Thank you, my dear friend, for this very good question! Well, cults are certainly started by such as those spoken of in this portion of Scripture, but those to which this Scripture refers could actually be anyone introducing false doctrines, doctrines other than that preached by Paul and the other apostles. By way of background, Timothy had been selected by the apostle Paul to be an overseer in a local Christian assembly, and Timothy is being warned by Paul in the verses you have cited to be on the watch for those who come into the assembly bringing in strange doctrines and teachings that are contrary to the teachings of the apostles, because these folks will try to lead Christians astray. Paul warns about the activities of these imposters in “the latter days,” and I believe that the “latter days” refer to really any time after the time of Paul writing this epistle.

Now, I believe that in 1 Timothy 4:1-3, we are probably speaking of unsaved individuals, who have professed faith in Christ, but who are only going through the motions in hopes of deceiving the Christians in a local assembly into thinking they are true believers. However, they are actually covertly introducing false teachings. These deceivers are, I believe, said to have “departed from the faith” in the sense that they were probably never true believers in the first place, though they purported to be. And while they were doubtless instructed in the Gospel and in all other Scriptural truth, they never truly accepted those truths, and they “moved away” from sound doctrine in their hearts. As a consequence of their rebellious nature and their unbelief, they began purposely to teach false doctrines, perhaps in an attempt to gather their own following, with no concern at all for the edification of the saints. Verse 3 gives us some examples of the false doctrines which Paul was warning about: “…Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” The particular lies cited here are clearly hostile to scriptural truth.  Marriage is certainly not forbidden in the Bible, and actually quite the contrary (Genesis 2:24). Similarly, the dietary laws of the OT are not to be observed in New Testament times by born again Christians, but there are some people (even today) who still teach that we must observe certain food taboos, which Paul clearly shows to be wrong (see Acts 10:9-15).

Now, in 1 Timothy 4, we see that these deceivers pass on the “doctrines of demons,” which means that the true source of their teachings is Satan himself. This is why the teachers of such falsehoods are described in 1 Timothy 4:1 as follows: “…giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils….” These “doctrines of devils” are really anti-Christian doctrines that are encouraged by Satan and the other fallen angels, the purpose of which is to oppose the true Gospel, to tarnish our Christian testimony, and in general to lead Christians astray from the truth. You will probably have noticed that most cults appear to have a few similar outward practices with the true Christian church…they may worship on Sundays, quote Bible verses, sing some hymns, and use common Christian terms such as “church,” “assembly,” “baptism,” the Lord’s Supper,” and they may even call themselves “true Christians.” But the closer inspection reveals that they are not Christians at all. Very likely, the only Bible verses they use are taken out of context, or even translated differently than is generally accepted, and thus the verses are used to support themes that are very anti-Christian. Often in cults, the basic truths of the church are denied, such as the deity of Christ and/or salvation by grace through faith alone, and not works. Their leaders very often claim to have a special revelation from God which is quite contrary to the actual truth of Scripture, or they may try to establish that their leader is actually the Christ, which we know cannot be true (Matthew 24:5). Of such, the apostle Paul warns the Galatians (and us): “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed,” (Galatians 1:6-8). Thus is the warning that Paul is giving to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:1-5.

In summary, Scripture makes it quite clear that from the times of the early church onward, evil will threaten the growth of the church on this earth, and this will become more and more apparent over time, until that Great Day of the Lord when He comes in power and glory to the earth to judge the wicked. This is why he warns Timothy, and why he rebuked the Galatians.  Even in Paul’s day,  false teachers were coming into the church and in fact leading some astray. This type of thing has happened in a growing degree ever since the early days of the church, and we see it happening all around us today. So, we must all today be on guard, and base our beliefs and practices solely upon the firm foundation of God’s Word.  (SF)  (550.6)