© 1990 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
Drums beat in uneven syncopation. Exotic spices and incense fill the air with the swirling fragrance
of another world. Red and gold
silk glints in the flickering light. Dorothy feels her heart hammer against her chest, her throat so dry she
can't swallow. She feels immobile
against the panic that rises to cloud her vision. Dorothy is at the Hare Krishna temple to rescue her
daughter, Shelly, from a cult. Never
has she counted on the power of her faith in Christ as she did now, confronted by the temple leader, who
abruptly tells her Shelly is gone, lost
forever to her family and former Christian faith, dedicated to the worship and service of Krishna.
Later, as Dorothy shared her pain with her Bible study, she was met with a cacophany of opinions.
"How could such a good girl
have become such a deceiver? You know all those cults are just out for money and power." "How can you
be so judgmental, Dorothy? She's
just doing what's meaningful for her." "Those cults -- they're all into human sacrifices and mind control."
"I talked to a Hare Krishna once
and she said she believed in Jesus -- what's wrong with that?" Dorothy didn't know what to think. She
had to find answers.
Dorothy is like a lot of Christians who hardly think about cults or other belief systems until someone
they love becomes entangled
in a faith that at odds with Christianity. Many times, the loved one is involved in a group that is much less
obviously different than the Hare
Krishnas. Frequently family members vacilate between thinking, on the one hand, the group is just
another kind of Christianity or, on the other
hand, the group must be a cult from the pit of hell. Dorothy and other concerned Christians need a clear
understanding of what a cult is to
begin their education.
Unfortunately, when Christians attempt to find out what a cult is, they discover that there are almost
as many definitions of a cult
as there are writers and speakers on the subject. Sociologists often define cults by their cultural
idiosyncracies. Psychologists frequently talk
about cults in terms of "mind control," "low self-esteem," "dominating leadership," etc. Journalists seem to
describe cults in terms like bizarre,
suicidal, secretive, and fanatical. Within the Christian church these variations sometimes are coupled with
strong religious pronouncements
that any group other than their own denomination is a cult, or some assume that any faith is better than
no faith and think the term is always
pejorative and should never be used by a Christian.
In the midst of this confusion of opinion, there is a core of biblical clarity that can help concerned
Christians discern between truth
and error, biblical standards and opinion. The term cult comes from the Latin cultus, meaning "worship,"
and originally meant a system of
worship distinguishable from others. It quickly came to mean an aberrant form of worship identified in
some way with a "parent" belief system.
So, for example, the "mystery cults" of Greece and Rome were sectarian systems of worship of one or more
of the pantheon of Greek and
Roman gods and goddesses. According to this early definition, Christianity could be considered a "cult" of
Judaism, deriving its identify from
the Jewish faith, but differing from first century Judaism in its proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, the
resurrected Son of God.
In this century, the Church has usually defined the term cult by doctrinal or theological standards.
In this sense, a cult is a sectarian
religious group that identifies itself with Christianity and yet fails one or more core doctrinal tests of
orthodoxy. Jehovah's Witnesses, for
example, call themselves Christians, and yet deny the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity and resurreciton
of Christ, among other doctrinal
distinctives. The Mormons identify themselves as members of "The Church of Jesus Christ," but affirm the
elevation of man to godhood and
deny salvation by grace alone, as well as other doctrines contrary to biblical teachings. Most Christian cult
watchers understand this doctrinal
definition as contrasting the cult's beliefs with essential biblical doctrine concerning five areas: God (belief
in one true God, the trinity, God's
infinite and eternal nature and attributes, etc.); Jesus Christ (Second Person of the trinity, virgin born, died
on the cross for us, resurrection,
Second Coming, etc.); man (created in God's image, morally responsible, destined either for eternal life or
eternal punishment, etc.); sin and
salvation (all people are sinful and separated from God, salvation is by grace alone through faith, the
atonement, etc.); and scripture (the Bible,
Old and New Testaments, is God's infallible Word and the revelation from God by which we understand,
worship, and serve God). A cult,
then, is a religious group that identifies itself with Christianity, or at least claims compatibility with
Christianity, and yet which denies one or
more of these cardinal biblical doctrines.
Sociological, psychological, and journalistic observations sometimes show us the human dynamics
that frequently result from a cult
belief system, but they are not sufficient Christian foundations for determining a groups status as a cult.
For example, a cult's unique doctrines
can lead to an exclusivism and separateness from other religious groups. A cult's belief that the Bible's
revelation is superceded by the current
revelations of the cult leader may result in followers surrendering their thinking and decision making
abilities to the cult leader. And the more
aberrant a cult's beliefs and practices, the more likely it is to be characterized as bizarre.
Once Dorothy learned to identify a cult, she perused Hare Krishna literature and talked with the
temple representative. She learned
that, while Hare Krishnas say they believe in Jesus, they believe he was only one manifestation of Krishna,
certainly not the unique Son of God
manifest in the flesh. She learned their statement of compatibility with Christianity masked their
conviction that Christianity is a low, spiritually
ignorant groping after religious experience only attainable through devotion to Krishna. She discovered
the Hare Krishna's polytheism (belief
in the existence of more than one god) and salvation through an elaborate and multi-life (reincarnation)
karmic system of works.
Dorothy located her daughter and arranged a meeting. Dorothy used 2 Timothy 2:24-26 as her
pattern for confrontation: "And the
Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them
repentance leading them to a knowledge
of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken
them captive to do his will" (NIV).
Dorothy knew not to argue with Shelly. She quietly asked Shelly to explain her beliefs, and then Dorothy
explained her own biblical concerns
with Shelly's faith. She continued to affirm her love for Shelly as she shared her disagreements with her.
Her careful Bible study and research
into Krishna teachings prepared gave enabled her to share confidently and clearly. She realized Shelly had
been deceived, and she prayed for
God to open her eyes. Gently and lovingly she shared the biblical gospel with Shelly, echoing Paul's
confidence: "I am not ashamed of the
gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). Shelly
didn't leave the Krishnas that morning,
but Dorothy has hope. As Shelly left, she asked her mother to pray for her.
[For further information on cults and definitions of "cult," see Bob and Gretchen Passantino's two
books Answers to the Cultist at
Your Door (Harvest House) and Witch Hunt (Thomas Nelson), as well as Dr. Walter Martin's Kingdom
of the Cults (Bethany House) and
Walter Martin Speaks Out on the Cults (Regal).]
When They Come Knocking . . . .
"I want you to write a book on the cults to help my wife," the publisher explained. "She loves the
Lord, but she needs a book that
makes her confident enough that she'll thank God she answered the door to the Jehovah's Witnesses,
instead of thanking God she was in the
shower and didn't hear the doorbell." That publisher's wife echoed the fears of many Christians who want
to share their faith with cultists, but
don't know how. In the almost two decades we've spent witnessing to cultists, and the decade since
publication of our Answers to the Cultist
at Your Door (Harvest House), the Lord has given us hundreds of opportunities to observe and participate
in witnessing successes and failures.
God has taught us to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason
for the hope that you have" (1 Peter
3:15 NIV). He has taught us that our delusions of argumentation grandeur do nothing to bring cultists to
the truth; God gives the increase
(1 Corinthians 3:7).
At the core of successful witnessing to the cults is commitment to God's pattern of evangelism:
"And the Lord's servant must not
quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he
must gently instruct, in the hope that
God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their
senses and escape from the trap
of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26). This combines a heart for
people lost in darkness, along with a
commitment to solid reasons for biblical faith. This combination heart/head technique provides the
Christian with confidence and the cultist
with the best opportunity to hear and respond to the truth of the gospel.
Our publisher's wife began with her compassionate heart, aching for those deceived by false belief.
She was eager for them to know
Jesus as their Savior. She didn't view cultists as devils, enemies, or hopelessly spiritually insane; but
instead as sincere but deceived individuals
for whom Christ had died. The vast majority of cultists we have met, caught in sin like all humanity, are
kind, sincere people who believe they
are worshipping and serving God. Unless a Christian can have empathy and identify with the cultist,
successful witnessing will be elusive.
Several years ago one of our new interns, Greg, learned this lesson quickly. He came with four years of
Bible college knowledge about the cults.
As he told us, "I'm ready to trounce those cultists!" He accompanied us as we witnessed to a woman who
had been a Jehovah's Witness for
most of her life. While our encounter centered around biblical truth concerning the trinity, the deity of
Christ, and salvation by grace, the
woman's main concern was more personal. She saw the truth of our arguments, but she was afraid to
believe. She told us tearfully, "If I've
been deceived for thirty years, how can I know for sure this is right? What if I'm wrong and Jehovah
rejects me for all eternity?" After
assurance and further conversation, the woman prayed with us to receive Christ. We rejoiced on the way
home, but Greg was strangely silent.
Finally he confessed, "I feel like a fool. Here I had all this head knowledge but I had no idea Jehovah's
Witnesses were real people. I would
have completely turned her off by my accusations and rebukes. Thank God you guys were doing the
When you talk with a cultist, remember that he or she is just like you were before you became a
believer, with the same dreams,
hopes, doubts, and fears:
- Treat the cultist as you would like to be treated (the "Golden Rule" of cult apologetics).
- Even if you don't have all the answers, your compassion, genuine interest, and willingness to look
for the answers will
encourage the cultist to take your words seriously.
- Be sure to separate the deception of the cult from the sincerity of the cultist, who sincerely
believes what he or she
has been taught.
- Stress the positives the cultist will gain from biblical repentance and faith, rather than
continuously focusing on the
negatives of cult belief. (One Mormon asked us, "So, even if you're right about the Mormon
Church, what else is there
Christians who have plenty of "heart" but not much "head" need to concentrate on the facts of
biblical faith for successful
communication with cultists. God has given us the ability to think, reason, and evaluate as part of our
being made in God's image. Although
we often make mistakes in our thinking due to our inherent sinfulness, God commands us to use our
minds as part of good evangelism: "Do
your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and
who correctly handles the word of
truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). When our publisher's wife became adequately prepared in her Bible knowledge as
well as her understanding of cult
doctrines, she was able to greet cultists with a clear message of biblical truth.
We received a call from a woman who had attended one of our training sessions on witnessing to
cultists. She was so excited we
asked her to slow down. "I did it! I did it!" She laughed, "I mean, the Lord did it! And boy did He do
it! I'm so excited! I've been studying
and praying for a month for one of my employees who's a Jehovah's Witness. I never knew what to say to
her, but I learned, and this morning
we talked for three hours. I can't believe it! She saw the truth and prayed with me right then to accept
Christ! This is fantastic!" We rejoiced
with her, praising God for giving the increase and thanking Him for giving us hearts and minds to be used
by the Holy Spirit to reach those
lost in the cults.
- Learn basic Christian doctrine. There is no substitute for truth. The best way to recognize a
counterfeit is to be
familiar with the genuine.
- Concentrate on core biblical doctrines, those concerning God, Jesus Christ, the nature of man,
sin and salvation, and
scripture. Peripheral doctrines such as the timing of the Second Coming or modes of baptism are
not essential for
- Carefully evaluate your own vocabulary and that of the cultist. Be sure you are communicating
clearly. For example,
Christians understand the term "Son of God" to affirm the deity of Christ; Jehovah's Witnesses use
the same term, but
mean "the Mighty creation by God."
- Always include a clear presentation of the gospel. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ
on our behalf,
according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16).
It is irresponsible
to destroy a cultist's beliefs without sharing how to be saved.
- Don't assume you know what the cultist believes. Show personal interest by asking him to tell
you what he believes.
Then answer biblically.
- Consult responsible Christian sources for information about what the cults teach and how to
answer them from
scripture. The wealth of good Christian material means you don't need to read cult publications or
that are not well-referenced and theologically sound.
For Further Help
When you are faced with a loved one in a cult, or you don't know how to share your faith with a cultist
you know or who approaches you, you
can find specific help from many different organizations dedicated to sharing the gospel with the cults.
There are nearly 700 organizations
worldwide engaged in research and evangelism of the cults, the occult, and world religions. Some are very
small, volunteer organizations; some
support large, professional staffs. Some charge for basic services, some don't. Some tackle many different
belief systems and some are
dedicated to evangelizing one particular cult or belief (e.g., Mormonism, reincarnation, etc.).
The Directory of Cult Research Organizations lists 652 of these cult research organizations and is an
invaluable resource for pastors, church
leaders, teachers, and Christians who are concerned with evangelizing cultists. It is available for $6.00
(plus $2.00 shipping) from Cornerstone,
920 W. Wilson, Chicago, IL 60640, telephone (312) 989-2080.
When you contact any organization, be sure to include a stamped, self-addressed business size envelope. If
you request materials, be prepared
to pay and thoughtfully include an adequate donation. Non-profit organizations often have very limited
In addition to the Directory, information is available from the cult research organization coalition,
Evangelical Ministries to New Religions
(EMNR). EMNR provides networking, conferences, and acts as a clearing house for cult research
organizations. You may contact EMNR by
writing Bob Passantino, Executive Director, EMNR, P.O. Box 2067, Costa Mesa, CA 92628.
Recommended Cult Research Organizations