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General Bible Courses > Living by the Book > Counterfeits by the Book

Chapter 1: Cults and Historical Heresy


IN THIS CHAPTER, you will discover:

• Cultists as ordinary people.

• The general characteristics of cults.

• Cultic activity from biblical to modern times.

• The central heresies behind cult doctrines.

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:

• Express a Christ-like attitude toward cultists.

• Define and recognize a religious cult.

• Understand the origin of ancient and modern cults.

• Discern the root errors of cultic beliefs.

Introduction to Cults

Reading: Another Gospel (AG), pp. 11-14

Key Scripture: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).

Key Word: Founder.

For many, the term “cult” calls up images of murder, kidnapping, brainwashing, mass suicide, and bizarre rituals. Cultists are commonly caricatured as glassy-eyed zombies–an image that arouses fear and derision. Dr. Tucker reminds us that the first step in reaching out to cultists is to think of them as ordinary people, not as “nameless faces who are part of a movement or organization” (AG, p. 11). We should not approach cultists with fear, hatred, or ridicule. Rather, we should genuinely respect their intelligence and sincerity as well as acknowledge that they are precious in God’s sight (1 John 2:2).

Once this attitude is in place, compassion must be added to our understanding. The apostle Peter wrote: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). A thorough knowledge of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith is indispensable for those witnessing to cultists. We must be familiar with the genuine article to recognize a spiritual counterfeit. To have serious dialogue with a cult member, it is also necessary to understand accurately what they believe.

Dr. Tucker’s approach to teaching about the beliefs of non-Christian cults is to focus historically on their founders. Religious groups invariably express not only their founder’s ideas, but also his or her character. Christianity is a good illustration of this principle. As E. Stanley Jones once remarked: “I defined Christianity as Christ” (p. 12). Similarly, former Mormon president Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “Mormonism . . . must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God divinely called . . . or he is one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground” (p. 13).

In our study we will investigate the lives and thoughts of Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Herbert W. Armstrong, Victor Paul Wierwille, Sun Myung Moon, and many others. We will evaluate their teachings sincerely and objectively, honoring what is worthy and condemning what is evil (Rom. 12:9). Above all, we will test everything against the standard of the person of Christ, who is truth (John 14:6; cf. 8:31-32).

Key Concepts:

1. Our attitude toward those in cults should be a) fear; b) ridicule; c) care;
d) curiosity. [11-12]

2. Why do you think cultists deserve respect for their beliefs? [11-12] 

3. What is the main reason people join cults? [12] 

4. To understand the beliefs of cultists, we must get to know their _________ .

5. What is the best argument for the deity of Christ? [12] _________________ ______________________________________ .

6. The truth of Christianity stands or falls on ____________________ . [12]

7. What implications does E. Stanley Jones’ statement about Christ have for presenting Christianity to cultists? [12-13] ___________________________________________ .

8. The truth of Mormonism stands or falls on _____________________ . [13]

Further Study: To solidify your understanding of the foundations of Christian belief, review closely Appendix C of AG–“Major Tenets of Orthodox Christianity,” AG pp. 399-406.

Life Application: Religious groups and their members generally express the character of their founders. Do you express the character of Christ in your witness? Are you acquainted with anyone in a cult? Do you treat them in such a way that they can see Christ in you?

Cults and Historical Heresy

Reading: Another Gospel (AG), pp. 15-30

Key Scripture: “I admit that I worship the God of our followers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect”–Paul to the Roman governor Felix (Acts 24:14).

The term “cult” is an ambiguous one. A cult (from the Latin cultus, meaning “worship” or “reverence”) is simply a band of worshippers. Historically, cults have tended to be obscure, reactionary fringe movements. For this reason, the word has taken on a negative connotation and is often used in a derogatory sense. However, to label a religion as a cult only signifies that the group being spoken of is different from that of the speaker. Before the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire in a.d. 313, it was regarded as a Jewish cult. Today Messianic Jews are still regarded as cultists by many Jews.

If we are to use the term “cult,” we must define it more precisely. Look closely at the provisional definition offered by Jim Sire on page 16 of Another Gospel. Here cults are defined as religious groups that deviate from or pervert orthodox Christian doctrine. Our primary standard for labeling a religious group as a cult will be the heretical nature of its doctrine. Listed below are some characteristics commonly associated with cults.

Founded by a prophetic figure. Cults are founded by strong, charismatic leaders who consider themselves to be mouthpieces of God. Their absolute authority often creates absolute dependence in their followers. In this sense every cult is a personality cult.

Claims of special revelation. Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon, and Victor Paul Wierwille are among the many cult leaders who claim to have spoken directly and audibly with God (AG p. 226).

Exclusivism. Most cults consider themselves to be the “one true church.” Joseph Smith declared that God told him “all [Christian] creeds were an abomination in his sight” and those professing such creeds “were all corrupt” (AG p. 51).

Proclamation of a “restored” gospel. Cult leaders often maintain that the true gospel of Christ was lost soon after Christ’s death, and is being reestablished through their teachings. Herbert W. Armstrong claimed: “The gospel of Jesus Christ was not proclaimed to the world from about a.d. 50 until the year 1953” (AG p. 205).

Extra-biblical scriptures or authority. The Book of Mormon (Mormonism), Science and Health (Christian Science), and The Divine Principle (Unification Church) are examples of “scriptures” that supersede the authority of the Bible in cults. In other cases, the peculiar interpretation of the Bible expounded by cult authorities effectively overrides the Bible’s own clear meaning (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Worldwide Church of God, The Way International).

God and Jesus are humanized. According to the Mormon eternal law of progression, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become” (AG p. 81). Victor Wierwille published a book entitled Jesus Christ Is Not God, a statement with which most major cults would agree. Many New Age and occult groups see Christ not as a person, but as an office–the “Christ consciousness”– that can be achieved by humans through spiritual development (AG p. 363).

Apocalyptic date-setting. Many cults claim privileged information concerning the end times. The Jehovah’s Witnesses prophesied that the end of the world would occur in 1914; Herbert W. Armstrong chose the date 1972. Sun Myung Moon is the present Lord of the Second Advent. Many New Age teachers predict an imminent, perhaps cataclysmic, change in society and human nature.

Occult tendencies. Magic and spiritism are an essential part of much cultic activity. Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon, David Berg, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet are a few of the cult leaders who have had spirit guides. Channeling (acting as a spirit medium) is a significant part of New Age spirituality (AG pp. 326-28).

De-emphasis of eternal punishment. Cults radically reinterpret or totally disregard biblical teachings concerning hell (AG p. 141).

Salvation by works. Cults teach that salvation does not come through the grace of God freely given in Christ, but through rigorously keeping the precepts of the cult (AG p. 141).

Legalistic and authoritarian. Rules of cultic organizations and leaders are to be accepted and obeyed without question. These policies often control every aspect of members’ lives (AG pp. 276-78).

Exploitative. Cultic movements often take advantage of the insecurity and vulnerability of the young or the aged to bond them to the group (AG p. 23).

Persecution mentality. Cults teach their adherents to fear the outside world (People’s Temple, Rajneesh Ashram), the government (Scientology), and even family members (Unification Church) (AG pp. 371-72).

Deviant sexual practices. Cults sometimes encourage promiscuous sexual behavior (Rajneesh Ashram, Children of God) or near abstinence (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Cult leaders themselves are frequently embroiled in charges of sexual immorality (AG pp. 237-38).

Difficulty leaving. Those who attempt to exit a cultic group often undergo the painful process of “shunning” or disfellowshipping and sometimes are even threatened with physical violence (AG pp. 313-15).

No clergy. Few cults have formally ordained or educated leaders to direct their local “churches” (AG p. 137).

Strong missionary outreach. The Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unification Church recruit the unchurched as well as dissatisfied Christians in great numbers (AG pp. 84-85).

Evangelical heritage. Interestingly, many cult founders were members or leaders of solid evangelical churches.

Key Concepts:

1. The primary standard to judge whether a religious group is a cult is its
a) lifestyle; b) leadership; c) doctrine; d) evangelization strategies.
[See above]

2. Why is it misleading to label a religious group a cult based on the intensity of
its members’ commitment? ______________________ [16-17]

3. Using the characteristics above, list three cultic elements reflected in
Hobart Freeman’s Faith Assembly.
__________________ , __________________ , _____________________ [17-19]

4. Match the following: [20-21]

____ Shintoism                     A. Denomination
____ Roman Catholicism     B. Cult
____ The Salvation Army     C. World Religion
____ The Children of God    D. Sect

5. A milder form of deprogramming is _____________ counseling. [27]

6. Name two benefits the church can enjoy as a result of encountering cults? [30]

Further Study: Read the book of Jude, which describes the effects of first-century Gnostic teachers on the early church. Observe Jude’s description of their inner spiritual state. Note the characteristics of these false teachers as listed in the Topical Note “False Teachers” in the NIV Topical Study Bible, p. 1415. Compare them with the characteristics listed above.

Life Application: J. K. Van Baalen has written: “The cults are the unpaid bills of the church.” Look at some of the church’s failures discussed in AG on pages 25-26. Have you noticed any of these faults in your own church or denomination? Besides praying, what can you do to help reverse these?

Pre-Reformation Historical Heresy

Reading: Another Gospel, pp. 31-38

Key Scripture: “I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

Key Words: Heresy, Occultism, Legalism, Gnosticism, Dualism, Monism, Enthusiasm.

A heresy is “a doctrine or group considered contrary to correct doctrine” (“Heresy,” New International Dictionary Bible, p. 433). The doctrinal distortions promoted by groups such as Mormonism, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not new. They echo ancient heresies that arose while the tenets of orthodoxy were being formulated. By learning about the spiritual counterfeits of the past and noting how they diverge from biblical truth, we prepare ourselves to recognize and combat present-day distortions of the faith.

Old Testament Cultic Activity

Idolatry is the worship of a god other than the one true God. In Old Testament times such gods were often represented by idols. Baal (meaning “master” or “lord”) was the Canaanite deity of fertility. After Israel entered Canaan and became an agricultural community, she periodically succumbed to the worship of Baal. The prophets of God would then chastise Israel for her sins (1 Kings 18, 2 Kings 10). Idolatry is still very prevalent today, only found in modern guises. (See also “Baal,” p. 113 and “Idolatry,” pp. 459-62 in the NIDB.)

Sorcery, astrology, and divination are magical practices collectively labeled occult activities. Many New Age practices are forms of occultism. (See Deuteronomy 18: 9-14; “Astrology,” pp.104-5 and “Magic,” pp. 612-14 in the NIDB. Note also the scriptures listed under “Magic, Witchcraft and Sorcery” in the NIVTSB, p. 106.)

New Testament Cultic Activity

The Judaizers were a group rebuffed by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. They contended that Gentile Christians had to keep the Jewish law to be saved. This contradicted Paul’s teaching that saving grace comes through faith in Christ without works (Gal. 3:1-14; 5:2-6). The tendency to add to the gospel by emphasizing works is called legalism. The theology of H. W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God closely parallels that of the Judaizers.

The heresy of Gnosticism is addressed in several New Testament letters. Gnostic beliefs varied, but their central emphasis concerned special knowledge that would free the knower from the corrupt physical world and from sin. The teaching of Hymenaeus and Philetus that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:17-18) is echoed in Mary Baker Eddy’s doctrine. She taught that matter is illusory and that people who recognize themselves as ideas of the “Divine Principle” will realize that they are already saved. The gnostic division of reality into impure, unreal matter and pure spirit is called dualism. This is basic to Christian Science, New Thought, Unity, and some New Age thinking (see “Gnosticism,” NIBD, p. 393).

Mystery Religions were prevalent in the ancient world. The Bible strongly warns against their tendency to identify God with the forces of nature (Rom. 1:18-32; see “Mystery Religions,” NIDB, p. 685). The identification of the Creator with the creation is known as monism, the belief that all is one. It is an anti-biblical doctrine common in New Age thinking, neo-paganism, and witchcraft (p. 338).

Postapostolic Cults (1st–4th Centuries)

Montanism was a second-century spiritual movement. It was considered heretical because the ecstatic utterances of Montanus and his two prophetesses Prisca and Maximilla came to eclipse Scripture in importance. Such an excessive form of charismatic spirituality, which often climaxes in the reception of new revelation, is called enthusiasm (Greek en theos; literally, “god-filled”).

Marcion (c. 85-165) was a dualist who could not reconcile the God of the Old Testament with that of the New. He reedited the canon of Scripture to suit his presuppositions, throwing out the Old Testament. He identified the Creator-God found there with the demiurge, a subordinate deity found in the writings of Plato.

Arius (c. 250-336) objected to the full deity of Christ and argued that “there was a time when the son was not.” The church responded by formulating the Nicene Creed, which stated explicitly that the Son was of one “essence” or “substance” with the Father. The Way International, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Worldwide Church of God are three of the many modern cults that have Arius as their theological forefather. The true divinity of Christ and thus His power to save is consistently denied by cultists.

Key Concepts:

1. A fourth-century heresy that did not acknowledge the Son as co-equal with the Father was ________________ . [32-33]

2. Paul’s letter to the Galatians was a response to a form of legalism
promoted by the ___________________ . [33]

3. Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and 1 John addressed the heresy of ___________________ . [33]

4. ________________ was an early sectarian leader, who considered himself to be the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. [34]

5. The danger with overly enthusiastic charismatic sects is that ecstatic
utterances may replace ___________________ in importance. [34]

6. According to __________________ , the Creator-God was subordinate to and inferior to God, the Father of Jesus Christ. [35]

7. The gnostic theory that the body and the material world are evil and to be rejected is called ___________________ . [35]

8. The ___________________ were divided into two classes: the Believers and the Perfect, who were thought to be sinless. [36]

9. Perfectionists such as the Beghards held an anti-law position called
__________________ . [36]

10. The view shared by ancient pagans and modern neo-pagans that “all is one” is called _______________ . [338]

Further Study: Do the readings suggested in the NIVTSB and NIDB.

Life Application: Have you encountered any of these historical heresies on TV or radio, in books or magazines? Have any of these teachings influenced your own faith and practice? What modern idols might be in your life? Has charismatic overenthusiasm caused you to neglect the Scriptures? By labeling some things “spiritual” and some “natural,” have you fallen into the dualist trap?

Post-Reformation Historical Heresy

Reading: Another Gospel, pp. 38-48

Key Scripture: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

Key Words: Perfectionism, Antinomianism, Libertinism.

The Protestant Reformers saw the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century as hopelessly apostate and corrupt. Catholics (many of whom were anxious for church reform themselves) saw Protestants as heretics who were destroying the church by forming numerous factions. Both Catholics and Protestants were guilty of theological and political extremism during this period. Historically, it is clear that Catholics and Protestants share a common heritage and that the central tenets of Christianity were preserved by both groups as well as by Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Reformation, nevertheless, set the stage for the growth of innumerable cults and sects. Before the Reformation, the Bible was available only to the priests and was interpreted officially by the magisterium (college of bishops). With the invention of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into the language of the masses, Scripture became generally accessible for the first time. Protestants emphasized the right of each believer to interpret the Bible according to his or her own reason and conscience. This inevitably opened the door for various scriptural distortions.

Many sects and cults that followed the Reformation exhibited the characteristics discussed in the last lesson. The Church of the New Jerusalem (or Swedenborgianism) was a spiritistic group based on the otherworldly visions of Swedish scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg (pp. 381-82). In another sect known as the Universal Friends, Jemima Wilkinson, Sarah Richardson, and James Parker channeled the Spirit of God, Daniel, and Elijah respectively.

The Quakers, the Ranters, and the Shakers (as their names suggest) were enthusiastic, charismatic groups that inclined toward perfectionism. They believed that “there was no need to read the Scriptures or listen to sermons, because they were possessed by the Father, Son, and Spirit, and thus were above the laws and written words of Scripture” (p. 40). Ranter perfectionism led to full-fledged antinomianism, the belief that “sin did not exist and that every act of a true believer was a holy one” (p. 40; see also “Antinomianism,” NIDB, p. 64). As they understood it, “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15), including sexual promiscuity. This form of belief is also called libertinism.

The Shakers, on the other hand, practiced celibacy. Led by their founder, Mother Ann Lee, they migrated from England to New York. There they established a commune, held revivals, and waited for the imminent return of Christ.

Another cultic commune, the Oneida Community, was founded by John Humphrey Noyes. Like the Ranters, his perfectionist theology developed along antinomian lines. The fruit of this development was the institution of “complex marriage” at Oneida. Feeling that perfected Christians were capable of sharing everything (including their spouses), Noyes experimented with community marriage over a period of three decades. He was so convinced of the success of his experiments that he announced in 1847 that the Kingdom of God had arrived.

The religious liberty built into the Constitution and the independence of frontier settlers made America a fertile proving ground for new religions during the early nineteenth century. We will focus on one group that developed during this period–the Mormons–in our next chapter.

Key Concepts:

1. Johnny Appleseed spread literature about the Swedish sect of _________
_________________________ along with his apple seeds. [31]

2. At the time of the Reformation both Protestant and Catholic factions
considered each other _________________ . [38]

3. The ______________ were drowned in Zurich for their defense of believer’s baptism and their opposition to infant baptism. [39]

4. The _________________ were an enthusiastic, perfectionist group started by George Fox in 1650. [39]

5. The perfectionist antinomian sect of the mid-seventeenth century that championed libertinism was the _______________________ . [40]

6. Shaker founder ___________________ preached enthusiasm, perfectionism, and sexual abstinence. [41]

7. After reportedly dying, eighteen-year-old Jemima Wilkins founded a movement in New York known as the ___________ ____________. [42]

8. Perfectionist John Humphrey Noyes established the _________________ Community as an experiment in “complex marriage.” [43]

9. The ______________ were a rival sect of Mormonism initiated by James Strang soon after Joseph Smith’s death. [46]

10. John Thomas started the ___________ or “Brethren of Christ” in 1832. [47]

Further Study: To understand the biblical concept of perfection, study the scriptures listed under “Perfection” in the NIVTSB, p. 126.

Life Application: From your study, what do you think Jesus meant when he said, “Be perfect ...” (Matt. 5:48). How does his perfection differ from that sought by many sects and cults? Examine the attitudes Paul discusses in Philippians 3:12-16 and 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; 13:11. List some areas in which you should be striving toward true biblical perfection.

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Review Questions

1. The truth of the Mormon Church stands on ________________ .

Joseph Smith


2. The truth of Christianity stands on _________________ .

Jesus Christ


3. Our attitude toward those in cults should be one of ______________ .



4. The basic character of a cult is defined by its ___________________ .



5. Most people join cults

a) because Satan makes them

b) because they are mentally or emotionally unbalanced

c) for fellowship and acceptance

d) to acquire occult powers

6. True or False. Many founders of cults have an evangelical heritage.



7. Buddhism is a ________________.


world religion

8. The Salvation Army is a ___________.



9. __________________ counseling is a milder form of deprogramming.



10. True or False. A group can be identified as a cult by the intensity of the commitment of its members.



11. My will is God’s will =



12. Marcion =



13. Judaizers =



14. Worldview of paganism =



15. Refuted in John 1:1 =



16. Rival Mormon group are _________.



17. Christadelphians =

George Fox

John Thomas

18. Quakerism =

George Fox

John Thomas

19. Ranters =



20. Oneida community =

John Humphrey Noyes

John Thomas

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