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.


8 Responses to “Cult, Sect, Denomination”

  1. Martin Elliot Says:

    What has become clear to me is that as each congregation is autonomous, and has its own group dynamics; any group or congregation can become cultish and controlling.

    It has more to do with unchecked authoritarianism and control by a few personalities than anything else.

    Yes there are cultish congregations in the church, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of people in the church would be horrified to know this, but bullies do exist in the church and in some congregations, and some of them are in leadership.

    There is nothing new under the sun.

  2. Another characteristic of a cult that is not identified in my earlier ramblings is this: cults tend to be “unorthodox” in their doctrinal positions. (Orthodox refers to that which conforms to what is traditonally believed; what is customary and generally accepted to be true).

    For example, many refer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult. Using my definition above the JW’s could not be classified as a cult; however, the reason some insist on placing them in this category is because of their unorthodox views on the divinity of Jesus. They believe and teach that Jesus is not Divine but is, rather, a created being. This contradicts the Christian Tradition beginning with the Gospel of John and continuing through the early formulations of the faith within the Christian Church. For this reason, and perhaps others, many classify the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult.

  3. Bob Says:

    Spot on! There are dangers of identity but we (Christians) must be sensible.

  4. alvin Says:

    All religions are cults. While they may not have some of the elements described[who set those standards?]they have the main teachings of their perspective religion. Following their doctrine will bring reward, not will bring punishment!! In Christianity at least there is also a doomsday. Talk about brainwashing. At least in my case was there ever allowed a dissenting view.

    1. Alvin:

      I sincerely regret that you have had what appears to be a very negative experience with Institutional Christianity. I have too! And I make my living working within a mainstream, American, conservative, Christian church. I pray that you can find healing and hope even after your negative experience.

      The tragedy is that your experience is not an exception but, rather, perhaps a part of the larger norm. Loving, thinking, questioning, doubting people are not often welcome within self-absorbed, neurotic, uptight religious institutions.

      But, there are churches where hurting, broken, confused, doubting, questioning, thinking people are made to feel welcome. The church that I now serve is a good example. They put up with my constant questioning: why do we do things this way? Does the Bible really require us to …? These questions are not side-stepped but are placed on the table and reflected upon. In fact, I would say that the spiritual environment here is pretty healthy.

      My rambling about cults, sects, and denominations came out of just one such questioning episode about a year ago. We were going through our history as a fellowship and questioning our own history and our own present situation. Very healthy. The point is that we are NOT a cult simply because no single personality–living or dead–is able to stand up and tell us what we believe and why. Each of us is allowed to examine, question, challenge, reconsider, change our views, and still remain a part of the fellowship of the community. That, by definition, cannot and does not occur in a cult. That was (is) the point of my little essay.

  5. alvin Says:

    I repeat, religion is a cult. Didn’t single out Christianity as you state. It is the same no matter which one. Within all religions there are different denominations.
    Think about it, if you do not agree with the teaching at least of the main premise you are out and have to start a new church. You gave a good example of the JW movement.
    Sure, as you say,in your congregation people can discuss different thoughts and topics but not allowed to voice opposition to traditional Christianity. It is the same in every religion and I don’t blame you or any congregation to stifle them. That is why religion is a cult. No opposition can be tolerated

    1. Austin Says:

      I have a question for you then. By your definition of cult (from my understanding), which is having to agree with the given line of thought, then wouldn’t everything be a cult? I mean, say you work at a coffee shop. One day you decide that coffee is terrible and you start telling the customers that. Well, obviously, you get fired for not agreeing with their line of thought, does that make coffee shops a cult? Now, calling every religion a cult makes it much easier to shut them out. But couldn’t atheism also be considered a cult by your logic? You believe that every religion is false, and you do not accept anyone that believes in any religion. That also sounds like a zero tolerance policy to me. Just some food for thought.

  6. Ross Says:

    I am aware about this problem. But it is doesn’t matter what kind of Religion I have whatever I am an Idolater or a True Christian. It is doesn’t matter what mistakes I had made. God will forgive me for all my sins and God did not condemn me for anything even that I to turn against him. God did not condemn anyone including dangerous Cult Leaders and False Teachers. God love ALL people even those who rejected him and his words. I can have confidence in God who gave his son Jesus, and God will help me with everything.

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