2 Peter 2:1 – But false prophets also arose among the people, just as 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.
This series started with a description of the methods I am using to define whether a denomination is heretical or unified with Scripture. When Paul calls for unity, he doesn’t just mean that everyone who calls themselves Christian should be unified. The world has distorted many so-called Christians. We see this in last week’s post on the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Before we delve into the mainline Protestant denominations, I want to speak about those pseudo-Christian groups who are out on the periphery of Christianity. Some of these groups are very large, some are small but influential, and some we rarely hear about. But can these groups be unified with Scripture enough to call then Christians?
Matthew 7:21 – “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
The first thing we need to do is define a few terms. A denomination is a movement in Christianity that differs on doctrinal issues but hold to the common core of beliefs about God, Christ, and Scripture. A sect is a group that agrees with the denomination on the main matters, but differs in some other way. Look, for example, at the Amish who hold a very deep separatist view with the world. Cults are groups that appeal to the overall Christian view, but differ in a main core belief such as the Trinity for example.
The first group I want to look at is the Mormon Church. This church was founded by Joseph Smith Jr., when he claimed to be restoring the genuine church to the earth during the time period of the Second Great Awakening. They are based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and have over 80,000 missionaries worldwide. The National Council of Churches ranks it as the 4th largest denomination of Christianity.
If we were simply to ask whether Mormons are connected to Christ, then the answer would be yes. But the problem that arises in the Mormon Church is that if we test the church to Scripture, it fails. A great example of how Mormonism goes against Scripture comes in one of the Mormon scriptures called The Pearl of Great Price. In it, we are told that the world was created “by the Gods.” In a sermon preached by John Smith himself, he claimed that God was once a mere man and that we may become a God like Him. A third piece to look at with the Mormon Church is that salvation does not come through faith, but only through adhering to the Mormon principles. Finally, Mormons have placed three other books – The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price – alongside the Bible as a Holy book.
Because of these tests against Scripture, Mormonism fails the test to be considered a denomination of Christianity. It also fails to be considered a sect by the definition because of having such a significant departure from core beliefs of Christianity. Therefore, Mormonism must be considered a cult.
1 John 4:1 – Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
The next church we will look at is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were founded in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell. He had issue with the views of eternal damnation and the Trinity as well as the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Russell started writing a magazine that would interpret the Bible based on his views. He claimed the Bible could only be understood through his interpretation, a typical view of cults. Jehovah’s Witnesses have several book studies each week, discipling the Witness to the skewed version of the Bible. In all honesty, most Jehovah’s Witnesses would win an apologetics argument against the average Christian simply because of how deep their study is on their interpretations. The version of the Bible Witnesses use is called the New World Translation (NWT). The first big issue with JW is that this Bible clearly goes against the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible. For example, they believe that the New Testament originally used the Hebrew name YHWH (translated as Jehovah) and that heretical scribes used the word “Lord” (in Greek kurios). The historical documents clearly show the JW view is incorrect.
The next teaching that JW does not adhere to is the Trinity. They believe the Father alone is God. Jesus is “a god” (their translation of John 1:1), inferior to the Father, and that the “holy spirit” is a force that emanates from the Father as an impersonal force. This clearly goes against the Trinitarian views of John 1:1, John 17:3, John 20:28, Acts 5:3-4, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, and Titus 2:13).
Another teaching that they do not agree with is the views on death, the soul, and eternal punishment. According to JWs, when the unsaved die, they cease to exist anymore. This clearly is counter to Luke 6:19-31, Luke 23:43, Hebrews 12:9,23, Revelation 6:9-11. The NWT mistranslates Luke 23:43 to avoid that, however.
The next thing JWs hold differently revolve around Jesus’ resurrection and return. JWs believe God raised Jesus from the dead as a spirit and deny that He will return physically to the earth. Finally, JWs view of salvation is also skewed. They believe that you not only need to accept Christ’s ransom, but that they must prove themselves worthy of salvation through work.
Again, with as many core beliefs as are misconstrued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they must be considered a cult, not a denomination or a sect.
1 Corinthians 3:4 – For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
A third organization I’d like to look at is the 7th Day Adventists. The 7th Day Adventists were born out of the craze in the mid-1800s about Jesus’ eminent return. In 1840, a Baptist lay leader, William Miller, predicted Christ would return in 1843. His teaching incited panic throughout America at the time. He based his prophecy off of Daniel 8:14. When the date came and went, Miller admitted messing up the date and recalculated it for October 22, 1844. Again the date came and went and that resulted in what religious scholars call the Great Disappointment of 1844. Miller eventually faded away, but others carried on his banner by changing the interpretation of his prophecy. Hiram Edson decided to tell everyone that Christ HAD returned, but not to the earth. He moved from the right hand of God to the Most High temple and that this brought about new gifts. Eventually, Ellen Gould White became the leader of the Adventists and that God told her to return to Sabbatarian protocol by worshipping on Saturday and also to return to Levitical dietary restrictions.
While 7th Day Adventists hold on to the main core beliefs of Scripture, and believe that it is infallible and inerrant, they do have some heretical views when it comes to doctrine. First, the strong tie to Levitical law can create a very legalistic view of Christianity. Next, they believe that worship must take place on Saturday and that those who do not have the mark of the beast. Third, they hold to an annihilationist view of eternity for the unsaved. Fourth, they adhere to a strict Levitical diet and urge vegetarianism among their followers. Fifth, they hold to their “Spirit of Prophecy,” which, while subject to Scripture, talks of continuing revelation. Finally, they believe that final judgment started in 1844.
With this information, it is very possible for 7th Day Adventists to be considered Christian. They do not follow the mainline denomination, yet, they affirm all of the major claims of the church with regard to God, Christ, and Scripture. They would be considered a sect, however, as they do have some very exclusive claims that they make. It does, however, show heresy in the 7th Day Adventist church because of Romans 14:4-6 that tells believers not to judge another believer on the basis of the day that he/she worships.
2 Timothy 3:16 – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
Finally, I’d like to look at Christian Science. This is not to be confused with Scientology which was started by L. Ron Hubbard who started Scientology in order to make money. “I’d like to start a religion, that’s where the money is.” (L. Ron Hubbard, 1949)
Christian Science or Church of God Scientist, is based on the metaphysical theories of their founder, Mary Baker Eddy. Eddy was a very physically sick woman much of her life and was expected to die from illness in 1866 when, she apparently read Matthew 9:2 and was miraculously cured. It was at that point she began to read the Bible and find errors. She claimed to be the person who held the key of David as written in Revelation 3:7 and that she was the woman prophesied about in Revelation 12. She wrote three major works that have become equal with the Bible in Christian Science – Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Miscellaneous Writings, and Manual of the Mother Church.
While she claimed to have been only under the authority of the Bible, she writes, “The material record of the Bible…is no more important to our well-being than the history of Europe and America.” (Miscellaneous Writings, 170). As one reads her works, it is clear that the Bible holds little to no authority in Christian Science. First, she reinterprets the Bible to make each person in it a principle. For example, Adam becomes “belief in original sin” and Abraham becomes “faith in the Divine life and the eternal Principle of being.” She replaced the Trinity with “Life, Truth and Love.” She denied sin. She felt that mean was simply spiritual, could not die, and was “above sin.” She claimed that Christ’s work on the cross was meaningless. “The material blood of Jesus was no more efficacious to cleanse from sin when it was shed upon the ‘accursed tree,’ than when it was flowing in his veins as he went about his daily business.” Later, she even denies the historical person of Jesus altogether. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Eddy believes that this real life is simply an illusion and that everything that truly happens is done so in the spiritual realm, not the physical one.
As Christian Science has redefined the Bible in its entirety, it is without question that it is a cult.
Matthew 21:42 – Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
As you can see, out of the four organizations I listed in here, only one can be considered a sect while the others would be considered cults. But what are some basic danger signs that something is a cult?
1) The group is almost always outside the mainline dominant religious form and culture and shows direct opposition it, meaning it is elitist or exclusionist. Look at Christian Science, for example, and how they have redefined the Bible.
2) There is often new revelation or authority, which also brings further writings equal to the Bible. Look at Mormons, JWs, and Christian Science above. All have other holy writings that are equal, or greater than, the Bible.
3) The group is focused around a central figure other than Jesus Christ. Mormons have Joseph Smith, JW has Charles Taze Russell, Christian Science has Mary Baker Eddy. They believe their prophet-founder has been chosen by God to deliver a special message that is not found in the Bible.
4) Often the leader teaches that the Bible foretold of the coming of its particular leader. Mormon and JW both believe that is the case.
5) The organization believes its work is the last system on earth for God’s glory. This is the case with JW.
6) These groups usually believe God is a force or a power, not a person who has intimate relationships with His creation. This is found in Christian Science.
7) These organizations are usually apocalyptic or eschatological in their teaching. Look at JWs for an example of that.
8) These organizations usually emphasize minor points in Scripture while de-emphasizing major points. Look at Christian Science with prophecy versus the Trinity. JWs are also a great example.
9) They believe that you can have direct revelations or visions from God. Mormon hold on to that view.
10) They claim to be in harmony with the Bible but in fact discounts the Bible and adds other words to it. This is the case for Mormon, JW, and Christian Science.
11) The group denies at least one of the central truths of Christianity. This is the case with all three cults listed above with the Trinitarian view.
12) Teaching salvation through works, which is what Mormon and JW propose.
13) There are many other more evident ways something could be considered a cult, but these are some of the more easily hidden under their sheep’s clothing.
So as you can see, these are 4 organizations that have claimed Christ in one way or another, and only one of them can still be considered a Christian organization. The 7th Day Adventist Church, while elitist and exclusionary in their view, does still maintain the core belief system of the Christian church. Mormon, JW, and Christian Science need to be considered cults.
John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Next week we will look at Anglican/Episcopalian, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Holiness/Holy churches.