Beware of False Prophets
Religion in modern-day America can best be described with one word – variety. There are many religious bodies, ranging from the large, mainline denominations to little, one-of-a-kind groups of believers.
With so much variety, many are led to ask why there are so many differences. Are all of these churches really worshiping the same God? Often, they are in remarkable agreement on fundamental doctrines concerning God, Christ, and salvation by grace. In many cases, they only differ on such matters as church government or the mode and subjects of baptism.
Sadly, however, this cannot be said of all who call themselves Christians. There are those whose system of doctrine diverges so much from biblical Christianity that they cannot be included in the realm of Christendom. Because they claim to be Christian, we refer to them as pseudo-Christian cults. They are not Christians in the New Testament sense at all; instead, they teach false doctrine and are a real danger to anyone who comes in contact with them. The best defense against them is to be aware of who they are and what they teach. If the believer is well grounded in biblical teaching, he will not fall for their well-prepared, but specious arguments.
What Is a Cult?
Our first task is to determine what a cult is. A cult is not merely another variety of Christianity. Organizations that would be classified as cults differ drastically from biblical orthodoxy. According to Funk and Wagnall's Standard Desk Dictionary (rev. ed., 1976), a cult involves "zealous devotion to a person, idea, or thing." A. Hoekema has observed that "there is in all cults an abrupt break with historic Christianity and with its confessions" (The Four Major Cults [Eerdmans, 1963], p. 374). While many think of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (that is, the Mormons) as a Protestant denomination, their distinctive, foundational doctrines are certainly not biblical. Yet Joseph Smith and his successors insist that theirs is the divinely restored and only true gospel. Similar claims have been made for their own teachings by Charles T. Russell and Mary Baker Eddy as well.
Cults will never admit that they are cults. They see themselves, of course, as true churches. There are certain characteristics, though, that set them apart from biblical Christianity. Each is exclusivistic, viewing itself as the only true church in the world. They tend to see themselves as being right in the center of God's plan for the world. They also, invariably, hold to one or more extra-biblical sources of authority. They may profess to honor the Bible, but that is usually little more than lip service. For Mormons, the Book of Mormon and other works are considered God's written revelation. For Jehovah's Witnesses, publications of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society are the voice of God.
Another distinctive characteristic of cults is that they devalue the work of Christ and deny justification by grace through faith. Christ is seen as providing a way of some kind, but the individual cultist must work hard to achieve his final goal. He has a rigid works-righteousness system of belief. Why then do these groups strike so many as Christians?
Coming to Terms
Cults are sometimes perceived as Christian because they use Christian terms. Because of this, they may sound like they are saying Christian things, and this can prove to be frustrating to one who is trying to present a Christian witness to them. In some cases, the cultist may try to establish rapport by saying something such as, ''We believe very much alike!" If he or she refers to "seeking God" and "striving to become pleasing to him," it can prove to be disarming if the Christian is unprepared.
Although the same familiar terms may be used, they do not mean the same thing to a cultist. For instance, to the Christian, Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. To the Mormon, however, Jesus is one in a multitude of gods. According to them, he is the offspring of the heavenly Father and his brother is Lucifer, the devil! The Jehovah's Witness will refer to Jesus as the son of God, which sounds legitimate. If he is challenged, though, he will emphatically deny that Jesus is God the Son. He will denounce that idea as unbiblical and the product of evil men. Jesus is seen instead as the first of Jehovah's creative works and as the archangel Michael. What we think of Christ is all-important to our salvation, and both Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses corrupt biblical teachings on the subject.
Books have been written that expose how the cults cleverly redefine biblical terminology. One may ask, how can these organizations get away with such radical recasting of biblical teaching?
Who Is Your Authority?
The Scriptures themselves teach that "the Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 2
Many people and organizations use the Bible. Most use it by itself, but others use it with other sources of authority as well. Some can use the Bible very cleverly, in order to make it teach very bizarre doctrines.
How can the cults make the Bible seem to contradict doctrines that the church has taught for centuries? Has the church been so wrong for so long? That is the very idea which the cultist attempts to convey. To gain adherents, the message of the cults is that God's church was driven into extinction at some time in the past, and has been restored in latter times. Many have raised their voices to claim that God has given them the ''special insight" that the world needs.
In every case there is another source of authority, and use of the Bible ultimately becomes a pretense. The cultist is told, through other means, how to understand God's will. He is told that this other source is God's only appointed channel on earth. The Jehovah's Witness is warned against independent thinking. He is even told that it is dangerous and disloyal to read the Bible alone. One cannot understand the Bible without the guiding light of Society publications. In the same vein, the Mormon is devoted to statements of the Church Presidency. Obedience is the only valid response. Mormons are told that when policy is set forth, "the thinking has been done."
The cultist is not devoted to the Bible, but rather to the organization. His obedience must be complete and unwavering. Outward dissension results in expulsion from the organization and ostracism, which to many can be mortifying.
What response can the Christian give to such thinking? The apostle Peter wrote,
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.1 Peter. 3:15
The Christian's sole source of authority is the Word of God. Sola Scriptura was a rallying cry of the Reformation, and it must continue to be ours as well. The Christian has God's sure word in written form (2 Peter 1:19), and he also has the assurance of God's love for him (Romans 8:1, 2; 1 John 5:13), which is something every cultist lacks.
The cults provide a real challenge to the Christian church. Every year they recruit thousands of people from Christian congregations, and we must be ready to meet that challenge. If we teach and maintain sound doctrine and alert Christians to the errors of the cults, we may be able to minimize the damage that they can do. There will always be those who just cannot stand the ring of orthodoxy, as the apostle John has written (1 John 2:19), but let us strive to prevent others from going to them because of ignorance.
Each cult offers a way to God through obedience to its organization, but the Bible teaches that we can be reconciled to God only through faith in Christ Jesus. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). Cultists are not included among those sheep; rather, they are wolves that come in sheep's clothing, ready to scatter the flock and devour it.