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Cults and Isms that cause schisms –
Don’t cause Splits –– Divisions in the Messianic Community! Split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, are caused by differences in opinion or belief that will ultimately lead to a dangerous division and can consequently give birth to another false religion.
Another definition: The worship of anything that is not God, including any form of religion that fails to do justice to the glory and majesty of God. Scripture criticises both the practices and the beliefs of false religions.
What Are the Warning Signs of a Cult?
Orthodoxy must be constantly moderated and guarded against possible heterodoxy –– any slight deviation can have severe consequences if it is not corrected, stopped, and warned against. Heterodoxy can best be defined as heresy, error, and deviation from the fundamentals of the faith. There are those cardinal doctrines that if we deviate from them, thence are in serious danger of moving away from the true faith that has been imparted us.
I have spoken on numerous occasions about the Jehovah Witnesses and the way that Charles Taze Russell started. This sub-Christian sect began with Mr Russell wanting to study the Bible on his own due to his rejection of the strict ‘hell fire and brimstone preaching that he was exposed to during his formative years in the USA where he was born. So far so good –– Studying the Scriptures is something to be encouraged. However, there were some inherent dangers that he faced with his rejection of any reference to the historic creeds and counsels of the Christian faith over the two millennia since its inception. He used the American Standard Translation of 1901 as his Bible that used G_D’s Holy Name as Jehovah. He then went further and produced his own translation of the Scriptures called the New World Translation, that not only used the name Jehovah, but also altered certain key text to conform with their doctrine. Many years ago while living in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1974 I attended the Rosebank Bible College that was sponsored by Rosebank Union Church. A friend by the name of Peter who was a member of that congregation asked me to accompany him to a Bible Study in a new suburb of JHB to help a group of women who had encountered some JWs. There were eight women present at the meeting –– Two were members of the new Evangelical Church, two were Jehovah Witnesses, and four were individuals that had been in contact with both groups. These four ‘seekers,’ were undecided as to whether to embrace the Evangelical faith, or to become Jehovah Witnesses. Peter and I were invited to share a testimony of how we had come to faith in Yeshua/ Jesus. Following that Peter asked the Jehovah Witnesses how they had become adherents of the their faith. Peter then spoke about the dangers of the errors of the JW’s teaching, particularly on the person and work of Jesus and the JW teaching about the nature of God.
Subsequently, we heard that two of the ‘seekers,’ had become believers in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, one became a JW, and one decided not to continue having any contact with either group.
Some examples of false religions:
JWs, Mormons, Moonies, New Age Gurus, Syncretistic religions, etc…
As Messianic believers, we must constantly be on our guard against false religious teachings. But how are we to discern between truth and error? From our viewpoint, just because someone arise and says that they have a special revelation from God, an angel, dream, vision, or some other supernatural source does not mean that what they relate to others is necessarily the truth. sStrange and unorthodox beliefs should sound warning bells! We are exhorted to ‘test the spirits,’ to discern they are of G_D? This is nothing new, for even in Jesus’ day there were other claimants to be G_D’s anointed one/ Messiah/ Christ.
How do we the difference between those that are imposters and the true Son of God? We need to not be afraid to ask difficult question,in order to discover the differences between cults and the true Messianic faith, for there is only on Yeshua/ Jesus who is definitively unique.
What Is a Cult?
Should we differentiate between a sub-christen sect and a cult?
Trying to define a cult can be a challenge. In an attempt to arrive at a definition of a cult, it is helpful to outline a few characteristics and establish some guidelines that will help aid us to discover whether or not a particular sect or beliefs and practices are a cultish?
Definitions of cult
In the seventeenth century of the common era if someone referred to Judaism or Chrsitianity as a cult, no-one would give it a second thought. The word cult meant a reference to a particular form or system of worship. For example the “cult of Saint Benedict” were known as the Benedictines. This does not mean that people followed St. Benedict in the same way that people followed a new age guru. It simply meant that people were devoted to the Benedictine form of worship.
But subsequently the meaning of a cult took on a more sinister meaning. Sociologists refer to a cult as a social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices. This may include elements of orthodoxy, but with the addition of unorthodox beliefs that substantially change the beliefs and practices of a particular group.
This definition provided by Rousselet, Duretete, Hardouin, and Grall-Bronnec may be the most helpful:
“A cult is an organized group whose purpose is to dominate cult members through psychological manipulation and pressure strategies.”
This definition helps to explain what is meant when we refer to a cult in our modern era. Cults are generally harmful to its members and to varying degrees to society as a whole. They are usually centred around the dynamic personality of its leader. So, how do cults operate? What are the warning signs when someone is involved in a cult?
What Are the Warning Signs of a Cult?
During the years that I have been a Messianic believer I have encountered a number of people who have been ensnared by cults and there appears to be considerable similarity with the behaviour of the cults that they belong to. Though their belief may be completely different, the way that they behave bears striking similarities.
I came upon this helpful explanation of the activities of cults:
One would think that spotting a cult would be relatively easy. And from the outside, it often can be easy to spot cultic behavior. But from the inside, the person has been groomed and manipulated to normalize deviant behavior. Here are a few of the warning signs:
– Following a leader with unquestioning faith and allegiance
– A belief that the group exclusively holds the truth, therefore there is zero tolerance and interaction with those outside the group
– Isolation of members
– Severe penalties for leaving the group
– An emphasis on a special belief or doctrine viewed as strange by others
– An “us vs. them” mentality, often using persecution of the group as evidence of its truthfulness
– The use of fear and intimidation to keep you in the group. In order to control people one of the techniques used by governing them by fear and intimidation. No sensible, sane, or descent group should resort to this type of behaviour to maintain or control its members. By using such methods their sense of self-worth is diminished. Any fear based leadership is a lousy way to manage people, and by intimidating them, not only is the leader diminished, but his or her subjects are often reduced to being serfs or drones who are not allowed to show any initiative or creative ideas. These type of techniques are used in the military, but should never be the way that a faith based group functions, and treats its adherents.
There are a few questions to ask that might help to determine if you or a friend is in a cult.
– What happens if I disagree with the leaders?
– How do I respond if an “outsider” criticizes one of our leaders?
– Are there different sets of “rules” for the leader, and another set for “members”?
– Who is the leader answerable to? Is there accountability?
– What would happen if you tried to leave the group?
– Do they welcome independent thought? Do they believe I can think for myself?
– Have a lost several friendships since joining this group? Am I being isolated?
– Am I able to read outside literature?
Some of the above questions can help you to assess whether or not your group has moved away from healthy religious belief into manipulative/cultish territory.
What can we learn from the Scriptures about Cults?
In our consideration of what the Scriptures has to say about cults we must first come to a common understanding of cults. One dominant feature is “religious devotion.” Scripture is filled with these examples of how people deviated from the right pathway. This most often includes a group that manipulates their members and causes harm.
There are numerous examples throughout the Scriptures, of false teachers, with the outcome of their false teaching always having devastating effects upon those who are caught up and seduced by them. We have examples of those who were false prophets and idolaters in the Hebrew Scriptures that helps explain the dynamic of our understanding of modern cults.
There are a few themes we can use from Scripture to help us understand the nature of cults. First, Jesus warned of the presence of false teachers in Matthew 7:15-16,
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”
Secondly, because of the existence of false prophets we are told to “test the spirits.” 1 John 4 tells us how we can “recognize the Spirit of God:”
“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.”
If a group is not centered upon Jesus Christ, then it is making false religious claims. Groups can be centered upon Jesus in name, but if at the end of the day they are not following the way of Jesus, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, and entrusting each member to Christ as Lord, then this is a false group.
Cults are also notorious for adding their own rules. Places like Colossians 2:19-23 can be helpful to show that Christ is sufficient. Are your leaders pointing you to Christ and leaving you in His hands, or are they centering themselves or the group? That is a big identifier of a cult. The Bible has Jesus Christ at the center. Cults will have something else at the center.
What Makes a Cult Different from a Religious Denomination?
What is the difference between Jesus the Messiah/Christ and cult leaders? For one, Jesus Christ is the way of truth. While this claim is the same as made by those who believe and give their reason for following a cult leaders. So, we should test them by their own claims. When we compare these cult leaders teaching and claims against Jesus claims, they are always found empty.
In Orthodox Judaism, there are numerous sects, and among the Chassidic Jewish sects the Lubuvitch Chassidim they claim that Menachem Shneerson is the Messiah. Though he died of old age, they believe that he will come back to life! They also have elaborate genealogies that claim that he is a descendant of King David. As above, these assertions need to be tested to discover if they have any credence and whether they are true?
During Schneerson’s life the mainstream of Chabad hoped that he would be the messiah, an idea that gained great attention during the last years of his life. A few years prior to Schneerson’s death, members of the Chabad movement expressed their belief that Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the Jewish messiah.
But the greatest difference between Yeshua/ Jesus and a cult is that Jesus is self-giving. He gives of Himself for their benefit. His way does not lead into harm but into hope.
First, consider the characteristics of a cult. If a “denomination/ congregation/ group” has weird characteristics, then while it may make claims that it is orthodox, then it’s not just a group of believer who may disagree over certain doctrine, but it must be considered as a deviation from the norm, and my well become a sub sect, or even cult.
There are some congregations and professing groups that can border on cultic practices. It can be difficult to discern the difference at times.
Most denominations if they still have Jesus Christ at the centre of their religious practice, though they may differ on a few interpretations but are orthodox in their belief and practice.
Are All Cults Bad?
In the modern the word ‘cult’ has taken on a negative meaning. Nonetheless, whether “cults” are all bad has to do with how we are defining the word “cult.” We need to ask If a cult is harming its followers and others? If the answer is, yes, then we must conclude that it is bad.
Is there difference between a cult and a sect?
But there is another question connected with this. Some will call Jehovah’s Witnesses or Latter-Day Saints a cult. They certainly fit some of the descriptors of a cult. And I, personally, would argue that they are “bad” in that they do not tell the truth about Jesus. As such they are indeed ultimately harmful. It would be wise, if we use the word ‘cult,’ to make a distinction between the “bad” of Charles Manson and Jim Jones with the “bad” of Joseph Smith or the Watchtower Society.
Regardless of whether we mean “bad” as in violent or harmful to society or “bad” as in unorthodox and denying Christ, we should pursue truth and not be part of a cult. But what if someone we love is involved with a dangerous cult?
What can we do if someone we love is involved with a dangerous cult?
First, whatever you can do to keep endeavour to keep the line of communication open –– keep talking! You will not get very far by speaking negatively about the group or the leader. You must earn trust.
Secondly, ask probing questions. What you should attempt to do with this line of communication is sow some seeds of doubt.
Thirdly, seek help from folk who may have had involvement with the particular cult.
Keep in mind that It is important establish some of the reasons why this person might have joined the cult.
What were they looking for that the cult provided?
Are there ways in which you can begin to provide some of this support outside of their group?
Keep in mind how costly it will be for them to leave this cult. If you can eliminate some of the difficulties of leaving, this might help them to make that decision.
If there is something harmful or illegal happening, report this to the authorities. Intervention by Social Services, a Church group, or even the police if the cult is preventing them from having contact with those who are not part of the cult.
Remember to get others to join you in praying for their deliverance from the harmful influence of the particular cult. We must entrust them to the Lord. Therefore, we must pray for wisdom and discernment in our interactions, and equally that G_D will open their eyes to reality. If they have been blinded to the truth, therefore, pray that God would reveal Himself to them in an undeniable way. Pray that they will be able to see through the inconsistencies of the leader. Amen.
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