Daniël Maritz

Cults: A Basic Theological Reflection

Daniël Maritz | 15 June 2020 | 8 min read

Someone once said that “the cults are the unpaid bills of the church.”[1] The failure of the church certainly has a role to play in the constant world-wide growth of cults.[2] But, before solely blaming the church, other factors such as the growth of relativism, selfism, subjectivism, fideism and mysticism also contribute to the growing cultic trend.[3] Because of their increasing influence the cults place a real apologetic challenge before the church, which should be taken seriously.[4]

In this article I want to share some theological reflections on cults, and since the word cult is such a heavily loaded term, let me start with a theological definition.[5] In a subsequent article I will also share some sociological reflections on cults which can provide one with meaningful insights into the finer behavioural mechanics of cultic groups.

Theologically, a cult can be defined in a broad and a narrow sense. Broadly, a cult is a group with “false religious teachings, other than a world religion, that stands in opposition to the Christian faith.” Examples of this would be The International Society of Krishna Consciousness, The Church of Scientology, Eckankar, and The Church of Satan.[6]

For the remainder of this article however, I will focus on the narrow theological sense of a cult, and for this I will provide two definitions. First, a cult can be defined as:

“any religious movement that is organizationally distinct and has doctrines and/or practices that contradict those of the Scriptures as interpreted by traditional Christianity, as represented by the major Catholic and Protestant denominations, and as expressed in such statements as the Apostles’ Creed.”[7]

Of course, the Creed of Nicene, the Creed of Athanasius, and the Creed of Chalcedon can also be added to this list since they, together with the Apostles’ Creed, contain the essential doctrines of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. The second definition of a cult in a narrow theological sense is:

“[It is] a religious perversion. It is a belief and practice in the world of religion which calls for devotion to a religious view or leader centered in false doctrine. It is an organized heresy. A cult may take many forms, but it is basically a religious movement which distorts or warps orthodox faith to the point where truth becomes perverted into a lie.”[8]

In short then, a cult is a group that rejects or twists one or more of the essential or cardinal doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and paradoxically still insists on being classified as Christian. This means that cults always deviate from Christianity as a host religion by rejecting cardinal doctrines that define the host religion, and still want to be associated with the host religion.[9] Accordingly, cults can also be referred to as a “pseudo-Christian religion” and usually follows the strict leadership of a centralized figure and his misinterpretations of the Bible.[10] Some examples of cults in a narrow theological sense are the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christ in Me Collective.

Before moving on, one last distinction needs to be made for the sake of clarity. While a cult theoretically refers to a group or organization (as described above) that one can join and become a member of, the term cultic refers to a larger movement that might exhibit certain characteristics and doctrines of a cult, without being a group that you can join and be a member of.[11]

Heretics and Heresies

When referring to cults, it is always good to consider a little bit of church history. Since a cult can be described as an “organized heresy,” it is important to understand what a heresy really is.[12]

The word heresy comes from the Greek noun hairesis (αἵρεσις) which originally meant “party.”[13] During the early history of Christianity however, the term was used to indicate a split that resulted from a “false faith.”[14] Harold O.J. Brown sheds some valuable light as he explains the meaning of the word:

“It designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. Practically speaking, heresy involved the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ.”[15]

Consequently, a heresy is that which threatens the very existence of Christianity by distorting the essential doctrines that define it. St. Thomas Aquinas, while deliberating the theme of heresy, explains that “a heretic is one who devises or follows false or new opinions. Therefore heresy is opposed to the truth, on which faith is founded; and consequently it is a species of unbelief.” He further indicates that the title of heretic belongs to those who claim the Christian faith and yet “corrupt its dogmas.” If a cult rejects an essential doctrine of Christianity and still insists on being Christian, one can legitimately say that a cult is guilty of heresy. Cults compromise the foundation of Christianity at a theological level and thus distort the Gospel.[16]

Church history books also testify to the fact that heresies are nothing new for the church and have been around for centuries. In fact, many of the false doctrines found in modern day cults, are just an attempt to repackage many of the ancient heresies the early church had to deal with.

The Essential Doctrines of Christianity

Since I have repeatedly made reference to the essential or cardinal doctrines of the historic Christian faith and that a cult rejects or twists one or more of these essential doctrines, one can ask, “what are the essential doctrines of Christianity?” One might say that the essentials of the Faith is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” In other words, it is the things that historically makes one a “mere Christian.”

In their book Conviction Without Compromise, Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes provide a list of fourteen essential doctrines as it appears in the historic creeds of Christianity: (1) God’s Unity, (2) God’s Triunity, (3) Christ’s Deity, (4) Christ’s Humanity, (5) Human Depravity, (6) Christ’s Virgin Birth, (7) Christ’s Sinlessness, (8) Christ’s Atoning Death, (9) Christ’s Bodily Resurrection, (10) The Necessity of Grace, (11) The Necessity of Faith, (12) Christ’s Bodily Ascension, (13) Christ’s Priestly Intercession, (14) Christ’s Second Coming.[17]

There are two more essentials that are not explicitly mentioned, but implicitly affirmed by this list. First, the revelational essential, which is the authority of the Bible, and the only means by which we can come to know the list of essential doctrines above.[18] Second, the interpretive essential, which is the historical-grammatical interpretive method of the Bible, the only method that can consistently allow us to arrive at the list of essentials.[19]

It is important for the Christian to be familiar with these great foundations of the Christian faith, not just for personal growth and sanctification, but also “to detect those counterfeit elements so apparent in the cult systems that set them apart from biblical Christianity.”[20]

Cults reject or twist these essential doctrines in many ways. While some cults might reject the authority of the Bible altogether, others weaken it by claiming additional revelation or supposed infallible interpretations.

Many cults deny the doctrine of the Trinity. This can either be done by denying the Person of Jesus Christ or by denying the Person of the Holy Spirit. Some cults deny the Person of Jesus by making Him lower than God, or elevating people to His level of deity. In some cults humans are also viewed as little deities.

The work of Jesus Christ is also denied or weakened by cults. It is either viewed to be incomplete or unnecessary. This leads to a denial of salvation by grace through faith apart from works.[21]

The Apologetic Challenge of the Cults

During His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ warned the church against “false prophets” and “false Christs.” He said that they are like wolves who will come in sheep’s clothing. They will claim that they are the Christ, perform signs and wonders, and lead many people astray.[22]

The apostle Peter said that there will be false teachers introducing “destructive heresies,” and “even denying the Master who bought them.” Many people will follow their “sensuality.”[23] Likewise, the apostle John talked about “many antichrists” who left the true faith behind.[24]

The apostle Paul mentioned the “fierce wolves” who are “speaking twisted things,” drawing people after them.[25] He warns that people will not bear “sound teaching” but rather follow teachers “to suit their own passions” and “turn away from listening to the truth.”[26]

With all these warnings in the New Testament, the church should not be surprised by the prevalence of cults and their leaders. Elsewhere, Paul also says that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”[27] As St. Augustine reflected on this verse of Paul, he shared a valuable insight for the church:

“But it has been most truly said: There needs must be many heresies, so that the tried and tested ones among you may stand out (1 Cor. 11:19). So let’s make use of this favour of divine providence too. It’s people, you see, who, even while they were within the Church, would nevertheless go astray that become heretics; when they are outside it, however, they are of the greatest value, not of course in teaching the truth they don’t know but in prodding fleshly-minded Catholics into seeking the truth and spiritual ones into opening up its riches. After all, there are countless tried and tested men in the holy Church, but they don’t stand out among us as long as we prefer to sleep on, enjoying the darkest of our ignorance, rather than to wake up and gaze at the light of truth. Accordingly, it’s through heretics that many people, in order to get them seeing and rejoicing in God’s daylight, are roused from their slumbers. Let’s then make use even of heretics, not by way of giving approval to their errors but by way of upholding Catholic teaching against their wiles and being more wide awake and careful, even if we cannot call them back to the way of salvation.”[28]

The presence of false doctrines has always caused the Church to rise from her slumbers and better formulate and defend the truth. May this prove to be the case today as well when we face up to the challenge of the cults. Let us therefore not be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,”[29] but rather “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,”[30] while always “speaking the truth in love.”[31]

In the end, it is only in the true Gospel that a cult member will find what no other cultic system has ever been able to offer – peace and fellowship with God the Father through His Son, Jesus Christ.[32]

Suggested Readings

Brown, Harold O.J. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988.

Geisler, Norman & Rhodes, Ron. Conviction Without Compromise: Standing Strong in the Core Beliefs of the Christian Faith. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 208.

Geisler, Norman L. & Rhodes, Ron. Correcting the Cults: Expert Responses to their Scripture Twisting. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997.

Martin, Walter. The Kingdom of the Cults: The Definitive Work on the Subject 6th ed. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2019.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] Jan Karel van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults: A study in Present-Day Isms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 390. Van Baalen wrote these words in 1962. Anthony Hoekema also built on this notion in 1963 by saying that “Cults have sometimes arisen because the established churches have failed to emphasize certain important aspects of religious life” (Anthony A. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults: Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company], 1). In 1983 Walter Martin also explained that “the unfortunate failure of the church to institute and emphasize a definite, systematic plan for cult evangelism and apologetics” is one of the major causes of cultism (Walter Martin, Martin Speaks out on Cults [Ventura: Regal Books], 22).

[2] This growth refers to the establishment of new cults, and the continual growth of already established cults. In fact, William Edgar and Scott Oliphint observe that “world religions and other forms of ‘faith,’ even the vague mix-and-match varieties of spirituality, are becoming far more prominent on the world stage than classical atheism” (William Edgar & K. Scott Oliphint eds., Christian Apologetics: Past & Present, Vol. 1: to 1500 [Wheaton: Crossway], 5). This suggests that along with world religions, cults as another form of faith, are growing globally.

[3] Norman Geisler & Ron Rhodes, Correcting the Cults: Expert Responses to their Scripture Twisting (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 14-15.

[4] Ibid., p. 1.

[5] Because of the word cult being so heavily loaded, the more accepted phrase for a cult these days is a New Religious Movement.

[6] This definitional insight and examples which can be individually researched come from the PDF version of Richard G. Howe’s lecture titled New Religious Movements, available at http://www.richardghowe.com/pdfdecks.htm, accessed May 29, 2020.

[7] James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press), 20.

[8] David Breese, Know the Marks of a Cult: A Guide to Enable you to Quickly Detect the Basic Errors of False Religion (USA: Victor Books), 16.

[9] Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 21-22.

[10] E.C. Gruss, Cults and the Occults (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), 7.

Walter Martin & Ravi Zacharias ed., Kingdom of the Cults: The Definitive work on the Subject (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers), 17-18. It is important to note when Oliphint explains “the faith” as it appears in Jude 3, he asserts that there are certain truth claims that every Christian must believe in order to be a Christian in the first place (K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending the Faith [Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing], 59).

[11] Movements like the Word of Faith Movement and the New Apostolic Reformation might fit the criterion of being cultic and not necessarily a cult.

[12] The reason why I deem this important is because many Christians who disagree with each other about non-essential doctrines sometimes call each other heretics which causes more disunity among Christians. In a time of great controversy among the Lutherans however, Philip Schaff observes that “It was during the fiercest dogmatic controversies and the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, that a prophetic voice whispered to future generations the watchword of Christian peacemakers, which was unheeded in a century of intolerance, and forgotten in a century of indifference, but resounds with increased force in a century of revival and re-union: ‘IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY'” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7 [Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company], 650). This phrase is attributed to Rupertus Meldenius (1582-1651). It is important to note that this phrase does not deem non-essential matters as unimportant, of course.

[13] See Acts 5:17; 15:5 & 26:5.

[14] Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers), 2. Also see 1 Corinthians 11:9 and Galatians 5:20.

[15] Ibid., p. 2-3.

[16] Saint Thomas Aquinas, 2018. Summa Theologiae (The Aquinas Institute, ed., Green Bay, WI; Steubenville, OH: Aquinas Institute; Emmaus Academic), STh., II-II q.11 a.1 s.c.

[17] Norman Geisler & Ron Rhodes, Conviction without Compromise: Standing Strong in the Core Beliefs of the Christian Faith (Eugene: Harvest House), 8. A particularly important distinction to introduce at this point is the difference between essential doctrines that must be true for salvation to be possible, and essential doctrines that one must believe in order to be saved. In other words, there is a difference between the preconditions that make salvation possible, and the preconditions for one to share in that salvation. The list provided here is associated with the former. Considering verses like Acts 16:30-31 and Rom. 10:9, it seems like the latter will typically involve the deity, humanity, atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[18] 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

[19] Since the doctrines of many religious cults are based on an authoritative source, claimed to be divine revelation, it is crucial to investigate how cults arrive at their doctrines as they interpret their specific source of authority, in the case of this article, the Bible. Consequently, all the essential doctrines of historical, orthodox Christianity are arrived at by interpreting the Bible in a specific way and drawing theological conclusions from these interpretations. This, in turn, also allows one to base these doctrines consistently on the Bible as its source, after following sound and good principles of interpretation. Geisler and Rhodes phrase this point quite clearly: “All the essential doctrines expressed in the Bible and in the early creeds are dependent on another doctrine – the historical-grammatical method of interpretation” (Geisler & Rhodes, Conviction without Compromise, p. 195). Moreover, in 2 Peter 3:16-17, the apostle Peter seems to indicate that it is possible to twist the Scriptures and explain it falsely, resulting in one’s “own destruction.”

[20] Martin & Zacharias ed., Kingdom of the Cults, p. 23-24.

[21] Howe, “New Religious Movements,” available at http://www.richardghowe.com/pdfdecks.htm, accessed May 29, 2020.

[22] See Matthew 7:15; 24:5, and Mark 13:22.

[23] 2 Peter 2:1-3.

[24] 1 John 2:18-19.

[25] Acts 20:29-31.

[26] 2 Timothy 4:3-5.

[27] 1 Corinthians 11:19.

[28] Saint Augustine, On Christian Belief: The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park: New City Press), 39.

[29] See Ephesians 4:11-15.

[30] Jude 3.

[31] Ephesians 4:15.

[32] Martin & Zacharias ed., Kingdom of the Cults, p. 24.

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