What Makes a Cult a Cult? 5 Major Characteristics

Whats-the-Difference-RidenourAs we have pointed out here before, for our Sunday night discussion groups this year at Faith PRC we are studying the various major religions and cults of the world, using as a guide Fritz Ridenour’s book So What’s the Difference (Bethany House, 2001). Tomorrow night our group will be looking at two of the major cults – Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.

At the beginning of the section of the book that treats the cults, Ridenour has an introductory chapter titled “Where Did the Cults Come From?” Part of that section defines five major characteristics that make a cult a cult – a group that claims to be genuinely Christian but that holds doctrines “contradictory to orthodox Christianity” (to quote the late Walter Martin).

Here are those five characteristics. I believe you will readily agree that these are what makes such groups unorthodox.

  1. “The first is that they reject the Trinity; that is, they disbelieve in Jesus Christ as God. Cults may say good things about Jesus and assign Him a certain position of importance, but they almost always attack or undermine the true biblical deity of Jesus Christ, either by lowering Him to the level of man or raising man to His level.”
  2. “Second, cultists usually believe that all Christian churches are wrong and that their group has the only real truth about God.”
  3. “Third, they claim to believe the Bible but they distort its teachings to suit their own peculiar view of mankind, God, the Holy Spirit, heaven and hell, salvation and many other doctrines. They usually find the source of these peculiar beliefs in their leaders, who claim to have new interpretations of the Bible or even valuable additions to it.”
  4. “A fourth point is that all cults deny that people can be saved by faith in Christ alone. They teach their members that they can make themselves right with God through good works and through obedience to the doctrines and requirements the cult has set down as ‘God’s will’ for their lives.”
  5. “Fifth, cults are skillful at using Christian terminology, but they are not talking the same language as biblical Christians. Beware of the semantics barrier. Commonly understood words like ‘God,’ ‘Christ,’ ‘faith,’ ‘sin,’ salvation,’ etc., mean entirely different things to a cultist and a Christian. The first task, then, when sharing your faith with someone who seems to have different ideas, is to define terms” (pp.111-112).

A little later the author adds these important words:

     As you learn about these various groups, be aware that your first line of defense against their lure and attractiveness is to know God’s Word and be able to ‘test all things’ with biblical truth (see 1 Thess.5:21,22; 2 Tim.2:4-16). Only by knowing the real difference between what you believe and what certain cultists believe can you reach out to them with the all-fulfilling truth and power of the gospel (p.113).

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