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Cults and World Religions

What is a Cult?

Note:This document was originally prepared as a handout for courses that I taught either in a Christian seminary or in Christian churches in the 1980s. The vocabulary is therefore primarily geared toward that specific audience. Since Messianic Judaism as a group has no formal, detailed doctrinal position, it is difficult to speak about cults from a purely “Messianic Jewish” perspective. [SOURCE]

Definition of a Cult

In this article:

Definition of a Cult

Characteristics of Cults

Types of Cults

Classification by Scope of Interest

Classification by Source of Tradition

Heterodox Christianity

The Appeal of the Cults

The “Bottom Line”

Old English capital letter DDr. Walter Martin, one of the best-known Christian apologists and teachers of the cults during the twentieth century, defined a cult as “a religious group who adheres to major doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity. It deviates from the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.”

I would modify that definition slightly for three reasons:

First, his definition includes all non-Christian religions of the world as cults. I don’t feel that it is appropriate to classify a non-Christian religious group as a cult just because their teaching differs from what is recognized as “orthodox” Christianity, unless they actually claim to be Christian.

Second, with over 43,000 Christian denominations in the world now, it is obvious that not even Christians can agree on what “orthodox” Christianity” is.

Third, I believe that what Dr. Martin refers to as “orthodox Christianity” has significantly departed from what the Bible defines as true biblical faith and practice. If I were to use a strict interpretation of Dr. Martin’s definition, I would now be forced to classify virtually all of Christianity as a cult.

Accordingly, for the purpose of discussing non-Christian cults, my personal definition of a cult would be as follows:

“A cult is any religious group which is not commonly recognized as a major world religion, whose proponents adhere to major doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to true Biblical faith and practice.”

I specifically would include as a “cult” any religious group which purports to be “Christian” but which significantly deviates from the generally-accepted teachings of “Christianity” (allowing for recognized denominational distinctives). I would also include as a “cult” any religious group which purports to be “Messianic Jewish” but which significantly deviates from the generally-accepted teachings of “Messianic Judaism.” It is important to understand that Christianity and Messianic Judaism would each have sufficient reason to classify the other as a cult in comparison to themselves. It is also important to understand that there is no central “authority” besides the Scriptures for defining the beliefs of Messianic Judaism.

Characteristics of Cults

1. Cults are deviations. They are far from authentic, Biblical, orthodox biblical teaching.

2. Cults are corrective attempts. Cult founders often react to a belief or practice common to the churches of their day. Mary Baker Eddy, for example, pictured a “God of Love” in contrast to the “Severe Judge-God” proclaimed by most Calvinist New England preachers of her day.

3. Cult converts come from religious backgrounds. Their journey to this new faith is usually from a former faith, rarely from no faith at all.

4. Cult converts were failed by their church or synagogue. Most will tell you that their spiritual journey, before they joined the cult, was in a congregation where they were disappointed or disillusioned by something that happened, such as an internal quarrel or congregational split.

5. Many cults are elitist groups. Most cults think that they are the “One True Church.”

Types of Cults

There are any number of methods of classifying cults. Because of the widely diverse nature of cults, and the limits of any artificial classification system, it is virtually impossible to develop a system that will provide a completely accurate “slot” into which to classify every group. For sake of illustration, here are two possible methods of classifying cults.

Classification by Scope of Interest

One possible method to use in classifying cults is by the emphasis they place on one or more major areas of their belief system.

1. The mind cults. These cults emphasize the importance of the mind in religion. Some apply reason to religious questions. Others stress the superiority of the mental over the material. Christian Science, the Unity School of Christianity, and Religious Science are examples.

2. The millennial cults. These groups began with in intense interest in the end of the world and the second coming of the Messiah. All have a scheme of eschatology (last things) that is significantly deviant from that held by historical Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons[1] are examples.

3. East-West mixes, or imports. The faith of these groups is a combination of Eastern and Western terms and thought patterns. The Unification Church and Witness Lee are examples.

Classification by Source of Tradition

Another possible method of classifying cults is by the source of their tradition, or from whence they derive their authority.[2]

 1. The pseudo-Christian cults. “The term ‘pseudo-Christian’ is used with Webster’s qualification ‘deceptive resemblance to.’ Unquestionably, there are sincere born-again Christians who populate The Local Church and The Church of the Living Word. But because of their aberrational departure from historic orthodoxy and their subservience to authoritarian leadership, these bodies are included in the Pseudo-Christian category. The main criterion determining inclusion in this category [is] whether or not the cult in question [makes] any attempt (sincere or deliberately deceptive) to follow Christian teachings and traditions.” Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unity would be in this category.

2. The personality cults. “While one sociological mark of a cult is in its centralized control of dogma and practice, some groups seem to be totally structured around the charisma of one man. His teachings are incidental to the force of his personality. It is the subjective commitment to who he is — not what he says — that has formed a following. ... The decision warranting inclusion under Personality cults [is] made by observing whether most adherents were initially attracted by the man more than the message.”

3. The occult/mystical cults. “The Occult/Mystical category includes those cults which base their precepts on non-Christian traditions. The essence of their systems is founded on a mystical model. In most cases, the important factor lies in the experience offered by the cult’s philosophy, not in its objective perimeters of doctrine. Most of these groups promote an intuitional concept of reality rather than utilizing sensory perception. ... To a greater or lesser extent, most (though not all) cults in this category encourage occult and psychic exploration. As a result, this grouping is more prone to involve spiritually dangerous practices of collusion with supernatural forces.”

Heterodox Christianity

A major point that is missed by most authors who write on the subject of cults, and which, therefore, affects their cult classification systems, is that God is no respecter of man-made organizations. The only groups of humanity that God specifically recognizes in Scripture are the family, Israel, the Elect, and the lost. A person cannot be either lost or saved by his organizational affiliation, only by his relationship to God through the Messiah or his lack of that relationship.

There are a large number of groups whose doctrinal position is not in line with the position of “historical Christianity.” “Evangelical Fundamentalists” (labels, unfortunately, seem to be unavoidable) embrace a rather complex set of doctrinal truths that they see to be clearly presented in Scripture. They frequently fail to recognize, however, that there is only one single doctrinal truth that is absolutely essential: Salvation depends solely upon one’s personal relationship with the God of the Bible through the Second Person of that Godhead, ADONAI Yeshua HaMashiach (“the LORD Jesus Christ”).

It is possible, therefore, for a person to fully embrace the teachings of a group which falls outside the bounds of “historical Christianity” and still be a born-again, blood-bought child of God. I place these marginal groups in a class that I have named Heterodox Christianity: “heterodox” because their teachings are not fully in accord with the “cardinal doctrines” of the Christian faith; “Christianity” because the individual members of the groups may be in the Body of Messiah in spite of some very bad teaching.

The Appeal of the Cults

There are many factors which make the cults appealing to those who feel that they have somehow been failed by their church or synagogue. As Bible-believers, we must make note of those factors, and determine not to fail our brothers and sisters in those areas that we can control.

 1. Cults provide a sense of community. Most cults provide a tight-knit sense of fellowship. Their members know each other and support each other.

2. Cults provide a sense of status. Because they are “the one true church,” members are not too concerned if they are not leaders in their communities.

3. Cults provide opportunities for leadership not open in the “regular” churches, especially for women. Many of the cults are extremely liberal in dispensing titles and promoting members to positions of leadership, and many (such as Unity) provide positions as “ministers” or “pastors” for women.[3]

4. Some cults provide a more liberal climate. Unitarian Universalists, for example, attract persons with an intense interest in social action and an aversion to doctrinal teaching or statements. For example, an acquaintance of mine who is a confessed Wiccan tells me that many Wiccans are members of Unitarian Universalist churches.

5. Cults offer set answers to hard questions. When will the world end, and what will happen afterward? While many wonder about these questions, some cultists claim to have the answers.

6. Some cults have demanding disciplines. The Moonie salesman sets a personal goal for raising funds for the church, and strives to reach it daily. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have long lists of things that they must do and others that they must not do.

7. Some cults have a world vision. The Unification Church (the Moonies) has set a goal that by 2027 the entire world will be members of their church and will speak the “holy” Korean language.

8. Some cults “harmonize” Eastern and Western thought. Unity, Christian Science, Scientology, and many others all blend elements from Hinduism and Buddhism with Christianity.

9. Cults minister in crises. The persistent visiting of Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness representatives in American homes uncovers many individuals with needs that are not being met.

10. Cults reach minority groups. The Unity School of Christianity appeals to the wealthy because it has stressed prosperity. Jehovah’s Witnesses attract people from the lower economic scale because they teach a total aversion to “worldly” success.

11. Some cults stress human potential. These appeal to health and wealth, and do not accept man as sinful.

12. Cults involve their members. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses provide many opportunities for their members to serve.

The “Bottom Line”

When all is said and done, the three most important things to remember are that:

 1. The God of Creation, the God of Avram, Yitz’chak, and Ya'akov, has set forth in the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings very precise times, seasons, and methods that He expects mankind to follow when approaching Him;

 2. In his supreme arrogance, man believes that he can ignore God’s divine instruction (Torah) and the Moadim (God’s appointed times and seasons), and create his own unauthorized and uninvited appointments[4] with the Emperor of the Universe and approach Him haphazardly in any way mankind imagines, and that for some reason God will honor man’s unauthorized approaches; and

 3. Only a fool would presume upon the Almighty. HaShem has established strict rules for coming into his Presence and for offerings made to Him.

That same day Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, took their censers, put hot coals and incense in them, and offered “strange” fire to God — something God had not commanded. Fire blazed out from God and consumed them; they died in God’s presence. Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant when He said, ‘To the one who comes near Me, I will show Myself holy; Before all the people, I will show My glory.’” Aaron was silent. (Lev. 10:1-3, MSG)

Don’t presume upon ADONAI-Tzva'ot or try to approach Him your own way. If you survive the attempt, you may find yourself outside the Kingdom looking in and wondering what happened!

A bystander said, “Master, will only a few be saved?”

“Whether few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to life - to God! - is vigorous and requires your total attention. A lot of you are going to assume that you’ll sit down to God’s salvation banquet just because you’ve been hanging around the neighborhood all your lives. Well, one day you’re going to be banging on the door, wanting to get in, but you’ll find the door locked and the Master saying, ‘Sorry, you’re not on my guest list.’

“You'll protest, ‘But we’ve known you all our lives!’ only to be interrupted with his abrupt, ‘Your kind of knowing can hardly be called knowing. You don’t know the first thing about me.’ That’s when you’ll find yourselves out in the cold, strangers to grace. You’ll watch Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets march into God’s kingdom. You’ll watch outsiders stream in from east, west, north, and south and sit down at the table of God’s kingdom. And all the time you'll be outside looking in - and wondering what happened.” (Luke 13:24-30, MSG)

If we claim to love the Jewish Messiah, shouldn’t we be doing things the way He said they should be done? Shouldn’t we be doing Bible things in Bible ways and saying Bible things using Bible words?

  1. Bob Larson and many other cult teachers classify Seventh-Day Adventism as a cult; Walter Martin classifies them as “heterodox” rather than as a cult. I believe that this is because of their views toward the seventh-day Sabbath, the Moadim, the Torah, and the Olam Haba (the World to Come, or the New Earth), all of which are very close to the beliefs of Messianic Judaism. Because of their views in these areas, I personally feel that they are closer to true Biblical faith and practice than “Orthodox” or “Evangelical” Christianity (though I am in total disagreement with their view on “soul sleep”). [BACK]

 2. This is the method used by Bob Larson in Larson’s Book of Cults (quoted in this section), and I personally use a slightly modified version of that method. However, I do not necessarily place all groups in the same classification that Larson does [see note 1, above]. The quotes which follow in this section are from Larson. [BACK]

 3. Since many mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church for example, have begun ordaining women as pastors in direct opposition to the instruction of the Apostolic Writings, I am inclined to inclde those groups under this classification of a cult. [BACK]

 4. In the Torah God has decreed seven “appointed times” for His people to appear before Him in corporate holy assembly: Shabbat, Pesach, Matzah, Firstfruits, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. He said that these are to be His “designated times of ADONAI that you are to proclaim as holy convocations” and that they are to be observed by all His people as “a permanent regulation, generation after generation.” The Church argues that these days are “holidays of the Jews,” yet the Bible clearly calls them “the appointed feasts of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 2:4). The Church has decided that what ADONAI has commanded is simply not important and refuses to honor the times of worship that He has designated; the Church presumes that He should be satisfied with their showing up uninvited on Sunday, Christmas, and Easter, all of which are totally pagan in origin. “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7, NASB). [BACK]

Page revised on Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Page last updated on Saturday, 23 September 2023 11:33 AM
(Updates are generally minor formatting or editorial changes.
Major content changes are identified as "Revisions”)

Anxiously awaiting Mashiach’s return