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 Interfaith Evangelism 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
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
Cults or sects are religious movements, churches, or
other organizations that have all or some of the following
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.
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 as three separate personages or
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.
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
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.
Cults and sects usually claim to 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.
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?
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 of salvation?
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?
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.
Major Cults and Sects in North America
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
United Pentecostal Church (Oneness Pentecostalism)
Unitarian Universalist Association
Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day
Unity School of Christianity
International Church of Christ
The Way International
Church of Scientology International
Nation of Islam
Witnessing to People in Cults & Sects
Have a clear understanding of the biblical basis of
historic Christian doctrine. Focus particularly on biblical
teachings about the nature of God, the person and work of Jesus
Christ, the plan of salvation, and life after death.
Take the initiative in the witnessing encounter and
seek to develop a friendly relationship with the person in the cult
or sect. Remember, you are sharing Christ with a person, not just
debating a movement's doctrine.
Listen carefully to determine how committed the
person is to the cult or sect and its teachings.
Establish the sole authority of the Bible. Be aware
of how cults and sects may misuse the Bible, often quoting verses
out of context or using symbolic meanings.
Define all terms clearly. Remember, cults and sects
often redefine standard Christian or biblical terms to accommodate
their preconceived doctrines. Explain carefully what you mean by the
words you use and ask the person in the cult or sect to do the same.
Focus on basic issues and do not get side-tracked
with secondary issues or defending your denomination.
Share your testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.
Describe your salvation experience and relationship with Christ in
personal terms. Center on God's grace as shown in the life, death,
and resurrection of Jesus. Avoid emphasizing emotional feelings, but
focus on your assurance of eternal life through Christ.
Explain carefully the biblical plan of salvation.
Emphasize the following points:
God's desire is that all people have eternal
life. (see Rom. 6:23b; John 3:16, 10:10, 14:3)
People have a problem which is sin. (see Rom.
God's only provision for sin is Jesus Christ.
(see John 1:1,14; Rom. 4:25; 1 Pet. 3:18)
Each person must repent of his or her sin and
by faith receive Jesus as his or her Lord and Savior. (see John
1:12; Acts 3:19, 26:20; Eph. 2:8,9)
Pray earnestly, be patient, and trust the Holy
Spirit to lead you in your witnessing to people in cults and sects.