Interacting with “Christian” Cult Members: Tips & Strategies Anyone Can Do

How do you respond to friends, family, and neighbors who are involved in a church teaching a corruption of the good news of Christ? 

Last article, we defined what deems a “Christian” cult, ways to identify them, and the difference between a denomination and a cult.  (To read it, click here.)

In this article, we’ll look at some general strategies for interacting with cult members, whether they’re strangers or friends or whether they’re standing on your doorstep or sitting across from you in the lounge at work.

Below, you’ll find a checklist of general strategies for interacting with cult members.  Cut-and-paste it into a document, print it out, and hang it on your fridge as a reminder.

Underneath the checklist, we’ll look at the list more in depth (with the exception of the “Using Scripture” section.  Since that is a big subject, it’ll be the topic of the next post.)  In future articles, we’ll look at and respond to beliefs of specific cults.

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Checklist:

Interacting with Cult Members

KNOW YOUR FAITH

  • Know your Scripture!
  • Know why we can trust the Bible!
  • Know your Christian theology!
  • Study apologetics!

CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE

  •  Speak to them out of love.
  • Remember: This is a person pursuing God, & made in God’s image.
  • Be aware of your body language.
  • Don’t call their faith a “cult”!

CLARIFICATION

  • Don’t stereotype, generalize, or assume.
  • Ask them questions: Why do you believe that?  Where is that in Scripture?
  • Ask them to define their terms.

USING SCRIPTURE

  •  Look at verses they quote in context.
  • Scripture interprets Scripture: Clear passages clarify ambiguous passages.
  • Don’t fuse over minor doctrine; stick to major doctrines.
  • Always bring it back to Scripture: especially the Gospel & salvation.

STRATEGIES EVERYONE CAN DO

  •  Don’t worry about “winning the argument” — just speak truth in love.
  • “I’ll look into that for you…”
  • 10 minutes/10 minutes
  • Share your testimony & the Gospel.
  • Pray for them.
  • Invite them to church.

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A Closer Look: Interacting with Cult Members

KNOW YOUR FAITH

  • Know your Scripture!
  • Know why we can trust the Bible!
  • Know your Christian theology!
  • Study apologetics!

The tips above may seem so obvious they’re not worth stating, but sadly many Christians can’t explain – and certainly can’t defend – their faith well.  Listening to a sermon once a week isn’t going to cut it.  Resist all you want, but Christians must be readers – not just of the Bible, but of works that help us understand the Bible.

Furthermore, all Christians should be familiar with Christian theology and apologetics – the defense of the Christian faith – since often cults have their own apologetics that argue that Christianity has been corrupted and their cult holds the one true, correct version of Christianity.  Some cults train their members well in their own erroneous theology and apologetics.

Luckily, there are also plenty of websites and blogs with easy, free access, and for those of you who want to read as little as possible, there are some great Christian podcasts out there. (*See recommendations below and my article recommending Christian podcasts here.)

At the very least, I highly recommend buying a good study Bible (I recommend the ESV Study Bible) and reading up on textual criticism (the study of how the Bible has been handed down to us from the original manuscripts).  For this I recommend How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot, a quick, easy but thorough read.  I also recommend picking up a copy of Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem and a book on biblical theology, the study of the Bible’s story as a whole (*See recommendations below.  Also, see my 2-minute lesson on biblical theology article here.).

At first glance, Grudem’s book is intimidating because it’s thick, but it’s extremely readable and thorough.  Even if you never tackle reading the whole thing, keep it as a reference tool.  Why do we believe Jesus is God?  It’s in there.  How did Jesus’ death atone for our sins?  It’s in there.  Wondering about the End Days or the inerrancy of Scripture?  It’s in there.

 *See a list of recommended books & resources below*

 

CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE

  •  Speak to them out of love.
  • Remember: This is a person pursuing God, & made in God’s image.
  • Be aware of your body language.
  • Don’t call their faith a “cult”!

It’s easy to get heated, defensive, and even sarcastic with cult members.  Don’t.

First, remember that you, as a follower of the true Christ and led by God’s true Scripture, have no reason to feel defensive or threatened.  Knowing what you’re talking about (as we discussed above) will give you much more confidence, but even if you feel as if you don’t have a strong grasp of the Bible or theology, you should still feel secure in your salvation and the truth of Jesus Christ.  Feeling confident and secure will keep you calm.

Always remember most of these cult members are honest, everyday people just like you, who are looking for meaning and truth in life and a relationship with God.  Sadly, false teachers and prophets have led these cult members astray.  Cult members, like all of us, are made in God’s image and have infinite worth to God, so treat them accordingly.  Also remember that you received salvation by God’s grace alone.  You didn’t earn it or deserve it.  It was only through the Holy Spirit that you were called out of darkness, so stay humble.

Be aware of your body language.  Though you may be listening silently, your body language and facial expressions speak volumes, clearly revealing what you’re thinking to the cult member.  Rolling your eyes, bursts of breath from your nostrils, raised eyebrows, smirks, and furrowed eyebrows aren’t going to open anyone up to a loving conversation.  If nothing else, remember the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated.  Your job isn’t to berate, judge, or demean cult members; your job is to speak truth in love, praying the Holy Spirit will use this to lead them out of darkness and into God’s presence.

Finally, if you’re having a conversation with a cult member, don’t use the word “cult”!  Calling them cult members or referring to their church as a cult will accomplish nothing positive.  It’s an offensive term and, after that, any chance of an open, loving dialogue will be lost.  Remember, Christians are to speak not just truth, but truth with love (Eph. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 13:1).

 

CLARIFICATION

  • Don’t stereotype, generalize, or assume.
  • Ask them questions: Why do you believe that?  Where is that in Scripture?
  • Ask them to define their terms.

Just like Christians don’t like it when people stereotype them or non-Christians portray their faith inaccurately, other people, of course, don’t like it either – including cult members.  Remember, the goal is to have an open, loving dialogue, not demean the other person.  Even if you know some information about their beliefs (even if you read it on this very blog!) do not assume you know anything.  Remember, the person in front of you is an individual and an image-bearer of God, just like you.

Before (lovingly) challenging them on anything, first make sure you have a clear understanding of what they believe.  Ask a lot of questions, truly listening, and echo back to them their words to check for understanding.  Saying “Correct me if I’m misunderstanding you, but you’re saying…” is a great way to show you care about what they have to say and to make sure you’re not misrepresenting their beliefs.

“Why do you believe that?” is an essential question for you to ask.  So, if the cult member says their founder is the Second Coming of Christ, simply ask this question.  Their answer will lead to other obvious questions to ask.  If the cult member makes any strange claims about what’s written in the Bible, simply ask, “Where is that in the Bible?  Can you show me?”

If you’re slick, you can also ask strategic questions that lead the person to thinking out things they may have never considered before, such as inconsistencies in their doctrine.  Greg Koukl has written a great book about how to remain friendly and non-aggressive in a discussion while still challenging the others’ beliefs called Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions, which I highly recommend.

Finally, this is very important: Ask them to define their terms because what they mean by a certain word or phrase may not be what you mean when you use the same words.  Just ask, “What exactly do you mean by…?”  A cult member might say he believes Jesus is divine.  Great.  Case closed, right?  Wrong.  Once you ask, “What exactly do you mean by ‘divine’?” you may find out he means Jesus is a demigod, not fully God, and then you have work to do.  A cult member might say he believes in “the Trinity” only for you to find out “the Trinity” to him means God the Father, Uncle Pete the Son, and the Holy Spirit Horse of Chief Seattle.

When interacting with cult members, your first goal is listening and collecting information.

 

USING SCRIPTURE 

  •  Look at verses they quote in context.
  • Scripture interprets Scripture: Clear passages clarify ambiguous passages.
  • Don’t fuse over minor doctrine; stick to major doctrines.
  • Always bring it back to Scripture: especially the Gospel & salvation.

*See the next blog article for “Using Scripture” *

 

STRATEGIES EVERYONE CAN DO

  •  Don’t worry about “winning the argument” — just speak truth in love.
  • “I’ll look into that for you…”
  • 10 minutes/10 minutes
  • Share your testimony & the Gospel.
  • Pray for them.
  • Invite them to church.

Finally, maybe you’re nervous about facing-off with a cult member even in a friendly manner; maybe you don’t feel confident with your way around the Bible enough to recall all the verses to dispute their claims; or maybe you’re simply an introvert who avoids disagreements at all costs.  First, let me just say that I can absolutely understand all of these reservations.  Trust me.

Studying the Bible is a lifelong endeavor, so there are always gaps in our knowledge.  (But all the more reason to work for a better grasp of biblical, theological, and apologetic knowledge.)  Further, I’ve never been one for confrontations.  I grew up doing my best to avoid any conflicts that may arise with others.  But these last tips should assist anyone, no matter how introverted and non-confrontational or inexperienced and unschooled.

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Let’s look at each one-by-one:

Don’t worry about “winning the argument” — just speak truth in love

You may not be a trained debater or apologist, but every Christian knows truth, can speak truth, and can speak that truth with love.  And remember: speaking truth is important, but actions speak loudly as well.  Don’t worry about winning an argument.  Show that you’re concerned for them and their eternal soul.  Tell them the truth lovingly and leave it at that.

 

“I’ll look into that for you…”

Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have an open, honest discussion with a cult member, and you’re even doing a pretty good job of challenging their beliefs, but then they throw something at you that you don’t know what to make of.  More than likely, it’ll be a Bible verse you’ve never thought much about before.  There’s nothing wrong with humbly saying, “I can’t answer that for you right now, but let me get back to you.  I’ll look into it.”  Then, take a look at a good study Bible, ask your pastor about it, and do some other research.

 

10 minutes/10 minutes

This is a great strategy that shows mutual respect.  Simply tell the cult member (who may be standing on your doorstep), “I’ll gladly listen to you for ten minutes – allowing you to speak without interruption – if you then do for me the same courtesy and listen to me for ten minutes, allowing me to explain my beliefs uninterrupted.”

 

Share your testimony & the Gospel

Maybe you don’t feel deft at spitting out Bible verses verbatim from the top of your head (few do, even experienced pastors), but all Christians can (or at least should) be able to share the reason why they’re Christian and explain the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Pray for them & invite them to church

These may seem obvious, but don’t forget to do these two essential things.

Remember, we’re called to share the Gospel, but we don’t convert people; that’s the job of the Holy Spirit.  So, do your best to share the truth and love of Jesus Christ and don’t forget to pray, pray, pray for the cult members.

 

NEXT: About (Poor) Biblical Interpretation: Interacting with “Christian” Cult Members.

After that: Responding to specific beliefs of specific cults.

 How-we-got-the-bible

Recommended Resources:

A Good Place to Start:

  • How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot
  • ESV Study Bible
  • Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
  • Tactics by Greg Koukl
  • What is Biblical Theology? James M. Hamilton Jr.

OR

  •        According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy

Cults:

  • The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin (Ed. Ravi Zacharias)
  • The Four Major Cults by Anthony A. Hoekema

General Apologetics:

  • I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek (Read my review here)
  • Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig
  • What Your Wolrdview? James N. Anderson
  • Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint
  • Apologetics 315 (website)

More Theology:

  • What is Reformed Theology?  R.C. Sproul
  • The Forgotten Trinity James R. White
  • Jesus, the Son of God by D.A. Carson

Podcasts:

  • Check out my article on recommended podcasts here.  Most podcast hosts have great websites and blogs that are also useful tools (so see the podcast article for that too).  If I were to write an updated podcast article, I’d add:
  • The Dividing Line (James White)
  • Apologia Radio

Articles:

Of course, I hope this blog, God From the Machine, will be a resource for you as well… The following articles may be helpful introductions into some of the topics covered here:

How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults? What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?

What do the biblical writers warn about false teachers?  What is a “Christian” cult?  Are these cults new or old news?

Rorchack_cultsbooks

Warning: False Teachers & Prophets

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ warns of false teachers and prophets who will corrupt his Gospel, his good news of salvation.

For example, in Matthew 7:15, Jesus warns:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” 

Not only Jesus, but the apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, gives considerable space to warning against false teachers and prophets.

In 2 Timothy 4:3-4, Paul writes:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

Furthermore, Peter, Jesus’ most prominent disciple of his original twelve, took time to warn against false teachers too.

In his letter 2 Peter 2:1-3, he warns:

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master [Jesus] who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.  And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words.”

John, writer of the fourth Gospel, Revelation, and three letters in the New Testament, another one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples and arguably as prominent as Peter, also warns about those who corrupt the message of Jesus’ good news:

 “…do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

And while we’re at it, take a moment to read the letter by Jude, Jesus’ brother… Do it right now.  It’s barely one page.

So, here we have throughout the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and Jude all warning against false teachers and prophets.  If Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and Jude didn’t take corruption of God’s word lightly, neither should we.

christiansciencereadingroom

Ever see one of these? Luckily, this is a dwindling cult. Ironically, it’s neither Christian nor scientific in any way. It’s closer to types of Hinduism & Gnosticism.

What Do We Mean By “Christian” Cults? 

“Cult” isn’t necessarily a negative word, such as when used in ancient Rome or in types of Hinduism.  It can simply mean a system of religious devotion towards a specific person, god, or object.

But in modern Western society “cult” is a word no one wants to be associated with.  Today, in the West, often “cult” means a small group of people on the fringe of society who hold to some strange religious beliefs.  But sometimes these small groups of people with odd beliefs grow into large groups of people with odd beliefs.

So, let’s be clear about the intended meaning of the use of the word “cult” in this (and future) articles.

“Cult” – more specifically “Christian cult” – will refer to religious groups that have Christian origins or have borrowed from Christian beliefs but have deviated from Christianity to such an extreme that they can no longer be considered Christian.

These religious groups either deny or have changed core doctrines of Christianity so they’re not just another denomination.  Yes, there are many denominations in Christianity, but the differences between them have to do with different interpretations of minor doctrines and/or differences in their governing leadership.  Conversely, cults deny major doctrines – essential doctrines – of the Christian faith.

 

Why are they “Essential” Doctrines?

By “essential,” we mean essential for salvation from sin.  By straying from these core doctrines, the cult members don’t have salvation from sin as taught by the New Testament Scripture.  They have altered, corrupted, or denied the true Gospel of Jesus Christ by altering, corrupting, or denying God’s free gift of salvation.  Thus, peoples’ eternal souls are at stake.

Have no doubt, in using the word “cult” we’re stating that these groups are teaching – to use a term that’s no longer fashionable – heresy.  Though we believe the people in these cults are sincerely seeking relationships with God, they have been led astray by the founders and leaders of these cults, who are – to use more unfashionable language –apostates, i.e. false teachers and prophets.

But the good news is no one is beyond God’s grace – not even messed up sinners like me, you, or cult members.  That’s the good news of Jesus Christ.

Grudem

Recommended. Know your Christian doctrine — what we believe and why.

But Don’t Call Them “Cults”!

I realize what I’m writing in this section is ironic:

Though the word “cult” is used in this article (and will be used in future articles), I don’t believe we should use the word “cults” when speaking with members of “Christian” cults (such as blatantly telling someone, Your church is a cult).  As stated above, the word has such a negative connotation, the person will take offense and, after that, any chance of an open, loving dialogue will be lost.  Remember, Christians are to speak not just truth but truth with love (Eph. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 13:1).

 

How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults?  + , – , X , /

One of my professors at SBTS, Dr. David Sills, professor of missions and anthropology, gave us a fool-proof way to understand, explain, and remember what makes a group not a denomination, but a “Christian” cult:  Use the symbols: +, — , x, /

That is:  + (Addition sign), – (Subtraction sign), x (Multiplication sign), / (Division sign)

This is what each symbol represents:

(+) Adds to the Word of God

(–) Subtracts from the Deity of Jesus Christ

(x) Multiplies the Requirements for Salvation

(/) Divides the Cult Members’ Loyalty Between the Cult Leader(s) and Christ

These are pretty straight-forward, but let’s break them down:

(+) Adds to the Word of God

Christians believe the Bible, both the Old Testament and New Testament, are God’s unique Scripture.  There are no other scriptures than these, and there is no need for any more scripture than these.  Scripture records God’s redemption of humankind from sin, and this was accomplished when God came as Jesus of Nazareth and died on a cross as the perfect, final sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Now, according to the commands of Jesus, Christians spread his Gospel and wait for his Second Coming, when he will bring the Final Judgment and restore creation.  (Take a moment and read my blog post: 2-Minute Lesson on Biblical Theology — the Progressive Revelation of God in Human History.)

Case closed.

Throughout the Bible we see that God confirms his messengers through “signs and wonders” — miracles.  The New Testament was completed in the 1st Century by Jesus’ apostles.  Any addition to God’s Word is not God’s Word, and any new “scripture” claiming to be from God is not from God.  God will not be giving any new scripture because there is no need for it.  The church “closed” the canon of Scripture for exactly this reason: so no one could claim to have written, received, or discovered new Scripture.  Likewise, to eliminate or change anything from God’s Word is corrupting God’s Word.  Additionally, any “translation” that is not faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew falls under this category.

 (–) Subtracts from the Deity of Jesus Christ 

Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth, as taught in the New Testament, is God the Son incarnate.  Primarily through Jesus’ deeds he displayed his divinity and oneness with God the Father.  In every way, Jesus is God.  He has been eternally part of the Trinitarian Godhead; he isn’t a created being.  Only by being both fully God and fully man could Jesus live a perfect, sinless life and accomplish salvation for all of humankind by his death on the cross.

To deny Jesus is anything other than God means Jesus could not accomplish salvation for all of humankind, which means salvation from sins is not possible.  Thus, to deny the divinity of Christ Jesus is to be unsaved.

Often “Christian” cults make Jesus (God the Son) less than God the Father.  Jesus is seen as a sort of demigod or an exalted angel — a being created by God.

As a related matter: Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity – the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one God – is hard to wrap our finite, human minds around, but the Bible attests to it.  Many “Christian” cults deny the Trinity by either denying the full deity of the Son/Jesus or the Holy Spirit or both.

(x) Multiplies the Requirements for Salvation

The New Testament writers teach that salvation from sins comes only through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  When someone understands this, they repent of sins, accept this free gift, and follow Jesus Christ – God the Son – as their Lord and Savior.

Thus, no one earns salvation.  It’s a free gift from God that can only be either accepted or rejected, as with all free gifts.  Despite what many think, one doesn’t come into God’s presence by being a “good person.”  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  God’s salvation can’t be earned, and none of us deserve it.  It can only be accepted.

This is the beautiful good news of Christ Jesus – the truly unique message of Christianity that no other faith teaches.  To add anything to this simple and beautiful message of salvation is to deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But cults add some sort of “works” to salvation; salvation must be gained, even if the cult holds up some version of Jesus as a savior.  The cult members must be deemed worthy of salvation through their works and close adherence to the cult’s teachings – and often its solely up to the cult’s leader(s) to deem who’s worthy of salvation or not.

(/) Divides the Cult Members’ Loyalty Between the Cult Leader(s) and Christ

Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of all true Christians.  God has graciously given us the Bible – the Old and New Testament – as our guide for knowing God’s will.  The Bible is also our guide for testing the teachings of the teachers of God’s Word.  If any teacher – whether pastor, priest, or pope – purposely misrepresents God’s Word, he is putting himself in the place of God; he is putting his authority above God’s.

In cults, the founder(s) and leader(s) are the final authority, not God or Jesus nor their Holy Scripture.  They claim to be the only ones who can properly interpret God’s Word, or they claim the authority to add to or alter God’s Word.  To do this, is to stand between a person seeking God and God.

Like John the Baptist, true teachers of God’s Word point their hearers to Jesus Christ.  They don’t get in the way.  They encourage their pupils to read God’s Word on their own and strive for understanding.  False teachers point not to Christ, but to themselves.  And often unquestioning loyalty is demanded.

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2 More Common Characteristics of Cults

These, also, should “raise an eyebrow” if you come across them:

The One True Church

Yes, different denominations have disagreements on minor doctrines, but they don’t usually accuse the others of being heretics and devoid of Christ’s salvation.  Cults often claim they’re God’s only true church and members of all other Christian churches are destined for damnation.

Often they claim Christianity has been corrupted some time in the past, but they have the true, restored Christianity as Jesus Christ intended it.

Secret Teachings

Jesus Christ preached in public, performed miracles in public, and both Christian doctrine and Christian churches are open to all.  There are no secrets.  Cults, on the other hand, often have secret teachings or rituals that only those indoctrinated into the cult know or are allowed to participate in – or even to witness.  Often, these are some of their stranger beliefs that they don’t want the general public to know about.

Frequently, those new to the cult purposely aren’t exposed to these stranger beliefs until they have invested themselves into the cult.

Old Heresies, New Faces

Many of the teachings of these cults are old heresies, meaning they’re nothing new.  If you look at Christian history, the early church has already faced and addressed many of the same unsound, erroneous interpretations of the Bible these modern cults promote.

“Christian” cults put peoples’ salvation through Jesus Christ into serious jeopardy.  A cult may have all or any one of the characteristics mentioned above.

NEXT:

  • General strategies for interacting with cult members.
  • Responding to the teachings of specific “Christian” cults.

Recommended Resources:

BOOKS:

  • The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin (Ed. Ravi Zacharias)
  • The Four Major Cults by Anthony A. Hoekema

ONLINE:

  • www.challies.com – Excellent informative series of articles on “False Teachers” — both present and past.  A new one is posted every few weeks.  Scroll down on the page to see those written so far.
  • 3-part series on how to biblically identify, engage, & deal with false teachers by Denny Burk.
  • kingdomofthecults

    Recommended. Classic study of various cults with updates.

    FourMajorCults

    Another recommended modern classic. Out-of-print, but I found a cheap used copy online.