What are some ways to tell the difference between a cult and a legitimate Christian church?
Some simple criteria are listed below for examining a group's beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber (John 10:1).
Does the group accept the Bible as the written Word of God, or does it consider other documents of equal or greater importance than Scripture? Does Scripture provide the basis for its doctrine and the values of its members, or do leaders arbitrarily set the standards? The principles of Christian liberty and the priesthood of the believer can only be honored when Scripture is the ultimate judge of values.
A group that denies such basic doctrines as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the reality of a bodily resurrection, and salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ is clearly a cult.
CRITERION TWO: Unbiblical leadership
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:15-20).
A healthy Christian group has leaders of good character who uphold biblical standards for church discipline ( 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ). Leaders of integrity "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" ( Matthew 3:8 ; Mark 4:20 ; Luke 6:43-49 ; Ephesians 5:1-11 ; Colossians 1:10 ). Although no leaders are perfect (2 Corinthians 4:1-7 ), good leaders:
- Aren't arrogant and authoritarian but are open to admonishment and correction ( Mark 10:15 ; John 13:12-17 ; Galatians 2:11-16 ).
- Aren't enslaved to obvious vices ( 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ; 1 Timothy 3:1-7 ; 2 Timothy 3:1-7 ).
- Are growing in faith, wisdom, and allegiance to the truth( Exodus 18:21 ; Ephesians 4:11-16 ).
- Aren't tolerant of wickedness ( Psalm 15:1-5 ; Ephesians 5:11 ).
Superficially, cult leaders may appear trustworthy. However, on closer examination they are disturbed men or women of questionable motives and methods -- unscrupulous, manipulative, authoritarian, and immoral. They claim excessive personal authority, deny the principles of Christian liberty and the priesthood of the believer, and ignore the pattern Jesus established for settling conflicts within the church ( Matthew 18:15-17 ). Closer observation usually reveals that they are enslaved to sin in some obvious way: adulterers, liars, intimidators, slanderers, sexual addicts, substance abusers.
CRITERION THREE: Unhealthy group pressure and hostility to the truth
No group of people is perfectly dedicated to the truth. The corruption of the "the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does" ( 1 John 2:16 ) infects every congregation to some degree. Further, because every church is made up of a variety of people with a wide range of backgrounds, interests, and capacities, each will have a unique perspective. Differences in viewpoint and occasional errors are to be expected. But beyond such predictable imperfections, there are reasonable expectations that any legitimate church should fulfill.
A healthy church will deal with criticism or questions regarding its point of view openly, honestly, and patiently. (Some churches can be cult-like in their rigidity and defensiveness without being full-blown cults.) Cults, on the other hand, are defensive, evasive, or belligerent to an extreme when reasonable questions are raised. They foster an atmosphere of spiritual bondage through legalism and group intimidation ( 2 Peter 2:1-20 ). Many cults forbid their members to read literature that questions or disagrees with their own unique point of view. 1
CRITERION FOUR: Does the group separate itself from outsiders on the basis of arbitrary, unbiblical standards?
A healthy Christian group practices biblically defined separation from the world ( Matthew 5:20; John 17:15 ; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ). Cults,in contrast, often encourage their members to isolate themselves from the world in unbiblical ways. They will often encourage members to avoid contact with other Christians or even family members who don't belong to their particular group. They will define membership on the basis of an arbitrary list of "do's and don'ts." Anyone not willing to agree to the list is treated as an outsider.
The apostle Paul expressed a biblical attitude toward cultural truth when he said:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9:19).
All the standards listed above are important, but some are more essential than others. The first is crucial. Any departure from confidence in the authority of Scripture, orthodox doctrine, or salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone is a sure sign of a cult. Groups that fail the first test will almost always fail the last three as well. On the other hand, some groups that are not cults in the strictest sense due to their formal adherence to the first standard might be seriously deficient in one or more of the last three. In such a case the group should still be considered "cultic" or "cult-like," and avoided.
1 These are some key things to consider:
Does a group allow examination of its own history, or does it threaten to discipline or dismiss members who study it too closely?Does the group permit examination of its teachings in the light of Scripture?Does the group encourage discussion of its distinctives? ( Luke 1:3 ; 2 Timothy 3:10-15 ).
Has the group set up a system of salvation by works?