How To Identify A Cult
Some people have said that the ministry of the Salina Bible Church is a cult and to be avoided. Should I be offended? The real question to be answered is whether or not the accusation is true. If the accusation is true I better be repentant and not worried about being offended. So how do you determine whether any ministry is a cult or not?
The first thing that is needed in answering our question is a good working definition of a cult. Consulting the dictionary we find that a cult is a religious group which follows certain procedures or adheres to a set of beliefs. Unfortunately, that definition makes any and every religious body a cult. Every church, temple, synagogue, or meeting place that conducts any form of religious activity is a cult by the dictionary's definition. As helpful as dictionaries are in defining words, that definition is useless for our purposes here.
A popular definition or conception of a cult is that it is a small, radical group, dominated by one leader, usually centering on prophetic teaching, and seeing themselves as being persecuted until some time of deliverance or triumph. While I believe some aspects of this definition may be true, it omits any definition of distinction between genuine Christianity and cultic teaching other than the size of the group. If a group is small it is cultic, but what happens should that same group become a large group? Is it no longer a cult because many people believe the same as did the small group?
For our purposes, we will define a cult in the following manner. A cult is a religious organization that claims to be genuinely Christian, generally centers around the leadership of one person, relies upon revelation that is in addition to the Bible, and denies or distorts central doctrines of Christianity, particularly those doctrines that relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This definition defines a cult not by the number of its followers, or by how it is regarded by mainstream religion, but by how it compares with the teachings of Scripture.
In order to be able to recognize a cult then, one must be able not only to know what a particular group teaches, but be intimately knowledgeable of what the Bible teaches. Before you can know what is false, you must know what is true. Therefore, before looking at any of the teachings of any religious organization, we need to set down some Biblical absolutes as to the nature of genuine Christianity. From the definition above, we will look at four areas that describe genuine Christianity. Note that we will not consider Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or other major world religions as cults because these do not claim to be Christian. For our purposes, only those groups that identify themselves as being Christian will be considered.
The first area of consideration that marks genuine Christianity is the area of leadership. As noted, cults generally center around the leadership of one person, or are founded upon the teachings of one person. For example, the Branch Davidians were centered upon the teachings of David Koresch, Christian Science revolves around the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, Mormonism around Joseph Smith, and so on. Some might say that Christianity revolves around the leadership of Jesus Christ, and that is true. However, there is one significant difference. Jesus Christ is God and is the center of worship of genuine Christianity. The same can not be said for cultic organizations. While genuine Christianity revolves around the person of Christ, its administration is executed through the leadership of a plurality of leaders.
Some have suggested that the church is built upon the foundational teaching of the Apostle Peter, or the Apostle Paul. Such is not the case. If one man was to be singled out by God on which He would build His church, then why did He call 12 to be apostles? Why would He waste His time with the other 11? The fact of the matter is that while both Peter and Paul were prominent in the early church, authority and responsibility was given equally to all 12 of the apostles. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus says that, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." In the original Greek of this passage, the "thee" and the "thous" are both plural. In other words, Jesus was speaking to all the apostles with this declaration, not just Peter. Authority was given to all 12, not just one! Likewise, we see in John 20:19-23, Matthew 28:16-20, and Acts 1:8, all of which are portions of what is known as the Great Commission, authority is delegated to all of the apostles.
Not only was the church founded upon the ministry of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), but not even one church was to have authority over others. While the church in Jerusalem became the "headquarters" of the apostles, it was not the ruling seat of the church. Every church in the New Testament was independent and self-governing. While there was a working fellowship among the churches, there was not a hierarchy of control.
Each church was responsible for choosing its own leaders. Throughout the New Testament we see a plurality of both Elders and Deacons in every church. Passages such as 1 Peter 5:1; Hebrews 13:7,17; 1 Timothy 3:8; and Acts 6:3 all indicate that there were more than just one person providing leadership in the church. It is true that some leaders were more prominent than others in leading (1 Timothy 5:17), but there was not one case where the church was ruled by one person. In fact there is a severe rebuke to Diotrephes in 3 John 9 for his attempts to single-handedly control the church.
Any organization where only one person dictates belief and/or direction of ministry is cultic in nature and does not operate according to the plan of God for His church. Chances are great that they will also violate the will of God for His church in the areas below.
A second area of consideration is that genuine Christianity recognizes the uniqueness of Scripture. Cults acknowledge Scripture as a source of instruction, but then recognize other writings as authoritative. For example, the Mormons add Doctrines And Covenants, The Book Of Mormon, and Pearl Of Great Price to its literature which it believes is necessary for instruction. The question that needs to be answered is are these writings given by God, and truly supplemental to or needed in addition to the Bible?
Genuine Christianity recognizes the uniqueness of Scripture. The Bible says of itself that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be mature and completely equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It also states that all of Scripture was given by God through holy men who were moved by the Spirit of God (1 Peter 1:20-21). If cultic writings are truly of God, then those writings must be consistent with the nature of God's Word. From what the Bible says of itself in these two passages, we can conclude a number of tests to examine any extra-biblical writing's genuineness as being from God.
We should ask about the spiritual condition of the author. Peter says that God uses holy men. We therefore eliminate the writings of women as being inspired. We also must eliminate the writings of ungodly men. It is a sad thing but many of those who have written things that have been deemed as "inspired" were transformed by their own revelations rather than by God's Word. In other words, they received a revelation that brought them to God, rather than being brought to God that they might receive a revelation.(Understand that I believe that the Bible teaches that revelation has ceased, all present day writings are not inspired; but when revelation was given, men first became holy before they received revelation to record, rather than the reverse of today.)
Since revelation was inspired of God, then that revelation must also be consistent with the nature of God. The Bible tells us that it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, the Word of God must be free from any and all error. Inspired literature must be historically, scientifically, geographically, theologically and numerically accurate. Any error, no matter how insignificant it may seem, reveals the writing is not of God. Likewise, any writing must not contradict what the Bible already says. For example, Rome has decreed in its councils that if anyone says that salvation is by grace through faith alone, they are to be an anathema. But the Bible clearly states that salvation is by grace through faith alone.
Also, since it is impossible for God to lie, if God predicts something to occur, then it must come to pass as it is predicted. Should it fail to come to pass or come to pass in a way inconsistent with the manner of the prophecy, then the writing is not of God. For example, the Bible tells us that Jesus was to be, and was born in the city of Bethlehem. However, the Book of Mormon says that Jesus was to be born in Jerusalem (Alma 7:9-10). The Book of Mormon is wrong!
Another quality listed in Scripture about the genuine Word of God is that it has the power to change lives. Paul lists these benefits in 2 Timothy 3:16. Certainly is can be argued that extra-biblical writings have changed people's lives, and even for the good. But if the writing is not of God, then it is incapable of changing it for God. Extra-biblical writings may have the power to reform people but they do not have the power to renew people in godliness.
Is the Bible sufficient in itself to meet the needs of God's people? The answer is a resounding YES! Peter tells us that everything pertaining to life and godliness is given to us in the Word of God (2 Peter 1:3). The Bible has been recognized as the completed revelation of God and without question is sufficient for all of man's needs.
Any organization that incorporates any writing other than the Bible for its authoritative teaching is cultic. Having corrupted the sole authority of Scripture, they will more than likely also corrupt the teachings of Scripture.
A third area of consideration is the organization's belief concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. Even those groups that are not centered on the leadership of one person and which do not endorse extra-biblical writings, still are cultic if they pervert the teaching of the Word of God concerning Jesus Christ. Genuine Christianity recognizes that Jesus Christ is the Eternal God, Who became perfect man, without ceasing to be God, in order that He might die on Calvary's cross, bearing our sins and paying sin's penalty in full.
The Bible clearly states that Jesus is eternal, not made. Micah 5:2 states that although Jesus would be born in Jerusalem, He, nonetheless has existed from everlasting. Likewise, John 1:1 states that in the beginning was the Word. Later in verse 14 we read that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. There is no other valid conclusion than that the "Word" is a reference to Jesus Christ. What is interesting about verse one though is that in the beginning, WAS the Word. If Jesus Christ was the first created being of God, then that verse would need to read, "In the beginning became the Word, or the Word came into existence..." However, in the original Greek of John's gospel, John uses a verb form which indicates existing in a continuous form prior to the beginning. Since the beginning is the beginning of creation, then prior to anything being created, Jesus continually existed. He is eternal.
In that Jesus is eternal and not created, He is also therefore God. Not a man who become a God as the Mormons declare, or the first and highest created being of God who is godlike, as the Jehovah's Witnesses claim, but God Himself. The term "Son of God" that causes some confusion, simply means that Jesus came from God and exhibits all the characteristics of God. In another use, the Antichrist is called the son of perdition. That does not mean that a person by the name of "perdition" gave birth to him, or that he ranks lower than a person named perdition, but that he exhibits all the characteristics of perdition.
So Jesus came forth from God bearing all the characteristics of God. And in taking on genuine humanity, He never relinquished His deity. Paul states that in Philippians 2:5-10, where he says that Jesus existed in the form of God from eternity past. However, he thought that such outward expression was something that He need not hold onto (thought it not robbery) but took on the outward expression of a servant, being made in the likeness of mankind. As the God-man, He was able to pay for our sins on Calvary's cross. No one but God is able to forgive sins, so it was necessary that God be propitiated for our sins, not man. Since God is holy, it is impossible for God to simply overlook our sins and declare us acceptable to Him. Some price must be paid. God determined the price in Eden when He said to Adam and Eve that the price of their sin would be that literally, "dying, they would die". The consequences of sin is both physical death (dying) and an eternal death (they would die). Eternal death is the complete separation from God and all of His benevolence and goodness for all of eternity. In that man is incapable of paying an eternal death, someone Who is eternal then must provide for man, therefore, the one who dies must be God. However, it was also necessary that in order to die for the sins of man, the one who died must be a member of humanity. That is why it was necessary for God to take on genuine humanity. As the perfect God-man, Jesus was able to bear our sins in His body on the cross and die, and give eternal significance to that death, thereby satisfying the righteous demands of a holy God and redeeming mankind through His substitutional death.
Any group or organization that denies that Jesus is the Eternal God sent from heaven, Who became perfect man without ceasing to be God, nullifies Jesus' credentials to redeem mankind from its sin and therefore can not provide any salvation for sin at all!
There is one more significant aspect to the definition of a cult. Groups may be orthodox on all that is above and yet be cultic if they provide for the application of the salvation offered by Jesus Christ in any other way than by grace through faith alone. The Bible is very clear that salvation is not possessed in any other manner. Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is a gift from God, not possessed on the basis of works, lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:8-9). Cultic groups may mention grace through faith but then add works to it, such as believing and being baptized, or believing and joining the church, or believing and being obedient to the law. Some say that grace is administered through church sacraments, however, the Bible says that grace is always through faith and nothing else.
Now should a Christian be baptized, join the church, and be obedient to the royal law of Christ? In the words of Jerome "Curly" Howard, "Why certainly!" But the Christian does these things (and more) because of the salvation they possess, not in order to obtain salvation. These things are done because of grace already received, not in order to receive grace. These things are done because the person already is a child of God, not in order to become one.
Any group or organization that states that a person or a church must do something in addition to personal faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ in order to obtain salvation, is a cult.
Now that we have defined the character of a cult, what should be the Christian response to them. I suggest that there are two imperatives found in Scripture in dealing with the cults and cultists. First, even though they may be religious, they are lost and need to be saved. Christ died for them too. We need to give them the gospel. When they come knocking at your door, view this as a God-given opportunity for you to share your faith. Will you always win them to Christ? Of course not. Will you ever win them to Christ? Not without trying! Paul wrote to Titus that he was to reject the heretic after the second admonition. It may be that you will not be able to win them to Christ, but I believe Scripture enjoins you to at least try twice with each one.
Secondly, the Christian must, according to Romans 16:17, avoid their religious practices. I personally do not believe that a Christian has any business participating in any religious practice with a cultic member for any reason. Our first allegiance is to God, and His holiness. By participating in any way with the cultist, we diminish our ability to represent Him and ultimately confuse the cultist as to their need for salvation. Some may object and say that this will make us look "holier than thou" or too exclusive. To this I have an elongated response, "So?" It is not that we are holier in our own merits than they are, but God is infinitely holier than they are and they need His holiness. It is not that we are exclusive and will not give them opportunity for fellowship with us, but that God is exclusive as to who He will fellowship with, and our fellowship is with Him. I do not in any way want to promote the idea that a Christian should be unkind, mean, antagonistic, or bear any malice toward a member of any cultic organization, but that any cooperative religious activity with a cultic member is simply out of the will of God. They that worship Him (God) must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24) Cultic members simply can not do this.