We use terms so loosely that we often fail to communicate. Since affiliating myself with Churches of Christ in 1978 I have often heard the mantra, “We are neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jew.” (This is the title of a tract written by Batsell Barrett Baxter and Carroll Ellis). During the almost 30 years of my journey within Churches of Christ I have often heard us define ourselves in similar, negative terms: “We are not a cult, nor a sect, nor a denomination … we are simply Christians.”
Being an outsider (I wasn’t “raised in the Lord’s Church”) I dare not criticize too quickly. But, now having almost 30 years of history with the Churches of Christ, perhaps I can offer my perspective.
First, we must be something. It is impossible to define oneself in negative terms forever. Even a short-term effort at such a feat will result in precisely what we now have within Churches of Christ: a chronic identity crisis.
Second, we must play by the rules of civilized humanity. According to the accepted definition of the terms, we’re either a sect or a denomination. Only the fiercest of our critics would call us a cult and, even then, he or she would be wrong in his or her assessment. We simply do not fit the definition of a cult. But, one way or another, we must decide whether we are a sect or a denomination and be at peace with ourselves.
Cult – A Working Definition.
A cult is a dangerous and authoritarian religious group usually led by a single, charismatic leader. A cult will often employ methods of mind control and fear to enforce behavioral expectations. Many cults in the USA are classified as mind control cults or doomsday cults. A cult often uses deceptive practices and dangerous psychological pressure techniques such as brainwashing to retain member loyalty.
Sect – A Working Definition.
A sect is a Christian group that sees itself as the only True Church because of the particular doctrinal positions it holds or religious practices it observes. Any person or any group not agreeing with these doctrinal positions or religious practices is determined to be an apostate church and, therefore, invalid, non-Christian, and not a part of God’s Kingdom on earth.
A sect tends to be very exclusive and isolationistic in its posture toward the larger Christian community. Furthermore, a sect tends to deny all ties to and influences from the historical developments within Christianity in general (“we’re the church that Jesus established on Pentecost” is a commonly heard assertion). A sect, by definition, has neither acknowledged unity nor practiced fellowship with other Christian groups.
Sects tend to emphasize the areas of disagreement that they have with the greater Christian community. Such disagreements preclude any perceived sense of actual commonality they may share with other Christians. Normally a sect emphasizes its own distinctive doctrinal positions or religious practices as being the “defining characteristics of the True Church.” Such an emphasis prohibits the sectarian mindset from entering into open fellowship with other “Christians” for fear of tainting the True Church and thereby losing its favorable status with God.
Denomination – A Working Definition.
A Denomination is an established Christian group that has distinctive doctrinal positions on various issues but sees itself as merely a smaller, identifiable sub-part of the larger whole. In other words, the Body of Christ is made up of all who belong to Jesus. Most denominationalists acknowledge that knowing precisely who belongs to Jesus Christ is humanly impossible (the “True Church of Christ” is invisible to human eyes). Furthermore, most practice an “err-on-the-side-of-inclusion” posture toward others who acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus.
A Denomination believes that its particular group, with its unique history and doctrinal particularities, is clearly distinguishable from other Christian groups in terms of doctrinal beliefs and religious practices; however, a Denomination views itself as merely a unique part of the larger whole. Many Denominations practice open unity and fellowship with one another, emphasizing the areas of commonality that they share, while retaining their own distinctive characteristics.