What Is a Religious Sect?

Religious sects are often confused with cults and other extreme groups

The Salt Lake Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Salt Lake Temple, Utah. Witold Skrypczak/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

A sect is a religious group that is a subset of a religion or denomination. Sects typically share the same beliefs as the religion that is their foundation but will have marked differences in some areas.

Sects Versus Cults

The terms "sect" and "cults are often used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Cults are small, extreme groups, and are often marked by corrupt leaders and intense, manipulative, or unethical practices.

Sects are not cults, in most circumstances. They are just religious offshoots of other groups. But because of how often the two terms are confused, many people who belong to sects describe themselves as being part of a small denomination, to avoid negative stigma.

Examples of Religious Sects

In history, religious sects have been at the center of new movements and radical changes. One early example was the Nazarenes, a group made up of Jesus' followers after his death. While they were initially considered a Jewish sect, the Nazarenes have become known as the first Christians.

Today, sects are still prominent. One of the most well-known is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly referred to as Mormons. The Mormon sect eventually evolved into its own denomination of Christianity and continues to increase in followers.

Sects are often subsets of religions due to their perceived need for reform. As the sect grows, it becomes more established, builds a congregation, and becomes more accepted into the mainstream. At that point, it becomes a denomination.

Modern Christian Sects

Christianity has the largest number of sects. In the past, Christians associated sects with heresy and blasphemous beliefs, but in recent years, sects have become more respected for their beliefs. A Christian sect is recognized as separate from the core religion over certain beliefs and practices.

Within the Catholic Church, there are many sects that operate separately but still consider themselves Catholic:

  • Community of the Lady of All Nations: Founded in 1971, this sect believes that its founder, Marie Paule Giguere, is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. This differs from the Catholic belief that reincarnation is not possible and that Mary was assumed into heaven. 
  • Palmarian Catholic Church: The Palmarian Catholic Church does not recognize the current papacy as valid and infallible, splitting with the Roman Catholic Church. They have not recognized the authority of the Pope since the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978.

Modern Islamic Sects

Islam also has a number of religious sects that deviate from Islam's traditional teachings. There are two core groups, but each one has several sub-sects as well:

  • Sunni Islam: Sunni Islam is the largest Muslim sect, and differs from other groups in the matter of the prophet Muhammad's successor.
  • Shia Islam: Shia Islam believes that Muhammad did appoint a successor, in stark contrast to the Sunnis. 

While sects are often used to describe extreme religious views, many sects are peaceful and simply differ with a denomination over some particular issues. As time passes, many become accepted as mainstream denominations.

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Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "What Is a Religious Sect?" Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/sect-definition-3026574. Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 27). What Is a Religious Sect? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/sect-definition-3026574 Crossman, Ashley. "What Is a Religious Sect?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/sect-definition-3026574 (accessed March 23, 2023).

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