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How can I tell the difference between a
genuine Christian church and a cult?

A genuine Christian church is founded on the life, death, resurrection, and Gospel of Jesus Christ. It bases its doctrine and teachings on the Bible.

In the early church, creeds were often used to identify the basic beliefs of Christians. What is known as The Apostles Creed, has been recognized as perhaps the oldest historic statement of the fundamental beliefs of orthodox Christianity. Whether it was actually composed by the Apostles as some have alleged, it can be traced back as far as the late second century where it was used as a baptismal creed in Rome.

The Apostles Creed
"I believe in God almighty [the Father almighty]
And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary
Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried
And the third day rose from the dead
Who ascended into heaven
And sits on the right hand of the Father
Whence he comes to judge the living and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost
The holy [universal] church
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh
The life everlasting."

Creeds of this kind were helpful in giving a short summary of the basic essentials of Christianity, and were brief enough to be easily committed to memory. Today, most all churches have a similar expression, sometimes called a "Statement of Faith," which summarizes their basic beliefs and theological views.

The following is such a statement, typical of a modern evangelical church. Any legitimate Christian church or ministry will believe and support at least some variation of the following fundamental truths:

(1) That the Bible is the inspired and only infallible, authoritative written Word of God — It is used exclusively as the source for teaching and doctrine, not in conjunction with any other alleged sacred writings or scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15-17, 1 Thes. 2:13, 2 Pet. 1:21, Gal. 1:8).

(2) That there is one God — who is eternal and exists in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost (Deut. 6:4, Isa. 43:10-11, Matt. 28:19, Luke 3:22).

(3) In the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ — that He was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, performed miracles, died a vicarious and atoning death for our sins, rose from the dead on the third day, and was exalted to the right hand of the Father (Matt. 1:23, Luke, 1:31-35, Heb. 7:26, 1 Pet. 2:22, Acts 2:22, 10:38, 1 Cor. 15:3, 2 Cor. 5:21, Matt. 28:6, Luke 24:39, 1 Cor. 15:4, Acts 1:9-11, 2:33, Phil. 2:9-11, Heb. 1:1-3).

(4) That Jesus will someday personally return — to gather His saints, and will at some future time return to the earth in power and glory to rule for a thousand years (1 Thes. 4:16-17, Matt. 24:30-31, Rev. 20:1-6).

(5) That the only means of being saved and cleansed from sin is through repentance and faith in the precious blood of Jesus Christ — Salvation is a gift of God's grace which cannot be earned by works and comes only through faith in Jesus, the only mediator between God and man. That the Holy Spirit regenerates and indwells the heart of every true believer (Luke 24:47, John 3:3, Rom. 10:13-15, Eph. 2:8-9, Tit. 2:11, 3:5-7, 1 Tim. 2:5, Rom. 8:9b).

(6) That God hears and answers the prayers of His people — in accordance to His will (Matt. 7:7-11, 1 John 5:14-15).

(7) That there will someday be a resurrection of both the saved and the lost — the one to everlasting life in Heaven, and the other to everlasting damnation in the Lake of Fire (Matt. 25:46, Mark 9:43-48, Rev. 19:20, 20:11-15, 21:8).

(This summary does not dismiss the value of other important Biblical doctrines, taught with varying opinions, but additional teachings are not mandatory to basic Christian faith.)

Such basic beliefs are held in common agreement by thousands of Christian churches, made up of scores of denominations. If a church or minister cannot agree with the above statements, it should be assumed that they are not a Christian church, and very likely fall into the category of a cult. Don't waste your time arguing with them, but move on and find a good, Christ-centered, Bible believing church.

Because our society is peppered with cults and misguided religions, it goes without saying that persons should always thoroughly research any alleged church before getting involved with it in any way. Besides obtaining a copy of their basic beliefs or other materials (which should be thoroughly studied and compared with the Bible), ask local people in the community what they know about the group. You can seek advice from trusted Christian friends, the local ministerial association, or even a nearby Christian bookstore. And of course, there are many reliable Christian fellowships and denominations that have affiliated churches in most cities.

Many cults refer to themselves as a church, but are really not a Christian church at all. For instance, while the name "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" (The Mormons), sounds like a legitimate Christian group, yet it is not. Neither are the Jehovah's Witnesses, which is another group that appears to have Christian similarities. Both groups are considered cults whose beliefs are not consistent with orthodox Christianity. Most of the time, a false church will publicly promote themselves as just another church, but will usually claim to have an exclusive revelation of truth that others don't have. Beware of groups who assert that they are the only ones with the right doctrine — that's a significant danger sign.

The late Dr. Walter Martin, was probably our era's best authority on the subject of cults. He defined a cult as "any religious group which differs significantly in some or more respects as to belief or practice, from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture."

Author Bob Larsen says that things cults share in common are: "(1) a centralized authority which tightly structures both philosophy and lifestyle, (2) a 'we' versus 'they' complex, pitting the supposed superior insights of the group against a hostile outside culture; (3) a commitment for each member to intensively proselyte the unconverted; and (4) an entrenched isolationism that divorces the devotee from the realities of the world at large."

Here are a few of the more familiar cults listed in an encyclopedic fashion from Larsen's Book of Cults: Ananda , Astrology, Astara, Bahaism, Buddhism, Eckankar, Hare Krishna, Hinduism, Islam, Jehovah's Witness, Mormonism, New Age, Rosicrucianism, Scientology, Spiritism, Taoism, Theosophy, The Way, Transcendental Meditation, Worldwide Church of God (Armstrongism)

Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity
Kingdom of the Cults, Walter Martin
Larsen's Book of Cults, Bob Larsen

This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us.