How to Spot Counterfeit Christianity

I Corinthians 12:10

May 27, 1990 | Ray Pritchard

I’d like to begin by quoting from an article published in 1988 in Celebrity magazine. The article is entitled, “The Cult Rage Possesses the Stars,” and is subtitled “Shirley Maclaine, Linda Evans and Sharon Gless believe in spirits beyond the grave—Do you?” In the article we are told many interesting facts about our favorite stars. For instance, “Actress Linda Evans chats regularly with a 2,000-year-old spirit called Mafu who delivers his pearls of wisdom through the lips of a Los Angeles housewife.” And at the Academy Awards in 1987, Sharon Gless, co-star of Cagney and Lacey, thanked her spirit guide Lazarus for the help he had given her. I’m sure you’ve heard of L. Ron Hubbard and something called Scientology. It claims support from many stars including Priscilla Presley, Kirstie Alley, John Travolta and Sonny Bono. The article mentions more people than I can name, but here are a few who are influenced by strange and off-beat religions: Dennis Weaver, Barbara Streisand, John Denver, Richard Gere, Carly Simon, Phylicia Rashad (from The Cosby Show) and Shelley Winters.

The article poses this question: “Why are these people who seem to have more than their fair share of talent, success and personal fulfillment turning to gurus, lay cults and 2,000-year-old spirits?” The more you think about it, only one answer seems plausible: These rich and famous people have discovered that talent, success and personal fulfillment are not enough. It is reminiscent of the ancient words of Ecclesiastes that God has put eternity in the heart of every man. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) The French philosopher Pascal said that there is a God-shaped vacuum inside every man. Because nature abhors a vacuum, if men do not fill the void with God, they will fill it with something else.

Our subject this morning is that “something else” that men and women turn to when they turn away from the God of the Bible. In particular, we are concerned with the various spiritual counterfeits which clutter up today’s religious marketplace. Already we have used the word “cult”—a word which may possibly offend some people. Here is a simple working definition: “A cult is any group, movement or teaching which deviates from biblical, orthodox, historical Christianity.”

Five Kinds Of Cults

In his excellent book The Lure of the Cults (pp. 21-24), sociologist Ronald Enroth groups the cults into five broad categories: 1. Eastern Mystical Groups. These are groups based on Hindu or Buddhist teachings. The Hare Krishnas would fall in this category. 2. Aberrational Christian Groups. I would put the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists in this category. 3. Self-Improvement Groups. Here Enroth lists est, Synanon, Scientology and Transcendental Meditation. 4. Syncretistic Groups. The prime example is Rev. Moon and the Unification Church. 5. Occult or Psychic Groups. Most of the New Age groups fit in this category, including Shirley Maclaine and her followers.

It is possible that someone may read this and have two negative reactions. First, some may think it unnecessary to even raise the subject. If that is your reaction, let me ask you to let your mind drift back 12 years to November, 1978. Do you remember a news flash from a strange country in South America called Guyana? In one of the most bizarre stories of the twentieth century, 912 people died in a grisly murder-suicide. They were followers of Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple. How did it happen? Writing two months after the tragedy in the New York Times Book Review, Dr. James S. Gordon said, “The final horror of Jonestown is that one man counterfeiting Christianity … could attract, hold and annihilate so many who wanted so much and meant so well.” (The Lure of the Cults, p. 15) Mel White, an evangelical author, film-maker and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, went to San Francisco to interview the families of those who died and the ex-members who left the cult before it moved to Guyana. This is what he discovered: “They came to Jones from our churches. He provided a warm and caring community to those in need who felt neglected by the churches of their past.” (Deceived, p. 27) It has been well said that cults are “the unpaid bills of the church.” People turn to the cults only after the traditional churches have failed them. Thus, there is every reason to raise this subject.

Second, some may think it unkind and even cruel to speak of counterfeit Christianity. Not long ago I visited a home and noticed a saying on the wall. It read, “Just as there are many paths to the top of a mountain, so there are many roads to God.” I’m sure that represents the viewpoint of many people. Unfortun-ately, it does not represent the viewpoint of Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) When Peter was preaching the gospel before the Sanhedrin, he said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Those are very exclusive statements. No other way, no other truth, no other life, no other name. If a man will not come to God by way of Jesus Christ, he will not come to God at all. And if he chooses some other name—be it the name of Confu-cius or Buddha or Mohammed or the name of some modern swami from India, he will never make it. On this point, we must stand with our Lord and say that there is a broad road which leads to Hell and a narrow road which leads to Heaven. And that broad road is filled with people who have bought into the false religions and isms of our day. If that is true, then it would be unkind and cruel not to speak the truth and call men and women to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.

Ancient Heresies, Modern Counterfeits

Some may wonder what all this has to do with the topic of spiritual gifts. Actually, it has everything to do with it, because ours is not the first generation to be faced with counterfeit Christianity. In fact, a glance at church history reveals that the early church faced a long series of spiritual counterfeits. Pick up a history book and you find names like the Docetics, the Gnostics, the Cerinthians, the Arians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcion-ites, the Nestorians, the Ebionites and the Sabellians. Those are just dusty names to us, but to the early Christians they were real flesh-and-blood heretics who tried to peddle a distorted version of Christianity.

That’s why there were so many church councils in the first few centuries. The church had to hammer out its faith on the anvil of doctrinal controversy. And that’s why you find so many warnings in the New Testament concerning false teachers in the church. Virtually every New Testament book contains one. Some of the major references are: Matthew 24:4-5, 24; Acts 20:29-30; Romans 16:17-19; I Corinthians 12:1-3; II Corinthians 11:13-15; Galatians 1:6-9; Philippians 3:1-2; Colossians 2:4, 8, 18, 20-23; II Thessalonians 2:1-3; I Timothy 1:3-7; 4:1-6; II Timothy 3:1-8; 4:3-4; II Peter 2:1-3; I John 2:18-19; II John 7-11; Jude 3-4, Revelation 2:6, 14-15, 20-24. Clearly, the early church took very seriously the threat posed by those who would add to or subtract from the original faith handed down from the apostles.

Spiritual Smoke Detectors

So it’s not surprising that there is a spiritual gift to help deal with the threat of counterfeit Christianity. That gift is mentioned in I Corinthians 12:10 as “the ability to distinguish between spirits.” In those days many people claiming to be prophets would speak in a church meeting with a message purporting to be from God. The person with the gift of discernment was able to distinguish between true and false prophets and between true and false teaching.

Obviously the gift of discernment is greatly needed today. If anything, we have more spiritual counterfeits nowadays. In the Spiritual Gifts Inventory, we define the gift this way: The special ability God gives to certain members of the body of Christ which enables them to distinguish between truth and error, good and evil, wisdom and foolishness on the basis of the Word of God. The crucial phrase is the last one—”on the basis of the Word of God.” This is not a gift of clairvoyance or of spiritual mind reading. It is the unique ability to tell truth from error by judging it according to the standard of the Word of God.

The person with this gift has three primary characteristics: 1. He (or she) has a deep interest in the teachings of the Bible. While this person may not be a Bible scholar, he will enjoy studying the Bible and getting a good handle on its major truths. 2. He (or she) has the intuitive ability to sense when a statement or teaching is out of harmony with biblical truth. This person is a good sermon-listener. He listens carefully, even intently, mentally comparing what the speaker says with what the Bible teaches. He can read a book and pick up an unbiblical notion the rest of us just skim over. 3. He (or she) has the courage to speak up when error is being promoted.

In short, the people with this gift are like spiritual smoke detectors in the church. They can sniff out the first whiffs of false doctrine while the rest of us are in the den eating popcorn and watching TV.

In his commentary on I John, John Stott says:

There is an urgent need for discernment among Christians. We are often too gullible, and exhibit a naive readiness to credit messages and teachings which purport to come from the spirit world. There is such a thing, however, as a misguided charity and tolerance towards false doctrine. (The Johannine Epistles, p. 153.)

When Ronald Enroth came to the end of the last chapter in The Lure of the Cults, he began the final paragraph with this sentence: “It must be reiterated that today as never before the Christian should pray for discernment.” (p. 122) Because that is true, we need gifted men and women with discernment to keep us on the right track.

With all of that as background, I would like to ask and answer three vitally important questions.

I. What Does The Bible Teach About Counterfeit Christianity?

As I have already mentioned, there are many, many passages warning us about those who would infiltrate the church and lead it astray. One of the clearest is II Peter 2:1-3. In many ways it summarizes the whole New Testament teaching on this subject.

The first thing Peter tells us about is the source of the false teachers. “But there were also false prophets among the people (He’s referring to the Old Testament nation of Israel.), just as there will be false teachers among you.” (2:1) The last two words are very important. Where will we find false teachers? “Among you.” That is, from within the ranks of the professing church. One has only to think of Joseph Smith and Charles Taze Russell and Mary Baker Eddy to see how true that statement is. It should not surprise us. Where else would Satan put his workers if not among the Lord’s people? Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, said, “Whenever God erects a house of prayer, the Devil builds a chapel there.”

Second, Peter says something about the strategy the false teachers use. “They will be secretly introducing destructive heresies.” (2:1) They are the wolves in sheep’s clothing Jesus talked about. By definition, you can’t spot them very well. Like spies working behind enemy lines, they slip in unawares, they learn our language, they win our confidence, and then they do their dirty work.

Third, there is one preeminent sign by which they may be seen. “Even denying the Lord who bought them.” (2:1) Ultimately the issue is Jesus Christ. It always comes down to him. The false teachers deny Jesus Christ—both in the sense of denying the truth about him and also in the sense of denying his right to rule over them.

Fourth, Peter tells us about their unsettling success. “Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.” (2:2) We wish this weren’t true, but it is. We like to think that once people have been exposed to the truth they will never be attracted to error. As a matter of fact, the cults are largely populated by people from churches just like ours. Read Shirley Maclaine’s book Out on a Limb. It’s scary because it sounds like a Campus Crusade testimony for reincarnation. She asked all the right questions and came up with all the wrong answers. We’re just kidding ourselves if we think it can’t happen to our children or our friends.

Fifth, Peter explains the scam the false teachers run. “In their greed these false teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up.” (2:3) Did you get that? “Stories they have made up.” So why do people pay hundreds of dollars to receive messages from a channel named “Ramtha?” And why do people think they can learn to levitate by practicing Transcendental Meditation? And why do people buy into a fantasy tale like the Book of Mormon? They are all caught by the made-up stories of the false teachers.

Sixth, there is a final word about the sentence God has passed on every false teacher. “Their condemna-tion has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.” (2:3) This is an answer to those who wonder why God lets the false teachers prosper. The answer is, they only prosper for a little while. Like the sword of Damocles, their condemnation hangs by a slender thread. Before all is said and done, the spiritual counterfeiters will wake up in Hell.

II. What Are The Marks Of Counterfeit Christianity?

Let me answer that question first generally, then specifically. In his book, The New Cults (pp. 17-21), Dr. Walter Martin lists ten characteristics by which you can spot a spiritual counterfeit. In repeating this list, I should say that not every group or individual will fit all ten. But all false teachers will fit on this list somewhere.

1. There is usually a strong, charismatic leader.

2. Their source of authority is not the Bible alone, but is something added to, or subtracted from, the Bible.

3. Cult members actively share their “faith.” They may make TV specials like Shirley Maclaine or they may send out missionaries like the Moonies or the Mormons or they may simply talk to everyone they meet about the “truth” they have discovered.

4. They claim to receive messages or special revelation—either directly from God or from the spirit world.

5. They have a rigid standard for membership. It is very difficult to leave many cults.

6. They claim a special truth not known to others. If they are related to Christianity, they may see their mission as “restoring the true faith.” If not, they claim to have tapped into the energy of the universe.

7. Cults members often leave one group and join another because the factors that attract them to one group will soon attract them to another one.

8. Their leaders are usually self-appointed laymen, not trained clergymen. Most of the “channels” are ordinary people who claim to have connections with the spirit world.

9. The doctrine of a cult group is usually in a state of flux and change. New revelations and visions cancel or modify old teaching.

10. Cults use a special vocabulary to distinguish their teaching from other groups. They also use orthodox terminology like “Jesus Christ” and “salvation” while changing the meaning in order to trap the unwary.

The Acid Test

Those ten characteristics are helpful, but they mostly touch outward areas. What is the central mark of counter-feit Christianity, the touchstone, the acid test? After you have looked at things from the outside, there is one thing you should look for on the inside—What does this group (or this person) believe about Jesus Christ? That is the final question. The heart of Christianity is a certain belief about Jesus Christ. On that point there can be no compromise. If a person is wrong about Jesus Christ, it matters not whether he is right in a dozen other places. If he’s wrong on the central point, he’s wrong all over.

That’s the basic point of I John 4:1-3, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (4:1) That verse makes two important points. 1. The command to test the spirits is given to every believer. Whether you have the gift of discernment or not, you are still commanded to exercise discernment in evaluating those who claim to possess spiritual insight. 2. There are many false prophets in the world. It’s almost as if they are sent out as missionaries from Hell. That means you should never be surprised when you turn on Donahue and hear somebody teaching that all religions are basically the same. Or when you happen to watch the Saturday morning cartoons and find out that shows like He-Man and Masters of the Universe are pushing New Age and occult ideas to our children. Don’t think that the only false prophets are the ones who come and knock on your door trying to sell you The Watchtower. Satan is much too smart for that.

The crucial test is found in verse 2. “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” That’s the positive test. Verse 3 gives the other side: “But every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.”

The Key Issue Of This Decade

Notice the particular point—”Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” It has to do with the Incarnation. Apparently there were some who were denying the true humanity of Jesus. They said, yes, he’s from God, but he wasn’t really a man. He was some kind of spirit being, but not a man like us. That’s a heresy. It’s outside the realm of orthodox faith. If you believe that, you’re not a Christian, no matter whether you call yourself one or not.

In our day the issue still revolves around Jesus and who he is. An editorial in the May 14, 1990, issue of Christianity Today says it may well be “the key theological issue of the new decade.” (p.14) There are many points about which we may disagree and still have fellowship together. But there is one point which must never be compromised: The eternal deity and true humanity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If a man does not believe that, or if he dilutes that or changes that in some fashion, he is a false teacher.

Some Things You Cannot Say

Here are some things you cannot say and still be a Christian:

“Jesus Christ is a son of God.”

“Jesus Christ is just a man.”

“Jesus Christ is the highest form of exalted humanity.”

“Jesus Christ was only a Palestinian rabbi.”

“Jesus Christ was the imaginary product of the early church.”

“Jesus Christ was the second-greatest prophet of God.”

“Jesus Christ was Lucifer’s brother.”

“Jesus Christ never intended to be called “Savior” or “Lord.”

“Jesus became the Christ.”

“Jesus Christ may be the Messiah.”

“Jesus Christ was a reincarnated spirit being.”

“Jesus Christ was only a good man—nothing more.”

“Jesus Christ was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier.”

If those things represent your final judgment on Jesus, then you aren’t a Christian at all. My point is, whenever you hear someone saying those things as a final judgment on Jesus, you are to recognize it as false teaching and you are to reject it totally. That’s what it means to “test the spirits.”

There is such a thing as the spirit of antichrist and we see it all around us. John’s point is that behind the false message is a false prophet and behind the false prophet is an evil spirit and behind the evil spirit is Satan himself. That’s where the battle finally lies. In the final analysis, there is no such thing as casual talk about spiritual truth. Every time a man opens his mouth and claims to share spiritual truth, he is either speaking for God or for Satan. There is no middle ground. He is either on one side or the other.

It is our responsibility to recognize the difference. That is why discernment is so crucial. Eternal issues are at stake.

III. What Can We Do To Protect Ourselves And Our Families?

Unless we see the danger, we will do nothing. If we say, “I’m strong, my family is strong, those people will never affect me,” we are setting ourselves up for a fall. In light of the many, many warnings in the New Testament, we ought to take this matter very seriously.

1. Make Sure Of Your Relationship To Jesus Christ.

It all begins here. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the king-dom of heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) We’ve already seen that it is very possible to talk about Jesus and not be a Christian. It’s also possible to be a church member and not be saved. It is very possible to be a church member and know all the right answers and still be lost because you have never made the decision to trust Jesus Christ—and him alone—for your salvation.

A great many of the church members who are attracted to the cults are attracted because of the “something else” we talked about in the beginning. If fame and talent and personal fulfillment won’t ultimately satisfy, then neither will religion or church membership. Only a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ will satisfy that God-shaped vacuum within.

2. Ground Yourself And Your Family In The Word Of God.

The cults prey on church members who don’t know what they really believe. That’s why when the cults use terms like “salvation” and “born again,” the untaught Christian gets confused and thinks they mean the same thing we do, when they really don’t.

And let’s face the fact that our children are being subtly influenced by New Age mystical teaching. It’s going to get worse in the days ahead. New Age teaching is coming into the public schools under the guise of meditation and visualization. If we don’t give our children something to believe, there are people out there who will. I pity those parents who think that sports and hobbies will protect their children as long as a little Sunday religion is thrown in for good measure. That might have worked 20 years ago. It won’t work in 1990. Our kids are in a battle every day. The best thing we can do is to make sure our homes reflect genuine spiritual reality. That means grounding our children daily in the Word of God.

3. Learn To Listen With Discernment.

Don’t be a sucker. Don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t assume the music you hear is okay just because you can’t understand the lyrics. Don’t buy into the lie that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. We need more Berean Christians who will listen carefully and then search the Scriptures to see if what was said lines up with the Bible. And we need more believers who will obey I Thessalonians 5:21-22 which says, “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.”

A while back a friend and I were talking about how so much that is spiritually counterfeit has penetrated the movies, television, modern music and the best-seller list. My friend said, “Pretty soon we won’t be able to do anything.” Thankfully, we’re not there yet. There are a great many good and wholesome and pure things left in the world. But there is a great deal that is evil. And when we are faced with evil—in whatever form—our job is to just say no.

4. Realize That There Is A Great Spiritual Hunger In Our Generation.

That’s why Hinduism is on the rise in America. That’s why Shirley Maclaine draws thousands to her seminars. That’s why the Mormon church is growing so fast. That’s why people who ought to know better are being led astray by the make-believe stories of the false teachers.

If the people of this generation do not find God’s truth, they will believe Satan’s lie. After all, a starving dog will eat whatever you put in front of him. Something has to fill the void within.

This is the point where we have a great opportunity. It’s not enough to simply protect our children. It’s not enough to learn what is true and what is false. We have an obligation that goes beyond these four walls and beyond our own family. God has made us debtors to the whole world. It won’t be enough in the Last Day to say, “But Lord, I took care of my own family. We all made it. See, we’re all here.” The Lord will say back to us, “My child, what did you do for your friends and neighbors? What about that man who came to your door? What about your sister, your daddy, your boss, your pals at work? What about them? Why aren’t they here with you? Did you even try to tell them about me?”

The Darker The Night, The Brighter The Light

In a sense we live in the greatest days of human history. It may well be that we are the final generation before the return of Christ. That would explain why Satan has made such an energetic effort to spread his lies. But where sin abounded, grace super-abounded. The very fact that we live in such spiritual darkness means that when the light shines, it really shines. Let us not be discouraged by the difficulty of the task. Let us instead be encouraged by the opportunities of this hour. The people of this generation are eating out of the Devil’s slop bucket when they could be feasting at the Father’s table. Let us go out from here into the highways and hedges and in Jesus’ name invite them to the banquet that never ends.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?