A “sect” may be defined as “a body of persons agreed upon religious doctrines usually different from those of an established or orthodox church from which they have separated; non-conformist or other church as described by opponents.”
The terms “cult” and “sect” are often used interchangeably; a sect is usually connected with religion and a cult may be – but many things outside the religious arena can also be classified as cultish. Certain television programmes may have a cult following – never a sect following.
Very often, using the term “sect” or “cult” is an epithet – a term of derision, a put down, an insult or a way of dismissing others. A former leader of the Worldwide Church of God, Joseph Tkach Sr., stated repeatedly that he did not like to be called the leader of a cult—hence his desire to change doctrines to bring them more in line with orthodox Christianity. To call an organization a sect or a cult is how some deride or undermine, in their own eyes, another group, which could include the Church of God. And what term or terms so easily fall off the tongue by those who want to accuse the Church of God of not being true to mainstream Christianity? Their description can be scathing, often using the term “sect” or “cult”.
It is interesting that those who criticise the Church of God for not being faithful to Scripture are the very ones who break Scripture so often! So many in mainstream Christianity spawn homosexual priests or clergy – an act which God calls an abomination and which is mentioned, as such, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But they accept it in spite of this being contrary to Scriptural admonition. The Bible is quite clear that women are not to speak – in a teaching capacity – in church, but again so many in mainstream Christianity allow and promote women priests and vicars. There have been ministers who don’t believe in God. One high ranking bishop in the Church of England thought that the resurrection was a “conjuring trick with bones”. There are those who know that Christmas and Easter are of pagan origin and still keep these feasts. There have been vicars who have advocated stealing in certain circumstances, and most churches trample all over the seventh day Sabbath.
Some years ago, “The New Christian Herald”, a newspaper published in Sussex, England, (which ceased publication in 2006) ran an article about the Worldwide Church of God. The article was headed “Back to the Plain Truth?” The paper stated that “the writer [of the article] charts the progress of a rare phenomenon – a cult making its way back into mainstream Christianity. The Worldwide Church of God’s journey makes intriguing reading…”
This “expert” then went on to give nine distinguishing points that define a sect or cult. Of course, other “experts” might agree with this assessment or have a different perspective, but for the purpose of this answer we will stay with the considered opinion of this “expert”. These nine distinguishing points were as follows: World rejecting, not world embracing; Clear strong leadership [depending on the degree of leadership, a group might be called a sect or a cult]; A high degree of commitment needed; Active “lay” participation; A strong sense of mission and purpose; A strong sense of belonging; Definite entrance to membership by personal faith, not by birth; Beliefs shape lifestyle; and Members often belong to the working class and identify with the poor and disinherited.
Let Scripture and some brief comments answer these points, and we will see that the “expert” was clearly deficient in his Biblical knowledge.
1) World rejecting, not world embracing.
Are we to embrace the world?
James 4:4 states: “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
James 1:27 states: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble,and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
As is stated in our booklet, “The Book of Zechariah – Prophecies For Today”:
“God’s true servants must be sober and of a sound mind, resisting the temptation of wanting to belong to and befriend the people of this world—this Babylonian system—in order to follow their bad example.”
2) Clear strong leadership.
God has always had strong leaders. God used Abraham, Joshua, Moses, Gideon, Elijah, Elisha amongst many others in the Old Testament and Peter, Paul and the other apostles were strong leaders in the New Testament.
Hebrews 13: 17 says (this is a variation of a command in verse 7): “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
Strong leaders and leadership in the church are a necessity!
3) A high degree of commitment
A high degree of commitment is vital because for those whom God has called to salvation in this day and age, today is their only opportunity to qualify for eternal life. We have to be committed to the cause.
1 John 3: 16 points out: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
James 1: 22-24 adds: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.”
4) Active “lay” participation
We all have to play our part as God has put us in the Body of Christ, as He sees fit. We cannot just be passive bystanders.
1 Corinthians 16:1-2 refers to active member participation: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.”
5) A strong sense of mission and purpose.
Again, such a strong sense is absolutely necessary.
Matthew 28:18-20 states: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”
Ezekiel 33:7-9 adds: “So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die!’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.”
6) A strong sense of belonging
In Acts 2: 1-4 we see that the future members of the early New Testament Church, even before their conversion, were in the same place, of the same mind and had a sense of belonging:
“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
This attitude did not change after their conversion. We read in Acts 4:32: “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.”
7) Definite entrance to membership by personal faith, not by birth.
However, John 6:44 says: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
John 6:65 adds: “And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’”
Acts 2:38 reports: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
8) Beliefs shape lifestyle.
We understand that our calling is a calling to a way of life. Our beliefs MUST shape our lifestyle – it can’t be any other way. Christianity is about the way that we behave, the way that we treat other people, esteeming others better than self and practicing the golden rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. It is also about being service orientated, having a kindly attitude, displaying the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and behaving as Christ would do.
Acts 9:2 refers to true Christianity as “the Way.”
We also read in Acts 19:23: “And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way.”
9) Members are often working class and identify with the poor and disinherited.
But note 1 Corinthians 1:26-28: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are.”
1 Corinthians 4:10-12 adds: “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure…”
Perhaps a look at the ministry of Jesus Christ will show that He ministered to the poor and disinherited – and we are to follow His example.
And so, is the Church of God a sect or a cult? Based on these nine marks as this “expert” names them, and according to their definition, the answer that the world might give could be Yes. In this regard, Acts 24:5 is highly instructive: “For we have found this man a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.”
In Acts 28:22-24 we read another reference on this topic: “But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere. So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.”
It appears that the original, apostolic church was called a sect. And when Christ was on earth, He was at odds with the establishment. They didn’t believe Him then, and the majority do not believe Him now.
Of course, there will always be those who want to put a label on the true Church of God, and there will always be those who think that the Church should be lumped together with other non-conformist groups as they see it, simply because of non-conformity with mainstream Christianity. There will always be those who want to think the worst.
The apostolic church was called a sect. The true Church of God today is directly descended from the first century church. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised by the label that the world might attach to the Church today.
But there is an irony in all of this. As you will recall, a sect can be defined as “a body of persons agreed upon religious doctrines usually different from those of an established or orthodox church from which they have separated; non-conformist or other church as described by opponents.”
When we look at church history and the doctrines of the Bible, the Church of God is the true Church holding fast to the truth that is expounded in God’s Word, and all of those in mainstream Christianity have descended from the apostate church of the 1st and 2nd century. They have developed many traditions and an understanding that are simply not biblical!
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how the world refers to us, as long as we are doing the Work that God called us to do and that we, individually, are growing in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), as we progress towards the kingdom of God!
Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)