This is the first article in the False Religion – True Religion series. By the end it should be abundantly clear what is false and what is true.
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
– John 8:31-32
For all who would hear him, Jesus was about clarifying the religion of the Jews so that false religion and useless, burdensome activity would be gone from them.
Many have no interest in Jesus’ truth. They have their cherished belief traditions, ways of life, or believe they are more special than everyone. The Bible is full of mentions of these people: John 8, Matthew 13:10-16, John 10:27 –28; Mark 4:24; Revelation 3:20, Mark 4:22, Isiah 6: 8–10, Matthew 13:3-9 , Mark 4:13–20.
Disagreements aren’t false religion
Mainstream Christianity has been quick to point to any religious belief that is different and declare it false or heresy.
Jesus said there is a very simple test to know who his followers are: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 (NASB)
I believe His followers are present in all religions. We’re quick to judge and exclude but even Jesus was impressed by the faith of those who weren’t Jews, and after his crucifixion he told his apostles to go tell them the Good News. (More about this another series.)
Christianity follows the example of Judaism. At the time of Christ Judaism was divided into several groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Samaritans, and eventually Christians. Sadducees disappeared in AD 70 with the Temple (no need for them). Pharisees continued on as rabbis (teachers). Samaritans still exist. And while there has been consolidation, there are new and different groups today, such as Kabbalah.
Today’s Christians also don’t agree about much of anything. It seems our nature is to start our own independent church. Depending on how you count, there are 200 to 2000 different Christian sects in the US and 45,000 globally. I don’t waste time counting them. Multiplication and division are inherent in religion, and I never excelled at higher math.
For more on why splits have always occurred, read: Why does Christianity have so many denominations?
Often different beliefs have led to animosity and even wars. The Catholic-French Church wiped out the entire population of Cathars in France (an anti-materialist reform movement – can’t have that), and the 30 year war in Europe was between Catholics and Protestants. The list is very large.
Some churches see themselves as having different missions. I respect that. Some reach out to the needy while some focus on different communities. Some focus on spreading the Good News – we all should at least live it as an example to others. There have even been splits over whether or not we have free will.
Having a different mission, way of worship, community, or disagreement doesn’t make a cult or false religion. The highest ideal in all world religions is to love each other. Yes, repeating what Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus had a wide embrace.
Christianity was viewed by some in Judasim as a heretical cult.
This topic sets the stage for understanding what is a cult and false religion. We all are at different points in our spiritual journey. Religion can help us, but we alone are responsible for what we believe and do. Others can’t tell us what to believe or do. It’s our choice.
Web MD defines spiritual abuse as: “Any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs can be spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse can happen within a religious organization or a personal relationship.
“Spiritual abuse is not limited to one religion, denomination, or group of people. It can happen in any religious group, as an element of child abuse, elder abuse, or domestic violence.
“Abuse is a pattern in which one individual (whether an intimate partner or person with authority) uses fear, intimidation, violence, or other harm to control another.”
Clarification: Your mother making you go to church is not spiritual abuse, even if she pinches your ear.
Early church and today
I like the early church and it had considerable variability within it, similar to today. Churches tended to go off on tangents. The apostles who planted these churches spent a lot of time drawing them back, and so did later church leaders. Much of the first 300 years of Christianity involved figuring out that really complex issue meant: loving each other.
As churches splinter off today, we see the same thing: tangents. Many of them discard entirely the wisdom, traditions, and organizational structure formed by their denominations. Generally in major churches these things make small changes over time. Discarding the entire structure leaves people open to abusive behavior. One leader can take an organization into a quagmire of nonsense and abuse.
A decade or so ago we moved and were looking for a new church. We attended one and watched a video advocating that people befriend others to get them into the church – a false friendship. After they were in they could just forget those people and move on to their next victim. The insincerity was shocking.
We attended one church that completely had been taken over by the idea that the end of the world was at hand so they just had to hunker down and wait for it. Argh!
Some churches have the belief that you should think just exactly like them and do exactly as they say. If you don’t you are considered a lost heretic. They act like they care about and listen to you to get you back in the fold. But in the end all they want is for you to return and be subservient.
You know you’re in a cult, not a sect, when these things happen: They are two-faced and insincere, focus on single issues to the exclusion of important things, demand absolute allegiance to their way of thinking, or push practices that have nothing to do with loving others.
Take Home points
Jesus gave us a simple test: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 (NASB) People try to make this very complicated.
If you find it all confusing: “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – John 8:31-32
Many people tolerate no deviation in belief. That doesn’t make it a cult or false religion or mean that one is right and one is wrong.
Different churches feel they have different missions. That doesn’t make them cults. Splits in churches don’t make them cults.
Being false with others or trying to control them is spiritual abuse, especially if they use some form of fear or threats. That is a cult.
Each of us can believe what we feel important on our spiritual journey. While churches and others can be good guides and wake us up a bit, they aren’t directly responsible for our beliefs, choices, spiritual place, mission, or destiny, and most won’t try to force these on us.
I will use some book references for this series, which I recommended reading:
- Tabernacle of Hate by Kerry Nobles – true story of a group that isolated for peaceful living but ended up in cults that advocated violence.
- C Street by Jeff Sharlet – a true cult that thought Jesus was wrong, and influences politicians around the world
- When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball (5 warning signs)
What Is Meant by Truth? (Worship in Spirit and in Truth)
Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.