Definitions of terms:
Cults, Sects and Denominations
"...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion;
and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect;
but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult." Leo Pfeffer. A humorous quotation, but one that is uncomfortably close to reality.
"Cults are claimed to be deceitful. They are claimed
to be harmful to their members. They are claimed to be undermining
American values. Cults are claimed to be just about every bad thing in
the book these days, and with the pervasive images of Manson and Jim
Jones hanging over us, any group that is called a cult is immediately
associated with those two people." J. Gordon Melton.
"My working definition of a cult is a group that you
don't like, and I say that somewhat facetiously, but at the same time,
in fact, that is my working definition of a cult. It is a group that
somebody doesn't like. It is a derogatory term, and I have never seen it
redeemed from the derogatory connotations that it picked up in the
sociological literature in the 1930s." J. Gordon Melton.
"A cult is a church down the street from your church."
Many common religious terms lack a generally accepted, single, current definition. This leads to confusion over the meanings of
certain religious terms, such as Christian,
cult hell, heaven,
Paganism, salvation, Witch,
Witchcraft, Unitarian, Universalist,
Voodoo, etc. A reader must often look at
the context in which the word is used in order to guess at the intent of the
In the newsgroup alt.usage.english, terms like this one are often
called "skunk words." They have diverse meanings to different
people. They have so many meanings that they often cause
misunderstandings wherever they are used. Unfortunately, most people do not know
this, and naturally assume that the meaning that they have been taught is the
universally accepted definition of the term.
The term "Unitarian" is a good example:
- Pre-1776 CE: Belief in a single God and the rejection of the Christian concept of the
- Post-1775: A creedless and dogma-free religious organization. The
Association, (UUA) is an association of Unitarian congregations.
Utter confusion reigns when an author is using one definition of "Unitarian,"
while a reader assumes the other meaning. Misunderstandings also happen when an author
assumes that both definitions refer to the same organization or belief.
One of the most confusing and dangerous religious term is "Cult".
The word is derived from the French word "culte" which came from Latin noun "cultus."
The latter is related to the
Latin verb "colere" which means "to worship or give reverence to a
deity." Thus, in its original meaning, the term "cult" can be applied to any
group of religious believers: Southern Baptists, Mormons,
Jehovah's Witnesses, Roman Catholics,
Hindus or Muslims. However, the term has since been assigned at
least eight new and very different meanings. The original meaning of "cult" remains
positive; more recent definitions are neutral, negative, or extremely negative:
- Positive Meaning:
- Neutral Meanings:
- Sociological usage: A small religious group that exists in a state of
tension with the predominant religion. Hinduism might be
considered a cult in North America; Christianity might be
considered a cult in India.
- Additional sociological usage: An innovative, fervent
religious group, as contrasted with more established and
conventional sects and denominations.
- The Observer: An English newspaper seemed to use the term to refer to
small religious group, no matter what its age or teachings. 1
- General religious usage: A small, recently created, religious organization
which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as an spiritually
innovative group. A cult in this sense may simply be a new religious movement on its way
to becoming a denomination. The Christian religion, as it existed in 30 CE might be
considered a cult involving one leader and 12 or 70 devoted disciples as followers. The Mormon denomination
was started in the 19th century by Joseph Smith and a few followers; it
met this definition of "cult" but has since grown to become an established denomination of about 15 million members.
- Negative Meanings:
- Evangelical Christians and Counter-Cult Movement
usage: They define a cult as any religious group which accepts most
but not all of the
key historical Christian doctrines (e.g. the divinity of Jesus, virgin birth,
the Trinity, salvation by faith, not works, etc.). The implication is that the cult's theology is invalid; they teach heresy. Under this
definition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), Unification Church, Jehovah's Witnesses,
and many others
would be cults. But the CCM would not classify Wicca
as such, because it is not associated with Christianity. The earliest use of this meaning
of the word "Cult" is believed to be a 1938 book "The Chaos of the Cults"
by J.K. VanBaalen. On the other hand, new religious groups such as
the Mormons, Unification Church and
Jehovah's Witnesses generally
regard themselves to be the true Christian church. They view all
other denominations as being in error. Thus, one group's true
church is another group's cult. One group's heresy is the other group's
- Fundamentalist Christian usage: Some Fundamentalists would accept the Evangelical
definition of cult defined above. Others brand any religious group which
deviates from historical Protestant Christian beliefs as a cult.
This definition would include the LDS Church, Wicca, mainline and liberal Christian denominations, Islam, Hinduism, and all of the other
religions of the world. The vast majority of humanity would belong to cults, by this definition.
- Anti-cult movement usage:
The anti-cult movement (ACM) attempts to raise public consciousness about what they
see as dangerous and authoritarian mind control cults and doomsday cults. Most do not care about the faith group's theology.
They target only what they see as deceptive practices, and dangerous psychological
pressure techniques, such as brainwashing. The ACM appears to hold opinions about the
effectiveness of brainwashing that are not shared by the mental-health community
generally. They see mind control/doomsday cults as a widespread social problem.
- Very negative meaning:
- Popular, media usage: A cult is considered a small, evil religious group,
often with a single charismatic leader, that engages in brainwashing and other
mind control techniques, believes that the end of the world is imminent,
and collects large amounts of weaponry in preparation for a massive war. The earliest use of this meaning of the word is believed to have been in a 1965
book by Walter Martin "The Kingdom of the Cults"
We have seen "cult" used to refer to Evangelical
denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, Unification
Church, Church of Scientology, United Church of
Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wiccans,
other Neopagans and many other faith groups. The term
is essentially meaningless.
Past uses of the term "cult":
The main opposition to the CCM and ACM have been:
- Academics who study the emergence of new religions. They have shown
that new religious movements have been continually created for
millennia. Some grow into unique religions or denominations within
- Mental health professionals specializing in the study of
psychological manipulation. They have studied new religious movements
and found that the vast majority are harmless. People join these small
faith groups because they feel that the group offers something of value
at that stage in their life. Members typically leave after a few years.
Individuals in the ACM and CCM
sometimes refer to these academics and professionals by the
derogatory term "cult apologists."
Recommended use of the term "cult":
- In 1998-MAY, the Associated
Press decided to avoid the use of the word "cult" because it had
acquired a pejorative aura; they have since given preference to the term "sect."
- In 1990-FEB, an editorial by Terry Muck in Christianity Today -- the
largest Evangelical magazine in the U.S. -- recommended that Christians
should avoid using the word. He cited three reasons:
- "The spirit of fair play suggests it is best to refer to groups
of people as they refer to themselves."
- "There is also a theological reason for avoiding [the label, for
it wrongly implies that certain sinners] are the worst kind."
- "It simply does not work well to use disparaging terms to
describe the people whom we hope will come to faith in Christ.... In
fact, we are commanded to love them as ourselves."
- We recommend that the word "cult" never be used in
reports, articles, essays, sermons, etc. without
careful definition in advance -- and perhaps not even then. The negative
associations linked to the word are so intense that its use will
automatically lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
- Using a term such as "new religious movement," "alternative religious movement,"
"emergent religion," or
"faith group." These terms are more precise and have not (yet) been burdened by so
many negative connotations, as has "cult."
- Using a term such as "heretical" or "spiritual counterfeit"
to describe a faith group with whom you disagree on theological grounds.
But be aware that the words "heretical" and "heresy"
are relative terms. If group "A" considers group "B" to be
heretical, then group "B" will probably consider group "A" to also
be heretical. They will both be right, relative to their own belief
- An even better usage is to simply refer to the group by its
Of course, if you are an author, public speaker or teleminister who wants to direct public fear and hatred
against a new religious group, then "cult" is an ideal word to use. But the use
of the term may be irresponsible and immoral, depending upon your system of values. We suspect, but cannot prove, that some Internet web sites, including
- Counter-cult groups -- those who mainly attack
Christian denominations and sects which promote novel beliefs, and
- Anti-cult groups -- those who attack
high-intensity new religious movements which require a strong commitment
from their members,
intentionally use the term "cult" for manipulative
purposes. They hope that their visitors will bring with them fear and
loathing of dangerous faith groups, like the former Branch Davidians or Heaven's Gate,
and transfer these negative feelings to such denominations as the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the
This web site normally refers only to "doomsday faith groups"
-- ones who have experienced loss of life among their membership -- as
Meaning of the word "denomination:"
A Denomination is an established religious group, which has usually been
in existence for many years and has geographically widespread membership. It typically
unites a group of individual congregations into a single administrative body.
Denominations differ greatly in the sharing of power between individual congregations and
the central authority. Baptist churches have historically allowed individual churches to
hold diverse beliefs. (An exception is the Southern Baptists Convention who reversed
centuries of tradition and expelled some congregations over their treatment of homosexuals.) Other denominations,
like the Roman Catholic Church, centralize authority, and allow congregations little
freedom to deviate in beliefs, practices, or policies.
Meaning of the word "sect:"
A sect is a small religious group that is an offshoot of an established
religion or denomination. It holds most beliefs in common with its religion of origin, but has a number of
novel concepts which differentiate them from that religion.
However, in many countries, the term "sect" takes on the negative
meanings associated with the word "cult." The two terms are
considered synonyms in some cases.
Many religions started as sects. One well-known example was the Nazarenes. This was an
reform movement within Judaism formed by Jesus' apostles after the execution of Jesus
circa 30 CE They were largely dispersed or killed some four decades later when the Romans
attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.
Perhaps the most obvious North American example of a sect that evolved into a
denomination is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the
Mormons. Their founder, Joseph Smith, had a revelation from God that the ministry of Jesus
Christ continued after his crucifixion, as described in what is now called the
Mormon. The Mormon sect has since evolved into the Mormon denomination of Christianity
with the passage of time and the gathering of increasing numbers of followers. Within a
few decades, it is expected to become the dominant faith group in the American west. When
statehood was being considered for Utah, a major impediment was the beliefs and practices
in the Church regarding polygyny. Shortly after a new revelation from God banned the
practice, statehood was granted. This caused a number of small sects to break away from
the established church, in order to allow their male followers to continue to have
multiple wives. Some of these sects continue to this day in the United States and Canada,
although they have been excommunicated by the main LDS Church. A similar crisis
occurred in the mid 1970's when a new revelation from God abolished the church's
institutionalized racism against African-Americans. This time, the membership
accepted the new ruling; there were no breakaway sects.
Sects can therefore be considered a normal mechanism by which new religious movements
are generated. Most sects die out quickly. Others linger. Still others grow and evolve in
to a new established religious movement and are properly called denominations. A
very few become new religions.
There remains a negative connotation for many people to the word sect; they would much
rather refer to their faith group as a denomination.
We recommend that the term "sect" never be used in articles,
speeches, essays, sermons, etc., unless it is carefully defined in advance
-- and often not even then. We suggest that the faith group be simply
referred to by its formal name, or as a new religious movement.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- An English newspaper, the Observer maintained a page dealing with what they call
"cults". Unfortunately, they mixed together a variety of new religious groups,
dangerous life threatening cults and small established faith groups. The only common
factor among the faith groups that they describe is that they are all small in membership.
Many of their essays were not particularly accurate. They were at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Unfortunately, this link appears to be dead. their web site was once a useful example
of the misuse of a emotionally biased word to raise public fear and hatred against benign
- Walter Martin, Hank Hanegraaff, Ed., "The Kingdom of the Cults," Bethany
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- J. Gordon Melton, testimony in Alameda County Superior Court, starting
1985-MAY-20, involving the Spiritual Counterfeits Project
Copyright © 1996 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-JAN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson