Monday, 5 June 2006

Cult or Sect ? (Part 1)

A sect is, as we all know, a moderately deviant group which we have reservations about. A cult, on the other hand, is an aggressively deviant group which may be downright dangerous. Right?

The problem with that kind of definition is that it bogs down in subjectivity. Would you describe UCG, for example, as a cult or a sect? How do you know? What about Flurry's PCG, the Living Church of God or the Missouri Lutherans?

Sociologists, bless them, have come up with a working definition that avoids all the finger pointing. Conventional churches (denominations) are low-tension in relation to the surrounding culture. Not too many demands on members - or cause to raise eyebrows at the Rotary Club. So Episcopalians (or Anglicans) fit right in (except perhaps in New Hampshire).

Sects exist in a higher state of tension with the world around them. They make greater demands on their members, and knowing that Mrs Mcgillicuddy is a Seventh-day Adventist gives you important information about what makes her tick. Sects are similar to conventional churches in lots of ways. But they put the stress on their differences (denominational distinctives) which they value above the shared features.

Cults, according to the sociologists, are of another order entirely. They share very little with the other churches and sects in society. They come in from the outside with strange, alluring ideas that are novel in the host culture. Scientology has arguably less in common with the Episcopalian church down the street than a gathering of Trekkies, and local Baptists are unlikely to find themselves attending a Moonie service by mistake.

Now, here's the interesting part. Sects seem to recruit a quite different group of people to the cults. Sixteen years ago a major survey of American religous affiliations was conducted with a large sample group. Among the things the survey asked about was educational background. So, how would you rank each of the following faiths in terms of percentage of college graduates? Try making your own list with those you think would have the highest percentage at the top, and the lowest at the bottom. They're listed here in alphabetical order. You might also like to write D, S or C beside each (for denomination, sect or cult).

Assemblies of God
Jehovah's Witnesses
Roman Catholic
Worldwide Church of God

Yes, the WCG - then still a fairly prominent player in the religious marketplace - was included. So, what percentage of college graduates do you think WCG boasted in 1990, and how did sociologists categorize them (us)?

As a bit of a clue, here are the results for 3 other religious groups:

Episcopal (D) 70%
Nazarene (S) 34%
New Age (C) 67%

Answers next time, along with a prediction about the long term viability of Six-pack Gerry's Oklahoma cult... er, sect, um, oh never mind...

(I've taken the information in this series of postings from sociologist Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity.)


Neotherm said...

The terms "cult" and "sect" both have a sociological dimension and a theological dimension. In the sociological dimension, we may draw a distinction between these two from the way they interact with society as a whole, as you point out.

In the theological dimension, this problem becomes considerably more complex. But after thinking about this problem for some time, it simplifies to the issue of "How much of orthodox Christianity do you have to incorporate into your practice and belief to be a Christian?"

For example, what is Armstrongism? It is popularly defined as a Jesus Plus cult. I believe it meets the sociological criteria for a cult but, theologically, how would we define it. Armstrongism has no systematic theology for us to examine (remember the war over the STP back in the Seventies). It has only a collection of brief booklets that have no real theological depth. The periodicals dwell on current events and their prophetic significance. We can only speak to some of its ministers and they may have different views on the role of works in Christian salvation. Some may believe that works are required for salvation and others may believe they are not. Some may have never entertained the topic.

If an Armstrongite pastor believes that works are required for salvation is that de facto evidence that the pastor is a Jesus Plus heretic. Or is he just an immature Christian who has a weak understanding of the Bible.

My belief is that it is not so much what you believe but how one responds to new understanding. For most Armstrongites, then, the pivotal period was around 1995 when the Worldwide News published exhaustive articles focused on the flaws of Armstrongism. Those people who examined these articles and rejected this enlightenment, at that point, made manifest that they were and are cultic heretics. And this, I believe, is the condition of the Armstrongite congregations today.

Anonymous said...

It appears that there are efforts under way by an anti cult group to remove CoG radio programs, such as "Born to Win"(Ron Dart) and "The Wonderful World Tomorrow" (Steve LeBlanc), from Orthodox based Christian radio stations.

They have apparently been very sucessful thus far in pressuring many radio stations to cancel these (and other CoG progams) from their lineup.

See here for more info:

Anonymous said...

So did the NT apostles lead a cult or a sect?

Anonymous said...


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