(Originally printed in the Fall 2004 Issue of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 12)
We live in a time and place where tolerance is considered more of a virtue than truth, and where truth is more highly valued in used-car salesmen than in the local Church. But the Word of God consistently values the necessity of absolute truth in doctrine and, in fact, professes to be truth (John 17:17). If for no other reason than the high value of a human soul and the credibility of God’s Word for salvation, the Church and its pastors should “seek” truth and expose false teachers at every opportunity (James 5:20). I fear that most of us, who have been given the high honor of the ofﬁce of elder, have missed that call and obligation of the Christian Church. I want to be clear here. I am not speaking of doctrinal differences within the Christian Church that fall within the realm of the “non-essentials.” Those things which Christians hold as absolute essentials within the faith include the Virgin Birth of Christ; the Deity of Christ; the Death, Burial, physical Resurrection and Ascension of Christ; His atoning death for our sins; the Trinity; the inerrancy of God’s Word; and so on. What I am talking about here is a clear and deﬁnitive breach of these essentials of the faith which clearly fall into the realm of Biblical heresy and, thus, the realm of the cults.
According to Dr. Ron Rhodes of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, (one of, if not THE greatest places of higher learning in Christian apologetics in the world), there are ﬁve standards by which we can safely measure any group to see if it embraces the characteristics of a “cult.” If a group has all of these characteristics, it is most probably a cult and should be treated as such. The group (according to Dr. Rhodes) will:
- Deny the absolute authority of the Bible.
- Deny salvation by faith alone.
- Deny the efﬁcacy and existence of the Trinity.
- Devalue Christ’s atoning work and His deity.
- Claim to have new revelation from God.
Taking each one of these standards and looking at some of the potential ramiﬁcations and/or manifestations, might help reveal whether or not a group is, indeed, a cult whether it might even prove dangerous to its followers or your community. This article will make a very abbreviated attempt at procedures for identiﬁcation of these attributes in speciﬁc groups that I have encountered, but I will not have the space here to expound on those characteristics or procedures in any detail.
First, I want to say, particularly to pastors, elders, and deacons of local churches, that you do NOT have to have a master’s degree in apologetics to address cult issues that may be right there in your own communities. Furthermore, every Christian should be alert to these groups—large or small, well known or not-so-well known. These groups are potentially a threat to the physical and spiritual well-being of your church and your community as well as an eternal threat to those that become a part of any such group. As Christians who carry the very Name of Christ and the commission He has given each of us, it is incumbent upon every Christian to go back and read Acts 20 and the epistles (especially 1 Timothy) and carefully confront the false teachings of these cults that exist all around each of us. Any of the ﬁve characteristics listed that are being proclaimed (even quietly) by any group should be lovingly exposed and dealt with Biblically so as to be the shepherds and the Christians whom we are called to be. Allow me to say compassionately that anything less is scripturally a dereliction of duty.
How should we engage these groups and their leaders, and what should be our approach in doing this? It should go without saying that each group will be a little different, but herein are some guidelines I have used and speciﬁc examples of cultish groups (groups with one or more, but not all of the characteristics listed), as well as full-ﬂedged cults, that I have engaged locally. (I will not address issues surrounding the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other such groups for which much very good material has already been written.) While these suggestions certainly should not be taken as the ﬁnal nor complete word for all other groups, they should be helpful as you plan to engage those in your community for which this article IS intended. The focus here will be on less-well-deﬁned groups and their leaders that could include the Gothards and Shamblins of this world; but more speciﬁcally, I will address those groups and leaders most people never hear of until they become national news (like the Jim Joneses and David Koreshes). IF you think that these types do not exist in your community, you are probably living within the blinders of your own church walls. No Christian group in Waco saw Koresh as a particular threat; and no church nor church leaders, whom I personally know of, were engaging them in a direct and loving way prior to political and legal action, which is almost always less effective and more devastating when unilaterally applied. It seems these groups are everywhere I go these days, and yet, they remain undetected—or at least undiagnosed—by well-meaning Christians who (rather than rock the boat) leave heresies unaddressed and false teachings unchallenged in the minds of their relatives, loved ones, and coworkers. Somehow, much of the Church universal has bought the tolerance bill of goods which has sold us the “product” of the tolerance movement – “short term ‘peace’ (with these groups) as the expression of Christian love.” It is without hesitation that I tell you this is not only NOT the solution, it is NOT Christian love, and it IS a direct barrier and real complication in effectively reaching these people for Christ.
The ﬁrst thing any Christian (who purposes to engage these cultish or cult groups) needs to adjust is their attitude toward the group and its individual leader. These people are NOT our personal enemies. They are people whom God loves and for whom Christ died. As such, they both need and deserve our “… speaking the truth in love …” (Eph. 4:15). On strictly a ﬂeshly level, you taking them on as the enemy will nearly always end in disaster and, at the very least, will close all doors to being able to be an “effective” witness.
In two cases where we began working on reports of cultish activities, we found that each were predicting, with some speciﬁcity, the time of the “end” of the world and the coming of the Lord. Acts 1:7 says regarding the return of the Lord that “… It is not for you to know the times or seasons …”. The word times here is very clear. The Greek word used designates both very speciﬁc times AND very broad segments of time. In other words, no man has any idea of God’s timing for the return of Jesus Christ. At least two groups in our community profess to have narrowed down the time to “within days or weeks” of the imminent return of Christ and the “consummation of the Age.” One of these groups claims to have their own messiah (who lives right here in Cortez, Colorado) and is preparing for the world to be consumed by ﬁre within the next “days.” They base this prophecy not on God’s Word (historically, grammatically, and literally taken) but on the word and scriptural interpretations of “a man” (William Branham) who died back in 1965, and whose death was to “immediately” usher in the visible return of the “mighty angel” of Revelation 10:1-2. This same messiah prophesied that the end of the world would come in 1977. Now that this date has come and gone, you would expect people to return to truth (or at least to their senses) and no longer depend on the ramblings of an obvious false prophet. The leader (messiah–Dan Dorelarque) of this local group (who bases their faith on the teachings of the dead prophet Branham) just returned from Egypt declaring a “sign” that is “fresh from the Lord” (new revelation) that in “days, weeks, months, but not years,” all of us (non-members of their group) will be consumed by ﬁre, but that their group’s bodies will come through the ﬁre without harm and be walking on the ashes of the rest of us.
Discovering Planet “X”
Last September (2003), another local group (disguised as a Missionary Baptist Church, but not espousing the mainstream Missionary Baptist doctrine) claimed that Christ would return in that month and take them out of this world. Needless to say, they are still here and so are many of us; so I don’t believe the Rapture actually happened then either. Today, this same group is preaching something about what they call planet “X” and Christ’s return this March. Planet “X” is apparently an Aquarius-type aligning of the planets which will reveal some new world that they have dubbed “X.” This, they say, will begin the unfolding of humanity’s last days on earth.
On a national level, the Rev. Moon (of the Moonies) recently appeared publicly with a huge crown on his head, stood before the media, and declared himself the “Messiah.” The followers of one of the Cortez groups declare their leader the “Messiah;” and the largest and fastest growing cult in South Africa (The Zion Christian Church, of which there is nothing Christian) have long claimed their own “messiah.” (Of course, two of their “messiahs” have died already with no resurrection and they are now on their third “messiah.”
David Koresh was a messiah. Jim Jones was a Messiah. The Heaven’s Gate cult (of Hale-Bop comet fame) had their messiah. There will be many who come in the cloak of a messiah; and the Bible tells us exactly what we should not do, and how we are to react to them:
“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here [is] the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe [it]. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore, if they say to you, ‘Look He is in the desert!’ do not go out; [or] ‘Look, [He] [is] in the inner rooms!’ do not believe [it].” (Matt. 24:23-26)
We also know that when Christ truly comes, there will be no doubt of His coming. It will be on the world stage, and all people will be proven to be without excuse (cf. Romans 1:20 and 1 Thess. 4:16-17).
This prediction of end-time scenarios is also common in many cults and cultish groups. Both Jones and Koresh capitalized on several instinctive attributes of sinful man that center on the gnostic desire of man to know something of the future and on the human nature of feeling privileged and special for knowing what others do not. These are also “Marks” of the Missionary Baptist group and Dan Dorelarque’s (Messiah) cult that we confronted here (in Cortez) over the last several years. Using them as examples here, allow me to point you to several things that work in dealing with these groups and others that clearly do not.
This particular Missionary Baptist splinter group is technically a “cultish” group that we began hearing rumblings about over two years ago. At ﬁrst, the things we were hearing seemed bizarre to us coming out of a Baptist-afﬁliated church. The issues that surfaced ﬁrst were control-oriented and seemed more focused on church government and proper handling of money than on more important doctrinal positions. But this was just a symptom of bigger problems. This past year (2003) we began to get “visitors” to our church from Missionary Baptist. As I got to know the people better, I found remarkably similar stories that relayed clear teachings from the pulpit of Missionary Baptist that the “end” was coming in September of that same year.
After receiving the third-such independent report, I made an appointment to go “visit” with the pastor (leader). This is the ﬁrst step that I would suggest with any group of this type. The purpose of this meeting should be stated when setting the appointment. You never want to surprise the cult leader nor make them feel hijacked or trapped. Always be upfront in stating the purpose. In each of these cases, I simply stated that I had heard some things that were being taught by their ministry that I wanted to explore. In addition, my conscience would not allow me to repeat those things nor take a stand for or against them without getting the story straight from them instead of a second- or third-hand account. In using this approach, I have never once been turned down. Most have honestly appreciated my candor and unwillingness to simply repeat rumors (which most of the time are inaccurate in some form).
This approach also puts me in the asking role; and thus, does not set me up automatically as the adversary. It is important to go into these meetings as a “learner” of what they know and how they know it. Again, this position of seeking knowledge and the source of authority of that knowledge allows one to either conﬁrm or eliminate two of the ﬁve characteristics of a cult, while simultaneously allowing the cult leader to do what he does best and loves most: deliver a well-rehearsed theology. You will view him at his best (or worst, depending on your view) and see with more clarity that with which you are dealing. During this time, ask if it is okay if you make notes. Most will be inhibited if they think you are recording it, so don’t (even secretly). In the case of this Missionary Baptist Church, this was a moot point anyway. Within the ﬁrst 20 minutes of the meeting, another person came into the room, the pastor became extremely nervous, abruptly ended the conversation, and asked me to leave. Subsequently, I have had a fourth report conﬁrming all the teachings, and a ﬁfth report with Missionary Baptist’s own literature explaining in “scientiﬁc” terminology and skillful use of smoke and mirrors, pieces of the planet “X” theology they are now teaching.
Once the leaders have been approached and information gathered, a tract for this speciﬁc group can be put together that can simply be handed to their members by your church members as they are encountered in the community. Again, the nature and demeanor of this tract is very important. Take your time and put it together with great thought. It should address issues and facts, and not feelings or personalities. It should plant questions in the reader’s mind using Scripture and not overtly tear the belief system apart. It should be understood that most of these followers are heavily invested into these groups and will instinctively attack and shut down conversations with those whom they feel are being unfair or who are forcefully taking apart what the cult leader has already told them “we” (mere mortals) cannot possibly understand. The idea is to gently and progressively show them that the emperor has no clothes! If you go for the throat, you may win the argument, but you will almost always loose the war. Remember: A soul is a terrible thing to waste on the winning of an argument, and this is our objective – the winning of a soul!
Jesus is Here, and He Looks Like Dan
In the case of the Dorelarque cult, I tried for nearly two years to get a meeting with the messiah/leader, with him successfully evading me at every turn. I literally did not even get a chance to speak with him personally for over 30 months. By a caveat of God’s sovereignty (ha), when I least expected it, I had an opportunity. I literally stepped off a curb into the street in front of his truck as he was getting ready to pull out of a parking spot, held up my hand, motioned for him to roll down the window, and went over to introduce myself.
As I began, “Hi, my name is,” he stopped me and assured me that he knew exactly who I was. (Another great lesson, that I could have blown right there without some experience, is: “Don’t ever be visibly shaken by the overt acts or words of these guys. Quiver on the inside if you must; but if they think they know how to shake you, they will return to the ploy often. If, on the other hand, you show no reaction to even the most bizarre behavior, they will normally treat you civilly.) Dorelarque and I set a meeting which he failed to attend. A second meeting was set up, and there again, he failed to attend it and failed even to return my calls.
Eventually, the wife of one of our elders met him on the street, confronted him in front of some of his followers, and somewhat embarrassed him into setting up a third meeting. He did show, and the meeting lasted 3 hours and 40 minutes. I had researched and prepared for this meeting for over two weeks and sought out those that had dealt with Branham-type cults in the past. But I only thought I was ready for Dan. He showed up with his trademark smile, warm greeting, and immediately wanted me to restate the purpose of the meeting, which I did assuring him that I just did not want to misrepresent his positions and teachings. He complimented me for that stance, and we began what would be an occasionally intense, often bizarre, and always challenging meeting. Simply by asking questions, his group was revealed to exhibit all ﬁve characteristics of a cult. When I shared that with him, he smiled and actually seemed quite pleased. Given, as he stated, that he considered the modern-day church to be the “mark of the beast,” one can understand his sense of pride in being considered a cult by those in the church.
As I questioned Dan on each of the clearly failed Branham prophecies composed in his own teachings, he simply declared them as actually having happened–even the one concerning the end of the world in 1977. As can be imagined, this somewhat startled me given the fact that I actually thought I was sitting right there in front of him. In short, Dan has several realities outside of the physical time line with which we are all familiar. One is a spiritual time line that actually proceeds the physical time line. Interestingly, Dan is the only one that can see into the “prism” and thus see that the end DID come “spiritually” in 1977. This is just a taste of how slippery these cult leaders are. Don Veinot told me that this meeting “would be like trying to nail jell-o to a wall.” But that would have been an easy task comparatively. Don’s description fell well short of the feat in which I felt I was engaged many times during the meeting, which seemed more like attempting to nail water to the air.
Probably the most frightening part of the interview was when I ﬁnally got Dan to admit that he believed himself to be the third coming of the messiah. He stated that he believed William Branham (that late 50’s and early 60’s self-proclaimed prophet who had an extravagant healing ministry) to be the second coming of Christ. Prompted again by questions, Dan revealed that he did believe in the physical Resurrection of Christ. At this, I asked if Branham had the Spirit of Christ, where was Christ’s body? He indicated that Branham’s body WAS Christ’s body. So, intently looking him in the eye, I asked: “So, am I literally looking at the body of Jesus Christ as I look at you?” And without hesitation, a smile came across his face as he clearly and proudly said, “Yes.”
During the conversation, however, a door did open which I saw as a great opportunity—this is what you are looking for. So, keep probing until God opens a door. Dan revealed, at one point, that he was no longer a Branhamite and that, in fact, William Branham’s son (Joseph) had declared Dan a heretic (the pot calling the kettle black). Dan prophesied that Joseph would have a change of heart, come to Cortez personally, and proclaim Dan the Messiah (again all of this was to happen) “within days, weeks, months but not years.” So I began to try to clarify the statement “but not years.” Finally, after some time, he agreed that it would not be over two years and one day till this event would happen. At this, I suggested a “pact” between us: If Joseph shows up in Cortez making this proclamation, Dan will arrange a meeting with just the three of us, and I will listen, and we will all return to the Scriptures to see if it all ﬁts. IF, on the other hand, Joseph does not show up in Cortez in this time frame, Dan will sit down with me, admit that he was wrong about it all, and take a fresh look at the Gospel. He agreed and I marked my computer calendar to remind me when the time comes.
Admittedly, there is some urgency with this group and a tract is being prepared for his followers based on all the information gathered in the interview. This is one of the purposes of the interview. Get it straight so that you can develop an accurate and speciﬁc apologetic. Carry it lovingly to the cult followers. Remember, the idea is to cause them to question, NOT successfully negotiate and conclude the argument. May God richly bless you as you endeavor to win this very difﬁcult part of the world for Christ!Ω
All quotations are from the New King James version of the Holy Bible.
Dr. Dave Seaford was the Pastor of Faith Bible Church in Cortez, CO. when this article was published. He currently pastors at First Baptist Church, Redway, CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The bigger question: Is conservative, traditional Christianity itself a cult?
Why Do I Describe Conservative Christianity as a Cult?