The Six Marks of a Cult

People claim to have “escaped” a Korean church in Fiji — because it is a “cult.” I would agree that any group you feel you must “escape” is certainly cult-like. But what does the word “cult” really mean? It can refer to any harmless devotion to a cause or person (as in a devotion to a sports team or rock band), but I would use the word to describe a religion that is secretive, exclusive, and authoritative.

In my lifetime, I have seen several examples of cults — some were so dangerous people tried to escape, and others were a bit more benign. Who can forget Jim Jones and his People’s Temple? Some 800 people committed mass suicide on his orders. How about the Heaven’s Gate cult in which 39 members committed suicide 1997 in order to reach a spacecraft they thought was the Comet Hale-Bopp? The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo murdered 12 people in a Tokyo train station with sarin gas in 1995.

Other groups are not crazy or suicidal, make great neighbors, but seem to pop up on your doorstep at the least convenient moment on a Saturday afternoon.

Jesus warned us to be on the lookout for false teachers and false belief systems that would rob us of our freedom and joy (Mark 13:21-22). Does the Bible give us any guidance on how to spot false teachers and false religions? These six marks should help Christians identify a cult when we see one.

1. A false Jesus.

Jesus is the center of every spiritual issue. Who is He, what did He come to do, and what will you do with Him? Biblical Christianity has always affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth was a real man in history, but He was (and is) much more than a man. He is God.

The apostles affirmed this in numerous places (John 1:1-3; 20:28; Colossians 1:15-17; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1) and Jesus plainly claimed to be God (Matthew 12:8; 22:43-45; Mark 14:61-62 with Daniel 7:13-14; John 5:17-18; 8:58; 10:30). Jesus is God, and — at the same time — virgin-born sinless man. The Bible tells us that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus (John 1:14; Luke 1:26-38) and that today He is physically resurrected in a glorified body (Luke 24:36-42).

False teachers generally try to diminish His deity. Muslims claim Jesus was a great prophet. Mormons claim He is a god, the progeny of God the Father’s sexual relations with Mary, and thus a created being. Jehovah’s Witnesses say Jesus was Michael the archangel, merely a man while He was on earth, and today is “resurrected” as a mighty spirit-creature.

Jesus is indeed a man, but not just a man. He is our Prophet, Priest, and King, more so than any mere human. Jesus is the everlasting God, one in equality with God the Father and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14), and the whole world will one day give an account to Him (Philippians 2:1-10; Revelation 19:11-19).

2. A false gospel.

Equally important to the question of Jesus’ identity is the question of what He came to accomplish. A false belief system will tell you that Jesus was merely a great example who died as a martyr. Or they might say that Jesus, being a great prophet, was not crucified at all but was taken up into heaven. I have heard that Jesus was just another great “avatar” or guru who had found “enlightenment” and shows us the way to enlightenment.

No. Jesus was not looking for enlightenment. He said He was (and still is) THE light of the world (John 8:12). He plainly taught that His death was a ransom to pay for the sins of mankind (Matthew 20:28). The Bible says that His Resurrection is what guarantees eternal life to all who will believe in Him (Romans 5:10-11; 10:9). The testimony of the entire New Testament is that the promise of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 was fulfilled in the vicarious death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.

A false gospel also tells us that somehow mankind merits the favor of God. We hear this all the time in our daily conversations when people say they “hope” they “might” make it to heaven. In other words, they are trusting in their own goodness or ability or sincerity or good deeds or attempts.

The Bible tells us that no one can ever merit the favor of God (Romans 3:10-18, 23). We are all guilty and under the just wrath of God (John 3:36; Romans 6:23). Christ came to actually secure the salvation of all who would believe in Him (John 5:24; Romans 5:1, 6-11). True faith is a repentant faith. All who repentantly put their trust in this sinless, crucified, resurrected God-man Jesus, have everlasting life (Acts 17:30, Ephesians 2:8-9).

3. A false Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul warned believers in 2 Corinthians 11:4 about people who would try to lead them astray by proclaiming “another Jesus than the one we proclaimed … a different spirit from the one you received, or … a different gospel from the one you accepted.” Paul talks about a different spirit. There is a counterfeit Holy Spirit.

The real Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Triune God, and is called God (Acts 5: 3-4). He convicts, illumines, guides, and baptizes believers in the Body of Christ, the Church. The moment we believe, He seals us into Christ, and permanently indwells us and empowers us to live a holy life (John 16:8-11; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Contrast this orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit with the teachings of Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mormons teach that the Holy Spirit is a “personage of spirit” but not fully God, equal with the Father and Son. The JWs teach that the Holy Spirit is not a person at all, but rather Jehovah’s active force, similar to a radar beam. I don’t know how one can grieve a radar beam, but the Apostle Paul tells us not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).

4. False miracles.

Did you know that the Bible says the devil can perform miracles? Yes, he can. Of course, the devil is merely a fallen angel, but he still has some supernatural power. Take a look at two passages: 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 and 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul warns us that Satan masquerades as an angel of light, and his ministers do also. They come preaching a false Jesus, a false spirit, a false gospel, and they disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. They put on a smooth act.

Then in 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul tells us that in the days leading up to the return of Christ, Satan will be able to deceive people with “all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing.”

So, just because you think you see some kind of “miracle,” do not think for a moment that it must be of God. The question is not whether or not someone can perform a miracle. The question is whether or not their message lines up with the message of the apostles.

Consider what the Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 1:8-9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Wow. Pretty strong words. Cult leaders may be able to wow the crowd with a supernatural “trick,” but if their message contradicts what Paul and the other apostles are preaching … then they are accursed.

5. False revelation.

False teachers are never satisfied with the Bible. They must appeal to The Watchtower magazine. They have “another testament of Jesus Christ” in the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price or Doctrine and Covenants. They have another revelation from God in the Quran.

Jesus and the apostles appealed to the Old Testament as the Word of God throughout the New Testament (Luke 4:1-12; Acts 15:15-17; Romans 3:10-18, et al). When Paul wrote 2 Timothy 3:16-17, declaring that all Scripture is God-breathed, the synoptic Gospels had already been written, as had Acts, all of Paul’s epistles, as well as James’, Jude’s, and Peter’s writings. Only the Apostle John’s writings had not been written yet.

And once John writes the book of Revelation, he finishes the book with a curse upon all who would add to this revelation from God (Revelation 22:21). We either have a complete revelation from God in the canon of the Old and New Testaments or we do not. If we do not, then we might as well have a loose-leaf Bible and start adding all these new books such as the Quran.

However, Galatians 1:8-9 stands in the way of adding new revelation to the message of the New Testament. Paul reminds us that if anyone, even an angel of heaven (Moroni? Gabriel?) gives a different gospel, then they are cursed of God. “New revelation” inevitably contradicts the message of grace revealed in the New Testament, therefore we would be wise to reject “new” messages supposedly from heaven. We have what we need in our completed Bible.

6. False morality.

False teachers and leaders of cults inevitably practice some sort of immorality. When I say immorality, I include things like adultery and other forms of sexual immorality — but more than that, too (2 Peter 2:1-3).

False teachers are con artists. You can spot them a mile away by the way they are constantly harping on money. They want your money. They promise you that your “seed faith” money will grow exponentially if you give it all to them. I have often wondered, does it work the other way around? I mean, if these televangelist-hucksters send me some money, will that make their “seed faith money” grow exponentially? My ministry is just as important as theirs, isn’t it? But no, it never works that way, does it folks?

False teachers often try to manipulate you. This may come in a variety of ways. They may tell you that only their translation of the Bible is the right one, only their “approved” books are the ones you should read, only their “approved” hairstyles, or fashion, or view of eschatology (usually a “doomsday scenario”), or music is God’s will.

In some extreme cases you are not free to disagree. You cannot question. In fact, you are not free to leave the group. You must get permission from the leadership to move, or marry, or to talk to people outside the group.

Jesus did not compel anyone to be one of His disciples. He called people to be disciples, but He did not force anyone. He and the Apostle Peter warned us about leaders who “lord it over” others (Matthew 10:42; 1 Peter 5:3). If a religious leader seems more interested in building their own personal kingdom here and now, or they are more interested in your body or your bank account, you can bet your bottom dollar he or she is a false teacher and you need to extract yourself from their ministry as quickly as possible.