Monday, 14 January 2013

Everything you've always wanted to know about sects ....

Every now and then, I get involved in conversations on the words "sect" and "cult", and what they mean.

Both "sect" and "cult" are negative terms, and they are only used to speak about someone else's church or faith community. It's worse to be a "cult" than it is to be a "sect", but both are pretty bad.

Nobody ever describes their own church / faith community as a "sect" or a "cult".  I've never heard anyone say, "Well, I'd better go, or I'll be late for the service at my sect," or "Our pastor gave a great sermon Sunday at our cult."

Everyone who uses either word uses them to describe groups about which they are negative.  Neither word is used in an appreciative way.  I've never heard anything like "The local sect had a nice carol service this year" or "Our kids really enjoy the Sunday School and youth group that our neighbourhood cult organises."

In terms of formal grammar, "sect" and "cult" are both irregular nouns; and they are declined this way:
  • my "one true church",
  • your "denomination",
  • his / her "sect",
  • their "cult".
There have been many attempts to define both"sect" and "cult".  Some of these attempts have been pedantic.  Many have been confusing.  Most have been remarkably unhelpful.

For what it's worth, here's my own attempt at defining "sect" and "cult".  I'm trying to make them practical definitions, and a fairly simple definitions.  For each definition, please think of a church / faith community you've been part of, either in the past or the present.

Sect:         Does / did your involvement in this group lead you to be  more compassionate or less compassionate in your attitudes toward the bulk of humanity outside your group?  If "more  compassionate", it's not a sect.  If "less compassionate", it probably is a sect.

Cult:        Does / did your involvement in this group lead the people who care most deeply about you to worry about your well-being?  If "no", it's not a cult.  If "yes", it probably is a cult.


  1. Bob,

    I like your definitions and I find them helpful. What I appreciate most is that both definitions are relational and not doctrinal.

    The interesting thing for is me is that according to your definitions and my own experiences I have been involved both with cults and sects. But I knew that, what I now have is two helpful definitions when trying to 'save', rescue some sectarians and cultists. :-)

    Tony Johnson

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tony. The relational character of the definitions was deliberate. This was my first comment, by the way.


Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.