Caught up in the Protestant revivalism of his day, Smith inquired as to which of the Christian denominations he should join. None of them, he was told, because they were all wrong. “The Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight,” Smith later recalled.
Smith was urged to take heart. God would use him to reinstate the true church, which had fallen into complete apostasy after the death of the apostles.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints professes to be the restored true church. Its leaders claim that Joseph Smith faithfully rediscovered proper church organization – that is, the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods – and the true gospel, which was lost due to “designing priests” that removed its “plain and precious” truths.
In short, the LDS Church declares itself the one true church, while all other forms of Christianity remain apostate.
The Bible instructs Christians to “always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). But with so many competing belief systems out there – from Wahhabism to Rastafarianism – it’s good to know where to go for help.
There are many outstanding books and web resources that may help you earnestly contend for the faith. Here are a few of my favorites.
On Mormonism. Mormonism 101 and Answering Mormons’ Questions, both by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, are excellent books that address key issues pertaining to the LDS Church in easy to understand language. McKeever’s website, www.mrm.org (Mormonism Research Ministry), is filled with helpful tools.
On Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ron Rhodes has put together a helpful book that provides biblical responses to questions from our friends in the Watchtower. It’s called Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. David Reed has authored two useful books: Jehovah’s Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse and Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses Subject by Subject.
This column appeared Sept. 12, 2012, in The Pathway, the official news service of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
With the national conventions behind us and the November elections on the horizon, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism increasingly finds its way into conversations. And that’s a good thing because it prompts all of us to learn more about a belief system that remains shrouded in mystery despite its American roots nearly 200 years ago.
At the end of the day, your friends may ask you point-blank: Is Mormonism a cult?
It’s a dicey question. If you answer yes, you may be accused of political incorrectness – or worse, religious bigotry. If you answer no, you may be tacitly approving of Mormonism as just another Christian denomination, which it’s not.
This is the fifth in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Oct, 1, 11:45 p.m. — The Off-House, Subang Jaya
The Q&A is simultaneously the most terrifying and invigorating part of any apologetics presentation — at least for me. It’s affirming to field a question for which you are prepared, and a bit sickening to get one that’s so unexpected you wonder if the person is serious. Such as: “What do you know about a secret society called the Illuminati that is Satanically inspired and plotting to take over the world?” A safe answer seems to be the one given to the question about the meaning of life in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:” Forty-two.
But the question I have gotten nearly every night at various student centers and churches in Kuala Lampur is one I would not have guessed to be much of an issue in a nation that is officially Muslim but celebrates its religious diversity: “If the Bible is true, why are there so many Christian denominations?”
Here are some thoughts:
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom.14:1-23; 1 Cor.10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded. “The point of these divisions is never Christ as Lord and Savior, but rather honest differences of opinion by godly, albeit flawed, people seeking to honor God and retain doctrinal purity according to their consciences and their understanding of His Word” (“Why are there so many Christian denominations?” found in www.gotquestions.org).
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another (Eph. 4:32); clearly, this has not always been the case.
Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” The Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and Charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word.
Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers are disciplined or leave the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
In fact, it is important to differentiate between: (1) denominations within the body of Christ; (2) cults (or counterfeit forms of Christianity); and (3) non-Christian false religions. Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, for example, are Christian denominations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (Jehovah’s Witnesses) are cults (religious organizations whose members claim to be Christians and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity). Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are non-Christian false religions.
Within Christian denominations, diversity is a good thing, but disunity is not, according to Gotquestions.org: “If two churches disagree doctrinally, debate and dialogue over the Word may be called for. This type of ‘iron sharpening iron’ (Proverbs 27:17) is beneficial to all. If they disagree on style and form, however, it is fine for them to remain separate. This separation, though, does not lift the responsibility Christians have to love one another (1 John 4:11-12) and ultimately be united as one in Christ (John 17:21-22).”
So what is a believer to do when looking for a church home? “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture,” writes Charles Draper in The Apologetics Study Bible. Gotquestions.org adds the following recommendations: “Pick a church on the basis of its relationship to Christ, how well it is serving the community. Pick a church where the pastor is preaching the Gospel without fear and is encouraged to do so. Christ and His church [are] all about your relationship to Him and to each other. As believers, there are certain basic doctrines that we must believe, but beyond that there is latitude on how we can serve and worship; it is this latitude that is the only good reason for denominations. This is diversity and not disunity. The first allows us to be individuals in Christ, the latter divides and destroys.”
Apologetics 101: Part 8 — How can I identify false prophets?
This is session eight in a 10-part series designed to help Christians defend their faith
“But I fear that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your minds may be corrupted from a complete and pure devotion to Christ. For if a person comes and preaches another Jesus, whom we did not preach, or you receive a different spirit, which you had not received, or a different gospel, which you had not accepted, you put up with it splendidly!” (2 Cor. 11:3-4 HCSB)
The words of the apostle Paul are clear: Those who are not grounded in the Word of God are subject to deceptive teachings about “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” – three distinctive markers that help us identify false prophets. Whether they are Muslim prophets like Muhammad, or self-proclaimed messiahs like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, these false teachers invariably promote an unbiblical view of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel. We will use these three markers, along with a comparative chart, to examine the teachings of Islam, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in light of what God’s Word proclaims.
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. 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:3-4). But before we go deeper, let’s define some key terms.
Defining our terms
False religion. 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.
Cult. A cult is 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 a counterfeit form of Christianity.
Heresy. This may be defined as a teaching strongly opposed to the doctrines of historical Christianity, for example the denial of Christ’s deity, full humanity, virgin birth, or bodily resurrection.
Sect. A sect is an otherwise orthodox group having established its own identity and teachings distinct from the group to which it belongs. In Jesus’ day for example, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were sects of Judaism.
Another Jesus, a different spirit, a different gospel
Every Christian can identify false belief systems by asking three important questions: 1) Who is Jesus? 2) Who is the Holy Spirit? and 3) How am I saved? As we go to the comparative chart and place the teachings of God’s Word against the teachings of Islam, Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, let’s remind ourselves of some key biblical truths that address these crucial questions.
Key truths about the real Jesus
- The eternal Son of God, without beginning or end
- God / deity
- Co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit
- Virgin born
- The God-Man / fully divine and fully human
- Sinless in His humanity
- Our substitute through His sacrificial death on the cross
- Alive, having been raised physically from the dead
- The only way of salvation
- Seated today in heaven as our Mediator and Intercessor
- Coming visibly and physically one day in power and great glory
- The One who will judge all people and to whom, one day, all creatures will bow
Key truths about the real Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is:
- The eternal Spirit, without beginning or end
- God / deity
- Personal (not an impersonal force)
- Co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son
- The Author of Scripture
- The One who convicts the lost of their need for Christ
- The One who regenerates believing sinners, causing them to be made spiritually alive
- The One who indwells, seals and sanctifies believers, and who places them positionally into the Body of Christ
- The Giver of spiritual gifts
- God’s down payment /guarantee of our home in heaven
Key truths about the real Gospel
- All people are sinners
- Sin separates us from holy God, resulting in spiritual and physical death and, ultimately, eternity apart from God in hell
- People are incapable of saving themselves
- Christ died on the cross for our sins and, as our Substitute, paid our sin debt in full
- Christ was buried and rose physically from the dead
- His finished work at Calvary conquered sin and death for us
- As a result, salvation is by God’s grace through faith – not by works
- Salvation is God’s gift – and everlasting, unbreakable, covenant relationship with Him
An exhortation from John the apostle
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now. You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:1-4 HCSB)
The Bible not only warns believers about false prophets; it describes them graphically as:
- Ravaging wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15; see also Acts 20:29)
- Deceitful workers (2 Cor. 11:13)
- Springs without water, mists driven by a whirlwind (2 Peter 2:17)
- Dreamers who defile their flesh, despise authority, and blaspheme glorious beings (Jude 1:8)
- Liars (Rev. 2:2)
- Antichrists (1 John 2:18)
How do we define a false prophet? Simply put, a false prophet is one who preaches, teaches, or foretells events contrary to the Word of God – sometimes claiming God as his or her source. As believers, we can guard our hearts from the teachings of false prophets by obeying three commands of the apostle John:
- Do not believe every spirit. Kenneth Wuest’s translation of 1 John 4:1 puts it this way: “Stop believing every spirit.” The term “spirit” refers to those who claim to have divine gifts for service, according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary. We should beware. Jesus warns us of miracle-working false messiahs and false prophets (Matt. 24:24). Paul says Satan masquerades as an angel of light, and his followers disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-5). Paul further cautions against “deceitful spirits” and “the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). And he warns that the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine, but turn aside to myths (2 Tim. 4:3-4). We should be like the Bereans who greeted Paul and Silas. Acts 17:11 says “they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (emphasis mine).
- Test the spirits. The Word of God is the yardstick by which all truth claims must be measured. Here are a few markers. True prophets: a) Are 100 percent accurate when they speak in the Lord’s name (Deut. 18:21-2); b) Exalt God, not themselves or false gods (Deut. 13:1-4); c) Tell the whole truth, not tickle the ears (Ezek. 13:22-3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4); d) Proclaim salvation by grace through faith (Gal. 1:8-9); e) Set lifestyle examples (2 Peter 2:1-3).
- Know the Spirit of God. In his first epistle, John challenges the views of the “antichrists” about the identity of Jesus. The most important question Jesus ever asked – and the question upon which every person’s eternal destiny hangs – is, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter answered correctly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16). Believers need to know who the real Jesus is. Indeed, He is:
- The eternal Son of God, Creator and sovereign Lord (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-18; 2:9-10; Heb. 1:3).
- Virgin born (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25).
- Full deity and full humanity in His incarnation (John 1:14).
- Sinless Savior whose death paid our sin debt (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21).
- Raised and ascended in the flesh; seated at the right hand of the Father as our Mediator and Intercessor; and returning Lord who will appear visibly and physically one day (John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 4:15-16; Rev. 19-22).
John’s words are simple and effective. Christians are people of faith – not a blind, ignorant faith, but a reasonable faith based on the evidence God has given us in creation, Scripture, and in the Person of His Son. While there have always been false prophets, and while there will continue to be those who fleece the flock rather than feed it, we can guard our hearts – and protect our families and our churches – from false teachings if we follow John’s commands: Don’t believe every spirit (that is, every person claiming divine gifting); test the spirits (according to Scripture); and know the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit’s teaching about the real Jesus as revealed in the Bible).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips