Following is my definition of a cult. There are a few disciplines in which to define the word, such as psychology and sociology, but this is a theological definition. Further, it is Christ centered and will thus provide the Christian with a christocentric lens through which to discern religious movements. First I’ll give the four-step definition, and then I’ll break down each portion and put flesh on each portion.
(1) The word “cult” means “group,” “sect,” “religion,” “movement,” or what have you. (2) We want to find out what a group teaches about four important areas of doctrine: God (especially Jesus), humanity, sin, and salvation. (3) When the group teaches heresy concerning any of the above (especially concerning who Jesus is), it is either a pseudo-Christian or a non-Christian group. (4) Pseudo-Christian groups claim to be Christian, non-Christian-groups do not.
(1) Cult = Group
You may choose never to use the word “cult,” because the words “pseudo-Christian” and “non-Christian” are most important. Then you can simply add “group” or “religion” or “sect” or “movement.”
(2) Four Areas of Doctrine
Now comes the heart of the issue. What does the group teach about God, humanity, sin, and salvation? I list God first, for if this is off base, then it is likely that the other areas are heretical as well. For example, the New Age Movement generally teaches that all is God. If all is God, then that makes each human being God. If each person is God, then each person is not a sinner. If we are not sinners, there is no need for the biblical doctrine of salvation.
Space prohibits opportunity for a detailed explanation of all four areas, so I’ll focus on the most important area—God. Narrowing even further, the person of Christ becomes the focal point.
What a person or group thinks about Jesus Christ is the acid test to determine whether or not that person or group is inside the Christian camp. Why? Why is Christology so important? First, when the true and living God introduced himself to Moses at the burning bush, he said of himself, “I AM” (Exod. 3:14). A designation, or name if you will, of the God of the universe is “I AM.” Second, Jesus in John 8:58 claims, “Before Abraham came into existence, I AM.” Here Jesus claims to be God the Son, Yahweh in the flesh (see John 1:1,14). Third, and finally, the reason that the identity of Jesus is essential comes in John 8:24: “If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” I take this to mean that anyone who intently denies who Jesus claimed to be will die in his or her sins.
(3) Heresy Concerning Jesus
In 2 Corinthians 11:4 Paul writes of those who preach “another Jesus.” We can apply this to our times: There are among us today counterfeit Christs. The “Jesus” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is Michael the Archangel, the first creature created by Jehovah God. “Jesus is not God the Son,” say the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The “Jesus” of the Mormon church is the first spirit-child born to Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother (a resurrected god and Goddess, both possessing body parts, who had intercourse in order for Heavenly Mother to become pregnant with the spirit-child Jesus). Mormons further believe that Jesus became a god as a spirit-child. Then, in order for Jesus to gain a body on earth, Heavenly Father came to Mary and had intercourse with her. The “Jesus” of Christian Science is not God. The “Jesus” of the Unification Church is not God, and he failed to accomplish his mission on earth (which should have been producing sinless offspring with his wife) by getting crucified.
(4) The Claim to Be Christian, or Not
All the above groups claim to be Christian, but teach heresy in their understandings of Jesus. Thus they are pseudo-Christian. Some non-Christian groups are Hare Krishna, other Hindu groups, various Buddhist religions, Islam, modern-day Judaism, fraternal organizations such as the Masonic Lodge, Eastern Star, DeMolay, Rainbow Girls, Job’s Daughters and Odd Fellows, and all New Age groups (included here is the Unity School of Christianity).
If you choose to accept my definition, there is a third type of cult-group-religion, the Christian group. This is the body of believers, worldwide, who believe in the essentials of Christianity, such as the Trinity (which includes the person of Jesus as fully God and fully man, and the Holy Spirit as a person and as God), the virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection of Jesus, and Jesus as the only way of salvation (by grace through faith in Christ alone).
The Resurrection of Jesus
Pseudo- and non-Christian groups frequently deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus (see John 2:19-22 for proof that Jesus was bodily resurrected). For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim Jesus was raised from the dead, but say his resurrection was in spirit only—after he died his body was forever gone. By the phrase “Jesus was raised from the dead” Christian Scientists mean that Jesus’ mind was raised from dead thoughts to living thoughts.
Breaking the Sound Barrier
From the above two examples you see that people in pseudo-Christian groups sound like the real thing when making theological statements. Thus, when dealing with people in other religions (especially pseudo-Christian) it is imperative that you ask the person to whom you are talking to define the terms s/he is using. This is especially true when a person states something with “Jesus” in the phrase. Which “Jesus” are they talking about? (Remember that there are counterfeit Christs.) Also, keep in mind that Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and other pseudo-Christian groups may even end prayers with “in the name of Jesus,” but all the while they define Jesus in a way that is totally opposite from what the Bible teaches. When asking a person to define terms you are beginning to break the sound barrier, that is, you are breaking through and exposing as false the Christian-sounding terminology of the person.
A Final Word
When talking people from other religions it is imperative that we treat them as Jesus would treat them. There is much to this statement—it is not just a catchphrase. Every situation is different, because people are different. They join pseudo- and non-Christian cults for a legion of reasons. Some are simple followers who may not even know the core doctrines of the group; others may know the doctrines, but remain in the cult for reasons other than the theological or the spiritual. Others are in because of the doctrines, and among these we may find those who are teachers and leaders (and remember that Jesus treated the false teachers and false leaders differently, with much more severity). In every situation pray that the Holy Spirit gives you the approach that Jesus would use.