General Articles | Cult/Sect Overview (Interfaith Evangelism)

BELIEF BULLETIN


Cults, Sects, and New Religious Movements
North American Mission Board, SBC

Americans and Canadians have seen much in the media in recent decades about the phenomena of cults and sects. The tragic mass suicide of the People's Temple in Guyana, the horrific flaming destruction of the Branch Davidians in Texas, the self-destruction of the oddball members of heaven's Gate in California, and the deadly collapse of the Solar Temple in Quebec have shocked North Americans into a realization that many Americans and Canadians are deeply involved in strange and dangerous religious movements.

Christians especially have become more aware of this growing situation. However, most do not have a clear understanding of what, constitutes a cult or a sect, or know how to determine if a religious movement or church is authentically Christian.

This belief bulletin describes characteristics of cults and sects, and highlights principles for evaluating a religious movement's authenticity. It also provides specific guidelines for witnessing to people in cults and sects.

WHAT IS A CULT OR SECT?

Different definitions of the terms "cult" and "sect" are used by researchers, writers, and speakers in various fields of study. Most secular experts rely primarily on sociological, psychological, or behavioral factors and usually do not consider doctrinal or theological issues when evaluating specific religious movements.

Christian discernment ministries, however, normally begin with a careful examination of a group's stated doctrinal beliefs before considering other significant factors. They usually agree that the following are common characteristics of movements designated cults or sects.

Cults or sects are religious movements, churches, or other organizations that have all or some of the following characteristics:

  1. Cults and sects usually claim to be biblically-based, Christian organizations. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) maintains that it is a Christian church centered on Christ and his teachings. The Christian Science church also often refers to itself as a Christian movement.
  2. All cults deny or redefine any or all essential Christian doctrines. Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, absolutely deny the deity of Jesus Christ. The LDS redefines the Trinity to mean the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate personages or gods.
  3. Sects may adhere officially to essential Christian teachings while exhibiting other of these characteristics. The International Church of Christ, for example, adheres to traditional views about God and Christ, but members regard their movement as the only one proclaiming the true message of salvation today.
  4. Cults and sects usually claim to be led by divinely inspired leaders. They usually believe their leaders are capable of receiving direct revelation from God or have a special, inspired understanding of the Bible. One example is Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church. His followers regard him as Lord of the Second Advent," a position equal to that of Christ. The LDS believes its president is a "living prophet, seer, and revelator" who can receive direct revelation from God.
  5. Cults and sects usually claim to possess a new and inspired written scripture that supplements or supersedes the authority of the Bible. Christian Science teaches that Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is an inspired adjunct to the Bible. Likewise, Scientologists regard the writings of L. Ron Hubbard as the works of a genius who discovered the keys to understanding life and death.
  6. Cults and sects usually claim be the only true (or most true) church in the world. Full salvation is said to be found only by membership in the movement. Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, regard all other religious organizations as devoid of truth. In their view, only their Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has the truth that leads to eternal life. The LDS teaches that eternal life (exaltation) can be achieved only by being a baptized member of the LDS church.

PRINCIPLES FOR EVALUATING RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS

In light of these characteristics, mature and discerning Christians (see Heb. 5:14) should ask the following questions when they encounter unfamiliar religious movements.

  1. What is the source of the movement's authority for doctrine and practice? Do members rely on the Bible alone or add some other book(s) that is equal to or supersedes its authority? Do they depend only on a special leader or leaders to interpret the Bible for them?
  2. Does the movement clearly affirm, basic historic Christian teachings? What do its leaders believe about the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, and plan for salvation?
  3. What is the movement's attitude toward other Bible-believing Christian groups? Do its leaders view them with any degree of suspicion, or rejection? Do they insist you must be a member of their group to be assured of salvation? Also, does the movement regard people who leave or wish to leave the organization with scorn or good will?
  4. How does the movement explain the way of salvation? Do its leaders affirm salvation by grace through Christ alone, or is it by works, church membership, or obedience to the group's leaders?

The answers to the above questions can help sincere Christians evaluate the truth and motives of most religious movements. In any case, Christians should develop cautious relationships with religions they do not understand.

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