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Part 1: Examining the Differences Between Christianity and Cults Lesson 1: What Makes a Cult a Cult?


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What’s the Difference?

Examining the differences between Christianity & cults, Christianity & world religions, and Baptists & denominations

Table of Contents



Part 1: Examining the Differences Between Christianity and Cults

Lesson 1: What Makes a Cult a Cult? ............................................................ p. 3

Lesson 2: The Jehovah’s Witnesses ............................................................. p. 7

Appendix A: The Deity of Christ ..................................................................... p. 15

Appendix B: The Triunity of God .................................................................... p. 22

Lesson 3: Mormonism ................................................................................. p. 27

Appendix C: How Do We Know the Bible is the Word of God? .......................... p. 38

Appendix D: The Canon of Scripture .............................................................. p. 42

Lesson 4: Christian Science ......................................................................... p. 51

Appendix E: The Unity School of Christianity ................................................. p. 60

Lesson 5: Seventh-day Adventism ................................................................ p. 66

Lesson 6: Combatting the Cults ................................................................... p. 74

Review Quiz .................................................................................................. p. 78
Part 2: Examining the Differences Between Christianity and World Religions

Lesson 1: Islam ........................................................................................... p. 79

Appendix F: The Inerrancy of Scripture .......................................................... p. 87

Lesson 2: Buddhism ...................................... ............................................. p. 94

Lesson 3: Hinduism .................................................................................... p. 100

Lesson 4: Judaism ..................................................................................... p. 105

Appendix G: Old Testament Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus Christ ................... p. 110

Review Quiz ................................................................................................ p. 116


Part 3: Examining the Differences Between Baptists and Denominations

Lesson 1: Catholicism ................................................................................ p. 117

Lesson 2: Orthodoxy ................................................................................... p. 128

Lesson 3: Anglicanism/Episcopalianism ...................................................... p. 134 Lesson 4: Lutheranism ............................................................................... p. 140

Lesson 5: Presbyterianism (and Reformed Churches) ......................................... p. 147

Appendix H: The Church Ordinance of Baptism ............................................. p. 153

Appendix I: The Church Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper ................................ p. 160

Appendix J: Church Government .................................................................. p. 168

Lesson 6: Methodism ................................................................................. p. 172

Lesson 7: Pentecostalism (including the charismatic movement) ........................... p. 177

Appendix K: The Faith Movement ................................................................. p. 184

Lesson 8: Baptists ...................................................................................... p. 191

Review Quiz ................................................................................................ p. 198

Appendix L: Review of Key Doctrines Covered in This Course ......................... p. 199



What’s the Difference?

Resources Consulted for This Study




On the differences between Christianity and cults

The Four Major Cults by Anthony Hoekema (1963)

Confronting the Cults by Gordon Lewis (1966)

Handbook of Today’s Religions by Josh McDowell & Don Stewart (1983)

The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin (1985 & 1997)

“The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error” pamphlet by Moody Press (1985)



Handbook of Denominations in the United States (10th ed.) by Frank Mead & Samuel Hill (1995)

Mormonism: Changes, Contradictions, and Errors by John Farkas & David Reed (1995)

Charts of Cults, Sects, & Religious Movements by H. Wayne House (2000)

So What’s the Difference? by Fritz Ridenour (2001)

“So What’s the Difference?” Sunday School series by Ken Brown (2002)

“Christianity, Cults & Religions” pamphlet by Rose Publishing (2004)

On the differences between Christianity and world religions

Handbook of Today’s Religions by Josh McDowell & Don Stewart (1983)

The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin (1985 & 1997)

Handbook of Denominations in the United States (10th ed.) by Frank Mead & Samuel Hill (1995)

The Compact Guide to World Religions edited by Dean Halverson (1996)

So What’s the Difference? by Fritz Ridenour (2001)

Unveiling Islam by Ergun Mehmet Caner & Emir Fethi Caner (2002)

“So What’s the Difference?” Sunday School series by Ken Brown (2002)

“Christianity, Cults & Religions” pamphlet by Rose Publishing (2004)

On the differences between Baptists and denominations

The Marks of a Methodist by Gerald Kennedy (1960)

The Gospel According to Rome by James McCarthy (1995)

Handbook of Denominations in the United States (10th ed.) by Frank Mead & Samuel Hill (1995)

So What’s the Difference? by Fritz Ridenour (2001)

“So What’s the Difference?” Sunday School series by Ken Brown (2002)

“Denominations Comparison” pamphlet by Rose Publishing (2003)

The Unauthorized Guide to Choosing a Church by Carmen Renee Berry (2003)

“What’s the Difference?” Sunday School series by Ken Brown (2003)

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scriptural citations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).


What’s the Difference?

Part 1: Examining the Differences Between Christianity and Cults

Lesson 1: What Makes a Cult a Cult?


Before we begin studying four of the more renowned American cults1 of today (the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Christian Science, and Seventh-day Adventism) , we must first answer the question, What makes a cult a cult? The aim of this lesson is to define what a cult is, identifying the characteristics that make a cult a cult.

I. Definitions and Distinctives


A. "A cult, then, is any religious movement which claims the backing of Christ or the Bible, but distorts the central message of Christianity by (1) an additional revelation, and (2) by displacing a fundamental tenet of the faith with a secondary matter2" (Lewis, p. 4).
B. “... [A] cult may be defined as a group of people who, though claiming to be Christian, accept one or more central tenets of belief that run contrary to historic Christianity” (House, p. 9).


  1. “A cult, then, is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ3” (Walter Martin, quoted in McDowell & Stewart, p. 19).




D. Hoekema (pp. 377-388) identifies five “distinctive traits” of a cult: (1) an extra-Scriptural source of authority; 2) the denial of justification by grace alone; 3) the devaluation of Christ; 4) the group as the exclusive community of the saved; and 5) the group’s central role in eschatology4
E. Ridenour (pp. 111-112) identifies five “major characteristics” of cultists: 1) they reject the Trinity; 2) they usually believe that all Christian churches are wrong and that their group has the only real truth about God; 3) they claim to believe the Bible but they distort its teachings; 4) they deny that people can be saved by faith in Christ alone; and 5) they are skillful at using Christian terminology, but they are not talking the same language as biblical Christians


  1. McDowell & Stewart identify eleven characteristics of cults: 1) new truth; 2) new interpretations of Scripture; 3) a non-biblical source of authority; 4) another Jesus; 5) rejection of orthodox Christianity; 6) double-talk; 7) non-biblical teaching on the nature of God (Trinity); 8) changing theology; 9) strong leadership; 10) salvation by works; and 11) false prophecy

G. My definition: A cult is a religious group that claims to be Christian but belies such a claim by vitiating the authority of Scripture through a superseding authority (whether the teachings of an individual or writing) and/or through a gross misinterpretation of cardinal biblical doctrines. Note the salient points of this definition:


1. A cult is a religious group. As such, it has all the trappings of the typical religious group, such as a codified belief system, rites, corporate assembly, leadership structure, etc.
2. A cult claims to be Christian. This is what makes cults so deceptive. They claim to believe Christian doctrine and even use Christian terminology. However, they reinvest such terminology with unchristian meaning.5

3. A cult has an authority base other than the Bible. Though a cult may claim adherence to the Bible, when it comes right down to it, a cult denies the authority of the Bible by substituting another source of authority. This may come in the form of an additional source of revelation (from an individual or writing) and/or in the form of misinterpreting cardinal biblical doctrines.
H. My distinctives


  1. Doctrinal: Their Message

The primary distinctive of a cult is its doctrinal deviation from orthodox Christianity, particularly in regard to cardinal doctrines, i.e., those doctrines that make Christianity distinct from other "religions." Such doctrines include the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the Atonement.6


2. Psychological: Their Methods
Cults tend to be characterized by certain psychological factors. These include brainwashing techniques (repetition, isolation, dietary and dress regulations, sleep deprivation, etc.), deception, infallible authority figures, etc.
3. Sociological: Their Mannerisms
Cults also tend to be characterized by certain sociological factors. These include targeting the "down-and-outer," austere lifestyles, benevolent acts, extraordinary zeal, etc. Unfortunately, many Christians have shied away from such mannerisms for fear of being associated with the cults.

II. Distinctions


Some groups are improperly labeled with the cult tag, such as:



A. Comparative religions
Comparative religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism, should not be classified as cults. The difference between a comparative religion and a cult is the fact that a comparative religion does not claim to be Christian, while a cult does.7
B. Certain denominations
Although such “denominations” as Catholicism and Pentecostalism would classify as cults according to my definition of a cult given above, most do not classify them as cults, probably due to the absence of the psychological and sociological factors mentioned above. While they may be “cultlike,”8 i.e., cults in a denotative sense, they are not “cults” in a connotative sense.
C. Fundamentalists
Unfortunately, fundamentalism has sometimes been accused of being a cult, no doubt due to the cultlike tendencies of certain branches within the movement. Fortunately, such branches are continually being pruned from the movement.


What’s the Difference?

Part 1: Examining the Differences Between Christianity and Cults

Lesson 2: The Jehovah’s Witnesses


I. History


The cult known as the Jehovah's Witnesses (JW’s for short) was started by Charles Taze Russell9 (hence, the JW's are sometimes referred to as "Russellites") in the late 1800's. Russell was born in what is now Pittsburgh, PA in 1852. He was raised Presbyterian, left the Presbyterian Church for the Congregational Church, then left the Congregational Church. He was then influenced by Seventh-day Adventist teaching, but parted company with such in 1879 to form his own group, Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, which he incorporated in 1884. After Russell's death in 1916, the leadership mantle eventually fell to J. F. Rutherford.10 Rutherford was raised in a Baptist home. It was under his leadership that the name Jehovah's Witnesses (taken from Isa 43:10-12) was officially given to this sect (in 1931). Another title of this sect is "The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society." JW publications include the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures11 (portions first published in 1950; entirety in 1961), The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah's Kingdom (The Watchtower for short; magazine published every other week targeting JW’s)12, and Awake! (magazine published every other week targeting non-JW’s).13 Their places of worship are called "Kingdom halls" (a reflection of their emphasis on the Kingdom). “According to their 1998 report, the JWs claimed just over 1 million members in the United States and a grand total of just under 5,900,000 in 233 countries worldwide” (Ridenour, p. 114).

II. Some14 Erroneous JW Beliefs


One of the distinguishing characteristics of an ardent Jehovah's Witness is his (or her) ability to handle the Scriptures . . . . Any good Jehovah's Witness, sad to say, can cause the average Christian untold trouble in the Scriptures, though the trouble in most cases has an elementary solution" (Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 1985, p. 113).
"Unlike many other cults, the Witnesses do not subscribe to another inspired book in addition to Scripture" (Lewis, p. 18). They do, however, distort the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Pet 3:16). Below are some examples:
A. Denial of the deity of Christ15
1. Christ is inferior to God.



According to the NWT, John 1:1 reads "and the Word was a god," a gross mistranslation and a brazen denial of Christ's deity.
"The true Scriptures speak of God's Son, the Word, as 'a god.' He is a 'mighty god,' but not the Almighty God, who is Jehovah" (The Truth Shall Make You Free, p. 47).
JW's also misinterpret John 14:28 ("the Father is greater than I") in this regard. The following (cited in Lewis, pp. 24-25) appeared in the March 22, 1957 issue of Awake!: “The fact is that nowhere does the Bible teach the equality of the Son with the Father, but it teaches the very opposite; it shows the Son to be in subjection and hence inferior to the Father. Thus we are told of the Son’s inferior position before he came to earth, in that he was not ambitious to be equal with God, his Father (Phil. 2:6 RSV). And while on earth he continually called attention to his Father’s superiority by stating that he could do nothing of his own initiative; that only the Father is good and that ‘the Father is greater than I’ (John 14:28 RSV). Writing long after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostle Paul shows that God is the head of Christ and that throughout eternity the Son will be in subjection to his Father, Jehovah God (I Cor. 11:3; 15:28).”
2. Christ was a created being.
Misinterpreting verses such as John 1:18 and 3:16 ("only begotten"), Colossians 1:1516 ("firstborn"), and Revelation 3:1417 ("beginning"), JW's erroneously teach that Christ was the first creation of God the Father. The April 1, 1947 issue of The Watchtower (cited in McDowell & Stewart, p. 47) states: “... [H]is firstborn Son was the first of God’s creations. Then with him as His active agent God went on to create everything else that has been brought into existence. He was the ‘beginning of the creation of God,’ not that he was the author of creation, but that he was the first one whom God made ....”
B. Denial of the Trinity


Like Judaism and Unitarianism, JW's believe that God is one, both in essence and in person (Deut 6:4). “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit”18 are not part of the JW vocabulary.
"Satan is the originator of the trinity doctrine" (Let God be True, p. 101).
C. Denial of Christ's physical resurrection
Based upon a misinterpretation of 1 Peter 3:18, JW's believe that the resurrection of Christ was a "spiritual" resurrection. Christ's spirit was raised, but not His body.
"Jesus did not take his human body to heaven to be forever a man in heaven" (Let God be True, p. 41).
"The man Jesus is dead, forever dead" (Studies in the Scriptures, 5:454).
D. Denial of conscious, eternal punishment (including denial of the existence of hell and belief in annihilation of all non-JW’s)
"A fiery hell is a God-dishonoring religious doctrine" (Let God be True, p. 68).
“The doctrine of a burning hell where the wicked are tortured eternally after death cannot be true mainly for four reasons: (1) It is wholly unscriptural; (2) it is unreasonable; (3) it is contrary to God’s love; and (4) it is repugnant to justice” (Let God Be True, p. 9).
E. Denial of Christ's physical and visible return
According to JW's, since Christ did not rise from the dead physically, neither will He return physically. Like His resurrection, His return is "spiritual." In fact, they believe that Christ secretly returned in the year 191419 to set up His kingdom.


“Jesus thus gave up his fleshly body in sacrifice for humankind .... Having given up his flesh for the life of the world, Christ could never take it again and become a man once more. For that basic reason his return could never be in the human body that he sacrificed once for all time” (You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, p. 143).

"Christ Jesus returns, not again as a human, but as a glorious spirit person" (Let God be True, p. 196).


“...Christ Jesus came to the Kingdom in A.D. 1914, but unseen to men” (The Truth Shall Make You Free, p. 300).
“When Jesus said He would come again He did not mean He would return in the flesh visible to men on earth. He has given up that earthly life as a ransom and therefore, can not take such life back again ... The good news today is that Jesus Christ has come again, that God’s Kingdom by Him has been set up and is now ruling in heaven ... all the evidence shows that Jesus took up His Kingdom power and began his reign from Heaven in the year 1914" (from JW pamphlet entitled “This Good News of the Kingdom”; cited in McDowell & Stewart, pp. 58-59).
F. Other JW beliefs
1. Refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag or to vote
2. Refusal to enlist in the military
3. Refusal to take blood transfusions
4. Refusal to celebrate birthdays or holidays
5. Only 144,000 (the “anointed class” or “little flock”) will reside in Heaven. All other JW’s (the “great crowd” or “other sheep”) will live in “Paradise” on earth. Only members of the former, elite group can partake of communion.
6. Jesus died by being impaled on a stake (a single vertical pole), not by being crucified on a cross.




Are JW's Christians?
According to the following Scriptures, no:
1. A denial of the deity of Christ is evidence of an unregenerate heart (see John 8:24 and 2 John 9).
2. A denial of the Resurrection is evidence of an unregenerate

heart (see Rom 10:9).





III. Our Response
A. Christ is God.20
1. He is divine in essence.
Though inferior in function/position (John 14:28), Christ is equal in essence/person to God the Father. Both are fully and equally God (John 10:30).
a. Explicit Scriptures
(1) John 1:1
The NWT mistranslates John 1:1. Properly translated, the verse should read that the Word was God.21
(2) Colossians 2:9 and Hebrews 1:3
(3) Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:122
(4) Hebrews 1:8

(5) 1 John 5:20
b. Christ displayed divine attributes.
For example, Christ displayed omniscience (Matt 12:25) and omnipotence (Mark 4:39).
c. Christ is given divine names.
These include Son of God (a term of equality, not inferiority) and Lord (Romans 10:9). See also the names ascribed to Christ in Isaiah 9:6.
d. Christ accepted worship.
Notice John 20:26-29.
e. Christ claimed to be God (see John 5:17-18, 8:58-59, and 10:30-33, noting especially the response of the Jews; likewise, see John 19:7; see also John 8:24 and 13:19, comparing them with Exod 3:14).
2. He is the eternal Creator (therefore, He could not have been created).
Like God the Father, God the Son is eternal. "There was never a time when He was not." See Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, John 8:58, and Revelation 1:8. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that there is nothing new under the sun. In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicea denounced the teaching of Arius (who taught that Christ had a beginning, being the first creation of God the Father), declaring him to be a heretic. Christ could not have been created, for He was the Creator of all things (see John 1:3 and Colossians 1:1623).
B. There is one God in three Persons.24
1. God is spoken of in the plural (Gen 1:26, 11:7, and Isa 6:8).

2. All three Persons of the Godhead were present at Christ's baptism (Matt 3:16-17).
3. All three Persons of the Godhead are mentioned side-by-side (Matt 28:19 and 2 Cor 13:14).
Note: One reason why JW's have such a hard time with the doctrine of the Trinity is that it defies human logic. "Throughout the whole length and breadth of the Watchtower's turbulent history, one 'criterion' has been used in every era to measure the credibility of any Biblical doctrine. This 'criterion' is reason" (Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 1985, p. 63).25 JW's would do well to remember the words of Isaiah 55:8-9 and Romans 11:33-34.
C. Christ physically rose from the dead.
Notice especially Luke 24:36-43. See also John 2:19-21, Colossians 2:9, and 1 Timothy 2:5.
D. Conscious suffering awaits those who reject Christ.
See the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. See also Matthew 18:8, 25:46, Mark 9:43, 48, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 7, Revelation 14:11, 19:3, and 20:10.
E. Christ will return physically and visibly.
Note Matthew 24:27, Acts 1:9-11, and Revelation 1:7 in this regard.

Resources for Further Study:



The Kingdom of the Cults by Martin (1985: chp. 4; 1997: chp. 5).

Confronting the Cults by Lewis (chp. 2)

So What’s the Difference? by Ridenour (chp. 9)

The Four Major Cults by Hoekema (chp. 5 and appendices D and E)

Handbook of Today’s Religions by McDowell & Stewart (chp. 5)

Handbook of Denominations in the United States (10th ed.) by Mead & Hill (pp. 154-157)

Charts of Cults, Sects, & Religious Movements by House (pp. 149-164)

“The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error” pamphlet by Moody Press

“Christianity, Cults & Religions” pamphlet by Rose Publishing

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