Cults are controlling in the extreme and rob people of the joy of a messy church. The March Study Edition of the Watchtower magazine carried an article tracing their history of God’s guiding his people: Jehovah Guides His People in the Way of life. Dire warnings are given of peril for those taking any other route, ignoring the warning signs. The consequences of such folly is compared with being hit by a train. But help is at hand, and perils may be avoided because, ‘Down through history, Jehovah has provided specific instructions or directions.’
The April edition of the Mormon Ensign magazine carries a remarkably similar message. In Prophecy and Personal Revelation Henry B Eyring of the First Presidency reminds faithful Mormons:
‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always been led by living prophets and apostles, who receive constant guidance from heaven. The divine pattern was also true anciently. We learn in the Bible: ‘Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.’ (Amos 3:7)’
Both the Watchtower Society and the Mormon Church claim they alone are God’s mouthpiece and have the ‘instructions,’ or, ‘guidance’, organisation and authority people are to follow if they are to avoid a train wreck. Henry B Eyring states:
‘In our day, living prophets and apostles are authorized to speak, teach, and direct with authority from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ….In general conference twice a year, we are blessed with the opportunity to hear the word of the Lord for us from his servants.’
The Watchtower article says much the same thing:
‘Especially since the appointment of “the faithful and discreet slave,” Jesus has provided his people with spiritual food at the proper time. (Matt. 24:45-47) This food has included vital directions in response to new circumstances…We need to employ the preaching tools provided by God’s organization. Do you desire to do that? Are you alert to the guidance given at our meetings on how we can use these tools and how to do so most effectively? Do you view these directions as guidance from God?
Indeed, to keep receiving God’s blessing, we need to pay attention to all the directions provided through the Christian congregation. Having an obedient spirit now will help us to follow directions during the “great tribulation,” which will eliminate Satan’s entire evil system. (Matt. 24:21) Thereafter, we will need new directions for new world living on an earth totally free of any satanic influence.’
Indeed, they go a step further, insisting that in God’s new world order we will have further and fresh instructions again, stamping on the Witnesses mind a pattern for eternity that they dare not ignore today:
‘New directions were needed by the nation of Israel under Moses and later by the Christian congregation under “the law of the Christ.” Likewise, the Bible informs us that scrolls will be opened to give us directions in new world living. (Revelation 20:12.) These scrolls will most likely set forth Jehovah’s requirements for mankind at that time. By studying these, all people, including resurrected ones, will be able to know God’s will for them. These scrolls will surely give us further insight into Jehovah’s mind. Guided by an ever-increasing understanding of God’s inspired Word along with what will be revealed in the new scrolls, inhabitants of the earthly Paradise will certainly treat their fellow man with love, respect, and dignity. (Isa. 26:9) Imagine the educational program that will be carried out under the direction of the King, Jesus Christ! ‘
It is clear that for the faithful and discreet slave it is not enough that they should wield power and authority in this life. Their ambitions are as great as eternity. The same might be said of Mormon leaders whose ambitions are as high as the throne of God, since they envisage one day becoming gods. Cults are all about power.
Revelation 20:12, as you will know, describes books, or scrolls being opened and people being judged out of them. They are not ‘directions in new world living,’ but records out of which each life will be judged. Be that as it may, the Watchtower Society want it to mean instructions, and the test of a Jehovah’s Witness is how faithful he or she is to the organisation. For the Mormon the test is whether you have a personal conviction (personal revelation) telling you that ‘the church’ is true and its leaders must be obeyed. This is the picture many have of church. An organisation with authority that instructs you in the correct way. But church isn’t a cult.
Lost in Translation
It is popular to believe that the Christian faith is fundamentally a set of ideas and principles taught by that organisation we call the church. Groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons come along periodically, claiming to have ‘restored’ God’s original plan and instructions to a world that has strayed from the strict path of obedience. This plan can be quite complicated, can change over time, and can only be properly understood through God’s appointed agents; the organisation’s leaders.
A true believer is no longer a saved sinner, but someone who has recognised and returned to ‘the truth.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about being ‘in the truth,’ Mormons boast of being in the ‘one true church.’ The organisation becomes the believers’ intermediary with God. Jehovah’s Witnesses pore over the latest Watchtower and study book, thinking they are receiving food at the proper time from the faithful and discreet slave (the organisation). Mormons pore over the latest Ensign magazine, especially the Conference issue, and this year’s study guide, believing they are receiving timely prophetic guidance from apostles and prophets.
But is this a correct way to think about the faith of the New Testament Church? Or has the gospel message been lost in translation?
The first thing to realise is ‘love your neighbour’ is not the gospel. ‘Forgive your enemy’ is not the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not, ‘live like this and everything will be OK.’ Indeed, the authority on which the Christian principles in which we believe are founded is the life, ministry, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Paul said in his sermon in Athens:
‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.‘ (Acts 17:30-31)
The gospel is that ‘God raised him from the dead.’ Christianity is not a system of ideas, not an intellectual acceptance of certain teachings by and about Jesus, not even an endowment of special authority over a recognisable organisation, but a personal relationship with the Christ that God raised from the dead.
The story is told from the early 1920s of a Communist leader, Nikolai Bukharin, who was sent from Moscow to Kiev to address an anti-God rally. For an hour he abused and ridiculed the Christian faith. Then questions were invited. An Orthodox Church priest rose and asked to speak. He turned, faced the people and gave the Easter greeting. ‘He is risen!’ Instantly the assembly rose to its feet and the reply came back loud and clear, ‘He is risen indeed!’ (Retold in ‘The Drama of Scripture,’ SPCK, Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen)
The resurrection stands at the centre of the Christian faith. The supreme object of the Christian faith is the risen Jesus. Our doctrine arises from our experience of him, not from any Mormon ‘law of the gospel.’ Our lives are shaped by our personal relationship with him, not with ‘God’s Spirit-led organisation.’
At Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples spilled out into the streets of Jerusalem amazing the crowds by, ‘telling us in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ (Acts 2:11) What mighty works of God?
‘Men of Israel,’ Peter preached, ‘hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know-this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.’ (Acts 2:22-24)
The message of Pentecost was resurrection; the courage of the disciples was grounded in this one truth, ‘God raised him up!’ Later in Acts 4 we read, ‘with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them.’ (Acts 4:33)
Later again, when the apostles were arrested, ‘the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men. The God of our Fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Saviour to give repentance to to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things…’ (Acts 5:27-32)
Witnesses of these things. Witnesses of what things? That God raised him up! The apostles were glad to be known as witnesses of the resurrection. When Paul was asked by believers in Corinth about the resurrection he wrote:
‘I would remind you of the gospel I preached to you…For I delivered to you as of first importance what also I received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’ (1 Cor.15:1-8)
All these witnesses of what? Of Jehovah? No! Of the resurrection. Paul’s gospel was resurrection. He went on to write:
‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is vain…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. ‘I in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people to be pitied.’ (15:13-19)
If all you have is a set of ideas, a handful of principles, a cartful of creeds then you are to be pitied. But if you have the risen Christ…
In the second letter to the Corinthian church Paul writes:
‘…he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence…So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.’ (2 Cor.4:14-18)
The hope of a Christian is a sure hope, grounded in the truth of the resurrection. Because of Jesus’ resurrection we who believe will be raised also and brought into the presence of God.
But what about church? Isn’t that organised? Doesn’t it teach Christian living? Are there not principles, commandments? Is there not order, obedience? The church is pictured in Acts:
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ (Acts 2:42)
There is the church.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
What teaching? ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.’
to the fellowship.
Fellowship around what common theme? ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.’
the breaking of bread.
For what purpose? To remember the sacrifice of the Christ whom ‘God raised from the dead.’
and to prayer.
what prayer? Prayers of thanks that ‘God raised him from the dead.’
The text goes on:
‘Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:43-47)
Unpack these verses to find everything the rest of the New Testament has to say about a church.
Awe towards God; the work of the Spirit; sacrificial giving; regular fellowship; the Lord’s table; family meals; praise and worship; a good reputation; growth through friendship evangelism; discipleship through the teaching of the apostles
And we have ‘the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through Christ Jesus…God-breathed, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ (2 Tim.3:15-17)
The Christian ‘church’ is simply a group of believers congregated around the central truth that ‘God raised Jesus from the dead,’ and living out that truth in our lives. The people of God, gathered around the Word of God, ready to do the will of God. Its messy and that is one reason some people find comfort in the structure and order of a cult. But its life and every attempt to institutionalise, categorise, regiment, and regulate this living body ends in atrophy, disaster and disillusionment. Every move towards living out the simple truth that all we need is found in the person of the risen Christ brings life, power, and eternal hope.
He is risen indeed!