Jesus said that one of the signs of the last days would be an explosion of religious deception, culminating in the arrival of the ultimate deceiver, the Antichrist. He warned, "For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:5 NIV). One of the signs of the end times will be cults springing up everywhere.
In addition to established cults, we have in recent history seen groups spring up such as the followers of Jim Jones who committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978. Then there was David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Texas in 1993. There also was Heaven's Gate, the group in Southern California who committed mass suicide in 1997. Add to this the influx of new-age mysticism and spirituality, and we have to conclude that we are seeing these words of Jesus being fulfilled before our very eyes. It seems at every turn, someone else has come up with a so-called "new" revelation: This is the new prophet... This is the new guru... This is the new truth... This is what you need to read... This is what you need to believe.
So what defines a cult? One mark of a cult is that it denies the deity of Jesus Christ. Another is that they have other writings or books that are of equal or greater value than the Bible.
I once received a rather lengthy e-mail criticizing the fact that I had identified a specific group as a cult in one of my messages. The e-mail's author claimed that I was "unloving," because she had a friend who was a member of the particular cult I had mentioned, and if her friend had heard me say this, it would have turned her off.
But does my responsibility as a Christian to be loving mean that I can never identify something that is false? Absolutely not. As a pastor, part of my job is not only to teach and equip people, but to also warn them of potential danger. The apostle Paul told the elders at Ephesus,
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! (Acts 20:28-31)
How will we know who the wolves are if we don't periodically identify them? The apostle Paul wrote the words of 1 Corinthians 13, the often-quoted, great treatise on love. But what does it mean to love? Love not only nurtures and embraces, but it also warns when necessary. Proverbs 27:6 says, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful" (NIV).
Many of Paul's epistles refuted popular false teachings of the day. Galatians was largely written to refute the teaching of a group called the Judaizers, who basically were trying to bring non-Jews under the bondage of the Mosaic Law. Paul was correcting that. Paul would, on occasion, take it a step further and name specific people who were false teachers or who were leading others astray. He wrote to Timothy, "But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some" (2 Timothy 2:16–18 NKJV). And in Romans 16:17, he said, "Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them" (NKJV).
There is a place for equipping ourselves. But at the same time, I don't apologize for identifying false teaching. My primary objective is not to refute everything that is being said. My primary objective is to teach the Bible and let people learn for themselves the whole counsel of God. In the process of doing that, when they encounter a teaching that is aberrant, false, or doesn't jive with Scripture, they can identify it and know what the Bible says about it. This is something that has to be done — especially in the days in which we are living.