What Is a Cult?

© 1990 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
Drums beat in uneven syncopation. Exotic spices and incense fill the air with the swirling fragrance of another world. Red and gold silk glints in the flickering light. Dorothy feels her heart hammer against her chest, her throat so dry she can't swallow. She feels immobile against the panic that rises to cloud her vision. Dorothy is at the Hare Krishna temple to rescue her daughter, Shelly, from a cult. Never has she counted on the power of her faith in Christ as she did now, confronted by the temple leader, who abruptly tells her Shelly is gone, lost forever to her family and former Christian faith, dedicated to the worship and service of Krishna.

Later, as Dorothy shared her pain with her Bible study, she was met with a cacophany of opinions. "How could such a good girl have become such a deceiver? You know all those cults are just out for money and power." "How can you be so judgmental, Dorothy? She's just doing what's meaningful for her." "Those cults -- they're all into human sacrifices and mind control." "I talked to a Hare Krishna once and she said she believed in Jesus -- what's wrong with that?" Dorothy didn't know what to think. She had to find answers.

Dorothy is like a lot of Christians who hardly think about cults or other belief systems until someone they love becomes entangled in a faith that at odds with Christianity. Many times, the loved one is involved in a group that is much less obviously different than the Hare Krishnas. Frequently family members vacilate between thinking, on the one hand, the group is just another kind of Christianity or, on the other hand, the group must be a cult from the pit of hell. Dorothy and other concerned Christians need a clear understanding of what a cult is to begin their education.

Unfortunately, when Christians attempt to find out what a cult is, they discover that there are almost as many definitions of a cult as there are writers and speakers on the subject. Sociologists often define cults by their cultural idiosyncracies. Psychologists frequently talk about cults in terms of "mind control," "low self-esteem," "dominating leadership," etc. Journalists seem to describe cults in terms like bizarre, suicidal, secretive, and fanatical. Within the Christian church these variations sometimes are coupled with strong religious pronouncements that any group other than their own denomination is a cult, or some assume that any faith is better than no faith and think the term is always pejorative and should never be used by a Christian.

In the midst of this confusion of opinion, there is a core of biblical clarity that can help concerned Christians discern between truth and error, biblical standards and opinion. The term cult comes from the Latin cultus, meaning "worship," and originally meant a system of worship distinguishable from others. It quickly came to mean an aberrant form of worship identified in some way with a "parent" belief system. So, for example, the "mystery cults" of Greece and Rome were sectarian systems of worship of one or more of the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. According to this early definition, Christianity could be considered a "cult" of Judaism, deriving its identify from the Jewish faith, but differing from first century Judaism in its proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, the resurrected Son of God.

In this century, the Church has usually defined the term cult by doctrinal or theological standards. In this sense, a cult is a sectarian religious group that identifies itself with Christianity and yet fails one or more core doctrinal tests of orthodoxy. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, call themselves Christians, and yet deny the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity and resurreciton of Christ, among other doctrinal distinctives. The Mormons identify themselves as members of "The Church of Jesus Christ," but affirm the elevation of man to godhood and deny salvation by grace alone, as well as other doctrines contrary to biblical teachings. Most Christian cult watchers understand this doctrinal definition as contrasting the cult's beliefs with essential biblical doctrine concerning five areas: God (belief in one true God, the trinity, God's infinite and eternal nature and attributes, etc.); Jesus Christ (Second Person of the trinity, virgin born, died on the cross for us, resurrection, Second Coming, etc.); man (created in God's image, morally responsible, destined either for eternal life or eternal punishment, etc.); sin and salvation (all people are sinful and separated from God, salvation is by grace alone through faith, the atonement, etc.); and scripture (the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is God's infallible Word and the revelation from God by which we understand, worship, and serve God). A cult, then, is a religious group that identifies itself with Christianity, or at least claims compatibility with Christianity, and yet which denies one or more of these cardinal biblical doctrines.

Sociological, psychological, and journalistic observations sometimes show us the human dynamics that frequently result from a cult belief system, but they are not sufficient Christian foundations for determining a groups status as a cult. For example, a cult's unique doctrines can lead to an exclusivism and separateness from other religious groups. A cult's belief that the Bible's revelation is superceded by the current revelations of the cult leader may result in followers surrendering their thinking and decision making abilities to the cult leader. And the more aberrant a cult's beliefs and practices, the more likely it is to be characterized as bizarre.

Once Dorothy learned to identify a cult, she perused Hare Krishna literature and talked with the temple representative. She learned that, while Hare Krishnas say they believe in Jesus, they believe he was only one manifestation of Krishna, certainly not the unique Son of God manifest in the flesh. She learned their statement of compatibility with Christianity masked their conviction that Christianity is a low, spiritually ignorant groping after religious experience only attainable through devotion to Krishna. She discovered the Hare Krishna's polytheism (belief in the existence of more than one god) and salvation through an elaborate and multi-life (reincarnation) karmic system of works.

Dorothy located her daughter and arranged a meeting. Dorothy used 2 Timothy 2:24-26 as her pattern for confrontation: "And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (NIV). Dorothy knew not to argue with Shelly. She quietly asked Shelly to explain her beliefs, and then Dorothy explained her own biblical concerns with Shelly's faith. She continued to affirm her love for Shelly as she shared her disagreements with her. Her careful Bible study and research into Krishna teachings prepared gave enabled her to share confidently and clearly. She realized Shelly had been deceived, and she prayed for God to open her eyes. Gently and lovingly she shared the biblical gospel with Shelly, echoing Paul's confidence: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). Shelly didn't leave the Krishnas that morning, but Dorothy has hope. As Shelly left, she asked her mother to pray for her.

[For further information on cults and definitions of "cult," see Bob and Gretchen Passantino's two books Answers to the Cultist at Your Door (Harvest House) and Witch Hunt (Thomas Nelson), as well as Dr. Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults (Bethany House) and Walter Martin Speaks Out on the Cults (Regal).]

When They Come Knocking . . . .

"I want you to write a book on the cults to help my wife," the publisher explained. "She loves the Lord, but she needs a book that makes her confident enough that she'll thank God she answered the door to the Jehovah's Witnesses, instead of thanking God she was in the shower and didn't hear the doorbell." That publisher's wife echoed the fears of many Christians who want to share their faith with cultists, but don't know how. In the almost two decades we've spent witnessing to cultists, and the decade since publication of our Answers to the Cultist at Your Door (Harvest House), the Lord has given us hundreds of opportunities to observe and participate in witnessing successes and failures. God has taught us to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). He has taught us that our delusions of argumentation grandeur do nothing to bring cultists to the truth; God gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:7).

At the core of successful witnessing to the cults is commitment to God's pattern of evangelism: "And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26). This combines a heart for people lost in darkness, along with a commitment to solid reasons for biblical faith. This combination heart/head technique provides the Christian with confidence and the cultist with the best opportunity to hear and respond to the truth of the gospel.

Our publisher's wife began with her compassionate heart, aching for those deceived by false belief. She was eager for them to know Jesus as their Savior. She didn't view cultists as devils, enemies, or hopelessly spiritually insane; but instead as sincere but deceived individuals for whom Christ had died. The vast majority of cultists we have met, caught in sin like all humanity, are kind, sincere people who believe they are worshipping and serving God. Unless a Christian can have empathy and identify with the cultist, successful witnessing will be elusive. Several years ago one of our new interns, Greg, learned this lesson quickly. He came with four years of Bible college knowledge about the cults. As he told us, "I'm ready to trounce those cultists!" He accompanied us as we witnessed to a woman who had been a Jehovah's Witness for most of her life. While our encounter centered around biblical truth concerning the trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace, the woman's main concern was more personal. She saw the truth of our arguments, but she was afraid to believe. She told us tearfully, "If I've been deceived for thirty years, how can I know for sure this is right? What if I'm wrong and Jehovah rejects me for all eternity?" After assurance and further conversation, the woman prayed with us to receive Christ. We rejoiced on the way home, but Greg was strangely silent. Finally he confessed, "I feel like a fool. Here I had all this head knowledge but I had no idea Jehovah's Witnesses were real people. I would have completely turned her off by my accusations and rebukes. Thank God you guys were doing the talking!"

When you talk with a cultist, remember that he or she is just like you were before you became a believer, with the same dreams, hopes, doubts, and fears:

  1. Treat the cultist as you would like to be treated (the "Golden Rule" of cult apologetics).
  2. Even if you don't have all the answers, your compassion, genuine interest, and willingness to look for the answers will encourage the cultist to take your words seriously.
  3. Be sure to separate the deception of the cult from the sincerity of the cultist, who sincerely believes what he or she has been taught.
  4. Stress the positives the cultist will gain from biblical repentance and faith, rather than continuously focusing on the negatives of cult belief. (One Mormon asked us, "So, even if you're right about the Mormon Church, what else is there for me?")
Christians who have plenty of "heart" but not much "head" need to concentrate on the facts of biblical faith for successful communication with cultists. God has given us the ability to think, reason, and evaluate as part of our being made in God's image. Although we often make mistakes in our thinking due to our inherent sinfulness, God commands us to use our minds as part of good evangelism: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). When our publisher's wife became adequately prepared in her Bible knowledge as well as her understanding of cult doctrines, she was able to greet cultists with a clear message of biblical truth.

  1. Learn basic Christian doctrine. There is no substitute for truth. The best way to recognize a counterfeit is to be familiar with the genuine.
  2. Concentrate on core biblical doctrines, those concerning God, Jesus Christ, the nature of man, sin and salvation, and scripture. Peripheral doctrines such as the timing of the Second Coming or modes of baptism are not essential for salvation.
  3. Carefully evaluate your own vocabulary and that of the cultist. Be sure you are communicating clearly. For example, Christians understand the term "Son of God" to affirm the deity of Christ; Jehovah's Witnesses use the same term, but mean "the Mighty creation by God."
  4. Always include a clear presentation of the gospel. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ on our behalf, according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). It is irresponsible to destroy a cultist's beliefs without sharing how to be saved.
  5. Don't assume you know what the cultist believes. Show personal interest by asking him to tell you what he believes. Then answer biblically.
  6. Consult responsible Christian sources for information about what the cults teach and how to answer them from scripture. The wealth of good Christian material means you don't need to read cult publications or Christian publications that are not well-referenced and theologically sound.
We received a call from a woman who had attended one of our training sessions on witnessing to cultists. She was so excited we asked her to slow down. "I did it! I did it!" She laughed, "I mean, the Lord did it! And boy did He do it! I'm so excited! I've been studying and praying for a month for one of my employees who's a Jehovah's Witness. I never knew what to say to her, but I learned, and this morning we talked for three hours. I can't believe it! She saw the truth and prayed with me right then to accept Christ! This is fantastic!" We rejoiced with her, praising God for giving the increase and thanking Him for giving us hearts and minds to be used by the Holy Spirit to reach those lost in the cults.

For Further Help

When you are faced with a loved one in a cult, or you don't know how to share your faith with a cultist you know or who approaches you, you can find specific help from many different organizations dedicated to sharing the gospel with the cults. There are nearly 700 organizations worldwide engaged in research and evangelism of the cults, the occult, and world religions. Some are very small, volunteer organizations; some support large, professional staffs. Some charge for basic services, some don't. Some tackle many different belief systems and some are dedicated to evangelizing one particular cult or belief (e.g., Mormonism, reincarnation, etc.).

The Directory of Cult Research Organizations lists 652 of these cult research organizations and is an invaluable resource for pastors, church leaders, teachers, and Christians who are concerned with evangelizing cultists. It is available for $6.00 (plus $2.00 shipping) from Cornerstone, 920 W. Wilson, Chicago, IL 60640, telephone (312) 989-2080.

When you contact any organization, be sure to include a stamped, self-addressed business size envelope. If you request materials, be prepared to pay and thoughtfully include an adequate donation. Non-profit organizations often have very limited budgets.

In addition to the Directory, information is available from the cult research organization coalition, Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR). EMNR provides networking, conferences, and acts as a clearing house for cult research organizations. You may contact EMNR by writing Bob Passantino, Executive Director, EMNR, P.O. Box 2067, Costa Mesa, CA 92628.

Recommended Cult Research Organizations



Answers In Action
P.O. Box 2067
Costa Mesa, California 92628
(949) 646-9042
Answers In Action c/o aia@answers.org

The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26