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Historically, a cult splits off from established Christianity and “remakes” it in its own image. So, the word “cult” carries along with it some very negative connotations. The word, itself, is very condemnatory. You won’t easily find anyone who would eagerly admit to having joined a cult.
When you think of someone who has joined a cult, you think of someone who has given up their rational abilities, being enslaved to authoritarian religious leaders, or holding bizarre beliefs and weird practices. But, historically, with respect to Christianity, a cult is a group that splits off from the “main Church” AND DENIES THE ESSENTIALS OF CHRISTIAN ORTHODOXY.
Now, there are a number of groups that can be identified as “Christian cults”. Not because they adhere to the Bible cover to cover, but because they themselves claim to be Christian. This quality makes it more difficult to differentiate between a Christian cult and a Christian denomination.
If you are talking to someone who is a Christian Scientist, or Jehovah’s Witness, or Mormon, or of the New Age Movement (among others), they will use words that are familiar to devout Christians: God, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, salvation, Jesus is my Lord and Savior, etc. They use the same vocabulary as Bible-believing Christians; but they don’t use the same dictionary. They define their terms and understandings of ideas not according to Biblical teaching, but according to their schismatic doctrine. This might be according to Joseph Smith, or the Watchtower and Tract Society, or some other “channeled message”. Walter Martin put it this way in his book The Kingdom of the Cults, “We need to scale the language barrier.”
One example of this is a situation that I recall a while back: My wife and I were out for an early evening walk, and two young men with bicycles and white shirts cycled by us. One of the men asked, “Do you want to know Jesus Christ?”
“Which one?”, I answered.
And the Mormon missionary said, “Stop persecuting me!”
This wasn’t the best encounter with a Mormon that I’ve ever had, but it did bring to light the fact that his and my understanding of who Jesus Christ is stems from two different definitions. (I must say… don’t use this method for evangelism. I was just impressed by how outspoken he was as he biked by us that I wanted to meet his enthusiasm and see where the discussion might go.)
Now, sociologically, when we use the word “cult”, we often mean a group that is authoritarian, where the followers submit to the leader unthinkingly; and where certain psychological techniques are used to control people. Examples of this include David Koresh’s Branch Davidian Group or Jim Jones’ Jonestown Group. These two groups are famous for going up in flames (literally in regards to the Branch Davidians and a mass suicide/murder at Jonestown).
But, there are two meanings for the word “cult”: sociologically/psychologically cultic, or simply a major deviation from historic Christian theology.Early on in the history of Mormonism, one could have called it a sociological cult. Joseph Smith had a tremendous influence and authority over his followers. Additionally, he was known to exhibit very abusive behaviors and had several dozen wives – as did his successor, Brigham Young. There were many skirmishes between local law enforcement and the early Mormons. In fact, Joseph Smith died in a shootout while in prison.
However, things have changed in the 21st century.
For evangelistic purposes, don’t use the word “cult” when talking to a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Because, today, Mormonism is not a cult in the sense that it no longer springs from intense psychological manipulation – though, early on it was. But, as Mormonism has progressed, it has become more mainstream. This is typical of other such groups, such as the Unification Church and the Children of God. And, as time has progressed, the Mormon Church wants to be viewed as just another branch of Christianity.
However, it is not just another branch of Christianity. It is actually an anti-Christ teaching and doctrine, which I will illustrate later.
Yet, I don’t align Mormonism as a cult with the likes of Jonestown or Branch Davidianism. Nor am I saying that the Mormon church is psychologically healthy. However, theologically, it is certainly cultic because of its teaching.
Now, if you have ever attended a Mormon service, it’s pretty obvious that they do certain things differently than most Christians do. There are features of a Mormon service that may seem a bit odd. And, they have a very obvious strong authority structure to their church. But, the real issue is that Mormons are misled by the false teachings of Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders, even as it has become more integrated into society.
So, how do we assess whether a “church” is a cult or not? I’ve narrowed it down to four crucial categories.
- First, look at the group’s source of authority for their doctrine.
- Second, how do they understand of human nature in relation to God?
- Third, how do they view the personal work of Jesus Christ?
- Finally, what is their construal of the Gospel, as given to us in the Scriptures?
Ok, let’s go into these four categories a little bit deeper. When looking at a group claiming to be Christian, learn what is their source of authority for their doctrine? If we look at Jehovah’s Witnesses, as an example, they have their own translation of the Bible that perverts the Holy Scriptures in many ways – especially John 1:1 where the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Additionally, they say, “We believe in our translation of the Bible AND the authority of the Watchtower Society.”
So, they appeal to the Bible and something else.
Another example, Christian Science, says that they believe in the Bible AND Mary Baker Eddy’s Work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
These, and many other “Christian cults” offer a sort of lip service to the Bible; but, in fact, their ultimate authority is outside of the Bible. Eventually, this other authoritative source supersedes the authority and meaning of Scripture.
This is why I call certain cults “Christian cults”: because they claim to be in agreement with Christian history and the Scriptures. They also claim to be followers of Jesus. But the question is… Which Jesus? Do they follow the real Jesus Christ, as recorded in Scripture, or a counterfeit?