College campuses are prime recruiting territory for cults and heretical sects. Christian students are excited about their faith and eager to follow Jesus. Unfortunately, some groups take advantage of that fact. They prey upon students' idealism and zeal and suck them into unbiblical belief systems.
I was reminded of this sad reality last night when a group of young men tried to take over our college ministry's evening service, shouting that they alone had the true Gospel and that the rest of the churches in America are condemned. My understanding is that these men have been making the rounds on campus this week, so I felt compelled to write a post warning my readers and also providing some information to help you spot aberrant groups like this.
Galatians 2:4-5 warns us against false brothers, who sneak around to spy out the liberty and grace we have in Jesus Christ. Paul says he didn't give in to people like that for even a minute, and neither should we.
So what are some of the defining features of cults? It's very difficult to come up with a standard list -- every group differs a bit. However, below are some things that many of them have in common. Not all of them will have all of these characteristics, but they will all have at least one. I hope this will help you as you interact with different groups on campus:
First, they are extremely exclusive in their understanding of salvation. Many of these groups believe that they are among the only "true Christians," and everybody else is preaching a false gospel. It's not simply that they have theological differences with other groups. They believe that adherence to their particular system or code is the only way to eternal life. And they usually believe that almost nobody else is doing it right.
For this reason, they often appeal to students who are seeking a really zealous and whole-hearted way to follow Christ. Everybody wants to feel special and important, and these groups try to meet that need by telling students that they are among God's few and chosen elite. Colossians 2:16-19 warns about those who go around trying to disqualify others by preaching an elitist message of asceticism and legalism.
Second, their doctrine departs from orthodox Christianity. Most of the cults I've run across at A&M are Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. In other words, they hold that works are in some way actually meritorious -- only those who practice particular actions will end up in heaven (for more on this see my previous post about Brother Jed). Of course, this contradicts the New Testament in a number of places, most notably Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:21-26.
Often they have heretical beliefs regarding the Trinity, as well. They might hold that Jesus was simply an exalted man, or that each member of the Trinity is like a different "mode" or "representation" of God. The orthodox view of the Trinity is that we serve One God who exists in three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) simultaneously. Each Person is distinct, but each Person is fully God.
Third, they are isolationist in their methodology. Rather than encouraging Christians to engage in community with the local church, they separate people from it. Sometimes they encourage students to move into "communes" of sorts, where they can be monitored at all times. Some groups ask their members to hand over control of their personal finances to the group leadership. They discourage or even restrict contact with family or friends who disagree with the cult's teaching. They do not practice the unity encouraged by Paul in Ephesians 4:1-6.
Fourth, they aggressively proselytize, but in ways that communicate open disrespect for anybody who disagrees with them. There is usually no productive dialogue with cult leadership. It's "my way or the highway." Those who question their methods or teaching are shouted down or ignored. In an individual conversation, they might seem meek or mild-mannered, but in public settings they are confrontational and angry. They violate the command of 1 Peter 3:15, which calls us to give a reason for our hope with gentleness and respect.
This is really just a start, but these four characteristics will hopefully be helpful as you respond to various groups and preachers on campus. For some great information about cults and world religions, check out www.probe.org.
What other questions or comments do you have about cults?