There seems little reason to doubt that religious cults were more prevalent in ancient times than they are today. In the ancient world there existed a wide variety of theologies and a large number of “local” gods, of which the original God of the Hebrews was almost certainly one (a subject for another post). The modern world has such a wide variety of accepted mainstream religions that one has to be truly unusual to acquire “cult” status; I mean, who besides the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians really know what the differences are between Episcopalians and Presbyterians?
But what is particularly interesting about the cult of Christianity is that it is one of very few cults of the time that not only took hold and flourished, but that also left a written record of its operations, its means of existence, and the manner in which its members perceived themselves. Why did Christianity survive? Was it merely better managed than the other cults of its time? Did it draw on time-tested traditions common to the cults of yesteryear as well as those of today? Or did it perhaps succeed because its members were prepared to sacrifice as much as the man they so devotedly followed?
Whatever its type or status, one matter is clear concerning cults: that they are organizations like any other; businesses, if you will, dependent for their continued existence on advertising and sales of their particular products. And the same was true two thousand years ago: a cult, even one devoted to its members’ personal poverty, still needed money with which to operate. In fact, this quest for cash forms a noteworthy portion of Paul’s epistles, which were unquestionably as concerned with earthly as well as spiritual matters. Read, for example, what Paul, who was by enemies termed a “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), writes in his letter to the Corinthians:
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.
Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.
And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.” (Corinthians 16:1-3)
Many pages of zealous religious exhortations close with this: a very practical admonition to collect donations promptly so that Paul might deliver them to headquarters as quickly as possible. But, as is still true today, even those who give willingly may yet be subject to criticism for not giving more. Consider the story of Ananias, one of the faithful, who sold a piece of land that he owned, donated a portion of the proceeds to the church, and then lied about the price his property had fetched:
“But Peter said, Ananias, Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
Whilst it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” (Acts 5:3-4)
And if the lecture wasn’t enough to convince you not to have double-dealings with the Lord, consider the punishment: both Ananias and the wife who helped him to cover up his deception immediately fall down dead. Not only does it make one question why Ananias’ generosity wasn’t simply accepted on good faith, the story also makes one wonder whether Ananias was pressured into selling the land in the first place. Indeed, personal subservience to the needs of the cult is both encouraged and expected:
“And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.” (Acts 4:32)
This verse presents a pretty picture of a socialistic utopia centered on community, cooperation, and commonality of ownership among those inside the cult, an idealized bonding with one’s fellow-believers that the unfortunate Ananias apparently did not share. Contrast this with the cult members’ view of those who stood outside the cult; even one’s own family members were not to be trusted:
“And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.” (Matthew 10:21)
However, while this sounds like a surprisingly sinister punishment for merely following that rebel Jesus, it is important to recall the context; this was, in fact, one of the Lord’s commandments: the Old Testament Lord, who was very clear in arguing that even one’s nearest relations were not exempt from the law of the jealous God:
“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-9)
John in particular seems to have a good understanding of how the faithful of the outside world must have viewed the Christians; he even appears to recognize that there is some theological justification for the persecution of Christ’s disciples:
“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” (John 16:2)
The apostles, too, are well-aware of their status as outsiders among their own people; they repeatedly express a strong sense of being universally despised as well as harassed:
“For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men.
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.
Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace;
And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it:
Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.” (Corinthians 4:9-13)
Jesus himself, having ample experience with oppression, never pretended that his disciples would receive any better treatment than he did; but neither does he accept abuse or injury as an acceptable excuse for not performing the work of the Lord:
“If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.
Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:19-20)
So if belonging to the cult of Christianity is so detrimental to happy or healthy living, why, then, do the cultists persevere in following Christ? Maybe because they’ve been promised that after the apocalypse, they will have their eternal revenge:
“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9)
But perhaps there is another, equally-human motivation behind cult membership, one that goes beyond the desire to be with like-minded people or to belong. Ultimately the cultist may be motivated by the same force that inspires members of the mainstream to despise the cult: a sincerity of conviction and belief.
“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” (Corinthians 1:18)