Back in the 1970s Americans became aware of the presence of many unusual religious movements that were often referred to as “cults” or “sects.” Groups like the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon (“Moonies”), the Children of God, the Hare Krishnas, and others were seen on street corners hawking flowers or other goods to raise money for their movements. The problem burst wide-open with the tragic mass suicide of Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana in 1978. More than 900 men, women, and children died drinking poison soft drinks. Suddenly Americans realized that these groups were not all just benign fellowships of ex-hippies or disaffected kooks.
Soon people thought the cults had sort of disappeared, but their awareness exploded again in 1993 with the horrific flaming destruction of the Branch Davidians in Texas. The 1994 deadly collapse of the Solar Temple in Quebec and the 1997 self-destruction of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in California shocked North Americans into a new realization that many Americans and Canadians are deeply involved in strange and dangerous religious movements.
Christians especially have become more aware of this escalating situation. Granted, the above examples are the most extreme. However, as many as 10 million Americans may be part of religious movements that can be designated as cults. So Christians ask, “Just what is a cult, anyway? How can I determine if what I am confronting is or is not authentically Christian?” Most Christians do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes a cult or a sect, or know how to determine if a religious movement or church is authentically Christian.
This article describes characteristics of cults and sects, and highlights principles for evaluating a religious movement’s authenticity. It also provides specific guidelines for witnessing to people in cults and sects.
What is a Cult or Sect?
Different definitions of the terms “cult” and “sect” are used by researchers, writers, and speakers in various fields of study. Most secular experts rely primarily on sociological, psychological, or behavioral factors and usually do not consider doctrinal or theological issues when evaluating specific religious movements.
Evangelical Christian discernment ministries, however, normally begin with a careful examination of a group’s stated doctrinal beliefs. They then examine other significant factors such as psychological manipulation, behavioral control, and ethical issues. They usually agree that the following are common characteristics of movements designated cults or sects.
1. Most Cults and sects usually claim to be biblically-based, Christian organizations. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) maintains that it is a Christian church centered on Christ and His teachings. The Christian Science Church also often refers to itself as a Christian movement. The truth is, just because a movement affirms the authority of the Bible, claims to be biblically based, and talks about Jesus, does not necessarily mean it is authentically Christian.
2. Most cults deny or redefine any or all essential Christian doctrines. That is to say, they deny doctrines that have always been regarded as essential by Christians throughout history. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, absolutely deny the deity of Jesus Christ. The LDS redefines the Trinity to mean the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate personages or gods.
Oneness Pentecostal churches deny the Trinity by saying that God is only one person who has appeared at different times in three distinct manifestations: the Father, then the Son, and then the Holy Ghost. In their doctrine, He is not one God in three Persons, but one God in one person, manifesting himself in three different modes.
3. Some Sects may adhere officially to essential Christian teachings while exhibiting other characteristics of cults or sects. For example, the International Church of Christ began in the late 1970s by Kip McKean as a radical offshoot of the mainline churches of Christ. Under his direction, the group adhered to traditional views about God and Christ, but members regarded their movement as the only one proclaiming the true message of salvation today and audaciously claimed to be the only church providing true salvation. It also made harsh demands on members even to the point of cutting relationships with family and friends. McKean resigned in 2002 so the movement has moderated somewhat in the past decade but it still continues to proselytize people from other evangelical churches.
4. Cults and sects usually claim to be led by divinely inspired leaders. Most cults and sects usually believe their leaders are capable of receiving direct revelation from God or have a special, inspired understanding of the Bible. One example is Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church. His followers regard him as “Lord of the Second Advent,” a position equal to that of Christ. The LDS believes its president is a “living prophet, seer, and revelator” who can receive direct revelation from God. Some cults believe their leader or leaders have the only accurate interpretation of the Bible. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, believe their “Governing Body,” a committee of about 15 men in New York, is the only organization on earth capable of understanding biblical truth.
5. Cults and sects usually claim to possess a new and inspired written scripture that supplements or supersedes the authority of the Bible. Christian Science teaches that Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is an inspired adjunct to the Bible. Likewise, Scientologists regard the writings of L. Ron Hubbard as the works of a genius who discovered the keys to understanding life and death.
Most Christians know the LDS uses the Book of Mormon as a supplement to the Bible. They are not usually aware, however, that they also have two other extra-biblical texts that supersede the Bible’s authority: The Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great of Price.
6. Cults and sects usually claim to be the only true (or the most true) church in the world. Full salvation is said to be found only by membership in the movement. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, regard all other religious organizations as devoid of truth. In their view, only their Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has the truth that leads to eternal life. Likewise, the LDS teaches that eternal life (exaltation) can be achieved only by being a baptized member of the LDS church.
Principles for Evaluating Religious Movements
In light of these characteristics, mature and discerning Christians (see Heb. 5:14) should ask the following questions when they encounter unfamiliar religious movements:
1. What is the source of the movement’s authority for doctrine and practice? Do members rely on the Bible alone or add some other book(s) that is equal to or supersedes its authority? Do they depend only on a special leader or leaders to interpret the Bible for them?
2. Does the movement clearly affirm basic historic Christian teachings? What do its leaders believe and teach about the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, and the plan of salvation?
3. What is the movement’s attitude toward other Bible-believing, Christian groups? Do its leaders view them with any degree of suspicion or rejection? Do they insist you must be a member of their group to be assured of salvation? Also, does the movement regard people who leave or wish to leave the organization with good will or scorn?
4. How does the movement explain the way of salvation? Do its leaders affirm salvation by grace through Christ alone, or is it by works, church membership, or obedience to the group’s leaders?
The answers to the above questions can help sincere Christians evaluate the truth and motives of most religious movements. In any case, Christians should develop cautious relationships with adherents of religions they do not understand.
Major Cults and Sects in North America
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society)
Oneness Pentecostalism (United Pentecostal Church, et. al.)
Unitarian Universalist Association
Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints)
Unity School of Christianity
International Church of Christ
The Way International
Church of Scientology International
Nation of Islam
© 2011 Tal Davis