The Idol of Cultism:
Another Jesus

Our third grouping of hard cases involves cults. A cult is a religion viewed as unorthodox by the parent group from which it splintered. In the Western world, the cults we are interested in broke from the religions based on biblical revelation. Cults have spunoff from Judeo-Christianity from the beginning: The Old Testament is a history of Israel's turning to follow pagan gods under the leading of false prophets. Moses had to contend with the "strange fire" of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1, KJV).

When Jeremiah lamented over the teaching of false prophets, God said:

"The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart." Jeremiah 14:14

One of the primary messages of the New Testament epistles is warning against heresy; nevertheless, down through the centuries come the bearers of strange fire. Though their messages vary widely, they contain many similarities. Those become apparent In an overview of cult groups.

• On April 14, in 216 AD., a twelve-year-old Persian boy living in southern Babylonia claimed that an angel appeared to him in the yard behind his home. The boy, Mani, had been raised in a legalistic Christian sect known in those days as the "Baptists." Mani said the angel told him God would restore the One True Church through him. Manicheanism lasted five hundred years and spread throughout the Roman Empire, teaching a legalistic system of personal righteousness, adding new "scripture," sending missionaries out two by two to teach secret temple ceremonies. Augustine (who became St. Augustine) was a member of the Manicheans for ten years until he was converted.

• In 610 AD., in a cave outside Mecca, Muhammed also received a visitation from an angel, later identified as Gabriel. Gabriel supposedly said God would restore true religion through Muhammed. Muhammed had been raised in a pagan society, but in travels to Syria he was deeply affected by the Jews and Christians he encountered. Thus, Islam grew out of the Bible stories Muhammed heard about Abraham. Muhammed decided Abraham's son Ishmael (whom Bible students agree is the father of Arabs) was Abraham's legitimate heir rather than Isaac.

• During the Middle Ages, the heavy authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church firmly resisted attempts to establish breakaway Christian groups, often killing the leaders in an attempt to resist heresy. After the Protestant Reformation, when religious liberty began to be established as a principle of government in the Western world, a multitude of new Christian groups formed. In America, quasi-Christian cults began in the wake of the Second Great Awakening (1787—1825) following the Revolutionary War.

• In 1820 Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, recounted an angelic appearance reminiscent of both Mani and Muhammed. His story (which evolved greatly during the following 25 years) arose out of his family's disenchantment with existing Christianity and his fascination with the occult. (See my book Have You Witnessed to a Mormon LateIy.? chapter 3.)

• Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, was born in 1821 and raised in a stern Calvinistic home. From an early age she was troubled with the idea that God would eternally punish sinners. When in middle age she came into contact with Phineus T. Quimby's teaching, "The Science of the Christ," she began a study that ultimately produced her new denomination.

• Charles and Myrtle Fillmore were also influenced by Quimby, founding the Unity School of Christianity in 1895. The Fillmores, Eddy and Quimby himself all drew upon what has come to be called "New Thought" to round out their theologies.

New Thought was a popularism of an earlier movement throughout New England, sometimes called New England Transcendentalism. The New England Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, gave voice to the liberalism that began in the Enlightenment. In New England a terrible war was waged between biblical Christianity and the new Christian/social/psychological liberalism infiltrating the American Church as deism died out. In 1819 William Ellery Channing began another offshoot movement known as Unitarianism.

New England in the nineteenth century was a hotbed of religious experimentation. Orthodox churchmen spoke of New England as "the psychic highway." Presbyterian evangelist Charles Finney referred to the area as the "burnt-over district." Such movements as Mormonism, Shakerism, spiritualism and the sexual communism of the Oneida Community were birthed there.

• Like Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Taze Russell (1852— 1916) was raised in a Christian home but disliked the idea of eternal punishment. In 1870 Russell attended an Adventists meeting in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and was fascinated with the idea of Christ's imminent return. As Russell pursued his preaching and teaching, his doctrinal positions became increasingly distinctive, until he declared it was impossible to understand the Bible without his organization's—Jehovah's Witnesses'—Watchtower publications.

Cults continue to proliferate. Sun Myung Moon founded the Unification Church and Victor Paul Wierwille started The Way International in response to visions. Herbert W. Armstrong was convinced he had the whole truth for the whole Church when he founded The Worldwide Church of God. Some of these sects fell apart quickly: David Berg's Children of God, once thought to be the beginning of a major cult, is headed for a fizzle. Many other smaller groups flourish for a season before they sink into history.

When Is a Cultist Not a Cultist?

Cults are difficult to deal with, precisely because they have their roots in the Church. The cult terminology is often tricky. They use the Church's words for their theological ideas but assign their own meanings to them.

It is always a mistake to assume we know precisely what a person believes because he is a member of a particular group. While we can suspect he believes certain things, we need to listen carefully. We are concerned with truth and doctrinal purity, not with labels.

Sometimes Occultists Masquerade as Cultists

Sometimes the dividing line between cults and the occult is thin. Mormonism is a good example. Mormonism is normally thought of as a quasi-Christian cult. Indeed, Mormons use the King James Version of the Bible, refer to the atonement of Christ, baptize, take a form of Communion, and even say they believe in the Trinity (closer examination demonstrates they do not).

But at the heart of Mormonism is the belief that people may eventually become gods by observing Mormon law. This belief stems from Joseph Smith's overt occult activity. Smith was deeply rooted in the occult. Likewise, Mary Baker Eddy, though she used Christian terms, basically started an occult group, not a cult group. The occult influence of the New England Transcendentalists is felt in these groups.

Many Latter-day Saints are deeply involved in the occult. Numerous Mormon chiropractors and naturopaths are rooted in unscientific "holistic" healing practices. The occult Mormon Temple ceremonies create an openness to the spirit world in ways condemned by the Bible. One Mormon prophet, for example, said all the founding fathers of the United States "visited" him in the St. George Temple in Utah. When I am talking with a Mormon who is focused upon becoming a god, I treat him as an occultist. (I furnished examples of that in the section on the occult.)

Sometimes Secularists Masquerade as Cultists

Many Mormons, on the other hand, are secularists. They become Mormons because Mormonism teaches decent human values and strives to maintain family unity. I call these people liberal Mormons. They remind me of former Mormon church historian Leonard J. Arrington who, writing in a liberal Mormon journal, said he was not "overly concerned" with the reality of Joseph Smith's visions. He said he was prepared to accept Mormon, Christian and Hebrew Scripture stories as "historical, metaphorical, or symbolical." To demonstrate his broadmindedness Arrington quoted an Italian proverb: "Whether it is literally true or not, it's still true."

So, we cannot approach all cultists in precisely the same way.

The Problem of "Cultishness"

You can't judge a book by its cover. It's easy to assume people have come to saving knowledge of Christ because they claim to be Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal or Methodist.

The very concept of wolves in sheeps' clothing (Matthew 7:15) speaks to the idea of "cultishness." Cultishness is the no man's land between orthodox Christianity and clearly identifiable cults. Here Christian individuals, congregations or denominations subscribe to doctrinal positions that either are harmful or lead to harmful consequences.

I believe this witnessing area is the most difficult for Christians. I know it is for me. I certainly do not want to be narrow or bigoted. I do not want to stain a brother's reputation. I do not want to call unclean that which God has called clean (Acts 10:15). I move with fear and trembling in this area.

A friend used to say the first marks of the cults would be found in "a day, a diet or a doctrine." He meant we could look for cultishness in teachings that focused on peripheral issues until the central message about Christ was damaged. Taking a portion of Scripture and emphasizing it to distortion is sometimes called "majoring on minors." I believe this is the essence of Paul's warning to us:

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. . . . Why . . . .do you subject yourselves to regulations—"Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle". . . ? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom. . . .but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2:16—17, 20—21, 23
Bad doctrine produces tainted fruit. A common manifestation of this is seen in people who have genuine experiences with Christ, yet receive unorthodox teaching. While it may not separate them from Christ, it shows up in the second generation. Everyone is familiar with stories of legalistic or "hard" Christians who manage to destroy their children's chances for conversion.

Does our responsibility as evangelists stop as soon as we are convinced someone is saved? I think not. In the Great Commission we are told to make disciples of all the nations. Our work is not done when someone says the sinner's prayer. Paul said he was "innocent of the blood, of all men" because he had "not shunned to declare. . . .the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26—27).

I am asked often about groups that seem to be on the fringes of the Church. The real nature of heresy is that it divides the Church. When a group majors on a minor point so that it becomes a test of faith, it is in danger of heresy.

An example of this kind of splitting has been seen among the Seventh-Day Adventists. For years this denomination separated itself from the rest of the Body of Christ. Likewise, the Church distanced itself from Adventists because of their legalistic insistence upon Saturday worship (sometimes even identifying Sunday worship as "the mark of the beast"), their dietary restrictions and the elevation of their prophetess Ellen G. White. Today Seventh-Day Adventists are trying to minimize the differences between themselves and evangelical churches. Many doctrinal problems, however, continue to impede full fellowship. Their legalistic approach to salvation, for instance, is problematic.

Other groups, like some of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, take a highly legalistic view of water baptism. Some independent Pentecostal churches elevate the gift of tongues as a sign of salvation. Such groups skate dangerously closely to the edge of cultism.

Another group that seems to exist in the gray edges of the larger Church is the United Pentecostal Church. I have spent hours in discussion with UPC pastors. For the most part I find them delightful brothers. They are, however, split over the biblical understanding of the nature of God. Half believe in the biblical "three-in-one" God but balk at the word Trinity. While they believe—once the terminology is sorted out— what the rest of the Church believes, they choose to call that belief "Oneness." Another half of them are clearly nonTrinitarian in doctrine as well as name. They are unitarian. I will speak to these distinctions in the next chapter.

Then there are groups that call themselves "Baptist," "Pentecostal" or "Church of Christ," but are unorthodox. Many, perhaps most, of these people are orthodox brothers and sisters in the Lord. Some, however, have allowed their particular doctrines to separate them from the Body of Christ. I remember having a dialogue with one such Church of Christ minister. I told him that I had exercised faith in Christ, repented of sin and been water-baptized by immersion. I testified to a changed life and a daily walk in fellowship with Jesus. In his eyes, however, none of that made me a Christian. He said I needed to be re baptized and to stipulate that I was being baptized in order to become a Christian, not because I was a Christian.

I must include in the gray area those who have allowed their liturgy to replace relationship. Many Protestants and Catholics have reduced Christianity to a dead formula. Then there are those we sometimes call Christian liberals. By them I mean those for whom God is far away: The blood of Jesus has lost its power, the Word of God its authority.

Cultishness is the bane of the Church. Organizations, intermediaries and formulas replace vibrant relationship with the Lord Himself. Jesus speaks of impotent churches in the book of Revelation: "You have left your first love" (2:4); "committed sexual immorality" (2:14, 20); "have a name that you are alive, but you are dead" (3:1); "are lukewarm" (3:16).

I realize that even bringing up the concept of cultishness will make some people uncomfortable. But I am motivated by the fact that doctrinal walls sag before they collapse. Unhealthy trees produce little fruit and often the fruit is unwholesome. We who truly worship the Father are required to do so both in spirit and truth (John 4:23). "The truth," Jesus said, "shall make you free" (John 8:32).

A Warning About Deception

When I do seminars I usually open the last session for questions and answers. In a small Oregon town one meeting was dominated by questions from a very nice man who was perplexed by the fact that Christians considered his church a cult. As he described his beliefs, it became apparent to the vast majority of those present that his beliefs were indeed unorthodox. Reason as we could with him, we could not break through to common ground. Yet he was so sincere!

One woman thought I had been too insistent with the man. But was I? While we cannot look into another person's heart, we should not think that everyone who appears sincere is not deceived. Aren't mentally disturbed people sincere when they report conversations they think they have had with Napoleon or George Washington? We need to remember Jesus' admonition to be "wise as serpents" while we are being "harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). What this woman did not realize was that I had already spent five hours with the man prior to the meeting. He was, in my judgment, not looking for truth at all. I believe he was completely deceived and, in some ways, dangerous to the Body of Christ. Certainly he was dangerous to those who were not grounded in their faith.

The moral of this story is that we must stay alert spiritually, not only for our own sakes, but for those who are counting on us to protect them from error. This point is underscored for me by the number of letters I receive from pastors who have lost their own children to the cults. Their failure was in being gentle but not wise.

When we encounter the cults we are dealing with dark spiritual powers. The Bible is replete with warnings about the coming of false prophets. Paul said false prophets go into great detail over things they have not really seen. They become puffed up and lose contact with God (Colossians 2:18). These kinds of false apostles are

deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness. 2 Corinthians 11:13—14

Because of the danger of false angelic messengers, Paul warned us:

If we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. Galatians 1:8—9

One Sure Mark of the Cults

The frantic message of lying spirits is that Jesus is not God. He can be a great teacher, a prophet, an ascended master, the "son" of God or even "another god." The devil knows that when individuals see the triune God clearly, they will be changed in a fundamental way (2 Corinthians 3:16—18). The devil loses his power over those who see Jesus and receive Him.

Jesus unfolded the revelation of His nature to the Jewish leaders carefully. When they finally understood the implications of His message, they killed Him because He made Him self "equal with God" (John 5:18).

Jesus told them: "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me" (John 5:39).

The religious leaders of Jesus' day could tolerate anything He said or did except His insistence that He was God. They took up stones to stone Him when He used the I AM designation for Himself. The I AM title was the name of God revealed to Moses in the desert. When Jesus told the Jews, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.' Then they took up stones to throw at Him" (John 8:58—59).

The Bible's most fundamental purpose is to reveal God. The Old Testament prepared us for Christ. The New Testament records His appearance. The implications of that appearance are without comparison. As we read the Gospel of John, we see Jesus purposefully revealing Himself in progressively clearer declarations. When in John 10:30 He said, "I and My Father are one," the Jews "took up stones again to stone Him." When He asked why they were set on killing Him, they replied that it was because "You, being a Man, make Yourself God."

When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, He asked the officers sent from the chief priests and Pharisees, "Whom are you seeking?" They replied, "Jesus of Nazareth." He said, "I am He." At that response, the troops were thrown to the ground (John 18:4—6).

Finally, Jesus was brought before the Jewish ruling Sanhedrin, led by Caiaphas, the high priest. A false witness testified that Jesus claimed He could rebuild the Temple of Solomon in three days. Caiaphas asked Jesus if He was the Christ. Jesus said, "I am" (Mark 14:62).

Caiaphas was outraged by this response: "The high priest tore his clothes, saying, 'He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy!" (Matthew 26:65).

The cults, likewise, offer a Jesus who is not God. Mormonism teaches that Jesus is "another" god; Jehovah's Witnesses teach that Jesus is the "first creation of God"; Sun Myung Moon teaches that Jesus is one manifestation of Christ (who failed fully to save mankind); and Victor Paul Wierwille wrote—as a foundation for The Way International—the book Jesus Christ Is Not God.

The cults want to retain the title Christian. In every case they claim to be the real Christians. Everyone else has de parted from the truth. They alone are the way back to God. Since they attack the deity of Christ, it is our responsibility to defend His deity. The purpose of the next chapter is to provide you with the biblical information to do that.