Cults: More Than Those Who Knock On Your Door (Oct. 25, 2008, revised April 2010)
We have all heard the random knock on the door: the candy seller who wants us to buttress the local education budget; the political candidate who wants our vote; and the cult who wants us to be their next member-tither. But cults do more than knock on doors.
A cult is any group that sets itself up- by way of doctrine or practice- above the revealed word of God, above Christ himself, and the Hebrew Scriptures and Brit Hadassah, the New Testament, as received and lived under the continuing guidance of the Holy Ghost.
New Ungodly Yokes And The Partial Truths Of Unsound Doctrine
Now I admire many people in cults, their apparent sincerity, and as people they often are friendly and honorable, and some of them are capable of doing some "good."At times these folks are even persuasive about some partial truths, not to mention interesting to talk to. I love these folks, and my heart goes out to them, because Jesus loves them, and died for them as he did for all of us. I believe that some of the individuals in them may be faith connected sufficiently to Jesus to be saved in the end, regardless of their false doctrines and lack of freedom.
My experience is that some people are more yoked up in the cult than others, often as they move up in the ranks and gain influence. Others can stay more normal and healthy and truly faithful. But as in all matters of salvation, God will have the final word judging each of us. And our job as Christians is to teach the entirety of sound doctrine, the whole gospel, not just the parts we like or the parts that our "church" teaches:
"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears." 2Timothy4,3-4. We are certainly here in this time.
I don't write or preach this subject from a 'Holier than Thou' position or any overconfidence in my ability to discern the real church from the cult church. I don't teach this as the accuser of the brethren either, and to stay as far away as possible from that epithet, I'm not going to single out "churches" that are commonly assessed to be cults, or that I assess to be cults. That would be too easy for the both of us.
Rather, I want to lay out some biblical guidelines and principles so you can decide for yourselves which churches are really cults, or are becoming cults. Yes, thank God, the Word says the Holy Spirit will teach us all things. God knew there would come a day, the day of the second reformation, praise God, and today is that day, when God's people are learning to hear and be taught by God himself! Praise the ever living God of Israel. Amen.
Purpose of Our Study
But since we are bombarded daily with tales of woe regarding large institutions such as governments and Wall Street and the Church which fail to assess themselves in a systematic way, and thereby risk losing their beneficial missions, I'm addressing the issue of cults. And since real people suffer and get hurt by bad institutional practices, I'm preaching this. Wouldn't it have been great if a thousand strong voices raised up and prevented the Wall Street meltdown and the resulting immoral bailout.
And isn't it interesting that the last book of the entire bible, the book of Revelation, is about the corruption of institutional religion, about it's capitulation to the world, about how in the end much of what we refer to as "church" will be a false cult (See Revelation 17 and 18).
The stakes are high per Revelation 15,4: "Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For you alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, for your judgements have been manifested." The judgements of God have begun to be manifested on the earth and the "Christian" church. The stakes are high says Hosea at 4,6 "My people perish for a lack of knowledge." Any one of us may flourish in a cult and perish before God.
You'll Know Cult By Exaggerated Rules and Will Worship
A cult is a really unhealthy church that has adopted or gone back to the principles of this world, and thereby risks the salvation of God's people (Collossians 2,20-23):
"If you have really died with Christ to the principles of the world [physical death-life, hunger, thirst, survival, sun, moon and stars and their religious times and seasons], why do you still let rules dictate you, as though you were still living in the world? Do not pick up this, do not eat that, do not touch the other,' and all about things which perish even while they are being used- according to merely human commandments and doctrines! In these rules you can indeed find what seems to be good sense- the cultivation of the will, and a humility which takes no account of the body; but in fact they have no value against self-indulgeance."
Extra required asceticism is a type of strange worship that does not work and just yokes people up again. It, at best, sets up ascetic hierarchies, and the imitation of men, and what's worse all manner of coercive and co-dependant behavior.
Paul takes pains to make clear that saving faith in Christ brings us to a freedom beyond the legalism, control, and world worship of bad religion. At Galatians 4,3-7 he puts the same point this way:
"So too with us, as long as we were still under age, we were enslaved to the elemental principles of the world [physical life and death, survival, sun, moon, fire, and their times and seasons for worship]; but when the completion of the time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law, so that we could receive adoption as sons. As you are sons, God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of His Son crying 'Abba, Father'; and so you are no longer a slave [to the elemental spirits, principles of the world, physical death-life, hunger, thirst, survival, sun, moon, and stars and their times and seasons], but a son; and if a son, then an heir, by God's own act."
An heir has freedom and power in his or her faith life, a costly freedom that comes from having the Spirit of God living and ruling inside of us.
Similarly, at Galatians 5,1 Paul likened requiring gentiles to be circumcized to a yoke of slavery, whereas Christ freed us to live by faith working through love (v.6) and a joyous freedom from a 'control your every move' religion. Thank you God!
"Christ set us free, so that we should remain free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be fastened again to the yoke of slavery." Stand firm for freedom in Christ or you will put on the yoke of false religion.
Cults have a way of mind control and emotional manipulation, of breaking folks down by fear, reward and punishment and shame, and all the rest of the principles of a dying world, by forcing folks to put on another religious yoke. Not the yoke of Christ, but their extra stuff, non biblical stuff.
Cults are not just out of the mainstream, but outside biblical doctrine.
Five Basic, But Often Blended, Types:
1. new age-higher knowledge like the gnostics of old (1-3John) who are so "spiritual" they forget bodily morality;
2.bible plus some over elevated doctrines or person(s) beyond the Holy Spirit and the Word, enforced by unscriptural denominational oaths to men;
3. psychological health-self improvement;
4. get rich pyramid schemes;
5. secret societies that form defacto alternative religions, making gods of themselves, that influence the larger church and aim to put a stick in your church's bicycle spokes.
1 and 2 are the most common. Number 5 surprises those unaccustomed to spiritual warfare.
Kudos to our brother and sister non pentecostal evangelicals who have educated and warned folks about cults.
Discussion More Relevant Today
The whole discussion of cults in the last 100 years is more and more timely in that all that we Christians call "faith" has apparently shifted forever from a tradition and authority-denomination base to a personal experience-non denominational seeker base. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it's likely a move of the Holy Spirit, but it leaves an ever increasing swath of religious and seeker folks exposed to cults, and other forms of manipulative religion. Surely, the cults know this change better than most traditional denominations and have reacted strategically and accordingly.
Two Scriptural Bookends Describing Major Problems With Cults: 1) Bad Doctrine; 2) Exalting Men
1. 1John4,3 "And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard was coming, and now is already in the world." (Re. fact of incarnation see also John 1,14, "word made flesh"; Matthew 1,23 "Immanuel", God with us; Collossians 1,15, Jesus as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.")
1-3 John takes aim at this major root of false cult doctrine, that Christ was not God in the flesh, God's only begotten son. If this were so- say he was an angel, or a phantom, or just a mere man- then our redemption unto new creation has not happened, and thus moral obedience and holiness would be of no matter, because we are still stuck in the rut of sin.
1Peter 1,18-19 makes our redemption clear and notes it's cost: "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, such as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot."
So unless we clearly know who Christ was, God in the flesh, whose blood atoned for our sin and unredemption, we fall back on our gnosis of the world, on our man made philosophies regarding the elemental principles, instead of living by every word from the mouth of the Lord. This is akin to eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen.2,9;17), thinking we men can make up our church's rules and doctrines as we go along, which is what false cults do.
Galatians 1,8 is a healthy answer to the immorality of the gnostic cult then and now: "But even if we or an angel of heaven preach any other gospel than the one we preached to you let them be eternally condemned."
Exaltation of Man
2. Mark 12,13-17: "Then that sent to him some of the Pharisees and Herodians to catch him in His words. When they had come, they said to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one, for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Shall we [Jews] pay [Rome] or shall we not pay?" But He knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why do you test me? Bring me a denarius that I may see it. So they brought it, and he said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this ?" They said to Him "Caesar's."
And Jesus answered and said to them , "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are to God."
Don't exalt Caesar, don't exalt your present government, but pay your due to it. Jesus said this because false cults in a serious way over exalt man- at the expense of exalting God. There was a cult group the "Zealots" at the time who refused to pay taxes to Caesar and eventually rose up in violence against the Romans in 66AD, defying Jesus. They were summarily quashed then and in 134 AD as well, and the Jews were sent into exile again, this time for almost 1900 years.
When faithful leaders become so hostile to Caesar, there is a potential loss of reverence for God. Why? Because the energy of faith unto a living God, and his kingdom, and for the salvation of his people is directed toward making man's church (!) a fortress and a tower, for the sake of religious and secular politics, at the expense of the gospel. Think of Jim Jones who tired of and then fled any secular accountability at all, but was left participating in a mass suicide of 918 in Guyana in November of 1978.
No pay Caesar and don't become so hostile that you cannot faithfully render to God the full reverance and prayer and service that he demmands, and that his people need. Don't major in the minors and so isolate God's people from God and God's church.
Acts 20,27-28, Paul's farewell address to the elders at Ephesus, is eternally instructive: "For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take head to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to Shepherd THE CHURCH OF GOD which He purchased with Hs own blood."
Little Caesars Exalted in The Church
John the Apostle even had occasion to correct an elder who risked becoming a little Caesar, one who honored God too little, and himself too much. This makes a personality cult out of the Church of God.
3John8-12: "We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth. I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminance among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true."
Pastors Are Useful Gifts From God Only If They Obey God in Faith and Provide Right Food
John 8,31: Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then ye are my disciples indeed." This takes continued good faith and the fullest guidance of the Holy Ghost.
Jeremiah 3,15: "And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding." Oh what a blessing to have a pastor with God's heart.
Ephesians 4,11 : And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers."
Most of the promises of God from the scripture come with the condition of ongoing faithful obedience. No pastor is above the word of God or what the Holy Spirit commands in accordance with the word of God.
At 2Timothy 4,1-2 Paul says "I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine."
In this charge is the real and tacit possibility that Timothy could wimp out, could fail to provide the church with the right food, and thus the fragile church plant in Ephesus would flounder. Yes, the gates of hell will never prevail over the universal mission of Christ- because as history and the word proves somewhere and with some folks the true faith will always be alive- but Paul made no mistake in charging Timothy against any such particular failure by him and the church in Ephesus.
Whereas, in contrast to Paul's apostolic charge, we often hear wordly talk of accolades for pastors that should be saved for God Himself! Worldly talk that often puts pastors on pedestals and above the word and Spirit of God, and makes them demi gods and aspiring mediators rather than sinners blessed by God like anybody else. As if they were god's politicians granted a lifetime tenure, so accustomed to accolades and worldy influence that their good sense to adhere to the the salvation mission of Christ is at risk or becomes of little import.
No Personality Cults Allowed
When a church becomes more about the personlity and success of the pastor or a church structure, than about the head of the church, the head of every man- Christ Jesus- it is close to becoming a cult.
Here are some clues that you may be dealing with a "cult" when someone comes to your door, or invites you to their "church." Please note- this list is not exhaustive, nor would every church have to meet all twelve clues before you knew it was clearly a cult.
1. Extra required doctrine and revelation that contradicts or adds to both testaments, which is repeated over and over again. This is often expressed by a "prophet" or an apparently effective or exalted leader who must be studied and given authority equal to or greater than the bible, or one's inviolable freedom of conscience;
2.Outsiders are by definition suspicious and not "in the know" and of course you have to fully join our group to get "in the know."
Whereas Peter at Acts 10,28-29: "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean." The initial church, and churches with integrity, take in all that come through the doors.
3. Complete control of your theological and personal agenda by the group. You need this groups' special knowledge, all of it, if you are to lead their new and better life.
Any faith knowledge prior to your introduction to the group and it's agenda, is devalued or "wrong", or in some way seriously deficient. Thus, you must get on the groups' demmanding schedule right away and unlearn what you already know about God and make up for "lost time." This runs the gamut from meeting four or more times a week, to one's associations, to one's bank accounts; it goes beyond compassion to meddling and manipulation.
4. Leaders and inner group control folks based on reward and punishment and shame and intimidation, rather than guide and build up folks by free faith acts and the Holy Ghost empowerment that follows living by faith and challenges to maturity, according to the word of God.
Nowhere in scripture is obsequious service to church leadership lifted up. Remember when Joshua obsequiously tattled to Moses on Eldad and Medad, two of the seventy elders that missed their ordination in the Tent:
" 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.' Joshua son of Nun, who had served Moses since he was a boy spoke up and said, my lord Moses [oh 'good master' said the rich young man] stop them! Moses replies, 'Are you jealous on my account? If only all of Yahweh's people were prophets, and Yahweh had given them his spirit!' " Numbers 11,27-29. Too much fawning and bowing and scraping to leadership should raise red flags.
5. Interaction of folks in the group with those outside the group is severely limited to those outsiders who don't raise any questions about the group or it's leadership, and to potential recruits.
Yes Jesus spoke about the need to put him before family and anyone else, and that it could happen that in families it would be two against three and three against two, but Jesus is the same God of "Honor thy Father and Mother" as well. So while families and close friends, may challenge one's faith walk, permanent breaks from people who love us is not necessarily the ordinary course of Christian witness. Such breaks- if forced and orchestrated as a matter of policy by church personell- are another red flag that you are dealing with a cult.
6. Extra financial support is demmanded not so much to support the living God of Israel, the God of the Bible, or God's church or the mission of the gospel, which could be a sign of Spirit inspired generosity, but to one, or a few, dominant charismatic leaders, or the groups' pet projects.
This extra financial support comes with the "benefit" of extra attention for those who give more, and extra "help" making personal decisions, ie budget, dating, jobs, where to live, child raising. You name it- all important stuff must now go through the leader or the hierarchy. Specifically beware of "free" longterm counselling- mature pastors do short term crisis intervention and faith counselling and refer folks to professional Christian counsellors for long term issues.
In practice this most often takes the form of generous women and weaker men getting extra attention from male leaders, the exaltation of these same leaders, and the devaluation of healthy males within the group.
7. Healthy men are not lifted up in a church. Thus you can bet that the pastor and the whole church is likely in the employ of the principality of Jezebel (1Kings 16,32-33), the foreign wife of King Ahab. She butchered the faithful prophets (1Kings 18,4) and co-opted 400 more Baalist prophets. Today, Jezabel is a spiritual and ruling principality (Ephesians 6,12) in all the cults in all the world (cf. Revelation 2,20). "She" wants to control every aspect of a church's life, begining with the pastor, subverting all Godly male authority, so that she can direct the faith of the people away from the living God of Israel.
Again a broad spectrum of healthy males have responsibility in a healthy church, whereas in cults the apparent status and personality of only the highest male leaders are lifted up.
Isn't it interesting that Satan especially uses the more immediate religious impulse of women (remember Eve being tempted first) and the Jezabellian-huntress spirit to coerce people in matters of faith. Ezekiel knew this reality six centuries before Christ (NJB), Ezekiel 13,17-19:
"Also, son of man [Ezekiel], turn to the women of your people who make up prophecies out of their own heads; prophesy against them. Say, 'The Lord Yahweh says this: Disaster is in store for women who sew ribbons [KJ "pillows"] round each wrist and make head cloths for people of all sizes, in their hunt for souls! Are you to hunt the souls of my people and keep your own souls safe? You dishonor me in front of my people for a few handfuls of barley, a few bits of bread, killing those who ought not to die [the pious faithful] and sparing those who ought not to live [the ones this demonic principality have co-opted], lying to my people who love listening to lies.' "
God's people are being pulled around by the hand (what they do) and the head (what they think) - the same places where the mark of the beast will be put, Revelation 13,16. Good people, God's people, led around by the hand and lassooed by the head by folks under the principality of Jezabel-control, telling lies. And many have come to enjoy this manipulation as if to sing: "Give me a rule, even if it's a false rule, even if it's demonic! Give me a word, even if it's a false word! Give me a church, even if it's a false cult, for we are superspirtual and could never be deluded."
"My people perish for a lack of knowledge." May God's people hunger and thirst for righteousness, in Jesus Name.
8. Past or present private failures or hurts are spread among the group and then used in private and public by the leaders to control present behavior and interaction in the group, sometimes about confidential matters. Good pastors are glad to forget the past of the flock. Consult an attorney.
9. Constant repetition of grandiose prophecies and pet doctrines regarding the chosen status of the leader, the group, and individuals and recruits in the group, at the expense of outside confirmation of said prophecies-doctrines and at the expense of encouraging practical faith decisions (Noah built the ark, Moses finally raised the staff, Peter stepped out onto the water).
This creates a state of hyper-expectation, without practical empowering faith choices. This state of hyper expectation is then used by the group to make folks invest more and more in the group and it's leadership, often in unbalanced and exagerated ways, as a de facto condition that the "prophecies" come true. This situation leads to a "hang in-it must be my fault" mentality whereby the group and the member is left in the mind bending position of having too much invested in the group to leave, and rationalizing unfulfilled personal and corporate prophecies as one's own lack of faith, or the groups' lack of devotion, goodness, or individuals or the group not doing enough (see n. 6 above).
The progression for the individual is roughly this: "We are in the know. Don't you want to be part of this great thing? You must fit in to understand. You must submit everything in your life to the leader, to the group. Try harder. What? Are you rebellious? We know what you were like before. You don't want to fail again do you? You can be extra blessed like us. You must do more. Try harder for the group. Your prophecy will come true. Give more to the group. Do exactly what you are told by the leader and the group and you will recieve all God promised."
Then dissapointment leads to dissociation from healthy experiences and relationships, thinking it must be my fault, or the fault of misfits within the group, or outsiders that what the group or leader said did not come true.
10. Refusal of any financial accountabilty or openess (remember Judas?) or sharing resources with worthy causes. Such unaccoutability is a red flag.
11. Refusal to fellowship with or recognize much good in more mainstream and established faith leaders or evangelize the unchurched. Thus, the group always remains self referential, not just rightly focused, and doesn't incorporate any valid outside ideas or people. A hint here as to this unhealthy practice might be there's no interaction outside church turf, or fellowship with different brands of Christians. Whereas Paul took joy in being an ambassador for Christ.
2Corinthians 5,19-20: "I mean, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone's faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were urging you through us, and in the name of Christ we appeal to you to be reconciled to God."
How can we be ambassadors for Christ if we don't interact with other folks?
12. Excuses for moral lapses, inappropriate relationships, co-dependant spiritual bondings within the group or the spitualization of these things as healthy and normal for those who are especially close to God.
1Timothy 5,1-2, which is advice to Timothy, hints at the myriad of ministerial boundaries and dignity that must be respected rather than used for the advantage of the cult or church leadership: "Never speak sharply to a man older than yourself, but appeal to him as you would to your own father; treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers and young women as sisters with all propriety."
Conclusion: Don't Check Your Brain or Your Spirit at the Church Door
A cult is a really unhealthy group that has tapped into the powers and principalities of the world, the devil and the flesh, and uses these means knowingly or unknowingly to advance it's agenda and to survive economically. It's possible that a valid church could become a cult. I always tell cult missionaries that any time they spend trying to convert me will be spent by me introducing them to Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost who will teach them all things and give them true freedom, and baptize them in the Holy Ghost. This tempers their focus, redirects it rightly, and provides an invitation for them to get out.
No bible believing church is perfect or totally healthy. No pastor is perfect or totally healthy. But cults are out there and they have their market pretty well figured out, so beware. Your best defense against cults and all that is false in religion is to know the entire word of God and to know the voice of your master who said "Don't be afraid, I go before you always!" You will know his voice when you are baptized in the Spirit.
I've preached on the attributes of a healthy church, and they do exist, so don't be discouraged. Take heart, Christ has overcome the world and all it's wordly cults.
I'll conclude here with the obvious and most basic common sense distinction between a cult and a healthy church. In a healthy church, you don't have to check your brain (as Gene Scott always used to say) or your spirit, and what you already know about God, at the door.
Peace Out Brothers and Sisters.