By Leonard G. Goss

“New religions” or “alternative religions” are breakaways from larger, more traditional religions. They break down into self-improvement groups, Eastern religions or thought systems, unification groups, and Christian deviation sects. Many of these new religions had Christian roots, but have departed from historic biblical Christianity and discarded one or more of Christianity’s basic beliefs. What they have left behind is something that decidedly is not Christianity. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves” (Mt 7:15).

Viewed through the lens of biblical teaching, each new religion abandons orthodox Christian tenants at one point or another (and usually at many different points). Latter-day Saints (Mormons), for example, have parted company with the Christian tradition in multiple ways, but perhaps the most dramatic is their teaching that the church founded by Jesus and the apostles was destroyed from human history by the time of Constantine. Hence, the LDS church was founded to once again represent the exclusive truth and to rescue the Christian religion from total apostasy. The Unification Church (Moonies) also departs from biblical teaching and undermines Christian thinking in dozens of different ways, most notably in claiming their founder is God’s messiah and messenger who will fulfill the work of Jesus. This is a serious heresy found in many of the new religions, and the Apostle Paul warned about following after “another Jesus” who is not the same Jesus revealed in Scripture (2 Co 11:4). Other examples are The Way International, a group where the leader’s interpretation of the Bible is considered the only valid interpretation and is in fact the Word. The Children of God, sometimes called the Family of Love, believes all mainline Christian churches are as anti-Christian as organizations that do not profess Christianity. The basic belief of this sect is that its members are the only true Christians and obedient servants left on earth. Many other new religious groups could be mentioned, but one last example would be Eckankar, one of the mystical new religions, which teaches out-of-the-body travels (bilocation) and replaces Jesus Christ with the group’s founder as the incarnation of God on earth and teaches that only through their group can an individual find ultimate truth.

This small sampling of new religions shows how very different these movements can be, and therefore it is not easy to suggest that each new religion looks the same or possesses the same theological, sociological, psychological, and moral characteristics. Although each new religious belief system deviates drastically and in individual ways from conventional, historic Christianity, still there are some common characteristics to look for in the new movements. Here is a list of warning signs and danger zones, along with some representative groups displaying these characteristics noted in parentheses:

(1) The group is almost always outside the mainstream of dominant religious forms and culture and displays an oppositional style and substance, meaning it is elitist and exclusionist. (Church of Scientology, Global Family. Unification Church, The Walk/Church of the Living Word, The Way International)

(2) Often there is a “new authority” or new revelation besides the Bible from which adherents to the group must find ultimate truths. (Christian Science, International Community of Christ/the Jamilians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Unification Church)

(3) On the other hand, some groups do not claim to have a new, extra-biblical revelation; instead, a group may claim “all we use is the Bible.” But the Bible is reinterpreted to justify and defend false teachings. (Alamo Christian Foundation, Children of God/Family of Love)

(4) The group is comprised of lay people; there are no paid clergy or professional religious functionaries. (Fundamentalist Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism)

(5) The group is focused around a central figure who is a prophet-founder “chosen” by God to deliver a special message to the modern world that is not found in the Bible, has not been known to genuine Christians throughout all church history, or to recover the teaching of the ancient church that has been lost through the centuries. (Christian Science, The Farm, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, Unification Church)

(6) This leader is usually a charismatic figure, and often the style of his or her leadership is authoritarian. (Children of God/Family of Love, Church of the Living Word, Yahwism)

(7) Often the group teaches that the Bible foretold the coming of its particular group or leader. (Branch Davidians, Children of God/Family of Love, The Farm, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Unification Church, The Walk/ Church of the Living Word)

(8) The group thinks of its belief system as the last bastion of God’s work on earth. The adherents are God’s “final and last group” and they play a central role in the last things. The truth of all things spiritual is exclusive with them and the world is doomed without them. (Jehovah’s Witnesses, University Bible Fellowship)

(9) The group believes its adherents are being persecuted. (Alamo Christian Foundation, Healthy Happy Holy Organization, the Truth Station, Unification Church)

(10) The group might engage in some form of predatory and destructive recruitment of new members with vigor, zeal, and high pressure, often deceiving recruits or not revealing their whole theology. (Alamo Christian Foundation, Unification Church, the Way International)
(11) The group sanctions wayward and rebellious members. (Church of Armageddon, Divine Light Mission, Jehovah’s Witnesses, People’s Temple)

(12) The group believes that God is a force or power, not a person who relates to the creation. (Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity)

(13) The group is fixated on eschatology (end times) and is usually apocalyptic in its teaching. (Branch Davidians, Children of God/Family of Love, Jehovah’s Witnesses, People’s Temple)

(14) The lifestyle of the group’s members is highly legalistic. (Alamo Christian Foundation, the Christ Family, Church of Armageddon, Maranatha Christian Church)

(15) Sometimes the group has a notion that a communal organization is necessary to fulfill the human calling. Therefore, there is usually a tightly maintained autocratic organization which governs both spiritual and everyday life. Some dictate modes of dress, length of hair, the type of personal adornment that is permitted, and sometimes even marriage partners. (Alamo Christian Foundation, Forever Family/Church of Bible Understanding, Church Universal and Triumphant, The Walk)

(16) The group engages in strange rituals and mindless chanting. (Church Universal and Triumphant, Penitentes/Brothers of Our Father Jesus)

(17) The group emphasizes secondary issues and minor points of theology. (Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses)

(18) The group members are very often taught that they can have direct revelations and visions from God. (Mormonism, Swedenborgianism, Unification Church)

(19) The group claims that it is compatible or in harmony with the Bible and traditional Christianity, but in fact it reduces and discounts the Bible or otherwise adds to the revelation of Scripture. (Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, People’s Temple, Unification Church)

(20) The group has usurped traditional Christian vocabulary, but has redefined and reinterpreted terms and concepts from the Bible-making its words do “double-duty” in order to defend aberrant doctrines. Their language is pliable and has no fixed meaning. (Christian Science, Mormonism, Unity School of Christianity)

(21) The group denies at least one central truth of Christianity-such as the work of Christ on the cross, the authority of the Scriptures, salvation by grace through faith, the bodily resurrection, the doctrine of eternal punishment, etc. (Alamo Christian Foundation, Branch Davidians, International Community of Christ/the Jamilians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Swedenborgianism-the Church of the New Jerusalem, Unification Church, Unitarian Universalists)

(22) The group denies both the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. (Anthroposophical Society, Children of God/Family of Love, Christian Science, Eckankar, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, United Pentecostal Church, The Way)

(23) The group recognizes Jesus as a great teacher and leader, an avatar, a wise man, even as the most important of God’s created beings-but does not believe that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. (Unification Church, The United Pentecostal Church, The Way International)

(24) The group teaches a “salvation through works” system whereby members must ultimately save themselves. (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism)

(25) The group emphasizes experience over basic Christian doctrine. (Alamo Christian Foundation, Children of God/Family of Love, Divine Light Mission, est, Lifespring, Mormonism, Urantia, The Walk/Church of the Living Word)

(26) The group is mystical and individualistically oriented. (Church Universal and Triumphant, Foundation of Human Understanding, New Testament Missionary Fellowship)

(27) The group dabbles in the occult and spiritism. (Anthroposophical Society, Children of God/Family of Love, Mormonism, Unification Church, The Walk)

Christians must recognize that our spiritual enemy is not the new religion but, rather, Satan (2 Co 11:12-15).

Adapted from the Apologetics Study Bible, pgs 1874-1877