"For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ" (2Cor. 2:17).
Wherever you find the church of God on earth, you also find cult leaders and their inner corps of "groupie" followers. It was true in Jesus day. It was true later in Peters day. It is true in our day in every church, no matter how good or bad. We all know it was true at Jonestown and at Waco. But do we understand that it is true at First and Broadway, and at every other place where seekers of God meet together for church? This is a story confirmed by the Bible and church history in every generation. Polite denial will not make the facts go away.
A man receives a calling from God. He possesses a charismatic quality of leadership. He claims he gets his doctrines from the Bible, which he does in part. He preaches. He attracts followers, who are "burned out" on the tired old pulpit pablum of the lifeless "establishment church" of the day. This "new mans message" is fresh and exciting, filled with scripture and power. Listeners have never heard such things before. There is strength and conviction in this mans words. This message moves them deep inside their souls. They "know" in their hearts this is of God, until one day. . .
Often in the beginning, this minister is sincere and Spirit led, though his teachings are a combination of truth from the Bible and errors from other men and his own personal experience. Every teacher, no matter how good, has a constant battle with his own bias, from his upbringing. Things he takes for granted to be true are sometimes false. That is where deception comes to play, because "Satan. . . deceiveth the whole world" (Rev. 12:9). No single church in any generation has reestablished all the truth, though remnant bodies of believers have preserved apostolic doctrine and practice throughout every generation. These bodies of believers have been few and scattered, seldom found among the government approved mainstream churches. And even among loosely affiliated bodies of such remnant believers, there have always been differences, sometimes major differences, in doctrine. Even so, they all hold in common the Holy Bible alone, sola scripture, as their standard for life. And they all hold faith alone as their ground of salvation.
Which preacher today will dare admit to you that he too is deceived, at least in part? Which preacher will openly admit that what he teaches however good is not 100% Biblical, that his pulpit messages are never ex cathedra? Most think it would be damaging indeed to admit such. Which preacher will admit and correct publicly the doctrinal errors he once taught and believed to be true, on which he has since changed? Which preacher will admit publicly that he too is only a man, subject to teaching errors from his upbringing, which God must still correct? Which preacher will admit: "yea, let God be true, but every man a liar" (Rom. 3:4)? Which preacher will admit that "he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know" (1Cor. 8:2). Which preacher will say with Jeremiah: "Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD" (Jer. 23:1). It would appear from many scriptures that Gods greatest controversy is with the preachers of every generation!
To admit and correct error, when revealed, is the mark of a true man of God. The preacher who will not follow his own message in such matters is a preacher that God must chasten or abandon. Such is the working of the Holy Spirit. Such is the story of the church throughout history, as is so well illustrated from our knowledge of the protestant reformation, and what it produced.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous ninety five theses on the church door at Whittenburg, Germany. These dealt mostly with gross corruptions of the Roman Catholic church. Little did he know at the time that this act would give rise to the protestant reformation. Luther studied and prayed and wrote and taught and hid out from Papal armies for the rest of his life. His followers were then called "evangelics," later "Lutherans." If you look closely at the modern Lutherans, they hold very little of Martin Luthers original teachings! He never dreamed of a church to be named after him! His claim to fame is that he restored the message of salvation by faith and in part, the Biblical doctrines of grace.
So it is with John Calvin. Most modern "Calvinists" know little of John Calvins teachings, outside of whats called "the five points of Calvinism." These five points were later gleaned and deduced from his writings, but they nowhere appeared as now presented. Further, these five points, solid as they are with the Bible, represents only a small part of John Calvins work. First, he restored the Biblical forms of worship, against Romes pollutions. Which "Calvinist" preacher today even knows what John Calvin taught on worship, which was ever Calvins single front burner item. Much less, which modern "Calvinist" preacher will embrace John Calvins teachings on worship? Modern day "Calvinists" are often "cultists" who carry on the idea of "grouping" around this strong leader of the past, about whose teachings they really know very little.
These are only two prominent examples of "cult like" practices. We must look at churches today to separate the kingdom from the cult, which gets a bit tricky. In that effort, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. That is, in the process of discovering true Biblical doctrine through "the washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:26), we must be careful not to throw out the baby (genuine truth seekers who make up the church), with the dirty bath water (sin and false doctrine). It is a case of identifying and separating the wheat from the tares growing together in the same field. And it is a case of removing the chaff (sin and falsehood) from every grain of wheat (Gods people) through "the washing of water by the word."
With those guidelines and restraints, lets begin. Lets evaluate the church you may be a member of. Lets say you are a Fundamental Baptist, as contrasted with other Baptists. Fundamental Baptists have produced many strong "Bible thumping" preachers in our time. Where they stick with the Bible, they are right on, very instructive and inspirational to hear. But when they speak of their human "hero," or one of a number of other notable Fundamental Baptist preachers, they become "cultists." Here is why. Whatever level of truth God has given to their human "hero" [their word] and other men becomes the accepted standard for all Fundamental Baptist churches everywhere. Any man or local church which deviates from this accepted human standard is expelled. Yes, they often bicker and disfellowship one another, within the larger Fundamental Baptist religious community. But to the degree that they have grouped around a single charismatic leader, they are members of a "cult."
So it is with Roman Catholicism. We know that the Pope of Rome is the head, who claims to sit as Christ, as the voice of God, when he speaks ex cathedra. No protestant accepts such heretical nonsense. Yet the Roman Catholic church is the largest church in the world. Its followers believe in the Pope and pray to Mary. That is easier to do that to read, study and believe the Bible. The Roman churchs power and broad influence makes it no less a "cult," because allegiance is made to God through a man, which is one definition of a cult, in this case, the largest cult in the world today. It claims the Bible, but establishes doctrine and practice "after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Col. 2:8). Every protestant in every generation knows that this church is the "mother whore" of all false churches.
So it goes with lesser known churches, as well. As we look closely, we see that a pattern emerges. It is a pattern of truth and falsehood, mixed together. Gods people in the world live amidst much deception. It is true today, even as it was in Israel of old, when "Now for a long season Israel hath been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law" (2Chr. 15:3). Where are the "teaching priests" today? Who will stand up for the Ten Commandments, and uphold the law of God? Which preacher today will join with Paul and "declare unto you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Which will tell you: "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa. 8:20). No light, mind you.
You see, the very nature of the church of God lends itself to infiltration by imposters. The faith of one cannot be imposed upon another. "Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth" (Rom. 14:22). Faith is the miracle working of God on the human heart. Humans can fool men, but they cannot fool God. In the final analysis, it is only those who "walk by faith, not by sight" (2Cor. 5:7) who are genuine Christians. All others are imposters, members of the "cult" within the kingdom. We can discern between the two, because "by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7:20), and we must ultimately steer clear of those without genuine fruits of the Spirit. But only God can make the final judgment.
And what are the road signs, the fruits to look for, in separating the kingdom from the cult in our generation? Here are four notable "red flags," to watch out for.
1) Is your minister above reproach in his personal example? Does he rule his family in love and the fear of God? Are his motives completely above board? Does his wife rule him? Are his children under authority? Sometimes a great pulpiteer is secretly intimidated by a strong willed wife, who quietly pursues and accomplishes her personal agenda through her weak natured husband. This was the case of Jezebel and Ahab of old. It is the case sometimes today. If this be the case in your church, then you must confront your minister with his failing. How does he respond to such confrontation? Personal example is very important in every minister. What he does must not conflict with what he says, if he is to hold his leadership position and respect.
2) Is your minister open to Biblical correction in his doctrine. Preachers of necessity preach only what they know. No preacher knows everything. No preacher has doctrine perfectly sorted out. But a preacher who fears God will respond positively, especially when doctrinal error slaps him in the face. He must be sensitive to the working of the Holy Spirit in such matters. Does he lay aside his own bias, as Isaiah says: "Come now, and let us reason together" (Isa. 1:18). Is he open to corrections on Biblical doctrine? Is he courageous in setting the example of change, when error is pointed out? The church of God is split into thousands of conflicting groups today because, generally, men have chosen to follow other men over following what the Bible really teaches.
3) Are the churchs finances open for all to see, reported at least annually, in some public statement? This would include an open accounting of all receipts and where every penny was spent. Financial accountability is a must for churches, as protection against corruption by those who hold the purse strings. Ministers must be above reproach, always. Can your minister be bought with money, or is he "not given to filthy lucre" (Titus 1:7)?
4) Does your minister preach a good sermon even while he lives in hidden iniquity? Yes? Then do you love him enough to confront his sin or iniquity to his face? What does he do? The Bible teaches, "whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Prov. 28:13). King David was confronted by Nathan the prophet about his sin with Bathsheba. He confessed, saying "I have sinned against the LORD" (2Sam. 12:13). If your minister waffles, unwilling to look closely at his own life and receive help, then you know more troubles lie ahead for him.
To sum up, there is one thing that separates the kingdom from the cult, in just about every church. Is your minister accountable to God and man in everything? Oftentimes ministers called of God will make themselves accountable both to God and to their congregations, in all but one important area. That is the area God will test them in. How they come through such a test determines how they will be used of God in the future. Jesus said, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6:34). Yesterdays inspirations alone are not sufficient fuel for tomorrows ministry. When churches stop growing spiritually, they stagnate and die.
Christian, there is the kingdom and the cult in every church. Both live together inside the same set of walls. Once identified, which will you follow?