How is that so? Is it even possible for a religion to be "wrong"?
Well, it certainly is possible for false religions to exist. In fact, out of the hundreds of religions and sub-religions that exist in the world, it could be said that the majority of them are in error. Most faiths lack so much truth that they can rightly be called false.
Those are strong words. Let me explain why I feel comfortable saying them.
True religion is not based on man-made creeds, but a Man and His Word: Jesus Christ and the Bible. If there is any deviation from either one of these basic tenants, the mere notion of truth is abandoned altogether. Just as water doesn't exist without the incorporation of both hydrogen and oxygen, true religion exists only when Christ and Scripture are present.
Paul put it this way:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ." Colossians 1:24-28
So from the start, any church or religion that discounts Jesus and the Bible are marked as false -- they are outside of what God has determined to be true and right.
Difficulty arises, however, when faiths claim the name of Christ and use Scripture to defend their beliefs though they seem to be in error. After all, the Son of God and the Word of God are the pillars of true religion -- so how could those movements ever be wrong?
It all comes down to definitions. Plenty of churches espouse the name of the Savior, but many of them would disagree about who He is. Is He God? Is it important that He was born of a virgin? Will He really come back a second time? These questions will all be answered differently depending on a church's dependence on the Bible. The two elements of true religion really are vital.
What this means for the Christian -- the one who ascribes to true religion -- is that it is critical to understand truth. In fact, in order to spot a false religion you must be fluent in truth. For instance, if I were in a shopping mall and two men walked by speaking Afrikaans, it's likely that I would have no idea what language they were using. However, in that moment I would be able to confidently say that the language was not English. I've spent my entire life speaking English. I even earned a degree in it. I'm so familiar with English that if I hear another language, I can instantly tell if it is or is not English.
Are you that familiar with truth? Are you so fluent in what is right that alarms go off at the slightest hint of wrong? If you're unsure, perhaps it's time to start striving after wisdom more fervently.
Jesus said, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free," (John 8:31-32). It's a refreshing promise. By seeking to learn more of God's word -- to understand truth -- we can all rest in Christ and enjoy the freedom He gives. This includes protection from false religions.
All that being said, I've compiled a short list of elements that every false religion is made of. Just as true religion is based on Jesus Christ and His word, false religions incorporate some erroneous commonalities.
It is important to note that some great work has been done on this very topic by Christian teachers I respect. If you've not read Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin, it is a staple in the study of false religions. CARM.org is an incredible resource; click here for some of Matt Slick's articles. And finally, Tim Challies has several articles on false teachers that are helpful found here.
So what are the common elements of false religions? See the list below -- but remember -- familiarity with truth is the first priority.
- Calling. False religions and movements often start with a divine disclosure, a claim that God has spoken again, superseding what has been said before. This message might be a personal interaction with the divine or a mere enlightening. The person receiving the message from God is generally referred to as a prophet. Prophets are then expected to get the message out and lead a group of people in a new way -- a way founded upon the new revelation from God.
- Command. Naturally, as a prophet persuades people to follow him in this new way, he is often seen as the one in control of the movement. He's a desirable dictator of sorts. He directs the people and is lifted up as the mouthpiece of God. Because of the status he has, there's a "He says 'Jump,' they ask 'How high?'" relationship that develops. The prophet is in full command during the infant stages of the movement.
- Control. Since the prophet won't live forever and the movement needs to continue on and grow, a succession plan must be set to sustain the religion's distorted direction. This kind of control is seized in different ways. It's likely that there's a strategy in place for men who are all-in to lead the people after the prophet's death. It's even more likely that there's a set of rules for the members of the faith, commanding them in matters of food, relationships, and all kinds of other matters. Scripture will get misinterpreted, if not rewritten. The people are fully controlled.
- Cult. By this time, the religion has reached total cult status. There's a rejection of the biblical Christ and the sufficiency His word, a commander is in place, and a framework for control has been imposed upon the people. It is at this time that a person could rightly call the movement a false religion.