This article seeks to outline where Bible-believing evangelical Christians may agree to differ, and where we should clearly recognise the heretical.
A s a countercult and Apologetics group of websites we frequently get invited to “expose” various religious teachers whom – it is believed – are showing cult-like tendencies. Very often however we cannot comply because - after researching a particular preacher/writer/group - we do not find anything which merits them being labelled a cult or sect; yes, we may find things that we would not wholly agree with but – overall – the evidence is not overwhelming. At other times however the evidence for a group being a cult is overwhelming.
So, what are the areas which would tend to distinguish a cult or sect, and what are those areas where Christians really should allow honest differences of opinion? We can do little better here than to consider some of the great creeds of the early Church since these creeds were very careful to delineate biblical truth in opposition to various early heresies. Creeds such as the Apostles Creed , the Nicaean Creed and others are helpful to us, as are some of the great evangelical Confessions of Faith such as the Westminster Confession which, again, were careful to outline what is essential in the gospel of Jesus Christ - placing a separation between the essential and those areas where differences of opinion are permissible (actually, it should be noted that the 'Westminster Confession' is not wholly without error and is clearly legalistic in parts).
First of all then, if a person claims to be a Christian, i.e, a follower of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, what – according to the Bible – should they certainly believe?
1. That Jesus is genuinely the Son of God and that He was both genuinely human but also genuinely God (this immediately would rule out groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses who believe that Jesus was merely the highest angelic creation of God) (Luke 1:31-33; John 1:1-3, 10, 14).
2. That Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and was born of a virgin, so had a human mother but no human father (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:30-32).
3. That Jesus was indeed crucified and died and rose from the dead 3 days later according to the Scriptures (Acts 2:22-24, 27).
4. That the death of Jesus means that repentant sinners can have their sins forgiven – the slate wiped completely clean! - and His resurrection also pictures the future resurrection of such believers, which is sure! This is what theologians call 'substituitionary atonement' – the value of the life of Jesus and of His death is so great that it can pay for the sins of all who will come to Him in faith (Acts 2:38-39). Sadly many liberals do not accept this which raises a huge question mark over their 'Christianity.' By the way, the Bible does not say that Jesus only died for a tiny group, but rather, that the scope of His sacrificial death is available for the whole world (John 3:15-17; 1 John 2:2).
5. That Hell is a reality. Now what is Hell? It is eternal separation from God which the Bible appears to show is a punishment for those who have never wanted God in this life (Luke 16:19-31; Revelation 21:8). Overall, the Bible states very little about Hell, nevertheless, the reality of Hell is held over all who reject the offer of Jesus during this life. Hell, however, is never shown to be an inevitability for those who never had an opportunity to learn about Jesus during their physical lives.
6. That Satan is a literal evil spirit being (this rules out the Christadelphians who do not believe in a literal devil), who Adam and Eve succombed to in the Garden of Eden (Mark 1:13; Luke 10:18).
7. That there is a huge angelic army in obedience to God, and, it would appear, a smaller army of demons (fallen angels, deceiving spirits) who follow Satan (Hebrews 12:22; 1 Timothy 4:1).
8. That those who come to Christ in faith, then commence the process of sanctification – being made increasingly Christlike. This is entirely due to the election of God and to the activity of the Holy Spirit. For our part, we can never do anything to merit God's continuing interest in us. We do not achieve spiritual perfection in this life (John 14:17-18,26; John 15:1-8; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 6:1; 2 Peter 3:18). So we never earn salvation through our own 'good works,' but it is Christ who increasingly performs His good works within us as we yield to Him (Isaiah 64:6; Ephesians 2:8-9).
9. That the Holy Bible is the inspired Word of God which is sufficient in matters of faith and practise. The reception of the Holy Spirit means that a true believer will gradually grow in biblical and spiritual knowledge and understanding; but God witholds complete understanding from His children in this life (Matthew 22:29; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Timothy 3:16-17 Deuteronomy 29:29).
10. That truly converted children of God become 'Church' – they do not “join a church” although they should meet together with other believers in order to worship God and to deepen their knowledge of Him (Matthew 16:18-19; Acts 2:47; Hebrews 12:22-24).
11. That the coming Resurrection of the Dead will be
followed by the Great Judgment after which the saved will inherit
Eternal Life (1 Corinthians 15:20-24, 47-52; Matthew
I hold that the above truths are not negotiable:
they are what Christians should believe and need to
believe, yet in His mercy, God may well conclude some,
perhaps very many, in His Body who do not yet fully understand
these things in their entirety but surely eventually will.
Now let us look at a few things which are not of such pivotal importance and where legitimate differences of opinion may exist between true believers:
The nature of the 'millennium' – of course the actual word 'millennium' never even occurs in the Bible, it is a matter of the interpretation of Revelation 20. This seems 'major' to some Christians but biblically it is simply not a major area. Having said that, an over-emphasis on a doctrine which is simply not biblically-established can eventually lead some into serious error. BE WARY: Most of the cults and sects have 'majored' on the concept of a 'millennium.'
The specific interpretation of prophecy – again, not a major area and differences of opinon will certainly exist between true believers in this area, indeed, here again, an unhealthy over-emphasis on prophecy has led some into serious error.
The specific form of 'church government.' Not a major area. A case can be made for more than one kind of church government in the Bible.
The matter of Bible translations. If we have the Bible in our own language (some peoples of the world are still waiting!) then we are mightily blessed by God and should not bicker too long over which translation is best, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who is the revealer of spiritual knowledge, not any particular Bible translation!
The very old Arminian/Calvinism debate. Yes, even now a few feel it is of greater importance than it actually is. There are true believers who honestly look to Christ as their Saviour in both camps as well as a growing number who reject both labels as being divisive.
The exact nature of Hell – the Bible certainly reveals a Hell (which the Christian should most certainly believe in), but it tells us next to nothing about it (the reader may wish to consult my article, The Utter Folly of Arguing Over Hell), therefore Christians may quite legitimately have differences of opinion in this area. We do know that Hell seems to represent eternal separation from God which lies in wait for the deeply and intrinsically wicked who reject all of God's overtures.
Specific approaches/understandings toward baptism. Biblically, this is not a major area and a strong case can be made for more than one approach.
I may say that it is my considered opinion that people who choose to argue long and hard in such areas as the seven given above also tend to be immature in the faith.
Unbiblical Traits and Tendencies Which Tend to Be Displayed by the Cults and Sects: Please Carefully Note These!
The powerful and charismatic leader who infers (or clearly states) that God is working exclusively with him, possibly including the concept that his followers comprise 'the one and only true church,' thereby equating 'Church' with a specific human instituition/grouping which Jesus Himself obviously refused to do; Mark 9:38-40.
Any concept that the group followers are in a separate and superior class to other Christians and that members of other churches/denominations are necessarily "false Christians."
Any suggestion of financial or
psychological manipulation of followers. Sometimes, for
instance, there is a tendency for the sect leader/leaders to
encourage group members to report private/ intimate
matters concerning other members to the leaders, this is a means
of attaining psychological control over people seen as weaker.
Regarding finance, cults and sects will almost invariably seek financial control over their members lives; this is a great hallmark of the cults! We should just consider that no less than the apostle Paul clearly refused any financial regulation for the early church, a point which is very clear from his epistles!
Any suggestion that God reveals new and specific truth just to the group - but to nobody else. This is especially dangerous.
The tendency to encourage church/group members to discontinue former friendships/family relationships.
The tendency to encourage followers to see rejection of the leader as equal to the rejection of God.
The lack of a balanced approach to the Scriptures (groups that are prophecy extremists/spiritual gifts extremists are always in danger of slipping over the borderline into becoming a cult). It really is true that true Christianity is Christocentric – putting Christ central in everything, just as the apostle Paul did, which is very clear from his epistles.
Any public humiliation of members who are deemed to have fallen short in some area.
Rejection of the major Christian doctrines (please refer back to the essential doctrines of true biblical Christianity).
The tendency to embrace extreme conspiracy theories in which there are people specifically plotting to destroy one's group!
The tendency to promote the false doctrine of justification by works: if members do certain things then God is bound to give divine protection/divine healing/wealth/eternal life etc.
Frequently the leader/founder of such groups has a background of involvement with the occult and occultic practises, even though they will often try very hard to conceal this from group members.
Any tendency to try to hold people into membership when those people feel that the time is right to leave and move on to another fellowship. Such people who leave should then never be treated as 'anathema' or as 'backsliders' (assuming they are not totally leaving the Christian Faith).
The above tendencies are very strongly indicative of the cults and sects and of spiritually misleading teachers, they really do seem to occur again and again in such groups. Please be watchful!
I hope that this article has clearly shown what beliefs are essential to true biblical Christianity and the sort of belief areas where honest differences of opinion should be tolerated. I also hope that this article may increasingly 'arm us' to avoid unbiblical influences and unbiblical teachers.
Robin A. Brace
© This article is Copyright Robin A. Brace 2004, but you are allowed to 'copy and paste' it to your own website provided that the article is not altered or excerpted and that full credit is given to where the article came from. This copyright notice should remain intact.
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