Book Review: The Concise Book of Cults

“The Concise Book of Cults” by George H. Martin

Fourteen years ago, as a college freshman, I sat in a philosophy of religion class learning that all belief systems were equally valid, and equally valuable. That same semester, I participated in a small group study on Cults and World Religions at the Baptist Student Union, learning that doctrine matters, and that seemingly small discrepancies can make all the difference in the world when it comes to a person’s eternal destiny.

Those two vastly different experiences opened my eyes to a much wider and more diverse world than I had known, and to the dramatically different ways in which people interpret the world around them. Ever since then, I have had a passionate interest in studying worldview and apologetics. I had to know what is true, and how to defend my faith against those who would seek to deceive me.

This new little book by George Martin begins with a section containing basic questions pertaining to cults. What is a cult? Why are people attracted to them? Why is it important to study them? Martin defines his terms and builds his case concisely (appropriately enough) before launching into an overview of eight religious movements that have gained a measure of prominence in the last two centuries.

Each of these groups contains at least some element of connection with Christianity, though not all are, strictly speaking, cults. The groups Martin has chosen to address include four founded in the 19th century (Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Christian Science) and four that originated in the 20th century (Scientology, the Worldwide Church of God, the Unification Church, and the Jesus Movement).

With just a few pages devoted to each group, this book will not provide more than a superficial understanding of what adherents actually believe. That is not its purpose. What this book can do is serve as a quick-reference guide to the history and founders of each group and the basic tenets of their faith (particularly handy when it’s available at the touch of a button on your smart phone’s Kindle app). It will also, for those who are not well-versed in cults, whet the appetite to learn more. In fact, this book’s greatest asset is its annotated bibliography, which points the reader to the best materials available for further study on the topics it raises.

I should note quickly that Adventism and the Jesus Movement are not universally listed among “cults” by Christians. While Dr. Martin does not firmly say yay or nay on the SDA (“the jury seems still to be out“), he rightly points out that much of what they believe is in line with historical Christianity; while the differences that exist are significant, many Christians (including myself) view Adventism differently from the rest of the groups addressed in the book. Similarly, Martin says the Jesus Movement is not a cult per se, but that the theological vacuum and resistance to the accountability of “organized religion” characterized by this trend of the 60’s and 70’s helped prepare the way for several more extreme groups rebelling against organized Christianity.

The final section of The Concise Book of Cults stresses the practical application of a study of cults. This is another of the book’s strengths, as I greatly appreciate the author’s care and concern that Christians study the Scriptures not just to win arguments, but to win people to Christ. Having sat under Dr. Martin’s teaching at Southern Seminary, I have seen first-hand the heart he has for those who are caught up in false religion, and the zeal that he has to reach them with the gospel. This love is quite evident in this final section, urging believers to pursue further study in order to prepare ourselves better for the mission of evangelism.

As I learned the hard way in my college philosophy class, it’s not popular to assert that there is only one way to be saved; one faith that is objectively true. Yet we cannot back down, for there are so many who are deceived, and who need to truth of the gospel! This book is a useful tool in the preparation for ministry to members of these groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witness who is probably knocking on your door right now. Buy it here.

4 comments on “Book Review: The Concise Book of Cults

  1. Baptist were considered a cult at one time. I don’t buy the idea that because a church dunks the believer makes them anymore Christian than churches that baptize in other ways.

    • John Gardner says:

      As a matter of fact, Dr. Martin addresses the history of Christianity itself being once considered a Jewish cult. And yes, Baptists have been considered to be a cult by some in the past. In fact, depending on one’s definition of “cult”, a case could be made (and has been, quite recently) that we still are.

      And I also don’t buy “the idea that because a church dunks the believer makes them anymore Christian than churches that baptize in other ways.” Thankfully, I don’t know a single Baptist who does.

  2. Randy Davenport says:

    I prefer to use the term sect with SDA, instead of cult. A sect holds to some essential Christian Doctrines while cults have major differences. I like to use math to show what a cult is:
    They ADD to the Word of God
    They SUBTRACT from the nature of Jesus
    They MULTIPLY requirements for salvation
    They DIVIDE their followers loyality

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