Cult: Good or Bad? Dissecting the Meaning of a Misunderstood Word

As a student who majors in languages, we were taught to be aware of words that have connotative meanings which differ from their original definitions. The word “gay” for example in our time, would refer to people who are homosexuals or people who have different sexual preferences. However, back in the day, people who were feeling happy and overjoyed were described as gay.

Last Friday (May 9), while I was participing in the Ang Dating Daan Bible Exposition, a guest from Dubai wanted to confirm if the Members Church of God International was a cult. The Bible Exposition held by the MCGI is hosted by Bro. Eli Soriano, who is popularly known as the host of the longest-running religious program in the Philippines, “Ang Dating Daan“.

The visitor exclaimed that he had heard many rumors that the said church was a cult, and that particular information hindered him from affiliating himself in the Church.

Indeed, the word cult nowadays is being interpreted negatively. Citing the Merriam-Webster free online dictionary, a cult is defined as…

(1) a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous
(2) a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much
(3) a small group of very devoted supporters or fans

When most people hear the word “cult”, what immediately comes into their minds are weird, creepy-looking people wearing masks who practice some sort of insane, devilish ritual. This is emphasizec by numerous references in popular media like movies and books, wherein cults are portrayed as groups who seek out virgins and sacrifice them to demons, for example. This would explain the first definition.

The first definition holds true to certain organizations that indeed practice these extreme and dangerous rituals. An example of this would be the People’s Temple cult. Founded by Indiana-based leader Jim Jones, the People’s Temple is a :religious” movement most famous for their mass suicide in 1978 which resulted in 914 people dead from cyanide poisoning, 276 of which were children.

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 The mass suicide committed by the followers of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult resulted in 914 total deaths caused by cyanide poisoning. It is also known throughout history as the Jonestown Massacre.
Photo from: cbsnews.com

Secondly, extreme devotion to someone or something isn’t entirely new. Popular franchises like “The Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, “Doctor Who” and even famous celebrities and phenomena have gained cult followings.

On the contrary though, Bro. Eli, in response to the guest’s inquiry, stated that there is another meaning to the word “cult”. This other, more rightful meaning, however, is nowhere near today’s devilish definition. He said that in the Spanish and Portuguese versions of the Bible, Romans 12:1 has this to say:

“Así que, hermanos, os ruego por las misericordias de Dios, que presentéis vuestros cuerpos en sacrificio vivo, santo, agradable a Dios, que es vuestro racional culto.” (Romanos 12:1 ; Las Sagradas Escrituras) 

“Rogo-vos pois, irmãos, pela compaixão de Deus, que apresenteis os vossos corpos como um sacrifício vivo, santo e agradável a Deus, que é o vosso culto racional.” (Romanos 12:1 ; João F. Almeida Atualizada)

Both translations used the word “culto” when referring to “reasonable/rightful worship or service ” as stated in its English translation.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1 ; King James Version

When traced back to its original Greek counterpart in the Bible, the word “culto” came from “latriea(pronounced la-tri-ah) which means “worship; divine service. In fact, the Filipino word “kulto” is derived from the Spanish and Portuguese version. It is also defined by the UP Filipino Dictionary as,may natatangi o pinong pag-uugali, pag-iisip, o panlasa (having unique or refined demeanor, thinking, or taste)”, a definition that Bro. Eli agrees upon.

Bro. Eli implied that being called a cult isn’t something really bad. If it means being extreme devotion to something, brethren from MCGI are surely proud to be extremely devoted to God. If being a cult means having unique, specific and distinct qualities which makes us different, then MCGI members would be proud to fully adhere to the Bible’s doctrines regarding any matter in life, be it clothing, practices and lifestyle — something that other religions don’t do.

Similar to the word “gay”, the word “cult” also has its preconceived notions now, confining the word in such negative meaning that it’s other definitions become overlooked or forgotten. It is important that we recognize how to use its rightful meaning in rightful context to achieve clarity of thought and avoid misconceptions.

For more information about Bro. Eli, MCGI and the cult issue, read more here.