criticize “the church,” as if God might strike him dead for simply pointing out where it’s strayed from the scriptures. That is what I mean when I say the church has become an idol, and is why I am comfortable using the word “cult” in a factual sense. We should never be horrified at the mere thought of questioning with boldness what we’ve been taught. That’s just honest inquiry. It’s what the Bereans did, and it’s what we should be doing.

As for whether Stanton is truly a cult, this of course depends on whether you believe their ideology or not. For those convinced of their anointed status as the only true church, it is understandable that this wouldn’t be acknowledged. “I’m in a cult”…said no cult member ever. It is only with outside perspective that it becomes obvious; when you see the real life effects of families broken up, husbands ditched for loyalty to the teachings of fallible men, and lifelong relationships tossed aside should one dare question the authority of The Church.

There are many good articles on identifying characteristics of cults, as people most commonly use that term. Some identifying marks that I think are fairly useful come from this article:

  1. All your friends believe just like you do. It is one thing to all have similar world views. That happens in churches, clubs, political parties, etc. But when there is absolutely no room for dissent, this can be a sign your’e in a cult.
  2. Nobody questions authority. Reasonable people in leadership positions do not exercise totalitarian or authoritarian control over people. When you have a culture that makes everyone fearful of even holding an opinion that might contradict an authority figure, much less voice it, this can be a sign you’re in a cult.
  3. The source of authority is vested in a person. Most cults have an authority figure who claimed special knowledge or insight from God. This person cannot be criticized without being denounced or reprimanded, because to call into question their authority would call into question the very existence of the group.
  4. Doctrine must not be questioned. Authority of the leaders (#2 above) is one type of control, and Stanton uses this in binding teachers’ “counsel” on members. But this extends to doctrine as well. The teachings that come out of May Week are held to be authoritative (at least until next year).
  5. Secrecy and excommunication. This is a big warning sign for Stanton. They attempt to maintain a high level of secrecy, and do not want their churches to have websites or lessons published on the Internet. Paul would have loved the openness of the Internet. Stanton has had entire talks given at meetings about the need for secrecy. The “excommunication” or withdrawal as a tool to stifle dissent is also a warning sign.
But there are plenty of other good articles with identifying marks of a cult. The more you read about modern authoritarian groups, the more you will see the many similarities to Stanton. I have a unique perspective in that I have lived the history of this group from the time I was born. I grew up in it and defended it earlier in my life. I have talked to first-hand sources who knew Merie growing up in the 50’s, and who knew her family going back decades before that.
My perspective may not be accepted or shared by everyone here, but I ask for your patience in accepting my heart that my use of the word is not meant to be an attack, but a statement of fact as I see it. You can disagree, and that’s OK. Whether the term will be useful in the cause of bringing people closer to the Jesus of the Bible remains to be seen. But I suspect that truth-telling, no matter how difficult that truth is to swallow, can always be useful if offered in love, as I’ve tried to do.
It’s my hope and prayer that being a little more direct with the use of this word will shake someone up enough to take the question seriously of whether Stanton really is a cult or not. What do you think? Is it a cult? Was I out of bounds for using the word? You tell me. Please share your thoughts, because I really do want to hear other perspectives.