Just last week, while I was sharing with my congregation about this world not being our home, I made mention that one of our presidential candidates was a member of a cult. This caused a stir with a few people that did not understand what the definition of a cult was. Most of us think that a cult is something like what happened with Jim Jones and the People’s Church in Guyana where they drink poisoned kool-aid and do weird things.
Then just today on our Facebook Page I had a guy get mad at me when he asked me what I thought about a group that was proclaiming to know secrets hidden for the last 2000 years and a new gospel had been given by an angelic visitation. Needless to say, I told him it was a cult.
Because of this, I thought it might be helpful to Christians to give them what is a biblical definition of a cult. In no way, shape, or form am I trying to be hurtful or divisive when explaining this topic. I know that there are many good people who are part of groups that fit the biblical definition of a cult. It is not about their goodness. It is about whether or not their group fits within orthodox Christianity.
What is a cult?
In order to understand what is a cult and what is not, you need to understand the difference between a non-Christian world religion and a religion that is trying to pass itself off as Christian. There are 5 major world religions. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism with many smaller sects that either branch off of these or have a following of less than 1%.
Non-Christian religions are not a cult. They are false religions but they do not come under the classification of a cult. A cult is a religion that tries to pass itself off as Christian but does not adhere to orthodox Christianity. In other words, they are being deceptive.
Now without going into a major doctoral thesis on what makes a religious group a cult, I will try to give you 2 major things that you can look at as an ordinary believer in Jesus to be able to tell if a religious group is a cult or if they are part of what most people would agree is normal Christianity.
A cult uses extra-biblical material as scripture.
One of the best ways to tell if a group is a cult is to see if they use writings other than the Bible as scripture or just as authoritative as scripture to come to their beliefs. Many groups will claim that these were given to special people by angels or God himself. This is why I define the Mormon’s as a cult. They use the book of Mormon as scripture. They claim it was given to Joseph Smith by an angel. They use it to come by their beliefs that are contrary to normal Christian doctrine. The book of Galatians makes it very clear that when a group does this, they are in hot water with God.
8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.
So you cannot be an orthodox Christian (someone within the norms of Christianity) and use extra-biblical material as scripture. You also cannot give that extra-biblical material the same authority or weight as scripture. This is why I was able to tell immediately that the group that the guy on our Facebook page was trying to promote was a cult.
A cult will change who Jesus was.
In some way, shape or form, a cult will change who Jesus really was. They will either make Him an angel like the Jehovah’s witnesses do, or they will make him equal with Satan as the Mormon’s do. They will downplay in some way His divinity. They will teach that Jesus did not pay the price for your salvation but will add other requirements in order to really be saved. You either have to partake in a certain ceremony, or believe exactly as everyone else, or maintain good standing in their group in order to maintain your salvation.
They always change who Jesus was and what He accomplished here on earth. They will downplay the cross and the sacrifice on the cross. They will change the fact that His blood was shed for us. It will always be Jesus + them = salvation.
A cult will change the Bible.
A cult will either try to change what the Bible says by rewriting the scriptures that do not agree with their beliefs, or they will claim that the Bible has errors in it that their new doctrines fix. The God of the Bible is big enough to make sure that it survived the translation process and the being passed down over the years. If He is not big enough, then He is not really God.
So when you hear a person say that the Bible is the word of God “where it is translated correctly” you are hearing a cult. When you hear a group say that “the Bible really didn’t say that”, check your facts and do your research. Check the widely accepted translations of the Bible. Use the KJV and the NKJV, the NIV and the NLT. Do not use a groups special translation of the Bible. Use one that scholars from many different Christian denominations worked on together. You will get a solid translation that way.
5 major beliefs of normal Christianity
- The Trinity. Christians believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
- The authority of the Bible. Christians believe that the Bible is the word of God.
- The plan of salvation. Christians believe that all men are sinners that need a savior. Jesus paid the price for our salvation on the cross and that we receive that salvation by faith in Him.
- The return of Christ. Christian believe that Jesus will return.
- Heaven and Hell. Christians believe that those who have believed in Jesus will go to heaven and those that haven’t will go to hell.
I know that this is simplified and that many could pick it apart. I was not trying to do a doctoral thesis. I was trying to make the basics understandable to those that may not understand what is the difference between a normal Christian belief or group and those that are cults. I hope that now you have a better understanding of what is the definition of a cult.