Believe Not Every Spirit: An Introduction to the Cults (1 John 4:1-4)

What is a cult?

We are defining a cult as: a religious organization whose members claim to be Christians, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity. Simply put, a cult is counterfeit Christianity.

The Bible cautions us to beware of false messiahs, false prophets and false teachers who “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” and promote “doctrines of demons” (see Matt. 24:23-27; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).

What are some words and concepts related to the word “cult”?

False religion/false belief system. From a New Testament perspective, a false religion is any system of belief that opposes the central teachings of the Christian faith. While all cults of Christianity are false religions, not all false religions are cults, because not all religions claim to be Christian. Islam, for example, is a false religion but not a cult, because Islam does not claim to be Christian.

Occult. The occult generally is classified in three ways: 1) spiritism or spiritualism – the view that spirit is a prime element or reality, or a belief that the spirits of the dead can commune with the living, usually through a medium; 2) fortune telling or sorcery – divination by the assistance of evil spirits; and 3) magic– the use of means such as charms or spells believed to have power over natural forces. Although cults should not be confused with the occult, some cults and cult founders, such as Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, do engage in occultic practices.

Heresy. This may be defined as a teaching that directly opposes the essentials of the Christian faith, so that true Christians must separate themselves from those who hold to that teaching. Examples of heresy include a denial of Christ’s deity, full humanity, virgin birth, or bodily resurrection.

Sect. Within Christianity, a sect is a distinctive, persisting and separately organized group of believers who reject the established religious authorities, but who claim to adhere to the authentic elements of the faith. So the term may refer to genuinely Christian groups that have distanced themselves from established churches or denominations – and to some degree the predominant culture they represent – in order to emphasize one or more beliefs or practices they feel have been lost. Example: The International Church of Christ, which adheres to a Biblical view of God and Christ but claims to be the only movement proclaiming the true message of salvation today.

How many people are in cults?

It’s difficult to know with certainty the number of people engaged in cults because of varying definitions of the term cult. But if you consider only Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – the two largest cults that fit our definition – the number of cult members totals nearly 20 million.

What are common characteristics of cults?

While cults vary widely in beliefs and practices, some common threads run through them, for example:

A single charismatic leader or authority figure apart from Jesus Christ.  Examples include Victor Paul Wierwille (now deceased), founder of The Way International; and the Unification Church’s Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah who came to complete Jesus’ failed mission.

Belief in “new” revelation, which often contradicts and always overrides previous revelations.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), for example, is led by a president who is called “prophet, seer and revelator.” He receives and passes down new revelation – such as the “new” and unscriptural revelation that humans are essentially “gods in embryo.”

Acceptance of new written authority, which either supercedes the Bible or is necessary to “properly understand” scripture.  For example, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is the Christian Scientist’s way to interpret the Bible.  And The Book of Mormon is one of several “inspired” writings considered authoritative by Latter-day Saints.

Changed theology, which redefines Christian terms, remakes Jesus Christ and reforms His finished work at Calvary.  Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, claim Jesus was once Michael the Archangel, a created being; and Latter-day Saints believe that men may become gods. Key theological characteristics of the cults include:

  • A denial of the Trinity.
  • A denial of salvation by grace alone through faith.
  • Denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
  • Reduction of the absolute authority of Scripture.
  • Rejection of the doctrine of eternal punishment.
  • Emphasis on experience over doctrine.
  • Emphasis on direct revelations and visions from God.
  • Unhealthy fixation on the end times.
  • Over-emphasis on minor points of theology.

To boil it down, cult leaders consistently counterfeit Christianity in three ways, according to the apostle Paul: They preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). By masquerading as “servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:15), they twist the doctrines concerning the person and work of Christ; the Holy Spirit and the spiritual realm; and the gospel message of salvation by grace through faith, apart from human effort.

Additional Resources

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Beloved, Believe Not Every Spirit


Copyright 2008 Rob Phillips