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?
[NOTE: I first posted this in August 2009. Today I spotted Brother Jed again on the A&M campus, so I'm reposting it for students who might have missed it the first time around. Hope it's helpful...I'll return on Monday to my series on College Ministry]
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
For the past couple of weeks, “Brother Jed” has been preaching to students near the MSC on the Texas A&M campus. Most days he has spoken to crowds of forty or fifty at a time, some of whom listen quietly and others who argue and debate theology with him.
When I heard him last Wednesday, I was struck by some odd comments he was making regarding the nature of mankind, particular man’s sinfulness (or lack thereof). I took it upon myself to visit his website -- yes, this open-air preacher has a well-developed website -- to learn a bit more about his theology. While scrolling through the FAQ’s, I ran across the following statement: “I consider it an honor to be considered a modern day Pelagius.” Suddenly I understood the theological background of his preaching about sin and salvation. Allow me to explain.
Pelagius (c. 354 – 420 A.D.) was a British monk who came to Rome in 380 A.D. preaching a brand of theology that quickly attracted a following. Most notably, Pelagius denied that mankind was inherently sinful; he instead insisted that humanity was born with the innate capacity in his unredeemed state to please God through acts of righteousness. Consequently, the “grace of God,” according to Pelagius was nothing more than God’s assistance of men and women to earn his approval through good works. In a very real sense, he believed that we could earn our salvation if we tried hard enough.
Needless to say, this casts doubt on the absolute necessity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for salvation. Most Pelagians believe that the death of Christ was simply an example for us to follow, and not a substitution of God’s Son on our behalf to satisfy the Father’s wrath for our sin. Some, however, hold that the atonement removes our individual acts of sin, but that our works cooperate with the cross of Christ to provide salvation. Christian perfection is possible and expected in their system because we are inherently righteous; sin is generally redefined to mean only voluntary or willful transgressions against the revealed Law.
The problem, of course, with Pelagius’s system is that it is incompatible with numerous passages of Scripture. Romans 5:12-17 makes it clear that we are inherently sinful as a result of the sin of Adam; he represented us in his sin, and because of it we are condemned. Ephesians 2:1-3 states that we are “by nature children of wrath,” not merely as a result of evil deeds but as a consequence of a broken and sinful nature. The ONLY solution is complete reliance on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for eternal life (Ephesians 2:8-9). Good works will never be meritorius, because they cannot overcome our inherent sinfulness (Romans 3:9-20).
Ultimately, the Church rejected the views of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. and embraced the views of Augustine, who held a more biblical position on grace and original sin.
As you walk by and hear Brother Jed this week, I would encourage you not to engage him in debates or arguments about his theology. Instead, use his presence as an opportunity to share with your friends the true message of Jesus Christ: Sinful and depraved men and women have the opportunity for salvation only because of what He has done on our behalf. He transforms broken men and women into conformity with Christ, rather than expecting that we transform ourselves for sake of earning salvation. Hallelujah, what a Savior indeed!