You may be in great danger! 1 Timothy 4:1 in the bible says that some will “abandon the faith and follow the teachings of demons”. Interestingly, it does not say they will abandon faith. And so today we find many churches and organisations teaching all kinds of doctrines that people believe and put their faith in. The verse says that they will abandon “the” faith, that is, accepted, orthodox, biblical Christianity. Ultimately Satan, the master-deceiver and world-seducer, is behind all churches and groupings and denominations that abandon the truth of the bible as old-fashioned, irrelevant and naïve.
So how do you know if you’re in a cult?
1. Key doctrines are downplayed
For example: the authority & inspiration of the bible; the fact that all humanity is depraved through sin; Jesus’ death was penal substitution; through faith in Jesus alone were are members of God’s kingdom; Jesus is a model for all Christians; God has made male and female gender distinctions & sex outside marriage is sin; the reality of an eternal, conscious hell for unbelievers; Satan & demons are real etc.
2. Lots of legalism Your church will have rules and regulations for your dress code, your activities, your finances, your time, your possessions and your relationships (including who you are permitted to marry. They will dictate to you who to see, what to do, what the right thing to say is and how to say it. Various degrees of control can be experienced, from subtle manipulation to blatant ordering. Obviously this is dangerous because in the process the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus is distorted: No longer just Jesus, now Jesus plus obedience to our rules. Oh yes, I almost forgot, the rules don’t always apply to the leader!
3. Leaders are full of pride and have an unteachable spirit Normally in cults the leader becomes untouchable by anyone. He is accountable to God only and everyone must obey what he says like it is God’s words.
4. Extra revelation from God Cults regularly claim they that god has appeared to their leader and revealed a new message. It might be Joseph Smith of the Mormon “church”; pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy of the kingdom of Jesus Christ; David Koresh of the Branch Davidians; or your local minister who God appeared to last week. Time and again the new revelations refer to the end of the world and how the earthquake in China is a sign.
5. The only true church If you ever hear something like this, “We are the only ones who are right. If you are not one of us, then you are destined for hell. We alone have the truth, so you must join us to be saved“, then RUN!
Don’t fall for it The way to make sure you don’t join a cult is to scrutinise the statement(s) of faith any particular church you are thinking of joining. Friendliness and good music are nice, but not the main criteria when looking for a church. Check that the church has a statement of faith where their core beliefs and values are spelt out. Ensure that the preaching is from the bible, in line with their faith-statements, to judge whether they have kept THE faith.
Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, not those who think God is impressed with them. Jesus hung out with sinners, even endured being called an alcoholic and glutton, for the sake of the gospel.
How do we also befriend, hang-out with, and engage sinners who sin, without compromising our own godliness? What do we do when we find out the couple we are trying to build a friendship with are swingers? Or the friend from the pilates class, who I invited for a chicken salad, snorts coke? Or the guys from the office circulate who porn?
Jesus’ example in John 8 helps us.
1. Treat sinners with dignity and respect The woman is caught in adultery. Adultery is grievous to God, even punishable by stoning according to Old Testament law. She deserved to die. Yet Jesus treat her with honour and respect, even calling her “woman”, the same word he called him mother in John 2. Big lesson: Sinners (even bad sinners) are humans, created in the image of God and should be treated as such.
2. Call sin sin Jesus however did not compromise on the reality of sin. Jesus did not excuse her sin or avoid talking about it. He said to her, “leave your life of sin”, implying that it was a sinful life! We should not be too embarrassed or intimidated to call sin sin. We can be open and honest when asked our opinion or when called to give advise.
3. Remain godly at all times Jesus was a heterosexual male in his earl 30’s. This woman, presumably half-dressed, caught having sex is put on display in front of him. Yet, Jesus remains godly, full of integrity and self-control. We are called to the same. We need to be discerning as to what were we can participate and when we have to back off and possibly even leave the situation or decline the invite. Compromise our godliness would be selling out, not reaching out.
4. Point sinners to Jesus The religious leaders actually did quite a good thing for the sinful woman: they bought her to Jesus, the only one who can deal with her sin. Unfortunately, when the leaders’ sin was exposed, they slunk away from the source of forgiveness. Our over-arching aim in being friends with non-Christians is to point and introduce them to Jesus.
5. Call for repentance Once this woman was introduced to Jesus and forgiven, Jesus commanded her to leave her life of sin. We should expect the same from our friends who came to know Jesus. No longer excuses or justifications for an ongoing lifestyle of habitual sin, but rather a renewed passion for holiness and obedience to the bible.
Outstanding issue The Old Testament law demanded that the woman be punished by death. How could Jesus simply forgive her and thus break a law of God? Actually, the law was upheld! The woman’s sin was punished by death – Jesus’ death. Jesus died for her sins. Jesus died for your adultery and pride and greed too.
This weekend a couple in our church who’ve been married forty-one years renewed their marriage vows. The reason was two-fold: forty-one years ago they were married in court and on top of that they were both not Christians. Today she has been converted for many years and has prayed faithfully for her husband. A few months ago he too entered Jesus’ Kingdom.
So they renewed their vows in front of the church and we were all very encouraged. In fact, I think this was the first wedding ceremony that I’ve officiated that I can say that the couple knew exactly what they were doing! The wedding couple have a disabled son and have been through their fair share of hard times. For them to promise to love and care for each other “in prosperity and distress” and “in sickness and in health” was especially meaningful.
We were reminded that the Bible says that marriage is a present, a promise and a picture.
A present: Marriage is a present from God for our joy and good. Marriage is not a human idea created by a theological symposium or brainstorming workshop. Therefore we cannot change or alter it, but must respect and treasure it.
A promise: In our version of the marriage ceremony the couples say “I will”, not “I do” because they are making promises for the future, not simply stating what may be true at the preset.
A picture: Ultimately marriage is a picture of Jesus relationship with his people. Jesus is the best bridegroom who sacrifices all for his bride, the church. The reunion in the future in the new heavens and new earth between Jesus and his people is often referred to as a wedding banquet in the bible.
The two typical ways that Christians relate to society is either assimilation or refection.
Assimilation: We blend into our culture so much that no-one can tell that we are Christians! We do not take sin or the bible seriously. Young people having sex, living together and then getting married is the norm and there is no substantial difference between the ruthless, ambitious, workaholic Christian businessman and his non-Christian counterpart. Assimilation is easy, any wimp can do it.
Rejection: We withdraw from non-Christian society and culture with the excuse that we are seeking to be holy. We spend our time fellowship with Christians and Christian braai’s and neglect our non-Christian friends and colleagues. Church becomes a force field against an evil, “what is the world coming to” society. We constantly pray for Jesus to come and rescue us, while smiting the rest of humanity. Rejection too is easy.
God’s way of relating to society is more difficult. God commands us to engage with society (no rejection!), while being the distinctive people of God he has called us to be (no assimilation!). Or like Jesus prayed, we are to be in the world not of the world. Peter wrote, “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Jeremiah too had this perspective in Jeremiah 29:1-14. He told God’s people in exile in a pagan society to build houses, to get married and take out car insurance. He told them to engage their society, without selling out.
We are all called to this: Engaging our society for Jesus, while being the distinctive people of God. This is why Peter called the Christians he was writing to “exiles/ aliens” (1 Peter 2:11). God has called you to a mission for Jesus. God wants you to connect with your society for Jesus.
What makes a good church? An expensive building, a charismatic pastor, a Hillsong sound-a-like band, entertaining sermons with loads of jokes, comfortable chairs, lots of young people, lots of girls, a weird spiritual ambiance or possibly cake after the sermon?
According to Acts 20 one of the most important ingredients of a good church is faithful shepherds or elders. How will we know if the shepherd is faithful or reckless?
In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
1. The faithful shepherd keeps watch over himself.
We have all heard of prominent Christians and pastors who have disqualified themselves from ministry and have been really bad witnesses to Jesus. Paul commends shepherds to carefully keep examining their own lives. Shepherds should be godly (v18); should be wiling to suffer hardships and not a lover of comfort (v19); should exhibit a zeal for Jesus and not be happy with the present spiritual status quo(v20); should be content and not covetous (v33) and love those under his care, not detached (v36-37). The three big areas of temptation for shepherds has always been Gold, Girls and Glory.
Dr. Billy Graham, a consciously godly pastor, made a decision for himself and his associates that none of them should be alone with another woman, other than their own wife or immediate family. And the a very faithful pastor in past years, Robert Murray M’Cheyne observed, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
Ask yourself: Is there a concern for godliness in my church? Am I praying for the holiness of my church leaders?
2. The faithful shepherd keeps watch over the flock
The chief duty of the shepherd is to tend, nurture, feed and care for the flock. He does this because of the high value of the sheep (v28) and to please Jesus (v19, 24). How does he tend the flock? Paul uses the words: preach (v20), teach (v20), testify (v24), preaching the kingdom (v25) and proclaim (v27).
In other words, the chief means the shepherd is to care for the flock is by a word based ministry. Teaching and preaching the bible must be the main thing the pastor does. Unfortunately, often the pastor is seen as the organiser, the administrator, the counsellor, the therapist or the handy-man! Sometimes church services contain everything, besides preaching and teaching. There may be music, video clips, drama, dancing and testimonies, but no thorough explanation of a biblical passage.
Ask yourself: Do I make us of all teaching opportunities? Do I talk and pray with friends about the sermon? Do I pray regularly for my church leaders that they commit themselves to study the bible rigorously, carefully and earnestly? Do I pray that God will lead them to understand the bible and apply it to their lives and apply it wisely to church’s life?
3. The faithful shepherd watches for wolves
The biggest threat to sheep in the 1st century was wolves. Wolves could quite easily destroy an entire flock of sheep.
Acts 20:29-31 says, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Wolves refer to those in the church, used by Satan, to “distort the truth and draw away disciples”. Church becomes like Survivor on SABC 3 with coalitions, power plays and bullying. The faithful shepherd not only teaches sound doctrine, but also warns (v31) of proponents of false doctrine and ungodliness, inside and outside the church.
Ask yourself: Are my views, doctrines and opinions in line with what the bible teaches? Am I creating disunity in my sphere of influence in the church? Do I pray for discernment for my church leaders?
What makes a good church? The church leaders are godly; they teach the bible faithfully; and error is identified and dealt with!