Most young adults in the Messianic movement have experienced that awkward moment of confusion and misunderstanding when trying to help a friend understand your religious life.
During the time I spent at a private Christian high school, most of my classmates were continuously confused as to what exactly my religion was. Far from a Messianic missionary, I never felt that I could adequately describe my religious experience, and on the frequent occasions when it became necessary for me to explain or justify my faith and practices, the conversation would usually end with both parties thoroughly confused. Eventually, my classmates began to refer to Messianic Judaism and the congregation I attend as “Cult.” Although I know that my classmates never genuinely believed that I was participating in some mysterious Saturday-cult, their remarks did make me curious as to what makes a group a bon a fide cult and where my religion might fall on this spectrum.
The original cultural definition of a cult (short for “false cult”) was simply any religious group outside the confines of Christian dogma. In pop culture, the term “cult” is now commonly understood to mean a group of isolated, brainwashed people, often living communally and participating in strict rituals under the authority of a religious leader. Messianic Judaism may fall outside the confines of Christian dogma, but we most certainly do not fall into this latter category.
Messianic Judaism is not a group of brainwashed, unthinking people who obey a totalitarian leader without question. On the contrary, we are highly encouraged to openly discuss our religion and to arrive at our own conclusions, whether they are in agreement with the majority or not. And with religious practice varying widely even between families, Messianic Judaism seems polar opposite to the uniform, rigid structure of a cult.
Additionally, we are not in the habit of isolating ourselves within insular communities and shunning the rest of the world. We do not believe ourselves to be in any way better than our fellow humans and we do not act in patronizing superiority when we interact with non-religious people. Rather than insulating ourselves from anyone who might disagree with our points of view, we interact with the broader culture and do our part to help others and repair the world around us.
People sometimes use the term “cult” to refer to any recently developed religious sect, but since Messianic Judaism (the religion of Yeshua and his first followers) was born somewhere around 30 A.D., we don’t even qualify under that type of definition. While my friends may have been correct to label us under the old definition of cult as “a religious group that deviates from the norms of Christian dogma,” that’s only because my religion is way-older than theirs.