Much of this article is based on “Distinguishing Between Christianity and Cults,” a pamphlet written by Rich Mendola, CEO of IFI.
For many international students, studying in the United States presents them with the first real opportunity to study the Bible. As they are invited by various people to study the Bible, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between different groups. They all use the Bible, so what difference does it make which group or person one studies with?
In the history of Christianity, there have emerged a number of various denominations or sects which differ in practices, beliefs, and personality. Yet, despite all of these differences, there is a core group of beliefs that unite Christians regardless of what church they attend.
Cults may look similar to Christian denominations on the outside, but they differ in major ways from the core doctrines that Christians believe.
The most common cults in America are the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons (the Latter Day Saints), and the Unification Church. Each of them deny that Jesus is the Eternal God who became man. They also deny other central teachings. These groups are very active and present themselves as Christians. Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons usually go door-to-door in twos distributing literature. They usually do not identify which group they are with when they come to your door. Jehovah Witness literature is produced by the Watchtower. You can find this identification in their materials.
This article seeks to expose the red flags raised by cults and explore what makes cults attractive so that we can send our international friends out equipped to ask the right questions and avoid being swayed by half-truths.
1. How to Identify a Cult
A. Denial of Core Christian Beliefs
The first thing that’s important to communicate to our international student friends is that differences in practice and belief are not always bad. In fact, they should be expected! The body of Christ is a varied and beautiful thing. Our home congregations may not worship exactly the same way or focus on the same ministries, but we are tied together by the undeniable core of the Gospel. What is important is to teach our friends how to differentiate between a difference in practice and a difference in core doctrine.
Differences in PRACTICE among Christian denominations
- Style of worship
- The way a person is baptized
- Use of special clothing
- The way a church should be structured
- Belief about the time table for the last events of the world
- Meaning of the Lord’s supper
- Validity of certain spiritual gifts
Differences in CORE DOCTRINE that separate Christianity from cults
- Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man
- Jesus’ death on the cross was the payment for human sin
- It is necessary to have faith in Jesus to be made right with God
- Jesus had a miraculous birth being born of a virgin
- God exists as a Trinity of 3 persons: Father, Son, and Spirit
- Jesus will return a second time to judge the living and the dead
- There is a real heaven and hell
- The central issue of the Bible is Jesus Christ
- The Bible is the complete revelation of God’s will for all people since it is complete in explaining the way of salvation.
Consider this illustration:
There are many different kinds/models of cars. Some have 4 doors, some have 2. Some cars are red, some are blue. Some cars have 8 cylinder engines, some have 4. Yet they are all cars. If we open the hood of what looks like a car and find no engine in it, we would safely say it’s not really a car. It may have all the other things that make it look like a car: doors, seats, chrome, wheels, etc., but if it has no engine, it makes no sense to go for a ride in it.
It is the same way in Christianity. These core beliefs function like an engine; without one of them, Christianity ceases to function. Even if a group uses the Bible, sings Christian songs, and has a church building, this does not make the group Christian. Groups that deny one of these central beliefs are called “cults.”
Probably the biggest allure of a cult is that it is so well disguised as the real thing.
People are nice. The teaching sounds right. The words and concepts are familiar enough to assuage alarm. But there are some very real differences that can be exposed through doing what Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to do: “test everything; hold fast what is good.” As seekers and new Christians join our circles of influence, we should be proactive in teaching them how to test everything they hear, even what you tell them, against the words of the Bible.
Here are two simple questions to ask to expose counterfeit doctrine:
- Is the work of Jesus Christ essential to the message being preached?
The name of Jesus may be mentioned frequently in a cult, but if Jesus could be removed and the message remains essentially the same, it’s all a guise.
- Is the Bible considered to be inspired by God, inerrant in the original writings, and of supreme and final authority?
Cults may use the Bible in their teaching, but they will twist it. They will take it out of context, ignore sections, change sections, or add additional writings that are considered to have equal authority to the Bible. We are warned in the Bible to watch for people who would add or take anything away from its words.
B. Actions Contrary to the Bible
i. Some defining characteristics of cults
In addition to denying core doctrines taught in Scripture, cults typically employ some level of manipulation and control among their members. This can be tricky to sense at first and is hard to escape once one has been entangled in it. Some common cult practices to watch for include:
- Isolating people who join the cult from family and friends through psychological pressures and through brainwashing techniques
- Making the person dependent on the group by encouraging them to surrender their financial assets
- Discouraging personal thinking and expression of opinion through social disapproval and by strong leadership that demands total loyalty and allegiance
- Refusing medical assistance such as blood transfusions
- Asserting that the person will lose their relationship or good standing with God if they leave the group
ii. Questions to ask
A great way to expose cult practices before getting entangled in them is to ask questions of leaders and other members before joining any group. Some of these questions could include:
- How often do you visit your family?
- What is expected of members?
- What is disallowed?
- Do you ever disagree with your leader or the group’s teachings?
- Are you allowed to communicate your disagreement or doubts about what is true?
- Can you visit other churches? Would you consider your group the only true Christian group?
Their answers to these questions will give good insight into the inner workings and motivations of the group.
2. What Makes Cults Attractive?
Now that we know how to identify a cult, it’s important also to explore why someone might be attracted to it. Cults tend to indulge a felt need in an unhealthy way. In an article written for crosswalk.com, Dr. Roger Barrier identifies some of the common reasons a person is susceptible to joining a cult. Each reason comes down to the fact that a person swayed by a cult is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong places. By studying a list like this, we can help our international friends avoid these temptations by addressing the misconceptions before they happen. Following are Barrier’s list of reasons a person may be swayed by a cult and our breakdown of what misconception is believed in each case along with a defense of truth.
A. Desire for more commitment
Some are looking for an intense commitment. They see the lukewarm Christians all around them and turn to cults in exchange for their Christian faith because cults tend to demand more out of their members.
- Misconception: The religious mediocrity I see around me is caused by a flaw in the belief system.
- Truth: The religious mediocrity we see around us is caused by a flaw in humankind, that is, our tendency to sin. God wants his followers to be completely and utterly surrendered and passionate about his calling on their lives but very few Christians actually live that way. The church is broken in many ways, but the solution is not to “try harder” or “demand more” from yourself. The beauty of the gospel is that we can’t earn God’s forgiveness for our sins. Anything we do is a response to the grace we have already received when we humbly accepted God’s forgiveness because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
B. Desire for a deeper spiritual experience
Some are looking for a deeper spiritual experience. They see the lives of everyday Christians living out their lives in everyday ways and they want more. Along comes a dynamic personality boasting of superior godliness, and they are captivated by the promise of what could be.
- Misconception: I need to have miraculous experiences in my spiritual walk in order to have a true, growing relationship with God.
- Truth: Wanting a deeper spiritual experience is a good thing, but only as it relates to a relationship with Christ. If the experience itself becomes more highly sought after than Jesus, we have fallen into idolatry. Sometimes God will work in miraculous ways through us. Other times he works through calling us to faithful service when things appear to be static or even incredibly difficult. Seek God, not the experience.
C. Desire for black and white answers
Some are looking for an easy solution. They don’t want to make the wrong decision or have to wrestle with difficult issues, so it’s attractive to be dependent on a leader who tells them how to act in every situation.
- Misconception: I just want someone to tell me what to do.
- Truth: Having a black and white answer to every problem that presents itself would be nice, but God calls us to look to his word and to come to him in prayer for his wise guidance in the individual situations we encounter. Through seeking God’s answer, we are drawn into a deeper relationship with him rather than being told what to do by humans.
D. Desire for approval of actions
Some are looking for a belief system that agrees with the actions they have previously chosen to pursue. They are not looking for the truth. They just want an excuse to continue to live the way they are already living.
- Misconception: I want someone to tell me I’m right.
- Truth: If we crave a message that supports the beliefs we already have, we are falling into a selfish perspective on life that is closed and unteachable rather than open to the sanctifying work of God in our lives, making us more like Christ. This is the exact fulfillment of the prophecy in 2 Timothy 4:3; “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”
E. Desire for a safe place
Some are looking for an alternative to Christianity because they have been hurt. Maybe they lived through a church split or were disappointed by the actions of a fellow believer. These experiences could lead them to become disillusioned and to search for another group that seems fresh and new.
- Misconception: The church has failed me. I want to find somewhere else that’s safe.
- Truth: Unfortunately, the church is not a perfect place. We are a group of broken people, all in need of a Savior. The question is not whether we will be hurt by other Christians, but when. And when it happens, we are called to forgive, not run away. In the end, even when people fail us, God won’t. The security of God’s word and our relationship with him is the safest place for us to be.
Each of the desires listed above are a fallen reaction to our imperfect world. The ultimate truth is that all our deepest desires are met through a relationship with God if we seek answers in him rather than in the world. Our international friends need to be made aware of our common human downfalls and how to examine ourselves and our motives against what God calls us to be. By teaching and showing God’s truth compared to human downfalls we can help our friends avoid slipping (perhaps imperceptibly) into looking to fulfill their desires in the wrong places.
3. How to Help our International Friends
A. Pass on this brochure
Rich Mendola, CEO of IFI, wrote a brochure called “Distinguishing Between Christianity and Cults” for addressing cults with the international student audience. It’s a great resource that also was the basis for much of what is outlined in this article. You can download it for free here.
B. Encourage them to ask questions and seek truth
Because international students are not familiar with American customs or church practices, they could be an easy target for cult membership. Helping them understand the warning signs is the first step to giving them a good defense. Always encourage them to see the Bible as their ultimate source for truth and to ask questions of any group they consider becoming involved with.
C. Maintain unconditional friendship
Even if we do everything in our power to warn our friends of the dangers of cults, we cannot control their actions. What we can do is continue to love them and reach out no matter what. Through constant care and commitment, some international students have been rescued from the snares of cults and reestablished in loving Christian communities. Never assume your efforts are vain.
Christian groups based on the Bible encourage people to follow Jesus but use love as their only method. Guilt and fear are ruled out as acceptable means. Christian groups respect the right of individuals to make their own decisions and do not make their acceptance of the person dependent on these decisions, even if they cannot accept every action as right. Christian groups encourage believers in Jesus to love and honor their parents and to become a source of help and witness to their friends. True Christian groups encourage community but believe in individual thinking and productivity.
We recommend that international students experience Christian communities by enjoying the life and fellowship of true Christians. By doing so, we can help them avoid the dangerous practices and distorted beliefs of cults. There are many other cults and some Christian groups with cult-like practices other than the ones mentioned in this article. Students should ask questions about any group they become involved with, even International Friendships, Inc.
May the seed that you sow with your international friends fall on good soil and flourish.