How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults? What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?

What do the biblical writers warn about false teachers?  What is a “Christian” cult?  Are these cults new or old news?

Rorchack_cultsbooks

Warning: False Teachers & Prophets

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ warns of false teachers and prophets who will corrupt his Gospel, his good news of salvation.

For example, in Matthew 7:15, Jesus warns:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” 

Not only Jesus, but the apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, gives considerable space to warning against false teachers and prophets.

In 2 Timothy 4:3-4, Paul writes:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

Furthermore, Peter, Jesus’ most prominent disciple of his original twelve, took time to warn against false teachers too.

In his letter 2 Peter 2:1-3, he warns:

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master [Jesus] who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.  And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words.”

John, writer of the fourth Gospel, Revelation, and three letters in the New Testament, another one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples and arguably as prominent as Peter, also warns about those who corrupt the message of Jesus’ good news:

 “…do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

And while we’re at it, take a moment to read the letter by Jude, Jesus’ brother… Do it right now.  It’s barely one page.

So, here we have throughout the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and Jude all warning against false teachers and prophets.  If Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and Jude didn’t take corruption of God’s word lightly, neither should we.

christiansciencereadingroom

Ever see one of these? Luckily, this is a dwindling cult. Ironically, it’s neither Christian nor scientific in any way. It’s closer to types of Hinduism & Gnosticism.

What Do We Mean By “Christian” Cults? 

“Cult” isn’t necessarily a negative word, such as when used in ancient Rome or in types of Hinduism.  It can simply mean a system of religious devotion towards a specific person, god, or object.

But in modern Western society “cult” is a word no one wants to be associated with.  Today, in the West, often “cult” means a small group of people on the fringe of society who hold to some strange religious beliefs.  But sometimes these small groups of people with odd beliefs grow into large groups of people with odd beliefs.

So, let’s be clear about the intended meaning of the use of the word “cult” in this (and future) articles.

“Cult” – more specifically “Christian cult” – will refer to religious groups that have Christian origins or have borrowed from Christian beliefs but have deviated from Christianity to such an extreme that they can no longer be considered Christian.

These religious groups either deny or have changed core doctrines of Christianity so they’re not just another denomination.  Yes, there are many denominations in Christianity, but the differences between them have to do with different interpretations of minor doctrines and/or differences in their governing leadership.  Conversely, cults deny major doctrines – essential doctrines – of the Christian faith.

 

Why are they “Essential” Doctrines?

By “essential,” we mean essential for salvation from sin.  By straying from these core doctrines, the cult members don’t have salvation from sin as taught by the New Testament Scripture.  They have altered, corrupted, or denied the true Gospel of Jesus Christ by altering, corrupting, or denying God’s free gift of salvation.  Thus, peoples’ eternal souls are at stake.

Have no doubt, in using the word “cult” we’re stating that these groups are teaching – to use a term that’s no longer fashionable – heresy.  Though we believe the people in these cults are sincerely seeking relationships with God, they have been led astray by the founders and leaders of these cults, who are – to use more unfashionable language –apostates, i.e. false teachers and prophets.

But the good news is no one is beyond God’s grace – not even messed up sinners like me, you, or cult members.  That’s the good news of Jesus Christ.

Grudem

Recommended. Know your Christian doctrine — what we believe and why.

But Don’t Call Them “Cults”!

I realize what I’m writing in this section is ironic:

Though the word “cult” is used in this article (and will be used in future articles), I don’t believe we should use the word “cults” when speaking with members of “Christian” cults (such as blatantly telling someone, Your church is a cult).  As stated above, the word has such a negative connotation, the person will take offense and, after that, any chance of an open, loving dialogue will be lost.  Remember, Christians are to speak not just truth but truth with love (Eph. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 13:1).

 

How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults?  + , – , X , /

One of my professors at SBTS, Dr. David Sills, professor of missions and anthropology, gave us a fool-proof way to understand, explain, and remember what makes a group not a denomination, but a “Christian” cult:  Use the symbols: +, — , x, /

That is:  + (Addition sign), – (Subtraction sign), x (Multiplication sign), / (Division sign)

This is what each symbol represents:

(+) Adds to the Word of God

(–) Subtracts from the Deity of Jesus Christ

(x) Multiplies the Requirements for Salvation

(/) Divides the Cult Members’ Loyalty Between the Cult Leader(s) and Christ

These are pretty straight-forward, but let’s break them down:

(+) Adds to the Word of God

Christians believe the Bible, both the Old Testament and New Testament, are God’s unique Scripture.  There are no other scriptures than these, and there is no need for any more scripture than these.  Scripture records God’s redemption of humankind from sin, and this was accomplished when God came as Jesus of Nazareth and died on a cross as the perfect, final sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Now, according to the commands of Jesus, Christians spread his Gospel and wait for his Second Coming, when he will bring the Final Judgment and restore creation.  (Take a moment and read my blog post: 2-Minute Lesson on Biblical Theology — the Progressive Revelation of God in Human History.)

Case closed.

Throughout the Bible we see that God confirms his messengers through “signs and wonders” — miracles.  The New Testament was completed in the 1st Century by Jesus’ apostles.  Any addition to God’s Word is not God’s Word, and any new “scripture” claiming to be from God is not from God.  God will not be giving any new scripture because there is no need for it.  The church “closed” the canon of Scripture for exactly this reason: so no one could claim to have written, received, or discovered new Scripture.  Likewise, to eliminate or change anything from God’s Word is corrupting God’s Word.  Additionally, any “translation” that is not faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew falls under this category.

 (–) Subtracts from the Deity of Jesus Christ 

Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth, as taught in the New Testament, is God the Son incarnate.  Primarily through Jesus’ deeds he displayed his divinity and oneness with God the Father.  In every way, Jesus is God.  He has been eternally part of the Trinitarian Godhead; he isn’t a created being.  Only by being both fully God and fully man could Jesus live a perfect, sinless life and accomplish salvation for all of humankind by his death on the cross.

To deny Jesus is anything other than God means Jesus could not accomplish salvation for all of humankind, which means salvation from sins is not possible.  Thus, to deny the divinity of Christ Jesus is to be unsaved.

Often “Christian” cults make Jesus (God the Son) less than God the Father.  Jesus is seen as a sort of demigod or an exalted angel — a being created by God.

As a related matter: Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity – the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one God – is hard to wrap our finite, human minds around, but the Bible attests to it.  Many “Christian” cults deny the Trinity by either denying the full deity of the Son/Jesus or the Holy Spirit or both.

(x) Multiplies the Requirements for Salvation

The New Testament writers teach that salvation from sins comes only through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  When someone understands this, they repent of sins, accept this free gift, and follow Jesus Christ – God the Son – as their Lord and Savior.

Thus, no one earns salvation.  It’s a free gift from God that can only be either accepted or rejected, as with all free gifts.  Despite what many think, one doesn’t come into God’s presence by being a “good person.”  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  God’s salvation can’t be earned, and none of us deserve it.  It can only be accepted.

This is the beautiful good news of Christ Jesus – the truly unique message of Christianity that no other faith teaches.  To add anything to this simple and beautiful message of salvation is to deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But cults add some sort of “works” to salvation; salvation must be gained, even if the cult holds up some version of Jesus as a savior.  The cult members must be deemed worthy of salvation through their works and close adherence to the cult’s teachings – and often its solely up to the cult’s leader(s) to deem who’s worthy of salvation or not.

(/) Divides the Cult Members’ Loyalty Between the Cult Leader(s) and Christ

Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of all true Christians.  God has graciously given us the Bible – the Old and New Testament – as our guide for knowing God’s will.  The Bible is also our guide for testing the teachings of the teachers of God’s Word.  If any teacher – whether pastor, priest, or pope – purposely misrepresents God’s Word, he is putting himself in the place of God; he is putting his authority above God’s.

In cults, the founder(s) and leader(s) are the final authority, not God or Jesus nor their Holy Scripture.  They claim to be the only ones who can properly interpret God’s Word, or they claim the authority to add to or alter God’s Word.  To do this, is to stand between a person seeking God and God.

Like John the Baptist, true teachers of God’s Word point their hearers to Jesus Christ.  They don’t get in the way.  They encourage their pupils to read God’s Word on their own and strive for understanding.  False teachers point not to Christ, but to themselves.  And often unquestioning loyalty is demanded.

Idol_Pig_LOTF

2 More Common Characteristics of Cults

These, also, should “raise an eyebrow” if you come across them:

The One True Church

Yes, different denominations have disagreements on minor doctrines, but they don’t usually accuse the others of being heretics and devoid of Christ’s salvation.  Cults often claim they’re God’s only true church and members of all other Christian churches are destined for damnation.

Often they claim Christianity has been corrupted some time in the past, but they have the true, restored Christianity as Jesus Christ intended it.

Secret Teachings

Jesus Christ preached in public, performed miracles in public, and both Christian doctrine and Christian churches are open to all.  There are no secrets.  Cults, on the other hand, often have secret teachings or rituals that only those indoctrinated into the cult know or are allowed to participate in – or even to witness.  Often, these are some of their stranger beliefs that they don’t want the general public to know about.

Frequently, those new to the cult purposely aren’t exposed to these stranger beliefs until they have invested themselves into the cult.

Old Heresies, New Faces

Many of the teachings of these cults are old heresies, meaning they’re nothing new.  If you look at Christian history, the early church has already faced and addressed many of the same unsound, erroneous interpretations of the Bible these modern cults promote.

“Christian” cults put peoples’ salvation through Jesus Christ into serious jeopardy.  A cult may have all or any one of the characteristics mentioned above.

NEXT:

  • General strategies for interacting with cult members.
  • Responding to the teachings of specific “Christian” cults.

Recommended Resources:

BOOKS:

  • The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin (Ed. Ravi Zacharias)
  • The Four Major Cults by Anthony A. Hoekema

ONLINE:

  • www.challies.com – Excellent informative series of articles on “False Teachers” — both present and past.  A new one is posted every few weeks.  Scroll down on the page to see those written so far.
  • 3-part series on how to biblically identify, engage, & deal with false teachers by Denny Burk.
  • kingdomofthecults

    Recommended. Classic study of various cults with updates.

    FourMajorCults

    Another recommended modern classic. Out-of-print, but I found a cheap used copy online.

 

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults? What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?

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    • Hi, good to hear from you and thanks for the questions.
      First, to be absolutely clear, your question asks if I “really” consider 7th Day Adventists a cult rather than simply asking if I consider them a cult. That “really” implies that I did make some sort of statement saying they are a cult, which I did not. Though I will be looking at specific “cults” in future articles, I purposely did not mention any specific groups in my articles so far on general topics concerning cults. My past research has been on other groups outside the boundaries of traditional Christianity. I just wanted to be clear about that.
      Secondly, to answer the question of whether I do consider them a cult, my quick and truthful answer would be that I don’t know enough about the beliefs of the 7th Day Adventists to say one way or another. Further, my answer may differ from one 7th Day church to another 7th Day church. In this article, I give some basic guidelines on identifying cults vs. denominations, so you can weigh the beliefs of 7th Day Adventists against them.
      Finally, from the little I know about 7th Day Adventism, it sounds like the origins of the church did have some “cult-ish” qualities that brought it outside the boundaries of traditional, biblical Christianity, but I’ve also read that many of those beliefs have been abandoned by many of the 7th Day churches and so they may fall under the “denomination” label more so now. Some (or many–?) 7th Day churches may be similar to some Pentecostal churches, where I don’t agree with some of their theology or interpretation of the Bible, but I still consider them a Christian denomination.

  7. Pingback: About (Poor) Biblical Interpretation: Responding to “Christian” Cults… or Anyone Who Misuses Scripture. | god from the machine

  8. Pingback: Interacting with “Christian” Cult Members: Tips & Strategies | god from the machine

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