By Tal Davis
Americans and Canadians have seen much in the media in recent decades about
the phenomena of cults and sects. The tragic mass suicide of the People's
Temple in Guyana, the horrific flaming destruction of the Branch Davidians in
Texas, the self-destruction of the members of Heaven's Gate in California, and
the deadly collapse of the Solar Temple in Quebec have shocked North Americans
into a realization that many Americans and Canadians are deeply involved in
strange and dangerous religious movements.
Christians especially have become more aware of this escalating situation.
However, most do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes a cult or a
sect, or know how to determine if a religious movement or church is
This article describes characteristics of cults and sects, and highlights
principles for evaluating a religious movement's authenticity. It also provides
specific guidelines for witnessing to people in cults and sects.
What is a Cult or Sect?
Different definitions of the terms "cult" and "sect" are used by
researchers, writers, and speakers in various fields of study. Most secular
experts rely primarily on sociological, psychological, or behavioral factors
and usually do not consider doctrinal or theological issues when evaluating
specific religious movements.
Christian discernment ministries, however, normally begin with a careful
examination of a group's stated doctrinal beliefs before considering other
They usually agree that the following are common characteristics of movements
designated cults or sects. Cults or sects are religious movements,
churches, or other organizations that have all or some of the following
1. Cults and sects usually claim to be biblically-based, Christian
organizations. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints (LDS) maintains that it is a Christian church centered on Christ and His
teachings. The Christian Science church also often refers to itself as a
2. All cults deny or redefine any or all essential Christian
doctrines. Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, absolutely deny the
deity of Jesus Christ. The LDS redefines the Trinity to mean the Father, Son,
and Holy Ghost are three separate personages or gods.
3. Sects may adhere officially to essential Christian teachings
while exhibiting other characteristics of cults or sects. The
International Church of Christ, for example, adheres to traditional views about
God and Christ, but members regard their movement as the only one proclaiming
the true message of salvation today.
4. Cults and sects usually claim to be led by divinely inspired
leaders. They usually believe their leaders are capable of receiving
direct revelation from God or have a special, inspired understanding of the
Bible. One example is Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the
Unification Church. His followers regard him as "Lord of the Second Advent," a
position equal to that of Christ. The LDS believes its president is a "living
prophet, seer, and revelator" who can receive direct revelation from God
(Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonisim, Vol. 3 [New York:
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992], p. 1126).
5. Cults and sects usually claim to possess a new and inspired
written scripture that supplements or supersedes the authority of the
Bible. Christian Science teaches that Mary Baker Eddy's Science
and Health with Key to the Scriptures is an inspired adjunct to the Bible.
Likewise, Scientologists regard the writings of L. Ron Hubbard as the works of
a genius who discovered the keys to understanding life and death.
6. Cults and sects usually claim to be the only true (or the most
true) church in the world. Full salvation is said to be found only by
membership in the movement. Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, regard all other
religious organizations as devoid of truth. In their view, only their
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has the truth that leads to eternal life.
The LDS teaches that eternal life (exaltation) can be achieved only by being a
baptized member of the LDS church.
Principles for Evaluating Religious Movements
In light of these characteristics, mature and discerning Christians (see
Heb. 5:14) should ask the following questions when they encounter unfamiliar
1. What is the source of the movement's authority for doctrine and practice?
Do members rely on the Bible alone or add some other book(s) that is equal to
or supersedes its authority? Do they depend only on a special leader or leaders
to interpret the Bible for them?
2. Does the movement clearly affirm basic historic Christian teachings? What do
its leaders believe about the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, and
the plan of salvation?
3. What is the movement's attitude toward other Bible-believing, Christian
groups? Do its leaders view them with any degree of suspicion or rejection? Do
they insist you must be a member of their group to be assured of salvation?
Also, does the movement regard people who leave or wish to leave the
organization with scorn or good will?
4. How does the movement explain the way of salvation? Do its leaders affirm
salvation by grace through Christ alone, or is it by works, church membership,
or obedience to the group's leaders? The answers to the above questions can
help sincere Christians evaluate the truth and motives of most religious
movements. In any case, Christians should develop cautious relationships with
adherents of religions they do not understand.
Major Cults and Sects in North America
• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
• Jehovah's Witnesses
• United Pentecostal Church (Oneness Pentecostalism)
• Unitarian Universalist Association
• Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS)/Community of
• Christian Science
• Unity School of Christianity
• International Church of Christ
• The Way International
• Church of Scientology International
• Baha'i Faith
• Nation of Islam
Witnessing to People in Cults and Sects
1. Have a clear understanding of the biblical basis of historic Christian
doctrine. Focus particularly on biblical teachings about the nature of God, the
person and work of Jesus Christ, the plan of salvation, and life after
2. Take the initiative in the witnessing encounter and seek to develop a
friendly relationship with the person in the cult or sect. Remember, you are
sharing Christ with a person, not just debating a movement's doctrine.
3. Listen carefully to determine how committed the person is to the cult or
sect and its teachings.
4. Establish the sole authority of the Bible. Be aware of how cults and sects
may misuse the Bible, often quoting verses out of context or using symbolic
5. Define all terms clearly. Remember, cults and sects often redefine standard
Christian or biblical terms to accommodate their preconceived doctrines.
Explain carefully what you mean by the words you use and ask the person in the
cult or sect to do the same.
6. Focus on basic issues and do not get sidetracked with secondary issues or
defending your denomination.
7. Share your testimony of faith in Jesus Christ. Describe your salvation
experience and relationship with Christ in personal terms. Center on God's
grace as shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Avoid emphasizing
emotional feelings, but focus on your assurance of eternal life through
8. Explain carefully the biblical plan of salvation. Emphasize the following
a. God's desire is that all people have eternal life (see Rom. 6:23b;
John 3:16; 10:10; 14:3).
b. People have a problem, which is sin (see Rom. 3:23; 6:23a).
c. God's only provision for sin is Jesus Christ (see John 1:1,14; Rom.
4:25; 1 Pet. 3:18).
d. Each person must repent of his or her sins and by faith receive Jesus as his
or her Lord and Savior (see John 1;12; Acts 3:19; 26:20; Eph. 2:8-9).
9. Pray earnestly, be patient, and trust the Holy Spirit to lead
you in your witnessing to people in cults and sects.
Tal Davis is on staff at the North
American Mission Board, SBC.