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Cults & Churches: Knowing the Difference

The Online Christian Church is the first of its kind: a fully online, worldwide, Christian Church. The internet poses many: you or your family may be asking, "Is this a church or a cult?" Let's look at five key features of both churches and cults and what the Bible says to help alleviate any doubts.

  1. Did Christianity or a Cult begin with a charismatic leader with a new revolutionary message? The leader who believes that they are always right and has all the answers.

In a cult, there is one charismatic leader who has all the answers to health, wealth, happiness, and even love. This person is always right. There is a top-down structure where the people on the bottom aren't allowed to question or challenge anyone above them. Questioning those above you, especially the leader's teaching, is seen as blasphemy and wrong. The leader of a cult will always seek to be honored by those following him.

Christianity technically began centered around one man, Jesus, who had a “new” message: the Gospel. Jesus has all the answers: He is the answer to health, wealth, and happiness. He is Love! Although Jesus is God, He did not demand to be worshipped. This is why Jesus is referred to as humble.

But Jesus is no longer on Earth so churches should not operate like a cult. A church can cross the line into being a cult if it allows the leader to be the focus instead of Jesus. If the leader's teachings cannot be questioned or if they have to be honored in some way. We should not bow down to anyone but Jesus. The job of a church should help you connect to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not be the only one who can hear from Them.

2. Who “love bombs” new members of a church or a cult?

Love bombing promises a new start, a hope for a future of love, belonging, and salvation within a living community of people who all believe in the big idea. Both churches and many cults operate with aspects of love, belonging, and a promise of salvation. It is the motive behind these promises that separates the two. The Bible says this about love:

A new commandment I give to you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another. (John 13:34-35 AKJV)
If a man says, I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loves God love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21 AKJV)
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 AKJV)

As Christians, we could walk through this life with love for each other and our families. It is a commandment from our Lord, Jesus. Christians are all children of God and part of the same spiritual family:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… (John 1:12 AKJV)

We are all part of God’s family and are encouraged to love one another. This is not the same as a cult, but a cult does use “love bombing.”

A cult will recruit members through the deception of love often mixed with fear. Potential members will be offered something they do not have in their current lives and told that joining the group will somehow make their lives better. God never uses fear and intimidation. Those are tactics of His enemy, Satan.

3. Who has a “transcendent belief system,” meaning they’re stating how to get to some better place?

Many organizations, including political groups, have a type of transcendent belief system. In churches and cults, outsiders often refer to the application of their beliefs as “brainwashing” which is defined as the process of indoctrination or education through coercive persuasion or thought reform. Like many aspects of these organizations, the difference is the focus and method.

To become part of a cult, you have to go through a transformational process, which they dictate to you and you can’t be there otherwise. There is a degree of intellectual limitation upon everyone but founding members; you are not encouraged to think for yourself. Not adhering to the doctrine brings punishment from the leadership and shunning from the members.

All churches have a doctrine which is a statement of faith and structure of beliefs that should be based on the Bible. We are expected to learn God’s ways and leave our old ways behind.

Strip yourselves of your former nature [put off and discard your old unrenewed self] which characterized your previous manner of life and becomes corrupt through lusts and desires that spring from delusion; And be constantly renewed in the spirit of your mind [having a fresh mental and spiritual attitude], And put on the new nature (the regenerate self) created in God’s image, [Godlike] in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24 AMPC)

This is why we read the Bible and go to church; to learn what God expects of us and try to do it. The process of the application of the doctrines of churches and cults differ greatly:

  • A church teaches and leaves application up to the individual.

  • A cult insists on strict adherence to their beliefs and punishes any infractions.

A church can cross the line into being a cult when they promise that you will be totally healed, free from persecution, and wealthy as long as you implement their belief system. If you are not healed and wealthy, then they claim you don’t have faith.

The truth is, through Jesus many attacks on our health and finances can be removed, but the Bible says this about persecution:

Remember the word that I said to you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. (John 15:20 AKJV)
These things I have spoken to you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33 AKJV)

This is what Jesus said to His disciples. There will be tests and trials. Attacks may come, but Jesus is the answer, not a human leader. He will see us through any time of trouble.

Concerning financial wealth, here is what God promises us:

Why, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things. But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:30-33 AKJV)
But my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19 AKJV)

God will supply for our needs, not make us rich. When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray in what we call the Our Father prayer, He said, “Give us this day our DAILY bread.” God supplies for our needs daily. This is not a guarantee of great wealth.

The focus of the beliefs in a church and cult will be opposite:

  • A church focuses on God providing for us.

  • A cult puts our focus on providing for the church and/or leaders

4. Which type of organization demands exclusivity and attempts to isolate its members from the world, including family members?

Cults typically isolate members from their family, friends, and co-workers outside the group. This allows leaders to separate participants from those who might try to get them out from under the control of the group.

Since a cult can only continue to operate with power and control, leaders do everything they can to keep their members loyal and obedient. When someone begins to attempt to leave the group, that member often finds themselves on the receiving end of financial, spiritual, or even physical threats. Sometimes, their non-member families will be threatened with harm as well, to keep the individual within the group. A church should never operate this way.
For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7 AKJV)

A church should never use fear and intimidation tactics. God is love. Fear is from the enemy. However, there are some aspects of exclusivity and isolation in most churches.

As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which has called you is holy, so be you holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be you holy; for I am holy. (1 Peter 1:14-16 AKJV)

The word “holy” means set apart and separated from. As God’s people, we are to come apart from what the Bible calls sin. This doesn’t include having to leave behind family and friends as long as they are not demanding we do things that disagree with the Word of God. Jesus put it this way:

I pray not that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through your truth: your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. (John 17:16-17 AKJV)

How can the Lord use us to do His work if we are not in this world? We must remain as part of the world, but keep away from that which is evil. The word “sanctify” means to separate from profane things and dedicate to God, to purify. By reading the Word of God we learn what is from God and what isn’t. We need to come apart from that which is not of God.

Every church has a doctrine, a system of beliefs they believe is inspired by God. These should be based in scripture and not on traditions:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 AKJV)

This was written before there was a New Testament so “scripture” refers to what we call the Old Testament. God is always the same so we can learn about Him by looking at what He has done in the past. Praise God that Israel was very good at recording God’s ways and their history! The adherence to the doctrine of a church is between the individuals and God.

5. Which group is always connected to your finances; is looking to receive money from members?

Few organizations can exist without receiving income from their members, so both cults and churches will be involved with your finances. There should be a big difference in how the finances are received and dealt with.

In a cult, there is a price tag on everything: teachings, appointments, and materials used in practices according to doctrine. Pressure is applied to “recruits” to support the church with financial gifts or donations. Any system of development to “reach the new level” will have a financial cost. Intimidation tactics are used when followers are reluctant, such as: don’t you believe or isn’t it worth it.

Though churches still collect money from their members, the way a church should operate is much different from this. God had a system to provide for pastors (priests) before Israel was established: tithes and offerings. The word tithe means one-tenth. Since we see God as our provider, it is His portion of what He brings to us. It is to be given to leaders of churches; pastors or priests.

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which has delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him tithes of all. (Genesis 14:18-20 AKJV)
For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him… (Hebrews 7:1 AKJV)

Abram was renamed by God as Abraham which means father of nations. Hundreds of years before Israel came into being, Abraham gave a tithe to the priest of God. All churches should accept tithes and offerings in the name of the Lord because Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchisedec.

Where the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. (Hebrews 6:20 AKJV)

Because tithes and offerings were given to Melchesidec and we are adopted into the family of Abraham, we too should give tithes and offerings to Churches. This is the right way for God to provide funding for His storehouses. According to Jesus, Churches should never charge for anything.

The time Jesus showed anger more than any other was when items were being sold at the temple; it is mentioned in every one of the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Now the Passover of the Jews was approaching, so Jesus went up to Jerusalem. There He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting there [also at their stands]. And having made a lash (a whip) of cords, He drove them all out of the temple—both the sheep and the oxen—spilling and scattering the brokers’ money and upsetting and tossing around their trays (their stands).
Then to those who sold the doves He said, “Take these things away (out of here)! Make not My Father’s house a house of merchandise (a marketplace, a sales shop)!” (John 2:13-16 AMPC)

Doves and oxen were used as sacrifices in worshipping God, yet this was no excuse to charge for these items in connection with the House of God. Churches should never charge for teachings, conferences, worship, or prayer.

Jesus showed us the right way to handle things when He sent out His disciples:

And as you go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor money for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat. (Matthew 10:7-10 AKJV)

When we receive from God, (teaching, worship, messages) we should receive it for free. Then we should give whatever we have received form God away for free as well. It cost the disciples a lot of time and food to travel from town to town, but they had to freely give the messages, including prayer. If you receive something of value, it is up to you to decide what to give in return; how to support God’s worker. This is a basic principle that Paul had to teach the new converts:

If we have sown to you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? (1 Corinthians 9:11 AKJV)
Let him that is taught in the word communicate to him that teaches in all good things. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap. (Galatians 6:6-7 AKJV)

It was common practice in these times to give an offering to acknowledge God if you received something of spiritual value. This is the application of sowing and reaping, first you must receive, and then you sow (give back). It cost Paul quite a bit to send messages to teach new believers, but he never charged for these teachings. We now have access to these same teaching which make up much of the New Testament (Ephesians, Philippians, Romans etc.)

If a church asks or demands a donation, if they put a price tag on teachings, conferences or prayer, then they have gone astray and are looking more and more like the world! Please see the free class “Attacks on Our Finances” for more information on this topic.

As you can see, there are many similarities between churches and cults. The main difference is the focus:

In a church and in the Online Christian Church:

  • Leaders will direct people to the Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

  • We try to show God's love to people who come

  • Doctrine is presented based on Scripture, implementing it is up to the individual.

  • We encourage and teach you God's ways so you can be holy and remain with our family

  • We freely gives teachings, materials, and prayer

    • as a church we receives financial support through tithes and offerings

All that is done in a church must be focused on Jesus, who was the love of God made manifest in this world. Jesus is the true leader of every church. It is He whom we worship in look towards, it is He who provides all that we need!

To learn more about Jesus, please see the Life of Jesus course in the Online Christian Church!



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