When I was attending a class in Sociology in Calvin College, the professor there gave the following definition of a sect: “Any group of people organized for a religious purpose which is separated from another religious group and which tends to emphasize almost exclusively the doctrinal tenet which caused the separation.” The important part of this definition is the last part of it: “. . . which tends almost exclusively to emphasize the doctrinal tenet which caused the separation? At the time when this definition was given, it seemed quite obvious to me and to others that he had in mind particularly the Protestant Reformed Churches, who had, according to him, separated themselves from the Christian Reformed Church, and who had in their past history emphasized very strongly the errors of “common grace.” The more, according to this man, that we forgot about the issue of common grace, and turned our attention to other doctrinal elements, the more we lost the characteristics of a sect and became like a church.

It has been said by others in our history, and probably most often in the past, that we had, no right to call ourselves by the name of church, but rather we should be considered as nothing more than a sect, a splinter group from the true church of Christ. Now, this all has changed in recent years. Apart from the sad history of 1953, there were very few reformed churches in the whole world who did not recognize the fact that tie were one of this fellowship. This was evident from the recognition we received, and from the contact which our churches have had both with churches in the Netherlands and in this country. 

Yet this all gives some practical significance to the question of “Church Or Sect? 

The word “sect” is found in a few places in the New Testament. It comes from the Greek word “hairesis” which means literally; “an act of taking, choosing;” or, “that which is chosen; one’s chosen opinion;” or “one who holds to such an opinion.” It is sometimes translated by the word “heresy” in our King James Version. So it is in II Peter 2:1, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” The same is true of I Corinthians 10:19: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” And in Galatians 5:20 this word is mentioned as being among the works of the flesh. Now it is possible that in some instances it would be better to translate the word as “sect” rather than “heresy.” But the interesting fact which is brought out is that heresy and sect are closely related. Our King James Version also translates this same word “sect” in some instances. Thus, we have in Acts 5:17: “Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is the sect of the Sadducees,) and were filled with indignation.” The Pharisees are also called a sect inActs 15:5 and again in Acts 26:5. The term is applied to the Christians almost with reproach in Acts 24:5, 14, although in the latter verse, it is again translated by “heresy.” And again we find this word applied to the Christians by the Jews of Rome in Acts 28:22; and here the Jews evidently considered Paul to be the leader of this sect, although they had no direct contact with the church, but had received reports only through hearsay. 

Now, in connection with all these texts, it is rather striking that we find the term used whether it be translated as “sect” or “heresy” only in connection with the established church of the New Dispensation. Scripture leaves the very strong impression that only when there was an established church, in the New Testament times that there could also be sects. And this is undoubtedly true. It is only when the Spirit of Christ dwells in the church, and when that Spirit guides the church into the truth, that it is possible also to have sects. 

As a matter of historical fact, since the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church has taken the position that all Protestant churches are in reality sects. They had always maintained that they were the only true church. And this position was not altered by the Reformation. It did not take much imagination to brand all deviations from the Romish Church with the name “Sect.” In order to substantiate their position, they have pointed to the fact that the Protestant Reformation has resulted in many denominations of every conceivable confession. The ones who have left the fellowship of the mother church have become hopelessly divided and splintered so that they alone retain the confession “one holy catholic church.” And such seems to be, at least outwardly, the case. It appears as if the confession of the Reformation churches, that they believe in one holy catholic church, is certainly out of harmony with the facts of church existence. And it would appear that at the least this confession is a rather abstract doctrine which has no concrete meaning in the everyday experience of the saints. 

The question is therefore, What is the true church? And in close connection with this, What is a sect? In our answers to these questions we may also well ask, Is it possible to point to any existing church denominations and call them either definitely a church or a sect? 

It would seem that the definition which we give to the church will also determine the definition which we give to a sect. This is the significance also of the use of the word in the New Testament. It was only when the church was established by the Spirit of Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost and through the instrumentality of the apostles, that other religious groups could be called sects. There was no such possibility of other religious groups in the Old Dispensation. For the light of revelation shown only in the land of the Jews. And although the church often apostatized, nevertheless, the true church could never withdraw from the apostate element; but had to stay in close ecclesiastical relation to it. 

But because of this, we may dismiss as nonsense the definition advanced for a sect by the department of Sociology in Calvin College. Certain it is that if that definition is true; the whole Protestant Reformation would have to be called a sectarian movement, and the Romish Church is right after all. Besides, it is the calling of the church, beyond a shadow of doubt to emphasize the truth over against the lie. And if this takes concrete form in a church controversy where a particular denomination or a part of it departs from the truth, that by no means brands those who remain faithful as a sect. It simply is necessary at times in the history of the church, and this has been the case from the very beginning of church history, for the church to emphasize the truth over against a particular lie. This happened in the important and fundamental trinitarian and Christological controversies of the first live centuries A.D.; this was the case at Dordrecht; this is true of the church at any time during its history. And if the church is preoccupied at a certain time with exposing a certain heresy; so that it does not emphasize in its teachings and writings other truths of Scripture, this does not mean that this is true of the whole life of the church, but only emphasizes that the truth is one, and that to attack one part of it endangers all of it. It was not true that in 1924 our church was given over exclusively to a study of “common grace.” Our theological school, our pulpits, our papers, our societies were busy with the whole Word of God. But error always has the beneficial result for the church that the saints are led to a clearer understanding of God’s Word. The truth is developed over against the lie!—this is the grand theme of church history from the beginning of its existence. 

The church of the New Dispensation is one. It is one throughout all the ages of time. Christ is present in that church by His Word and His Spirit. He dwells in that church in such a way that the Spirit leads the church into the truth of the Word of God. Christ is not here physically. He is in heaven and we are on earth. But nevertheless Christ is the constant companion of His people, His own elect body. His Spirit unites that church into an organic whole and welds it together by His Spirit. Their confession, their hope, their battle, their calling is all the same. They have a deep unity in the truth. And as the glorious truths of Christ’s Word are unfolded through the Spirit, the church incorporates that truth into her confessions and hands them to the next generation so that they can in turn build upon that foundation. Those who stand in the spiritual line of the truth of the apostles and prophets as it has been developed by the church in the past may claim a right to the name “Church.” And it is well to emphasize that that truth is developed only in connection with the preaching of the Word. For when and w where that Word is preached, Christ’s voice is heard talking to His people, and His Spirit is in their hearts leading them to an ever clearer grasp of the profound truths of salvation by grace. 

Now it is over against all this that we must define a sect. A sect is a group of people who deviate from this line of the truth of the Confessions. Men arise who refuse to be bound by what the Spirit has said to the church in the past. They introduce into the church and into the preaching their own word. They are not guided by the Spirit or by the church of ages gone by. And these men always have their followers. Thus they gain adherents to heresies which are contrary to the confessions of saints of ages past and therefore contrary to the Word of Christ. By this means, divisions are created in the church and a sectarian spirit arises. The church is splintered as an institution. All this comes about because there are people born in the line of believers who are apostate seed and who soon show disregard for the truth and contempt for the Word of Christ. When they introduce the words of men and gain followers, when they refuse to be bound by confessions, sects are created who become groups of people organized to oppose the church of Jesus Christ. 

These sects are many and varied. Every thought of man goes under the cover of religious teachings. In the United States, with its principle of “freedom of worship,” there is fertile soil for the development of every conceivable deviation from the truth. One need only pick up any book on sects to see that this is true. And in almost any part of the country any passing acquaintance will reveal to you another sect. And yet we ought to notice, that although these sects may be very far from the truth, any deviation from the confessional standards of the church is a manifestation of a sectarian spirit and an attempt to create division in the church of Jesus Christ. We may certainly call all doctrinal aberrations sectarian. 

The question arises whether it is possible for us to say with surety that any denomination is a church, while any other is a sect. Is there a denomination on earth which can be called the church? Are there other denominations which can be called sects? It seems to me that we can answer “Yes” to both of these questions. There are pure manifestations in this world of the body of Christ, churches that remain faithful to the confessions of the church of the past. It is undoubtedly true that even these denominations contain in them the carnal seed; for this seed is born in the generations of believers. And it is also true undoubtedly that a denomination is not altogether doctrinally sound in all its preaching by all its ministers in every sermon. But this is not the question. The Spirit of Jesus Christ leads the church into the truth. This truth is kept and preserved in confessions. The church that adopts these confessions and keeps them as its precious heritage is also that which may be rightly called “Church.” This Church seeks ever to be more faithful to Christ’s Word as it daily searches the Scriptures. This Church asks for the Spirit always to guide it that it may build upon the body of truth which has been handed to it from the past. This church is one with the church of all ages in confession and hope and calling by the Spirit of Christ. 

In the same way there are undoubtedly denominations who manifest that they are sects. They have completely discarded the heritage of our fathers and silenced the voice of Christ with the shouts of men. They are certainly sects. There are other denominations who have left the confessions principally and started on the road to denial of them altogether. We must nevertheless say that in as much as they still retain the confessions of the past, and in as much as the voice of Christ is still heard in their fellowship they can certainly be called “Church.” But on the same basis, in as much as they have corrupted the confessions and caused division by heresy in the church institution, they have revealed a sectarian spirit and taken upon themselves the beginnings of the characteristics of sects. 

Yet, let us remember that the church is one. The unity of the church is not ultimately dependent upon external unity, but is a unity by the Spirit which dwells in the body of Christ. God knows the heart of men and recognizes His people wherever they may be. It is for us to be faithful to the truth of God’s Word also as it is given to us by the Spirit of Christ through our church fathers, and to go on to develop it in purity on the basis of God’s Word. Let us seek the unity of the church by keeping it pure, not by compromising our heritage. I have no doubt but that our churches, by the grace of their covenant God, do exactly this. 

H. Hanko