1. Classic Theorists


Max Weber

Weber had spoken of sects and churches.

Churches “intellectualize religious teachings and restrain emotionalism in their services”; they offer a formal liturgy and set prayers, and the gods are remote from daily life. Charisma becomes routinized.

Sects stress emotionalism and individual mystical experience; they tend towards fundamentalism, and shun intellectualism. The divine is close at hand. Charisma is a daily reality.


Richard Niebuhr

In 1929, Richard Niebuhr published The Social Sources of Denominationalism, using Weber. Niebuhr suggested a straight class divide, with the sects for the masses (the poor), and churches for the classes (ie the better-off). The key idea is that “successful religious organizations always shift their emphasis toward this world and away from the next”. As organizations grow and flourish, they attract more upper and middle class people. They have less need than deprived to focus on next world, and will want to harmonize beliefs with their own worldly success, so that the supernatural becomes ever more remote. BUT in turn this makes this organization less accessible for poor, who defect to for new religious organizations that serve their needs. So, we see a dynamic cycle of sect formation, which has recurred countless times, explaining the proliferation of religious bodies. Niebuhr thus described a trajectory from churches to sects, and then to the formation of new churches.

New sects are characterized as charismatic. In practice, this means high commitment, more involvement of lay members, reliance on spiritual gifts, reliance on God, a  desire to spread news of God. Characteristic doctrines include regeneration, with conservative interpretations of doctrine. Over time, structure replaces spontaneity, and the cycle begins again


Ernst Troeltsch

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1931) offered ideal types of sects and churches.

A sect is a small exclusive fellowship of people seeking spiritual perfection. Members are voluntary converts, and lives largely controlled by the sect. They are  often ascetic, living  austere, disciplined lifestyles. They are strictly concerned with their religious doctrines. A select group is granted spiritual enlightenment. Movements often discourage members from participation in worldly affairs because world is corrupt and sinful. They have a sense of radical individualism, love, and a conscious choice of common goals

A church is large, conservative, universalist, and fairly tolerant. It grows from those born into it, not from conversions. Churches are often large, possessing social and political power, and are associated with government or ruling class. They tend to support status quo. The church accepts social order, but comes to be dependent on it.

2. Lifton Pope


In his classic book Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia, Pope (1942) offers this division of church and sect:


 Characteristic                                church                      sect

 size                                                large                         small

 relationship to other groups       tolerant                     rejects

 wealth                                           extensive                  limited

 religious services

             church: limited congregational participation, formal, intellectual emphasis

             sect: extensive congregation participation, spontaneous, emotional emphasis


             church:                              specialized, professional

             sect:                                   unspecialized, little training, part-time  


             church: liberal interpretation of scriptures; emphasis on this world

             sect: literal interpretation of scriptures; emphasis on other world


             church: birth or ritual participation; social institution embracing all socially compatible

             sect: conversion; moral community excluding unworthy

 social class

             church:                              mainly middle class

             sect:                                   mainly lower class

 attitude towards secular world

             church: endorses prevailing culture and social organization

             sect: renounces or opposes prevailing cultural standards, requires strict adherence to biblical standards mainly middle class

3. Rosabeth Moss Kanter


In her 1972 book Commitment and Community, Kanter describes the commitment building process prevailing among small sects and communal groups. She identified six key stages: sacrifice, investment, renunciation, communion, mortification and transcendence


sacrifice members give up something of value to join - the more the sacrifice, the more the love of the group, to justify such a renunciation. This weeds out potentially weak members. The Amish, for instance, give up hope of worldly goods, higher education, or conventional prospects


investment,  members contribute resources to group - property, time. The more they invest in group, the more stake they have in continuing to work for group’s survival – the needs of group outweigh selfish individual desires. Think for instance of Amish barn building


renunciation, members relinquish interpersonal relationships that damage group cohesion, or that might cause them to question beliefs and values. Among the Amish, many symbolic boundaries exist, eg clothing, geographical location and literal separation


 communion,  literal or symbolic - group activities and rituals - enhances sense of “we”. This complements the theme of renunciation, as “we” are not “them”. Communal events, maybe a special calendar


mortification  death of the private self - private autonomous selves perish, and the self flourishes only as part of the group; members  need the group in order to feel whole - in Amish, this means condemning self-pride, pride in own achievements, and replacing that with a group consciousness and a sense of humility


transcendence  A special power or virtue is available as a result of being part of group -group membership lifts above the ordinary. “Transcendence strengthens commitment because those who experience it seek to increase their devotion to the group that gave them such an elevated sense of being”. This produces a cyclical and self-feeding effect.

4.John Lofland and Rodney Stark


The Lofland-Stark process suggests seven sequential stages for converts en route to full commitment. Individuals experience

1. acute and persistent tensions


2. within a religious problem solving perspective.


3. The individual defines himself as a religious seeker


4. S/he encounters the movement as a crucial turning point in life


5. and forms an affective bond with one or more convert.


6. Extra-cult attachments become attenuated


7. S/he experiences intensive interaction within the group and ultimately becomes the group’s deployable agent.


Put another way, conversion to a new religious group occurs when people have or develop stronger attachments to members of this group than they have to non-members. An individual suffers disruption and strain in his/her life. This might mean marriages or relationships that were conflict-ridden, disordered, meaningless. The person suffers from anomie, the absence of values and goals. S/he forms social ties to one or more members of the new religion. Increasingly, the convert severs ties with people outside the new religion. As they are social isolates, it is easier to build bonds within the new group. They become dependent on the group for satisfaction of their emotional and social needs.

5.Bryan Wilson


Wilson proposed a classification of religious sects and movements, including:


conversionist - Salvation Army, evangelical fundamentalist


revolutionary  -looking for end of established order


introversionist - withdraw from world, seeking personal holiness


manipulationist - claiming special knowledge and goals, and often appealing to well-educated sections of society


thaumaturgical - seeking to make contact with the other world for for spiritual purposes, eg Spiritualists


reformist – offering a radical critique of society, and an alternative ethic


utopian - withdrawal into perfectionist communities





I like the summary of cults offered in Thomas Robbins’ 1988 book Cults, Converts and Charisma, 32: they are “highly authoritarian, charismatically led, puritanical and intolerant”, and totalistic.


Lewis Coser speaks of sects and cults as “greedy” groups: a sect “makes exclusive, all-encompassing claims for the hearts, minds and undivided loyalty of its members”

Issues Causing Schisms And Divisions In Major Religions


1. How much should human reason play a part in religious matters, and how far must absolute faith be the guide? Is it possible to criticize the scriptures or basic beliefs of a religion?


2. Is mysticism necessary and desirable, or to be condemned? Do mystical speculations lead to deeper insights into absolute truth, or to dangerous ideas and practices?


3. Can the faithful use images and intermediaries as means of access to the divine?


4. How much should the religion rely on formal rituals?


5, Should there be a distinct clergy, and if so how much power should they have? Are the laity cut off from access to the deepest parts of the religious system? Do ordinary individuals have any right to exercise their own judgment and discretion in interpreting religious matters?


6. Should members of the religion be active in secular worldly politics? Does this right or duty extend to overthrowing unjust regimes or social systems?


7. Should the society be ruled by members of that religion in a theocratic system? How far should believers go in enforcing moral standards over the whole society? Should such powers rest with lay or clerical authorities?


8. How far should religion take account of the social distinctions prevailing in secular society?


9. Who or what is the ultimate source of authority in the particular religious system?


10. If the religion is based on a particular revelation or set of scriptures, how far can these be added to or even superseded by new “revelations” or insights? Or is the original system taken to be closed and final?


11. Does the original form of the religion in question fail to take account of some major social or ethnic group, a particular age-segment or gender?

Separation and “Peculiar People” in the New Testament


Acts 2: 40-47

And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


2 Corinthians 6: 14-18

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”


1 Peter2: 9-11

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own [peculiar] people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.


Revelation 17: 1 - 18: 10

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters,

with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.

The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.”  And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. He called out with a mighty voice, Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.

For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.” Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, so give her a like measure of torment and grief. Since in her heart she says, I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief,’ therefore her plagues will come in a single day — pestilence and mourning and famine — and she will be burned with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.” And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.”