Since Beacon Lights intends to publish a series of essays on Cults and Sects, the purpose of this article is to introduce the subject, so that we may make our acquaintance with those groups that appear round about us as cults or sects. We face the question: What are cults? And what are sects.
The term “sect” is probably more confusing than the term “cult”. There is by no means agreement as to what is meant by a sect. Much less is there agreement whether a certain group is rightfully called a sect or not.
Turning first of all to the dictionary, we find that Webster defines a sect as: “A group of people having a common leader or a distinctive doctrine or way of thinking.” From what Webster gives as further explanation of this term, we may conclude that according to the common opinion a sect is: 1. A group that has broken away from an established church. 2. This group has its own interpretation of the Scriptures in distinction from the established church. 3. Finally, this group has its own practices, resulting from its own distinctive views of the Scriptures.
With that definition before us we ask ourselves: How we can determine whether a certain group is or is not a sect? The answer to that question would depend upon another question: What must be understood by “the established church”? For example, the Roman Catholic Church maintains that she is the oldest, and therefore the only true and universal church. Therefore, all the Protestant Churches since the Reformation must be considered sects! The pope may refer to them as “separated brethren”, but according to the position of the Catholic Church we are all nothing more than a sect. And Catholics will appeal to the fact that ever since the Reformation the Protestant Churches have experienced nothing but splits and division into hundreds of denominations, which would seem to prove that the Protestants are certainly sectarian.
That raises another question: Is it a matter of opinion whether or not a certain group is a sect? Since each church maintains that it has the pure interpretation of the Scriptures, and all others have departed from the truth of Scripture, can each church assume the right to call the other a sect? And must we conclude from that, that there is no real “established church” on earth, no true church in distinction from the false, and therefore no real sect in the absolute sense of the word? Are all denominations both true church and sect at the same time, all according to the point of view that is taken?
Even more: Should we take the attitude that there is even something very desirable about having many “churches” or many “sects”? I quote from what Geo. W. Gilmore remarks in the Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, III, page 202, “Judging from the universal tendency of religion to develop sects, if history forecasts the future, oneness of belief will never be attained. And if the apparent demands of human nature be taken into reckoning, such a result is not desirable. The Calvinistic mind must be left to its adoration of the mathematical precision of definite and exact foreordination, while the Arminian mind rejoices in the absolute responsibility of the individual for his own salvation or destruction.”
In that case a doctrinal position is nothing more than a matter of opinion. And each opinion has something in its favor. Let every man be happy with his own opinion.
But what about Scripture? Is this in harmony with all that Scripture teaches? And surely Scripture has something very definite to say about this.
The word “sect” appears also in Scripture. The Greek word is hairesis. You will immediately recognize the word ‘heresy’ in it. Hairesis means “the act of choosing”, “choice”. Also: “That which is chosen”, hence, “a chosen opinion or tenet”. And thus: “A body of men separating themselves from others and following their own tenets, a sect or party”.
In that last sense, we read of the sect of the Sadducees in Acts 5:17, the sect of the Pharisees in Acts 15:5. Which Paul calls “the straitest sect of our religion” in Acts 26:5. These Sadducees and Pharisees deviated from the “law of Moses”, the Old Testament Scriptures, to follow views and tenets invented by mere men. Therefore, they were rightfully branded as “sects”.
As may well be expected, the Jews who rejected the Christ were ready to heap reproach upon the disciples of Christ by branding them as a sect. In Acts 24:5 the believers are reproached as “the sect of the Nazarenes”. And their way was condemned as heresy in Acts 24:14. (See also Acts 28:22). This is a case where wicked men resort to evil reproach to defend their error and to condemn those who hold the truth of Scripture.
Paul points out to the church at Corinth that there must be heresies (sects) in the church, in order that “they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” Notice that those who hold the truth are approved by God, and, by implication, those who depart from the truth suffer His disapproval. How then can we ever speak well of any sect?! Sects only serve their divinely appointed purpose to bring out the contrast between truth and error, so that the truth may be manifest in contrast to the lie. Again, in Galatians 5:20 the sin of heresy (sects) is mentioned in one breath with such sins as idolatry, witchcraft, strife, sedition, murders and drunkenness. Not those who expose such evils are to be frowned upon as “heresy hunters”, as is so often the case today, but those who introduce heresy are to be condemned in no uncertain terms. They are guilty of disrupting the peace of Jerusalem! Also, Peter speaks in that strain when he points to “damnable heresies” that creep into the church in the last times through false teachers! II Peter 2:1.
On the basis of Scripture, the Church is the gathering of the elect believers and their spiritual seed. This church is gathered by the Son of God from the dawn of history until the end of time out of every nation, until the entire assembly of the elect is gathered into heavenly perfection with Christ in glory. This church has a real unity, for it is the body of Christ. Christ is her Head, and the elect are so many members of His body, each functioning according to his own place in the body. This unity is realized through the operation of the Spirit in the hearts of the believers. All true believers possess the same life of Christ through the bond of faith. They are knit together in the love of God, confessing one God and one Lord, one righteousness and holiness in Christ, one hope of salvation. And since the Spirit of Christ always works through the means of the Word, this Word of God, the Scriptures are the foundation of the church. The Church is founded upon the Word of God, and gives expression to that Word in her Confessions.
Therefore, we can also readily recognize the true church in distinction from any sect. Quoting from Article 29 of our Belgic Confession: “We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church….The Marks by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ: if church discipline is exercised in punishment of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.”
From which we may conclude that a sect is any group that separates itself from the True Church to maintain doctrines and practices that are contrary to the Word of God it becomes a sect. And a sect may be recognized as a group that holds the philosophies of men rather than the truth of Scripture, and condones practices that are plainly contrary to Scripture. The Bible is always criterion.
Cults differ from sects only in kind. The word comes from the Latin word “cultus”, which means “worship”. A cult is therefore a system of religious belief and worship. The word may even refer to the rites and ceremonies employed in some worship. And as the term is used in our discussion of Cults and Sects it means a body of people who band together, usually even isolating themselves from others, to show excessive devotion to some man or tenet, contrary to the Scriptures, and give expression to that devotion with man-made rites and ceremonies. Again, Scripture must be the criterion in determining “cults”! For Scripture is always the only and sure criterion!