Three Characteristics Of A Cult
We are witnessing today evidence of what one Christian author described as a “cult explosion.” 1 The names and doctrines of the various cult groups are as numerous as they are diverse. Some are highly organized and visible, while others – especially those of the occult 2 and New Age variety – are less organized. Despite the many packages in which they present themselves, there are some common denominators that characterize every cult. These characteristics can be briefly categorized under three headings: authority, development and false doctrine.
When we think of cults the first thing that naturally comes to mind is false doctrine. Although defective teaching will always be the mark of a cult, our primary consideration is that of authority and not of doctrine.
The elders of the Jews came to the Lord and asked Him, “By what authority doest Thou these things? And who gave Thee this authority?” (Mt. 21:23 JND). He answered them with another question, “The baptism of John, whence was it? Of heaven or of men?” (Mt. 21:25) Thus the Lord totally confounded the elders because their authority was derived from men, but His was from God. In spiritual matters, the source of our authority is of paramount importance. Cult organizations will always be characterized by one striking fact: their doctrine will be based upon the teachings of a man whose authority is perceived to be greater than that of the Bible. Because of some special revelation given to a man or a group of men, their authority supercedes the authority of the Word of God.
A graphic example of this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Watchtower Society is, “God’s channel of truth for today.” They believe their organization to be the authoritative interpreter of God’s Word, and any doctrine that doesn’t have its stamp of approval must be false. Cult expert Robert A. Morey has written: “Thus the cult is based solely upon the religious authority of the founder. Everything depends on the validity of that authority. The issue of religious authority is the most basic problem one encounters when witnessing to a cultist. While the child of God looks to the Scriptures as the ultimate standard by which to decide religious truth, the cultist looks to his leader to decide truth for him.” 3
Collateral with the question of authority is that of development. As we have seen, the salient feature of all cults is their claim to have a special revelation or doctrine which has not been given to others. Briefly defined, development means that the truth as revealed in Christianity was in some way incomplete until God raised up the particular organization (cult).
The plain truth however, is that there can be no development of Christian revelation. It can be lost or neglected – as Church history confirms – but it cannot be developed or added to. Individual Christians may discover more truth as they study the Word, but it is already there to be found. There can be no higher revelation than that which has already been given at the inception of Christianity – the Father has been revealed to us by the Son (1 Jn. 1:18). The revelation which we have received through the writings of the apostles has the authority of God: “He that knoweth God heareth us (the apostles); he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:6).
All extra-biblical or pseudo-biblical revelation and all “wresting” 4 of the Scriptures is a sure sign of cult activity. In light of this pretension to have some special truth, the exhortation of John rings loud and clear: “Let that abide in you which ye have heard from the beginning” (1 Jn. 2:24).
Not only does the cultist pretend to have a “special discovery,” but upon closer examination we find that there have been changes and developments doctrinally of the supposed “new light” within the very cult itself. Prime examples of this are the numerous revisions of Mormon Church doctrine,5 and the ever-changing dates for Armageddon as prophesied by the Watchtower Society.6
The doctrinal developments of the major cults and the embarrassing failure of their prophecies are well documented. The fact that this has not deterred their zeal nor hindered their ability to gain proselytes is evidence of the deceiving spirit at work among them.
3. False Doctrine
Although the actual doctrines of the various cults may differ greatly from one to the other, there are two similarities that are to be noticed in them all – a defective Christology (doctrine of Christ) and a defective soteriology (doctrine of salvation).
The spirit of error will manifest itself through the cult’s defective Christology either by lowering Christ (denying His divinity, etc.) or unduly exalting man. The Jehovah’s Witness doctrine that Christ is a created being is an example of the former; the Mormon doctrine that their destiny is to be “gods” 7 is typical of the latter. Christ is dishonored in both cases, which is the hidden aim of all such “systematized error” (Eph. 4:14).
The work of Christ (soteriology) is the second area that comes under the special attack of Satan through cultism. Not only is Christ’s person dishonored but the doctrines of grace and salvation are undermined as well. Some cult groups deny that man is lost, and hence also deny the need for salvation. But even among cults where there is a nominal recognition of sin and the need of an atonement, the essence of their teaching is that Christ’s work on the cross falls short of effecting a full salvation and must be supplemented by our efforts. Connected with this will be the thought that there is no salvation outside of the cult organization.
Another outstanding feature of the soteriological system of cults is an over emphasis or segmented attention given to a single text of Scripture. A perennial favorite with these groups is, “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26). This verse will be stressed and used out of context, while there will be a total disregard for a host of verses which speak of the grace of God and an accomplished salvation.
The Christian should also beware of the cultists’ use of “Bible talk” and semantics when discussing salvation. As “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt. 7:15) they will often use terminology common to evangelical Christians, but what they mean and what Christians mean can be very different. For example, when Mormons use the term “gospel,” what they really mean is the Mormon system of doctrine. When they talk about being “born again” they actually mean baptism into the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
It should be reemphasized that although the doctrines will vary from group to group, the underlying similarity of each will be a subtle animosity towards the person and work of Christ.
Why Do Cults Exist?
Many factors help explain the rise and existence of cults, but we must look beyond them to find the real cause. The Scriptures (Mt. 13:24-42; 2 Cor. 11:2-5; 2 Th. 2:7; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:34; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 2:18-19) tell us that Satan is the mastermind behind the cults: “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
But the child of God need not be alarmed. The Lord is the Good Shepherd “and the sheep follow Him: for they know His voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him for they know not the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:4-5).
- Dave Hunt, The Cult Explosion, Harvest House Publishers.
- The occult has more to do with the spirit world (occult meaning “mysterious” or “hidden”).
- Robert A. Morey, How to Witness to a Mormon, Bethany House Publishers.
- From 2 Pet. 3:16 KJV. The Greek word means “twist” or “distort.” They twist the Scriptures with false interpretation.
- For a comprehensive look at the development of Mormon doctrine and practice, read Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Changing World of Mormonism, Moody Press – an excellent treatment, with photocopies of documents and “scriptures” which have been changed over the years.
- These dates are 1914, 1915, 1918, 1925, 1975. Read Dt. 18:20-22; Mt. 7:15-20. Recommended: F. W. Thomas, Masters of Deception, Baker Book House.
- Compare Gen. 3:5. Recommended: Ed Decker and Dave Hunt, The God Makers, Harvest House.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brian Reynolds is the manager of a Christian bookstore in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.