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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label cults. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cults. Show all posts

Friday, March 16, 2018

What Drives a Cult Leader like David Koresh?

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Government had surrounded the compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, embroiled in a stand-off that would last 51 days and tragically ended in gunfire with 75 of the 84 people inside dead, including children.

I was recently interviewed by Brody Harness for a research project he was doing on the siege and I thought these questions were very poignant and valuable to better understand the cult leader and others like him. Here's a copy of that interview.

Briefly, the Branch Davidians were a group of religious believers whose version of biblical theology was explicated by David Koresh. Many of their important beliefs, and the reason they lived communally at a compound, Mt. Carmel, centered on Koresh's interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Can you shed light on this group directly (or perhaps generally) based on similar groups who focus on Revelations?

The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. The emphasis on the Book of Revelation comes from their focus on the end times scenarios. The term “Adventist” stems from the word advent which refers to the coming of Christ. Just as we celebrate Christ's first coming before Christmas and call it the season of advent, advent can also refer to His second coming. Most modern Adventist groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses find their origin in an early 1800's preacher named William Miller, who preached that Jesus would return in 1844. He became very popular and gained a wide following. The subsequent failure of Miller's prediction is known as The Great Disappointment.

When Jesus didn't return as expected, the “Millerites” (who preferred the name Adventists) started coming up with alternate explanations, such as Jesus had returned invisibly (Jehovah's Witnesses) or Jesus came into the heavenly Holy of Holies and ended the age of grace, and is now beginning his period of Investigative Judgment (Seventh-Day Adventists).

The Branch Davidians splintered off the SDA back in the 1930s when a leading Adventist in the Los Angeles area, Victor Houteff, began teaching the church wasn't being holy enough. David Koresh's mother was a member of a Texas SDA church and Koresh himself was also a member for a while, before being attracted to the Davidian sect. According to Apologetics Index,  Koresh claimed to be God's agent, (and ultimately taught his followers that he was divine) and instructed those that followed him to preparing themselves for Jesus's return.

Part of the governments “case” for treating the Branch Davidians as they did was the fact that David Koresh was legally married to a cult member when she was just 14 years old, and that he was fathering children with the wives of the other adult males, while banning all other sexual relationships within the church. The government felt children were endangered at Mt. Carmel by these practices which did not appear to be the case according to some sources close to the investigation; however, it did appear to reflect and elevate Koresh's psychological hold on the group. Can you discuss some of the dynamics of sex/family/religion practices? (Again, either specifically with the Branch Davidians, or generally in cults.)

Sex drove a lot of Koresh's desires. Even in the mid 1980s, Koresh began taking on multiple wives as he also started establishing himself as a leader within the Davidian movement. He was a polygamist and saw himself as taking a role akin to David in the Old Testament establishing the Davidic Kingdom of Israel (thus the Davidians portion of the name.)

Since David had multiple wives in the Old Testament, Koresh felt that justified him to also have multiple wives.  Of course, as his power and following grew, he became more and more self-absorbed, something that is typical of cult leaders. His doctrines “departed radically from the essential doctrines of the Christian faith”1 and he demanded total control over his followers, cutting off outside ties and subjecting them to various physical and mental abuses.2

There was a general belief by the FBI and ATF that the Branch Davidians had a suicide pact and this was part of the federal government's decision making process which led to a military rather than law enforcement approach with the Branch Davidians. From what you know, was this assumption rational? Would it have been more rational in the 1993?

There are two pieces that powered the concern by the authorities at the standoff. The first is that David Koresh had a known history of violence, since he and some of his early followers took control of the Davidian compound in a gunfight with then-leader George Roden. But the biggest spectre in everyone's mind was the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. There, another charismatic leader, Jim Jones, took a large group of followers from California to the jungles of Guyana and created a commune. He ultimately convinced his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide placed in Kool-Aid. Those that didn't or were too young were forcibly given the poison.

The loss of those 908 people, along with the prior shooting of U.S congressman Leo Ryan who sought to investigate Jones' alleged human rights abuses gave the public grave concern that a similar event would take place in Waco.

I don't think we are any more or less likely today to come to a different conclusion. Religiously motivated actions have taken on a deeper suspicion in our culture. The powers that be may not jump immediately to a suicide cult assumption; I believe the suspicion would still exist. It is the aftermath and criticism of the Waco siege itself that tempers actions now.

When the government attacked, surrounded, and eventually destroyed the compound in 1993, the Branch Davidians interpreted all of the government's aggression as fulfillment of prophecy. Koresh probably contributed to the destruction of his community by insisting that they were being “tested” and if they left the compound they would lose their place in the kingdom to come. Koresh also provoked the ATF and FBI by repeatedly promising and stalling surrender to complete writing his own revelation which would be released publically. Is there a psychological profile, maybe narcissism or delusions of grandeur, which characterizes charismatic leaders like Koresh?

Absolutely. Jim Jones, David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige, and even Joseph Smith all exhibit this kind of self-absorption. In all these cases, you have a single individual who tells others that he alone has the true and secret knowledge of God/salvation/eternity and everyone else needs to listen to him. As he gains adherents and adulation, it feeds his narcissism and for most groups one can see their doctrine devolve more and more.  With all the men above, their paranoia and desire for control escalated as well.

Finally, do you have thoughts about government (law enforcement) interference with the free practice of religion –like the Branch Davidians, or polygamists or other cults?
All rights have limits. Everyone recognizes one's right to free speech, but you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie house. Similarly, one's right to practice the freedom to worship does not include the physical abuse of children or child rape. The difficulty is in finding where that line begins and ends.
We all agree that keeping thirteen children half-starved in a shack with some chained to their beds is no longer simply exercising one's freedom of religion, but is homeschooling abuse? Is corporal punishment abuse? The questions get complicated pretty quickly.

For the most port, the government has given the benefit of the doubt to the religious organizations. Scientology is a good example of a modern day American cult who engages in psychological techniques and even imprisonment of its disobedient members that the government has not interfered with.

Any other ideas you would like to share on this subject?

The big thing to remember in Waco, Jonestown, and other cult situations is that these are fringe groups that were cults in both the religious and the sociological definitions. Those definitions are important, too, for one can be a cult sociologically but not have a religious basis. Charles Manson and the Manson family would be an example of a non-religious cult. Of course Manson used the Bible to try and justify his views, but he also used the Beatles and his followers were more concerned about race relations than become God's chosen.

Sociological cult leaders will use religion simply because it is easier to talk of mysteries where they can give their “inside knowledge” that gullible people will accept. Even Hitler used religion as a motivator.

For more on the making of a religious cult, see my articles:
Thanks for the interview! Let me know if I can be of any more help.

1. "The Branch Davidians." Christian Research Institute, 04 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2018.
2. Ibid.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

What Do We Mean When We Say the Word "Cult"? (video)

Say the word "cult" and what comes to mind? Perhaps hooded figures keeping people against their will or a maniacal preacher fighting against the government. But the word cult has a religious as well as a sociological sense.

In this short video, Lenny adds a bit of clarity to the term cult, showing how certain belief systems would actually qualify as cults of an established faith.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Identifying Impostor Christianity (podcast)

What really defines Christianity? Mormons claim that they are Christians, simply another denomination. So do others who differ on Jesus' identity. What are the essentials of the Christian faith and how can we identify orthodox beliefs from heterodoxy or heresy? In this series, we will examine the clear lines separating true Christianity from its impostors.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Evil of Scientology (podcast)

You've probably seen the commercials for Dianetics or walked past some folks offering a free personality test. Both are ways to entice you into the Church of Scientology. But the sheen of the commercials hides a deadly secret that we must warn our friends and family against. Join us as we expose the darkness of Scientology.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Identifying Impostor Christianity: The Danger Of Being Deceived (video)

What really defines Christianity? Mormons claim that they are Christians, simply another denomination. So do others who differ on Jesus' identity. What are the essentials of the Christian faith and how can we identify orthodox beliefs from heterodoxy or heresy?

In this short video, Lenny demonstrates why it's crucial for all Christians to be able to know what are the essential beliefs of Christianity and the dangers of being misled.

Watch part 2 here!

Image courtesy Canvas-rangeR and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How to Spot Impostor Christianity

One of the key things kids learning elementary science is the basic groups of backboned animals. You may remember how to differentiate fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.
  • Birds have feathers, lay eggs, and have bills.
  • Reptiles are cold blooded, have scales, lay eggs, and some, like snakes, can inject venom.
  • Amphibians are cold-blooded, lay eggs, breathe air but live on the land and in the water.
  • Mammals are warm-blooded, have hair, give live births, and produce milk for their young
So when English naturalists had quite a quandary on their hands when in 1798 they received drawings and the hide of a platypus from the newly colonized Australia. Many believed the animal was too outrageous to be real; it had to be a hoax. Here was an animal that had a bill, webbed feet, and laid eggs like a bird. It lived in and out of the water. Its legs are not below it but come from the side of the body, its eggs are soft-shelled, and males could inject venom like a reptile. Yet, they are warm-blooded, are covered in hair and they nurse their young. One of the necessary characteristics of all mammal is the females have mammary glands that produce milk for their young. Because this was true of the platypus, it could confidently be classified as a mammal.

What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

Understanding the various religious systems offered today can sometimes be as confusing to navigate as those naturalists who sought to classify the platypus, especially when it comes to what makes someone a Christian. It seems everybody wants to claim that they are following Jesus's teachings in some way. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the parent organization for Jehovah's Witnesses, claims to be Christian.1 Former Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley, when asked whether Mormons were Christians, answered "We are Christians in a very real sense."2 Other organizations such as The Way International, the Restored Church of God, and various Oneness denominations all claim to be representing true Christianity.  Yet, they all have radically different beliefs.

How can you tell what is Christian and what isn't? Most people I speak with don't have a clear idea of just what classifies someone as a real Christian. They think as long as they claim Jesus and point in some way to his teachings, it is enough. But that's like calling a platypus a bird or a reptile. There's some resemblance, but it is still different and will lead you to a different belief, one that leads to judgment instead of salvation.

Just as with classifying animals, there are certain essential beliefs that define what a Christian is and while the various denominations within Christendom differ on many things, they all hold these specific beliefs as non-negotiable. These beliefs are reflected in the early church creeds from Nicaea and Chalcedon, which summarized the bare minimum of what being a Christian means, found in the outline below:

The Essential Beliefs of Christianity

Who God is
  • There is one God
  • God is eternal—without beginning or end.
  • God is transcendent—He is separate from his creation.
  • God is recognized as the Creator—God made all things.
  • God is Triune—a single being comprised of the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Who Jesus Is
  • Jesus is wholly (with all the attributes of) God.
  • Jesus is wholly (with all the attributes of) a human being.
  • Jesus is indivisible—one cannot separate his divinity and his humanity.
What Jesus Did
  • He Sacrifice Himself for Our Sins.
  • He rose bodily from the grave.
  • He fulfilled the promised of God in the Old Testament.
What Jesus Will Do
  • Jesus will return bodily to this earth.
  • Jesus will raise all people.
  • Jesus will judge all people.
The Unity of Believers
  • All believing Christians are part of Jesus's one true church.
  • All believing Christians will be raised by Jesus to eternal glory.
  • All believing Christians will dwell in fellowship with God in the world that is to come.

Why It Matters

I've written about some of these distinctions before and I will explore them in more detail in upcoming articles. My intent in this article is to show that there is a very specific set of beliefs to which all Christians must hold. While a lot of people or organizations claim to be Christian, they are really impostors offering a counterfeit Christianity. The JWs say they are Christians, they deny the deity of Jesus, making him a created being instead of eternal God. Gordon Hinckley and the LDS deny the triune nature of God, the transcendence of God, and the fact that there is only one God in all of existence.

Jesus warned the church to "beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matt 7:15). The Apostle Paul cautioned "there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:7). The Apostle John warned the church of "those who are trying to deceive you" (1 John 2:26). We must be able to distinguish who is a sheep and who is a wolf. To not do so would be to betray Jesus, something no true Christian would ever desire.


1. "Are Jehovah's Witnesses Christians?" JW.ORG. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania., n.d. Web. 21 July 2015.
2. "Are Mormons Christians?" Intellectual Reserve, Inc., n.d. Web. 21 July 2015.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to Talk with Mormons (podcast)

Mormonism boasts over 12 million adherents, and it's still growing. What should we say when Mormon missionaries come to our door? How are Christian beliefs different than Mormon beliefs? In this new podcast series, Lenny teaches you how to engage Mormons in fruitful discussion.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Evil of Scientology (video)

You've probably seen the commercials for Dianetics or walked past some folks offering a free personality test. Both are ways to entice you into the Church of Scientology. But the sheen of the commercials hide a deadly secret that we must warn our friends and family against. Watch this comprehensive video where Lenny exposes the background and the insidious nature of Scientology, while warning believers about how easily duped one can become when facing the tactics of the cults.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Are Mormons Christians, too?

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Mormons during my trip to Utah. When we visited Temple Square, I spoke with a couple of Sister Missionaries who were giving us a tour of the facilities. Both sisters echoed the official Latter-day Saints claim that they were Christians even as I am. One said, "Of course we're Christians. We worship Jesus Christ just as you do. Even the name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, we are definitely Christians."

This stance of the Mormon Church has always bothered me. In The Pearl of Great Price, considered to be sacred scripture by the LDS church, Joseph Smith canonized his account of the "first vision" of two personages (identified as God the Father and Jesus Christ) that supposedly gave birth to the church.1 Smith explains:
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof."2
Smith here clearly states that all the Christian denominations are "all wrong," "their creeds are an abomination," those that profess Christianity "were all corrupt," and they are denying the power of godliness. These are basically the harshest condemnations one could receive from God, and yet Mormons are steadfastly claiming "I'm a Christian, too!" If Mormons and the LDS church believe this vision is true and God really did day these things, then why on earth would they want their name associated with an apostate group whose beliefs are an abomination before the Lord?

To look at it another way, imagine that I was discussing my beliefs with a group of Wiccans. Further, imagine me stating, "I know that we disagree on the nature and character of God, but because I believe that God is responsible for creation and you do too, that makes me as pagan as you. I'm a pagan Christian!" The claim is not only nonsense, it would offensive to both the Wiccans and it would be offensive to Christianity. Paganism is the opposite of what Christianity teaches, just as the Mormon view that man may become God is the opposite of Christianity's transcendent Creator.

Christianity throughout its history has faced heresy and apostasy. Jesus warned his followers to ""Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matt 7:15) and Paul cautions the church in Galatia that "even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:8). Jesus and Paul were exclusivists; they held — and the early church codified — there are certain beliefs that identified someone as a Christian. If one rejects any of those essential beliefs, they must be excluded and considered not a Christian.

While the LDS church likes to use the line "we're Christians, too," it doesn't mean it's true. Perhaps they can gain some PR or a sympathetic listen from a potential convert, but Mormonism is as far from Christianity as I am from becoming a God myself. Why they would claim such is disingenuous and insulting to both their beliefs and to mine.


1. There exist a lot of conflicting accounts about this first vision in documents written both before and after the one included in The Pearl of Great Price. This has caused many scholars to doubt that Joseph Smith repeated the story consistently. For a few of these, see Tanner, Sandra. "Evolution of the First Vision and Teaching on God in Early Mormonism" Utah Lighthouse Ministries. Web. 8 Nov 1998. Accessed 3 July 2014.

2. Smith Jun., Joseph. "Joseph Smith—History." The Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Web. Accessed 3 July 2014.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mormon Testimonies and the Feedback Loop

Yesterday, on our Apologetics Missions trip, I took the team to Salt Lake City to visit Temple Square. We talked with a couple of Mormon missionaries there who were very nice and showed us some of the grounds. One of the missionaries explained that one aspect of the weekly Mormon church service was to offer their testimony. The LDS web site defines a testimony as "a spiritual witness given to an individual by the Holy Ghost… that Joseph Smith is a prophet, which God called to restore Jesus Christ's church to the earth; that we are led today by a living prophet; and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior's Church restored on the earth today."1

The missionary explained that everyone was to offer their testimony at some point. On the first Sunday of the month, in the Mormon sacrament meetings, the attendees are encouraged to share their confirmation of the truth of Mormonism.2 Those who teach are also encouraged to share their testimonies to one another.3

Later, when I was asking a few questions, I had said that I understood God and heaven differently than the LDS doctrine she had stated and I explained how the Bible promises that not just my family would be together in eternity, but that I would have a relationship with all the saints in Heaven, and we would be closer than even my family and I am now. This obviously caused some significant problems because shortly afterwards, I was warned by Mormon security that I am not allowed to share my testimony with the missionaries. Basically, they require visitors to just listen to missionaries talk about their faith; it should never go the other way. It seems that the Mormon church's use of testimonies in their services are a lot like that feedback loop.

The Feedback Loop

I've been a professional musician for over thirty years, so I know a little bit about feedback.Some people may not know the term feedback, but you are probably familiar with the concept. Feedback is that high-pitched squeal that gets really loud and hurts everyone's' ears. Sometimes it comes from a guitar but you more often hear it coming out of the PA.

Feedback is caused when a signal amplifies itself. Singers will use wedge speakers on the floor to project their voices and the music back at them for a reference monitor. If the singer's microphone isn't positioned correctly, it will catch the monitor's sound output and send it back through the PA, amplifying it again. Of course, you can see where this will lead: as the monitor gets louder, the mic catches more signal and sends it back to the PA which then sends a louder signal back to the monitor and everything begins to increase exponentially until either the speaker blows out or someone's eardrums do!

The Mormon use of testimony is a lot like a feedback loop. Good Mormons will stand up and share how they "know" that the Mormon doctrine is true because of the feelings they have. This truth-bearing isn't based on scholastic research. As the Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains, "Latter-day Saint missionaries, in particular, rely on testimony bearing, rather than on logic or artifice, to reach their listeners."4 So testimony isn't about logic. But the result is that people hear other's unwavering devotion to Mormonism and they don't feel like they are good Mormons unless they have a testimony to offer as well.So, just as everyone's life looks a lot more perfect on Facebook than it is in reality, the Mormons' use of testimony simply makes doubt or questioning seem foolish or unholy. Testimonies simply amplify the one message the Mormon church wants people to hear: that it is beyond question.

Ultimately, I believe this is one sign that Mormonism is a cult. When another person explaining his understanding of spiritual things is questioned by security because he dared do so on Temple grounds, it raises suspicion. When the security guard told me that we are not allowed to share our testimony, it revealed what the practice of testimony really is: to keep the faithful Mormons faithful and only hear the message the church wants. But, like that signal from the PA, you don't get truth from a feedback loop. Ultimately, you end up with a lot of noise that will hurt people.


1. "What is a 'testimony' that Mormons speak of?" The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Web. Accessed 6/26/2014.
2. Christensen, Clayton "Testimony Bearing." Encyclopedia of Mormonism. (New York : Macmillan, 1992) 1470. Digital version may be found at
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Disqualifies Someone from Being a Christian?

Christianity is an evangelical faith. What I mean by that is that ever since its founding, Christians have tried to spread their faith through efforts at evangelism and conversion. From Jesus' command in Matthew 28:19 to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" to Paul's various missionary journeys to the proselytizing of all nations through the church's history, Christians have been called to share that "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

In past centuries, it was pretty easy to identify which people were Christians and which weren't. However, as sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons have appeared, differentiation has become more difficult. Recently, I was able to observe my friend Brett Kunkle pretend to be a Mormon elder in front of a group of nearly 800 Christians. In his Mormon persona, he said that many Christians would come up to him and other LDS and claim that they are not Christian. "So," he challenged, "can anyone provide me with a definition of a Christian?"

Several people in the audience tried. One said that it was trusting in Jesus for one's salvation. But the Mormon would say that he does trust in Jesus for his salvation. Another said it was believing in the God of the Bible. Kunkle again countered that Mormons do believe in the God of the Bible. The Bible is one of their four standard works. A few more tried to define God as being three in one, and Brett returned the volley by saying that the LDS church affirms that God is three in one, but it turns on what you mean by saying that God is three in one. Unfortunately, no one was equipped to provide a good definition of the Trinity nor did anyone spot Brett's LDS misrepresentation of the Trinity.

To me, this is tragic. Every Christian should know at least a basic working definition of what Christianity is. Imagine a biologist who has devoted his life to studying dogs. He has spent years in school earning a degree in veterinary medicine and biochemistry. He has years of research behind him, reading books and documentation on dogs and their inner workings. Dogs have been his life! Would you expect a person to be able to tell you how to identify an animal as a dog? Of course you would! And you wouldn't expect his to reply with a general description such as "a pet with four legs and a tail." That definition fails because it can apply to a mouse or a cat. In order for the definition of a dog to be functional, it would need to talk about things that are unique to dogs alone. They would need to be specific attributes, such as their sensitivity for scent, their specific shape, their teeth, and so on.

Similarly, Christians should be able to provide a working definition of what it means to be a Christian. It needs to be specific with identifiable attributes. In fact, the early Christian church was very concerned with this, as different groups kept appearing that claimed to be Christian. The early Church realized that the point of their uniqueness rests in two places: 1) in the proper understanding of God as one being comprised of three persons, including Jesus as the second person of the Trinity and 2) a trust in the work of Jesus alone in saving us from our sins.

The definition of Christianity became so important that the church even formulated a way to affirm that one holds to the foundational aspects of the faith. First shaped in 325 at the Council of Nicea, we know it today as the Nicean Creed. It basically reads:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.1
While there is some debate between Eastern Orthodox churches and those in the West as to whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or the Father and the Son, the Creed serves as a really good definition of the necessary beliefs one must hold to be considered a Christian. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons would deny that Jesus is "one in being with the Father" and that means they cannot be defined as Christians as we use the word.

I'll look more specifically at the details of the Creed in upcoming posts, but I hope that you will at least take away the idea that there is a good working definition of what Christianity looks like. It is a set of believes about God, Jesus, and the one true faith that forgives sins. Anything else is simply a counterfeit.


1. This version was translated by the English Language Liturgical Consultation and is used in many western English-speaking churches as well as the Roman Catholic Church. There are some subtle differences in other English versions, which may be found linked from the Wikipedia article "English Version of the Nicean Creed" at

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The One Question Mormons Hope You Don't Ask

Talking with Mormon missionaries can feel daunting. They seem to know their scriptures and have all the answers. Do the LDS really worship the same God we do? Are they Christians? Here is a very special four part podcast series where I offer a key question that Mormons cannot answer. Listen to all four parts here:
Photo courtesy Saaby and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic License.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Don't Avoid the JWs, or You May Lose a Christian!

Two Jehovah's Witnessed came to my door yesterday. We talked for some time and during our conversation I asked the more experienced gentleman, whose name was Albert, to tell me why he decided to follow the teachings of the Watchtower. This is his response:
"I was raised Baptist. However, one day when two men came up to my door, they told me a lot of things that I had never heard before. They told me the truth. For example, they told me the truth about holidays. Today is Halloween and many of the different churches will celebrate this holiday that has its roots in paganism. It was a pagan holiday, started by pagans but Christians don't seem to mind. Even Christmas.  People will say 'Oh, on Christmas we celebrate Jesus,' but Jesus wasn't born on December 25! We know that he wasn't because snow would have been on the ground in December, but the shepherds were out feeding their flocks."
During this point in the conversation, I began to wonder why holidays would be the thing to cause one to change belief systems. It sounded trivial to me. But then Albert got to the crux of the problem:
"They also talked about things like the Trinity and how the Trinity isn't right. They told me things that I'd never heard before in all my time at church. Afterwards, I was confused and called my pastor. I told him what they said and asked about the holidays and the points they brought up. He asked me, 'Are those Jehovah's Witnesses? You just need to stay away from those guys. They aren't good for you. And he hung up. It was after that that I began to learn from the Witnesses because they would tell me the truth."
This really saddened me. It wasn't the problems with the holidays that turned Albert away; it was his pastor's lack of response. Albert thought that his pastor either was trying to hide something from him or possibly that the pastor had no answer to his questions. But he didn't care about these issues that bothered Albert. He simply dismissed his meeting with the Witnesses and said, "Those guys are dangerous. Don't listen to them."

Albert's pastor should be ashamed of his counsel. Instead of protecting Albert from the wolves that cone in to devour the flock, the pastor's warning had the opposite effect and made Albert a Jehovah's Witness. That was in 1980, and Albert has spent the last forty years going door to door trying to pry others away from the faith.

I've heard several pastors tell their congregations not to engage with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons.  They say don't confront atheists. They don't see any benefit of arguing with a person whose mind is made up. But, as Albert's story shows, this kind of response doesn't protect people from falling away. In fact, it may actually drive them towards a heretical belief since the Mormon or JW appear to want to engage in difficult questions about the Bible and faith.

Churches today need to become more serious in tackling the hard questions that both their congregants and their critics have. If Christianity is true, tough questions shouldn't scare us. Given the complexity of humanity and the transcendence of God, it also shouldn't surprise us that there will be some difficult issues we'll need to handle. But, we do a grave disservice to both the unbeliever and the Christian if we don't start working hard to find the best answers we can to the objections to the faith and incorporate them as part of a mature Christian life. In the Great Commission, Jesus commands his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19)." If we neglect the life of the mind, we are not fulfilling that call.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Three Signs of a Religious Cult - Denying Essential Doctrines

We are all familiar with dog lovers versus cat lovers, Coke versus Pepsi, Mac versus PC; people like to divide themselves by their preferences. However, there are some things that are divided not by preference, but by the facts of the matter. Whales and dolphins, for example, look like fish, live in water like fish and swim like fish. However, they are not fish but mammals. We know this because mammals have certain essential features that fish don't have. There is a nature to fish and a nature to mammals, and whales and dolphins have a mammalian nature. No matter their preference, their nature says "you are a mammal, not a fish."

The nature of God, like the nature of mammals, is what defines God. The Christian God has a certain nature; there are essential attributes that make the God of Christianity God. If one teaches that God has different attributes, you are no longer talking about the God of Christianity and therefore you no longer teaching Christianity. You are teaching something fundamentally different.

In my last two posts, I've begun to explain some identifying characteristics of any religious movement that could be defined as a cult of Christianity. While the word cult immediately evokes mind control or armed compounds, it's more formal definition much more broad. As I've explained before, the word is used to express the idea of being seduced away from the historic Christian faith. That is really the third marker of cult of Christianity: it is any sect that claims to be Christian but teaches a denial of one or more of the essential doctrines that make Christianity what it is.

What are some of the essential doctrines of Christianity? Well here are a few:
  1. The nature of God: Christianity defines God as one being in three persons. Jehovah's Witnesses teach that God is one person and Mormons claim that God is multiple beings. Christian Science also denies the Trinity, with Eddy writing "The theory of three persons in one God (that is, a personal Trinity or Tri-unity) suggests polytheism, rather than the one ever-present I  AM."[1]
  2. The nature of Christ: Jehovah's Witnesses deny the deity of Jesus, claiming He's a created being. Mormons hold that Jesus was the physical offspring of Elohim and a spirit brother of all humans. In Christian Science, "Jesus Christ is not God, as Jesus himself declared, but is the Son of God."[2]
  3. The nature of salvation: Salvation is wholly accomplished by Christ on the cross. However the Book of Mormon teaches that "it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." [3] The Watchtower teaches that Jesus' death paid the ransom only for sin inherited from Adam, but believers' names won't be committed to the Book of Life until they pass the test of loyalty.[4] Christian Science teaches ""One sacrifice, however great, is insufficient to pay the debt of sin. The atonement requires constant self-immolation on the sinner's part."[5]
Other essential doctrines include the nature of man, the Second coming, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs have provided the framework for Christianity since its very beginning. The early church fathers were very careful when teachings that contradicted these would be offered; they would ultimately censure the teachers as heretics. Heresy is another word that has been weakened in modern times, but it is a proper label for these modern movements that attempt to supplant the truth of Christian theology with their own.

Heresy used to be a more serious charge as people understood that by changing any essential doctrine also changes the nature of the belief. It would be like claiming to be a fish but not having gills. For while these movements may look Christian on the outside, their nature shows they are not what they claim to be.


[1] Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. (Boston: Mary Baker Eddy Foundation, 1986) 256. Accessed online at <>

[2] Eddy, Ibid. 361. <>

[3] Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1948. Print. 92.

[4] McClane, Joe. "Understanding the Jehovah's Witness Teaching of the Ransom Sacrifice and the Atonement." Accessed online at> 8/2/2013

[5] Eddy, Ibid. 23. < >

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Three Signs of Religious Cults - Offering a New Revelation

We are currently looking at three signs of a religious cult of Christianity– that is a religious sect claiming to be based on the teaching of Jesus but one that in reality promotes heretical doctrines. My last post talked about the fact that many of these cults have a charismatic leader who claims to have the "inside track" on God's truth. They claim that all of Christianity has been corrupted, mistaken, or duped by its hierarchy and only they can set things right again.

Today, I'd like to look at the second sign of a cult—a new revelation from God that becomes the authoritative source for understanding Him and His word. This is a natural corollary to the first sign. Since these sects claim that historic Christianity has been duped, they need to provide their followers with some type of new filter or new revelation in order to "set things right" again. Sometimes, this appears as an entire new set of Scriptures. Joseph Smith offered his Book of Mormon as "another testament of Jesus Christ" Smith claimed it is "the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book."1 Along with the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, Smith offered an entirely new set of scriptures to his followers. He claimed that the Bible text had been lost or changed,2 and he took it upon himself to provide a new translation, a project he did not finish before his death.

Many other sects rely on the bible as the source of scripture, but make the claim that one cannot understand the truths therein without their special insight. Mary Baker Eddy produced Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures claiming to have "rediscovered the healing principle of Jesus and his disciples, lost since the early Christian era."3

The Jehovah's Witnesses continue to make this claim with their production of The Watchtower and Awake! magazines. In fact, the September 15 1910 edition of the Watchtower made this famous claim:
"If the six volumes of Scripture Studies are practically the Bible, topically arranged with Bible proof texts given, we might not improperly name them the Bible in arranged form. That is to say, they are not merely comments on the Bible but they are practically the Bible itself… people cannot see the divine plan in studying the Bible by itself, we see that if anyone lays the Scripture Studies aside and ignores them and goes to the Bible alone.. within two years he goes into darkness. On the other hand, if he has read the Scripture Studies with their references, and has not read a page of the Bible, as such, he would be in the light after two years, because he would have the light of the scriptures."4

If it's new, it's not true.

When the Apostle Paul heard that the church he planted in Galatia was falling for one of these charming preachers teaching a new doctrine, he wrote them a letter and made his concerns known in no uncertain terms:
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed!" (Gal 1:6-9)
Paul uses the strongest language possible to say that the idea of new doctrine, no matter the source, is not really something new, but something false! He says that such teachers should be accursed, using a term reserved for those to whom the most severe judgments apply.

Ultimately, this concept of a new scripture or a new interpretive scheme is a big red flag that what these sects offer is not to be followed. Jesus said that scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35) and even the gates of hell could not prevail against His true church (Matt. 16:18). So why should we believe that His teachings have been lost? If the claims of these new revelators are true, then they contradict Jesus Himself!

Peter tells us that "no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." He then warns that "there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction" (2 Pet. 1:20-2:1). Cults deny Jesus by denying His word is sufficient in itself. Such denials do not lead to life but to the destruction of those who would hold them.


1. "Introduction." The Book of Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Accessed online at on 7/31/2013
2. "The Scriptures Are Available to Us Today." Gospel Principles, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2011). 44-46. Accessed online at
3. Martin, Walter. The Kingdom of the Cults. (Minneapolis:Bethany House Pub. 1997) 264.
4. Martin, Ibid. 87

Monday, July 29, 2013

Three Signs of Religious Cults - God's Inside Guy

Since its inception, Christianity has had those individuals who sought to change its core teachings to fit some other model. Even during His sermon on the mount, Jesus warned, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits (Matt.7:15)." Paul warned Timothy  of false teachers in 1 Timothy 1:3 and Peter warned the churches about false prophets in 1 Peter 2, saying that their false teaching would "secretly bring in destructive heresies" (1 Pet. 2:1).

Today, there are more groups than ever claiming to follow the real teachings of Jesus. Some claim that Jesus' teachings have been forgotten or corrupted and they have come to restore the true faith. Could this be? How can someone quickly and accurately identify false sects from true ones? Are there markers to identify these ‘ravenous wolves' who seek to devour the people?

 False religious sects that claim Christian teachings seem to follow a pattern that has three common traits:
  1. They have a charismatic leader who claims to have unique authority to speak on God's behalf.
  2. They offer some type of heretofore "secret" or exclusive revelation now being made public.
  3. They deny one or more of the essential doctrines (nature of God, nature of Christ, atonement, way of salvation, Christ's promised coming) that have always identified Christianity.
Over the next three posts, I'd like to look at each one of these in turn and see how they compare to those religious movements that claim to be the true revelation of Jesus and the Christian faith.

#1—A charismatic leader who claims to have unique authority to speak on God's behalf.

The first sign of a false sect is each has a leader who teaches with a bold authority, claiming to have the authority to speak on God's behalf. Mormon founder Joseph Smith claimed to be a prophet from God and said that all Christian denominations were wrong and "all their creeds were an abomination in his sight." The Christian Science church says that its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, "saw herself as having discovered the spiritual science behind Jesus' healing works." In 1917, the Watchtower magazine claimed that Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement, was the "faithful and discreet slave" that is spoken of in Jesus' parable in Matthew 24.  The Watchtower organization continues to claim only they fulfill this role even to this day.

The idea of God revealing some new doctrine to a single individual is antithetical to the New Testament.  Paul warns Timothy of this sign in 1 Timothy 1:6-7 when he writes, "Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions ." Notice how Paul describes these leaders as making confident assertions, but they really have no understanding.

In his first epistle, John writes, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes… that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full." Here, John says that he and the other writers of the New Testament were reporting eyewitness events. John and Matthew were eyewitnesses themselves while Mark and Luke reported the eyewitness testimony of others. Paul claims to get his instruction from Jesus directly also (Gal. 1:6) and his writings are confirmed as authoritative by Peter (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

The model displayed in the New Testament contrasts that of the single person providing a new revelation. As the church is forming, we don't see one man independently claim to have God's "inside track", but the apostles as a group were given authority by Jesus to teach others about Him.  Jesus promised this very authority and insight to the apostles when He told them:

"However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you." (John 16:12-15)

Jesus said the Holy Spirit will come upon all the apostles so they can authoritatively teach on Jesus' behalf. Even when matters of discernment or controversy come, we never see only one man proclaim a new teaching from God, but the apostles gather together, as in Acts 15, to discuss the matter and bring forth a full consensus.

The sign of one man claiming some unique revelation from God heretofore undiscovered is a clear hallmark of one who doesn't have the truth. The believers in Galatia fell for such a charismatic speaker, an action that made Paul write to them using the strongest possible language: "As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:9).

The essentials of Christianity are well-established. Anyone, no matter how charming or persuasive, who asks you to believe something different is distorting the teachings of the Bible and is leading others to death rather than to eternal life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Billy Graham, Mormonism, and the Word "Cult"

Image courtesy the More Good Foundation.

Two subjects one is supposed to avoid in casual conversation are religion and politics. Either of these topics has been known to divide friendships, create animosity, and cause general discord at social gatherings. So, it should be no wonder that the recent endorsement of presidential candidate Mitt Romney by Billy Graham would grab attention. In the evangelical community, the Graham/Romney link made headlines for a different reason. Billy Graham's organization removed some content on their web site where it defines Mormonism as a cult of Christianity. Given that Romney has been very public about his adherence to the teachings of the Mormon Church, does this change mean that Graham's organization is compromising a religious stance for political gain?

Ken Barun, the BGEA's chief of staff who was quoted in the Washington Post, confirmed that the organization removed the article labeling Mormonism a cult. However, he said it was to neuter misperceptions attached to the word that could be used improperly in a charged-up election. "Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign." OK—I can understand that in our "gotcha" media mindset, there are those both online and in the mainstream media that would seek to hoist the BGEA on its own petard, so to speak. I mean this wouldn't be the first time that a Christian organization was misrepresented by the secular press.  But it does leave the question of whether the label of cult should be used for Mormonism unresolved.

Labels and Language

This situation brings up a point that I've been thinking much about lately. Whenever I speak with those in the general public, they are usually taken aback if they hear the word "cult" used in connection with the LDS. In fact, I've received a fairly hostile response to the charge and even lost a friend who felt that I was being excessively bigoted and narrow in calling Mormonism a cult. People may or may not have had a Mormon acquaintance, but they are pretty uniform in what they think the word cult means.

Part of the problem here is that language changes.  I was recently listening to a lecture on how the Bible has been translated by Dr. Daniel Wallace and he pointed out how the 1950 Revised Standard Version became outdated within some thirty years due to our shifting meaning in language.  For example, Psalm 50:9 has God declaring to Israel "I will accept no bull from your house." Now, the audience in1950 may understand this as a denial of a sacrifice, but the phrase means something very different to anyone today. Similarly, we never use the word "gay" in conversations with friends to mean happy or carefree, regardless of our position on homosexuality. Because the primary understanding of these words is now different, we must construct new sentences to help us get our idea across with as little misunderstanding as possible.

In our modern day, the word "cult" falls unfortunately under this rubric. Traditionally, we've used the word cult in two ways. It was primarily a theological definition to mark a group or teaching that claimed to hold to Christian beliefs, while diverging from them on essential doctrine.  Rob Bowman's definition of a cult is "A religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy."[1] The BGEA also had defined the word in this sense. The other way the word cult was understood was in a sociological sense, as a kind of fully devoted allegiance that may or may not be reasonable (think of a cult fad, or the cult of personality.) However, in the last thirty to forty years, several theological cults whose followers held an almost slavish devotion to the pronouncements of their leader were given much attention in the media.  Over 900 people committed suicide following Jim Jones in the jungles of South America. In the 1993, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians' stand-off with the federal government was front page news. Add to that the Raelians and the Warren Jeffs' polygamy case and one can see why the word cult now paints a markedly different picture from the theological definition it originally held.

Definitional Distinctions

I grant that the word isn't communicating what I desire, but apologists and evangelists still have a problem here, and it is one the Mormon hierarchy themselves have created. In their advertising and in their proselytizing, Mormons continue to claim that they are a Christian faith. Past president Gordon Hinckley even stated "We are Christians in a very real sense"[2]even though Mormon doctrine denies all of the essentials of historic Christianity from the nature of God to the result of the fall to the atonement and even how many divine beings exist! It is therefore vital for the faithful defender of the faith to draw a sharp distinction to these differences lest someone assume that Mormonism is a legitimate choice for those wishing to faithfully follow Christ and His teachings.

So, how do Christian apologists best define the distinctions between those belief systems that seek to claim Jesus as their own while holding to fundamentally different concepts on the essential nature of God, Jesus, salvation, man, and eternity? What word do we use to clearly separate the two? I've used the word cult in the past and while it clearly communicated the distinction to those who understand the differences already, the new connotation may burn more bridges than it builds. Are other labels adequate for the task?  The word "heretical" is outdated. "Pseudo-Christians" or "faux-Christians" feel forced and awkward. Defining Mormonism as a "new religious movement" doesn't capture the concept that Mormons are claiming to be the true church started by Jesus.

The Need for a Word

And that's the rub. As long as the LDS continue to claim that they are Christian and that their roots are grounded in the Bible as well as the book of Mormon, then they force the historic church to make a distinction; we just need a word to communicate the difference. The Greek word πλάνος (planao) captures the idea. We find the word in Matthew 24:24 when Jesus says "For false Christs and false prophets will arrive and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead (planao), if possible, even the elect." It means "to confuse' or "to lead astray" and can be used of religious seduction toward idolatry. Maybe we can trade on that concept. I think that if I'm in conversation with friends and I state that Mormonism is a seduction away from Christianity; that would go much further in communicating that there's a difference from Christianity while still showing the claims of Mormonism as being Christian. I think I'll give that a try.  If you have other ideas, let me know them as well.

[1] Bowman, Robert M. "A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy" as quoted by Apologetics Index. Accessed 10/22/2012.
[2] "Are Mormons Christians?" Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints web site. Accessed 10/22/2012.
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