Answers In Action

What Is a Cult?

By Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 1990 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.

Drums beat in uneven syncopation. Exotic spices and incense fill the air with the swirling fragrance of another world. Red and gold silk glints in the flickering light. Dorothy feels her heart hammer against her chest, her throat so dry she can't swallow. She feels immobile against the panic that rises to cloud her vision. Dorothy is at the Hare Krishna temple to rescue her daughter, Shelly, from a cult. Never has she counted on the power of her faith in Christ as she did now, confronted by the temple leader, who abruptly tells her Shelly is gone, lost forever to her family and former Christian faith, dedicated to the worship and service of Krishna.

Later, as Dorothy shared her pain with her Bible study, she was met with a cacophany of opinions. "How could such a good girl have become such a deceiver? You know all those cults are just out for money and power." "How can you be so judgmental, Dorothy? She's just doing what's meaningful for her." "Those cults -- they're all into human sacrifices and mind control." "I talked to a Hare Krishna once and she said she believed in Jesus -- what's wrong with that?" Dorothy didn't know what to think. She had to find answers.

Dorothy is like a lot of Christians who hardly think about cults or other belief systems until someone they love becomes entangled in a faith that at odds with Christianity. Many times, the loved one is involved in a group that is much less obviously different than the Hare Krishnas. Frequently family members vacilate between thinking, on the one hand, the group is just another kind of Christianity or, on the other hand, the group must be a cult from the pit of hell. Dorothy and other concerned Christians need a clear understanding of what a cult is to begin their education.

Unfortunately, when Christians attempt to find out what a cult is, they discover that there are almost as many definitions of a cult as there are writers and speakers on the subject. Sociologists often define cults by their cultural idiosyncracies. Psychologists frequently talk about cults in terms of "mind control," "low self-esteem," "dominating leadership," etc. Journalists seem to describe cults in terms like bizarre, suicidal, secretive, and fanatical. Within the Christian church these variations sometimes are coupled with strong religious pronouncements that any group other than their own denomination is a cult, or some assume that any faith is better than no faith and think the term is always pejorative and should never be used by a Christian.

In the midst of this confusion of opinion, there is a core of biblical clarity that can help concerned Christians discern between truth and error, biblical standards and opinion. The term cult comes from the Latin cultus, meaning "worship," and originally meant a system of worship distinguishable from others. It quickly came to mean an aberrant form of worship identified in some way with a "parent" belief system. So, for example, the "mystery cults" of Greece and Rome were sectarian systems of worship of one or more of the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. According to this early definition, Christianity could be considered a "cult" of Judaism, deriving its identify from the Jewish faith, but differing from first century Judaism in its proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, the resurrected Son of God.

In this century, the Church has usually defined the term cult by doctrinal or theological standards. In this sense, a cult is a sectarian religious group that identifies itself with Christianity and yet fails one or more core doctrinal tests of orthodoxy. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, call themselves Christians, and yet deny the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity and resurreciton of Christ, among other doctrinal distinctives. The Mormons identify themselves as members of "The Church of Jesus Christ," but affirm the elevation of man to godhood and deny salvation by grace alone, as well as other doctrines contrary to biblical teachings. Most Christian cult watchers understand this doctrinal definition as contrasting the cult's beliefs with essential biblical doctrine concerning five areas: God (belief in one true God, the trinity, God's infinite and eternal nature and attributes, etc.); Jesus Christ (Second Person of the trinity, virgin born, died on the cross for us, resurrection, Second Coming, etc.); man (created in God's image, morally responsible, destined either for eternal life or eternal punishment, etc.); sin and salvation (all people are sinful and separated from God, salvation is by grace alone through faith, the atonement, etc.); and scripture (the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is God's infallible Word and the revelation from God by which we understand, worship, and serve God). A cult, then, is a religious group that identifies itself with Christianity, or at least claims compatibility with Christianity, and yet which denies one or more of these cardinal biblical doctrines.

Sociological, psychological, and journalistic observations sometimes show us the human dynamics that frequently result from a cult belief system, but they are not sufficient Christian foundations for determining a groups status as a cult. For example, a cult's unique doctrines can lead to an exclusivism and separateness from other religious groups. A cult's belief that the Bible's revelation is superceded by the current revelations of the cult leader may result in followers surrendering their thinking and decision making abilities to the cult leader. And the more aberrant a cult's beliefs and practices, the more likely it is to be characterized as bizarre.

Once Dorothy learned to identify a cult, she perused Hare Krishna literature and talked with the temple representative. She learned that, while Hare Krishnas say they believe in Jesus, they believe he was only one manifestation of Krishna, certainly not the unique Son of God manifest in the flesh. She learned their statement of compatibility with Christianity masked their conviction that Christianity is a low, spiritually ignorant groping after religious experience only attainable through devotion to Krishna. She discovered the Hare Krishna's polytheism (belief in the existence of more than one god) and salvation through an elaborate and multi-life (reincarnation) karmic system of works.

Excerpts From "When They Come Knocking . . . .

1). Learn basic Christian doctrine. There is no substitute for truth. The best way to recognize a counterfeit is to be familiar with the genuine.

2). Concentrate on core biblical doctrines, those concerning God, Jesus Christ, the nature of man, sin and salvation, and scripture. Peripheral doctrines such as the timing of the Second Coming or modes of baptism are not essential for salvation.

3). Carefully evaluate your own vocabulary and that of the cultist. Be sure you are communicating clearly. For example, Christians understand the term "Son of God" to affirm the deity of Christ; Jehovah's Witnesses use the same term, but mean "the Mighty creation by God."

4). Always include a clear presentation of the gospel. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ on our behalf, according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). It is irresponsible to destroy a cultist's beliefs without sharing how to be saved.

5). Don't assume you know what the cultist believes. Show personal interest by asking him to tell you what he believes. Then answer biblically.

6). Consult responsible Christian sources for information about what the cults teach and how to answer them from scripture. The wealth of good Christian material means you don't need to read cult publications or Christian publications that are not well-referenced and theologically sound.

We received a call from a woman who had attended one of our training sessions on witnessing to cultists. She was so excited we asked her to slow down. "I did it! I did it!" She laughed, "I mean, the Lord did it! And boy did He do it! I'm so excited! I've been studying and praying for a month for one of my employees who's a Jehovah's Witness. I never knew what to say to her, but I learned, and this morning we talked for three hours. I can't believe it! She saw the truth and prayed with me right then to accept Christ! This is fantastic!" We rejoiced with her, praising God for giving the increase and thanking Him for giving us hearts and minds to be used by the Holy Spirit to reach those lost in the cults.


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