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About  Cults: Definition and Responses

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What is a cult?

The word cult creates a great amount of confusion for many religious and non-religious people. Some would define a cult as "any group of wackos who take religion more seriously than I do."

But what is a “cult” really?

I would contend that the term cult should be reserved for only the most recognizably destructive groups—from both a Christian and non-Christian perspective.

From the Christian point of view, there are two very important considerations in identifying a destructive or unhealthy group. First, there is the theological consideration. How consistent are the group's beliefs with the basic tenets of the historic Christian faith? This evaluates the eternal significance of such beliefs. Second, there is the social-psychological consideration. How are power, authority, and control exercised in the group? This evaluates techniques of manipulation and mind control. A group may be deficient in one or both areas and thereby be considered an unhealthy and/or destructive group from a Christian perspective.

Top 10 Cults in America

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism)
  2. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses)
  3. The Church of Scientology
  4. The Twelve Tribes
  5. The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (Unification Church)
  6. The International Churches of Christ (Boston Movement)
  7. The Family (Children of God)
  8. Christian Identity Movement (Aryan Nations, Christian Identity Church, Klu Klux Klan, etc.)
  9. The Nation of Islam (Black Muslims)
  10. United Pentecostal Church (UPC)

Author: Bob Pardon of the New England Institute of Religious Research (NEIRR) in Lakeville MA, USA. Provided by AIIA Institute.

When Cults come Knocking


a summary of Karl Alsin's article published in Discipleship Journal,
Issue 115 (Jan/Feb 2000)

When people in cults come to my door, I don't see them as an inconvenience; I see them as a mission field. My goal is not to convert them on the spot. Rather, my purpose is to bring them one step closer to Christ, to remove even one obstacle in their journey to the cross. To accomplish this I have developed a plan that uses their Bible to help them discover truth. It's the Bible, the Word of God, not my arguments that will convince them.

It is my prayer that, by reading this, you may also learn a method that has helped me reach people in cults for Christ. The goal of this approach is self-discovery. We can't tell them what to believe because they won't accept it from us. We can, however, seek to lead them to the truth.

Let's take a look at each step of the process:

  • Have them read: When cult members read through a passage of Scripture, it involved them in the process of learning. If you read to them, they are trained to think about the next point in their proselytizing outline while you talk.

  • Out loud: If you merely show them a verse and expect them to read it silently, they will glance at it and scan their memory for their cult's standard response. Reading out loud will engage their minds. You want them to think about the Scripture they are reading, instead of rehearsing a response.

  • From their Bible: They don't trust your Bible even if it agrees with theirs. When they read from their Bible, they discover that their own Scripture proclaims gospel truth.

  • While you ask questions: After they've finished reading, ask some simple questions about the passage to help them observe what it teaches. This may help them think about what their Bibles really teaches instead of focusing on a predetermined agenda.

C.U.L.T. Distortions

Cults tend to depart from a historic Christian understanding of the Bible in Four Key Areas. I have built an acronym using the word "C.U.L.T." to highlight these distortions. For each point, I've also identified some questions drawn from the Scriptures to expose these inaccuracies.

  1. Christianity rejected.

    Cults often suggest that the “true” Christian church has failed, thinned out, or died. They may also believe some of Jesus teaching was omitted from the Bible or was subverted by self-seeking, godless men. The result, they say, is a contemporary Christian church that doesn't teach the truth. Thus, they reject Christianity. To address this, I ask them to read Jude 3, which tells us to "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." Then I ask some questions such as: How many times was the faith delivered? (Once); How long will that faith last? (For all time); Is there any chance Christianity might die out? (no). You might also consider using Matt. 16:18 to confront this argument about the church's purity and vitality.

  2. Use a new truth.

    Cults attract followers by claiming they possess newly revealed truth. New truth often centers on an individual with a supposed pipeline to God, a new set of scriptures, or both. “The Bible is OK,” they say, "but it's not enough. You need this extra book of scriptures or the correct interpretation of the Bible. Then you will have sufficient truth." Cults try to convince people that they cannot have access to these new truths through any other group.

    But Isaiah 40:8 clearly challenges such claims: "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."

    Consider asking these questions: What is it that stands forever? (The Word of God); Does it seem possible that the Word of God could change, become corrupted, or disappear? (No)

    New truth is unnecessary because the Bible's original revelation is sufficient, unchanging, and stands forever. You might also consider together Psalm 119:89 and Isaiah 55:10-11.

  3. Look for salvation apart from Christ.

    Many cults use familiar Christian words or phrases but with different meanings. Some, for example, call Jesus their Savior. Others say they are saved by grace. But we must look closely at statements such as these.

    In cults, salvation is always established by some form of works. Members must conform to an external code. Leaders use guilt, fear, and manipulation to motivate people to make sacrifices for the cult and to recruit new members. They teach their followers that the end is near and urge them to work hard to attain salvation. This work often includes some type of proselytizing.

    New Testament message of salvation by grace counters the cults' emphasis upon works. In Eph. 2:8-9, Paul wrote, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast."

    This passage and many others clearly teach that God graciously offers salvation as a free gift. It cannot be earned. With this verse, I might ask: How are we saved? (By accepting God's gift of salvation) Can we save ourselves? (No. We are unable to earn salvation through our works. Faith alone allows us to receive God's gift.)

    For anyone who asks about the place of good works in the life of a Christian, I would continue with verse 10: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." God has prepared good works for believers to complete, but their purpose is not to earn salvation. Instead, our good works testify that God is at work in and through our lives. For additional study, see John 6:28-29, Gal. 2:16, 21, and Titus 3:4-7.

  4. Teach another Jesus.

    Many cults claim some sort of spiritual connection to Jesus yet distort the claims He made about Himself in the Bible. They refuse to accept Him on His terms. The Mormons believe that Jesus is an exalted man, not the eternal Son of God. To the Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus is Michael, the archangel. To the Moonies, Jesus was a very good man who failed in His mission. The Way International asserts that Jesus was a specially created, perfect man.

    The Bible teaches that Jesus is the eternal Son of God and God the Son. This is the heart of the gospel. Paul spoke to the Galatian church in strong terms when it veered from the gospel into legalism: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" Gal. 1:8

    What Jesus offers depends upon His identity. For example, since Jesus is God, He can offer us eternal life. Since Jesus was fully man, He was able to bear sin's penalty for me. In John 14:6, Jesus tells us, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." After cultists read this verse aloud, I ask them: Who is the way to the Father? (Jesus Christ) If I am wrong about Jesus, will I still get into heaven? (No. We are only able to receive eternal life from the one who is able to give eternal life.)

    You cannot follow Jesus yet deny His own words about Himself in the Bible. Jesus alone offers us salvation and enables us to live godly lives. He makes what cults have to offer unnecessary. Matthew 24:23-25 and I John 4:1-3 are other important passages about Christ's identity.

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