by Rodgers Atwebembeire
How do I spot a cult? Or what one could call a false religious group? What are some of those characteristics that I can look at that can tell me that a certain religious group, or church, or organisation is in error theologically or sociologically and therefore Christians, or believers, need to be aware of it? There are a number of ways in which one can identify a cult – especially by looking at their characteristics.
1) They Distort Central Christian Teachings
Firstly, when we talk about a cult or a false religious group, we are thinking about a group that will distort the central teachings of the Christian faith. Those teachings without which one cannot claim to be Christian.
Teachings like the trinity: the belief that God has revealed Himself as one God in three persons. Teachings like the dual nature of Jesus: The Bible describing Jesus as both divine and human. Teachings like salvation by grace alone. When a group distorts some of these fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, ultimately it cannot lead its followers to eternal life.
2) Secondary Teachings are Elevated
Secondly, we could identify a cult as that group that will over emphasise or elevate what we call secondary doctrines of the Christian faith. So, 1) They may be distorting the primary, central teachings of the Christian faith. 2) Another way to look at it is that they may be elevating the secondary teachings of the Christian faith at the expense of the primary ones.
So, for instance, you might find a group that elevates the teaching of diet. That you must eat a certain particular foods as a Christian, and that becomes a basis by which you will either go to heaven or not. We have groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that will teach its members not to drink hot beverages and claims that these can affect your eternal destiny. We have groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, that will teach its members that unless they do door-to-door and spread the teachings of the movement, they cannot receive eternal life.
So, a group might elevate secondary doctrines that do not pertain to salvation. Or it might distort primary doctrines that are essential for one to be saved.
3) New Doctrines are Invented
Thirdly, they might do what we call inventing new doctrines. And we have several groups that are known to be cultic groups that have added or invented new doctrines that are not found in Scripture.
A case in point would be followers of William Marrion Branham who have a doctrine that is known as the ‘serpent seed‘ doctrine. Where they claim that the serpent had sexual intercourse with Eve. And that’s how the sinful human race comes about.
You have like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) that believes in the doctrine of pre-existence. Which teaches that before we came here on earth, we used to be spirit children of our heavenly father in heaven. They go even further by inventing the doctrine of the curse on the African race. While they may have repudiated that teaching in 1978, it still stands that this is a doctrine that we do not find in the Bible.
Again, we have the Seventh Day Adventists that has the doctrine of the investigative judgement. All these teachings are not found anywhere in the Bible but have been invented and added as part of Christian doctrine.
Other Ways to Spot a Cult
So, if I look at how a group deals with the primary teachings of the Christian faith, I look at how they have over-emphasised the secondary doctrines or the new doctrines they have added into the teachings of the Christian faith, I can easily tell whether a group is cultic or not.
False Claims to Apostolic or Prophetic Authority
But in terms of false teachings, there are number of ways in which they can also distort the fundamentals of our Christian faith. Like for instance they may promote teachings on revelation that distort or add to scripture in a way that leads people to destruction. Like false claims to apostolic or prophetic authority. Where eventually people express their trust in the authority of the apostle or the prophet rather than in Christ Himself.
“Only We Know the Truth of the Scriptures”
These might be groups that, for instance, will promote the teaching that is legalistic in nature or that promote licentiousness. In so doing they distort the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. This might be a group that promotes a teaching about the understanding of Church. They may promote attempts to lead people away from being Christians or from joining a particular Church. Groups like these will claim that their Church is the only true Church. And anyone else who is in another Church apart from this one is lost.
When you come across a group that claims to be the only one that knows the truth of the Scriptures; a group that distorts salvation by grace; a group that believes in revelation above and beyond the Bible; those are some of the signs and signals that this is a dangerous religious group. A false religious group, and therefore cultic.
Different Types of Cults
Now, as we learn to spot a cult, we see that some of these groups are categorised or differentiated. You will have those that are called foreign groups, those that are imported into a country. We have those that are indigenous; those that are born locally, by local preachers, local churches.
Phenomenas and Teachings
Some of these cultic groups are institutionalised. They are well organised. There is a statement of faith, with a good predictable leadership. But there are those others that are autonomous, that are individualistic. They are informal and may not have any statement of faith. Some of them might be manifesting themselves not as groups or institutions, but as phenomenas or teachings. Like for instance when we think about the prosperity gospel.
When we think about the teachings, the perversions of grace that we call hyper-grace movement, these are individuals or groups of people or networks that are not necessarily formal denominations or churches, but espouse teachings that closely mimic those of the Bible, but are serious deviations from what the Bible teaches.
The Best Way Spot a Cult
How do I spot a cult? I begin by looking at what the Bible teaches. Do they distort the central teachings of the Christian faith? Those that are primary? Do they over-emphasise secondary doctrines? Those that are not pertaining to salvation, but they make them look as though they determine your eternal destiny?
Do they add or invent new doctrines that do not have foundation or grounding in the Bible? I look at how they deal with the primary teachings of the Christian faith. Then I can easily tell whether this group is cultic or not. Whether this group has cultic tendencies or not.
Look Hard at What They Teach…
I want to look at what they teach about God. I want to look at what they teach about Christ, I want to look at what they teach about salvation, I want to look at what they teach about the Church, or even about the Scriptures themselves.
And if I find that they deviate from what the Bible reveals to be the true Christian teaching, then I can safely say that this is a false religious group. This is how to spot a cult.
Short Bio: Rev. Rodgers Atwebembeire is the Eastern Africa Regional Director of the Africa Centre for Apologetics Research (ACFAR), a ministry equipping believers in Africa for the defense of the faith, biblical discernment and cult evangelism. He is also the pastor of New City Community Church – a reformed Presbyterian Church in Kampala, Uganda. Rodgers lectures at several theological institutions on African Church history, Apologetics and New Religious Movements as well as serving on several Boards of like-minded para-church organizations.
Rodgers has a passion to expose error and exposit the scriptures, guiding others into a proper understanding of God’s word with the goal of developing discerning disciples for Christ that are able to defend their faith. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology with Apologetics at North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. Rodgers is married to Prossie Musiimenta and together they have one biological son and two foster daughters.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.