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Why Do People Join Religious Cults?

Jude 1-25

Tonight we’re beginning a new series of talks on religious cults and non-Christian religions. You might ask why we should spend valuable time doing this, and it’s a good question. Australian society is multicultural and pluralist, recognising and embracing a wide variety of ethnic cultures within its structure, and affirming the right of individuals and groups to hold and practice a very diverse range of beliefs.

The church often comes to reflect – consciously or unconsciously – the values of the community in which it exists. There is nothing wrong with the church reflecting a diversity of ethnic cultures; I believe God loves to see all his people living in harmony together, and we should encourage this. But when the church embraces pluralism within its structures, it potentially undermines its foundation, and the power drains out of its spiritual life, and you find yourself in a Christian cult rather than a Christian church.

What do I mean by a ‘cult’? In Unmasking the Cults (1995), Alan Gomes defines a cult as “a group of people which, claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (organisation) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.”

“Well,” you say, “we’re not in any danger from cults.” But you are. Most cults start within existing mainstream churches. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Unitarians, ‘Jesus Only’ Churches, Unification Churches, the Masonic Lodge, even some expressions of the New Age movement, find their origin in traditional Christian churches.

These unorthodox groups are all around us, zealously propagating their teachings and encouraging Christians to leave their churches and join them. Three out of four new converts to Mormonism are former members of Protestant churches – and Mormonism is experiencing phenomenal growth.

Not only a modern phenomenon

We’ll examine why people are attracted to Christian cults, and how we can minimise this drift, in a few minutes. But first let’s look at the problem of false teachers and the growth of unorthodox Christian groups two thousand years ago, as revealed in the Letter of Jude. The author of this short letter tucked away at the back of our Bibles identifies himself simply as “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (verse 1) – probably Judas the brother of Jesus, mentioned in Matthew 13:55.

He had wanted to write to his Christian friends “about the salvation we share,” but instead he felt compelled to write urging them “to contend for the faith [the body of Christian beliefs; the apostles’ doctrine] that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (verse 3). Something was threatening his friends: people opposed to God and to his word, and whose lifestyle was abhorrent to God, had infiltrated the Christian community and were teaching false beliefs.

In view of this development, Jude warns the Christians of their danger, and how to identify these men by their character. He declares that such people will suffer the divine judgement and eternal punishment that has always been dispensed to those who rebel against God and reject his authority. And he suggests how the Christians should respond in light of the situation in which they are placed.

The false teachers are “dreamers”: out of touch with reality, perhaps obsessed with erotic fantasies. They indulge in sexual aberrations, they reject authority, they “slander celestial beings,” and they “speak abusively against what they do not understand” (verses 8-10).

In verses 12-13 he uses six metaphors to describe their character: they are blemishes at fellowship meals of the church; shepherds who feed only themselves; clouds without rain, promising refreshment but leaving the people dry and in need; autumn trees – fruitless and uprooted – twice dead; wild ocean waves; wandering stars – unreliable for navigation purposes.

They are also “grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage” (verse 16). They’re “scoffers” who know the Scriptures well but deliberately attack and undermine its truth (verse 18).

And they are “men who divide you” (verse 19) – they’re busy planning schemes to separate Christians from the community that protects and nurtures them, in order to exploit and destroy them.

But Jude does more than describe the character of these false teachers and warn the true Christians to watch out for them. He shows that God will reward them for their rebellion, their anti-authoritarianism and their habit of playing ‘fast and loose’ with the truth.

In verses 5-7 he compares their fate to three other groups who opposed God. First, the unbelieving Israelites who died in the desert without realising the blessings of the promised land. Second, the angels who rebelled against God and are now bound in darkness awaiting judgement on the Day of the Lord. And third, the disobedient people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were destroyed by divine judgement and who “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (verse 7).

Jude quotes from the Apocryphal book of 1 Enoch (dating from the first century BC) to remind his readers that, in the same way, God will judge these false teachers – and all others like them – when Jesus returns (verses 14-15).

Why people join cults

If wandering away from biblical orthodoxy is so dangerous, and if the judgement on false teachers is so severe, why then do people leave the mainstream Christian churches – and Christian families – to join religious cults?

Cults are “the unpaid bills of the church.” Where the traditional church has failed to maintain and teach biblical doctrine, or where it’s become ineffective, cults rush in to fill the vacuum. I want to suggest six reasons why people join religious cults.

First, unfulfilled expectations of traditional churches: an impersonal atmosphere, a perception of irrelevance, inadequate teaching, or irresponsible leadership. Cults move in, offering what seems superior, and the confusion begins.

Second, a sense of love and affection. We all need to experience a sense of love and care from friends and loved ones. Cults excel in this crucial area, because they know that meeting felt needs pays great dividends.

Third, a sense of belonging. people – especially young adults – increasingly join cults in order to find a family that gives them a sense of belonging they lack in their biological family due to the prevalence of divorce, single parenthood, generational conflict and child abuse.

Fourth, a sense of acceptance and self-worth. People who feel for one reason or another that they don’t ‘belong’ in society (or in the church) are especially attracted to cult organisations – because they feel alienated, or isolated, or they lack a positive and healthy sense of personal identity. Cult members may believe the lie that they’re now on God’s side, or that they have “found the truth,” and they develop contempt and resistance toward orthodox churches. Cults also encourage a high degree of lay-involvement, elevating the importance of the individual member, which many adherents find attractive.

Fifth, idealism. Some people are attracted by the enthusiasm and personal sacrifice of cult members, or by their wholesome lifestyle in contrast to the relatively worldly lifestyle of the major culture and the traditional churches; the strict regimen and discipline of some cults is also attractive.

Finally, people join religious cults to find spiritual fulfilment. All people hunger for spirituality – for something beyond the material and the tangible. As our society becomes more technologically advanced and more secularised, that spiritual hunger becomes more apparent and focussed, and cults tap into that lack, filling the void.

How to help people in danger

How can Christians respond strategically, or help someone we know who has become trapped by false beliefs and false teachers? The number one rule is: don’t lecture or denigrate them! Jude also has some useful pointers:

In verse 17, he shifts focus from the false teachers to the true believers – those in the church that he hopes will stand up for the truth and contend for the faith. He reminds them of what the apostles warned would occur in the “last days” (verses 17-18), and gives six items of advice to help them:

(a) “build yourselves up in your most holy faith” (20a);

(b) “pray in the Holy Spirit” (20b; cf Ephesians 6:18);

(c) “keep yourselves in God’s love” (21 cf Romans 8:35-39);

(d) “be merciful to those who doubt” (22; cf Romans 14:1);

(e) “snatch others from the fire and save them” (23a); and

(f) “to others show mercy, mixed with fear” (23b).

And he closes his brief letter with a doxology, focussing attention back on God, reminding his readers of God’s keeping and purifying power, and ascribing glory, majesty, power and authority to “God our Saviour” through the Lord Jesus Christ (24-25).

We were created to enjoy a personal relationship with God, but we naturally ignore God’s principles for living and we try to live independently of his will for our lives. When our relationship with God is not right, we experience problems in every area of our lives – our marriage, career, relationships, finances. We lose our way, and we start to slide down the slippery slope toward destruction.

The Bible is our best and most reliable spiritual guide, and the Bible’s radical message is that Jesus is the way to God, and our ultimate source of life and purpose! Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). God himself came to earth as a human being to heal the broken relationship between us and God. Jesus has already solved your sin problem! God has done his part to restore our relationship to him. Now he waits for each of us to individually accept what he has done for us, and make it real in our lives.

What do I need to do to find fulfilment and purpose in life? Admit that I have not given God first place in my life, and ask him to forgive my sins; believe that Jesus died to pay for my sins, and that he rose from among the dead on the first Easter Sunday, and is alive today; accept God’s free gift of salvation; and invite Jesus to come into my life and become the Director (‘Lord’) of my life.

Have you done this?


E136 Copyright (c) 2003 Rod Benson. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980). To talk with Rod about this message, email or write to P.O. Box 1790, MACQUARIE CENTRE 2113 AUSTRALIA. To subscribe, email with “subscribe-river” in the subject. To unsubscribe, type “unsubscribe-river” in the subject.


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