What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?

 

Warning: False Teachers & Prophets

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and Jude all warn against false teachers and prophets.

For example, in Matthew 7:15, Jesus warns:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” 

If Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and Jude didn’t take corruption of God’s word lightly, neither should we. (Also see 2 Tim. 4:3-4, 2 Pet. 2:1-3, 1 John 4:1)

What Do We Mean By “Christian” Cults?

“Cult” isn’t necessarily a negative word, such as when used in ancient Rome or in types of Hinduism.  It can simply mean a system of religious devotion towards a specific person, god, or object.

But in modern Western society “cult” is a word no one wants to be associated with.  Today, in the West, often “cult” means a small group of people on the fringe of society who hold to some strange religious beliefs.  And sometimes these small groups of people with odd beliefs grow into large groups of people with odd beliefs.

So, let’s be clear about the intended meaning of the use of the word “cult” in this articles.

“Cult” – more specifically “Christian cult” – will refer to religious groups that have Christian origins or have borrowed from Christian beliefs but have deviated from Christianity to such an extreme that they can no longer be considered Christian.

These religious groups either deny or have changed core doctrines of Christianity so they’re not just another denomination.  Yes, there are many denominations in Christianity, but the differences between them have to do with different interpretations of minor doctrines and/or differences in their governing leadership.  Conversely, cults deny major doctrines – essential doctrines – of the Christian faith.

 

Why are they “Essential” Doctrines?

By “essential,” we mean essential for salvation from sin.  By straying from these core doctrines, the cult members don’t have salvation from sin as taught by the New Testament Scripture.  They have altered, corrupted, or denied the true Gospel of Jesus Christ by altering, corrupting, or denying the true identity of Christ or God’s free gift of salvation.  Thus, peoples’ eternal souls are at stake.

Have no doubt, in using the word “cult” we’re stating that these groups are teaching – to use a term that’s no longer fashionable – heresy.  Though we believe the people in these cults are sincerely seeking relationships with God, they’ve been led astray by the founders and leaders of these cults, who are – to use more unfashionable language –apostates, i.e. false teachers and prophets.

But the good news is no one is beyond God’s grace – not even messed up sinners like me, you, or cult members.

But Don’t Call Them “Cults”!

I realize what I’m writing in this section is ironic:

Though the word “cult” is used in this article, I don’t believe we should use the word “cults” when speaking with members of “Christian” cults (such as blatantly telling someone, “Your church is a cult!”).  As stated above, the word has such a negative connotation, the person will take offense and, after that, any chance of an open, loving dialogue will be lost.  Remember, Christians are to speak not just truth but truth with love (Eph. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 13:1; 1 Pet. 3:15-16).

 

How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults?

There is a fool-proof way to understand, explain, and remember what makes a group not a denomination, but a “Christian” cult:  Use the symbols: +, — , x, /

That is: + (Addition sign), – (Subtraction sign), x (Multiplication sign), / (Division sign)

This is what each symbol represents:

(+) Adds to the Word of God

(–) Subtracts from the Deity of Jesus Christ

(x) Multiplies the Requirements for Salvation

(/) Divides the Cult Members’ Loyalty Between the Cult Leader(s) and Christ

These are pretty straight-forward, but let’s break them down:

(+) Adds to the Word of God

Christians believe the Bible, both the Old Testament and New Testament, are God’s unique Scripture.  There are no other scriptures than these, and there is no need for any more scripture than these.  Scripture records God’s redemption of humankind from sin, and this was accomplished when God came as Jesus of Nazareth and died on a cross as the perfect, final sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Now, according to the commands of Jesus, Christians spread his Gospel and wait for his Second Coming, when he will bring the Final Judgment and restore creation.

Case closed.

Throughout the Bible we see that God confirms his messengers through “signs and wonders” — miracles.  The New Testament was completed in the 1st Century by Jesus’ apostles; any addition to God’s Word is not God’s Word, and any new “scripture” claiming to be from God is not from God.  God will not be giving any new scripture because there is no need for it.  The church “closed” the canon of Scripture for exactly this reason: so no one could claim to have written, received, or discovered new Scripture.  Likewise, to eliminate or change anything from God’s Word is corrupting God’s Word.  Additionally, any “translation” that is not faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew falls under this category.

 (–) Subtracts from the Deity of Jesus Christ 

Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth, as taught in the New Testament, is God the Son incarnate.  Primarily through Jesus’ deeds, he displayed his divinity and oneness with God the Father.  In every way, Jesus is God.  He has been eternally part of the Trinitarian Godhead; he is  anot created being.  Only by being both fully God and fully man could Jesus live a perfect, sinless life and accomplish salvation for all of humankind by his death on the cross.

To deny Jesus is anything other than God means Jesus could not accomplish salvation for all of humankind, which means salvation from sins is not possible.  Thus, to deny the divinity of Christ Jesus is to be unsaved.

Often “Christian” cults make Jesus (God the Son) less than God the Father.  Jesus is seen as a sort of demigod or an exalted angel — a being created by God.

As a related matter: Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity – the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one God – is hard to wrap our finite, human minds around, but the Bible attests to it.  Many “Christian” cults deny the Trinity by either denying the full deity of the Son/Jesus or the Holy Spirit or both.

(x) Multiplies the Requirements for Salvation

The New Testament writers teach that salvation from sins comes only through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  When someone understands this, they repent of sins, accept this free gift, and follow Jesus Christ – God the Son – as their Lord and Savior.

Thus, no one earns salvation.  It’s a free gift from God that can only be either received or rejected, as with all free gifts.  Despite what many think, one doesn’t come into God’s presence by being a “good person.”  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  God’s salvation can’t be earned, and none of us deserve it.  It can only be understood as a free gift.

This is the beautiful good news of Christ Jesus – the truly unique message of Christianity that no other faith teaches.  To add anything to this simple and beautiful message of salvation is to deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But cults add some sort of “works” to salvation; salvation must be gained, even if the cult holds up some version of Jesus as a savior.  The cult members must be deemed worthy of salvation through their works and close adherence to the cult’s teachings – and often its solely up to the cult’s leader(s) to deem who’s worthy of salvation or not.

(/) Divides the Cult Members’ Loyalty Between the Cult Leader(s) and Christ

Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of all true Christians.  God has graciously given us the Bible – the Old and New Testament – as our guide for knowing God’s will.  The Bible is also our guide for testing the teachings of the teachers of God’s Word.  If any teacher – whether pastor, priest, or pope – purposely misrepresents God’s Word, he is putting himself in the place of God; he is putting his authority above God’s.

In cults, the founder(s) and leader(s) are the final authority, not God or Jesus nor their Holy Scripture.  They claim to be the only ones who can properly interpret God’s Word, or they claim the authority to add to or alter God’s Word.  To do this, is to stand between a person seeking God and God.

Like John the Baptist, true teachers of God’s Word point their hearers to Jesus Christ.  They don’t get in the way.  They encourage their pupils to read God’s Word on their own and strive for understanding.  False teachers point not to Christ, but to themselves.  And often unquestioning loyalty is demanded.

 

 

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