I’ve been dialoguing with friends recently about the myriad world religions, sects, and denominations that comprise these religions and it fueled the question: Why are Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims called “sects” while Methodists and Lutheran Christians are called “denominations”? And to further complicate matters why do most within Christianity refer to Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnessses as “cults? What in the world is the difference!?
The best way to get to the bottom of this question is to tackle each term separately – divide and conquer. Let’s first take a look at the term “sect”. Sect comes from the Latin “secta” which has two definitions – one means to follow a ‘clear lifestyle path’ on another. This definition was the common usage or meaning behind secta during the heyday of Rome – almost two millenia ago. The second definition for secta meant more to cut away or separate as with a sharp instrument. i.e. scissors etc. This second definition wouldn’t have made much sense 1800 years ago but today, when we think of ‘sect’, both definitions combined make the most sense. A sect is a truly separate ‘path’ from within a world religion that then forms, grows, and operates parallel to its mother religion. Sects usually carry a different definition of theology proper (who God is and what are His attributes) and soteriology (methodology of salvation) from the parent faith and often holds to a different definition of deity or no deity altogether i.e. Buddhism.
You might be thinking, “And this is different from a denomination in Christianity, how?“. Great question mind man! A denomination within the world religion of Christianity carries with it, a strikingly similar definition to denomination as with a currency. Ultimately it is a naming convention denoting smaller groups of essentially the same religion. Within Christianity – the vast majority believe and accept other denominations as ‘brothers and sisters’ in the faith but differ (sometimes greatly) on matters of ecclesiology – (What the visible church should look like, how it should operate) and pneumatology (how the person of the Holy Spirit interacts with believers).
The best analogy that I can think of is currency – at one point America, Australia, and Canada (before they were independent members of the “commonwealth”) operated by the British pound or “Sterling”. When each colony began to operate with a level of economic independence, they created their own currency (a sect) this new currency became completely differentiated from the old British sterling currency in that it would usually require a ‘conversion’ of sorts to go from the old to the new (I realize this breaks down with many world religion sects but bear with me). Now if I were to have a 10lb note in the UK and sought to change to two 5lb notes – I wouldn’t need to ‘convert’ anything as ultimately it is still the same base currency. I am just looking for a different denomination from within the same currency that, perhaps, is a better fit for my usage etc. This is how it works for Christian denominations.
Christian denominations do not change with regards to proper theology as most religious ‘sects’ do they are simply carrying a difference of ecclesiology, or perhaps pneumatology. But who God is, His attributes, and how salvation works remain essentially the same (with the exception of Roman Catholicism which holds to a grace+works soteriology)(I use altogether)(too many parentheticals). So within Christianity – it is the same currency but a different (smaller) denomination than the gigantic early denominations of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox.
Now, for the monkey wrench in the machine – Where oh where does a “cult” fit into this crazy picture!? Settle down there question guy. The man that truly popularized the term “cult” in the sixties was Dr. Walter Martin and the definition he gives in his famous bestseller “The Kingdom of The Cults” defines a cult as:
“A religious group who adheres to major doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity. It deviates from the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.”
I greatly respect the ministry of Dr. Martin but must say that I believe this definition to be incomplete. This definition covers all cults that spring from Christianity but what about the cults that emerge from Buddhism and/or Shintoism (Falon Gong) or the cults that emerge from Hinduism (Hare Krishnas, TM – Transcendental Meditationists of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh) or the cults that emerge from Islam – like the “Nation of Islam” which claims that Muhammad was reincarnated in the apparition of Paul Ford (reverand Elijah Muhammad)? Or science fiction’s “Scientology” and “Heaven’s Gate”? Cults come from a great many world religions and secular organizations with no emphasis on religion whatsoever!
I believe a more comprehensive definition of the term “cult” is required along the lines of:
Any exclusive group that rallies around a charismatic leader which demands the surrender of personal freedoms: socially, economically, and psychologically under the threat of ostracism and/or separation from loved ones still in the group. Criticism is forbidden (not just discouraged) also under the threat of complete exclusion and ostracism.
I give this definition on my website truthforsaints.com where I provide a bit more detail as to the characteristics of a cult but ultimately, suffice it to say that the difference between a sect and a cult and a denomination and a cult is that usually the above characteristics are missing – with Islam – a Muslim faces ostracism if there is a refusal to ‘submit’ or ‘surrender’ socially, economic, and psychological world views but it lacks the charismatic leader and exclusive “club” mentality of a true cult. It may have at one time qualified as a cult of “Muhammad” but that would have been 1400 years ago and shortly after Muhammad’s death, this ‘cult’ emerged as a world religion in its own right – emerging from the plagiarized theology and writings of the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible to become a stand alone faith: Islam.
Mormonism has for years been considered a cult of “Joseph Smith” however, due to size, widespread acceptance and growth, it is now beginning to emerge as its own world religion – despite the plagiarism of the Christian Scriptures and recent efforts to curry the favor of disenchanted Christians by passing itself off as “just another Christian denomination”. It has never been a Christian denomination as with other Christian cults – Mormonism possesses its own definition of who/what god is and how salvation works. Even Smith’s idea of the afterlife is a vast departure of anything Christian. The name “Jesus Christ” rests upon the outside of their church but it is a decidedly different Jesus – not the Creator of all things seen and unseen but rather a created spirit brother of the devil. Christian denominations all hold to the Deity of Christ and the Manhood of Christ in a perfect union. Christian cults reject this and embrace a new definition provided by their charismatic leader: i.e. Joseph Smith, or Charles Taze Russell and Judge Rutherford of the Jehovah’s Witness (Jesus is a created being – Michael the archangel).
Cults usually emerge from a larger “parent” faith/belief system and thereafter vary wildly from the essentials of that belief system seeking to dominate the psyche, social, familial, and economic lives of their adherents. This is what differentiates them from a “sect” of various world religions and differentiates from the “denominations” of Christianity. Just as we should be warned not to mistake a cult for simply being a “variant” of a world religion. In all fairness, we should not mistake a world religion for being nothing more than a cult. The major world religions today are: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Jainism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism, Naturalism, and Animism. To get more information about these various world religions: their size, date of origin, founder(s), and basic theological construct, you can visit my world religions page and see a side by side comparison chart that I made some years ago.
Ultimately the primary belief ecosystems are World Religions, Sects, Denominations, and Cults and there IS a definitive difference between each one. Please feel free to comment with any questions, additions, etc. below!