First, we should define what we mean by a Christian sect. The word sect itself is very broad and can mean anything from “religious denomination” to “destructive cult.” For the purposes of this article, we will define Christian sect as “a small church faction that has separated from a larger group to follow a specific practice or interpretation of the Bible.” Often, a Christian sect is held together by one teacher who promotes the unique doctrine. Thus, this article will distinguish a sect from a denomination (“a large group of churches sharing general beliefs”) and a cult (“a heretical group that departs from orthodox Christian teachings”).
For example, in England in the 1600s, the Baptist denomination had two major branches: the General Baptists (Arminian) and the Particular Baptists (Calvinistic), but there was a smaller group that had splintered off, the Seventh Day Baptists (who worshiped on Saturdays). As another example, in Prussia in 1817, a Lutheran deacon named John Scheibel formed a sect called the Old Lutherans in opposition to the Lutheran Church’s recent union with the Reformed Church. These Baptist and Lutheran groups are examples of Christian sects.
The reasons for the formation of Christian sects are numerous. Offshoots from Christian denominations can begin with a point of doctrine (e.g., predestination), a particular practice (e.g., foot-washing), a human rights issue (e.g., slavery in the 1800s), church government (e.g., whether or not to pay pastors), biblical separation (e.g., teetotaling), evangelism (e.g., the value of missionary work), music (e.g., the use of instruments), an interpretation of prophecy (e.g., pre-wrath teaching), an experience (e.g., continuationism)—and the list could go on.
The existence of Christian sects shows the diversity and range (and sometimes the fractiousness) of followers of Christ. As long as a splinter group is not slipping into heresy, and as long as there is no animosity or spiritual pride involved in the separation, the formation of a Christian sect is not necessarily a bad thing.
It is possible to be divided into sects without being overly sectarian. One day, John came to Jesus and said, “Master . . . we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” Jesus’ reply allows for followers of Christ to belong to different groups yet still be used by God: “Do not stop him . . . for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49–50).