Do you know how to recognize a cult?
Jesus warned repeatedly that in the end times the world would witness many false Christs and false prophets. In His Olivet Discourse, when He listed the signs of the times that would point to His soon return, the very first sign He mentioned was an epidemic of false Christs. “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many” (Matthew 24:5).
This is the only sign that He repeated in that memorable speech — and He repeated it twice. In verse 11 He focused on false prophets: “And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many.” And, again, in verse 24 He mentioned both groups: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show
great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”
This latter statement is particularly chilling since it indicates that the cult leaders of the end times will have supernatural powers and will therefore be able to deceive many people through the performance of miracles.
The warnings of Jesus are not the only ones in the Bible concerning cults. His apostles warned repeatedly about the danger of false and deceptive teachers.
John warned that Christians are to be on guard against “antichrists” — whom he defined as those who deny that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:18,22). He also challenged believers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The test He prescribed was to ask the person in question to confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2).
Nearly all of John’s second epistle is devoted to a warning against false teachers. As John puts it: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world” (2 John 7). He then states that “anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God,” and he admonishes believers in the strongest of terms to avoid association with such people: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [the teaching of Christ], do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 9-11).
Likewise, Paul speaks out strongly against false and deceptive teachers. Paul says that if an angel of God were to come with a gospel different from the one revealed in the Scriptures, we should reject his message and “let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9). In his first letter to Timothy, Paul warned about deception in the end times: “The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
Peter contributed to this chorus of warnings when he wrote that there will be false teachers “who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1). He says some will be motivated by sensuality and others by greed (2 Peter 2:2-3).
All these apostolic warnings were much needed, for the
early church was assaulted by false teachers and cultic groups from the beginning.
The first to arrive on the scene were the Judaizers who responded to the inclusion of Gentiles in the church by demanding that they be
circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). They also demanded that the Gentile converts observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5).
These demands caused such a crisis that a convention of church leaders was called in Jerusalem to discuss and decide the matter. The convention reaffirmed that salvation comes “through the grace of the Lord Jesus,” and not through obedience to the Law (Acts 15:11).
The Judaizers were severely rebuffed by this decision, but they continued to plague the early church. At one point, Paul had to publicly rebuke Peter for playing politics to please what he called “the party of the circumcision” (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul also devoted much of his Galatian letter to denouncing the teachings of the Judaizers.
The Gnostics were the second major cultic group that afflicted the early church. They refused to
the truth of the incarnation because they did not believe you could mix
the holiness of God with flesh. They took this position because they
considered all material things to be inherently evil. They therefore
taught that Jesus was a spirit being — an angel who was neither fully
God or man. In doing this they denied both the physical death of Jesus
and His bodily resurrection. This is the reason that John told the early
church to test all teachers by asking them to confess “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2).
False Christs, false prophets, and their cultic groups have continued to afflict the church throughout its history from time to time. But the acute danger of the cults that Jesus warned would characterize the end times did not begin to manifest itself until the middle of the 19th Century when an American by the name of Joseph Smith founded a religious movement that was destined to become the world’s largest cult — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. Today the Mormons number more than five million worldwide.
Before the end of the 19th Century several more cultic organizations had been founded, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and several spiritist groups like the Church of Christ Scientists.
The 20th Century has been the age of the cults. They have multiplied with great rapidity to the point that some cult-watch organizations now list more than 500 cultic groups operating in America.
The Dangers of the Cults
These cults present a clear and present danger to the true church. That danger takes two forms. First, the cults are converting many professing Christians. One expert on the cults who grew up in a cultic group once expressed this problem to me in these terms: “Christians convert pagans. Cults convert Christians.”
The statement is very true. The average cult member is thoroughly indoctrinated. He knows what he believes and why he believes it. The average Christian, by contrast, usually has little biblical knowledge. He’s not sure what he believes and cannot defend his faith. The result — as cult expert Walter Martin once put it — is that “the average Jehovah’s Witness can turn the average Christian into a theological pretzel in two minutes flat.”
Tens of thousands of professing Christians are being
each year by the cults. They are being sucked into spiritual darkness
by clever and deceptive peddlers of false messiahs, and the result is
the damnation of their souls. The Church needs to face up to this
problem and start responding to it by grounding its members in the
fundamentals of the faith so that they will know what they believe and
The second danger of the cults is their penetration of the Church with their heretical doctrines. Their “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1) are creeping into the mainline church in many forms. It is not at all unusual anymore to hear liberal denominational leaders deny the divinity of Jesus or His bodily resurrection or His second coming. One of the favorite liberal themes today is the teaching that there are many different roads to God — that God has revealed Himself in Buddha, Confucius, Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, and many other persons. The natural conclusion of such thought is that it is improper for Christians to seek to convert people of other religions to Jesus.
Even fundamentalist type groups have gotten caught up in cultic doctrines. A popular fad is the teaching that the power of prayer is not to be found in faith but in the imagination, or visualization. This is a heresy straight out of Eastern mystical religion. It is a practice of Shamanism that is being embraced by many Christian groups today.
Another cultic doctrine that has invaded the Church is the incredible teaching that our salvation was not won on the Cross by the shedding of the blood of Jesus, but was won instead at the hands of Satan as he tortured Jesus in Hell for the three days between His death and His resurrection. This nonsense ignores the fact that Jesus declared on the Cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). It denies the clear teaching of the Scriptures that we are saved by the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7). And it ignores the fact that there is no mention in the Bible of any visit to Hell by Jesus or any suffering on His part after His death.
Equally incredible is the cultic doctrine that is being taught on Christian television today which holds that those who are born again are “little gods.” This is the lie that Satan told to Eve in the garden of Eden, and it is the same lie that is taught by many cultic groups like the Mormons.
Additional evidence of cultic influence on the church is to be found in the growing acceptance of the cults by some church leaders.
A very well known Charismatic leader recently stated that he felt it was time for the church to embrace Mormons as brothers in Christ! Another endorsement of a cultic group occurred when Christendom’s leading televangelist served as the featured speaker at the dedication of the new international headquarters of the Unity Church, a classic cult that teaches reincarnation! He even conducted a seminar for them on church growth.
What is a cult? The typical dictionary definition is so vague and general that the term could be applied to any religious group. For example, The American College Dictionary defines a cult as “a particular system of religious worship.” In practice the term is used in many different ways and is usually used in a very indiscriminate manner.
Some use the term to include any non-Christian group. Thus, it is not at all unusual to find pseudo-Christian movements (like Armstrongism and Mormonism) with completely non-Christian groups (like Muslims and Hindus).
I prefer to give the term a more technical meaning. To me, a cult is a religious group that masquerades as being Christian. It employs Christian terms, quotes the Bible, and uses Christian symbols. But it is not a true expression of the Christian faith.
The fundamental thing that sets a cult apart from orthodox Christianity is its concept of Jesus. That concept is always distorted and perverted. In short, cults present a false Jesus.
Cultic Views of Jesus
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) — Brother of Lucifer. One of several gods created by the super god, Adam, an exalted man.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses — Michael the Archangel.
- The Unification Church (Moonies) — Jesus was only a spiritual redeemer who failed to provide the physical redemption that the new messiah, Reverend Moon will supply.
- The World Wide Church of God (Armstrongites) — Jesus is viewed as part of a Godhead that is open to perfected men. (See note at the end of this article.)
- The Way International — Jesus was a created being who was sent by God to die for the sins of Man.
- The Unitarian Church — Jesus was just a good moral man.
- The Mind Sciences (Christian Science, Religious Science, Unity, Theosophy, etc.) — Jesus is viewed as only a man who manifested the Christ potential that resides in each person. One spiritist group has referred to Jesus as “a medium of the sixth sphere of the astro-projection”!
This is a very serious matter because our salvation depends upon our relationship with Jesus — the true Jesus from Nazareth who revealed Himself to the world as God in the flesh (John 14:9-11). There is salvation in no other person (Acts 4:10-12). There is salvation in no other way (John 14:6).
We can be wrong about many things, but if we are right about Jesus, we can be saved. Likewise, we can be right about many things, but if we are wrong about Jesus, we can be lost. To be saved, we must put our faith in Jesus — the Jesus revealed by the Word of God (John 17:3).
With respect to organization and operation, there are two types of cultic groups.
One type — the rarer form — operates openly and encourages freedom of thought. The Unitarian Church and the Mind Science Churches are examples of this type.
The more common type of cult are those that operate in some degree of secrecy and which exercise a large degree of thought control over their members. These groups share six characteristics:
- Leadership — There is usually a dynamic, charismatic founder or leader who considers himself to be either the true Christ or the last prophet of God. Examples are Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, and Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the Moonies.
- Writings — There are always some extra-Biblical writings which are considered equal to or superior to the Bible. The Mormons have their Pearl of Great Price. The Children of God look to the letters of their founder, Moses David (David Berg). The prophetic proclamations of Herbert W. Armstrong are revered as scripture by many Armstrongites. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own eccentric “translation” of the Scriptures. It is actually a version that simply rewords all the verses that conflict with their theology.
- Salvation — There is always a perverted view of salvation. Cults emphasize salvation by works. Their faithful followers are therefore zealous about knocking on doors or giving their time or money.
- Doctrine — Cults always have some weird doctrines that are not Biblically based. Many of the Mind Science groups teach reincarnation, and all of them deny the reality of evil, disease, and death. Nearly all the cults deny the existence of Hell. Many, like the Unitarians, advocate universalism — the ultimate salvation of all people. The Children of God practice sexual permissiveness. Mormons believe in baptism for the dead. The Armstrongites teach that the Anglo-Saxon peoples are the true Jews.
- Attitude — The exclusivistic and sectarian groups each view themselves as God’s only true church and refuse to have anything to do with any other group. They are often very secretive in nature — as evidenced by the secret temple rites of the Mormons.
- Government — The authoritarian groups are dictatorial, and some even totalitarian, in their governing structure. Someone at the top — either an individual or a collective leadership — calls all the shots.
There are a number of religious groups that manifest many of the characteristics listed above, but I do not consider them to be cults because they have an orthodox view of Jesus as God in the flesh.
These groups tend to be sectarian, legalistic, and exclusivistic to the point that each of them consider their particular group to be the one and only true church. Accordingly, they have almost nothing to do with other Christian groups.
I classify these groups as sects. They include, among others, the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, the United Pentecostals, and Catholics.
Like the cults, the sects manifest many unorthodox beliefs. The Churches of Christ believe instrumental music in worship is sinful. They also believe in water regeneration, and many of their members equate the Holy Spirit with the Bible. United Pentecostals believe you must speak in tongues in order to be saved. They are also unitarian in their view of God. And the Catholics believe in papal infallibility, purgatory, prayer to saints — and other such unbiblical concepts.
The rest of Christendom falls into the category of denominations like the Baptists, Methodists, and Assemblies of God. These are orthodox Christian groups who are non-sectarian and thus consider themselves to be a part of the body of Christ — but only a part. These groups view the true Church as being composed of all born again people, regardless of their denominational or sectarian label.
An Attractive Facade
Cults are incredibly deceptive. They not only use Christian language and symbols, but they also display worthy attributes like zeal, dedication, and concern for the individual.
Another thing that makes them attractive is that they usually exhibit very fine moral qualities. Take the Mormons for example. They are a people committed to personal holiness, and they put great importance on the value of the family.
To put it another way, the cults are full of very sincere and religious people. But no one can be saved by sincerity or by being religious. No one can earn salvation. Again, salvation comes by grace through faith in a person; and that person is Jesus — the true Jesus revealed in the Bible.
Cults are a perfect example of what the Bible means when it says that “Satan disguises himself as an Angel of light… and his servants as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11: 14-15).