In Matthew 24:11, Jesus said that before his return, “many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.” Peter repeated this warning about false prophets who would introduce destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). And John also echoed the warning about false prophets going out into the world (1 John 4:1), warning us to test them to see if they are from God.

How do we follow John’s advice to test the spirits of those who claim to come in God’s name? How can we tell if what they are saying is of God or not? This article will look at a few ways we can distinguish between true and false leaders and the organizations that have grown up around them.

What Is a Cult?

Before looking at the signs of cults and their leaders, it is important to define what we mean by this term. Merriam-Webster defines a cult as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”

Today, common usage goes beyond this simple definition and identifies two identifying attributes of a cult. The first is that their beliefs are considered unorthodox by the church at large. And secondly, they are focused on an individual leader other than Jesus.

This article will be using this expanded two-part definition of a cult. But even that is subjective. Who defines orthodoxy? And how do we determine just when a charismatic leader replaces Jesus as the head.

1. Orthodoxy

Merriam-Webster defines orthodoxy as “the quality or state of being orthodox.” And it defines orthodox as “conforming to established doctrine, especially in religion.” But this definition is not overly helpful since it leaves open the question of what constitutes established doctrine.

Some will limit orthodoxy to accepting the ecumenical creeds of the first millennium of church history. Others will go to the opposite extreme and identify orthodoxy as what conforms to their denomination’s established doctrine. Or even their specific interpretation of the Scripture.

I land somewhere in between these two extremes. I understand established doctrine as what is held as common across the major branches of Christianity, whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant.

Each branch introduces doctrinal elements that the other branches might label as unorthodox. But we do share much in common with each other. And that shared set of beliefs is what I would use as the rule to measure orthodoxy.

If a group, or individual, deviates from that shared base of beliefs, then I would understand them to be unorthodox and, thus, a cult.

2. A Shaky Foundation

One of the most telling signs of a cult and its leaders concerns the source of their doctrine. The Bible should be our authoritative source for faith and practice. While we may refer to other writings at times, those are secondary to the Bible. But cults will invariably fail to remain faithful to the Bible.

One of the ways they vary is to cherry-pick through the Scripture, looking for passages that support a belief they want to promote and ignoring the rest. 

For example, 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

If this is taken out of context with the rest of the Scripture, it might seem that God wants us all to be materially prosperous. But the bulk of Scripture demonstrates that is not the case. There are few followers of Christ in the Scripture who were prosperous.

Another sign of a cult is placing other writings on a par, or even above, Scripture. The first cult I ever encountered understood the writings of their founder to be more beneficial to them than the Bible because they were more relevant to the world in which they lived. That the founder’s writings were often contrary to the Bible was not a concern.

A third indication of a false leader or cult is their claim that they have the only correct understanding of the Scripture.

They will claim that the original meaning of the Scripture was lost and or corrupted early in church history. And that God has revealed to them the true and original meaning of Scripture.

3. The Cult of Personality

Another troubling sign is when the group’s leader is the primary focus of attention. Jesus is the head of the church, and everything we do should bring glory to him. But too often, cultic leaders enjoy having the spotlight pointed at them.

Their bigger-than-life personalities shine brighter than anyone around them, including Jesus. When someone is always talking about their ministry rather than the ministry God has given to them, then red flags should go up. And the same is true when their followers focus more on the human leader than on Jesus.

Paul had to deal with false teachers in Corinth after he left there. And much of what he says in his second letter to this church is relevant to false teachers. Those he called “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13).

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:1-3).

These false teachers would brag about their credentials and qualifications. On the other hand, Paul pointed to the changed lives of the people he had touched.

4. Secretive and Autocratic Rule

Another sign of caution is when much of the leadership activity is hidden from view. While there are some personal issues where confidentiality is appropriate, most of the workings of a church should be open.

When decisions and finances are shrouded in secrecy, with no accountability, the likelihood is significant that the leadership is profiting to the detriment of their followers.

Attempting to penetrate this shroud of secrecy is discouraged. This kind of leader has no interest in trying to justify their actions or be held accountable. Those who seek transparency end up ostracized and eventually excluded from the group, with their reputations attacked.

What Paul had to tell the Corinthians church is appropriate here as well.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).

Throughout this letter, Paul distinguished himself from the false teachers at work in Corinth. He was likely contrasting himself with these false teachers when he said he had renounced secret and shameful ways along with deception.

In contrast, these teachers were operating in private and with deception. And that some of what was happening in secret was shameful, likely sexual.

5. Building of Monuments

I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with having nice facilities to meet in. Facilities that glorify God enhance the worship experience and provide a place for the members to meet in fellowship, prayer, and Bible study.

But when a disproportionate amount of the energy and finances of the group is involved in building and maintaining elaborate facilities, something is amiss. Jesus’ message to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22 speaks to this.

The church at Laodicea was one that proudly proclaimed its wealth and lack of any need. Yet Jesus saw them as wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.

When material prosperity becomes the primary focus, a group and its leaders have wandered from God’s calling to be his church.

Contending for the Faith

False teachers and cults abound in the world, preying on those not well-grounded in the faith. We need to be continually growing in the knowledge of our faith so they do not take us in.

And then to take our stand against these false teachers, contending for the faith passed down to us (Jude 1:3-4).

For further reading:

Why Is the Book of Revelation Used in Cults?

Why Do Cults Use God Falsely in Their Mission?

Why Are Cults Often Associated with Christianity?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/SvetaZi

Ed Jarrett headshotEd Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.

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