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What are cults and How can we identify them?

So many Christian groups are being called as cults. What is the truth in it and how can we identify the real from the counterfeit? In this section, we will look at what a cult is and how to identify and prevent from being influenced by them! Many are deceived due to their lack of understanding about the Lord and the Scriptures.

What is a cult?

Dr. Walter Martin, one of the greatest authority on the cults describe a cult as: "A group of people gathered around a specific person's misinterpretation of the Bible." Cults are groups that claim to be in harmony with Bible but deny foundational Biblical doctrines such as the unique deity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Bible we are warned against such: Jesus gives us a warning about the coming of the cults. "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. "Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. "Beware of FALSE prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. "You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn-bushes or figs from thistles? "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "Therefore by their fruits you will know them. "Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. "Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'
(Matthew 7:13-23)

Holy Spirit warns us through Peter also that false teachers will arise from within the church and were there in his time too when we read the Bible: But there were also FALSE prophets among the people, even as there will be FALSE teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. (2 Peter 2:1-3) It is repeated in the epistle of Jude as: These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage (Jude 1:16).

Sociological Structure of a Cult

Life in the cults is marked by fear of judgment, pressure, and legalism. Cults provides a family atmosphere that many long for who esp. are from broken homes. The cult leader often takes the place of a father figure and will be authoritative. The leader or organisation exercises complete control over a follower's life. The words of the leadership are ultimate and often considered divinely inspired. Going against the leadership is equivalent to going against the commands of God. Individual thinking is discouraged and there is closed-mindedness in general. Because of its authoritarian nature, leaders are the only ones thought to be able to properly interpret the Bible. All members are to turn to the organisation for biblical interpretation and advice on life decisions. There is an unwillingness to dialogue and consider other viewpoints.

Another characteristic of a cult is an elitist mentality. Most cults believe they are the true church and the only ones who will be saved. This is because the group believes they have new revelation or understanding that makes them superior to others. These cultists isolate themselves from others. They believe those who do not agree with them are deceived or under the influence of Satan. Therefore physical or psychological barriers are created so that their members are protected from the outside world. Many members are prohibited from communicating with those outside the organisation who do not agree with the teachings of the group.

The next characteristic is a legalistic lifestyle - Salvation is not based on grace alone. A works-oriented gospel is preached which leads to a lifestyle of legalism. They maintain that followers must live up to the group's standards in order to attain or maintain their membership and hope for eternal life. As a result, there is tremendous pressure to live up to the requirements of the organisation such as attendance and servitude.

Finally the exit process is a difficult one. Since salvation is found only within the organisation means leaving the cult is considered to be leaving God Himself. Many are warned that if they leave, they will be condemned to hell, or seduced by Satan. Many ex-members are harassed by the organisation even after they leave the cult. Ironically this is contrary to what is said in the Bible by Jesus: "Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30) The peace and rest promised by Christ is seldom experienced by those involved in the cults.

Cult Doctrines

Cults promote false teaching on the nature of God. The Bible teaches there is one God. All cults have a distorted view of this doctrine. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses do not accept Jesus as God in flesh and Mormons teach tritheism, three gods who make up the godhead.

Second, cults teach a false view of Jesus. The Bible teaches that Christ is 100 percent man and 100 percent God. This has been called the hypo-static union. In 2 Corinthians 11:4, Paul warned about false teachers teaching another Jesus. A modern-day example of false teaching is Christian Science which teaches that Jesus was not God but a man who displayed the Christ idea. He neither died for sins, nor was He resurrected.

Third is a false teaching on salvation. All cults have a works-oriented Gospel. The death of Christ is believed to give followers the potential to be saved. So after believing in Christ, one must serve the organisation to attain salvation. Salvation is found in the organisation and one is never really sure if one has done enough to be worthy of salvation. In the International Church of Christ, for example, disciples are scrutinised by their disciples daily to determine if they performed as worthy disciples. Failure to meet the standards may result in discipline. Disciples can never be certain they have done enough for salvation.

Fourth, there is extra-biblical revelation and the denial of the sole authority of the Bible. Cults claim that extra revelation is given to the leader whose words are seen as inspired by God and equal to the Bible. If there is a conflict between the Bible and the leader's words, the latter takes precedence. So in reality, the leader's writings take precedence over the Bible. When interacting with cultists, I often hear them claim their teachings are consistent with the Bible. However, when I point out where their teachings deviate from the Bible, they eventually claim the Bible to be in error. In most cases, cultists claim the Bible has somehow been corrupted by the church.

Characteristics of a Cult

Aggressive proselytising is another method of the cults. Although many Christian groups use aggressive evangelism, they do so out of a love for God and a desire to see others come to know Christ. Many cultists proselytise for much the same reasons but added to this is the desire to win God's approval. They work for grace rather than from grace. The cults require their members to evangelise. Many groups hold their members accountable for the number of hours they spend witnessing for the organisation. Many members feel guilty if a day or so goes by without them proselytising. Scripture twisting is another method of the cults. Cultist quote verses in the Bible that support their position, but skip over the verses that do not. Often, there is gross misinterpretation of Scripture so that contradictory verses will better fall in line with their views. For example, Jehovah's Witness and Mormons try to use verses to show Jesus is a created being. However, their position is easily shown to be incorrect when you explain the context and correct meaning of the terms. Also, when you show additional verses that contradict their position, they are often surprised and realise they have never seen those verse before or that the organisation's explanations of those verses are unable to be supported.


To be sure, few pastors, teachers, and evangelists defend adequately their beliefs, but most of them -- and most of the average Christian laymen - are hard put to confront and refute a well-trained cultist of almost any variety."{1} If the church engaged in solid and in-depth Bible teaching, the cults would not flourish as they do today. To successfully engage in conversation and effectively witness to those in the cults, Christians must be prepared in the following ways. 1 Peter 3:15 states that we must always be "prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." We must be prepared by knowing the word of God through diligent study of it. Second, we must be prepared to overcome our fears and lovingly reach out to cult members, exercising the fruits of patience and gentleness as we share the truth. First Timothy 4:1 states "...that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons." Ultimately the spirit behind all lies and deception is the devil, so the ultimate force behind the cults is the evil one. Galatians 1:8 states, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other that than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned." The false gospel of the cults cannot lead anyone to salvation. There are eternal consequences for false beliefs. For this reason Jesus and the apostles are very harsh on false teachers. There is also a psychological danger. The mind controlling techniques used by the organisations can cause immense damage mentally and emotionally. Living under the pressure, guilt, and dependence on the organisation has proved to have tremendous negative effects on individuals.

How to prevent:

Guidance of Holy Spirit is the key to this! get to know the Lord through fellowship with Him and through Scriptures!

(to be continued...)

Reference: 1. Walter Martin & Hank Hannegraph, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis, Mich.: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), p. 17.

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Page History: Last revised on 10 Feb 2011

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