Discernment is a very important skill. It is definitely worth our time to develop good discernment skills. Discerning true from false religious claims can be difficult at times, and pseudo-Christian religions are legion (often they are called “cults”). In order to tell a true Christian religion from one that merely claims to be Christian, we have to have some standard by which to discern the difference. That standard for Christians is not political or social or merely psychological (though these elements may be very instructive in our analysis); but biblical and theological standards provide our sure basis for analysis and critique.
As I have studied pseudo-Christian religions over the years, (with the help of others) I have developed a simple formula to discern the difference between true Christianity and those who would merely claim to be true Christianity. But before we get to the formula, we first need a working definition of exactly what a pseudo-Christian religion is:
A pseudo-Christian religion is a group of people who follow a leader (group of leaders, organization) who, while claiming to be Christians and teach true Christian doctrine, actually distorts and denies fundamental and distinctive doctrines of the Christian faith.
There are several elements here, so let’s unpack this definition a bit.
A pseudo-Christian religion is comprised of a group of people. How large does the group have to be? Well, just two or more individuals. Why does it have to be a group? Because one person does not make a religion (in any meaningful or significant way); rather, one person who believes or teaches pseudo-Christian doctrine is known as a heretic. If a group of heretics band together, or one heretic gains a following, then that group may be called a pseudo-Christian religion.
They are gathered around a leader (group of leaders, organization). The reason for this is that there is always some kind of structure to every religious movement (even if it is very loosely structured); and there is always someone (or some people) who has designed or established the religious movement. Then, of course, there are the followers, the members, the believers.
This group claims to be Christian and teach true Christian doctrine, but they actually distort and deny fundamental and distinctive doctrines of the Christian faith. As has been noted by many who study this kind of false religion, one of the greatest dangers is that while they use our vocabulary, they do not use our dictionary. In other words, they talk, write and often live like Christians; but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that they do not believe like Christians—that is, they do not really believe what is taught in the Bible. What are fundamental and distinctive doctrines? Well, they are those doctrines which define the essence of Christianity: Those doctrines without which you no longer have Christianity. Some of these foundational and distinctive doctrines would include the doctrine of the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith alone, the deity of Jesus Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and the authority of the Bible. I’ll explain how pseudo-Christian religions distort and deny these distinctive and fundamental doctrines later in our study.
I have derived this definition from several sources, but primarily from the Scriptures. There are a multitude of warnings about false teachers and false teachings throughout the Bible. Here are a few of the key passages:
2 Corinthians 11:3–4, 13–15. “3 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. 4 For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him. . . . 13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”
Galatians 1:6–9. “6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”
1 John 4:1–6. “1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. 4 Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. 5 They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. 6 We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.”
As you can see, there is great danger in following these false teachers. If one is not very careful, she may very well think she is a Christian but may, in fact, be denying Christ (cf. Matthew 7:15–23).