Having defined the key terms, and pointed to possible classifications of cults, I want to reflect this month on ourselves and our churches with regard to cults. There are challenges facing us, particularly as churches but also as individual Christians.
First of all, however, let me reflect on my first meeting with cult members before I refer in more detail to pastoral experiences in reaching and helping those deceived by cults.
For my first encounter with cult activity, I must go back to my university student days. Two ladies in their early twenties called at the house where I lodged at the time. I opened the door to find that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They were sincere, articulate, earnest and well-drilled in presenting the organisation’s message. We discussed key Scripture texts for an hour or so and I then gave my testimony (I had only recently been converted).
One of the ladies seemed interested. I sensed that giving one’s own testimony, in the context of reading and expounding key biblical texts, can be effective on such occasions.
I wanted to find out why they had joined the Watchtower, so I asked them for details. They responded to my request. Their story was a sad one and left a deep impression on me.
I discovered that they had grown up together in the Midlands and attended a local Anglican church. In their late teens they were eager to know more about the Bible.
But rather than provide them with regular Bible studies, the vicar urged them to involve themselves in the social life of the church, particularly in preparations for the Christmas pantomime! They were disappointed but continued to read and discuss the Bible together.
Three questions troubled them more than others. I was intrigued. What were they? The first concerned the Holy Trinity of Divine Persons. How could God be both one and three?
A second question concerned the person of Jesus Christ. Was he equally God with the Father? And their third question was ‘What is a Christian?’ Yes, they were key questions.
Tragically, they found no one who could give them Bible answers. As you might expect, they were extremely critical of the clergyman for refusing to help them with their questions.
A few weeks later a JW called at one of their houses and they were drawn into Bible studies and into the organisation. ‘These were the first and only people’, they told me, referring to the Watchtower, ‘who answered our questions about Jesus and the Trinity’.
But they were trapped. Their words have lingered with me over the years, moving me to tears on occasions.
Reflecting on that first encounter with the cults was painful but fruitful. It was a spur for me to engage in more vigorous, extensive evangelism. I was determined to attempt to reach unbelievers before the cults contacted and deceived them.
Apart from seeing the importance of regular, faithful Bible teaching in local churches, I now became more aware of the spiritual needs and darkness of those who enter the cults. Who will tell them the true gospel of Christ? Who will pray for their conversion?
These reflections and convictions stayed with me during my experience in two contrasting pastoral situations. In the context of on-going, systematic, house-to-house visitation, we identified and witnessed to scores of people belonging to various cults, especially JWs and Mormons.
Our aim, of course, was much wider than reaching cult members. However, having made an initial contact, we felt a burden to ensure that we had shared the gospel with them. How could we proceed?
Prayer was the obvious starting point. There were unexpected, even immediate, results too. One young housewife, for example, felt an increasing burden for the conversion of JWs and gave herself to prayer as well as intensive Bible study.
There were also opportunities at times for prolonged Bible discussions with individual JWs and their leaders. But it was not easy, and the responses were often rude and angry. Nevertheless some of these JWs were hearing the gospel and engaging with the biblical text.
Yes, prayers were being answered. And in the Lord’s sovereign grace, over the following year and a half, one JW was converted in a remarkable way and another professed faith.
My second pastorate was a young city church where regular house-to-house visitation was maintained for several years. Such visitation may not be right or even possible for some churches.
In my experience, however, it provided the opportunity to meet many people, establish some good relationships and, of course, share the gospel with individuals. But contacts with cult members were more difficult.
Adherents of cults like the Watchtower, Scientology, Spiritism and the Baha’i were aggressive toward us and entrenched in their beliefs. Local Mormon recruits were more friendly and willing to listen. Their understanding of the Mormon creed was poor but they spoke highly of monetary assistance and caring support received from the cult.
One breakthrough among the JWs, however, had little to do with us. Sovereignly, the Lord was at work. Prayers were being answered.
Unknown to us, one of the local JW leaders came to see that the organisation’s teaching on blood transfusion was unbiblical. This led him to question other JW teachings. He now determined to read the Bible without the aid of Watchtower books.
His purpose was to find out what the Bible was really teaching. Along with friends, he visited our local Christian bookshop regularly. They bought books, usually one-volume commentaries on the Bible.
Slowly, they began to talk about their study of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. A few of them came to understand that salvation was by grace alone, appropriated only by faith.
It was Romans chapters three, four and five that challenged them initially. That is not surprising, for in the history of the church many have been converted through reading Romans, including some of the church’s most significant leaders.
Augustine is one example. The Lord dealt with him savingly as he read Romans, particularly verses towards the end of chapter 13. Martin Luther, too, came to faith and gospel liberty through reading Romans.
He grappled with chapter one and the meaning of verse 17: ‘For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The just shall live by faith”.’ The light of the gospel shone into his heart and mind.
He saw clearly that the only way to be right with God was through the one sacrifice of the Lord Jesus for sin. And he saw, also, that this divine righteousness is imputed, or reckoned, to sinners only when they trust in Jesus Christ. Justification is by ‘faith alone’.
John Bunyan was led to Christ through reading Luther’s exposition of Romans. John Wesley found his heart ‘strangely warmed’ as he heard Luther’s Preface to Romans being read in a meeting.
So it was for this small group of JWs in my area. They seemed excited with the message of Romans. Their unease with the Watchtower was evident, but they refused to come to our church.
The key to outreach
I do not know the end of the story. Were they converted? Again, I cannot answer the question with any certainty. They stopped visiting the bookshop and refused contact with us. Are any of them reading this article? If so, I would welcome an update from them.
On reflection, three points stand out for me. One is the power of the Word. It is ‘living and powerful’ (Hebrews 4:12) and all our evangelism must be Word-based. Remember to keep the Bible central when you are witnessing to unbelievers.
Secondly, prayer is essential. If it is the Lord alone who prospers and applies the Word then prayer must be high on our list of priorities.
Thirdly, cult members are in desperate need of the gospel and should not be ignored in our outreach. Perhaps it is more difficult and time-consuming to share the gospel with such people, but they must be included in our local evangelism.
Next month we shall look at some pastoral challenges relating to the subject.