“I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
Paul is speaking to the early church—and to us—about cults. They will and have come. They existed then and now. If we’re not extremely careful, they can draw us away from the truth.
One quick note before we begin. The term “cult,” as expressed in the English language, can be used in both secular and religious settings. For example, “the singer’s cult of fans” or “the film has a cult following.”
Today, we will work with religious cults, defined by Dictionary.com as “great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers; a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.”
The following characteristics will help us define and recognize the nature of a cult.
First, the most dastardly, insidious mark of a cult is that it ignores or distorts the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To one degree or another, all cults deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Their teachings and principles will eventually leave a person unsaved, without a relationship with Jesus Christ, and spending eternity in hell.
The Bible teaches that faith in Christ, plus nothing else, equals salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 reads, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
The three most obvious cults today are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Watchtower Society, and Mormons. All three put good works in the place of “nothing else,” suggesting the redeeming work of Jesus is not sufficient by itself. Faith plus anything else is heresy.
This characteristic of cults is so significant that Paul literally pronounces a curse as he shares his displeasure and outright anger at these false prophets who minimize, distort, or change the gospel:
“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; … But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9).
Please note that the word Paul used for “curse” is the strongest word for cursing in the Greek language. Technically, it dooms the one who is cursed to the darkest, deepest, most horrible fate imaginable.
Second, most cults are led by a dynamic, charismatic leader who eventually controls and manipulates his or her followers.
Jim Jones was a psychopathic, manipulative, controlling, and insidious leader. He founded the People’s Temple in Indiana during the 1950s. Jim began moving to different cities, gaining followers at each one. In the mid-1970s, he relocated all of his followers to Guyana on the northwest coast of South America.
Then in 1978, rumors began to circulate, alleging that human rights abuses were occurring in the People’s Temple. United States Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate. Ryan and several defectors were murdered by gunfire while boarding a return flight home. Shortly thereafter Jones led all of his 918 followers—including 304 children—to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid spiked with cyanide.
Jones was a brash overlord who enslaved his followers… ultimately leading to their deaths.
In contrast, true Christian leaders are humble. Jesus described himself as “meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
Paul mentored Timothy as a pastor and church leader in two of his letters. In 1 Timothy 3:1-4, Paul described a godly leader:
“Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.”
Third, surprisingly, most cult leaders grew up in a Christian environment.
Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, grew up in a Presbyterian home. Jim Jones attended a Nazarene church; later he pastored a Disciples of Christ congregation before founding the People’s Temple. Moses David (David Berg), founder of the Children of God, is the son of evangelical parents and served as a minister in a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. Mary Baker Patterson Glover Eddy, founder of the Christian Scientists, and Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were both raised in Christian homes and churches.
Obviously, there are many reasons why cult leaders turn from Christianity. I would guess that some imagined hearing a voice from God telling them that they were divinely inspired to begin something new. Some were deceived by demonic promptings. Others were arrogant con men and con women who knew just enough Bible to get everything confused. Many were arrogant, grandiose people whose pride led them to destruction.
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