What is a Sect?

The terms "sect" and "sectarianism" are applied in the religious, philosophical and the political realms. When we hear these terms we begin to have negative feelings. Nobody wants to be a sectarian, and nobody wants to belong to a sect.

However, the meaning of the word "sect" is not slanderous at all.

The word derives from the Latin secta meaning "followed principle, guideline and party". The Latin noun (according to 'Duden's German dictionary') probably belongs to the Latin sequi (secutum), which means "to follow". The noun "sectarian" - follower of a sect - first appears in the 17th century. It is interesting to note the connection between the words "sequi" and "con-sequent" (in Latin con-sequi - "follow together"). Most common dictionaries explain the term "sect" in the religious realm, as a small fellowship, separated from a Christian church or other main religions.

Christian publications deal in more detail with the term "sect". For example, amongst other things, P. Honigseim writes on page 1657 of 'Religion: Past and Present':

"A sect is a structure which is primarily related to religion and has the following features: small in number, it stands next to a comprehensive structure; the members consider themselves to be elite; they have close fellowship; they adhere to special differences that often seem to be rather minor; they assimilate slower (take more time to move into surrounding groups and fellowships <editors note>); and might suffer persecution, detention or loss of reputation. The leadership is less bureaucratic and more charismatic (led by God's Spirit, or by whatever they consider to be God's Spirit <editors note>)."

Honigseim compares the sects with the church. He divides them into three main types of sects: the "aggressive sect", the "tolerated sect" and the "assimilating sect". The first one has a striking militant appearance, whereas the second one "denies violence and exists unrecognised". The "assimilating sect" gives in to the pressures of the environment and makes concessions. All sects can end, or scatter, after the death of their founder. The "aggressive sect" is often persecuted and greatly decimated. The remainder then approaches another type. A sect ceases to be a sect when, for example, members practising another way of life join, and concessions are made, or when one gives in and adjusts to the environmental pressures.

R. Mayer states that, according to Protestant church law, sects are "special religious fellowships, which deviate from national and free churches in fundamental points." They are not churches in the sense of the ecclesia visibilis universalis (the universal, visible church), but are "basically, within the Christian realm." (Religion: Past and Present, page 1662).

Some Bible translations use the word "sect" for the Greek hairesis, e.g. Luther in his '1545 Biblia Germanica', in ACTS 5:17; ACTS 15:5; ACTS 24:5, etc.

When we read the definition above, various questions arise:

1. Do we have the right to call a minority a "sect"? Where are the boundaries?

2. After reading the above definition, are "sects" really objectionable? When we think of the beginnings of the Reformation; of the Catharists and Albigenses; the Hussites and Huguenots; even of the beginnings of Christianity; then they would also fit that definition. Furthermore, is it not important for every Christian to hold on to their principles, and to defend the truth, if necessary at the risk of freedom and life? ("You can take away the body, possessions, honour, wife and child, etc... but you cannot take this away.")

Think about the time of the "religious wars" during the Hitler era. Who decides which differences in teaching are "only minor" for the individual?

3. The definition states that sects are groups, small in number. However, we know that, for instance, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, etc. have a large membership. Therefore, does wrong become right simply by gaining a significant number of followers?

We need other criteria. Therefore, I suggest testing a fellowship which purports to be "Christian" according to the following points:

  1. Do they preach the JESUS of the Bible? (1 JOHN 4:1-3)
  2. Do they acknowledge Him as LORD? (1 CORINTHIANS 12:3)
  3. Do they add something to salvation through Jesus, which they also consider to be necessary? (ROMANS 3:28; GALATIANS 1:9)
  4. Do they accept the Bible as God's Word? Do they believe that the Bible is right on any questions of doubt, as long as we understand it correctly?
  5. Do they listen to advice, or do they consider their fellowship to be without mistakes?
  6. Do they accept that other fellowships can also be true followers according to the judgment of God, or do they consider it necessary to be a member of their group for salvation, and therefore deprive everybody else of it? Do they accuse us of lack of obedience, of improper imitation of Christ, or of having no authority...?

If all these questions can be answered in a positive way, we must not speak of a "sect". Differences in knowledge will appear time and again. We may not be able and be prepared to personally identify ourselves with certain teachings; nevertheless, we acknowledge our brothers. It may be that it is our duty to point out to them certain dangers and errors and therefore serve them according to JAMES 5:19-20 and JUDE 23.

However, it is different with somebody who: "...transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ..."(2 JOHN 9). Scripture says of him: "receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:" (2 JOHN 10).

Our time requires special vigilance. We need useful criteria and we can find them in God's Word.

Translated from the German: "Was ist eine Sekte?"

Source: 'Topic', No.6, 1986, Page 7