How to Discern a Cult and Cultic Teaching

by Rob Lundberg

This posting is kind of going back to a specialty when I first started on the adventure in the discipline of apologetics. Prior to addressing things like the problem of evil, the existence of God and worldview subjects, I was involved with doing ministry training churches to witness to people in the cults.

Any time someone came to the door (even up to this day), from another group like the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I found myself always seeking to show them the truth and how their groups are deceiving them.[1]

So what I would like to do in this posting is share with you a tool that you can use to discern what is false teaching as opposed to what is biblical teaching when it comes to conversing with someone from the local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses or from the local ward or stake from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

By using this simple approach, I believe Christians should be able to discern whether or not a group or a teacher is rooted and grounded in biblical theology. And they will be able to do that by using four mathematical operations (+, -, X, and /).

First let me share with you about the word that is more or less a “hot-button” term, and that is the word “cult.”

What Do We Mean When We Use the Word, “Cult?”

First let’s define what we mean when we use the word, “cult.”  For the sake of this discussion I am going to use the classical definition given by the late Walter Martin, author of the prolific work on cults, The Kingdom of the Cults.[2] When speak of the word, cult, I am defining it “a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.”[3] And those misinterpretations deviate from the cardinal tenets of the historical Christian faith

How can we recognize those deviations?  This is where the mathematical operations come in.  

Using the Mathematical Operations As Your Guide

Over the years many in the counter cult community have come forth with this approach.[4] As we go through these operations, I want to address the two most popular groups that many Christians would not be sure of them being a part of the cults; and how these operations apply to those groups to show that they deviate from historical Christianity.

The reason for this is because they are the ones that encroach our doorsteps the most. They use our language and quote “scripture” and “believe” in “Jesus Christ.” But their definitions and views in these categories are foreign to biblical and sound theological truth. At the same time, there are other groups that would fail these tests as well.

In looking at them we need to apply some questions with them.  Let’s go through them and then apply them.

+  ADDITION  +  Does the religious group in question add to the Word of God through indispensable publications that claim to give the Bible’s clear meaning or through present-day direct revelation from God?

–  SUBTRACTION  – Does the group in question subtract from the person of the Lord Jesus Christ by making Him less “God” than His Father or by elevating man one day to become like Him?

*  MULTIPLICATION  *  Does the group in question multiply the requirements for salvation by making works a necessary condition for redemption?

/  DIVISION  /   Does the group in question divide the loyalty of its members between God and itself and its leaders?  Also does the group’s leadership make devotion to the organization a test of faith and consider adherence to itself the vehicle of salvation for the follower?

Let’s Apply Them to the Groups

+ ADDING TO THE WORD OF GOD – As Christians we believe the Bible to be Word of God, the sole final authority in God’s revelation to mankind.  We also believe that the meaning of the Bible is clear. While most cults will regard the Bible as the “Word of God,” a major pattern in these sects is their adding to the Word of God.

For example the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, also known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that one understand the Bible without their publications.  In their Watchtower Magazine, dated for May 1, 1957 we find it  stating, “God has not arranged for that Word to speak independently or to shine further life-giving truths by itself” (p 274).
Who has the authority to speak for the Bible to its people? The governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses interprets the Bible for them, and gives them their teachings for the week and for the monthly publications.  

With reference to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons), they believe that they are the ones to restore the gospel after it allegedly disappeared from existence. So when it comes to the current Bibles that you and I read, they announced in the publication of The Pearl of Great Price, “We believe the Bible to be the Word of the God as far as it is translated correctly” 

(64).  The Mormons further regard their Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price as more reliable and more authoritative than the Bible.

SUBTRACTING FROM THE PERSON OF CHRIST — This is the hallmark of the Christian faith is in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The New Testament authors wrote, the Apostolic Fathers believed, and the Church today affirms the Deity of Jesus Christ.  A re-occurring major deviation from biblical Christianity, adhered to by the cults, is a defective Christology.[5]  Some groups attempt to have a “Jesus” who worked his way to Godhood, while others only give him the status of an angel.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Lord Jesus is not Almighty God, but rather may be called “a god” because of His divine-like qualities.  In their book, The Truth Shall Make You Free it states, “Being the only begotten Son of God and the ‘firstborn of every creature,’ the Word would be a prince among all other creatures.  In this office he bore another name in heaven, which name is Michael” (49).

So the Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a created being and not God in human flesh (John 1:1, 14; 8:58; Col. 1:15,16). According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he is Michael the archangel and not able to save anyone.  So who does the saving?  The organization of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society does it.

When speaking with the Mormons coming to your door, they appear to announce the Christian teaching that Jesus is God, however, it is not without a radical twist.  Mormons believe that Jesus was both spiritually and physically begotten by God the Father.  Jesus supposedly worked His way to Godhood as His Father before Him and as thousands will do after Him.  A source for the Latter Day Saints is The Articles of Faith.  In that source we see the theology of Mormon godhood in the following state by former LDS Prophet Lorenzo Snow, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may be” (430).

* MULTIPLYING THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SALVATION –  When it comes to the doctrine of salvation, for the Christian, God’s grace alone is the vehicle for salvation.  The Bible declares, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).  However, in the cults, the world religions, and even liberal groups, the “good works” plays a major role in achieving one’s salvation.

The system of salvation for many cults, world religions and liberal “Christian” religious groups can be better understood by the formula:

      X      FAITH (in ?) + WORKS (alms, penance, confession, baptism, works, etc) = SALVATION

The Biblical plan can be described by the formula (and is compatible with Ephesians 2:8, 9):

      =>      God given FAITH (Eph 2:8,9) => SALVATION + WORKS (Eph 2:10; James 2)

The non Christian groups like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are works based and require works from their members in order to achieve what they believe to Paradise or “godhood.”  

The Mormons achieve their ultimate salvation through a series of work-related actions.  For a person to enter the highest degree of glory (where one becomes a “God”) one must, in addition to faith and repentance, be baptized, tithe, perform temple duties, obtain a temple recommend in order to be married in a Mormon temple, and rid from their life such things as the drinking of coffee and alcoholic beverages. By participating in temple marriage, LDS couples believe that they are “sealed for eternity.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have it so “detailed.”  For Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are taught to look to “anointed” brothers (and leaders) of its organization to gain eternal life (see Watchtower, August 1, 1981, p. 26).  They must do this because the Watchtower has removed from them Christ’s role as mediator.  The April 1, 1979 Watchtower states: “Jesus is the mediator only for anointed Christians” (p. 31). Who are the anointed Christians?  It is the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses located in Brooklyn, NY.

/ DIVIDING THE FOLLOWER’S LOYALTY – A Christian’s allegiance is to be directed to none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Apostle Paul instructs “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23). Those who are followers of the cults will be repeatedly required to divide their loyalty between their church and its leaders and God.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses frequently utilize “double think” — that is saying one thing but meaning the opposite.  The call for faith in God (see The Watchtower magazine cover, March 1, 1979) is overshadowed by the true nature of the Watchtower, namely placing one’s faith in the Jehovah’s Witness organization (see The Watchtower magazine cover, May 15, 1979).  The Watchtower magazine for November 15, 1981, leaves little doubt as to the necessity of the organization for its followers by declaring that the mission of Jehovah’s Witnesses “includes the invitation to come to Jehovah’s organization for salvation” (p. 21).

The members of the Mormon Church direct their ultimate devotion to a church which declares all other churches or denominations as apostates and corrupt in their ways.  Joseph Smith, Jr. founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have sought of God as to which of all the church was right. Smith then asserted that God the Father and God the Son appeared to him and instructed him that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong. . .that all their creeds were an abomination. . .that those professors were all corrupt” (The Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith — History 1:19).

Conclusion: Other Things to Look for In the Cults  

A recurring trend found within many cults is speculations and date-setting, particularly concerning the return of Jesus Christ.  This enables the group to be able to enlist new members or converts and also to gain stronger allegiance from its present followers. 

Obscure biblical attention through an authoritative and dogmatic stand on debatable or minor Bible issues that have no bearing on our salvation.  Some groups claim that there is additional need for the offices of apostle and prophets. This opens up the door for “new special revelation” and obscure applications and new mystical practices. 

Financial exploitation of followers by the cult that goes beyond the voluntary giving system of the New Testament toward a coercive control of the member’s finances.  A price may be applied to receive a healing, whether physical or spiritual, or to reach spiritual progress, or to gain salvation itself.

The denial of eternal punishment can become a leading attraction for the cults.  The cultic trend is to deny the existence of hell directly by opting for annihilation (Jehovah’s Witnesses) or offering a second chance to unbelievers (LDS Eternal Plan of Progression) or proclaiming that God will in effect save everyone regardless of where one has placed his trust while on earth.

Another pattern is the fostering of paranoia by citing one group or element of society as planning a conspiracy for world takeover.  Also an isolationist attitude, that is an “us against the world” elitist stance taken by the group.

A characteristic which has plagued many a cult group is that of doctrinal changes.  Numerous groups have found shifts in theology to take place after the death of one leader and the replacement by the successor or have made alterations because of inner strife or outside social pressure.

Ties to spiritualistic or spiritistic practices is another trait that may be found in several cults.  Such activity includes clairvoyance, automatic writing, claimed angelic direction, and alleged help in spiritual matters from departed loved ones.

The uncertain or ambiguous hope of salvation is an additional deceitfully clever device utilized by the cults.  A person who never really has the certainty of possessing eternal life can be continually manipulated into striving for unrealizable goals.  Fear becomes the motivator of one’s actions.


As you can see, the application of the basic mathematical operations can be useful in helping you discern a cult group. What you need to do first is know your faith, know biblical truth and then grow in learning how to articulate what you believe and why.

Thanks so much for reading this post. I hope you enjoyed it and that it has provided you with more insight on how to determine truth. Of course remember if you liked this and want to learn more about the truth of God’s Word and be “ready to give a defense,” then make sure you subscribe to my mailing list or make a donation to help keep this ministry moving forward with the message of the gospel and clear thinking Christianity. Also if you know someone in particular, who could benefit from this post, make sure you tell them about this post. you have any questions, please email us at this ministry


[1] Over the past several years, I have been immersed in addressing the objections to the Christian faith.  However early in my ministry, I got my start in apologetics reading Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Vols. 1 and 2) and sitting under the teaching of the late Dr. Walter Martin.  My first exposure to understanding the difference between biblical theology and cult theology came while attending his talks at the Brockton Assemblies of God around 1984, when he did a series of meetings where he spoke on “The Kingdom of the Cults.”  At that time I was really “green behind the ears” studying Christian evidences and really did not have a solid understanding of biblical theology. But those nights were influential in the beginning steps to where I am today. A couple years later I would receive more training from the Home Mission Board of the SBC (now North American Mission Board) in the area of understanding cults, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the New Age, and the Occult.

[2] Dr. Martin’s book has been edited a little referring to using the word “cult” we are meaning “nothing derogatory” to any group so classified. It is in this same attitude that I am approaching this subject.

[3] For the Christian, Dr. Walter Martin states in his original edition of The Kingdom of the Cults that, “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 Christ.” (The Kingdom of the Cults, 12)

[4] My friends at Watchman Fellowship  James Walker, Phillip Arn, Dave Henke, and Craig & Rick Branch have all done presentations over the years using this method.  So it is tried, tested, and proven to be a great guideline.

[5] “Christology” is that branch of theology that attempts to clarify the identity and the nature of Jesus of Nazareth, understood as “the Christ.”  Within Christian teaching it is concerned with the understanding of the nature of Christ with reference to His divine and His human natures; and with the significance of His incarnation, life, death, burial and resurrection.


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