The Culting of
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
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
Why does Scripture say so much about counterfeit spiritualities?
Because they were a huge problem in the early church, and they continue to be
WHAT IS A CULT?
Most cults are religious-based, but there also
exists psychotherapy cults, commercial cults and even political
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
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
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
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).
THE CHURCH’S DEFENSE
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
THE NEW AGE
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.
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
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
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
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
THE WHOLE TRUTH
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.
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.
By Craig Branch for “New
Man” magazine. All rights reserved.