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As I write about the theological characteristics of cults, I think of my own ten-year involvement in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Deliverance from the organization and salvation came when I acknowledged my spiritual condition (Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:1) and placed my faith in the Christ of the Bible (John 20:28). Assurance of eternal life was found in Him alone (1 John 5:10–13). I also am reminded of many friends who have been delivered from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults.

How many cults there are today cannot be stated precisely. It has been estimated that there could be as many as five thousand worldwide, with 150 million adherents (The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, Harvest House Publishers, 1999, p. xvii).

With these statistics, Christians certainly cannot ignore the existence of cults, and their adherents should be viewed as a significant mission field. Many persons in these groups once attended, or were members of, mainstream Christian churches.

What Is a Cult?

The term cult has different meanings. How is it used in this article? Dr. Ronald Enroth explains that “we define the word ‘cult’ to mean a group of religious people whose belief system and practices deviate significantly from and often contradict the Holy Scriptures as interpreted by orthodox, biblical Christianity and as expressed in such statements as the Apostles’ Creed” (Evangelizing the Cults, Servant Publications, 1990, p. 11).

Judgment and Scriptural Warnings

For many, the exposure of religious error is not popular and is often criticized as being negative, but Scripture is clear regarding the responsibility that Christians have. In place of the often misused, “Judge not” (Matt. 7:1 KJV) — hypocritical judgment — this portion of the Sermon on the Mount requires one to judge (Matt. 7:6,15–20). It is mandated and necessary.

The Bible often informs the reader of that which is false, a counterfeit. It warns of false christs (Matt. 24:5); false gods (Gal.4:8); false apostles and false angels (2 Cor.11:13–15; Gal.1:8–9); false spirits (1 John 4:1–3); false prophets (Matt. 7:15); false signs and wonders (Mark 13:22); false brethren (2 Cor. 11:26; 1 John 2:19), and a false gospel. Paul writes: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6–7).

One additional counterfeit — false doctrines — should be emphasized: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings [“doctrines” in the nasb] of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). For the Christian, religious systems and claims must be judged by the teachings of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Some Characteristics of Cults

While not exhaustive, a simple and often cited approach to identifying characteristics, or patterns, of cults is the use of the terminology of mathematics: add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Using these terms, what are some of the characteristics of cults? (Because of limited space, only two cults will be used to illustrate some of these traits: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, LDS), with more than 12 million members, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW), with an active membership of 6.3 million.)

Add. Are extra-biblical revelations or other books needed to understand the Bible or cited as the source of doctrine? These are often viewed as being superior to the Bible. A variation of this characteristic is that the Bible is declared to be accurate and complete, but that it can only be understood properly by the interpretations provided by the group’s leader or the organization. This is the JW view. While the Bible is recognized by LDS as one of the “standard works,” it does not contain all the inspired teachings, and it is subordinated to the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. They also affirm continuous revelation.

Subtract. Does the group devalue Jesus Christ by denying His deity (a denial of the Trinity)? He might be viewed as an angel, and while on earth a great teacher, but He is just a man. Both the LDS and JW reject the Trinity. To Mormons, the three persons of the Godhead are separate and distinct. (The Holy Ghost is a person, the Holy Spirit is the Father’s influence.) God the Father is an exalted man. Christ was the Father’s first spirit-child. There are other gods. In JW doctrine, Jesus was Jehovah’s first creation, and the Holy Spirit (JW: “holy spirit”) is God’s invisible, active force.

In contrast, the Bible records: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). When what the Scriptures say about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are studied, one finds that each is called “God” (2 Cor.1:3; John 1:1; 20:28; Heb. 1:8; Rom. 9:5; Acts 5:3–4) and each manifests the attributes of deity. Contrary to LDS doctrine, according to Scripture God has always been God (Ps. 90:2; Hab. 1:12). There are no other gods (Isa. 43:10–11; 44:6–8, 24–25; 45:5–6, 18–24). God is spirit (John 4:24).

Multiply. Does the group multiply the requirements for salvation? Is salvation that is dependent on membership in the organization and certain required rituals a denial of justification by faith? Is salvation either uncertain or merely a future thing? What does Scripture say? “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10). “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

Simply stated, in these and other Bible passages the equation is: Faith equals salvation plus works. In cultic thinking the equation is: Faith plus works equals salvation. Scripture is clear that good works are the result of God’s grace; they do not earn salvation (Gal. 5:22–25).

Divide. Does the organization claim to be the only one that has the truth? Does it claim it is God’s sole channel or only true church? As a result, are all other religious organizations to be rejected as false? If a person leaves the group is salvation lost? LDS members believe they belong to “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1:30). JW believe that since 1919 their organization has served as Jehovah’s “sole visible channel, through whom alone spiritual instruction was to come” (Watchtower, October 1, 1967, p. 590).

There are four other important characteristics that should be reviewed.

Doctrinal ambiguity. Are the teachings of the group characterized by doctrinal ambiguity or uncertainty? Are doctrines presented as revealed by God, or as “due- time” light, later rejected or replaced by new understandings? There are many examples of this practice in LDS (polygamy, Adam-God) and JW (The Great Pyramid, the “higher powers” in Rom. 13:1–7) literature.

False prophecy. Does a study of the group’s history reveal that its leaders have pronounced or promoted false prophecies? This was done either by new revelations or by speculations based on erroneous interpretations of Scripture. Joseph Smith and his successors assumed the title of “prophet,” but more than fifty of Smith’s prophecies failed, as have those of his successors.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are notorious for promoting prophetic speculations that have failed (1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1975, etc.). I still remember when JW were speaking of “the remaining months before Armageddon” in 1941. According to the Bible, these failures clearly identify a false prophet (Deut. 18:21–22).

Sound rules of interpretation. After naming several contemporary cults, Dr. James Sire asks, “how can these very different religious movements claim Scripture for their own? ... They can only do so by violating the principles of sound literary interpretation” (Scripture Twisting, Intervarsity Press, 1980, p. 12). The subtitle explains the book’s focus: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible.

Semantics. Are biblical terms used but given a different meaning? To be aware of this redefinition of terms is essential if one is to understand how LDS doctrine differs from biblical Christianity. Consider the following (with a Scriptural response). Mormonism views sin as specific acts, not as man’s basic nature (Rom. 5:6–8; Eph. 2:3). The Gospel is explained as the teachings and church ordinances restored by Joseph Smith (1 Cor 15:1–4). Being born again is baptism into the LDS Church (2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Peter 1:23).

What Is the Christian’s Responsibility? While there are many reasons for the growth of cults, one obvious reason is the lack of biblical understanding and spiritual discernment. Christians must understand the challenge of cults and dedicate themselves to “being prepared to make a defense” (1 Peter 3:15), and “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).