The Culting of Christianity

Not long ago, religious cults were dismissed by many Americans as being the stuff of aging California hippies or eccentric gurus from the Far East.

But things have changed. Today, you need not look any further than around the block to encounter the pervasive influence of cults. Their authors are on the best-seller lists. Their ideas are subtly communicated in popular music, movies and TV programs. Their propagators are, in some instances quite literally, knocking at your door.

Cults and cultic practices are rapidly growing in America, robbing millions of people of eternal life -- even earnest, well-intentioned churchgoers. There are literally thousands of cults operating in the United States and abroad, with conservative estimates of 30 million people affiliated with them in America alone.

The word cult is not in the Bible. It is generally used because of its connotation of alarm or danger. The biblical terms employed are false teachers, false prophets or deceivers; basically, those who seek to advance a different Jesus or a different gospel.

In fact, every book in the New Testament (except Philemon) speaks to the issue of false religious teaching, with warning passages and instructions on how we as Christians are to respond. (Some examples are: Matt. 24:4-24; Acts 20:28-32; Rom. 1:18-25; 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 12-15; 2 Tim. 4:2-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; Jude 3-4.)

Why does Scripture say so much about counterfeit spiritualities? Because they were a huge problem in the early church, and they continue to be today.

Most cults are religious-based, but there also exists psychotherapy cults, commercial cults and even political cults.

The primary beliefs and practices that define Christian cults are: (1) elitism -- the belief that “our group” alone has authority or salvation; (2) extra-biblical revelation -- adding to Scripture, elevating personal revelation to the level of Scripture, or treating a leader’s interpretation as infallible; (3) authoritarianism -- the manipulative use of fear, guilt, isolation or control of information, which often results in psychological or spiritual abuse.

The chief concern for Christians is to distinguish between false teachings and those legitimate differences in doctrine, emphasis, and expressions of worship among the many churches and denominations in the body of Christ.

The non-negotiables of the Christian faith are the doctrines encompassing the historical Person and work of Christ. If one rejects the one triune God, denying either the full deity or full humanity of Jesus Christ, or if one rejects the gospel of grace, he has broken with the essential tenets of Christianity.

The believer is one who puts his faith only in Jesus, trusting in Christ’s own perfect salvation and righteousness and not his own works (Rom. 3:21-26; 1 Cor. 1:30).

Sadly, there is a very high percentage of cult converts coming from the ranks of Christian churches. When we seek to understand the cult explosion, it is not enough to just contrast the cults with essential, doctrinal Christianity. We also need to look at ourselves and be aware of what weaknesses we have that help enable cult growth.

Paul warns about the poison of cults and deception in his parting instructions to the church at Ephesus. But the ultimate antidote he commended was the teaching of the “whole counsel of God” through the word of grace (Acts 20:27-32).

A brief overview of the three major cults distorting God’s truth today can help us understand, and thus avoid, cultic errors in Christian doctrine and reach out to those who are led astray by the false teachings of these movements.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), headquartered in Salt Lake City is commonly known as Mormonism, although it is not the group’s preferred designation. Founded in 1830 by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith, LDS claims it alone is the one true Christian church. It teaches that the original Christian church was completely destroyed soon after the death of the apostles.

In 1820, when Smith was 14, he claimed God the Father (in a physical body) and Jesus appeared to him and told him the traditional Christian churches were “all wrong” and “were an abomination” in God’s sight.

This “first vision” (actually there were nine contradictory accounts) was followed by visits from an angel named Moroni, whom Smith claimed led him to a set of gold plates. These plates were alleged to tell the history of the Israelites (2000 B.C.- A.D. 430), who migrated to the Americas and were visited by Jesus after His ascension at Jerusalem. Smith claims to have translated these golden plates into the Book of Mormon.

The fact is that every reputable archaeological society, including the Smithsonian Institute and the National Geographic Society, affirms the historicity of the Bible, yet has concluded that there is no archaeological support for the claims of the Book of Mormon.

As Smith’s new church evolved, he added additional “scriptures” called the Standard Works, these are the Bible (King James Version only), the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Of all these works, only the Bible has been declared to be not totally dependable.

The LDS is rigidly governed by a prophet, his apostolic counselors, and an elaborate system of “apostles” and administrators. Typical of a pseudo-Christian cult, Mormonism uses both the Bible and Christian terminology, but their meanings are far removed from historic, biblical Christianity. For example:

1. God. Instead of believing in the one, eternal God, Mormonism teaches that there are many gods (polytheism or henotheism); that the Trinity means three gods with one purpose rather than three in one; that God was once a physical man like us, on another planet, who through perfect obedience was resurrected into a god; and, that Mormons today can become gods.

2. Jesus. Mormonism teaches that Jesus is the offspring of Father God and a heavenly mother in the pre-existence (the period prior to creation); that He was the spirit-brother of Lucifer; and, that He was begotten in the flesh through sexual relations between God (a resurrected, physical man) and his own spirit-daughter Mary.

3. Holy Ghost. Mormonism teaches that He is a third god, and not one with God and Christ as in true Christianity.

4. Salvation. The goal of every Mormon is to reach exaltation or godhood; Mormonism teaches that Christ’s atonement actually grants universal salvation (meaning only physical resurrection) for all. Yet for individual salvation, or eternal life, one must be obedient to all “laws and ordinances” (i.e., perfection), in order to become a god. Also, Mormons can be baptized “in proxy” for dead relatives.

5. Negroes. According to Mormon teaching, people of African descent are darker because of their inadequate faithfulness in the pre-existence. They were not given equal status to achieve eternal life until 1978.

Whereas Mormons congregate in local chapels, the larger temples scattered around the world are reserved for certain Mormons who qualify, through worthiness, to attend and perform secret rituals as they progress toward godhood.

The LDS currently maintains a worldwide missionary force of mostly young men between the ages of 19 and 21, serving a two-year “calling.”

Part of the attractiveness of Mormonism is its emphasis on parental responsibilities and strong, moral families. The Mormon Church does have many honest, patriotic and hard-working members who strive to have strong families. But their teachings are clearly heretical and deny the true Jesus and gospel.

Christians should approach them with love, patience and kindness. But we must be informed of both LDS doctrines and our own so that we can more effectively communicate the truth to them (see 2 Tim. 2:23-26).

Officially known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, with headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., this international cult has members who go door-to-door witnessing between 10 and 100 hours per month.

Consequently, Jehovah’s Witnesses are baptizing many new members annually. They meet in buildings called “kingdom halls.”

This cult began in 1879 under the leadership of Charles Taze Russell, who, as is typical with many cult leaders, came out of a traditional Christian church because he didn’t agree with certain teachings. In his case, it was the doctrines of hell and eternal punishment.

The cult evolved over the century under the leadership of various presidents. The Watchtower is prolific in publishing materials. In addition to their semimonthly magazines, “The Watchtower” and “Awake!”, they publish at least two doctrinal study books per year.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are ruled by a group of men known as the “governing body,” which claims to be part of God’s “prophet class,” led by angels and Jehovah’s spirit to interpret the Bible and its prophecies.

In their zeal to be a prophetic group and to be found faithful in the end times, the Watchtower has repeatedly failed the test of a prophet (see Deut. 18:20-22) by falsely prophesying Armageddon in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1925, 1940 and 1975.

Like many exclusivistic cults, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim the Christian church apostatized and that the Watchtower Society is God’s only true, visible organization on earth. Consequently, the Watchtower has come to deny most biblical doctrines, declaring them to be satanic or traditions of men. For example, they deny: (1) the Trinity; (2) the bodily resurrection of Jesus; (3) salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone; (4) hell or eternal punishment; (5) the bodily resurrection of believers in heaven. All of which are basic Christian beliefs.

Instead, they teach: (1) that there is only one God -- and Jehovah is the only name He recognizes; (2) Jesus was created and is not God, but only a man; (3) the Holy Spirit is not God, but only the power or love of God; (4) there is a two-class system of salvation -- 144,000 spirit beings will reside in heaven, while the rest of the faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses will live on a new paradise-earth for eternity.

What’s more, Jehovah’s Witnesses teach a works system of salvation that includes mandatory door-to-door witnessing, never questioning the authority of the organization, and following all the dictates of Jehovah (per the organization). Watchtower members also must refuse blood transfusions (a practice that has resulted in the deaths of many individuals), and they cannot celebrate birthdays or holidays such as Easter and Christmas.

The Watchtower has a long history of abuse through its very powerful techniques of mind control or thought reform. It demands unquestioning loyalty through fear, guilt, manipulation and control of information, which includes shunning ex-members (including family). Also, friendships with people outside the organization are discouraged because they are “bad associations.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses need our love and compassion, not ridicule, scorn or rudeness. But the Christian needs to be able to share with them the truth -- trusting God to open their eyes.

In this country, we have experienced a dramatic spiritual movement that has significantly permeated and influenced many areas including education, entertainment, psychology, medicine, politics and even the church.

This phenomenon, commonly called the New Age movement, ranges from the silly to the sophisticated in its varied expressions.

Reducing New Age philosophy to its common denominators, we can understand that it is basically a synthesis or combination of Eastern religions, the occult and Western materialism. New Age thought can also be embodied in formalized religions such as Christian Science, Hare Krishna, or in practices such as transcendental meditation, yoga and therapeutic touch.

New Ageism is like a fast-food cafeteria for spiritual seekers, with countless entrees for a world starved by the emptiness of secular humanism or the seeming routine of traditional Christianity.

New Age is certainly not new. It’s as old as the conniving serpent of Genesis 3. It derives its name from belief in a new astrological period, the dawning of the “age of Aquarius.” The basic postulate of the New Age movement is monism/pantheism -- the belief that God and creation are one in the same.

The logical result of this belief is that there are no real distinctions between right and wrong, humanity and the rest of creation, or the finite and the infinite. The apparent distinctions are only illusions. Since man is really God, New Agers would say, he creates his own truth. Therefore, there are no moral absolutes -- man is unlimited in his potential and doesn’t need a Savior. Sin is not his problem; his problem is ignorance, and he only needs enlightenment -- the realization of his own divinity.

The hundreds of gurus, self-help groups and therapies drawing on New Age philosophy have these same foundational operating assumptions. What distinguishes the various groups are the spiritual technologies or methods they use to move man from his lower state of consciousness to his “higher self.”

Common “technologies” include meditation, crystals, reincarnation, psychic consulting, astrology, and so on. What only a few years ago would have been relegated to the lunatic fringe are becoming the subjects of “New York Times” best-sellers, alternative-health methods, psychic hotlines and well-attended self-help seminars.

Involvement in New Ageism exposes people to demonic deception, dismisses or minimizes sin, and eliminates the need for a Savior since for New Agers there exists no real ethical or metaphysical separation from God.

In some cases the lines of distinction between New Age and nonreligious practices are blurred, making discernment even more crucial. Yoga, for example, is occasionally taught or practiced in secular settings with its basic Hindu meanings still intact.

Even superficial involvement in the New Age movement can rob a Christian of an intimate walk with Christ, so it is important for believers to recognize it even in its most disguised forms.

In the latter moments of His earthly ministry, Jesus interceded for His church, pleading, “ ‘Father, sanctify them in the truth’” (John 17:17). And that truth cuts both ways: In the wilderness, Jesus not only used Scripture in His responses to Satan’s temptations, but significantly, He corrected Satan’s misuse of Scripture (see Matt. 4:1-11).

We must likewise be ready to (1) live and share the life-giving message of God’s Word and (2) discern and defend truth from error. May God help us to be “as wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

By Craig Branch for “New Man” magazine. All rights reserved.