There is a great deal of chatter in the news and on the Internet today dealing with the issue of whether or not certain beliefs are Christian or cultic.
Some experts claim that there are some 700 cults in the world today, while others place the number at 3,000. In the U.S. more than 20 million people are involved is some way or another in cults, according to "When Cultists Ask," by Norman Giesler and Ron Rhodes.
The problem comes when some group or another is labeled as a cult. The logical question that we must ask is what is a cult? While there are no universally agreed upon definitions of a cult, there are some generally recognizable traits that can help us identify whether or not a belief system fits into the category of a cult.
Generally speaking is a cult is a group of people, who claim to be a part of a larger body of believers but whose belief system varies greatly from the larger system to which they claim to belong. Every major religious systems have their splinter groups of cults.
The first identifying mark of a cult is that they claim new revelation. Most begin with a leader who claims that he or she has a special pipeline to God and that God speaks, often, only through them.
The Bible warns, "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" (Galatians 1:8, ESV). Despite this warning, more than one cult claimed that they received special angelic revelation that changes the very core of the Gospel message.
The second identifying mark that something is a cult is a denial or diminishing of the authority of the Bible. If a group claims to believe the Bible, plus a new writing, you can be fairly certain you are dealing with a cult. Cults many times claim that they believe the Bible, but it is the Bible plus the writings of their leader. Ultimately it is the writings of the leader that supersede the Biblical text.
Cultists distort the Word of God to fit what they want to believe. For instance Jim Jones the founder of Jonestown, placed himself in authority over the Bible. He would use the Bible when it suited him, but like all cultists his use of the Bible was a greatly distorted one.
Whenever you have a group that claims to believe in the Bible plus their own writings, chances are you are dealing with a cult.
Along with distorting the Bible, cults distort the biblical view of God and Jesus, almost always denying the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. For example, one group claims that only the Christ Spirit rose from the grave, not the body of Jesus. It was a spiritual resurrection; not a physical one. Almost all cults deny the Trinity and all deny the absolute deity of Christ.
Finally, cults typically deny salvation by grace, and emphasize adherence to certain laws, practices, and actions as necessary for salvation. The Bible says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).
Any group that denies one or more of the fundamental, essential doctrines of Christianity can be and should properly be labeled as a cult. The Bible says "These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us." (1 John 2:19, NLT)
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information visit the Gateway website at www.gatewaycommunity.org