I’m always interested in hearing the impressions that visitors have who have joined us for the first time in corporate worship. One of the most surprising pieces of feedback I received was from a young lady. After she had been worshipping with us for about one year, she shared with me her initial impression of the church. To my horror she said: ‘I thought you were a bit of a cult.’ In terror I responded: ‘Why’. She replied: ‘Because the first time I worshipped with you everyone was exceedingly friendly, they smiled at me, and people were genuinely interested in me’. I was very relieved by this response! But it did highlight a serious deficiency in her understanding of what a cult really is.
So what is a cult?
When I use the word cult, I am not talking about the fact that people might give devotion to a particular thing or person. Like the cult of Star Trek, where a person involved centres their life around the wisdom of Spock and ‘trekky’ conventions. It is important that we also note that a cult is not a reference to a group who simply holds strongly to their beliefs. Some people think being dogmatic about anything, and being dogmatic about the Bible in particular, is evidence of cultish behaviour. However, cults are identified not by the strength of conviction about their teaching, but by the specific teachings they affirm.
One definition of a cult is this: “a group of religious people whose belief system and practices deviate significantly from and often contradict the Holy Scriptures as interpreted by orthodox, biblical Christianity and as expressed in such statements as the Apostles’ Creed”.1 So a cult is not simply a reference to individuals holding to unbiblical teachings, it refers to a group that is organised around those novel and unorthodox teachings. In particular in this article, it refers to a group which self-identifies as Christian, when the reality is far different.
Whilst at times we jest about some of the more outrageous aspects of the beliefs of some cults2 the reality is it is no laughing matter. It is in fact deadly serious – both spiritually and sometimes physically. Cults lead people away from Jesus Christ and the salvation that is found in Him alone. Behind it all is the Father of lies who delights to deceive and undermine the truth of God. We read in 1 Timothy 4:1 “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). We must recognise that behind the cults stands something demonic.
Key features of cults
This article will seek to flesh out the definition of cult to help us see what it actually looks like in practice. Hence the title, cults for dummies. We can identify two areas where the cults diverge significantly from Christianity. The first area is their unorthodox theology. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but some key areas of false teaching that are common to all the cults.
Cults find their authoritative standard for belief and practice from a source apart from the Scriptures. The great catch cry of the Reformation was sola-scriptura. This of course echoes the teaching of the Bible on the sufficiency of the Scriptures (Psalm 19:7-11, 2 Tim 3:15-16). The great catch cry of the cults is scriptura plus. An additional special book or body of teaching other than the Bible dominates their belief system. So whilst cult members may affirm their belief in the Bible, another source functions as the real authority. So in Mormonism, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price are additional books which functionally stand above the Bible. However, the cults don’t necessarily need another book to undermine sola Scriptura. The Jehovah Witnesses have the watchtower society which gives the official interpretation of the Scriptures. Again, functionally, it is the Watchtower society that becomes the authority for belief and practice. Beware of anyone coming with an authoritative word of God outside of the Bible. That seems to be a key warning for our times!
Cults also typically have a deficient understanding of the trinity or some aspect of Christology, usually both! In regards to the Trinity, there is typically a denial of the unity of the Godhead and the equality of the persons of the Godhead. So Jehovah witnesses teach that Jesus is the first creation of God and the Holy Spirit is his influence. Put simply, they don’t believe in a Trinitarian God. In regards to Jesus, cults will identify him as an impressive example of humanity, an angel, or as a special being who over time attains to divinity3. In first John the apostle warns that we need to affirm certain truths about Jesus to be Christians. We need to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22), that he was incarnated in the flesh (1 John 4:2), and that he is the unique Son of God (1 John 4:15). Perhaps the reason that Christians become susceptible to false teaching in this area, is that despite the emphasis on these doctrines in Scripture, there is not a similar emphasis from the pulpit. Beware any teacher or teaching that denies the trinity or subtracts from the deity or humanity of Christ.
The final area where cults have considerable unorthodoxy is in their views about salvation. The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:20-26, Galatians 2:15-21, Eph 2:1-10). This doctrine was not only under threat at the time the Bible was written, it is undermined by nearly every cult that claims to be Christian. They have a grace ‘plus’ something else to be saved mentality. It’s grace plus certain rituals, or grace plus a certain amount of witnessing, or grace plus baptism. For example, in their Articles of faith Mormons confess “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” – Articles of Faith 1:3. Although words like atonement are used, it is clear that what really counts is one’s good works to attain salvation. One connected problem this Article highlights, is that cults often use Biblical language, but they mean something far different from what a Christian usually means. When someone from a cult uses words like atonement, salvation, grace, or Son of God, you need to ask them ‘what do you mean by that’. Beware any teacher or teaching that has even a hint of salvation by works.
Secondly, there are also sociological features that are common to most cults. Domineering and charismatic leaders are the status quo among cults. Most cults are started by an individual who is able to exert considerable influence on his or her followers. These individuals often attain such prominence that in some ways they become the objects of the devotion and even worship of their members! They seek to win their converts to ultimate allegiance to themselves rather than to Christ. The Bible is very clear that a faithful teacher will point people to Christ and to unquestioning allegiance to him rather than self (John 3:30, 1 Cor 2:2). The Bible also recognises the corruption of the human heart and requires accountability for those with spiritual authority in the church. Beware any leader who points followers to himself/herself and who lacks any clear accountability structures.
On the issue of leadership, cult leaders always seem to be self-appointed. They thrust themselves into positions of leadership by virtue of their strong personality or a claim that they’ve been directly appointed by God. One of the things we ought to be thankful for in Reformed circles is our recognition that a man needs to be called by God through the church into pastoral office. Whilst the idea of ordination is falling on hard times in our egalitarian age, this is a wonderful safeguard. The Bible clearly teaches that leadership in the church is for those who meet the character requirements of Scripture (1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1). We do not believe that any man has the right to determine he meets these requirements himself, but the church needs to recognise these men and set them apart for service (1 Tim 4:14). We are to beware of any pastor who is self-appointed.
If we are allowed to refer to ‘appealing’ aspects of cults, one of the reasons they attract people is because of the strong focus on community. If you have watched the documentaries about our home grown cult Gloriavale4 on television, one of the key features of this cult is there strong emphasis on community life. This is certainly in keeping with the biblical command to love one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord (John 13:34-35, Rom 13:8). This is where the church has an opportunity to offer a counter community of genuine love and commitment. The danger of the cultish community is that individuality is often quashed and conformity to certain community standards is required. Long lists of what is acceptable in terms of behaviours, books that are permitted, or dress requirements will feature heavily. These requirements go beyond the Scriptures and bind the consciences of people. We need to beware of those who take away the freedoms that we have in Christ.
Sometimes we think that cults are only for people who are a little bit foolish. However, cults are not actually for dummies. Millions of people regardless of intellect or education (or wealth or ethnic group) have been lured into cults. So what is the best way to inoculate yourself from becoming part of a cult? Firstly, you need to be alert to the danger. Secondly, you need to immerse yourself in the Scriptures so that orthodox teaching is so ingrained that you can smell cult-like tendencies a mile away. Thirdly, you need to pray. Pray for yourself, and pray also for those in cults that the Lord might open their eyes to the truth and save them5.
1 Evangelizing the Cults by Dr Ronald Enroth, Servant Publications, 1990, p. 11.
2 for example, the church of scientology was founded by Science fiction author L R Hubbard. The beliefs of the cult read like a science fiction novel.
3 some examples: The Christadelphians (John Thomas) “Jesus Christ did not exist as a person from eternity as one of the triune Godhead … . He did not actually come into being until He was begotten of the Holy Spirit and born in Bethlehem.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses “The incarnation is scripturally erroneous. Indeed, if he (Christ) had been an incarnate being, he could never have redeemed mankind.”
4 this cult was formed by Neville Cooper and they used to be known as the Cooperites. Their compound is presently located on the West Coast.
5 here is a remarkable story of a cult known as the worldwide church of God (WCG). This cult began in the mid-1930’s and had a range of unorthodox beliefs. However, in the 1990’s the Lord worked mightily to bring them back to the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. You can read more about this at https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/04/cults-and-amazing-grace/.
Mr Andrew de Vries is the minister of the Reformed Church in Bishopdale.