Just this morning a Christian friend in another country contacted me, greatly worried about family members who had obviously gotten themselves involved in a deceptive and nutty cult. She was terribly concerned – and rightly so – about all this and asked for some advice, which I sought to give.
But this scenario is sadly far too common. The cults are certainly out and about, seeking to devour their prey, leading many astray. Thus it is vital for all believers to know a bit about the cults, what they believe, why they are so influential, and how we can protect ourselves and loved ones against them.
Having spent my earliest year as a believer involved in several cults, I certainly have an interest in them. But we all should be interested, since they involve deceptive groups who are leading many people into deception and error – both Christians and non-Christians alike. Jesus and the disciples warned about such groups and individuals, so we had better be concerned.
So, what exactly is a cult? Well, there are various definitions, and sometimes folk distinguish full-fledged cults from aberrational Christian groups. And we can speak of counterfeit religions or heretical groups as well. But let me offer a few definitions from some experts in the field.
A “cult” is a religious group that has a “prophet”-founder called of God to give a special message not found in the Bible itself, often apocalyptic in nature and often set forth in “inspired” writings. (Ruth Tucker, Another Gospel)
A cult may be briefly defined as a separate religious group claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity. (John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions)
Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. (Walter Martin, Rise of the Cults)
A cult, then, is any religious movement which claims the backing of Christ or the Bible, but distorts the central message of Christianity by (1) an additional revelation, and (2) by displacing a fundamental tenet of faith with a secondary matter. (Gordon Lewis, Confronting the Cults)
It may be helpful to pad these definitions out by examining the various marks of a cult. At least two broad areas can be covered here: theological and sociological. As to theological or doctrinal marks, a cult will tend to deny or distort the key teachings of Scripture. The doctrines most often twisted include:
-The deity of Christ
-God and the Trinity
-The final revelation of Scripture
-The nature of salvation
There are of course many warnings in scripture about false teachers, false prophets, and false doctrine. Here are just a few of them:
-Matthew 7:15 Beware of false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing.
-Matthew 24:4-5 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ, and will deceive many’.”
-Mark 13:22 False prophets and false Christs shall arise with signs and wonders to seduce even the elect.
-Acts 13:9-10 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?
-Acts 20:28-31 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
-2 Corinthians 11:13-15 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
-Ephesians 4:14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
-2 Timothy 4:2-4 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
The New Testament everywhere offers us such strong warnings against false teaching and false teachers, against deception and wrong doctrine. We would expect an unbeliever who may know nothing about the Bible and basic Christian doctrine to be susceptible to the deception of the cultists, but sadly many Christians can and do fall into their traps as well.
This is because they have not been given basic training of biblical truths and core Christian teachings in their churches, and/or have never studied Scripture and theology much at all. They may just run their Christian life on feelings, emotions, and entertainment, which is never enough to counter satanic deception and demonic doctrines.
There would also be various sociological reasons why people fall for the cults. These would include:
1. Often the cult has a strong, centralized authority structure, many times with a charismatic, domineering leader. Many folks are looking for some sort of security and authority, and these cults and cult leaders seem to provide that.
2. Often the cults have a very strong ‘us versus them’ mentality. And they are often quite isolationist. Thus they may keep people from interacting with others or getting out into the wider society. And often they will even ban all other books and materials, cutting off all contact with the outside world.
3. Often the cults are very committed to proselytizing others. Many for example will have mandatory periods of witnessing and proselytizing. Thus they can be much more evangelistic for their beliefs than most Christians are.
4. Often the cults are very legalistic, both in terms of trying to earn your salvation and keep your salvation. Often certain foods, drinks, activities and so on are strictly forbidden, and to partake of such things is seen as a damning apostasy, and an indication of not being a true follower of the group.
So why do people join cults? There would be various reasons for this. I already mentioned some theological reasons above: people just do not know their Bibles or basic Christin teaching, so they are so readily susceptible to false teachings which the cults specialize in. Here are some more reasons:
1. Sadly genuine churches are often not doing their jobs, whether in terms of real Christian love and concern, or offering genuine fellowship, a sense of community, and the meeting of basic needs. Cults seem to offer all these things in large doses.
2. A strong sense of community and purpose often seems to characterize a cult. They seem to offer love and acceptance. For someone involved in family, marriage or relationship breakdown, this can lead to a search for an alternative family structure, which the cults seem to offer.
3. As mentioned, cultists are quite keen on proselytizing, while so often most real Christians are not. Thus genuine seekers may encounter a cultist first before meeting a real Bible-believing Christian.
4. Satan of course seeks to deceive and turn people away from the truth. That is one of his specialties, and he is at it day and night.
So how can we best protect ourselves and others against the cults? Well, many of the points mentioned above just need to be turned around – eg., the Christian church needs to be providing real love and acceptance and genuine community. Alas, too often a superficial social club atmosphere seems to describe so many churches today.
Theologically speaking, a key area is to know the real thing. In this case, we must know our Bibles well, and we must know in some detail basic Christian doctrines. One popular illustration is worth sharing here: Bank tellers are not trained to become experts in counterfeit money. Instead, they are trained to become experts in the real thing, so that counterfeits are quite easy to spot.
So in one sense we too need to be experts in what we believe. We need to know our Bibles and know our basic Christian doctrines so well, that we can easily spot heresies and deviations from the truth whenever they appear. But sadly sound doctrine and good theology are ignored or minimized in far too many churches today.
That is a recipe for disaster, and that is why so many people are succumbing to the cults. While external deception and doctrines of demons will always be there, there is no excuse for internal weaknesses, such as a lack of solid teaching and real Christian love. Churches are often their own worst enemy in this regard, and we need to repent of this and seek to turn things around.