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Whenever we are confronted with a new problem, our first instinct as Christians ought to be that of turning to the Scriptures. What does the Bible say about this? And in our current mayoral election, since one of the candidates is running on the platform of fight the cult, referring to all of us, perhaps it would be a good idea if we turned to Scripture in order to hammer out a few definitions.
“For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Paul is here speaking to the elders of the church at Ephesus, and he is preparing them for the days to come, after he is no longer present with them. He says that “grievous wolves” will come, and they will savage the flock (v. 29). He also says that corruption will arise from within, and that some of them will start teaching twisted things, in order to gain their own following (v. 30). If you want to carve off a following for yourself, you need to come up with something distinctive, something to set you apart. The Ephesian leadership apparently took Paul’s warning about corrupt doctrine to heart, in that this church was greatly commended for their doctrinal watchfulness (Rev. 2:2, 6). But the apostle John then had to warn them about a new danger, that of falling away from their first love (Rev. 2:4-5).
We have two basic categories here. They are orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which translated, refer to straight doctrine and straight living. Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and his doctrine closely.
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV).
We should want our definitions to be objective, and not emotional and subjective. Unless we are careful, we will wind up defining a cult as any intense religious group that we don’t happen to like. But we are not the standard. To the Scriptures, always to the Scriptures.
There are four basic options. A group can be orthodox and holy (a church). A group can be orthodox and unholy (a sect). A group can be heterodox and externally moral (a legalistic cult). And a group can be heterodox and immoral (an antinomian cult). And because one sin always leads to others, groups can always morph from one category to another. That happens also.
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR
You are in a church now, but the price of keeping it a church is constant vigilance. Maintain your first love (Rev. 2:4-5). Hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Grow in grace (2 Pet. 3:18).
As you do this, here are some of the things to watch out for, things that signal sectarian or cultic temptations ahead.
Imperious rule: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not” (3 John 9).
Weird teaching: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:19).
License to sin: “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols” (Rev. 2:20).
Complacency: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15–16).
Abusive leadership: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face” (2 Cor. 11:19–20).
TRUE KOINONIA FELLOWSHIP
In many cases, cults are a fleshly attempt to counterfeit what God gives to His people by grace.
Individual Christians are not the only ones summoned to follow the Lord in obedience. Churches are also called to live together in a particular way. Think of all the one anothers that we find in Scripture. The New Testament presupposes godly life together in community, and that community is required to have a particular flavor to it.
For example, we are told to have fervent love for one another (1 Pet. 4:8). We are commanded to strive for like-mindedness (Rom 15:5; Phil. 2:2). We are enabled, by the grace of God, to gather together with other sinners, and yet still be characterized by gladness and simplicity of heart (Acts 2:46). Our lives together are marked by a deep attraction to music of a kind that glorifies God (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Our worship of God together is disciplined and focused (Col. 2:5). The morale is really high, and is characterized by great gladness and loud instruments (2 Chron. 30:21).
And all this fervent love, and like-mindedness, and simplicity, and singing, and liturgical rigor, and great gladness, all of it, is suffused with the fear of God.
“And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:23–24).
The word shouted here can be rendered as to rejoice, or to exult. Something terrifying happened here, and yet the people shouted for joy. The glory of the Lord, the weight of His awesome holiness, was manifested to all the people—the people saw. The glory of the Lord was located in a particular place, because fire erupted from the place right before where the glory was, and that fire shot across and incinerated the sacrificial animal that was on the altar. And what was the reaction of the people? It was an exultant shout of joy.
CHRIST IS THERE
Remember this, Christian. Christ is your altar. Christ is your high priest. Christ is your temple. Christ is your sacrifice. And Christ is the consuming fire that takes all of it up to your God.
And so the striking thing about a faithful church is that Christ is there. Christ is always there. And if the bridegroom is present, you can be sure that the bride is there also. She is His church, and not a sect, and never a cult.