Which is the One True Church?
Christians are often asked, “Why are there so many religions?” This is a good question! Many groups claim that they are the only ones to have found the secret to life. How can I know which is the true one? If I want to please God, which one should I join? Or should I bother to look at this question at all? What if I end up joining some horrific cult, where they take my brain out, wash it, and put it back in an unrecognisable form?
These questions can be answered, but the explanation is not always simple. First of all, there are the various world religions, which are methods written in holy books, invented by men and all differing from each other, according to which, by rule-keeping, rituals and self-discipline, you can get into some state of being liberated from something.
The Bible can also be regarded as a holy book, but it is totally different. The Bible is the message of the true God to lost mankind. In the religions, men are seeking God, but in the Bible, God is speaking to men – that is the great difference.
But lots of people use the Bible! Why are there so many Christian churches? One of the reasons for this is historical. God loves people, and sometimes, at certain periods, He deals with them in a special way and many turn to Him all at once. This is known as revival. At such times, one or more movements have always come into being, which later become denominations. Such times of upheaval were, for example, the 16th century Reformation throughout Europe, from which came the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican Churches, and the 18th century Great Awakening in Britain, which was the origin of the Methodists.
On the subject of “church.” The original Greek form of this word (ekklesia) is used in the Bible for three concepts. Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16: 18), and Paul writes, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5: 25). This indicates that the church is made up of all believers in Christ. The apostle Paul writes to, “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2), and we read that, “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers” (Acts 13: 1). Here, the church consists of all the Christians who live in a city. Paul also greets, “Priscilla and Aquila… also the church that meets at their house” (Romans 16: 3, 5). This refers to a group of believers meeting in a house. So the meaning of the word is: the universal church, a city congregation, a house group.
The Bible never uses the word church for any kind of denomination or movement. So, why are there so many…?
There is another possible reason for this. Maybe there are denominations in the Bible after all - at least in embryo. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe” (1 Cor 3: 1-3). Many churches have come into being throughout the centuries, when men have gathered around a certain teacher they particularly liked, and in this way split off from other Christians. Paul calls this immature behaviour. It is noteworthy, that Paul does not concede that any one of the groups in Corinth is right, but assures them all that, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12: 27).
When Paul writes to the Galatians, he lists dissensions and factions along with the rest of the acts of the sinful human nature. People love to fall out over trivial matters, and unfortunately, Christians are not always mature enough not to do this. I heard of a church once, which had a split over the colour of a new song book. So the situation appears to be rather complicated. For these, as well as other reasons, there are very many Christian denominations.
So am I going to come to the point and say which is the one true church? No, I’m not! In my opinion, there isn’t one. There is, however, the one true Saviour!
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father, except through me” (John’s Gospel 14: 6). The universal church mentioned above is made up of all those who, regardless of membership of human organisations, have taken advantage of this ‘way,’ and become personally reconciled to God. If someone experiences this meeting, it is not essential for him to find the best denomination at all costs, and if he does not experience it, then which church he belongs to is totally irrelevant.
And another thing - Christians are the most normal people you can meet. There’s an interesting thought! They eat, go to work, and sleep. They don’t wear peculiar clothes, they don’t eat special food, they don’t hold secret rites. They love their families and friends. They don’t hurt each other, but if someone gets into trouble they help him – this is characteristic of the true believer, as Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
What is a True Christian like?
When we think of a Christian, what sort of picture springs to mind? A young girl with a glazed expression and a grin, who answers every question with hallelujah? A sour-faced old man, who looks down on everyone, as there is no-one who keeps the rules as well as he does? Or a fellow in a black dress, who is such a great guy, because he likes a smoke and comes to the pub with us? Fanatical? Pathetic? Hypocritical? Boring? On the way to heaven, but his earthly life is hell?
The Bible tells us that the disciples were first known as Christians in Antioch (Acts 11: 26). In Antioch, the first church was founded which was made up not only of Jews, but also Greeks who had been saved from a pagan background, and the word Christian was used to refer to them as disciples, followers of Christ. The Bible warns us, however, that not everyone who claims to be a disciple is one in reality, but there will also be false prophets (Matthew 7: 15-23), false teachers (2 Peter 2) and even false Christs (Matthew 24: 2). So not everyone is a true Christian just because they happen to say they are. The true Christian is not a member of a particular church either, as salvation is not through a denomination. So how can we know?
This question may have arisen in the first century too, as the apostle John gives us the answer in his first epistle, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are…” (1 John 3: 10). John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13: 22-24), and when he was old, he lived in the city of Ephesus, where he was active as an elder in the church. Throughout his whole life, he must have pondered on those things which Jesus taught him and the other disciples, and in this way come to an understanding of deep theological truth, as we can see in the Gospel he wrote. Even so, in order to combat the false teachers, in his first epistle he gives three very simple criteria, or characteristics, by which true disciples can be recognised. These three points come up over and over again in this letter, in which John refutes the teachings of the so-called Gnostics. These sects, which combined Christian ideas with Greek philosophy, flourished in the second century, later lost their influence, and by now have ceased to exist, but John’s three criteria are still important for us to consider:
1. “No-one who is born of God sins, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot sin because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3: 9). Well, that’s a bit steep, isn’t it? After all, no-one is perfect! So, what can this verse mean?
a) It does not mean that someone has never done anything wrong is his whole life. John certainly does not contradict himself, but in this same letter, he writes, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make (God) out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” (1: 10). The Christian life can only really begin when we realise that we have sinned, and we have need of forgiveness. If someone cannot humble himself, and admit he has done wrong, he cannot be a Christian.
b) It does not mean that we never make any mistakes and never fall. If this does happen, John’s epistle also indicates the way of restoration, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1. 8-9).
c) When John writes that the believer does not sin, he uses the Greek present continuous tense. This means that he does not remain in sin, does not commit the same bad deed over and over again, but his life gradually changes and becomes clean. On the other hand, if someone claims to be a Christian, but over the years nothing ever changes in his life, and he is not even concerned about the matter, then John says that he has not met God. (3: 6).
d) Another picture of the same thing is fruit production. Jesus himself says that a true prophet will be known by his good fruit (Matthew 7: 15-20). A crop does not grow on a fruit tree overnight, but if it is indeed a fruit tree, then the fruit will appear sooner or later. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul compares the works of the sinful nature with the fruit of the Holy Spirit. From this we can see the sort of behaviour which disappears from the life of a true Christian, and the good things that it is replaced with, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5: 19-23). This leads on to the next point:
2. “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers: Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (3: 14). “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (4: 7-8). This criterion is very significant, because at the Last Supper, Jesus said that this is the way the world will know who are his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35). So who is the Christian’s brother? Such a one who is also born of God, as this means that they have the same father. Regardless of social status, nationality, or denominational affiliation. The whole of the New Testament exhorts us to love, “Love must be sincere.” (Romans 12: 9), “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law… Love does no harm to its neighbour.” (Romans 13: 8, 10), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5: 6). The result of this will be that relationships between people are restored, they become reconciled with one another, and forgive each other. They are not pleased to see one another fall, but help to lift one another up, as they recognise they all need each other. The verse quoted last above leads on to the third point:
3. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…” (5: 1), “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5: 11-12). If someone has not met the Son of God, he is not a Christian. A Christian believes that Jesus has always existed, he was born into this world, lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended to heaven, and is now interceding for us at the right hand of God. John particularly stresses that God’s Son came in the flesh.
Summarising the three points then, a Christian: believes in Jesus Christ; loves his fellow-believers; and gradually gets rid of sinful behaviour.
These criteria were important at the end of the first century, as the Gnostics denied all three. For them, salvation was by the possession of secret knowledge, and not by faith. They taught that “Jesus” was merely a man, on whom the “Christ spirit” descended at his baptism – therefore Christ had not come in the flesh. And as they knew the secrets, their behaviour was not important – love, or repentance of a sinful lifestyle, were totally irrelevant.
These groups no longer exist, but there are sects is the modern world too, and they often teach false doctrines about Jesus. As to the characteristics of cults, that is another story, which is dealt with in the next section.
It’s easy to label some religious group or trend as a cult if we are not familiar with it. Maybe this is the most acceptable solution – if it’s a sect we don’t have to bother with it. Some believe that anything that is not a traditional church must be a sect. Others think that everyone is cultish, who does not belong to their particular group. It is true, that alongside the Christian churches and denominations, there are also cults, but how are we supposed to know which is what?
The words cult and sect can be defined in several ways. A cult was originally a ceremonial religious system, so as a technical term it is even used to refer to the Old Testament Israelite religion. The word sect is of Latin origin, and the root meaning is “cut.” In a similar way to the Greek word “heresy,” it was used to refer to a group which separated itself off from the rest. We read in the Bible that the Jews considered the Christians to be a sect. While Paul was living in Rome, the Jews came to him and said, “We want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.” (Acts 28: 22).
As we know, over the centuries very many Christian groups have been established. Some of these are good, some bad, and some worse. In this present article, I will use the word “cult” to designate a religious system which for some reason has deviated from the truth, is proceeding in a wrong direction, and therefore causes more harm than good to its members. In spite of the fact that there are very many of these, which can be whole denominations, movements within churches, or individual congregations, and in addition teach very different doctrines, there are common features which characterise these bad systems.
First of all, I will summarise once again the criteria which according to the apostle John are characteristic of healthy Christian groups: they believe in Jesus Christ; they love their brothers, and they gradually get rid of sinful behaviour.
In his book, “When a church becomes a cult,” Anglican minister Stephen Wookey lists several points which are typical of deviant religious movements. This list is worthy of attention, as it helps us to spot the signs:
1. People are dominated, intimidated and manipulated by strong leaders, so that they will conform to their ideas. There are many rules, not necessarily from the Bible, which means everyone has to behave, think, speak or even dress in the same way. As a result, someone’s personality may begin to change, as he starts to do things which are not normal for him, in order to conform to expectations. In the long term, this can lead to someone developing serious psychological problems.
In contrast to the above:
a) Jesus said that people will obey him because they love him (John 14: 15), not that they will adhere to meaningless rules as a result of external pressure.
b) God loves variety, as indicated by the multiplicity of creation and all the different human cultures and personalities. He does not want every person to be identical, but wants people to love and respect each other in spite of the differences.
c) Jesus said to the future apostles of the church, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22: 25-26).
2. Every sect claims to be the one true, remnant or restored church, the only group where salvation can be obtained, or if not the only one, at least the best there is. The natural conclusion to be drawn from this, is that all other denominations are bad or false. In most cases, they rely on the doctrine of a single teacher, who may be the living leader, or the movement’s founder, apostle, prophet, in certain cases even the group’s Messiah, who receives or has received special revelation from God. The words of this teacher become truth for the group, even if he adds to or contradicts the Bible. As a consequence, the members often become arrogant and look down on everyone else, as only they “have the truth.” On the other hand, if anyone dares to question the teachings of the movement, they are considered to be rebelling against God, and if someone leaves the church, in extreme cases they will be “damned,” or at any rate, what they are doing is “against the will of God.”
With regard to this:
a) There are around two thousand elite “Christian” groups of this type in the world, so logic dictates that they cannot all be the “one true church.” It is highly probable that none of them is, as God does not give his glory exclusively to one man or movement.
b) If a group withdraws and separates itself off from other Christians in this way:
i) They do not allow others to examine and correct their wrong teachings in the light of the wisdom given them;
ii) They automatically exclude themselves from the universal church, which is made up of all born-again believers.
3. “The end justifies the means” for the group. The end is that as many people as possible should join them. The argument probably works like this: as “we have the truth,” it does not matter even if we use rather dishonest means to spread it. On this basis, several groups do not admit who they are at once, when they start to propagate their teachings. Some cults operate under various different names, so that people will not realise who they are. Certain sects have completely crazy teachings, which someone would find shocking if he heard them at the beginning. They keep quiet about these at first, and prefer to begin with some innocuous point, like what does the Bible say about the family, or the end of the age, or the world political situation. Such things as, “you can progress into being the god of your own world” are kept till the end.
The Bible does not endorse such behaviour:
a) “The way of the guilty is devious, but the conduct of the innocent is upright.” (Proverbs 21: 8).
b) “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1: 6-7).
4. As a consequence of the first two points mentioned above, the leader or leaders are untouchable, and cannot be called to account. As they claim that they answer only to God, they are led by the Holy Spirit, it is clear their decisions cannot be questioned. If someone’s leadership position becomes established in this way, care must be taken in three areas, where things can easily go wrong:
i) Sex – the leader can fall into sexual sin, for which he often gives a “spiritual” justification.
ii) Money – the leader may live in comfort and luxury, but his followers must always give more “for the work of God.”
iii) Power – the leader dominates and controls the whole movement.
This behaviour is more reminiscent of the works of the flesh than the fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5: 19-22).
5. Many cults use brain-washing techniques to convince potential members that they are right. Among others, these include isolating people from friends and family. A great deal of information is communicated all at once, which does not allow people to process it or check up on it. They often use “love bombing” – everyone longs to be loved and accepted and this is missing from many people’s lives. In this case, however, the love turns out to be conditional, as if someone decides not the join the group, it is replaced by anger and rejection.
This method is not in line with God’s character. God gave man free will, and although he offers salvation, he does not force this on anyone. When the rich young ruler turned away from Jesus he was sad, and still loved him, but did not run after him to bring him back at any price. (Mark 10: 17-22).
6. Cults frequently lay great emphasis on teachings about the last days and the end of the world. They have often predicted the return of Christ precisely and in great detail. It is certainly surprising, that when this does not occur, the group does not cease to exist, but they always manage to find some excuse or explanation for the false prophecy. The notion that Armaggedon is just around the corner keeps people in a heightened psychological state. They believe that everyone who does not belong to the group is under the influence of Satan, and nothing he says can be accepted. Of course, it is very difficult to help anyone who is in such a condition. This concept may certainly result in paranoia, and in extreme cases such as Jonestown or Waco, in mass suicide.
A few comments on this:
a) The Bible clearly teaches in very many passages that Jesus Christ will return to the earth, “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13: 26).
b) However, no-one knows the exact time, “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13: 32). “Now brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thess 5: 1-2).
c) With regard to details of the events of the last days, there are in existence at least fifteen theories, all of which theologians try to support from the Bible. If a certain Christian group claims that in order to be saved, someone must not only believe in Jesus, but also accept a complicated eschatalogical theory, then in my view, they have exceeded their mandate.
7. Finally, with regard to theology, the cults teach very many different things, but a few principles may be noted.
i) The cults often use the Bible. They admit that it is the infallible revelation of God, and claim that all their teachings come from Scripture. In practice, however, they still distort the truth, because:
ii) The doctrine of their teacher/leader overshadows that of the Bible, because he has received “special revelation” from the Lord. The teachings of the leader, already accepted as “truth,” are then read back into the Bible in this way:
iii) They use misquoted, badly translated verses taken out of context. They often deny clear verses on the basis of texts which are difficult to understand. Using this method, you can prove anything from the Bible, even that God does not exist (Psalm 53: 1). We will come back to the principles of Bible interpretation later.
iv) In a cult, salvation does not only depend on believing in Jesus, but also on adherence to the teachings and practice of the group. Jesus said that those who repent must obey his commandments (Matthew 28: 19-20). The cults replace Jesus’ commandments with their own lists of rules.
v) Many cults have an incorrect view of God. Evangelical Christians, along with the traditional churches, accept the doctrine of the Trinity. According to this teaching, which is based on the Bible, there is one eternal God who exists in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is particularly important for us, as he is our Redeemer. The cults lay great emphasis on many trivial matters, but it is essential to consider their view of Jesus, as this is often false. For example, there are certain “one true churches” which deny the Trinity in the following ways:
a) The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three separate gods, who are “one” in purpose and will.
b) Jesus was the first creation of the God the Father, and the Holy Spirit is God’s impersonal force.
c) There is only one God, who appears in three forms in the Bible – as the Creator in the Old Testament; he was incarnated and as Jesus walked on the earth; he is now operative in the church in the form of the Holy Spirit.
Just a couple of points to finish:
A. If a fellowship isolates itself from other Christians, it falls out of circulation, and cannot become involved with the many good things God is doing in the world. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the disciples into all truth (John 16: 13). This refers to the universal church, not to some exclusive little society which refuses to talk to the rest!
B. Party spirit and pride are sins, and lead to deception, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16: 18).
C. We must remember that love was Jesus greatest commandment (John 13: 34). Love and humility are preconditions for someone to know the Lord’s will, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best…” (Phil 1: 9); “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement…” (Romans 12: 1-3).
Avoid Scripture Twisting:
The Bible is God’s message to lost humanity. It is therefore very important that we read it and study it. As it was originally written to those living in a different culture in another age, however, and furthermore deals with spiritual truths, it contains things which are difficult to understand. The Bible is inspired by God and reliable. It contains history, law, prophecy, wisdom literature, poetry and letters, on the basis of which we can see how God has dealt with his people. This means that the Bible is not a dogmatics text book, but since the Reformation, Protestant churches have taught systematic theology merely on the basis of what the Bible has to say (sola Scriptura).
Throughout the centuries, various kinds of Scripture interpretations, or hermeneutical systems have been used. For instance, Origen, who was active in Alexandria in the late second century, used the allegorical method of interpretation, by which he sought hidden, symbolic meanings in the whole Bible, and in the end, reached conclusions which were in conflict with the clear teaching of the text.
Nowadays, the literal, normal, or grammatical-historical interpretation method is used by most. The idea behind this, is that the purpose of language is communication. God gave men his word in order to communicate with them, not to lead them astray. The Bible is God’s message, not a puzzle, which must be solved. Within this hermeneutical system, eight principles may be applied in order to facilitate understanding and avoid twisting.
1. When studying a section in the Bible, start with the question, “What does this passage mean?” If it can be understood according to the normal rules of grammar, do not feel that at all costs you must look for some deeper, figurative or symbolic meaning. There is also poetic and symbolic language to be found in the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 5, book of Revelation), but it must only be explained in this way, if it cannot be interpreted literally. It is typical of cults to construct certain teachings merely on the interpretation of symbols, relying particularly on the book of Revelation. Always be wary of a teaching which cannot be supported by any clear passages.
2. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (a few sections in Aramaic) and the New Testament in Greek. It can only be regarded as inspired by God in these languages – there is no infallible Bible translation, no matter how beautiful, traditional or well-known it may be. The original text must always be taken into account. It is not to be expected that everyone should learn the ancient languages, but understanding is facilitated by at least comparing several translations. For instance, in Genesis 1: 28, according to the King James translation, Adam and Eve are told by God to “multiply and replenish the earth.” This has been used to support the theory that there was a pre-Adamite civilisation which was destroyed in the “gap” between Genesis 1: 1 and 1: 2, as Adam and Eve had to refill an earth which had been emptied. In another version, however, this verse is translated as follows, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.” (NIV). This corresponds to the Hebrew, and is simply a command from God for man to occupy the newly-created earth.
3. Remember the context. Verses must be read in the context of the whole passage, the chapter, and the book. Finally, pay attention to the wider context of the Old or New Testament. Interesting things may be concluded if the context is ignored. For instance, the first verse of Psalm 53 says, “There is no God.” If the verse is examined a little more closely, however, it turns out that this is the opinion of a fool according to king David, but it is not his own view. Furthermore, the whole message of the Bible naturally assumes God’s existence, and it is also written, that someone can only please God if they believe in Him (Hebrews 11: 6).
4. Recognise that the Bible contains progressive revelation. This means that the New Testament generally interprets the Old, and the New Testament letters further explain the Gospels.
The New Testament must interpret the Old, as the former was initial, fragmentary revelation, just the shadow of the reality to come. The gospel of Christ is the full revelation, which was prophesied and for which they were waiting (e.g. Heb 10: 1; Col 2: 16-17). For this reason, a dogmatic structure must not be constructed merely from Old Testament verses, and then used to deny or weaken New Testament truths. Approach the Old Testament from the New – do not force the New into the “wineskin” of the Old.
It can be claimed that the letters explain the Gospels, because Jesus did not tell his disciples everything during his earthly ministry, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16: 12-13). One aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit, after he came on the day of Pentecost, was to inspire the New Testament epistles, in which the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ are systematically explained. Beware of any teaching which is considered essential, but which can only be supported from the Old Testament, and there is no trace of it in the New Testament letters.
5. Always interpret a particular passage of Scripture in the light of the systematic teaching on the subject. Individual teachings are dealt with in many different verses in the Bible, and so all verses which treat the subject must be considered, not just one, otherwise strange conclusions may be drawn. For example, in Acts 1: 8 it is written, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” A certain, well-known “one true church” uses this verse to prove that the Holy Spirit is not a person, but a power sent from God, similar to electricity. The Bible teaches on this subject in very many places, however, and from other passages we learn that the Holy Spirit, for instance: leads (John 16: 13), speaks (Acts 13: 2), makes decisions (1 Cor 12: 11), appoints church elders (Acts 20: 28), can be grieved (Eph 4: 30) and can be lied to (Acts 5: 3). These are only true of a person.
6. Interpret difficult verses on the basis of clear passages. This is the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture (Scriptura ex Scriptura explicanda est). A favourite trick of cults is to select a difficult passage and then construct their unique teachings on it. Ezekiel 37: 15-17 says, “The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, “Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.” Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, “Ephraim’s stick belonging to Joseph and all the house of Israel associated with him.” Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.’” According to another “restored” church, Judah’s stick symbolises the Bible, whereas Joseph’s stick represents the lost history of the tribes who travelled to America. As this came to light in the 19th century, and it was added to the Bible, this prophecy has been fulfilled, because the two sticks have become one! Reading a little further, however (Ez 37: 18-22), it is clear that the people of Israel is referred to here, and not books – the passage explains itself. The same thought is also found in other verses, that after captivity, God will lead his people back to their own land (e.g. Isaiah 45, Jer 25).
7. Be careful of novel interpretations. Check what several conservative commentaries have to say about the passage. There is little new under the sun. Many heresies of the cults have been thoroughly refuted. Although there are many Christian denominations, it is interesting that there is solid agreement on the fundamental doctrines. Always consider what the biblical author intended to communicate. Cult leaders are experts in removing verses from their context and forcing their own interpretations on them.
8. Last but not least, approach the Scriptures in prayer. The chief author of the Bible was the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3: 16-17; 2 Peter 1: 21), and he helps born-again believers to understand God’s message (John 16: 13). Do not develop an individual view of doctrine, but allow the Holy Spirit to teach you, and the Scripture to interpret itself.
Avoid Scripture twisting: eight basic rules of Bible interpretation, Watchman Fellowship Inc.
Brinsmead, R. D., Sabbatarianism Re-examined, Verdict Publishing, June 1981.
Ryrie, C. C., Teológiai alapismeretek, Egyetemi Nyomda, Budapest, 1996.
Stott, J. R. W., The Letters of John, IVP, 1989.
Wookey, S., When a Church Becomes a Cult, Hodder and Stoughton, 1996.