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Marks of a Cult
[See also our report on David Breese's book, The Marks of a Cult.]
These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:8-9)
Because false Christians today worship God in vain and follow the doctrines of men, they foolishly set up standards that are not Biblical, and find fault where none is to be found (see below). It is indeed true that any religious organization that consistently and unrepentantly teaches and/or practices against the word of God should be identified as spurious, a "cult" if you will. But, some of the ways in which the modern "Christian" world judges and marks a cult is actually "cultic" itself (i.e. against the word of God).
I. Defining A Cult
In their very definition of a cult, false Christians often set a standard that is unbiblical and man-made. Mike Oppenheimer of Let Us Reason Ministries exemplifies this common error. In his "Eight Marks Of Organized Heresy" he writes,
A THEOLOGICAL DEFINITION OF "CULT" MUST BE BASED ON A STANDARD OF CHRISTIAN ORTHODOXY. USING THE BIBLE'S TEACHING AS A FOCAL POINT. A CULT IS ANY RELIGIOUS GROUP THAT CLAIMS TO BE CHRISTIAN (OR MAY NOT BE) IS DISTINCT AND HAS DOCTRINES AND PRACTICES THAT CONTRADICT THOSE OF THE SCRIPTURES AS INTERPRETED BY ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY. THOSE THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN UPHELD IN HISTORIC CHRISTIANITY. (www.letusreason.org/Cults1.htm, hard copy on file, as it is for all references in this report)
Note Oppenheimer's qualifier, "AS INTERPRETED BY ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY." This is his standard. He should leave it to "THE BIBLE'S TEACHING" period! (Colossians 2:8-10; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 John 9) Instead he has placed his trust in "ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY." And how does he define "ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY"? He describes it as "HISTORIC CHRISTIANITY," which for the most part is Catholic (see our report on the early church fathers). Catholicism has a great deal of false doctrine in it. Historical Protestantism is likewise not without serious error (e.g. Spurgeon).
Paul warned against putting our faith in historical traditions in Colossians 2:8-9.
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
Paul warns here of the "tradition of men." Oppenheimer's "SCRIPTURES AS INTERPRETED BY ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY" is exactly that, the tradition of men. The Scriptures are of no "private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20). The standard is not, "AS INTERPRETED BY." The standard is the Scriptures themselves as interpreted by no one. They say what they mean and they mean what they say (John 10:34-36; 2 Peter 1:20). Every single man, woman, and child will be judged, not by "orthodox Christianity," or by any certain historical interpretation, but rather by the living word of God (John 12:48; Hebrews 4:12-13).
In this same article, Oppenheimer describes what he considers to be true Christian churches with these words:
ALL CHRISTIAN CHURCHES WILL RECOGNIZE OTHERS THAT HOLD THE SAME CORE TEACHINGS THAT THEY DO, THAT WERE ALWAYS PART OF THE HISTORIC CHRISTIAN FAITH.
THE CORE BELIEFS UNITE ONE IN CHRIST AS THERE IS A CERTAIN CRITERIA FOR BIBLICAL DOCTRINE. THIS HAS BEEN HELD SINCE THE INCEPTION OF THE SCRIPTURES WRITTEN BY THE APOSTLES AND TAUGHT BY THE CHURCH. (bold added)
You can not find this concept/doctrine in the apostles writings (Proverbs 30:5-6), but you can find it in today's writings.
In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity. (Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity In Crisis, copyright 1993, p. 47)
This "core beliefs" doctrine (i.e. essentials) is the very sandy foundation (Matthew 7:24-27) of most, if not all, of false Christianity today (e.g. see MacArthur's Damning Doctrine, under III. Fundamentals).
II. No Diversity
Common among false Christians is the white-washing of ecumenism. Some may not dare use the word, but they nonetheless propagate ecumenical thinking (which, by the way, leads to hell, 2 Thessalonians 2:10). David Breese is one example of this. In his book, The Marks of a Cult, The Warning Signs of False Teachings, Breese compares cult-like behavior with supposedly "true Christianity."
The contrast of true Christianity is marked. The Bible teaches that there is one Savior, Jesus Christ, and one way of salvation, faith in His finished work on the cross. Within that wonderful circle of faith, however, the Scripture allows for a great diversity of views. (p. 149, italics added)
Breese speaks in the context of doctrine, using Herbert Armstrong and Jehovah's Witnesses as examples (p. 150-151). Thus, when Breese speaks of "a great diversity of views" he is speaking of doctrinal or "religious points of view" (p. 151) claiming cults do not have this diversity, but true Christianity does. In this, Breese lies against the truth (John 14:6).
True Christianity does not allow for any diversity in doctrine (Matthew 4:4; 7:21, 24-27; John 8:47; Hebrews 4:12-13; 2 John 9; 1 John 4:6; Revelation 22:14-15). True Christians live and speak thus:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; see also 1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3-5)
For all true Christians the war is over the truth of the word of God, all of it (Matthew 4:4; 2 Timothy 4:7). They contend (Jude 3) for the faith, which includes Genesis 1:1 and continues all the way through Revelation 22:21. "Captivity to the obedience of Christ" means obedience to Scripture (Hebrews 4:12-13), for Christ is Scripture (John 1:1; Galatians 3:8; Revelation 19:13). The true Christian does not allow for a great diversity of views, but on the contrary he casts down every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). He casts down everything that is not in agreement with God's word, and hates it (Psalm 119:104, 120, 128, 163). Truly, the sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:7) are intolerant of other beliefs (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; 1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3-5). [For more detail see our articles Unity of the Saints and You Think You're Saved, But You're Not!]
III. "The Only True Church Syndrome"
Another common error within the false Christian world is the blasphemy of "The Only True Church" (2 Peter 2:2). Rick Miesel of Biblical Discernment Ministries follows this evil in his fourteen "Marks of a Cult." Miesel notes at the end of his article that he "adapted" his material from other sources. So, he admits he is not alone in this perspective. For number 6 he writes,
6. Exclusivity from/Denunciation of Other Groups: Each cult group, regardless of what other doctrines are taught, will all have this one common idea -- "The Only True Church Syndrome." The members of each specific organization have been taught that their church, organization, or community, is the only true group and that all other groups are false. (www.rapidnet.com/~jbeard/bdm/Cults/marksof.htm)
Miesel makes this statement in the context of cults like Mormonism. Therefore, he writes not of a specific physically located group, since Mormons have churches worldwide. Miesel is speaking of a group or organization that is specific in its doctrinal beliefs (as Mormons are), and in their specific doctrinal beliefs, they see "all other groups" (i.e. all who do not believe like them) as false.
This being the case, Miesel's "mark" flies in the face of Jesus Christ and His church. Why? Because there is only one true church and "The Only True Church" does have specific doctrinal beliefs, and it is the entirety (Psalm 119:160) of the word of God (Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21). Worldwide, anyone who is following Christ would have "The Only True Church Syndrome," because they would be a part of the only true church. For there is only one true church and it is Christ's church (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4-6).
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:6)
There is no other way, no other truth, no other life, no other body (i.e. church, 1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:12-13, 27; Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:4; 5:30; Colossians 3:15) other than Jesus Christ. All who follow Christ follow "The Only Way" (Acts 4:12) and are in "The Only True Church." There is one faith (Ephesians 4:5) and this faith is in the living word of God (John 1:1, 14; 3:16, 36; Hebrews 4:12-13; Revelation 19:13), as Jesus said,
He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. (John 14:21)
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words. (John 14:23-24)
Those who love Christ, believe and obey His word (i.e. the Bible). Those who do not love Christ are cursed (Psalm 119:21; 1 Corinthians 16:22) and do not obey His word. This is "The Only True Church Syndrome," and it is the truth, the only truth that leads to heaven (Matthew 7:13-14, 24-27; John 3:16). Any other way or group is false (Isaiah 8:20; Acts 4:12). Yet, Miesel and others, like Al Dager, call this a mark or an "indicator" of a cult!
Al Dager, of Media Spotlight, in his article, "Are You In A Cult?", writes in his questionnaire for one of the "indicators of cultic activity" that they,
Teach that all other Christian churches or denominations are under Satan's control? ("Are You In A Cult?" Media Spotlight, P. O. Box 290, Redmond, WA 98073)
If the church is not a part of "The Only True Church", they are under Satan's control (1 John 4:5-6; 5:18-19)! To teach otherwise is ecumenical and not believing the Word of God (Acts 4:12; Ephesians 4:4-5; 1 John 4:6; etc.).
In Miesel's faulty "mark" number 6 he also states (immediately after the above quote),
The group's leaders will explain that it is impossible to serve God without being a member of the specific group.
This is exactly what the word of God explains (John 15:5), and any leader in the true church would explain this. Yet, according to Miesel, this would mark him as a cult leader!
Yet, the word of God clearly teaches that anyone who is not a part of the body of Christ, "The Only True Church," will certainly go to hell (Acts 4:12), as Revelation 21:8 says the unbelieving, their part will be "in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."
Miesel's mark #6 continues with these words:
Moreover, when the cult leader announces himself as the true "Messiah," all others are declared to be dishonest, deceitful, and deluded, and must be put down; alternative views are denounced as being satanic and corrupt.
The Lord Jesus Christ declared all others to be dishonest, deceitful, deluded, and put them down and denounced any alternative views as satanic and corrupt. Jesus said to the Jews, "You are of your father the devil" (John 8:44), because they did not believe His teaching (John 8:45-47). As stated above (John 14:21, 23-24), Jesus drew the line between the pure and the corrupt simply on whether someone follows His words, or instead, has alternative views. Moreover, Jesus put down and declared all others to be dishonest, deceitful, and deluded, saying,
All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers. (John 10:8)
Miesel's mark #6 continues with,
Persecution is welcomed, and even glorified in, as "evidence" that they are being persecuted for righteousness sake.
This is exactly the perspective of those who are truly saved and know their Bible. Because Scripture tells all those who are in "The Only True Church" that the persecution they receive from their adversaries is "proof" of their enemies lost condition ("perdition") and, at the same time, it proves that they themselves are saved (Philippians 1:28). It is evidence that they are being persecuted for righteousness sake. Jesus said,
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12; see also Luke 6:22-23)
It is a Biblical concept to welcome persecution (Philippians 3:10), glorify in it (Luke 6:23), and see it as evidence that you are being persecuted for righteousness sake (Philippians 1:27-28). It is not a mark of a cult (i.e. an organization that is against the word of God). But, for those who blaspheme the way of truth (2 Peter 2), it is (as evidenced here).
Miesel's folly continues:
Thus, if a member decides to leave the group, they have been told that they are not simply leaving an organization, but rather they are leaving God and His only true organization. Hence, for a member of a cult who has been in a group for any length of time, the action of leaving the group is much more difficult than what most Christians understand. To leave the group is, in the minds of the cult member, tantamount to leaving God.
This "leaving," of course, is not speaking of simply moving to another city or state. As already noted, Miesel speaks in the context of Mormonism as an example of a cult. Thus, this "leaving" has to do with "leaving" or departing from the particular faith, that is, the particular theological belief of the group. If the group (i.e. church) is in the truth (John 14:6), then this is tantamount to leaving the Truth (John 14:6). This is tantamount to leaving God.
To leave "The Only True Church," the body of Christ, is to leave God . "For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones" (Ephesians 5:30). You leave the members of His body, you leave His body and thus you leave Him (1 John 2:18-19). Therefore, Miesel marks the way of truth (2 Peter 2:2) as the way of evil (Isaiah 5:20).
IV. "The Only Ones Right"
John Morehead, editor of The Watchman Expositor, in his article "What is a cult?" gives one characterization for a cult stating,
3. Exclusivistic: only the group has "the truth," . . . (www.doubters.net/cult.htm)
Morehead writes in the context of cults like Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science and others. The "group" is a theological group not specific in locale. Thus, Morehead's "characteristic" blasphemes the way of truth (2 Peter 2:2), because this is the way of truth. Those who follow Christ are the only group that has the truth, because they follow the Truth (John 14:6). All who follow Christ, no matter where they are located, speak thus:
We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6)
This very emphatically describes the only group of people who have the truth. If you do not "hear" (i.e. agree with, e.g. 2 Timothy 2:24-26) true Christians as they speak the truth of the word of God, the spirit of error is upon you (1 John 4:6; Ephesians 2:2), and you do not have the truth, as Jesus said to the Jews,
He who is of God hears God's words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (John 8:47)
The group will have an ELITIST view of itself in relation to others, and a UNIQUE CAUSE. e.i. THEY ARE THE ONLY ONES RIGHT - everyone else is wrong. THEY ARE THE ONLY ONES DOING GOD'S WILL - everyone else is in apostasy. (www.caic.org.au/general/idencult.htm, emphasis in original)
People who believe the Bible do not believe such is an identifying mark of a cult. Instead, they believe exactly what this site marks as cultic. Followers of Christ have an "ELITIST" view of themselves in relation to others, as the Psalmist wrote,
You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Your precepts. (Psalm 119:98-100; see also Proverbs 16:32; 19:1; 28:6; Ecclesiastes 4:13; 7:8)
Indeed, true Christians know that their goodness is nothing apart from Him (Psalm 16:2), but they also know they have a unique cause, because they follow the unique One (Job 23:13) and are strangers on the earth (Psalm 39:12; 119:19; Hebrews 11:13). True Christians, as they speak the word of God, "ARE THE ONLY ONES RIGHT - everyone else is wrong" (1 John 4:6). "Everyone else" is caught in the snare of the devil (2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19; Revelation 12:9). True Christians are "THE ONLY ONES DOING GOD'S WILL" (Matthew 7:21), because the only ones who go to heaven are those who do God's will, as Jesus said;
Not everyone who says to Me "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:21; see also John 6:29, 40)
Moreover, true Christians believe everyone else is "in apostasy" (1 Timothy 4:1-3; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 4:3; 2 Peter 2:2; 1 John 4:6). 2 Timothy 3:15 calls the church of God, "the pillar and ground of the truth." Being saved is coming to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), and escaping the snare of the devil (Acts 26:18; 2 Timothy 2:26).
V. "Us against the world" attitude
Followers of Jesus Christ are following the only way, the only truth, and the only life (John 14:6) and say,
We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one. (1 John 5:19)
But those under the sway of the wicked one, like the Baptist minister Stephen Shoemaker, say,
Cult religion does not see the world as the good creation of God. The world is under the spell of the devil. It is unalterably corrupt. The world will always be against the true and righteous cult. Such a view aids and abets paranoid thinking. The cult sees itself as children of light living in the midst of children of darkness (everybody else). (www.namb.net/helplink/TH-CULT.asp)
Indeed, the physical world is certainly the good creation of God, but it is not cultic to believe the world is under the spell of the devil. Actually, this is exactly what Scripture teaches (1 John 5:19). Revelation 12:9 says that Satan "deceives the whole world," and 2 Corinthians 4:4 says "the god of this age" has blinded the minds of the unbelieving. The world is certainly under the "spell" of the devil, and those who believe God's word believe this.
They also believe it is "unalterably corrupt" (Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 1:15; 7:13; Romans 8:20-21). "The world will always be against the true and righteous" people of God (Psalm 112:10; Proverbs 29:27; John 15:18-19; 1 John 3:13). Children of light do indeed live "in the midst of children of darkness (everybody else)" (Acts 26:18; Colossians 1:13).
That's why children of darkness, like Larry Ingram, who has an "Online Guide to the Major Cults," blaspheme (2 Peter 2:2) children of light by saying things like an,
"Us against the world" attitude (www.serve.com/larryi/charact.htm, web site no longer available, hard copy on file)
is a cultic characteristic. Cults may very well have this perspective, but those who are in Christ rightly have this attitude (Proverbs 29:27). The world hates Christ and it hates those who follow Him, as Jesus said,
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19; see also 1 John 3:13)
John Morehead rebuffs such truth and writes for a "cultic characteristic,"
Oppositional: values, beliefs or practices at variance with the dominant culture or tradition. (www.doubters.net/cult.htm)
Morehead writes as cultic what God commands every believer to live.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. (Colossians 3:2)
A true believer would not be at odds with all (e.g. work, 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12) that is valued, believed, or practiced in the world (the dominant culture). But, he would certainly be described as Morehead depicts one caught in a cult, because much that is in the dominant culture is in opposition to the values, beliefs, and practices of godliness (Romans 1:18-32; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 1 John 2:15-17).
Reachout Trust, a "Christian" cult outreach ministry in England, writes as their second mark of a cult (in the context of "any given religious organisation"),
The group will place a tremendous emphasis on "doing good works". Members of the group may appear obsessed with doing whatever the group tells them to do, for instance always being at meetings. (www.reachouttrust.org/regulars/articles/cult/winbck.htm, web link no longer available, hard copy on file)
Submitting to one another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:21), fervently loving each other (1 Peter 1:22), not forsaking the assembly, but rather zealously stirring up love and good deeds more and more (Hebrews 10:24-25), may all appear to the false Christian as an obsession. Scripture calls it wisdom (Job 28:28; Ephesians 5:15-17).
Reachout Trust blasphemes the way of truth (2 Peter 2:2), because the way of truth does "place a tremendous emphasis on 'doing good works'" (Acts 9:36; 1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10; 6:18; Titus 2:7; 3:14; 1 Peter 2:12) Jesus said,
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
Believers have been created for good works (Ephesians 2:10). Jesus died,
gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. (Titus 2:14)
Zeal for the Lord places a tremendous emphasis on doing good works, and the awesome salvation of God and His saving grace are to be affirmed constantly (Titus 3:4-7), that,
those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men. (Titus 3:8)
Some think otherwise, those who walk in the wisdom of this age and according to the prince of the power of the air (1 Corinthians 3:19; Ephesians 2:2), as they mark as cultic that which is good. [For more on works, see Salvation Is Not By Works.]
The Lutheran site, thelutheran.org, gives "9 characteristics of cults or destructive religious groups." The ninth characteristic this Lutheran site gives for a characteristic of a cult is,
A cult's ultimate goal is to remake members in the image of its leader. (www.thelutheran.org/9608/page42a.html)
That's one of God's ultimate goals.
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. (Romans 8:29)
Christ is our leader and we "are being transformed into the same image" (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Moreover, Hebrews 13:7 says,
Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow.
Why should we follow their faith? Because they are imitating Christ, as Paul wrote,
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1; see also Galatians 2:20)
It is not a cultic characteristic to have as an ultimate goal to remake members in the image of its leader. This is the goal and reality of those who follow Christ (Colossians 3:9-10), and any godly leader could say and should be able to say as Paul, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ."
If you walk in truth, you will be blasphemed, because you walk in the way that is blasphemed (2 Peter 2:2). You'll be seen as a deceiver, yet you'll be true (2 Corinthians 6:8). You will be a part of that sect that "is spoken against everywhere" (Acts 28:22). You will be following Jesus Christ who heads up THE ONLY WAY (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), and for some, this marks a cult; thus they unwittingly (2 Timothy 3:13) mark the Lord Jesus Christ as a cult leader. Truly, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelieving,
lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. (2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9)
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