It is time to pause and reflect. But let me first explain why. Over the past months, some readers have responded positively to my articles on cults. That has been encouraging and enlightening. Quite often, readers have confirmed from their own experiences what has been written about a specific organization and also provided me with additional, often valuable, information.
On the other hand, a number of readers have responded critically to what has been written. All the responses, whether critical or supportive, have been considered respectfully and in detail.
Underlying the critical responses, one detects a feeling of hurt and even disgust that their group has been described as a cult or as possessing cultic characteristics. I understand this sense of hurt. That is to be expected, for members of cults naturally see themselves quite differently.
And this is the context in which I am going to pause and reflect. Consequently, in this article and also next month’s, I will reflect on terms such as ‘sect’, ‘cult’ and ‘new religious movement’ (abbreviated to NRM). They are key terms. Such words are traditionally used to refer to groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Moonies or the Family of Love.
But how are these terms being used today? What do they mean? Which term, if any, should we employ? The answers, I am afraid, are somewhat complex, but let me explain and consider these terms. I confine myself in this month’s article to the term ‘sect’.
For sociologists like Professor Bryan R. Wilson the term ‘sect’ is preferable to that of ‘cult’ or ‘NRM’. There appear to be three reasons at least for this preferred term on the part of some sociologists.
Firstly, they regard it as a neutral term; it neither condemns a group nor assesses its teaching in a judgmental manner. With this usage there are no unfavourable innuendos or associations. It really is a harmless yet useful term for sociologists.
Secondly, used in this way, the term ‘sect’ assumes an exclusively social significance. For example, there are specific social factors and changes in society that facilitate the emergence, appeal and demise of sects.
This will be illustrated later. But I want to underline here the fact that in using the term ‘sect’ sociologists are seeking to describe and understand the phenomenon from a social perspective alone. They are not interested in deciding whether the teaching is biblical or not.
Thirdly, for sociologists the term ‘sect’ has a long and varied history. The point is well made. They remind us that sects have appeared at regular intervals in the history of the church, especially since the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.
For example, some groups in Martin Luther’s time were wildly excitable, charismatic and even irresponsible. Yet, later, the Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others were often regarded as sects posing a threat to both the established church and the state.
In the eighteenth century the Methodists also tended to be viewed as a sect. According to sociologists, the emergence of sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Christadelphians in the second part of the nineteenth century fits into this historical pattern of deviant groups.
For these reasons, then, sociologists tend to use the term ‘sect’ but they do so in a neutral way.
There are advantages in using the word ‘sect’ in these ways and two advantages can be mentioned. One is that sociologists can express neutrality and tolerance through use of this term. Indeed, they can be viewed as encouraging religious freedom by their neutrality.
And that is commendable in our religiously pluralist society, consistent with Christian ‘charity’ and in accord with the European Convention on Human Rights (in particular Article 9 of this Convention, which came into force in September 1953).
In 1981, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted an even stronger resolution, calling for the removal of all expressions of intolerance and discrimination.
There is a challenge to Christians in this context. In a concern to proclaim the unique gospel of Christ and expose error, we must at the same time support and safeguard the principle of religious freedom for all who live in our society, whatever their beliefs.
This is not compromise. And it is not a move towards a softer or inclusive attitude towards error. Not at all. But it is acknowledging people’s right to have freedom of thought, conscience and religion in our democratic society.
Another advantage stemming from the sociological use of ‘sect’ is the understanding and perceptive insights which sociologists can provide on the emergence, nature and development of such groups in society.
I find this aspect of the subject fascinating and enlightening. For example, whether you use the term ‘sect’, ‘cult’ or ‘NRM’, you are describing a minority that constitutes less than 1% of the UK population.
For a variety of reasons, these people do not adhere to dominant forms of religion. Such individuals are usually different in what they believe and do. And they can be glaringly different from, for example, Roman Catholics or Protestant Christians.
But the differences are even more profound when viewed in the context of the secular society. A Jehovah’s Witness, for example, is not allowed to attend school assemblies and RE lessons, join the Armed Forces, or participate in local or national politics. In spite of recent ‘relaxations’, they still cannot receive a life-saving blood transfusion without risking excommunication. The element of withdrawal from society can be prominent in some groups.
Sects, in varying degrees, are protest movements against Christendom and especially against a secularized society. Secularizing processes continued within society during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and accelerated from the 1950s onwards.
In the past, churches fulfilled numerous vital functions for society. They provided social cohesion, a sense of identity, a theological framework for morality (with its restraints and rewards), and social concern and comfort for the suffering and dying.
But seculari-zation has profoundly affected the church, resulting in widespread fragmentation of religious and social values. Group identity now tends to be expressed more in terms of political or economic class or ethnic boundaries. It is no longer the church that provides support and counselling for the needy, but secular agencies and specialist professions.
Profound and broad social changes, therefore, have occurred in British society over the past decades, and there are many causes and indicators. One indicator relates to family life. In England and Wales, church marriages have fallen from 251,368 in 1970 to 77,500 in 2000.
UK divorces have doubled since 1976 to 155,000 in year 2000; 14% of men and women in England and Wales cohabit. The number of children under sixteen in England and Wales, whose parents are divorced, has soared from 82,304 in 1971 to 159,671 in 1996. Of these, 44% are aged between five and ten.
Sociologists then can assist our understanding of these complex changes and the ‘appeal’ of new or older ‘sects’ or ‘cults’.
However, this use of the term ‘sect’ can be criticised in two ways. First, there are major differences between sects in the past and contemporary ones. Historically, sects were schisms within and from the dominant church. Today, that is rarely true, for sects can be secular, Oriental or post-Christian, with no links at all with Christian churches.
Secondly, as Christians we must insist on a theological evaluation of what a sect teaches. There is no choice for us. Why not? Because the Bible is God’s Word and his only word. God is its author and the words as well as the teaching of the Bible are his in their entirety (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21).
For that reason, the Bible is reliable in all that it says. All beliefs, experiences and practices, whether social or religious, must be tested by this sole authority. And that is why Christians, unlike sociologists, must and do evaluate sects from a Bible perspective.
There is a further and related reason. The Bible gives the only answer to human sin, guilt and estrangement from God. And that answer centres in the cross of Christ. God the Father punished his only Son in our place so that we can be reconciled to God.
The death of Christ for sinners is an astonishing demonstration of amazing love. All we must do in response is to ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 16:31). At the moment of trusting Christ, we are saved.
For these reasons, I prefer not to use the term ‘sect’. What about the terms ‘cult’ and ‘NRM’? That must be left for next month