8 Characteristics of a Counterfeit Christian Church
By Eric Johnson
With the leaders of thousands of different religions and churches attempting to make their beliefs appear authentic, it behooves a person to carefully ascertain truth from error. In fact, many leaders of these faiths may call themselves "Christian" and even attempt to convert Christians into their churches.
After all, Jesus Himself said in Matthew 7:15, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." This is why John warned the believers in 1 John 4:1 to "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." And 1 Thessalonians 5:21 adds, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good."
Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27 that they were "like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." How can we tell whether or not a particular religious leader (like the Pharisees) ought to be believed, especially when such a person may appear authentic and even claim to be Christian? Let's then consider eight basic doctrinal characteristics of counterfeit groups.
1. Denial in the true nature of God
The rejection of fundamental Christian tenets such as the historical definition of God should be a major warning sign to any perceptive believer. Groups that deny the Christian viewpoint of the deity of Christ and the Trinity typically follow in point-by-point succession each of the other characteristics in this article. One example is The Way International, a group founded by Victor Paul Wierwille, (He once served as a former evangelical pastor. In fact, several cult leaders had their start in authentic Christian denominations and churches.) Wierwille's view of God is Unitarian rather than Trinitarian as he denies that there are three persons in the Godhead. He also claims that Jesus was not God, teaching that the deity of Christ was not a Christian teaching for the Christian church's first 300 years. This is a common (though false) assertion of many cult leaders. Because Wierwille and his church deny the very essence of what makes God who He is, this is a group to avoid.
2. Works-emphasis salvation
Although a counterfeit's doctrine may include the idea that God's grace is important in the role of salvation, the leader normally emphasizes the idea that "salvation" ultimately comes through one's own efforts. Take the Hare Krishna devotees, for instance. These dedicated followers believe that they are in the middle stage of their reincarnation cycle. The way for a dedicated devotee to be born into the next level of existence is to deny himself on this earth while performing good works, including the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra a total of 1,728 times a day. It may take a devotee who wakes up at 4 A.M. several hours a day to maintain this goal. Those who belong to such work-oriented groups are normally told that they can never know if their works are good enough to please God; instead, they are told to keep trying even harder.
3. The true church
Counterfeit Christian churches often make it a point to cast doubt and suspicion on other churches or denominations, with the leader oftentimes claiming that only his church is true. While many groups hold that the Christian churches do have partial truth, it is taught that full truth has somehow been lost and can now only be found in the "one true church." This may involve utilizing Christian terminology while having a different meaning behind those particular words. An example is the Watchtower Society, also known as the Jehovah's Witnesses. This group, founded by Charles Taze Russell in the 19th century, teaches that those who belong to any church outside of "Jehovah's" church are doomed to annihilation. Only those who belong to the Watchtower organization have a chance to attain "Paradise Earth." This is why Jehovah's Witnesses are adamant in sharing their faith door to door, even attempting to convert those who already attend Christian churches. The Jehovah's Witnesses will often use words that sound reasonable to a nominal Christian (i.e. "Jehovah's Christian Witnesses," "salvation," "Jesus Christ," etc), but they are usually reluctant to tell potential converts that the meanings behind these words are completely different than what has been historically meant.
4. Authoritative leadership
A group where the leader(s) has an authoritative role, even to the extent that they say they speak for God, is another cause for concern. Such leaders claim to have special revelation with God, and their words hold special precedence over their followers. A classic example is Jim Jones, who led almost 1,000 followers to their deaths in the jungle of Guyana in 1978. When men in his charge killed Rep. Leo Ryan (D-CA), a congressman who was visiting "Jonestown" in response to complaints from the relatives of church members, Jones called for his followers to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The majority of the people willingly followed his commands because they had come to accept his words as truthful and from God. Those who refused were shot. Trusting someone so much that you listen to any command, even to the point of moving to another country and then taking your own life, is something that God never intended.
5. Regimented giving requirement
Another heretical trait is when a church regulates the giving of its people or requires a certain amount of financial giving in order to receive certain privileges related to salvation. For example, the Church of Scientology teaches that people need to discover their true nature through a process called "auditing." This is accomplished by "clearing Engrams" from one's life. One Los Angeles Times article on Scientology religion estimated that it would cost a full "Operating Thetan 8" participant between $200,000 to $400,000 from the beginning of the lessons to the completion. Without these courses, the adherent is unable to clear himself of these unwanted "Engrams." Using finances as a requirement to reach salvation goals is much different than what Jesus, Paul, and Peter preached.
6. Loss of salvation for leaving
Many counterfeit Christian churches insist that if a member decides to leave the group, for whatever reason, they jeopardize their salvation before God. An example is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As long as a person continues to remain Mormon and works hard to attain salvation, including the performance of work at one of the temples, salvation is just around the corner. But if a person leaves the church, he not only could lost his family relationships, including marriage, children, friends, etc, but the celestial kingdom--the very best a person can desire--is also lost. In fact, while it is believed that most people will not be sent to "Outer Darkness," which is a hell-like eternal state mainly reserved for Satan and his followers, early Mormon leaders claimed that this was a place apostates could go, especially if they said bad things about the Mormon Church. Holding a person's salvation hostage in such a way is certainly not biblical.
7. Authority beyond the Bible
Although the Bible is sometimes utilized and even considered beneficial by a number of counterfeit groups, it is not considered as a completely authoritative scripture. Therefore, extrabiblical writings are necessary. Normally these scriptures are considered to have more authority than the dated Bible. The Christian Science religion is one example. Those who inquire into this religion are told that Mary Baker Eddy's 1875 pantheistic book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is a "reference book for life," which is needed by a person who hopes to discover "practical, spiritual answers for health and healing, security, and lasting relationships." This book must be studied in order to ascertain full truth. When the Bible contradicts Eddy's book, then the Bible is considered to be wrong or misunderstood.
8. Unique truths never before revealed
The idea that a hidden mystery or new truth is available through a particular church should be taken as a strong sign that this group is a counterfeit Christian religion. In addition, many such groups may change their doctrines over time. Christians believe that God has very clearly shown His truth through the pages of the Bible; therefore, new or fluctuating doctrine—especially that which contradicts the Bible—ought to be taken with a great deal of caution. The Unification Church (numerous front names include "Association of Families for Unification and World Peace" or "Family Federation for World Peace and Unification") was founded by Korean "Rev." Sun Myung Moon. He teaches that Jesus never fulfilled his mission. Therefore, Moon says that he was commissioned to finish the job that Jesus never finished. Moon's followers (often known as "Moonies") accept Moon as a Christ-like representative on earth whose teachings supersede the Bible. The Unification Church theology has evolved over time, and there may be some drastic changes once he dies in the very near future.
Not all counterfeits may be characterized by every one of these traits. However, a person should be cautious when considering a church that is marked by one or two of these characteristics, especially any of the first three in the list. Churches with three or more of the above characteristics ought to be avoided at all cost. In addition, there are some Christian churches that may not have doctrinal problems but are rather sociological abusers. For instance, some churches have controlling "discipleship" programs or church memberships with high levels of guilt or feelings of inadequacy. These types of groups also ought to be avoided. If you believe that your church has problems in either doctrinal or sociological areas, you would be wise not to get involved. If you are already a member, you need to consider leaving. As John 8:32-33 says, "Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."