The idea of battling false religions and cults on paper is easy enough (for some), but what happens when you have family members or friends in a false religion or cult? Virtually no Christian is exempt from this emotionally charged challenge. The challenge is, on the one hand, to avoid alienating family members and friends. On the other hand, the challenge is to avoid relating to them in such a way that they feel justified and comfortable in their false beliefs.
While there is no way this short post can address all of the many difficult questions posed by the situation described above, here are ten thoughts for you to consider while you seek to show the truth and love of Christ to your family members and friends who are caught in false religions and cults.
1. Know that perfect theology is not prerequisite to salvation.
If having perfect theology were necessary for salvation, then no one would be saved, because no one has perfect theology. One must be careful to distinguish between faith in Christ and faith in correct theology while also being careful to recognize the two are closely related. For example, one’s justification by faith in Christ alone is not the same thing as a proper theological understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. (See Genesis 15:6.) Sometimes well meaning theologians will act as though one cannot be justified by faith alone without having read (and understood) Martin Luther, the First and Second Vatican Council, N.T. Wright, and Robert H. Gundry. In doing so, these theologians actually undermine the very doctrine they pretend to defend. They are, however, correct to call attention to the importance of understanding the doctrine of justification by faith. But that is a post for another day.
2. Differentiate between institutions and individuals.
An individual in a false religion or a cult could truly be a Christian. For example, a Christian may be deceived into following the teachings of another world religion or cult for a season, whether through ignorance or willful rebellion. (See Luke 22:54-62.) Or, a person may be converted to Christ while in a world religion or cult, either through ‘accidental’ preaching of the gospel or through hearing the gospel message proclaimed outside of the religion or cult. (See Philippians 1:15-18.) Individuals can be Christians even within a gospel-less institution. However, this is unlikely, and regardless of the situation, the Christian response is always to call those individuals to repent from believing false teachings. If these individuals within false fellowships are indeed Christians, they must and will eventually seek membership in a gospel believing local church.
3. Realize your loved ones are deceived.
Sometimes those in false world religions and cults are viewed like corrupt politicians or dirty used car salesmen. While it is true that they promote lies, in most cases, they also believe them. Remember that you, too, have believed various false things from time to time in your life. (See Galatians 6:3.) Those in false religions and cults are not merely victims of falsehood and lies, but they are still victims. They are deceived. (See John 10:10.)
4. Love them.
Debating unbelievers is biblical, but only if it is done with gentleness and reverence. (See 1 Peter 3:15-16.) Love your neighbors in false religious groups. The goal is to glorify Christ, not yourself.
5. Admit that denying difficult truth is not helpful to you or your loved ones.
The truth is Jesus Christ is the only way to God. (See John 14:6.) The Jesus of the Bible. Not the Jesus of Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, or the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society. Pretending that a loved one diagnosed with cancer does not really have it will be of no help to you in helping your loved one through his or her fight against it. So also, pretending that a loved one believes in Jesus when he or she really does not will be of no help to you in bringing the gospel to your loved one so that he or she does not suffer eternal torment in hell.
6. Note that false religions and cults do not deny their own teachings about your eternal destiny.
Sometimes Christians who want to affirm the salvation of their unsaved loved ones in other religions and cults assume that their loved ones will do the same regarding Christians. That is not the case. A friend of mine answered the door one day to find two Mormons standing at his step. He asked them if Mormons are Christians. They said they were. He asked if Mormons are Christian the way he is Christian. They answered in the affirmative again. Then my friend said, “Well, if Mormons are Christian like I am a Christian, then I must be Mormon like you!” Of course, the two Mormon ‘missionaries’ did not like hearing that at all, because even though they claim to be Christian, they believe very different things than what Christians believe. (Otherwise, they would not be out doing ‘missions’ work to Christians!) Mormons believe Christians are incapable of reaching the highest level of ‘heaven.’ Muslims believe Christians are blasphemers. Roman Catholics anathematized Protestant Christians. You might be tempted to go all Oprah on unbelievers and assume everyone goes to heaven, but they are not going to return the ‘favor’! Which leads to the next point…
7. See that certainty is not arrogance.
People tend to associate any claim to being right or sure about something with arrogance. Of course, these same people are sure that they are right about that association! The point is this: ignorance and humility are not the same thing. A Christian can be very sure about the absolute truth of Christianity and remain humble. On some level, everybody thinks he or she is right. This is no less true for religious positions than it is for anything else. In fact, when two people or two different groups of people contradict one another, one or both of them is wrong. For example, Mormons and Christians cannot both be right, since they hold contradictory beliefs. But it’s guaranteed the Mormon is still going to think he or she is right. The Christian should think of himself or herself as right too, without worrying about it being arrogant or wrong to do so.
8. Preach and teach the truth as though salvation depended on perfect theology.
Salvation does not depend upon a perfect theology. Salvation depends on Christ. But it does not follow that the truth should not be preached and taught and lived out as though salvation does depend on perfect theology. To put it another way, a broken shovel might get the job done, but it’s unloving to loan out a broken shovel when a brand new one in excellent condition is sitting in the shed. Show grace toward those who lack theology, but always lovingly preach the Word of God as faithfully as you possibly can. Anything less is a dishonest disservice to others.
9. Try to identify the appeal of the religion or cult in question.
People do not just join false religions and cults because they are bored. Being part of something ‘bigger,’ feeling loved by a new ‘family,’ rebelling against ‘cultural Christianity,’ or working to silence the conscience through ‘good’ works are all reasons people might venture into a harmful group. Of course, sin is always the underlying cause. Thankfully, Christians possess the true message of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sin. And Christians are called to herald that message.
10. Recognize that change takes time.
Deeply entrenched beliefs are difficult to remove. Even more so when those beliefs are reinforced through rote memorization, social affirmation, fear of excommunication, and the like. In fact, the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary to the task of speaking truth into the lives of unbelievers and expecting change. (See John 1:12-13.) Look at the rigorous legalism and devotion of those belonging to false religions and cults. All of that is aimed at keeping members in. And those members are typically going to know, much better than you, the intricacies of any argument you bring against the beliefs of the false group. Ministering to members of world religions and cults is frustrating, difficult, time-consuming work. If you ever do see any fruit, it will likely be after a long, long time of patiently working with those whom you love, pray for, and consistently bear witness to in word and deed. The situation may look hopeless, but remember that while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you. (See Romans 5:8.)