As I promised in part 2, I will discuss the doctrinal characteristics of cults, and explain why it’s crucial to study them from a biblical perspective. Understanding the features of cults, especially those within Christianity, is essential because these are the most powerful and widespread ones we come across. Although these characteristics are commonly observed in cults, not every group displays all of them, or to the same degree. It’s important to be aware of these traits so we can better protect ourselves against any potential threats.
New Revelation from God
Many cult leaders claim to have a special connection to God and receive new revelations directly from Him. For example, Mormon leader Brigham Young claimed to have many revelations, while Reverend Moon of the Unification Church said he received a revelation from Christ himself. Christian Scientists believe Mary Baker Eddy received new revelations necessary for understanding the Bible.
What’s interesting is that these cults often change their teachings, and to justify these changes, they claim to receive new revelations. For instance, the Mormon church once barred African Americans from the priesthood, but they received a “new revelation” overturning that decision when they faced public pressure.
New Age movement is also big on new revelations, with channelers claiming to receive messages from Ascended Masters, psychics saying they can read the Akashic Record, and astrologers deriving their revelations from planetary alignments. Some even engage in “automatic writing,” where a spirit entity supposedly guides their pen.
In cults, new revelations usually take precedence over past revelations like those found in the Bible. If there’s ever a conflict between the two, the new revelation is seen as more authoritative.
It’s essential to be aware of this tendency for new revelations in cults and to evaluate their legitimacy from a biblical perspective.
Denial of the Sole Authority of the Bible
Many cults do not recognize the Bible as the only authoritative religious text. For instance, Christian Scientists view Mary Baker Eddy’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as the most important text. Mormons believe that the Bible has translational errors and that The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price are more reliable than the Bible. New Agers follow “holy books” like The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ and A Course in Miracles. Unification Church members accept Reverend Moon’s Divine Principle as the supreme authority. Scientologists see L. Ron Hubbard’s writings as their “Scripture.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Studies in the Scriptures even claim that abandoning their teachings will lead to spiritual darkness.
As cult expert Anthony Hoekema points out, when these groups elevate their books to the same level as Scripture, they limit how God can speak to people. The Bible is no longer the only means through which God can communicate; instead, these cults dictate how God should speak. This is the case with the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and other groups discussed in this book.
It’s crucial to be aware of the tendency of cults to promote their teachings above the Bible and to recognize the importance of the Bible’s sole authority as a guide for our spiritual lives.
Denial of the Trinity
Many cults reject the concept of the Trinity. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, claim that the doctrine comes from paganism and the Devil, and they don’t believe that Jesus is equal to God. The Way International and the Mormons also reject the Trinity, while Unitarian Universalists use reason to argue against it, pointing out its logical flaws. Baha’is likewise challenge the idea of the Trinity and argue that it is not properly understood by Christian leaders.
Oneness Pentecostals have a different take on the Trinity. Unlike other cults that deny the deity of Christ, they believe that Jesus is fully God. However, they also argue that Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, viewed as different modes of the one true God, who is Jesus. Oneness Pentecostals, like some other cults, also claim that the Trinity doctrine comes from ancient paganism.
It’s important to be aware of these different views on the Trinity and to evaluate them from a biblical perspective. The doctrine of the Trinity is central to Christianity and underscores the belief that God exists in three distinct persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Denial of the Full Deity of Christ
Many cults do not accept that Jesus is fully divine. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was created as the archangel Michael by God and is therefore not equal to God. Mormons, on the other hand, believe that Jesus was the first spirit child of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and that he attained deity during the preexistence. Baha’is see Jesus as just one of many prophets, and Unitarian Universalists deny that Jesus is God, viewing him as a moral teacher. Jesus is also interpreted differently by various other groups, such as the Masonic Lodge, spiritists, and the New Age movement, with each presenting their own unique version of him.
Oneness Pentecostals believe that Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all rolled into one. Meanwhile, UFO cults depict Jesus as a half-human, half-alien being with supernatural powers.
It’s important to recognize that Jesus is an essential figure in Christianity and that his full divinity is a fundamental belief. Cults may present a distorted view of Jesus, which may lead people astray from the truth. It’s crucial to evaluate these beliefs against what the Bible teaches about Jesus.
Devaluation of the Work of Christ
Cults not only deny that Jesus is fully divine but also devalue and reinterpret his work on the cross. Mormons, for example, believe that Christ’s sacrifice allowed for the ultimate resurrection of all people, but not individual salvation from sin’s guilt and condemnation. They even teach that some sins are so serious that sinners must atone for them by shedding their own blood.
Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that Jesus, as a mere man and not God in the flesh, died on a stake. They see Jesus’ sacrifice as only taking care of the sin inherited from Adam, but we must work out our own salvation.
Reverend Moon of the Unification Church teaches that Jesus was not able to fully redeem humanity because he did not get the chance to marry and establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Moon claims to be completing what Jesus allegedly failed to accomplish.
Many New Agers believe that Jesus did not die for the sins of humanity but to “balance planetary karma.” Others say that Jesus’ spiritual blood flowed into the spiritual earth during the crucifixion, leading to the resurrection and ascension of “Christ consciousness.”
It’s important to understand that the work of Christ on the cross is central to Christian belief and that cults may distort or devalue its significance. It’s vital to evaluate these beliefs against what the Bible teaches about Jesus and his role in our salvation.
Denial of the Personality and Deity of the Holy Spirit
Cults often reject the personality and/or deity of the Holy Spirit. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, deny that the Holy Spirit is a person or divine and believe that it’s an impersonal force used by God to accomplish His will in the world. This view is consistent with their rejection of the Trinity doctrine. Other groups like The Way International and the Christadelphians see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force of God.
Some cults have strange beliefs about the Holy Spirit. The Unification Church (Moonies) teach that the Holy Spirit is a female spirit and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit represent the “Second Adam” and “Second Eve.” Oneness Pentecostals argue that the Holy Spirit is just one of the modes in which Jesus manifests. Mind Sciences interpret the Holy Spirit as Divine Science itself, rather than the third person of the Trinity. Some New Agers try to equate the Holy Spirit with the “chi” force or “prana” energy found in Eastern religions.
It’s important to recognize that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person in the Trinity and plays a crucial role in Christian belief. Cults may distort the nature of the Holy Spirit, and it’s essential to evaluate these beliefs in light of biblical teachings.
Denial of Salvation by Grace
Cults reject the idea of salvation by grace, which distorts the purity of the Gospel. They typically emphasize the need for good works to attain salvation. For example, Mormons believe that becoming increasingly perfect in this life is necessary for salvation, and “justification by faith alone” is seen as a harmful doctrine. They believe that to attain the highest degree of salvation, one must obey all of God’s commandments.
Similarly, Jehovah’s Witnesses stress the importance of distributing their literature as part of “working out” their salvation, and they must remain faithful to God to avoid losing salvation. Oneness Pentecostals require faith, repentance, water baptism (by immersion only) in the name of Jesus, and baptism in the Holy Spirit (evidenced by speaking in tongues) for the new birth to occur.
Some cults pay lip service to salvation “by grace,” but they see it as an opportunity to earn salvation through good works. This is not biblical grace, which involves God giving salvation to unworthy sinners based on faith in Christ.
It’s important to understand that salvation is a gift freely given by God and cannot be earned through good works.
Denial of the Priesthood of the Believer
Cults often deny or compromise the idea of the priesthood of the believer. They typically insist that people must submit to the teachings of the cult leader or organization to understand God’s truth, thus denying the priesthood of all believers. This is seen in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who must submit to the Watchtower Society, and the Unification Church, who must follow Reverend Moon’s teachings. However, according to 1 Peter 2:4-10 and Hebrews 4:16, all believers are priests before God and have direct access to Him without the need for intermediaries.
It’s important to understand that every believer has equal access to God and doesn’t need to go through a human mediator or religious organization.
Redefinition of Christian Terms
Cults often use words from the Christian faith, like God, Jesus, Christ, atonement, and salvation, but they give them their own meanings. This can be confusing for people trying to understand what the cults believe. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is a “mighty god” but not equal to the Father, that he was crucified on a stake, and that he was resurrected spiritually, not physically. New Agers believe that Jesus was both “Christ” and God, that he was crucified in a spiritual sense, and that his resurrection was about the infusion of Christ consciousness into the earth.
The Bible warns us about false teachings and different interpretations of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel. We need to be careful to understand the terms used by cults and compare them with the teachings of orthodox Christianity.
This is important because without proper definitions, we may not be able to distinguish between true Christian teachings and the false teachings of cults.
Compartmentalizing Conflicting Facts
Cults often choose to ignore or dismiss facts that contradict their beliefs in a process called “compartmentalization.” This means they can believe in two conflicting ideas and hold them both as true in their mind. This is similar to the concept of “double think” from George Orwell’s novel 1984.
For example, Mormons claim that the Book of Mormon is the most perfect book on earth, even though they have made over 3,913 corrections to it. Christian Scientists deny the reality of sickness, pain, and death, but their founder, Mary Baker Eddy, received medical treatment and eventually died. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Watchtower Society speaks God’s prophetic truth, despite the fact that they have made false prophecies about the years 1914, 1925, and 1975.
It is important to recognize this compartmentalization, as it allows cults to selectively ignore facts that contradict their beliefs, making it difficult for them to have a proper understanding of reality.
A Central Role in Fulfilling Prophecy
Some cults believe that they play a crucial role in fulfilling biblical prophecy and God’s plan on earth. For instance, Baha’is claim that their leader, Baha’u’llah, is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of “the Spirit of truth,” and Mormons view themselves as God’s “latter-day saints,” with a “restored gospel” and priesthood. Jehovah’s Witnesses see themselves as God’s witnesses on earth before Armageddon, and Unificationists cite Revelation 7:2-4 as evidence that the second messiah will be born in the Far East, specifically Korea. Reverend Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, was born in Korea, which is viewed as a suitable birthplace for the messiah due to the strong faith in God of the Korean people.
It is essential to recognize that while some cults believe that they fulfill biblical prophecy, their claims may not align with orthodox Christian beliefs.
A Tendency to Revise the History of the Cult
Cults have a tendency to revise their own history to make their movement look better. This means they may leave out important details about their founder or early leaders that might discourage people from joining. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not open about the marital problems of their founder, Charles Taze Russell, while Mormon histories may not be honest about the fact that some leaders continued to practice polygamy even after it was outlawed. These groups often produce accounts of their history that are more positive and less critical than the actual events.
It is essential to study the doctrinal characteristics of cults from a biblical perspective. The false teachings and false gospels preached by cults are frequently mentioned in the New Testament, and it’s important to be vigilant against counterfeit prophets and their counterfeit gospels, as they can only offer a counterfeit salvation.
Understanding the features of cults, especially those within Christianity, is crucial because these are the most powerful and widespread ones we come across. Although these characteristics are commonly observed in cults, not every group displays all of them, or to the same degree. It’s important to be aware of these traits so we can better protect ourselves against any potential threats.
It’s also important to recognize that cults may distort or devalue the significance of the work of Christ on the cross, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the idea of salvation by grace. Evaluating these beliefs against what the Bible teaches about Jesus and his role in our salvation is crucial.
Additionally, understanding the terms used by cults and comparing them with the teachings of orthodox Christianity is important, as is recognizing the compartmentalization that allows cults to selectively ignore facts that contradict their beliefs.
Lastly, it’s important to recognize that while some cults believe that they fulfill biblical prophecy, their claims may not align with orthodox Christian beliefs, and cults have a tendency to revise their own history to make their movement look better.
- Christian Research Institute. (n.d.). What is a cult? Retrieved from https://www.equip.org/article/what-is-a-cult/
- Confronting the Cults (1976) Gordon Lewis, Published by Zondervan.
- The Cult Explosion (1980) Gordon Lewis, Published by Fleming H. Revell Co.
- Cults and the Occult (1983) Gordon Lewis, Published by Zondervan.
- The New Cults: An Analysis of the Religious Landscape (2007) Alan Gomes, Published by Kregel Publications
- Faith Foundations: An Overview of Basic Christian Doctrine (1989) Gordon Lewis, Published by Crossway Books
- Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (1980) James Sire, Published by InterVarsity Press
- The Culting of America (1982) Walter Martin, Published by Bethany House Publishers