There have always been cults of Christianity, from the early days of the Gnostics, to the early Middle Ages with Islam, to our current days with Mormonism, Christian Scientist and Jehovah Witnesses. These religions take portions of true Christianity, and craft their own brand of religion. The Apostles warned us of such, as well as Jesus when they spoke of savage wolves (Acts 20:28-31), and wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15-23). Since my conversion back in 1990, part of my focus as a Christian has been to expose them for what they are. Given that I was raised in a cult, you can understand why.
The question that I have asked myself and I’m trying to answer today is, “Why do the cults survive? What is it about them that keeps them going and causes them to thrive?”
Not all cults do survive. For instance, the Shakers have almost all died off because one of their chief tenants was to be celibate. You can see that the natural propagation of this religion would cause it not to grow and decrease the likelihood of any new converts.
The other cult that has fallen on hard times is the one in which I grew up: Christian Science. I rejoice at it’s downfall. I think it’s chief problem is that the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, was so intellectually challenged that once you get past the veneer of followers who claim that she was something special, you realize what a daft idiot her logic and beliefs truly are. For instance, one tenet of her beliefs is that all matter is evil, and all matter is actually the same. She made the claim that if you exercised your arm, the muscles would get bigger, because your muscles and arm are matter. So too would an anvil and hammer, since they were both matter. But given physics, we know this not to be true.
But other cults seem to be thriving in our day, cults such as Mormonism, Islam, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But it’s not limited to them. So why do they survive? Well, in part, because of what they offer. Here are three reasons cults continue in our day.
First, the cults offer special knowledge. When we look back to Genesis 3, Satan’s temptation was “you will be like God.” This appeals to fleshly pride, even among Christians. We will always struggle with this. But the cults cultivate this call to human pride because they put forth “special” knowledge, that only they will and the “true followers” in the cult will have. Mormons do this regularly. They never give the up-an-up about their beliefs of becoming gods in the after life. You have to travel a ways into the religion to find out about this, and wearing the special underwear. And of course, they prance around from house-to-house under the belief that they are the special ones who have this special knowledge, and only those who follow them will discover the truth.
This is contrary to Christianity. True Christianity has no secrets. It is exposed before all and we gladly share the truth with anyone who will listen. The truth about Christianity is that it really strikes at the heart of the fleshly pride that the cults use to their advantage. After all, if you are saved by grace, and not because of some specialness, where is there room for boasting. You might say this is one of the reasons we put forth that true Christianity is the true and only religion worth following. It strikes against our flesh and tells us we must become acceptable before the Father based on the works of the Son, and not something we do. We are saved by grace alone, not our works alone. Mormons, and all the other cults, hate this truth.
Second, the cults appear monolithic. Whereas Christianity appears fragmented and divisive, the cult appears to have it all together in their theology, work, families and practice. This is just an illusion, when you pull back the veneer, they are just as divided as the church. It was only a few years ago that I discovered there are three major divisions in Christian Science itself. Growing up, I thought we all believed the same thing. But even is this somber religion, there are divisions and fights among the leadership.
This should not surprise us. Given that these cults are the work of fallen humans and spiritual warfare, why would they be monolithic? They are a bunch of sinners trying to claim some special rights among their particular religion. Given this, division is inevitable.
Third, the cults appear to have ALL the answers. Sadly, this is because the church itself has done a very poor job of teaching our own. Far too many have used the anti-intellectual, simple religion card to keep the people of God ignorant. The cults love this, because they are willing to provide answers on everything. These answers may be wrong, but for the person who wants something deeper and doesn’t get it in the local, simple minded church, he is ripe for the picking.
I remember when I was a Baptist preacher, the denomination published a study showing that the number one convert to Mormonism came from the Baptist church. I’m not trying to indict all Baptist, but this was a reality of the denomination in which I was preaching. The church cannot keep it simple. We truly need to be involved in apologetics and defense of the faith, to the point that even our most simple minded believers understand concepts like the Trinity and the reason for believing such. I know it is a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting.
These are three reasons I believe the cults thrive. There are probably more, but I think this hits the basics.
UPDATE: Since posting this, a Mormon has been by to tell me where I’m wrong, and on some historical issues concerning Mormonism, I probably am. But for more clarification concerning Joseph Smith, please read Tim Challies, The False Teachers: Joseph Smith over at Challies blog. He does an excellent job showing how Joseph Smith became corrupt in his views and shows that Smith felt he was the new authority and not God’s word. As Challies writes:
Smith believed that the Bible was corrupt and insufficient and for that reason both took away from, and added to, God’s written revelation. Regarding the Bible’s corruption he said, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” These errors were both typographical and doctrinal. To address the Bible’s shortcomings, Smith produced his own translation of the Bible, making many corrections and additions to a variety of Old Testament and New Testament books.
Goodness. No wonder it is so difficult in dealing with Mormons. They see Smith as the ultimate authority, so no matter what one may say the Scripture teaches, it’s a fruitless endeavor because Smith is their authority, not the Bible.
The other thing that struck me odd was that the Mormon made sure I knew that the splinter groups of Mormonism were not the “real” church. However, his church was the real church and just another denomination of Christianity. I wish that Mormons would be honest and quit making that claim. We reject the writings, teaching and authority of Joseph Smith. Given that is the case, why do Mormons want so badly to be called just another “denomination?” They are a new/old religion all over again, full of works righteousness and the lot.
One final note: I don’t claim to be an expert on the cults, not even Christian Science, which I spent in my formative years. The cults are not my goal. Knowing and proclaiming Christ and Him crucified, with the full-counsel of the word, is my goal. And I am certain that none of the cults have anything to add to true Christianity, in which we are saved by faith alone, in Christ alone, which is by His grace alone. Any additional revelations like the one that Joseph Smith, Mohammed, Mary Baker Eddy or anyone else have no place in true Christianity. As I labor to point out, if their writings agree with Scripture, we don’t need them because they are redundant. If they contradict Scripture, we don’t need them because they are heretical. The 66 books of the Bible are all God saw fit to give us and all we need to know what man must believe to be saved.
The Mormon made the claim that to believe in a closed canon is to say that God can no longer speak. But this shows his ignorance of the word. God is still speaking today. But He chooses to speak through the word He has already given, to the point that when the word of God is proclaimed, we hear from Christ Himself (Romans 10:14). So why do we need any more prophets when we have the ultimate prophet of God, the Son of God, Son of Man, Second Person of the Trinity, of whom we can hear on a regular basis where the Bible is preached and taught.