Tuesday, November 24, 2020

5 marks of false religion

“There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and false religions are no exception. Many have come and gone over the years.

The broadcasting era increased awareness and emotional response to false teachers and some of the more extreme examples came to be known as cults. Jim Jones was one of the more prominent examples of the 1970s, but he was not unique. New religious teachings were proliferated at the grassroots level to the point where one might be handed a tract while heading to a wedding.

That's exactly what happened to my great-uncle, Dave Breese. He was a well-known Bible teacher, and in reading a pamphlet someone gave him at a wedding got him thinking. What is it were possible to identify some of the common characteristics of these cults, of these false religions, false teachings?

He noticed several and wrote a booklet listing 11 marks of a cult. With a country hungry for clear teaching on how to think about and understand the many false teachings, he later developed that into a full-length book. His list of 11 or 12 marks changed a little over the years, but they generally covered very similar themes.

When I attended the 2-week summer program of Summit Ministries at Bryan College, one of the talks we heard during those two weeks was on the marks of a cult. The most memorable moment came at the end when he summarized 4 marks as, “Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide.” He had explained cult leaders add to Scripture, subtract from the deity of Christ, multiply the terms of salvation, and divide our loyalties from others, such as family and the Church. It was useful and memorable.

In comparing the lists, I find there are some the list of 4 leaves out, but there's also value in simplicity. After further study and analysis, there are three main factors: • Scripture, the • Savior, and • ourselves, and cult leaders add to or take away from each of those things. This makes for a total of five categories as there’s really nothing cult leaders seek to add to their followers.


Recognizing false religion begins with knowing the essentials of the true faith. The Bible is the Word of God. Jesus is the Savior, the Lamb of God sent to take away the sin of the world. He is setting men free and building his Church. In gradual and subtle ways, cults take these things away and replace them with counterfeits.

Rarely is religious subversion an all-out full frontal assault on the fundamentals of the faith. Frogs jump when landing in boiling pots. No, rather corruption can begin without even touching core tenets of the faith. The false teacher may even say we can keep a complete Christian faith intact.

False teaching, however, is not content to teach the Word of God. This can be subtle because that doesn't necessarily imply open hostility to the Word of God. In an attempt to graduate from and “go beyond” the Word of God, sources of false teaching tend to take one of three forms.

An early sign of trouble is when a religious leader begins to pick out “best practices” from Christianity and various religious points of view. It is the attempt to “synchronize” the otherwise diverse religious elements currently believed by people so as to make a new religion attractive, even if people don't yet realize it is a new religion.

It's easier to add on to something first. Without vigilance, eventually the “new” teaching—or even an “old” or “ancient” teaching—can displace the true. Sometimes this is done in the name of having a more “complete” gospel for the “whole person.” When anybody's gospel becomes more or other than the Gospel which is carefully stated in the Word of God that gospel ceases to be the Gospel at all.

Looking to the past can produce subtle deceptions in our Christian thinking. What the Church needs today is not so much the faith of our fathers, but the faith of Jesus Christ as expressed in the changeless Scriptures of the New Testament.

Categories and specific marks of a cult or false religion:


1. Additions to inspired revelation

Syncretism — Allowing a composite, pagan religion

The Discovery of Secrets — Exclusive, unverifiable inside information

Extra-Biblical Revelation — Adding false doctrine to the Bible


2. Subtractions from inspired revelation

Doctrinal Ambiguity — Non-definitive doctrine, easily changed

Segmented Biblical Attention — Ignoring the whole counsel of God


3. Add a savior

Presumptuous Messianic Leadership — Arrogant rulers command others

Entangling Organizational Structure — Membership equals salvation


4. Subtract a Savior

The Wrong View of Jesus — Denial of the Deity or humanity of Christ

Salvation by Something Else — Denial of salvation by faith alone

Uncertain Hope — Cultistis are never sure of heaven


5. Personal subtractions

Financial Exploitation — Money is the object

Sexual Exploitation — Having eyes full of adultery

The Outsider as Enemy — All others are infidels, reprobates

Religious Enslavement — Denying freedom in Christ


One issue that has come to the surface more in recent years that simply wasn't talked about publicly much 40 years ago is sexual exploitation.

The New Testament word for this is translated “fornication” in older translations, and “sexual immorality” in newer translations. It's basically idolatry including a physical component. The word pornography today comes from the same word.

This is mentioned in every section of the New Testament. Jesus mentioned fornication that comes from a man's evil heart, come out of his mouth (Matthew 15:18-19; Mark 7:20-23). In Acts, the apostles answered one of the early Church questions with a few simple admonitions, and they consistently mentioned abstaining from fornication (Acts 15:20,29; 21:25). When writing letters to the churches, Paul lists fornication first among his list of “all unrighteousness” (Romans 1:29). References to fornication in his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians occur in the context of the bodily component to fornication (1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:13,18; 7:2; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Colossians 3:5). John mentions fornication in Revelation (2:21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2,4; 18:3; 19:2).

Of all those references, the clearest contrast between immoral sex and moral sex would be in 1 Corinthians 7:2, “let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” Marriage, the appropriate relationship for enjoying sex, is the closest metaphor we have in this life for understanding the love of Christ for his Bride, the Church. He “gave himself for it that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). That's the reason for the high calling of purity, and avoiding fornication.

The false teacher is not interested in turning our attention to the Lord or preparing for Him in any way. He is most interested in indulging his flesh. He is full of lies and all kinds of impurity and corruption to attain that blemished goal.

Both the Ephesians and the Colossians passages include some of the strongest warnings in Scripture about the “children of disbelief” leading people into incurring the wrath of God (Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6). Paul warns, “Let no man deceive you with vain words” (Ephesians 5:6).


In short, the cult leader wants to take advantage of people for everything they've got until they have nothing left. He may patiently build trust, but he is filled with lies and manipulation to get what he wants. The end result is total enslavement.

In contrast, Jesus came to set people free (John 8:31-36). The Christian is encouraged to “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Galatians 5:1). “Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). Our hope is built for freedom: “the Jerusalem above is free” (Galatians 4:26).

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