I received an interesting email which brings up a topic I’ve been wanting to write on: What do we do when Christians label teaching material we like or find value in as “from a cult” and reject it as “deception” and, maybe, us as “heretics,” along with it? Does avoiding anything labeled a cult actually work to keep us from “deception” and “heresy?” Who decides which ministries are cults, which teachings are heretical and which are not, anyway? Let’s consider this important and common bogeyman of Christian culture.
A Concerned Christian Warns His Friend of Cult Material
Tim, I have a facebook friend from the USA and we email and comfort each other, pray for each other; but now he puts pressure on me saying I should get out of the “cult” (Tomorrow’s World magazine and TV programmes I love as well as United Church of God).
Here is what he said: “I live in America. The WWCG is a cult, and was discredited many years ago. The Living Church of God is a cult also. You must get rid of their stuff immediately! A cult has just enough truth to grab you, and then it will drag you into deception very quickly. I do not wish to offend you, but my spirit picked up on the connection as soon as you mentioned it. The stuff that I read when I looked up what you mentioned before, and it’s off. The original WWCG became an evangelical christian church with the help of Jack Hayford. But Armstrong’s son, Garner Ted Armstrong went off and kept the cult going. The Living Church of God is an offshoot of the OLD Armstrong cult. By the way, Herbert Armstrong started out as an Assemblies of God minister, but got into deception. I would advise you to get rid of the stuff you have from anybody associated with the LCoG.”
If you have been a Christian much time, I’m sure you’ve received similar warnings about “cults.” They warn you of “heresy” and “deception” and to cut off association with anything they deem a “cult” or you may be picked off and, I guess, fall into heresy and ultimately lose your salvation?
If not, then it’s important to clarify so you don’t misunderstand. When Christians warn about cults, they’re not really talking about something like a Jim Jones cult with mass death by drinking poisoned Kool-aid or a David Koresh Branch Dividian-style cult you go to live with in their compound in Waco, Texas. The kind of cults that tell you what to think, what to do, and what to believe.
No, the only cults that average Christians encounter don’t ask you to move in or have sex with them or anything else so extreme. They simply share their “unorthodox” perspective on the Scripture on their websites. The fact that they teach unorthodox views merits them the label of cult by mainstream, orthodox Christianity.
This logic results in even big, recognized Christian denominations to be labeled cults, such as Mormonism (Joseph Smith), Jehovah’s Witnesses (Joseph Franklin Rutherford), Christian Science (Mary Baker Eddy) and even Seventh Day Adventists (Ellen White).
What is a cult, then?
Walter Martin in his book, Rise of the Cults, defined cultism as:
“…any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.”
What are the “cardinal doctrines?” By definition they are what the majority agrees they are. Since Christianity comes in many difference flavors or denominations that disagree with each other doctrinally, these cardinal doctrines consist of the very few doctrines they can agree on.
For example, if you are in a church or movement that rejects Christmas, that’s a strike against you. You will be eyed suspiciously.
This seems reasonable at first glance. After all, there is “safety in numbers” and “a billion Chinese can’t be wrong.” If a church rejects what most others accept, there must be something wrong with them. This appeals to our sheep instinct, which gets a bad rap, but is not as bad as it sounds. It keeps us safe and helps us solve problems in many situations. Sheep instinct lets you learn to line dance by watching and following the crowd.
Truth By Majority Vote?
However, rightly understanding the written revelation of God is far more complicated and nuanced than learning line dancing. Sheep instinct will fail us if we are following the majority to determine truth.
The truth is not a matter of consensus, decided by committee or majority vote.
The Bible contains hidden “mysteries” (Mt 13:11) that require rare wisdom (Rev 13:18). Even apart from the harder mysteries, the Bible text requires interpretation, which is a highly subjective activity. It’s not uncommon to find that the majority hold to a “Bible doctrine” that is a gross misinterpretation.
Take Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Einstein could not make “three days and three nights” fit between a mid-afternoon Friday burial and a pre-sunrise Sunday resurrection. Yet this is the accepted “orthodox” doctrine that the majority believes and even thinks is Scriptural.
I personally believe a “Good Thursday” fits all the Gospel details best. So that makes me a heretic on the doctrine of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the eyes of those who hold to the mathematically impossible majority view.
Christianity Teaches Traditional Doctrines, Not the Bible
Of course, some will dismiss Good Friday as a side issue. Not a core or “cardinal” issue. I would agree.
But that misses the larger ramification of this example: If you can see how Christianity upholds doctrines that clearly violate basic math “because of their tradition” (Mk 7:13) then you ought to wonder, “What else does Christianity teach falsely out of tradition that perhaps is not so easy to detect like the Good Friday error?”
If you are one of the minority of Christians who actively studies the whole Bible yourself (way less than 5%), you know the answer to that is “tons.” Christianity is so full of error because of its preference for honoring traditions that it would make your head explode if you heard it all at once:
- Christmas is nowhere taught in the Bible. It came from pagan worship of Nimrod (his birthday).
- Easter is not Christian Passover, but rather worship of another fertility goddess, some say Ishtar, others disagree saying its Oestara, etc.
- The steeple on churches is a phallic symbol borrowed from pagan fertility shrines.
In brief, Christianity has no problem with teaching whatever traditions it likes, regardless of what the Bible says, including what Jesus says, too.
I’m not saying you should not celebrate Christmas or not attend a church with a steeple. Or not go to church at all. That’s up to you and your own comfort level.
My point is this: those Christians who warn others about the “deception” of cults don’t realize that they are already in a cult teaching them mostly deception and telling them what to think, believe and do.
Teaching of Jesus Ignored
Nevertheless, while these examples above and the other pagan traditions and misunderstanding of the Bible taught in Christianity are disturbing, they are all still relatively minor. They are not salvation issues. It would be unwise to react this situation by avoiding and worrying about everything pagan or every false tradition. Avoidance is not a great focus to have; it’s negative.
What is critical is how the teaching and life and example of Jesus is grossly mishandled by Christianity. His “Gospel of the Kingdom” is neglected completely as is the focus on the Kingdom of God (no, it’s not heaven!). Christianity does not rigorously train members in Jesus’ words and how to apply them. His words and example are admired, but the focus is on Christian theology and tradition.
Unlike Christianity, Jesus did not talk about having the right beliefs, doctrines or theology. He focused on faith and obedience to God: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He focused on right attitudes and behavior. He focused on repentance.
Do you know who was focused or obsessed with the right doctrines and right theology? The Pharisees and other Jewish religious sects of Jesus’ day!
If you worry about theology, doctrine, or “heresy” you are like a Pharisee and not like Jesus. You are following religion, not following the Word of God.
By the way, Jesus only spoke God’s truth and Word without added traditions or theological theory. Yet he was considered an unlearned (uncredentialed) heretic by the religious. They even said he was possessed by a demon when he disagreed with or contradicted their teaching.
Don’t Listen to Judgmental, Religious Policemen Unlike Jesus
Christianity and Judaism are both religions concerned with rules, regulations, traditions, beliefs and doctrines. They criticize and expel those who they don’t agree with or don’t support their artificial standards, don’t think and belief the way they do.
This is the opposite of the inclusive and tolerant approach Jesus showed. He kept company with sinners and even the Pharisees who were his main critics and enemies.
My point is when a mainline Christian tells you that you’re reading heretical, deceptive or cultic material, take it with a big grain of salt. It is only their non-authoritative, unqualified opinion. These Christians are themselves deceived by their “religious cult” (called a denomination) from whom they received their ideas of right vs. heretical beliefs. This does not make them an authority on deception. It just makes their judgment very ironic, if not hypocritical.
The Solution To Deception
The Bible says we’re all deceived (Rev 12:9). That includes Christians whether they think so or not. Or as you may now realize after reading this far, especially Christians who are afraid of studying outside what their religious leaders don’t approve.
Thankfully, deception on what the Bible says is, generally speaking, not the end of the world or the certain doom that mainstream Christianity makes it out to be to its (cult) members. If you are deceived on the rapture timing, it won’t stop you from being snatched up whenever it does comes. If you still love God and are willing to “die unto yourself” to serve and obey him, then you’re going to be fine.
If you worry about deception, the solution is definitely not to limit what you study and what you explore to what your cult/denomination tells you is safe! The solution is to read every Bible teaching you can get your hands on and compare it all to the Bible like a good Berean (Acts 17:11). Your discernment will grow and you will recognize deception and reject it—usually only after you’ve already believed it for years (thank you, Christianity). Again, that’s OK. It’s only a danger to your ego.
However, when you prejudge study material by comparing it first to what your religious leaders tell you is safe, you have failed to act as a Berean. You’ve only been a good, obedient cult member.
Don’t listen to the religious police or fear them calling you a heretic or the materials you study as deceptive or heresy. They prove they are worse deceived than you by giving you such advice.
If you let your interests lead your study of the Bible and always compare what you read to your Bible, you will be OK. You will also be on your way to understanding what the Bible really says instead of what religion says it does.
Eventually, focus your study specifically on the words of Jesus like I have been doing more and more in recent years. (Wish I had chosen this focus earlier!) Find out what he said to do that you are not in compliance with yet. Focus on learning how to do these attitudes and actions more and more. Do that, and you will actually grow to become like Jesus, just as his disciples did (John 13:35). Concept!
That way, unlike those following religion and listening to their cult, you won’t hear the surprising scary words, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Mt 7:21-23).