At the 101st Annual Conference of the Bible Fellowship Church, in response to a petition by the Faith Bible Fellowship Church of Fleetwood, a committee was formed to develop the position of the Bible Fellowship regarding the ever growing number of cults.
The following is a compilation of this research. It consists of four major segments: a definition of the term “cult” , the general characteristics of a cult, the Biblical condemnation of false teachers and our response towards cults. 2 Peter 2:1-22 has been used throughout this study as our text. All Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise indicated.
I. DEFINITION OF A CULT
A cult is a religious movement that claims authority by Jesus Christ and seeks to be included under the umbrella of Christianity but has major tenets incompatible with Biblical orthodoxy.
A cult claims the support of Christ and the Bible. Religions of the world which do not make these assertions such as Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Shintoists, etc, are not considered cults but religions. They may note similarities to Christianity but do not base their teachings upon a biblical rule of faith and practice.
A cult misses the heart of Christianity, the gospel. It is the gospel which proclaims the good news of Christ’s personal Lordship and atoning work in fulfillment of 1 Cor. 15:3,4. Upon this message eternal life is established.
Walter Martin, a noted authority in this field, defines a cult in the following fashion:
A cult, then, is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpre-tation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ (Walter Martin, The Rise of Cults, p. 12).
II. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF A CULT
Realizing there is a great proliferation of cults in our society today and that these same cults are extremely deceptive, it behooves us to know their general characteristics.
A. NEW TRUTH
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies…(2 Peter 2:1).
There are several considerations in this verse and others that clarify the use of new truth by cultic leaders.
1. Cultic Leaders Provide Other Written Sources of Authority
2 Peter 2:1 states that these false teachers will bring in destructive heresies. The word for heresies is literally “dogma” or “opinion”. They will be teaching as authoritative that which is merely their own opinion. (Note: FAITH and ORDER of the Bible Fellowship Church 1981, Article I)
Since the Bible is the supreme and final authority of faith and conduct, orthodox Christianity holds that the revelation of God is complete and that no new truth is now being revealed by God (Revelation 22:18; Proverbs 30:6). Cultic leaders, on the other hand, provide additional “sacred writings”. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints has The Book of Mormon, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses feature the writings of Charles Taze Russell and Judge Rutherford.
2. Cultic Leaders Claim Authoritative Interpretation of Scripture
Many cults will accept the Word of God as truth until it contradicts their “sacred” writings. When this occurs, the “new revelation” of the cult always supersedes the established revelation of the Word of God.
For example, in the Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints we read: “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly” (Article 8). Hoekema exposes the intent of this Article by saying:
…one would assume that this revision of the Bible would involve nothing more than possible improvements in the English translation…This impression, however, is quite contrary to fact. What Smith did when he revised the Bible was not at all merely a matter of improving the translation, as we shall see. Neither did Smith’s work bear the slightest resemblance to textual criticism, in which Widtsoe also affirms that he was engaged. Textual critics carefully compare one Bible manuscript with another in the attempt to establish which of various readings of a given passage was the original one. What Smith did, however, had nothing whatever to do with manuscript study of this sort; it was rather a complete rewriting of certain Bible passages in the light of supposed new revelations. (The Four Major Cults, Anthony A. Hoekema, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich: 1963, pg.19).
The Mormon article goes on to state: “We also believe the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God.” They do not regard it to be equal with the Bible, but superior.
Further, this new truth may take the form of a claim to exclusive ability to understand revelation correctly. Rev. Sun Myung Moon states: “We are the only people who truly understand the heart of Jesus, the anguish of Jesus, and the hope of Jesus.” (The Way of the World, Rev. Sun Myung Moon Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, Vol. VIII, No. 4, April 1976).
New truth may also produce a claim to exclusive ability to interpret Scripture. It is under this pretense that Herbert W. Armstrong declared that all previous interpretations of Scripture were based on pagan reasoning and custom. (The Autobio-raphy of Herbert W. Armstrong, Pasadena: Ambassador College Press, 1967, p. 294ff). This opens the door to personal interpretation by leaders of cultic groups.
3. Cultic Leaders Claim Authoritative Prophecies
In 2 Peter 2:3 it states that with “feigned words” or “made up words” they will exploit you.
The aspect of “feigned words” ushers us into the area of false prophesy. One of the most exacting ways to classify a movement as a cult is to investigate their prophecies. Scripture tells us that unless a prophet is 100% accurate, he is a false one (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
In 1967, H. W. Armstrong predicted that in four years there would be drought, famine and disease which would take millions of lives. It did not happen. C. T. Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted that the world would end in 1914. (Understanding The Cults, Josh McDowell & Don Stewart, Here’s Life Pub. Inc. San Bernardino, Calf: pg.75).
B. FALSE TEACHING CONCERNING CHRIST
…there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1b).
From the church’s inception, the person of Christ has been the cornerstone of its teachings (Acts 2:22ff). There is no question more fundamental than “What think ye of Christ?”. It is with regard to this question that the cults fail the test of true discipleship.
For example, note The Articles of Faith of the Mormons:
Jesus Christ is Jehovah, the first-born among the spirit children of Elohim, to whom all others are juniors. He is unique in that he is the offspring of an immortal, or resurrected and glorified, Father. He was the executive of the Father, Elohim, in the work of creation. He is greater than the Holy Spirit, which is subject unto him, but His Father is greater than he. (The Articles of Faith, Talmage, pp. 471f. Doctrine and Covenants 76:24. Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Smith, I. pg. 18).
Another display of faulty Christology is evident in the teaching of the Theosophy people.
Jesus gave to the world fragments of teaching of value as basis for world religion, as did men like Buddha, Confucius, Pythagoras, etc…at a certain stage in the career of Jesus, the latter was taken possession of by the great teacher, the Bodhisattva of eastern tradition. (Hugh Shearman, Modern Theosophy, 1952, pp. 201f).
In Matthew 16:13 Jesus said, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The response of the Apostle Peter is noteworthy: “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God.” True Christianity has as its cornerstone the person of Christ…the Biblical Christ. (Note: FAITH and ORDER of the Bible Fellowship Church 1981, Article IV).
C. THE CONCEPT OF SALVATION
For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. (2 Peter 2:20)
The central idea of salvation in most of the cults revolves around salvation by works instead of grace through faith. H. W. Armstrong exemplifies this by saying:
Salvation, then is a process! But how the God of this world would blind your eyes to that! He tries to deceive you into thinking all there is to it is just ‘accept Christ’ with `no work – and presto – change you are pronounced saved’. But the Bible reveals that none is yet saved. (H.W. Armstrong, Why Were You Born?, pg. 11).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses declare that “Immortality is a reward for faithfulness… Those people of good will today who avail themselves of the provision and who steadfastly abide in this confidence will find Christ Jesus to be their `everlasting Father'”. (Let God be True, Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1946 ed., pg.74, 121).
Many cultic doctrines of salvation also include some form of water baptism, obedience to the teaching of the cultic leader or group, and keeping the commands of God as dictated by the cultic leader.
It is difficult for cults to accept the truth of the forgiveness of sins for the morally reprobate immediately upon their confession of faith (i.e. thief on the cross). Brigham Young, an authoritative source of the Mormons, states:
Some of our old traditions teach us that a man guilty of atrocious and murderous acts may savingly repent on the scaffold; and upon his execution will hear the expression – “Bless God! he has gone to heaven, to be crowned in glory, through the all-redeeming merits of Christ the Lord!” This is all nonsense. Such a character will never see heaven” (Journal of Discourses, Vol.8, p.61).
The New Testament reveals salvation is “not as a result of works that no one should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8). (Note: FAITH and ORDER of the Bible Fellowship Church 1981, Article XII).
D. COMMERCIALIZATION OF RELIGION RESULTING IN FINANCIAL EXPLOITATION
“And in their greed they will exploit you with false words…” (2 Peter 2:3). Verse 13 also describes the false teachers as revelling with their own deceiving while they feast among you. The word translated “revelling” means to live in luxury.
According to these verses, false teachers are motivated by greed. Verse 15 reads: “Forsaking the right way they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who love the wages of unrighteousness.”
The profit that is made by cultic leaders through the exploitation of their followers is truly astonishing. Some organizations require their followers to sell all their possessions and give proceeds to the cult. Others establish quotas for the raising of funds through selling flowers and other paraphernalia or receiving daily contributions at a minimum of one hundred dollars a day.
One such leader recently used these funds to build a gigantic empire for himself. Maurice Burrell states:
He allows himself to be treated with pomp and ceremony and lives in luxury, yet calls upon his followers to deny themselves and follow him. As his own press officer has said ‘Guru Maharaj Ji lives on gifts given to him by his followers. And they want him to live well.’ No matter how his devotees seek to rationalize this basic inconsistency, however, it bears no comparison with Jesus who, Himself having little in the way of earthly possessions, invited His followers to be like Him, and to take up their cross daily and follow Him. (The Challenge of the Cults, Maurice C. Burrell, Baker 1981, pp.85f).
Other organizations raise their funds through entry fees, dues or seminars. EST functions through seminars led by William Erhard. In 1963 Erhard claimed to have an “enlightenment experience” which prompted him to search for religious existential disciplines for truth. Erhard holds seminars to instruct people in this enlightenment, and over 250,000 people have paid more than 50 million dollars for this experience. The present EST income is roughly one million dollars a month. (The New Cults, pg. 106-108).
E. ENSLAVING ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE
2 Peter 2:19 speaks to this issue with the following words: “promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he in enslaved.”
“Anything goes” would be a choice description of organizational structure within cultic groups.What the leader wants to do,he does! Breese aptly puts it this way:
The promoters of the cults obey no such rules as Scripture lays down for leaders. Indeed, they know that their success is directly dependent upon their ability to trap followers into a permanent entanglement. This association is almost invariably formed with the bonds of fear. The leader’s preaching, teaching, and efforts are dedicated, not to the production of individual competence and freedom on the part of his followers, but to create dependence. The leaders of the cults are working to promote, not liberty, but slavery. Thus an almost universal characteristic of the cults is the creation of a monolithic, merciless, and entangling organizational structure. To them the purpose of a religious organization is not that it becomes a living segment of the body of Christ but a personally exploitable syndicate (Know The Marks of the Cults. David Breese, Victor Books 1975, pg.97f).
Jim Jones epitomized this philosophy with the enslavement of his followers. Not only did he have them entangled financially and emotionally but physically as well. When his followers manifested discontent he banished them to Guyana. Eventually they lost their lives.
Often the tactic is to prey upon college campuses where collegians are both inquisitive and dissatisfied, wanting to be free from the “oppression” of home, government, and/or school administration. Sometimes the freedom they desire is from moral restraint. The irony is that these false teachers promise freedom when in fact they produce blatant bondage.
Not every cult will embrace all the above mentioned features. But beware of the ones which sound fairly evangelical and yet cling to some of these features.
At the very least the following six questions should be used to examine any religious group:
1. What is its source of authority?
2. Has it made prophesies which have not been fulfilled?
3. What is its belief about the Triune God?
4. How does one receive eternal life?
5. How does this organization handle its finances?
6. What is its organizational structure?
The Apostle John wrote in 1 John 4:1-3:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and not it is already in the world.
III. THE BIBLICAL CONDEMNATION OF FALSE TEACHERS
2 Peter 2:1-19 contains not only a description of the general characteristics of false teachers and their teachings, but also the condemnation of these individuals. Without a doubt, they are on their way to destruction!
Peter mentions six aspects of judgment that await those who have exchanged the truth for a lie. These six aspects can be divided into two categories: The Certainty of God’s Judgment and the Nature of God’s Judgment.
A. THE CERTAINTY OF GOD’S JUDGMENT
1. Demonstrated in the Lifestyle of False Teachers
Peter states that the false teachers “…are bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (v.1). The wages of sin are always death. Those who walk after the lust of the flesh (v.2) are destined for destruction. As Christians we do not rejoice in this fact, but we do recognize and accept it.
2. Demonstrated in God’s Irrevocable Decree
“…their judgement from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (v.3b).
The language is vivid and precise. God is not idle, sleeping, nor oblivious to the false teachers’ exploitation and deceptiveness. He will punish! Sentence was pronounced upon false prophets long ago; the Old Testament pronounced their doom in Deuteronomy 13:1-5. In contrast the false teachers are the ones who sleep the sleep of their own security, believing judgment will never come. Thus they continue undisturbed in their activity and work.
3. Demonstrated in the Illustrative Acts of God’s Judgment
To demonstrate the certainty of God’s judgment, Peter cites three instances of this judgment upon various groups. These conclusively illustrate that although God is merciful He will judge. (Peter employs the technique of asking rhetorical questions using the Greek negative `ouk’ which demands affirmative answers, thus leading the reader to the only reasonable conclusion). The three instances are as follows:
a. JUDGMENT UPON THE ANGELS (v.4): Since “God did not spare angels when they sinned, (cf. Jude 6) but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, in order to be reserved for judgment,” then will God not reserve the false teachers for judgment? Seeing that God did not spare those who held a high and lofty position from creation, certainly He will not spare the false teachers.
b. JUDGMENT UPON THE ANCIENT WORLD (v. 5): Since God did not spare the ancient world but allowed it to be destroyed by a flood (although He saved Noah and seven other righteous people) then will He not bring false teachers to destruction?
Peter refers to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness.” The Old Testament declares that he was a just man who walked with God (Genesis 6:9). Peter’s point is this: the righteous man who was a preacher and doer of righteousness was spared, while all those who taught and lived in iniquity were destroyed. Even the vast number of these individuals was not a deterrent to God. Since the destruction was so great and comprehensive, we can be sure that God will destroy.
c. JUDGMENT UPON SODOM AND GOMORRAH (vs.6-8): Since God condemned them to ashes (delivering Lot due to his righteousness), then will He not bring destruction to the false teachers who have led others astray?
Peter states that God reduced those cities into ashes, condemning them “by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter.” (v.6). Condemned by God, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are a classic illustration of the ultimate ruination of unrighteousness. False teaching ultimately results in destruction. The concern of God for His people was manifested even in the destruction of those two wicked cities, for the Lord delivered “righteous Lot” from the city (v.7).
Peter has given three illustrations of God’s judgment, one from the angelic sphere and two from the human realm. His entire argument concerning false teachers is summarized in verse 9: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment.” The two main ideas in his illustrations are (1) that God can and does deliver the godly from temptation, as exemplified by Noah, his family and Lot, and that (2) the Lord reserves judgment for the unjust, as illustrated by those who perished in the flood and in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
B. THE NATURE OF GOD’S JUDGMENT
1. They Bring the Natural Consequences of Sin upon Themselves
The Scripture reads they “shall utterly perish in their own corruption” (v. 12, KJV). To utterly perish means to spoil entirely or to completely destroy. The word corruption, at this place, equals the definition of ‘perish.’
The point Peter is making is this: if a man dedicates himself to these fleshly pleasures, in the end he so ruins himself in health and in spiritual and mental character, that he cannot enjoy them. The glutton destroys his appetite in the end; the one who seeks sensual pleasure, his body; the self indulgent, his character and peace of mind. Peter could not have used any stronger language. Since they have been sowing destruction, they reap destruction.
2. They Bear the Judicial Consequence of Sin
We are told that they “shall receive the reward of unrighteousness.” (v. 13, KJV). Peter is emphasizing the same statement of destruction as Paul does in Romans 6:23. Every man must bear the responsibility of his own sins, but to add to that the responsibility for the sins of others is to carry an intolerable burden.
3. They are Consigned to the Gloom of Darkness
The last pronouncement of judgment is that they will receive “the gloom of darkness forever” (v.17, KJV). This expression refers to the place where the angels that sinned are found (compare 2:4). In verse 2, the usual words translated “hell” in the New Testament, “Hades” and “Gehenna”, are not found. Rather, Peter borrows from Greek mythology the word “Tartarus,” found only here in the New Testament, referring to the lowest and most terrible hell.
In 2 Peter 2, Peter addresses in detail false teachers who threatened God’s flock. His uncompromising, direct approach in condemning them should serve as both a warning and an example to us today as we encounter those who would destroy the Church. False teaching must be faced head-on.
IV. RESPONSE TOWARD THE CULTS
The Biblical directive found in 1 Peter 3:15 states that we should: “…be ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you yet with gentleness and reverence.” Therefore it is imperative that we take positive action regarding the cults.
The following three steps are a starting point:
1.We need to be aware of the existence of cults around us. An understanding of their doctrine, especially where it differs from Orthodox Christianity, is needed so that we will not be taken in by their false teaching.
2.We need to effectively warn our fellow believers concerning the errors of the cults. This requires us to sharpen our ability to defend the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A comprehensive understanding of biblical content and effective methodology is needed.
3.We need to view people involved in the cults as objects of God’s love and should desire to evangelize them and have them come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
WHEREAS the FAITH & ORDER of the Bible Fellowship Church clearly states the Biblical truth concerning the authority of the Scriptures, the Deity of Christ and salvation by grace through faith; and
WHEREAS the primary error in cultic doctrines is in relationship to the aforementioned doctrines; and
WHEREAS this paper seeks to further delineate the characteristics of a cult and formulate what the response of the Bible Fellowship Church should be toward cults; be it therefore
RESOLVED: that the “Report Of The Committee To Study Cults” be adopted by the 103rd Annual Conference as the position paper of the Bible Fellowship Church on the subject of cults.
COMMITTEE: David A. Thomann, Chairman; Daniel P. Allen, Secretary; Albert J. Dommel and Calvin T. Reed.