Key Mistakes in Cults and False Religions
1. What is their source of Authority?
A key to discovering what is and is not a cult or false religion is by examining their source of authority. Do not let anyone deceive you. Everyone, and that means everyone that is living today with no exceptions, has a source of authority. These sources of authority are either subjective, such as with personal feelings, personal reasoning, or sometimes objective like with other religious documents. Christianity's source of authority is Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible. The Bible is the Supreme Standard for all conduct, belief, thoughts, judgments, and practices for the Christian faith. Cults and false religions will not allow the Holy Bible to be the final source of authority for EVERYTHING! Many who are influenced by cults and false spirits will say things like: "I feel that this is the way we should do things," and what they might feel flatly contradicts what God says in his word the Bible. Or they might say, "I do not want to argue over what the Bible says, I simply believe that this is the way things should be." Such statements flow from a false spirit that seeks to dethrone God and undermine his authority and exalt man's current conduct in a life of sin and/or ignorance.
Cults and false religions add to that. They believe in new revelation of some sort. They believe that the Bible plus some other document or book is of equal authority. Some do not even believe the Bible is divinely inspired. Cults and false religions submit to their own reasoning, their feelings, their own ideas, which are often disguised as inspired of the Lord. These religions and faiths will even sometimes place some charismatic leader upon some pedestal as if this person has all the answers and truth to life. The people of these groups are bound to follow the leader with absolute allegiance. These leaders do not have co-equals that keep them in line with truth. They function often as the "Senior Leader" or as the "Grand Overseer" of the entire faith movement. In many cases, if not all, these leaders' opinions are equal in authority if not higher in authority than the Bible itself. Even worse, some of the leaders or presidents of these groups contradict one another and yet they claim to be inspired prophets of the Lord.
2. What do they believe about the Trinity?
The Christian faith affirms that God is one in three persons. Christianity affirms what has been termed as the Trinity. Those who are following the teachings of Christianity believe that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one in essence. Cults and false religions deny this because it does not make sense to their minds or reasoning. In short, these groups do not understand that God is higher than us finite creatures. So in turn they follow after the religion of humanism which makes the mind of man the final determination of what is true or false. However, the Creator, God, is infinite and we his creation are finite. Though our finite minds may not be able to grasp the fullness of the Godhead, why should this surprise us? Should not the Creator have a higher understanding than the creation? Though we Christians cannot fully reason out the Trinity, it is not against reason that God, who is infinite, could be beyond our human reason!
Cults of false religions will commit one of a few errors. Some will believe that there is only one God with no distinctions within the Godhead. These groups will not believe that the Godhead has more than one person within the union. Other groups will deny that Christ is truly God or truly human. Christ Jesus is the God-Man. He is 100% God and 100% Man though without any sin. False religions and cults will not affirm that Christ is fully God and fully Man. Lastly, cults and false religions will deny that the Holy Spirit is God. These groups will often claim that the Spirit is some type of power, force, or energy. They deny he has personhood and that he functions within the Godhead as one of the members of God.
3. What do they believe about Salvation?
True Christianity differs from every single cult and false religion in that it affirms without any doubt that salvation is by God's grace and his grace alone. Christianity defines grace as umerited, unearned, undeserved, and unachievable grace or favor. Salvation in Christianity is totally, 100%, and without exception always by God saving a helpless sinner from their own estate of sin. In Christianity the sinner contributes nothing to the plan of salvation. Even the belief that God requires of the sinner is granted and given to the sinner.
Cults and false religions deny this. Cults and false religions place man in the equation of salvation in some way or in some degree. In many cases the group will teach that the one who wants to be saved and have a relationship with God, or their higher power, or their view of reality whatever that may be, must do something to be saved. In many cases the person must work and complete something. The person must accomplish something or achive something. In return when the person does something God, or their particular view of some higher power or life, in turn then gives favor. In essence these groups teach that man can do something to earn the love of God or their higher power whereas Christianity affirms that man can not do anything to gain or earn the love of God.
In these groups you will often hear statements like: "If you will do this then God will bless you with salvation." Or sometimes you will see these groups call others to perform certain deeds in order to obtain or maintain their grace and relationship with God. Then, some of them, who are really caught within a mixture of Christian teachings and non-Christian teachings will say things like: "Salvation is by grace and grace alone and you can do nothing to earn it, but it depends upon you to activate and experience that grace by your will." In that statement you have completely contradictory positions. The first half of the sentence is Christianity. Salvation, being born again, is 100% God's work in behalf of man. The sinner is passive in this and his effort in this is zero. Sure he must believe, but belief is something that God produces in the sinner by his gift of grace. God births the person into faith by his grace alone (John 3:3-8; Eph 2:8-9; James 1:18). The second half of this sentence is non-Christian spiritual influences. It says that if man wants to experience the grace of God that it "depends upon you" to do something to get/obtain that grace. This is a works oriented slant on the grace of God. In other words, this says that if you will do something yourself then God will reward you for doing the right thing. This mixture is deadly because first it is harder to spot. Second, if someone is trusting in something they have done, no matter how small that may be, then they are missing the Savior, which will have damning consequences in eternity.
Summary: How Can I Identify a Cult Practically?
The best way to identify a cult is by looking at the above three areas. Sadly, even those who may claim and profess Christianity may not truly follow the Christ of the Bible. While in College and Seminary I heard two sincere Christians say, "We do not need all this doctrine that is so divisive. We just need Jesus Christ, that is all we need." Sadly, as sincere as these two people were they were sincerely wrong. What Jesus Christ will we worship in our heart and mind? Will we worship the Christian Science version of Jesus that Mary Baker Eddy taught? Or shall we follow the Christ that the Jehovah Witness faith teaches? Or maybe we should follow the Jesus that the Mormons present? Of course, we also have the liberal Jesus who was only human but not divine. Maybe we can follow the Jesus as presented by all the religions and cults that say he was a great moral teacher, or a great prophet but not God. My point? Doctrine defines what Jesus we will follow. We must follow the Jesus as described in the Bible. Sadly, most Christians today know so little of their own Bible they do not know what Jesus is presented in the Bible. Therefore, you have immature and dangerous views as presented by the statements above.
A Christian can identify cults, false relgions, and even cultic or false religious spirits by checking these areas above. Practically cults will not care what does the Bible ultimately have to say on an issue. They will follow tradition before they follow the Bible. They will follow a group, denomination, or heritage even if it does not fit with what the Bible says. They will also sometimes give lip service to the Bible. They may say, "Yes we follow the Bible" but then they in reality live by other sources of authority. They will not make every day life decisions based upon what the Bible says but by what some leader tells them is the truth, without regard to the Bible, or by what they feel is the truth, without regard to the Bible, or by what some other religiopus document says, which may and normally does contradict the Bible. Analyze what it is the leader(s) teach the people. Does it come from the Bible or from their tradition, feelings, opinions, or man made philosophies?
A Christian can identify false movements by also looking at what do they think about God. The early church spent 300 years working on getting this divine truth systematized. I venture to say that no other group in the history of any movement has spent 300 years working on how to correctly define God as defined in the Bible, or in their own system of thought. God is one with three persons. Look at the teaching of the leaders. Do they affirm that Christ is the only Savior? Do they affirm that Christ is God and Man? Do they emphasize only his humanity without his divinity? What do they think of the Spirit? Do they think that we, the people of some faith can become God or a form of God? Do the people worship the members of the Trinity? Are the members of the Trinity co-equal or is one exalted above the rest? Do the leaders believe that Christ was created or is he eternally the Son of God? These are practical questions to define what is and is not a cult or false spiritual movement.
Lastly, examine the doctrine or teaching of salvation. Humanism is the spirit that exalts man. In many ways even our "Christian" brothers and sisters are flirting with cultic, false religious spirits in this realm by teaching that man's will, effort, and deeds contribute to God's work of salvation. Cults and false religions will term salvation as a processwhereas Christianity will affirm that salvation is an instantaneous divine gift from God alone. False spiritual movements will make man the key factor to the work of salvation whereas Christianity will make God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit the key factor to the work of salvation. I would venture to say that this is one area whereby the cults and false religions have tarnished Christianity the most. Many Christian circles have not protected the purity of grace. In some instances they are allowing deceptive spirits to undermine the spirit of grace. Jude wrote about this in his day. There were people who were perverting the doctrine of Grace (Jude 4). Paul likewise discussed this with a group that added a human work to the grace of God (Gal. 1:6-10). All false spirits seek to undermine the grace of God and place the emphasis on what man must do in order to earn the grace of God.