Just what is a sect in distinction from the Church, or even from a church?
This question would appear to be of practical interest, both for the Church in general, and for our churches in particular. For, we surely believe one holy catholic Christian Church. Yet, always in the history of the Church of Christ in the world there were schisms, divisions, separations, secessions, and the one Church was divided into so many separate groups, distinct from one another in their confession of the truth, that it is difficult to maintain the oneness of the Church on earth, that, at least, the article in the confession that expresses this unity and catholicity would seem to be a rather abstract statement, that is quite out of harmony with actually existing conditions.
This is especially true since the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Before that important event the Church in the world was one, outwardly at least.
But not long after the Protestant Churches were separated from the Roman Catholic Church, the former became hopelessly divided, confessions multiplied, schisms rent the Church, and it seems as if the Roman Catholic Church has reason to point to all this division and constant disruption to corroborate their contention that the Reformation was out of the devil, and that the Protestant Churches do not represent the true Church.
The Romish Church consistently considers itself the only true Church on earth. And it calls all other churches “sects.”
But also among Protestants this word “sect” was adopted, usually to express that a certain group had no claim to the name of “church.”
And, as is well known, the attempt was made more than once to brand our Protestant Reformed Churches as simply a sect, not worthy of, not entitled to the name of Church. Historically this can easily be understood. It is the Christian Reformed Churches that expelled us from their fellowship. It also is become increasingly clear to the leaders of those churches, that this expulsion and ejection were a mistake. What they did in 1924 cannot be justified in the light of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. Even while they were in the act of expelling us, they themselves bore witness that we are fundamentally Reformed, that we are in harmony with the very truths they also profess as a basis of unity. Hence, they committed an error, a sin. They were the cause of a breach. And they caused the breach by falsifying and corrupting their confessions.
These are bare facts.
Only sophistry can present these facts in a different light.
Now, if only the Christ Reformed leaders and churches would confess the error of their way, admit, as they themselves can clearly see if they are not utterly blinded by ecclesiastical prejudice, that they erred in ejecting us from their midst, there would be a way to heal the breach.
But this they refuse to do.
The result is, as always, that they harden themselves in their sinful way. And another result is that they attempt to present the history of 1924 in a light that is as favorable as possible for them.
One of these attempts is that they always insist that we separated ourselves from the Christian Reformed Churches. We were not ejected, but we seceded without a justifiable ground. We were not expelled, but we left.
Strange though it may seem, and however flagrant a distortion of the clear facts it may be, this is the story they invented in order to bring a little light into that dark page of their history that was written in 1924.
And thus they try to brand us as a sect.
They must even have whispered something of the kind in the ears of Dr. Aalders, when he visited our country last summer. How otherwise could he have called us a “one man church”?
And they have often invented definitions of the word “sect,” that were especially adapted to fit our case.
But it must also be equally clear that we are not pleased with this denomination or appellation. Whatever may be the specific meaning of the term sect, we all feel spontaneously that it is in bad taste; and whatever else may be implied in the word, it certainly means to deny the group to which it is applied the right to be called a church. And, therefore, it can readily be understood that we are loath to adopt the name.
And thus it is an interesting question: Church or Sect?
It may even be interesting and profitable to give the question a still more practical and concrete form, and to ask: are the Christian Reformed or the Protestant Reformed Churches rightly denominated a sect?
Let us, then, ask, first of all: what is a sect?
The word occurs several times in the Bible.
It must be remembered that our word “sect” is derived not from the Greek of the New Testament, but from the Latin “Seeta.” The Greek word in the New Testament that is frequently translated “sect” is the word “hairesis.” Let me quote a few passages from Scripture where this word “hairesis” occurs in the Greek, and show you how it is translated in the different passages.
In Acts 5:17 we read in our Authorized Version of the Bible: “Then the high priest arose and all that were with him, which is the sect of the Pharisees.” Here the Greek is “hairesis” for our word “sect,” the Vulgate (Latin) uses the word “heresis.” Yet, in spite of this rendering in the Vulgate, the English, both the authorized and revised versions, the Dutch, German and French, all translate by “sect.”
In Acts 15:5 we read: “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees, which believed.” Here again we have the same situation as in the previous passage: the Greek uses the word “hairesis,” the Latin “heresis,” all other translations have “sect.”
In Acts 24:5 we find: “For we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” Though the same word occurs here in the original as in the former passages, the Vulgate translates here by “seeta,” and again all the other renderings have “sect.”
We may note that in Acts 26:5 the apostle Paul employs the word himself, with application to the religious group among the Jews to which he used to belong; which shows that the word cannot have had an evil connotation at that time: “Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion, I lived a Pharisee”. Here also the Vulgate renders the Greek “hairesis” by “seeta.”
It is, at least, doubtful whether it is not used in a less favorable sense in Acts 28:22: “. . . . for as concerning this sect, we know that it is everywhere spoken against”. Again, the Latin has “seeta.”
Different is the case in I Cor. 11:18, 19: “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions (schismata) among you. For there must also be heresies (haireseis) among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” Here the Latin uses the word “hereses”; the authorized English version employs the term “heresies”; the American Revised Version, however, prefers the word “factions.”
Again, in Gal. 5:20 we read: “The words of the flesh are manifest. . . . strifes, seditions, heresies.” (Latin: “seeta”; A.R.V. “parties”).
And in a positively bad sense the word is used in II Pet. 2:1: “. . . . as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (Latin: sectas perditionis).
Let us see another time, what light the meaning of this word as it occurs in Scripture throws on the signification of “sect.”