The abundance of literature on the subject shows a great interest today in the thought and actions of the “sects.” Before we take a brief look at recent books and articles on this subject it is quite necessary to define the word as we are using it. There is wide difference among writers on the meaning of “sect,” with resulting confusion. This confusion we would avoid, even though we have little hope of convincing everyone of our definition of the word.

“Sect” is often used, by Roman Catholic writers and others, as equivalent to denomination, in distinction from “church.” This is consistent with Roman theory that allows there is but one true church, namely the Roman. Liberal Protestant writers sometimes use the word “sect” in approximately the same sense as the Roman church uses it, though for exactly the opposite reason. Thus, Rome sometimes designates all non-Roman denominations as sects because she believes herself to have the sole right to being called a church; while some liberals apply the word to virtually all Christian denominations because they think that none of them is really more entitled to the term “church” than another.

Evangelicals generally use “sect” when referring to those Christian denominations not regarded as evangelical. They generally believe that there are many denominations which are entitled to the designation “church,” and so freely apply that term to them. Those which do not hold to evangelical principles are not usually called churches at all, but sects or cults.

If it is asked what is essential to being an evangelical church, the answer is usually forthright. Being evangelical is holding to evangelical or fundamental principles, especially the deity of Christ and his atonement.

The most interesting thing presently occurring in the world of churches and sects is the controversy concerning the classification of the Seventh-day Adventists. This group, since it came into being about a century ago, has usually been treated as a sect rather than a church by evangelicals. The Adventists today are contending vigorously that they are truly evangelical. They appear to want to be so regarded. And what is more interesting than this is that many evangelicals are now contending that they ought to be so regarded. But, on the other hand, many believe that the old classification as sect should not be changed. We shall not discuss that matter here, since CHRISTIANITY TODAY proposes soon to present an article by Prof. Harold Lindsell on this whole question. Sufficient to note here, by way of anticipation, that Donald Grey Barnhouse, Walter Martin and others (cf. editorial in Eternity, Sept., 1956, and elsewhere) are calling for a re-evaluation of the SDA’s, while E. B. Jones and others believe that they are as deserving their sectarian classification as ever (Sword of the Lord, Aug. 2, 1957). Just this week the new volume, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrines, has reached my desk. It begins: “This book came into being to meet a definite need. Interest concerning Seventh-day Adventist belief and work has increased as the movement has grown. But in recent years especially, there seems to be a desire on the part of many non-Adventists for a clearer understanding of our teachings and objectives.” This book is the 720-page Adventist answer to the question whether it ought to be thought of as a sect or a fellow evangelical denomination.

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Perhaps the most recent effort to assay all the sects appeared in January. It is the work of the faculty of the Presbyterian Seminary in Louisville, (The Church Faces the Isms, edited by Arnold B. Rhodes). This volume ventures on a somewhat broader field than most works of this variety. Thus it includes chapters on Roman Catholicism, Communism, Dispensationalism, and Fundamentalism, as well as Totalitarianism, Racism, Secularism and other themes.

Walter Martin is probably the most productive evangelical scholar writing in this field. J. K. Van Baalen’s Chaos of Cults continues as the standard evangelical work. Nelson is currently publishing the Why I Am series and we note that Senator Wallace F. Bennett’s Why I Am a Mormon is to appear in April. Leo Rosten has edited A Guide to the Religions of America (1955); this volume includes discussion by representatives of various denominations as well as adherents of the sects; it gives convenient summaries of membership, doctrines, clergy in the appendices, as well as results of a number of interesting public opinion polls. For studies based on firsthand observations and written in a popular nontechnical and nontheological style, Marcus Bach’s several volumes in this area are in a class by themselves. Charles S. Braden, too, occasionally gives studies, such as the one on Father Divine, which were based on observation as well as reading. His They Also Believe and other works are somewhat liberal in their slant but are distinctly significant from the social, theological and historical angle. F. E. Mayer’s The Religious Bodies of America has interesting studies of the sects as well as other religious bodies and is especially strong from the standpoint of theological exposition and evaluation.

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Time forbids mention of many works in addition to those above in the general field. Besides the general works many significant special studies are appearing. Among the most important is the account of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the former member, W. J. Schnell (Thirty Years a Watch Tower Slave). In a most interesting fashion he traces his association with this group in Germany and through the United States until his withdrawal. In addition to its value as a personal account, the book reveals uncommon observations about the doctrinal developments and governmental changes in this sect.

The religious periodicals have by no means neglected the sects. One of the most interesting series is found in Interpretation (1956). Professor Bruce Metzger in “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ” (Theology Today, April, 1953) subjects to thorough refutation the standard passages to which the Witnesses appeal in support of their rejection of the deity of Christ.

Much more could be said about sects. Enough has been mentioned to show that the Church is indeed “facing the isms.” From this “facing” at least two good things may be expected. First, the Church herself may more thoroughly learn the Gospel entrusted to her as she seeks to give these zealots a reason for the hope that is in her. And, second, some of the persons who have been led astray following gospels that are no Gospel may be won back to the bosom of the evangelical Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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