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Definitions of terms:

Cults, Sects and Denominations

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  • "...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." Anon

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Meanings of the word "cult":

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, occult, 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 writer.

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 Trinity.

  • Post-1775: A creedless and dogma-free religious organization. The Unitarian Universalist 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:
    • Theological usage: Oxford English Dictionary defined "cult" as:
      • "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings"
      • "a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies"
      • devotion or homage to a particular person or thing."

      This is the historical meaning of the word, but is rarely today heard outside of religious circles. A reference to the "Cult of Mary" appeared in a newspaper report on the Pope's 1999 visit to the Americas. It simply means that the Pope devotes special attention to the Virgin Mary.

    • Cultural usage: The word is often associated with cult films, cult bands, or cult TV programs. Here, the term "cult" refers to a small but devoted following of a movie, entertainment group or television program. Avid supporters of Star Trek may be referred to as devoted cultists.
  • 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 any 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 (CCM) 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 orthodoxy.

    • 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.

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Past uses of the term "cult":

  • The original meaning of the word "cult" was to define a form or style of worship, as described above. It is still used in this way within theological circles.

  • During the 1920s and 1930s, sociologists who were studying religion started to use it to refer to those faith groups that were not full denominations or sects. According to J. Gordon Melton, "They were a group that just didnít fit, and they were termed cults. They were treated primarily as esoterica in American religion." 3

  • During the 1930s, the Christian counter-cult movement (CCM) used the term mainly to describe two groups of faith groups:
    • Those who were non-Christian.
    • Those who deviated from conservative Protestantism.

    This was the most common use of the term until the 1970s.

  • During the 1970s, the mostly secular anti-cult movement (ACM) used the term to refer to groups who used advanced psychological tools to manipulative their membership, capture their allegiance, and reduce them to near-zombie status.

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 existing religions.

  • 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." 

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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.

    We recommend:
    • 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 system.

    • An even better usage is to simply refer to the group by its formal name.

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 many:

  • 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 Jehovah's Witnesses.

This web site normally refers only to "doomsday faith groups" -- ones who have experienced loss of life among their membership -- as "cults."

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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.

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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 Book of 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.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
  1. 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: 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 religious groups.
  2. Walter Martin, Hank Hanegraaff, Ed., "The Kingdom of the Cults," Bethany House, (2002). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  3. J. Gordon Melton, testimony in Alameda County Superior Court, starting 1985-MAY-20, involving the Spiritual Counterfeits Project See:
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Copyright © 1996 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-JAN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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