Returning to the Hebraic Foundations of the Christian Faith: “The Faith Once Delivered” or Cultism?
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3, emphasis added)
In recent years there has been great awareness brought upon the subject of non-Christian cults by Christian apologetic organizations whose mission it is to defend the “historic Christian faith” against teachings they consider to be contrary to the Bible and to traditional or normative Christian theology and tradition. At the same time, the so-called Messianic or Hebrew roots movement has come under the scrutiny of some of these “cult watchers.” Are those Christians returning to the Hebraic foundations of their Christian faith join a cult or are they actually earnestly contending for the faith once and for delivered to the disciples of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ)?
Many well-meaning Christians in their zeal to protect core Christian beliefs from the onslaught of missionizing activities by cultic groups have developed a fortress-like mentality where they label everything a cult that does not agree with their definition of “the historic Christian faith”. Yet at the same time, many of these same Christians would be hard-pressed to define the word cult or to explain the sociological, psychological and theological implications the label they so glibly attach to those who disagree with them.
So what is the truth? Is labeling the Messianic or Hebrew roots movement as a cult justified or not? To answer this question, we will use the same criteria that those Christian “watchdog” organizations themselves use to define a cult. We will then see if this moniker is justified when it comes to those Christians who are returning to a more Hebraic or Jewish orientations to their spiritual walk.
This author has a unique perspective on the subject of cultism having been born and raised in a name-brand cult till age 30 where upon leaving the cult he became an ordained Christian evangelist in a major Christian (Protestant) denomination where he then reached out to those bound up in cultism as he once was.
In exploring the ramifications of cultism, let us first define the word cult from Webster’s Dictionary: A cult is
- 1) a particular system of religious worship;
- 2) an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal or thing;
- 3) the object of such devotion;
- 4) a group or sect bound together by devotion to or veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc…
- 5) religion that is considered or held to be false or unorthodox (Webster’s Encyclopedia of the English Language, Random House, 1983).
Now let us define the word cult based on the pioneering work of the late Dr. Walter Martin, author of the well-known encyclopedic work, The Kingdom of the Cults and founder of the anti-cult, Christian apologetic organization, The Christian Research Institute in southern California. In the above-named book on page 11, quoting a Dr. Braden, Martin writes: “A cult…is any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expression of religion in our total culture [emphasis added].”
This definition of a cult begs the answering of several critical questions. First what is “the normative expression” of Christianity? Second, in determining this, do we base normative Christianity on what the Bible says or on “our total culture”? And what if these two criteria are in conflict with each other, then what? These are important questions to answer. There are more questions to be asked and answered. How we frame the question will determine our answer. For example, in determining what a cult is or is not vis-à-vis normative Christianity, do we emphasize the Bible or the culture, or a combination of both? If the latter, then who determines what aspects of the culture that have insinuated themselves into normative Christianity are correct or not? Who defines “normative”? Men or the Bible? If men, then what men? Does the majority opinion rule out? If so, how do we know if the majority is right our not? Who determines what is right? No doubt, whatever the majority is believing at a particular point in history could be called normative. But is the majority always right? Who is the majority now? Was it always the majority? These are questions that need to be asked and addressed when defining the word “cult.”
Basically, what Martin is talking about in is book is the idea of “consensus theology”; that is, whatever the majority believes at a particular historical point in time is what is deemed to be right or normative. But honest truth-seekers must ask the question; is the “truth” of today the same “truth” of yesterday? Is the “truth” of modern mainstream Christianity the same “truth” as biblical, first century Christianity? Moreover, how do we even know what truth is?
For those Christians who have been suckled on a consensus-based Christian and found their comfort zones within this paradigm,these are dangerous questions to ask and even tougher to answer. Most people, in the face of such questions, will retreat into the safe comfort zones of organized religion and conventional theological philosophies, while refusing to deal with these challenging and potentially life-changing and religious icon threatening or iconoclastic issues. But the answers to these questions are amazingly simple and can have spiritually profound, even revolutionary, effect on one’s life.
First, we must ask the following question: what is truth? As believers in the Bible, the Word of YHVH-Elohim, our premise is simple: only the Bible (the inspired Word of Elohim) is Truth.
As seen by the dictionary definition cited above, all religious groups, by strict definition, are a cult in a non-pejorative sense of the word. The Christian cult-watching groups, however, use the term in a negative and demeaning sense, and for them the dictionary’s fifth definition of the word, and not its first or main definition, has become their primary meaning of the word cult, which they then take and apply to anyone who disagrees with them. Is this is not a lot like playing cards with a stacked deck, or defining the rules of a game so that you, the rule maker, always win. Or in a coin toss it is like saying, “Heads you lose, tails I win”?
Again, in light of Christian apologists’ (such as Dr. Walter Martin) use of the word cult (in its negative sense) to mean a religious system that is aberrant from the normative and original group, is the Christian religion, in a sense, and by their own definition not a cult in that it is very dissimilar, dare we say aberrant, from the normative Jewish Christianity of the first century?
Let us explore the implications of this challenging question.
Christianity irrefutably traces its roots back to the Messianic Jewish believers in and disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah in the first century as chronicled by the apostolic authors of the Testimony of Yeshua (or New Testament). A thorough, and unbiased review of the lives and religious practices not only of Yeshua himself, but of his followers based on the biblical record, will reveal that they were Jews who observed an orthodox Jewish lifestyle, yet who were Spirit-filled followers of Yeshua the Messiah and preached the gospel (or good news of the kingdom of heaven). (We address and prove this point in numerous teaching articles and videos that this ministry has published online.)
Are these this author’s notions only? Not at all. Hebrew roots scholar, Dr. Ron Moseley, for example, says, “After the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, two new religious organizations grew out of the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day. The Pharisees had fled Jerusalem to Yavneh and were spared, while the Jewish followers of Jesus had fled to the mountains of Pella and also survived (Matthew 24:16). From these two groups came two separate religions known as Rabbinic Judaism and the Christian Church. Today, neither Rabbinc Judaism nor the Church, which formed much of its theology from fourth-century Roman ideas, hold the same views as the pre-70 Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day” (Yeshua—A Guide to the Real Jesus of the Original Church, p. 69).
Christian Hebrew roots scholar, professor and theologian Marvin Wilson argues the same points in his 1989 book, Our Father Abraham—Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. He writes, “A cursory look at the beginnings of Christianity reveals a Church that was made up exclusively of Jews. Indeed, the Church was viewed as a sect within Judaism, as the book of Acts makes clear in referring to early followers of Jesus as the ‘sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24:5). They seemed to function easily within Judaism in that they were described as ‘enjoying the favor of all the people’ (2:47)” (p. 47). Wilson then goes on to write that between 70 AD when the Roman army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and 135 AD when the Second Jewish revolt against Roman occupation of their country occurred the first-century Messianic congregation began to leave its Jewish roots. Let’s take a quick look at the timeline of events that led to the Christian church leaving its Hebrew roots as chronicled by Wilson (ibid., pp. 74ff).
The Jewishness of the book of Acts and the first-century Messianic believers cannot be disputed. This is because the Scriptures record that these followers of Yeshua and his disciples adhered to the Torah-commandments YHVH Elohim gave to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai including the seventh-day Sabbath, the biblical feasts, the biblical dietary laws and the rest of the Torah-law. It was not until the second century A.D. that the church took on a decided non-Jewish and more Gentile demeanor. A cursory reading of the writings of most of the ante-Nicene church fathers provides abundant evidence of this.
Therefore, in light of both biblical and extra-biblical historical facts, it is only logical for us to ask the question, who has veered from the original Hebraic, first century, Torah-based foundation of their faith? Is it not the mainstream Christian religion that has largely divorced itself from its Hebrew or Jewish roots? Has it not strayed from the original historic Christian faith? Absolutely yes. So by strict dictionary definition as well as that of the mainstream Christian church cult-watchers definition of the word cult, is not “traditional” or “normative” Christianity the real cult?Answering this question in the affirmative may be tough reality for some Christians to face, but using the dictionary’s definition of the word cult (i.e. “a religion that is considered or held to be false or unorthodox”) coupled with how Dr. Walter Martin defines the word cult in his cornerstone book on the subject, truth seekers can hardly come to any other conclusion than to apply the label cult to the mainstream Christian church. Remember, Martin defines a cult as “any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expression of religion in our total culture” (emphasis added).
This conclusion in no way implies that born-again believers within the Christian church are not well-meaning in their religious endeavors, are not saved, nor does it imply that all that the mainstream Christian church teaches is false. This author strongly affirms the basic message of the gospel as taught in the Christian church including the deity of Yeshua, the incarnation, the redemptive work he accomplished at the cross, his death burial and resurrection, his second coming and salvation by grace through faith in Yeshua the Messiah only. What we take exception with are the areas within Christian theology that have strayed from the once and for all delivered faith or Truth of the Bible as taught and practiced by the first century Messianic Jewish apostles to which Jude the apostle makes reference in Jude 1:3.
If indeed Christianity has strayed from its Hebrew roots, and, by its own definition, has become a cult, then why shouldn’t the reality of this truth be boldly proclaimed? It should be! And, of course, it must be done in love, humility, meekness and under the leading of the Spirit of Elohim. Why be afraid of the truth? It is it not in the light of truth that exposes the darkness, and in the light of that truth many truth-seekers disciples of Yeshua will be set free from errors and lies of non-truth as our Savior and Messiah declared in John 8:31–32?
So why do some Christians consider the Hebrew roots movement or whatever other label you want to choose, to be cultic? Other than these well-meaning but misguided fellow believers being ignorant of the definitions of the word cult and of the historical and spiritual Jewish roots of the Christian faith, we put forth the following reasons why some Christians are averse to the Jewishness of their faith:
In many ways, a more Hebraic or Jewish-based faith is strangely different from and even foreign to traditional Catholic-based Christianity and might, therefore, be viewed as a threat to many traditional Christians.
Ignorance exists on the part of many traditional Christians who label those people returning to a more Hebraic understand and lifestyle as cultists because they do not know what a cult really is. This is because they neither know what their Bible teaches nor how the Christian church divorced itself from its Hebraic roots in second century.
Mainstream Christians do not typically label Messianic Jews as cultists. This is because they are simply “doing their Jewish thing” with respect to their faith. Therefore, why should Christians returning to the Hebraic or biblical roots of the Christian faith be labeled as cultists?
When mainstream Christians discover the Hebraic or biblical roots of their faith, they discover that many church traditions are pagan and non-biblical in origination (e.g. Christmas, Easter, Sunday observance). As the light of truth emerges, a nascent Hebraic believers will begin exchanging these unbiblical Christian “sacred cows” or icons, for beliefs and a lifestyle that comports more with biblical Truth including keeping the seventh day Sabbath, the biblical feasts, the biblical dietary laws and adhering to a more Torah-centric lifesytle and belief system). As a result, the mainstream Christian church believer could easily view the Hebraic believer as a cultist. This is because some of the beliefs and lifestyle traits of the Hebraic believer are different, strange and aberrant from traditional mainstream Christianity. The problem is that the mainstream church has “conditioned” its followers to be wary of anything that is strange and different from traditional Christianity, even if it is biblical.
Now let us review various psychological, sociological and some additional theological characteristics of tightly controlled religious groups which, according Martin, can be defined as cults to see if any of these apply to your basic Hebrew roots or Messianic congregation or organization (The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 22–28):
Cults change biblical or Christian terminologies and add their own meanings. This often involves the spiritualization or allegorization of biblical texts or Christian doctrines to change their meanings. This is done through skewed, improper or dishonest biblical exegesis.
Concepts or terms such as the deity of Yeshua (Jesus), the virgin birth, sin, salvation (by grace and faith), born again, atonement, the bodily resurrection of Yeshua take on a whole new meaning, though the terms remain the same.
Cults often base their beliefs on unsound theology and doctrinal interpretations and nebulous phrase “interpretations” thinking that the power of Christianity is in terminology rather than in the personal relationship of the individual with Yeshua and the truth of the gospel message.
Cultists lift Scripture passages out of context ignoring the basic rules of biblical interpretation and logic and without regard to the historical and linguistic context of the text and will wrest or twist their meanings (2 Pet 3:16) to fit the peculiar doctrines unique to the cult.
Here are some other characteristics of cults worthy of note:
- All cults have a belief system or theology. That belief system may vary widely, little, or almost not all from Bible truth.
- All cults have a socio-psychological dimension. Most cults have a central authoritative figure who may be dead or alive and who was or is typically the founder or chief spokesman of the cult. This individual, in essence, becomes YHVH’s vicar on earth, or, like the pope in the Catholic Church, YHVH’s chief or main revelator of divine truth. Examples of such a leader would include well-known religious figures as Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Taze Russel, Rev. Sun Moon, Ellen G. White, L. Ron Hubbard and Herbert Armstrong. Typically, the word of the leader within the cult is considered to be Elohim’s word and law on earth. Any individual or religion who counters the word of the leader is viewed as demonic, deceived or flat-out wrong.
- Most cults practice an authoritarian administrative structure to keep their members “in line” with the “party line.” Cultists are expected to follow the teachings of the cult organization. Little or no contrary opinion is tolerated. Those who have differing opinions are reprimanded and expected to reorient beliefs with the party line. Those who refuse to are typically punished by excommunication and shunning.
- Spiritual salvation is deemed to exist only for cult-members who are in good standing in the organization. Great pressure is brought to bear socially and authoritatively upon those who question cult leadership and theological beliefs.
- In cults leaders will often micro-manage the lives of cultists: how much to tithe, how to dress, where to live, what eat, who to marry, what to read, who to associate with, who to talk to and what to say.
- The belief systems of cults are characterized by close-mindedness and bigotry toward those outside their cult and to ideas or beliefs that are contrary to the cult’s party line.
- Cultic belief systems are characterized by genuine antagonism against those with dissimilar beliefs.
- Acceptance and love within a cult is often conditional. Those who believe as the cultists believe are loved and helped, while those with differing beliefs and who are outside the cult are not helped or loved.
- Often those in cults are discouraged from reading the materials or attending the meeting of those with opposing viewpoints or beliefs.
- Cultists often express outward hostility to those who oppose their beliefs. Instead of agreeing to disagree in love, there will be rejection. Cultists have a hard time tolerating doctrinal variations within their group. Those with opposing viewpoints, even on minor issues, are regarded as a threat and must be exposed and expunged from the group. Cultist groups will find it hard to coexist in love with others in a community where there are divergently beliefs.
- Cultists typically engage in blind prejudice or bigotry and outright intolerance toward others of opposing viewpoints.
- Cultic groups are known for exclusivism, isolationism which at times can be extreme.
This author challenges the reader who may be predisposed to broad-brush the Hebrew roots movement as cultic to prove his or her point on the basis of what Christian leaders themselves define as a cult. While, no doubt, there are Torah-based and Yeshua-loving Messianic groups that may have cultic tendencies characterized by authoritarianism, legalism, control, exclusivism, aberrant theology, controlling or motivating people through fear and so on, it would be dishonest and illogical to characterize the whole Hebrew roots movement on this basis any more than to characterize the Christian church in terms of those cultic-type groups within its ranks.
Furthermore, in our earlier characterization of Christianity as a cult, we were doing so on the basis of the dictionary’s strict definition of the word cult and not on the basis of the sociological and psychological paradigm of a cult as listed above and as defined by Christian leaders such as Walter Martin. We generally agree with Martin’s definition of the word cult and equally share his concerns about the rise of cultism anywhere it may appear. Furthermore, it behooves leaders in the Hebraic roots or biblical truth movement to thoroughly understand what cultism is, as defined by leaders like Christian cult experts such as Walter Martin, to ensure that they do not allow cultism’s insidious tentacles to grab hold within their own congregation or organization.
The only point where we would disagree with Martin and others with regard to the subject of cultism would be, as noted earlier, their application of the term “the historic Christian faith” or “normative Christianity.” The biblical record and the historical writings of the ante-Nicene (pre- A.D. 323–325) church fathers abundantly and convincingly prove that the early Christian church did indeed divorce itself from its Hebrew or Jewish roots—a spiritual trajectory that it has maintained to this day. The fact is that the original “historic Christian faith” is not necessarily what originated out of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 323-325) nor from the highly anti-semitic Roman Catholic Church (from which most of Protestant theology derives). Rather, the true historic Christian faith is what originated from the writings of the apostles in first century as recorded in the Testimony of Yeshua (the New Testament).
It is this historic and original faith to which those in the Hebrew or Biblical roots movement are returning.
Labeling those who are returning to the faith once delivered as taught and practiced by Yeshua and his disciples as cultic shows bigotry, naivety and ignorance on the part of such accusers and does not serve to advance the cause of the Truth of the Bible in the least. Such attacks are akin to the treatment of Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers of nearly 500 years ago by the Roman Catholic Church. Let us not forget that at the time, Roman Catholicism, the belief system against which Luther and the other Protestant reformers were rebelling, was the organization that defined what “normative Christianity” and what “the historic Christian faith” were. The papal persecution of the reformers ignored the fundamental biblical truths (i.e. sola Scriptura [or “the Word of Elohim only” as opposed to anti-biblical Catholic traditions] and salvation by grace and faith alone [as opposed to salvation by works]) that the reformers were championing—truths which we take for granted today, but for which many reformers were martyred.
Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past by falsely labeling those Christians as cultists, who desire to return to a more Hebraic belief system and lifestyle as taught in the New Testaments and practiced by those first century believers and by Yeshua the Messiah himself.