What Christians can learn from the cults

Counterfeit forms of Christianity — most notably Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses — thrive on deception.

This is nothing new. The apostle Paul warned the Corinthians about false prophets who proclaimed “another Jesus … a different Spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4).

While Christians should seek to correct the false doctrines of our Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness friends, we might also consider learning from their admirable qualities, including:

(1) Their zeal for witnessing. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they have recaptured true Christianity after centuries of apostasy. They not only stand behind their convictions; they put feet to them.

Today, there are nearly 71,000 Mormon missionaries carrying the message of Joseph Smith around the world — at their own expense, or the expense of their families. Meanwhile, Jehovah’s Witnesses boast 8.3 million “publishers” in 240 countries.

They may be faulted for their false teachings, but certainly not for their faithfulness to them.

As Anthony Hoekema has written in The Four Major Cults, “It would appear that the cults are generally pursuing a much more diligent and systematic program of witnessing, both at home and abroad, than are the churches.”

(2) Their knowledge of the Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaim the Bible as “God’s inspired message to humans” (jw.org). They faithfully study their unique version of Scripture (The New World Translation). And they are armed with memory verses and Bible passages to support their beliefs when they step onto your front porch.

Unfortunately, the New World Translation is “a frightful mistranslation … erroneous … pernicious … reprehensible,” according to New Testament Scholar Bruce Metzger. Even so, Witnesses are well-schooled in the art of building a doctrinal house of cards by stacking verse upon verse out of context.

Mormons believe the King James Version of the Bible is true “insofar as it is translated correctly.” Meaning, of course, that it has been corrupted and requires the Joseph Smith Translation to smooth out the rough edges.

In any case, it’s vital for Christians to know what the Bible really says, particularly with respect to the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and other core doctrines.

(3) Their sense of urgency. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses eagerly await the imminent return of Jesus. JWs, for example, believe the Battle of Armageddon is just around the corner. Since all who die in this battle will be annihilated, never to be raised from the dead, it is imperative to spread “the truth” while there is yet time.

While Witnesses and Mormons have their own unbiblical views of the last days, no one may fault them for their sincerity, or for their sense of urgency in sharing their messages globally.

(4) Their empowerment of laypersons.  Mormons have no professional clergy. Instead, they seek to ordain all young men for the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and send tens of thousands of young people out on two-year missions. Men and women in local congregations engage in so-called temple works such as baptism for the dead, enabling those who have preceded them in death to have an opportunity for salvation.

For Jehovah’s Witnesses, a body of elders supervises each congregation. And every week, people of all ages venture into neighborhoods, or in remote places, to declare Jehovah’s message.

This empowerment of the laity often stands in stark contrast with historic Christian churches that entrust the work of disciple making to a professional clergy, when in fact Jesus gives the Great Commission to all His followers.

(5) Their willingness to suffer ridicule and persecution. Mormons have a history of being driven from their homes, although not totally without reason. Following the infamous Battle of Crooked River, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs in 1838 issued Executive Order 44, effectively ordering the extermination of Joseph Smith and his followers if they did not immediately leave the state.

Jehovah’s Witnesses today routinely endure verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse as they go door-to-door, handing out literature and engaging people in conversations about Jehovah’s kingdom. One Witness I spoke with recently said she has experienced all manner of abuse in her decades as a Witness, including having a gun aimed at her.

Such persecution is real, severe, and wrong. Christianity does not advance by the power of the sword or the dictates of authoritative bodies. It drives out the darkness by the power of its life-transforming truth. It is most effective when offered humbly and with genuine, Christ-like love for those with whom we share it.

While we should reject the false teachings of the cults, we may see their zeal and perseverance as stinging rebukes for our lukewarm disciple-making efforts.