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Legalism, and the Cults

By Gary F. Zeolla

And now I had met the two-long-robed men who seemed so sincere about spending the rest of their lives telling people of their faith in Jesus Christ. We talked for a few minutes about what it meant to be a Christian and live a life pleasing to God. Their answers were quick and sure and, insofar as I was able to determine, as well based on the Scriptures as my own. At least they quoted a lot of Bible verses (Martin, p.14).

And so began Rachel Martin's descent into a group led by "Brother Evangelist" Jim Roberts. After the above conversation, Rachel left with the two men and would spend the next 19 months in the 90 member, communal cult (Martin, pp.63, 161).

Christians in Cults

Why did Rachel so easily join this cult? This question is particularly important for Christians as Rachel had already been a Christian for years before the above recorded conversation. In fact, her parents, three sisters and brother were all born-again Christians (Martin, pp.23-28).

Rachel's story is not unique. Many members of cults were raised in Christian environments. The first Jehovah's Witness and the first Mormon this writer talked to were both raised Baptists.

I have since talked to probably hundreds of members of a wide variety of cults.(1) Virtually everyone had some sort of Christian background: A member of Hare Krishna's was raised a Roman Catholic. A Scientologist's family belongs to an Assembly of God church. A member of Eckankar graduated from Bob Jones University. A woman raised Methodist is now attending a New Age church. A former Presbyterian is now a Jehovah's Witness. And on it goes.

Even further, Harold Bussell, in his book Unholy Devotion, records the Christian backgrounds of many of the leaders of today's major cults (p.16). He also tells the stories of professed evangelicals he knew who have joined cults.

Several reasons can be proposed for this phenomena. In this article, two main subjects will be looked at: anti-intellectualism and legalism.


The Cultic Basis for Faith:
The first question to be asked is, "On what should faith be based?" Anyone who has ever talked to a Mormon knows the main "proof" they give for why they believe The Book of Mormon to be true is the feeling they received when they prayed about it as the book directs (Moroni 10:3-5). Because of this same experience, they further believe Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) was a prophet of God.

However, if one's beliefs are based on an experience, what should be done if they conflict with what someone else has been led to believe by a similar experience. How can people’s "feelings" be compared and evaluated? How can it be decided which contradictory belief resulting from the different experiences is true?

For instance, Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) taught, "I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separated and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Spirit was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute THREE DISTINCT PERSONAGES AND THREE GODS" (quoted in Ludlow, p.273; emphasis added). A Mormon believes this tritheism (i.e. belief in three gods) because of the "Holy Ghost" feeling previously mentioned.

However, the United Pentecostal Church (UPC) teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are just three different names for Jesus; hence why they are called "Jesus only Pentecostals" (Tucker. pp.384f). In other words, the UPC teaches there is ONE PERSON IN THE ONE GOD.

In a conversation with a member of the UPC, it was apparent to this writer, the main reason he believed this "Jesus only" theology was because of "the baptism in the Holy Ghost" which he had received.

Which of these views is correct? They both cannot be right. It is logically impossible for there to be only one God and three gods at the same time. How does one decide? In the world of the cults, there is no answer to this last question. One person's "feeling" is as good as another. How do you debate feelings? How do you know if your "experience" is more valid than another's?

The Christian Basis for Faith:
For the Christian, the Bible is the ultimate standard for determining truth. It provides the final Word from God Himself. The objective, propositional statements of the Scriptures can be studied and compared. Differing opinions can evaluated in light of all the Bible says on a subject. There are facts to work with, not just emotions to talk about.

By checking this Book, it is found that neither of the above viewpoints is correct. In fact, there is ONE GOD who eternally exists as THREE PERSONS. This fact is demonstrated in the articles on the Trinity posted on this Web site.(2)

It is possible to write such articles since the Christian basis for faith is not a feeling but a Book which contains propositional material. It is an reliable guide to faith and truth.

For instance, the Bible is a reliable historical document. When one reads it, its records on historical events can be trusted. Archeological investigation has demonstrated this to be true.

However, NO archeological evidence has ever been discovered that verifies the historical portions of The Book of Mormon. On the contrary, investigations of the pertinent areas show the recorded stories to have been impossible.(3)

The Christian has solid objective reasons to trust the Bible. The Mormon can only depend on emotionalism to believe his book.(4)

Moreover, the Bible calls for a faith based on non-subjective truth (see Isa 41:21-24; Acts 17:11, 22-31; 1Cor 15:3-20; 2Pet 1:16). It never asks for faith to be based solely upon one's own feeling or personal experience (Luke 1:1-4).

Problems with an Emotions Based Faith:
Nevertheless, and very unfortunately, a feeling is the only basis many Christians have for their faith in the Bible and Jesus Christ. Some churches even go so far as to discourage intellectual pursuits of an apologetical nature. It is often considered more spiritual to "just believe" rather that to find reasons for faith.

However, a faith based solely on emotions is simply not Biblical (see also Prov 5:22f; 15:28; Hos 4:6; Matt 10:16; 22:15-46; Acts 24:10-25; Col 4:5f).

Another problem with an anti-intellectual attitude towards faith is described by Craig Blomberg, assistant professor of New Testament studies at Denver Seminary. The following quote is taken from an article titled, "Who Needs Apologetics?"(5)

He writes:
If we base our faith solely on past, personal experience, we tread on thin ice. Tragedies in the present have a way of obliterating good feelings about God's presence in the past. Unless we have logical, rational arguments for the truth of our faith on which to fall back on when our emotions betray us, we too will be tempted to "hang it all up" (p.4).

Such a person would also be vulnerable to any cultist who comes along and seems to know all the answers. Francis Schaeffer sums up the situation well in his booklet, "The New Super Spirituality." This booklet is contained in volume three of his Complete Works.

Schaeffer explains:
... we are not saying that there shouldn't be any emotion. There is and should be. But neither experience nor emotion is the basis for our faith. The basis for our faith is that certain things are true. The whole man, including the intellect, is to act upon the fact that certain things are true. That, of course, will lead to an experiential relationship with God; but the basis is content, not experience (p.391).

The Need for Biblical and Theological Literacy:
This "don't ask questions, just believe" attitude also often extends to post- conversion experiences of some Christians. Many seem to just believe what their pastors or others teach without checking out the Biblical evidence for themselves.

This practice leaves many Christians Biblically and theologically illiterate. As a result, they are unable to defend their beliefs when confronted by a false belief system.

Rachel writes in reference to the quote that opened this article:
If I had known as much about the Scriptures as I thought I did I probably would have seen the subtle way in which they were manipulating them, but I was not prepared for an approach like this. My intense new friends were so quick to quote Scripture for every situation that I was awed by their knowledge of the Bible. I thought they must be the final authorities on anything scriptural (p.16).

Many people feel the same way when they are confronted by Jehovah's Witnesses or members of similar groups; they are overwhelmed by the cultist's approach. Without a strong knowledge of the Bible, theology and related subjects, the person is liable to being deceived into the group. As such, the anti-intellectual attitude fostered in many churches is one reason why the cults are making inroads into the Church and society at large.

This danger is why the Bible never advocates this anti-intellectual attitude towards faith. The Bible repeatedly warns against false teachers (Matt 7:17; Acts 20:29f; 1Pet 2:1 etc.). Objective standards are given by which to discern true from false teachers (Deut 13:1-5; 18:21f 1John 4:1-3).

All teachings must be judged by the standard of the Scriptures. "Proof-texting" is not enough. Any proposed doctrine must be consistent with the overall viewpoint of the Word of God (Isa 8:20).

Lack of Discernment:
The Lack of Discernment in the Christian community today can be seen in the widespread acceptance of the devotional book God Calling. This book was originally published in 1932. It has since gone through eighteen printings (Russell, p.4). At this writer’s local "Christian" bookstore five different editions of this book are available, along with a God Calling daily calendar.

The introduction to the book states, "Not one person but two wrote this book. They elected to remain anonymous and to be called ‘Two Listeners.’ Their claim was that their message had been given to them by the living Christ Himself" (p.1).

Later, the "Two Listeners" write:
But with my friend a very wonderful thing happened. From the first, beautiful messages were given to her from the Lord Himself, and every day from then these messages have never failed us.

We felt all unworthy and overwhelmed by the wonder of it, and could not realize that we were being personally taught, and trained and encouraged by HIM personally, when millions of souls far worthier, had to be content with guidance from their Bibles, sermons, their churches and other sources (pp. 11,12).

Thus personal experience and modern-day revelations are being place above the Bible. This attitude parallels a statement by a young evangelical that Bussell records, "I don’t read my Bible devotionally anymore…, I don’t have to read my Bible devotionally anymore, because I get mine direct" (p.32).

When this attitude is accepted, it easy to see how such a one would be vulnerable to a cult claiming to be receiving modern-day revelations from God.

The Mormon church claims, "We have a prophet living on the earth today. This prophet is the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…. We should follow his teachings completely. We should not choose to follow part of his counsel and discard that which is unpleasant or difficult…. The Lord will never allow the president of the church to teach us false doctrine."

And further, "The words of our living prophets are also considered as scripture" (Principles, pp. 44-46, 49-52). Thus a blind acceptance of the modern-day prophet’s teachings is commanded. This attitude is seen in other cults.

The Watchtower teaches:
God’s visible organization today also receives theocratic guidance and direction. At the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, there is a governing body of older Christian men from various parts of the earth who give the needed oversight to the worldwide activities of God’s people…. They follow the example of the early governing body in Jerusalem, whose decisions were based on God’s word and were made under the direction of holy spirit (You Can, p. 159).(6)

And the decisions of the Governing Body are expected to be followed without question, "Those who continually ask questions that the Watchtower hierarchy objects to, or which are embarrassing to them are often dealt with by disfellowshipping … if one does no agree fully with the Watchtower Society’s teaching, one for the most part should keep quiet and try to resolve their questions on their own or leave the congregation (Bergman, p.69).

Rachel relates her reaction to Jim Roberts teaching that the doctrine of the Trinity, "… is a lie! Probably the biggest lie man has ever perpetrated" (p.136).

She reflects:
… there was no denying where he stood on the matter. Where we all stood – for we believed what he believed. That was what we had been taught. Brother Evangelist had a clear revelation from Almighty God. God spoke to us through him, we had to accept it. Our doubts and questions were sin.

But this was most difficult for me to accept. It went counter to what my parents had taught me… I did not understand his explanation. I’m not sure anyone did, but we dared not ask about it. That would be akin to blasphemy (pp. 136 -137).

She had been taught the doctrine of the Trinity previously; but had she ever investigated the Scriptures for herself? Did she feel free to ask questions or express doubts in the church she was raised in? Sadly, many churches look down on people with questions and doubts. But a "don’t ask questions, just believe" attitude can leave Christians without the ability to discern error.

For instance, in the book God Calling "Jesus" states, "All work here is accomplished by My Spirit, and that can flow through the most humble and lowly. It simply needs an unblocked channel (p. 70).

Referring to the Holy Spirit as "that" and "it" implies HE is a force rather than a Person. I wonder how many readers of this book noticed this or understand its ramifications? Not being able to discern statements like this can lead the undiscerning susceptible to any cult that teaches the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses (You Can, p.37).

The "Jesus" of God Calling also teaches, Know no theology, know Me" (p.184). Thus, it is implied that somehow knowing theology and Knowing Jesus are contradictory. And this anti-intellectual attitude towards what a relationship with Christ entails can be seen in many quarters of the professedly Christian Church today.

A lack of basic Bible knowledge can also be seen in many places today. An example can again be seen in God Calling. "Jesus" declares, "… remember the first Hail must be that of the Magi [wise men] in the Bethlehem stable" (p.204).

Why does this "Jesus" not know that the holy family had moved into a house by the time the Magi came? It’s sad how many Christians seem to "know" more about the birth of Jesus from Christmas cards and nativity sets than from the Bible (see Matt 2:9-11).

In summation of this section, a true Christian spirituality is one that is discerning and well-informed (Heb 5:14; Hos 4:6). Knowing doctrine and apologetics is part of what it means to know Christ (1Tim 4:16; 2Tim 3:16; 4:2). Jesus calls us to love God with all our MINDS (Matt 22:37). Peter commands Christians to "... grow in the grace and KNOWLEDGE of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2Pet 3:18).(7)


Legalism is the second main subject to be studied in this article. Legalism means, "Strict, literal adherence to the law or to a particular code, as of religion or morality."(8) For the purposes of this article, the "particular code" is one made up by the leadership of a group, and not the commandments explicitly laid out in Scripture.

For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday, or even birthdays. This prohibition was also part of the Jim Roberts cult (Martin, pp. 145-148). Many other groups have similar prohibitions.

Moreover, this prohibition is only one of many that people in cults are subject to. Rachel states, "I was sure that I loved Christ and wanted to walk with Him,, regardless of the cost, but it was not easy living up to the exacting standards Brother Evangelist and the elders set for us" (p. 83).,

In addition to the holiday prohibition, psychologist Jerry Bergman records a list of 62 additional prohibitions that the Watchtower has laid down for its members. Moreover, Bergman says his list " … is by no means exhaustive, but is only a sample.

Below is a sample of his sample of prohibitions:

1)  Attending bonfires
2)  Toasting at weddings, parties, etc.
3)  Participating in youth clubs
4)  Hunting and fishing
5)  Being members of Girl or Boy Scouts
6)  Throwing rice at weddings
7)  Giving money to the Red Cross
8)  Accepting nominations for homecoming queen
9)  Making friends with the next-door neighbor
10) Wearing mourning clothes

Before the reader starts laughing, a few more of the prohibitions need to be presented:

1)  Masturbation
2)  Gambling
3)  Watching soap operas
4)  Going on dates without a chaperon
5)  Smoking
6)  Dancing
7)  Seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist
8)  Card playing
9)  Going to rock concerts
10) Women wearing pants suits

Does the second list look more familiar? Most of these items have been in the past or are currently prohibited activities for members of various evangelical or fundamentalist churches. The problem is NONE of the above activities (in either list) are explicitly condemned in Scripture.

I am not condoning or condemning the above activities. That is not the point. The point is, the Christian faith is not a list of do’s and don’ts. It is a belief system centered around the Person of Jesus Christ.

Whether a Christian engages in questionable activities should be based on his or her own walk with the Lord and understanding of Scriptures (Romans 14). Advice should be sought from others and the Scriptures studied extensively; but the final decision should rest with the individual and not with the leader or leaders of some religious group (Prov 12:15; 15:22; Acts 17:11; Heb 5:14).

Rachel relates her struggle in this area, "The Bible taught that salvation was by grace. God’s love had freed us from sin and the law. Yet, Brother Evangelists would have us carry the burden of his special list of regulations. We were not controlled by grace and love – we were ruled by fear…" (pp. 117-118).

Does this sound like someone who has taken to heart Jesus’ comforting words in Matthew 11;28-30?

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matt 11:28-30).

At the end of her book, Rachel’s parents reflect on what mistakes they might have made in Rachel’s upbringing that may have left her susceptible to the cult.

They write:
… somehow, in our efforts to make sure that she lived a life of separation from the things of the world, we gave her the impression that being a Christian was a matter of legality, of keeping a list of rules and observing certain obligations.

We said we believed in salvation by faith, not works, -- but we stressed our list of do’s and don’ts so much that in her eyes they became the cornerstone of her Christianity. She saw salvation as a heavy burden, the keeping of a set of standards she did not subscribe to, of regulations forced on her by her mother and me, who must not have wanted her to have any fun (p.179).

Bergman writes:
Very rigid rules and conduct requirements have another disadvantage, namely the contributing to naivete and lack of responsibility found in many Witnesses. As most decisions are already made for the individual Witnesses by the Society, they typically have little need to make any moral, ethical or other decisions….

The large number of decisions made for one by the Governing Body keeps the typical Witness in a perpetual state of childhood. In many ways, the Society never permits those in its flock to grow up (p. 108).

Paul the Apostle reserved his most scathing words for those who were trying to turn the Christian faith into a "works" religion:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? …

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them." But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith" (Gal 3:1-3,10-11).(9)


Anti-intellectualism and legalism are two dangers Christians need to watch out for. Both are incompatible with the Christian faith. Acceptance of either can leave a Christian susceptible to being seduced into a cult.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

1) For this ministry’s definition of a cult, see Characteristics of a Cult.
2) See The Trinity.
3) See The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon for documentation of these claims.
4) For a discussion on differing epistemologies, see Dead Men Do Bleed!
5) "Apologetics" refers to the reasoned defense of the Christian faith. It comes from apologia, the Greek word translated "defense" in 1Peter 3:15.
6) "Watchtower" is short for The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the organization that Jehovah’s Witnesses belong to.
7) See "Christian" Mysticism for more on the subject of anti-intellectualism in the Church.
8) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.
9) For more on legalism, see "Judge Not …"


All Scripture references from:  New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
Bergman, Jerry, Ph.D. The Mental Health of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Clayton, CA: Witnesses Inc., 1987.
Bussell, Harold. Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
Blomberg, Craig. "Who Needs Apologetics?" in The Shield. Vol.3, No.3. July 1989.
Gospel Principles. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1986.
Ludlow, Daniel. Ed. Latter-day Prophets Speak. Logan, UT: Bookcraft, 1988.
Martin Rachel as told to Bonnie Palmer. Escape. Denver: Accent Books, 1979.
Russel, A.J. ed. God Calling. Old Tappan, NJ: Spire Books, 1978.
Schaeffer, Francis.Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer. Vol.3. A Christian View of Spirituality. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1986.
Smith, Joseph. The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985
You Can Live forever in Paradise on Earth. Brooklyn, NY; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1982.

Anti-Intellectualism, Legalism, and the Cults. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1990
as an article titled "Christian vs. Cultic Spirituality: Part I."
It was posted on this website April 16, 1997.

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