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What is a cult? What is a sect?

Types of Cults

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Types of Cults

Distinctions are made between different types of cults: e.g. destructive cults (which have committed violence, or who advocate violence), vs. so-called "benign" cults (which some consider relatively harmless even though their teachings and practices may be out of step with societal and/or theological norms).

There are commercial cults (e.g. the high-pressure, "fake-it-till-you-make-it" groups, the "pay-to-pray" movements, and the "pay-more-to-advance" varieties), one-on-one cultic relationships, corporate cults, UFO cults, pseudo-religious cults, pseudo-political cults, etcetera.

  • Eastern Mystical: groups related to Hinduism, Buddhism and other pantheistic Eastern religions; examples in this category are Hare Krishnas and Self-Realization Fellowship.

  • Aberrant Christian: groups that claim to be Bible-based but which deviate in practice or belief, such as The Way International, the Boston Church of Christ and the Shepherding Movement.

  • Psychospiritual or Self-Improvement: groups offering seminars or workshops providing self- improvement or personal transformation (a growing cultic trend), includes Transcendental Meditation, Lifespring and The Forum (formerly est).

  • Eclectic/Syncretistic: a combination of several religious traditions, includes the Unification Church (''Moonies'') and the Church Universal and Triumphant.

  • Psychic/Occult/Astral: these groups offer ''secret wisdom'' and ''lost truths;'' examples include UFO cults and Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment.

  • Established Cults: Bible-based, cultic religious movements which have achieved mainstream status; this would include Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Science.

  • Extremist/Political/Social Movements: groups cultic in the psychological or social sense which include the Aryan Nation, White Aryan Resistance and the Ku Klux Klan.
Source: John Morehead, What Is A Cult?; quoting Ron Enroth, The Lure of the Cults, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1982), pp. 22-25
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What is a Sect?

The term 'sect' is as ambiguous as the term 'cult.' (Note that many European countries use the term 'sect' instead of - or interchangably with - 'cult.' Some media outlets also make that substitution.).

The term comes from the Late Latin secta, which means an "organized church body." That in turn is rooted in the Latin sequi, which means "to follow," and is used of "way of life," or "class of persons."

'Sect' can refer to:

  1. a religious denomination
  2. a dissenting religious group, formed as the result of schism (division; separation). In this case, the term also borrows from the Latin sectus, which means "cut" or "divide."
  3. a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or leader

The Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it like this:

  1. a : a dissenting or schismatic religious body; especially : one regarded as extreme or heretical
    b : a religious denomination
  2. [Not Applicable]
  3. a : a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or to a leader
    b : PARTY
    c : FACTION
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Theologically, sect is used of a group which has divided from a larger body or movement - often over minor differences in doctrine and/or practice - but whose teachings and practices are generally not considered unorthodox, heretical or cultic (sociologically and/or theologically). (See: heterodox, suborthodox).

However, true to the ambiguous nature of this term, some sects do descend into heretical teachings and/or unorthodox practices. Often sects place unusual, dogmatic emphasis on one or two doctrines or practices. Such an unbalanced (and, often, unhealthy) approach usually leads to the division from the main body in the first place.

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About This Page:

• Subject: Definitions of the term 'cult'
• First posted: Dec. 9, 1996
• Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2004
• Editors: Anton and Janet Hein-Hudson
• Copyright: Apologetics Index

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