West of town sits a magnificent building. Classic red brick. Immaculate landscaping. Gleaming white steeple. Obviously it is a monument to the resources and the industry of its occupants. But it’s not a church, not even a gathering place for one, even though the sign announces, “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Recognized by the government, yes, full of clean people carrying on pleasant programs, marked by compassionate acts and careful professionalism and even Scriptural language. But not a church—the cornerstone is missing.
The True Church
So what constitutes a church? Simply put, a church is both a universal and a local body of people who believe that Jesus Christ truly is who he claimed to be. And yet a church is more than this, because Jesus said that his disciples would be known for their love for each other. And more, since they know what Jesus said because of his apostles commissioned to write. And more, because in his physical absence he has given a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who gives gifts and power for them to grow. And more, because Jesus promised to build his church–they can’t keep their blessings to themselves. And more, because Jesus also promised to return, so they move with anticipation and hope. And more, because looking for his return, they live in a certain fashion.
The apostle John summarizes nicely the marks of a true believer in his letter of 1 John. With the clear assumption that followers of Jesus can know both that they belong and that others belong, he outlines the tests for belonging. He does not putter around with any logically painful misconstruing of “judge not that ye be not judged.” In essence, he says “judge and here is how to judge.” A true follower will confess that Jesus Christ was both human and divine (1 Jn. 4:2). A true follower will love other true followers deeply. A true follower will evidence a pattern of obedience to his Lord’s commands, taking on the character of Christ in ever greater measure.
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 Jn. 3:9 ESV). When he sins, he will make appropriate confession. A true follower will have the presence of the Holy Spirit, who convicts him of his sin and helps him to recognize the God-man. A true follower will have a high regard for the teaching of the apostles and their associates as recorded in the Holy Scriptures. “Whoever knows God listens to us,” John had the cheek to say (1 Jn. 4:6 ESV). A church then is a group of true believers who are divinely enabled to confess Jesus, to love each other, to practice the Scriptures together.
Christ himself warned that imitators would come on the scene quickly to build what only appeared to be the Church. “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:4-5, 24 ESV). Satan actually tempted Christ to choose purely human methods to build a powerful organization, at least for a time.
Maneuver with economic enticements, political strong-arming, and religious show biz, and a man or an organization can fast flourish, but only for a time. Christ was seeing beyond short term; to build in the Father’s way would raise up a Church to assault the very gates of hell. A community based on his surrender to the Father’s will could enter into the beautiful fellowship of the Trinity for eternity. He was seeking a “bride” who would find the highest ecstasy simply in glorifying the wise and benevolent Father. “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20 ESV).
Defining a Cult
Christ’s apostles also frequently warned of deceivers. “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared…” (1 Tim. 4:1-2 ESV). Often the writers of Scripture mention the freelance and corrosive lifestyle of these teachers (Jude). John spoke of those who “went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 Jn. 2:19 ESV). Today we classify some of these false worshipers with their followers as cultists.
The term cult can be defined sociologically as an extreme group that deviates fundamentally from a commonly accepted religious “parent.” In this manner, Sufism can be viewed as a cult of Islam or Hare Krishna as a cult of Hinduism or Anabaptism as a cult of the Reformation. While this definition may have its uses, it cuts off any relationship with absolute truth. What is a cult today may not be a cult tomorrow.
Radi-call bloggers don’t particularly have an interest in being labeled cultic because they differ from the majority. As Christians who are grounded in truth, we prefer a more specific definition–we are on our guard against cults of Christianity. Dr. Alan Gomes offers this definition, “A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system…which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith…” (Unmasking the Cults). With careful analysis we will discover that these central doctrines certainly include the person of Christ, the Trinity, the way of salvation and various attendants.
Cults Among Us
The danger for most Anabaptists does not come from the commonly known cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), or Christian Science. Our religious education and our family and community structures impede their advance in our ranks. Rather the threat of departure comes from unnamed trends in thought and practice which mimic classic cultic methods of operation. A deviation is a deviation, named or not. We are especially vulnerable in the areas of revelation, evangelism techniques which rely on psychological manipulation, self-effort salvation, charismatic “pedestal” leadership, and worldly measures of success. The cure is deep theological study (in other words, immersion in the truth of Scripture) and a calling on God for the courage to say no.
The subtle cult of “God told me” undermines the authority of God’s inspired word. We tend to elevate lightning-strike “calling” above mere sensible application of what God has already said, allowing the mystical and the miraculous to overstep their boundaries. Some would go so far as to imply that any movement without God’s current speaking is useless vanity, and “my sheep hear my voice” bubbles far out of its Scriptural context of recognition of Jesus’ person (John 9 and 10). The faith has been delivered once for all, Jude assures us; it needs no addition. Scripture is sufficient, it thoroughly equips a man to live and to act, Paul tells Timothy. Can God speak again outside of the canon of Scripture? Yes, there is precedent in Scripture. But Scripture itself gives critical parameters for those rare occasions, and we dare not blur the distinction between human impression and divine voice.
Many definitions of cult recognize the influence of an authoritarian, charismatic leader who has a vision to sell…for a high price. Jim Jones of Peoples Temple, for example, perpetrated a massive suicide/murder event in 1978, leaving the highest American civilian casualties prior to 9/11. Such leaders can readily call forth great sacrifice and devotion and are able to implement remarkable personal control among their followers and to silence dissent quickly. They tend to view themselves in messianic terms–they can do and see things apparently beyond the reach of ordinary duffers. While Scripture clearly grants delegated authority to pastors and the Spirit clearly gifts leaders, our Lord teaches us that kingdom leadership flows from calloused knees rather than from throne-sore rumps.
We can learn at least one positive thing from named cults. Ironically they are not negligent in requiring adherence to doctrinal standards, not from a love of truth but from intent to preserve power. Anabaptist Christians read the repeated warnings in Scripture about heresy and idolatry (often written with stinging words), but they conclude that such things are beyond the scope of modern man. We have acclimated to our culture’s hypocritical distaste for “judging,” and we fear to name a heretic or idolater. In some kind of twisted way in the middle of this dereliction, we become the heretics ourselves.
“Keep yourselves from idols,” John warns believers (1 Jn. 5:21 ESV). Jude pleads, “Keep yourselves in the love of God,” and he adds triumphantly that God is able to keep you (Jude 21, 24 ESV). Human diligence and divine protection together! “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4 ESV). The cults will fall; the Church will last.
Guest writer: Chester Lehman