About (Poor) Biblical Interpretation: Responding to “Christian” Cults… or Anyone Who Misuses Scripture.

Interpreting the Bible poorly is an error made by people in all walks of life, whether they be cult members, atheists or honest Christians who don’t know better.  Here are ways not to interpret the Bible… (and a few tips on how you should…)

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Concerning Scripture

This article continues from last post, which looked at general strategies for interacting with “Christian” cult members.  Though it’s written with cult members in mind, many of these strategies will assist anyone hoping to better understand the Bible.

  • Read Part 1: How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults? What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?
  • Read Part 2: Interacting with “Christian” Cult Members: Tips & Strategies

Use the following strategies when discussing Scripture with cult members (as well as anyone who uses Scripture incorrectly)…

  • 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.

Let’s look at each one a little closer…

*Look at verses they quote in context.*

One of the biggest errors of nominal Christians or even dedicated Christians who have a poor understanding of the Bible is to grab random verses out of context to prove the opinions they’re promoting.  In fact, in some circles, this is the norm; any opinion can be “proved” by citing a single verse.  This is also a regular strategy with cults.  Remember, the first rule of proper interpretation: context, context, context!

If anyone (whether it’s a trusted pastor, a cult member, or the Pope) quotes a Bible verse, and if what they’re proposing the verse means doesn’t sound quite right, all you need to do is open your Bible and read the verse in context.  (The footnotes in a study Bible will help too.)  This means reading the whole section, chapter, or even book in which the verse appears.

For example, if someone claims because of Psalm 148:10 that cattle should be welcomed to worship in churches with humans, you probably should open up to Psalm 148 and read the complete Psalm (and hopefully you have a common sense understanding of the difference between poetic and literal language too).  If someone claims Christians shouldn’t eat figs because Jesus hates figs, as evident by his curse upon a fig tree, maybe you should take a moment to read the episode and figure out what Jesus was truly teaching in carrying out this action.

Yes, both examples above are absurd, but they illustrate how verses or passages can be made to mean silly things they don’t actually say.  Context, context, context!

 

*Scripture interprets Scripture.*

Cults have the tendency to grab unclear, difficult, or obscure passages from the Bible and use them as a base for their mistaken theology and fantastical doctrines.

Remember this rule of thumb: Clear passages clarify ambiguous passages.  If the one verse a cult member points to may be interpreted in a way to support their untraditional view, say, “Okay, maybe this unclear verse can be interpreted that way, but what about all these other perfectly clear passages that teach something totally different than what you’re saying…?” or “Yes, that’s a hard verse to understand, but this verse clarifies it…”

Or simply put the ball in their court: if they’re making the claim, the burden of proof is on them.  Simply say, “That’s an interesting interpretation, but where else do you see that idea in the Bible?”  For instance, if someone points to an unclear verse and claims it shows God has a wife, say, “That passage is hardly conclusive.  Where else does the Bible teach God has a wife?”  Chances are their theory will fizzle.

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*Don’t fuse over minor doctrine; stick to major doctrines.*

Cults also have the tendency of making huge deals out of minor doctrines.  Yes, Christian denominations disagree on the interpretation or practice of some minor doctrines, but often cults make their interpretation of these doctrines (often unusual takes on these doctrines as well) and obedience to them as a required means of salvation.

For example, a cult may state the only true way to be baptized is in natural flowing water with your head bowed.  To be baptized in any other way than this, they claim, means one is not saved.

Now, I’m with the Baptists on the doctrine of baptism: the Bible clearly teaches baptism is done once someone accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; it’s an outward, symbolic act to bear witness to others that the one being baptized is declaring Christ as his Lord and Savior; and, finally, “baptism” means “immersion” so those being baptized should be dunked fully in water.  Do I believe this is the correct interpretation of the biblical text and we should obey it?  Yes!  Does this mean those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior but who aren’t baptized in this exact way are unsaved?  By no means!  If someone lives all of her life in a dessert where there is not one pool of water big enough to be fully dunked in, does that mean she remains unsaved?  By no means!  Salvation comes through God’s grace and faith in Jesus Christ alone.

All that being said, don’t bother arguing with cult members over minor doctrines.  They’re often just a distraction from the big issues and the big doctrines – the essential doctrines and beliefs – which salvation does depend on (as laid out in Part 1).  Focus on the big doctrines, and if you make major progress on those or you win a cult member to Christ, then it’s time to discuss minor doctrines.

Likewise, sometimes cult members make odd claims, like saying Jesus was hung on a stake instead of a cross.  Though many of these claims can be disproved, choose your battles wisely and stay focused on the essential issues for salvation.

 

*Always bring it back to Scripture, the Gospel & Salvation.*

Always bring it back to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and the salvation that can be received only through him.  Always bring it back to the true word of God.  The cult member may be dropping absurd claims on you like a dump truck, but stay calm.  You have the truth, so what’s there to fear?  Even if the cult member is a deft debater, just keep referring him back to Scripture, God’s true Word.  As long as you’re speaking God’s truth in love and praying for the intervention of the Holy Spirit, you can’t go wrong.

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*A Bit More About (Poor) Biblical Interpretation

 

 Some other cult (and generally poor) strategies for biblical interpretation:

  • Imposing views on the text rather than letting the text speak for itself. 

Honest biblical interpretation reads the text as it is and works to understand what the original author was trying to communicate to his original audience.  Interpretation is not: “This is what I think.  Now let me look through the Bible and find verses to support my view.”

 

  • Jumping from one part of the Bible to another with utter disregard of context to “prove” ideas, beliefs, or opinions.

We spoke about this already above in the section about reading Bible verses in context because people can make the Bible say almost anything they want if they isolate verses and take them out of context.

 

  • Inconsistent decisions on what should be taken literally or figuratively, often based on preconceived ideas.

The Bible is a work of literature.  Even an atheist would agree with that.  And this means both figurative (poetic) and literal language are used in it.

For example, psalms by nature are poetic.  Thus, when we read them, we have to be aware that non-literal, poetic language is regularly used.  Moreover, in the Gospel of John, Jesus calls himself a light, a vine, and a door.  Should we take him literally?  Like any work of literature, the reader needs to strive to understand what the author was communicating to his original audience.  We understand what to take as literal or figurative language through (once again) context, context, context.

Sometimes, it’s not so clear how figuratively or literally a verse should be taken.  When writing about things not found in our normal everyday experiences, writers often have to find creative ways to explain things.  And the Bible is filled with subject matter not within the bounds of everyday experiences.  Think about it: How do you explain with everyday language Jesus as being fully God yet fully human and one with God the Father yet different?

Yet, cults have the habit of taking verses usually taken as literal figuratively and verses usually taken as figurative literally.  The decisions are often quite random and based on preconceived beliefs.

 

  • Selective “translation” and adherence to grammar rules.

Similar to the other erroneous or dishonest strategies above, some cults have their own “translation” of the Bible, where they change words and grammar to fit their beliefs.  Because of this, be sure to refer to a legitimate Bible translation (ESV, NASB) when interacting with them.

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A Few Words on the Book of Revelation:

The closing book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret.  Even legitimate conservative New Testament scholars break up into 4 major camps on how to understand it.  The main reason for this is that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, a style of ancient literature that is highly symbolic.

Cults almost universally seize on the ambiguity of Revelation to “prove” their views, interpreting symbols as they see fit.  (Further, many cults have an unhealthy fascination with the End Times.)

Despite these difficulties, context is (as always) the key.  There are things that can be known for certain in Revelation and certain interpretations that definitely can be eliminated.  If nothing else, be wary of anyone going to Revelation to “prove” an unusual viewpoint.

(To learn more about Revelation, read Four Views of the Book of Revelation published by Zondervan, and/or see Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.)

(To watch a great video of 3 legitimate scholars discussing/debating 3 views of Revelation, End Times, & The Millennium with John Piper, click here.)

CLOSING

In Ephesians 4:14, Paul speaks of those “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”  We need to be beacons of light to lead those upon the waves to shore.

**Two books I recommend for learning about biblical interpretation: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert H. Stein & 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer.  Both books are readable to everyday Christians, not just seminary students.**

*See more recommendations below.

NEXT:  Specific “Christian” cults.

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Recommended Resources:

Biblical Interpretation:

  • A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert H. Stein
  • 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer.

Cults:

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

 Highly Recommended for all Christians:

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

OR

       According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy

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 (blogs, websites):

  • The Dividing Line (with 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 in some topics that arise with cult members:

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?

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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.

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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.