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The term "sect" is identified with small religious groups that are generally seen in opposition to a more dominant religious belief system. This opposition may be visibly manifested in habits or forms of dress that signal a separation from mainstream society, physical isolation from society, or criticism of social norms. Because of these traits, sect members have sometimes been labeled as sociologically marginal, or deviant.

One of the most useful analytical definitions of the sect is found in the church-sect typology developed by Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. In this typology the "sect" is defined in opposition to the "church." Whereas the archetypal model of the church is the universal Catholic Church, the archetypal model for the sect is the band of apostles who followed Christ. In his church-sect typology, Weber identifies a number of characteristics by which the sect can be identified. One of the chief characteristics is voluntary membership. Members of the sect make a conscious decision (often prompted by an individual conversion experience) to accept the rules and beliefs of the faith community. Such communities tend to be democratic and self-governing, rather than hierarchical, and consequently tend to remain small in size.

Because of their opposition to the status quo, such sects are often perceived to be revolutionary or deviant, enacting their beliefs through their lifestyle and behavioral choices. These decisions often result in a withdrawal from the world and its institutions and values; exclusiveness in both attitude and social structure; an intense sense of fellowship among members; and an attitude of ethical austerity, often of an ascetic nature, in opposition to the worldliness of secular society.

A number of scholars have argued that the sect type of religious organization is difficult to sustain beyond the first generation of believers. H. Richard Niebuhr (1929) believed that the second generation rarely inherits the religious fervor of their parents. In addition, he believed in the lessons taught by Weber's Protestant Ethic, that the disciplined and ascetic lifestyle practiced by sect members would eventually lead to a worldly success that would cause sect members to form an accommodation with, rather than isolation from, secular society. Niebuhr felt that eventually sects would mature into denominations—that is, Christian assemblies divided by race, class, and caste but living in accommodation with the values of secular society. J. Milton Yinger (1946) argued that not all sects developed into denominations and coined the term "the established sect" to refer to second- and third-generation sects that retained their separation from secular society. Yinger included Quakers, Mennonites, and the Amish within this subtype.

Still another approach at classifying sects is attempted in the later work of Yinger (1957), and in Bryan Wilson (1959). This approach attempts to classify sects by their worldviews. Yinger distinguished among (1) acceptance sects, characterized by individualism; (2) aggressive sects, characterized by their rejection of society as evil; and (3) avoidance sects, characterized by pessimism and concentration on life in the hereafter. Wilson's work also distinguished among sects by their worldviews. Among those he identifies in his work are (1) conversionist sects that focus on evangelism; (2) adventist sects that focus on the imminent overthrow of the current social order; (3) pietist sects that tend to withdraw from the world and direct attention toward the life of the community, who are seen as the elect; and (4) gnostic sects that emphasize a special body of knowledge and offer a new teaching of the Christian doctrines. Of these four, he believes that conversionist sects are the most likely to develop into denominational types of organizations because their emphasis on evangelism brings them into direct confrontation with the secular world to accomplish their goals, and thus they are more likely to embrace secular values. Scholars suggest that since the 1970s, the influx of non-European immigrants, increasing exposure to non-Western world religions, and the approaching millennium have introduced new religious models that have stimulated the formation of new religious sects.

In contemporary usage, the terms "sect" and "cult" often denote overlapping concepts that may be used interchangeably by the mass media. Both terms are used to denote a religious group marginalized by society for its unusual religious beliefs or practices, and both terms are perceived by many to have negative connotations. Several scholars, including Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge (1987), distinguish between sects and cults by identifying sects as reform movements that have split from one of the mainstream churches or denominations, and cults as new religions formed around a charismatic leader and generally of a highly innovative character.

See alsoAmish; Anti-Cult Movement; Belonging, Religious; Church; Church Growth Movement; Cult; Cult Awareness Network; Denomination; Megachurch; Mennonites; Names and Naming; New Religious Movements; Postdenominational Church; Quakers; Religious Communities.


Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. 1929.

Stark, Rodney, and William S. Bainbridge. A Theory ofReligion. 1987.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the ChristianChurches, vols. 1 and 2, translated by Olive Wyon. 1981.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, vols. 1 and 2, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. 1956.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1920.

Wilson, Bryan. "An Analysis of Sect Development." American Sociological Review 24 (1959):3–15.

Yinger, J. Milton. Religion in the Struggle for Power. 1946.

Patricia Mei Yin Chang

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Historically, the term "sect" applied to religious movements within the Christian tradition that deviated from official (i.e., Catholic) doctrines and/or conflicted with Church authority. Modern usage of the term is less theologically oriented and is derived, instead, from the sociological theorizing of Max weber (18641920) and Ernst troeltsch (18651923). Troeltsch, in particular, was the first to develop an extensive typology contrasting sect with church-type social organizations.

According to Troeltsch, structural and ideological differences in "church" and "sect" orientations were dialectical developments inherent in the tension within Christianity between accommodation with, and protest against, "the world." The sect tended to be smaller, more intimate and exclusivistic, egalitarian, lower-class, and a more ethically austere and demanding religious group. The sect was also voluntaristic, stressed personal achievement, and held that the locus of spirit or charisma lay within the individual rather than the ecclesiastical institution or office. The church, in contrast, was universalistic, inclusivistic, instrumental of objective grace, hierarchical, and sacramental. Unlike the ascribed nature of church membership, sect membership was voluntary.

H. Richard niebuhr (18941962) applied the church/sect distinction to Christianity in the United States. Niebuhr saw division in the Church stemming primarily from Christianity's inability to transcend social and economic realities rather than from theological factors, as did Troeltsch. Niebuhr also asserted that sects, as voluntaristic organizations, were valid for only one generation. With few exceptions, sects inevitably became more accommodationist toward their cultural milieu, thereby forming a new social structure called a "denomination." Denominations tended to be more middle-class, had differentiated lay/ministerial roles, and espoused more of a world-accommodating ethos than that associated with sects.

Because of the structural differentiation of religion in modern society and the fact that correlates associated with the concept "sect" have not always held up with consistency in the face of empirical research, efforts have been made to move discussion of the term away from Troeltsch's "ideal type" scheme. One approach has been to assert that the key to sectarianism lies in the concept of tension; sects are religious movements that hold deviant beliefs from cultural norms and standards. Sects also devalue nonmember attributes and remain separatist. Another approach focuses on types of sects (viz., conversionist, introversionist, revolutionist, utopian, manipulationist, thaumaturgical, reformist) in relationship to how religious groups answer the key question of "what shall be done to attain salvation?"

More recent scholarship has defined a sect as a religious movement seeking to cause or prevent change in a system of beliefs, values, symbols, and practices concerned with ultimate reality. What distinguishes a sect from other types of religious movements (i.e., a "cult") is the fact that a sect has a prior tie with another religious organization. To be a sect, a religious movement must be schismatic in nature, although the sect need not break entirely from a church; sects sometimes break off from other sects. Because sects are schismatic groups, they typically present themselves as something old and uncorrupted, as the authentic, pure, and/or a refurbished version of the faith from which they separate. cults, by contrast, are more syncretistic and do not have a prior tie with another religious body in the society in which they exist.

Considerable research has also been devoted to the developmental dynamics of sectarian movements, particularly the tendency on the part of sects to assume a more accommodating posture over time. This tendency has generally been associated with changes in the class composition of sects, the difficulties of maintaining separation and isolation, and the weakening of admission standards and ethical requirements.

It has also been observed that "sectarian" tendencies can be maintained within a church or denominational structure. Catholic religious orders with their voluntaristic nature, requirements of celibacy, high levels of personal commitment, special dress, and rules for expulsion illustrate these dynamics.

Bibliography: e. troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (London 1931). l. von wiese and h. becker, Systematic Sociology (New York 1932). h. r. niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York 1929). a. eister, "Toward a Radical Critique of Church-Sect Typologizing," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 6, 1 (1967) 6977. b. johnson, "On Church and Sect," American Sociological Review 28 (1963) 539549. b. wilson, Religious Sects (New York 1970). r. stark and w. s. bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization and Cult Formation (Berkeley, Calif. 1985).

[w. d. dinges]

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sect, sectarianism The sociology of religion developed a model of religious organization which is referred to as the ‘church-sect typology’. As originally formulated by Max Weber (The Sociology of Religion, 1922) and Ernst Troeltsch (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 1912), it was argued that the church type attempted to embrace all members of a society on a universalistic basis. The church, as a result, is a large, bureaucratic organization with a ministry or priesthood. It develops a formal orthodoxy, ritualistic patterns of worship, and recruits its members through socialization rather than evangelical conversion. The church is in political terms accommodated to the state and in social terms predominantly conservative in its beliefs and social standing. By contrast, the sect is a small, evangelical group which recruits its members by conversion, and which adopts a radical stance towards the state and society. The medieval Roman Catholic Church was the principal example of a universalistic church; sects include Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists.

Contemporary sociologists have modified this typology by identifying the denomination as an organization which is mid-way between the sect and the church, and by defining various sub-types of the sect. Bryan Wilson (‘An Analysis of Sect Development’, American Sociological Review, 1959)
defined four different sub-types in terms of the various ways in which they rejected social values or were indifferent to secular society. These sub-types are the conversionist (such as the Salvation Army), the adventist or revolutionary sects (for example Jehovah's Witnesses), the introversionist or pietist sects (for instance Quakers), and the gnostic sects (such as Christian Science and New Thought sects). These sub-types have different beliefs, methods of recruitment, and attitudes towards the world. The processes of social change within these sects are thus very different. Wilson is also the author of the best recent account of sects (The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, 1992).

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sectabreact, abstract, act, attract, bract, compact, contract, counteract, diffract, enact, exact, extract, fact, humpbacked, hunchbacked, impact, interact, matter-of-fact, pact, protract, redact, refract, retroact, subcontract, subtract, tact, tract, transact, unbacked, underact, untracked •play-act • autodidact •artefact (US artifact) • cataract •contact •marked, unremarked •Wehrmacht •affect, bisect, bull-necked, collect, confect, connect, correct, defect, deflect, deject, detect, direct, effect, eject, elect, erect, expect, infect, inflect, inject, inspect, interconnect, interject, intersect, misdirect, neglect, object, perfect, project, prospect, protect, reflect, reject, respect, resurrect, sect, select, subject, suspect, transect, unchecked, Utrecht •prefect • abject • retroject • intellect •genuflect • idiolect • dialect • aspect •circumspect • retrospect • Dordrecht •vivisect • architect • unbaked •sun-baked

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sect / sekt/ • n. a group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong. ∎ often derog. a group that has separated from an established church; a nonconformist church. ∎  a philosophical or political group, esp. one regarded as extreme or dangerous.

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sect †class (of persons); †religious order; †sex; religious following; philosophical school XIV; religious denomination XVI; school of opinion XVII. — (O)F. secte or L. secta following (used as cogn. obj. in sectam sequi follow a certain course of conduct), party faction, school of philosophy, f. older pp. stem sect- of sequī follow.
So sectary member of a sect. XVI. — medL. sectārius. Hence sectarian adj. and sb. XVII; whence sectarianism XIX.

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the group of people who follow a particular creed or embrace a certain set of opinions or rituals.

Examples : sect of astronomers, 1837; of atheists, 1692; of flatterers and Hostlers, 1515; of Lollards, 1390; of men of letters, 1776; of old maids, 1788; of pathologists and theorists, 1843; of philosophers; of physicians, 1628; of thieves and murderers, 1568; of writers, 1609.