How to Witness to Cult Members
We have all encountered cult members. They have knocked on our doors, offered us literature, and asked to talk with us about their beliefs. Or we’ve been confronted in airports or on the street by devotees of the latest Eastern guru solicitiing donations. As we listen to their pitch, we discover that they’re eager to convince us they’re from the “true” way. We soon learn that they do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, or that He was God in the flesh, but rather they veer off on some mystical tangent.
Today, cults are a feature of America’s religious landscape. For many of us, the proliferation of people claiming adherence to cults–either aberrations of biblical Christianity or wholesale imports of Eastern religion–should be a matter of deep concern. Unfortunately Christians have devised a variety of ways to deal with cult members. For example, some slam their door in the face of cult members who show up at their homes, and often feel smugly justified in doing so. Other Christians seek to humiliate cult members when they encounter them on the street. In so doing, we hold back the compassion and mercy cult members so desperately need to experience.
Thousands of us pray earnestly that a relative or friend involved in a cult will come in contact with a loving and compassionate Christian. How unfortunate that so often our “Christian” response to cult members lacks God’s grace and hope.
Certainly cult members are not always easy to witness to, and we may never ourselves actually see members repent and follow Jesus. Through our loving, caring responses we can be a link in their process of conversion.
I’ve been told that the greatest percentage of those who leave cults do so within the first three years of joining. So we must redouble our efforts to reach out to those involved in cult organizations.
Cult members are not faceless people who deserve to be heaped with ridicule and scorn. More often than not, they are diligent seekers of truth and God. We must approach them with wisdom and discernment. Cult members need to be disarmed by the love and compassion of Christ they see flowing through our lives. If they feel comfortable with us, they are more likely to let down the mask of the cult they’re hiding behind and allow us to minister to their real personal needs.
A cult member is just like any other person in need of Christ’s grace and love. We should invest time and energy into building positive and personal relationships with them. They are not irredeemable, tragic figures, but people just like you and me, who are able to be won to Christ through compassionate love and care.
Before we look more specifically at practical ways we can reach out to cult members with the Gospel, we need to take the time to understand what a cult is and how they function. “For what I have received I have passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). “…Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world” (1 John 4:2).
Together, these passages of the Bible give us a clear understanding of the central theological test for discerning true and false teaching. The central truth that will unmask false cults is their teaching concerning the person of Jesus. All cults deny and reject the deity of the biblical Jesus. In so doing, they dismiss or distort such revealing Bible passages as John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
We can respectfully disagree on many nonessential or non-redemptive issues in the Christian faith, like the exact time and manner of Christ’s second coming. But we cannot disagree on vital essentials to our faith like the deity of Jesus Christ (1 John 2:22-23). Neither can we leave unchallenged any individual or group rejecting the essential redemptive teaching of our faith as stated by Paul: “(We) are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
The New Testament tells us that certain teachings are inspired and empowered by demons. “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons (1 Timothy 4:1). I believe we are living in a day when doctrines of demons are being spread by false teachers and false prophets. Many people claiming to be followers of Christ are actually following teachings that suit their own preconceived ideas. Many people are turning to a “different Gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” -(2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Based upon the above passages, when we encounter cultic teaching we enter into the realm of spiritual warfare against deceiving spirits of darkness. We are engaged in a spiritual battle! Demon-inspired groups and teachings are not new. Jesus warned us to remain alert against such deception. He said that many people would even come claiming that they are the Christ (Matthew 24:4). The New Testament Church constantly challenged the cults of its day. John identified false teachers and prophets who departed from the apostle’s teaching as antichrists (1 John 2:18). Whether the cult members we are witnessing to are our brothers, sisters, neighbors, or total strangers, the following points will help us in understanding what they believe, and why.
Cult members try to convince us that they are a part of the “Only True Church.” Most cult members believe themselves to be a divinely chosen group appointed by God to restore truth through their exclusive teaching. Because of this, cult members often feel they possess a superior insight and knowledge.
Cult members are asked to believe that their leaders are the only channel for truth, protection, and guidance. They see their leaders as unique mediators to God. However, Jesus Christ is the only true mediator between God and humanity (Hebrews 12:24).
Cult members have difficulty explaining where Jesus fits into their overall theology. The real difference between cults and the biblical Church is the cult’s view of the person of Jesus Christ and His eternal redemptive work on the cross. When we try to clarify with cult members what they actually believe about Jesus, they often become very evasive. Usually they will give a quick answer and attempt to steer things back on to theological ground they are more confident in.
Cult members are often isolated or separated from others, either physically or pschologically. Cult members normally feel that everyone is against them, especially biblical Christians. This persecution complex creates a fear of outsiders. They are often taught by their leaders that Christians will try and lead them away from the “true path.” This pervasive fear keeps cult members from honestly talking with others about their questions and concerns. And it is this instilled fear of the outside world which often keeps them trapped inside a cult organization for years.
Cult members pledge total allegiance to the cult. Cults thrive on the total allegiance and submission of members of the group. Cult members may face excommunication from the group if they seriously question the teaching or practices of the cult and its leaders. It is often very difficult for them to leave a cult without experiencing some form of social and even physical persecution.
Cult members are required to live up to all rules and policies of the organization, which often brings strict legalistic control over them and their families. The concerns and tasks of the cult have first priority over individuality and the family unit.
There is usually a definite hierarchy of power and influence in a cult–an inner circle and an outer circle. There is often a small elite group of leaders controlling every aspect of the lives of cult members.
Cult members are told that to manifest doubt or to question what they have been taught is wrong. They rarely think critically for themselves. As a result, it is very difficult for cult members to have a meaningful and open discussion with others about truth and God.
Cult members normally believe that not only the Bible, but other books are divinely inspired. Most pseudo-Christian cults claim to possess a book of revealed truth which either enhances or supercedes the authority of the Bible. For example, the Latter Day Saints have the Book of Mormon, and Christian Scientists trust in Science and Health. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own version of the Bible, The New World Translation, which is filled with numerous translation errors.
Most cult members believe the end of the world is imminent. Many cults claim to have special knowledge concerning the “end times.” Some cults have even published specific dates and a time when the world will come to an end. But Jesus clearly stated that “no one knows about that day or hour (Matthew 24:36). Often these apocalyptic declarations are used by cult leaders to keep followers under their control. If their followers believe the world is going to end within the next few years or decades, they will pour their energies into the cult in preparation for the soon-to-come apocalypse. As a result of their leader’s apocalyptic end-time visions and senarios, some cult groups have built bomb shelters and store huge amounts of food in preparation for the cataclysmic end of the world.
Cult members constantly look for others to pull into the cult, thus validating themselves and perpetuating the cult. Most cult groups are very zealous when it comes to proselytizing. Cult members are often taught that witnessing is the way to gain their salvation. They are trapped in a legalistic view of the faith where their salvation is dependent upon their effort at proselytizing.
How to Witness to Cult Members
God loves cult members! They are people whom Jesus died to redeem. As followers of Christ, we must demonstrate lives of grace and hope as we reach out to them with the love of God. There are no witnessing formulas to employ. The most important thing to remember is to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and sensitive to the feelings of the cult member.
Below are some practical guidelines which will help you witness compassionately to those trapped in cults.
Know What You Believe and Why You Believe It.
We Christians should not only know what we believe, but why we believe it. We must have a thorough knowledge of the basic Christian doctrines of the historic Christian Church. Such knowledge will help us stay on track under the barrage of Bible passages which cult members hurl at Christians in an attempt to prove their separatist doctrines. To address some of their arguments, we need to know the context in which these verses occur in the Bible. While we are not called to argue, we are instructed to stand firm in the truth. We must study the Bible and be prepared (1 Peter 3:15).
Ask probing questions.
Compassionate Christians who ask cult members meaningful questions can produce witnessing fruit. The testimonies of ex-cultists confirm that their spiritual exodus began when a loving Christian asked a penetrating question which made them think more deeply about what they believed.
We can be confident that the Holy Spirit will continue to work after we have sown the seed of the Word of God in a person’s heart through the use of some probing questions.
Define your terms.
One thing that may confuse us when witnessing to cult members is a failure to define terms. Cult members often use language which is familiar to Christians. However, while the vocabulary may be the same, the meaning assigned to the words and phrases is quite different. It is important that we find out what a particular term means within the cult’s overall belief system. Having discovered this, we should be prepared to use other words and phrases that will clearly convey what we believe.
It is crucial that we remain focused in any discussion with a cult member. The essential question in any witnessing dialogue should revolve around the identity of Jesus. We must keep coming back to this question.
Many cult members will want to avoid the issue of Jesus, opting instead to get lost in the smoke screen of peripheral issues. The deity of Jesus is often a stumbling block to them and their belief system. We must keep the conversation centered on the person and the redemptive work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In order to witness effectively to cult members, we have to deal with the issue of their “bibles.” Some like the Mormons will claim that the Bible has been changed and corrupted. I suggest you ask them for documentation to back up such dogmatic statements. I recommend my book Mormonism Explained: What Latter Day Saints Teach and Practice and The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F.F. Bruce. My book provides you detailed information on Mormonism, and Bruce’s book is a very good resource book explaining the uniqueness and reliability of the Bible.
Most cult members are trained to use a predetermined witnessing script. Beyond the few Bible verses they distort, the average cult member is largely ignorant about the contents of the Bible.
Target the Heart, not the Head.
Many of us make the mistake of targeting the heads of non-Christians through rational arguments instead of also targeting the spiritual condition of a person’s heart. As a result, we frequently end up in an abstract intellectual battle with non-Christians over ideas and philosophies. Such verbal exchanges usually produce sparks and heat, but little true illumination.
While there is a place for well-informed apologetics in witnessing to cult members, we must never forget that we can’t argue people into the Kingdom of God. If arguments worked, God’s Kingdom would be bursting with converted cult members, since Christians usually argue with them more than with any other group of people they meet.
The Bible tells us that “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel” (2 Timothy 2:24). Don’t allow yourself to get into an directionless argument. It will only harden a person’s heart, and serves no eternal purpose.
Once a cult member shows a willingness to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord and be delivered from the bonds of their cult, we must be there for them. This is where a relational small group can be of immeasurable value. Assimilating converted cult members into a caring small group can help them pick up the pieces of their lives.
As they grow in Christ, there will be many areas in which they will need a lot of patience and help. If you find someone ready to come out of a cult, it is often best to have your pastor or a trained Christian counselor help you. When a cult member embraces the transforming grace of Jesus Christ they usually embark on a long process of healing before they experience the freedom and joy of Christ.
There are a multitude of cult groups, and this chapter cannot provide you with all the necessary information on today’s cults.