I know. I know…it’s a click bait headline.
But there’s a serious question here:
Are you a member of a sect? I can remember learning the difference between a sect and a cult. A sect is a separated group of Christian believers. A cult has evolved from a sect into a separate religion. There are certain characteristics that are common to both sects and cults and when these behaviors are unchecked a sect can become, if not a cult exactly, certainly a place where cult-like experiences and pressures take place.
What interests me about sects is that they can be formal organizations or informal. A formal sect like the Seventh Day Adventists, for example, actually have an organization, premises, a set of beliefs and a system of membership, clergy and administrators. They’re not a cult or a separate religion because they are still, technically, Christian believers even though they have added some beliefs and deny others that most Christians would affirm.
It is the informal sects that are more intriguing because informal groups of Christians also behave in a sectarian manner even though they may formally remain part of a mainstream organization. In pointing out these sectarian mentalities and behaviors I am not condemning everyone who falls into the sectarian trap. Many people who do are good folks who have been misled or have made honest mistakes in their viewpoint and positions. Furthermore, I am deliberately not naming names of this group or that group, this teacher of that teacher, this apostolate or that apostolate. Instead I am pointing out the sectarian behaviors. These behaviors might crop up anywhere in religion–amongst Protestants or Catholics, Jews or Muslims, conservatives or liberals. I’ll let you read through the behaviors and mentalities and decide. I’d also ask you to treat this post as an opportunity for self examination–not blaming others.
In other words read it to ask yourself whether you are in a sect or falling into sectarian behaviors–not as a way to pigeonhole others.
So what are some of the sectarian behaviors we see among Christians?
- Exclusive – The foundation for sectarian mentality is that “my group is the right group” and “those other people outside our group are just plain wrong.”
- Proselytization not Evangelization – Pope Benedict (and Francis too) have stressed that we should evangelize not proselytize. What’s the difference? Evangelization is genuinely sharing the good news of Jesus Christ through our words and works. Our lives attract others and our arguments only augment that. Proselytization uses all sorts of pressure: guilt, peer pressure, enticements, slanted argument and fear to get people to join your group. Sects are notorious for proselytizing.
- The Blame Game – Members of a sect spend a lot of time blaming other individuals and other groups for what is wrong. This boosts their own sense of being right and creates a clear “enemy” which helps to strengthen the sect’s esprit de corps.
- Puritanical – by this I don’t simply mean the group members strive for moral purity. Nothing wrong with that. Instead I mean they have an idea that the group itself must be purified of any wrongdoers. Sect members are instinctively suspicious of one another and sometimes eager to sniff out the bad apples an expel them from the group.
- Shoot their wounded – If a sect member doesn’t come up to scratch, has a moral stumble or begins to doubt the group think they may well find themselves targeted for very subtle persecution at first, then an increased level to pressure their conformity before being expelled.
- Extra Revelation a sect will almost invariably have some extra form of revelation unique to their own group. It might be the writings of their founder or the writings of their favorite saint. It could be the writings of some special visionary or mystic or it could be a compendium of cherry picked proof texts from canon law or the writings of the church fathers or it may be an arcane liturgy or tradition. None of things are necessarily wrong in themselves, but the more those writings take precedence over the Scriptures and accepted historical tradition, the more they become the “Bible” for the sect.
- Legalism To test orthodoxy and valid group membership a set of rules and regulations will develop. These may be written down in a formal rule book or law code, but they might simply be an informal acceptance of the way things are done. So, for example, tattoos may not be banned by the group, but anyone who has one will be frowned upon and there will be whisperings that such things are “of the devil.” The more intense the sectarian behaviors the more adherence to the rules will be expected and the more a disciplinary body to enforce the rules will develop.
- Conspiracy theories – because of the exclusive “we’re in you’re out” mentality in sects, conspiracy theories of one kind or another will tend to proliferate. The need to blame the outsiders combines with suspicion that the outsiders are plotting against the members of the sect.
- Persecution complex – Nothing boosts the dedication to a sect more than the idea that they are being persecuted for their beliefs. The irony is that this is often a kind of wish fulfillment. The sect members may begin to behave in an odd or even aggressive manner and their unusual dress or speech or ideas will indeed cause them to be ridiculed or even persecuted. This will then add to their convictions and strengthen the sectarian behavior.
- Anti-Intellectualism Often, because of their “I’m right you’re wrong” mentality combined with a persecution complex, the sect members will be suspicious of “experts” and “intellectuals”. This will often combined with an inferior-superiority complex. In other words, “We know better than those intellectual egg heads. We’re not smart alecks like them.” Therefore the sect member proves his superiority by boasting of his inferiority.
- Reverse Snobbery – This “superiority of inferiority” can filter down into many other attitudes of fake humility, an obsequiousness and self righteousness based on spiritual pride.
- Domination Very often within a sect there is a domination-subordination game going on. One person or group of people will gain dominance over another individual or group of individuals and they will bully them into submission by various subtle means. However, lest they be blamed completely for this, the person or group submitting will collude in the game–willingly exchanging their freedom for the security they get from submitting to the dominator.
While I have outlined these behaviors, remember that all of us may fall into some of them or all of them to a greater or lesser degree in our relationships. Furthermore, while these behaviors are very typical of religious groups and individuals, the same behaviors are exhibited within any exclusive ideologically motivated group. With a bit of thought we can see how these behaviors could evidence within political groups, military groups, corporations or most any place and in any context where human beings get together.
What’s the cure? The Holy Spirit of Pentecost has been sent to bring freedom. Sectarian behaviors are ultimately in bondage through fear of one kind or another, and it is only perfect love that casts out fear.
From whence do we receive perfect love? Only through the infilling of the Holy Spirit–fire and purifier.