St Barnabas Beckenham

18th November 2007

Year C, Week 33

All about Sects


If you’d been told last Sunday that today’s sermon was going to be ‘All about Sects’, you might have felt like inviting some friends along to hear all about it. But it’s just as well you didn’t, because the Sects I shall be telling you about are spelt S-E-C-T-S rather than the three-letter type.

All of us know someone who belongs to a sect rather than to a church. The question we need to ask ourselves is why some people choose to become Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or Seventh Day Adventists, to name just three sects which exist in Beckenham no less than Bath or Birmingham.

First let’s be clear what the word ‘sect’ means. Most people think it’s related to words like ‘bisect’, ‘intersection’ and ‘section’ which all come from the Latin word for ‘to cut’: and so ‘bisect’ means ‘to cut in half’, ‘intersect’ means ‘to cut across’, and ‘section’ is something that has been ‘cut out’ of something larger than itself. So, in religious terms they think it’s a movement which has ‘broken away’ from the mainstream of a particular faith and set up on its own.

But that’s not where the word ‘sect’ comes from. It’s got nothing to do with cutting or breaking up but comes from the Latin word for ‘to follow’. So in English it’s related to words like ‘sequence’ and ‘consequence’ and ‘sequel’, all of which mean ‘something that follows something (or someone) else’.

Now if you look at the history of sects you will always find that they have their origin in a particular person whose ideas and leadership others decide to follow. That’s as true of the Mormon’s, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses which were all started by American preachers in the 19th Century as of the Islamic sects of Shiites and Sunnis, and more recently Fatah and Hezbollah.

Every sect begins with a Leader, whose charm and persuasiveness and the new beliefs he (or she) has to offer attract a group of followers, or disciples.

Every Leader has to offer people some reason for following – and that’s why their beliefs are so important to them. But the remarkable thing about the supposedly ‘new’ beliefs would-be Leaders offer their followers is that those beliefs always prove not to be new at all, but ideas which were doing the rounds hundreds or even thousands of years ago but sooner or later became discredited and forgotten about.

So, for instance, what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe is no different from what a priest called Arius taught people to belief in the 4th Century AD. Arius wanted to popularise the Christian faith by making it easier to believe. So he came up with the claim that Jesus Christ is not actually God, but merely a God-like being. He didn’t go as far as to say that Jesus was nothing more than a human being (like you and me), but he made Him out to be a sort of Angelic Superman, who deserves our respect and honour and whose teachings and example must be taken seriously, but definitely not someone who is ‘of one substance’ with God the Father and worshipped with Him.

Today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses go one better than Arius. They teach that Jesus and Michael the Archangel are one and the same person. But it’s all the same old story, which is why it’s quite a good ploy to say to those Witnesses who come to your door, ‘now let me see, you Witnesses are Arians, aren’t you?’. It works a treat because not one Witness in a thousand has even heard of Arius. So why not give it a try – always of course making sure that you can remember who Arius actually was!

But for us this morning the most important fact about Jehovah’s Witnesses (and other sects) is that they succeed. Why? Because they have sussed out the importance of leadership. Every Witness is expected to become a leader almost from Day One. That’s why they always work in pairs. New Witnesses soon find themselves expected to go out with more experienced ones to learn how to lead others into what they imagine to be the Truth.

That’s a lesson we Christians must learn from them. Far too many churchgoers see themselves as being ‘The Led’ rather than ‘The Leaders’. In one sense, of course, we’re all ‘The Led’ – from Bishop, Archbishop, Pope to the laity we are always led by the Holy Spirit into the Way of Truth. But we all have a duty to lead others – whether it’s our children, our parents, our neighbours or those we work with, into the Truth ‘as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ’

There’s another reason why sects attract followers: because they make demands both personal and financial on them. Many Christians are allowed to get away with the idea that need only turn up occasionally to Church on Sundays and put a small amount of money in the collection plate. So is it any wonder that church-going is seen by outsiders as a form of recreation which some people choose to do on Sundays, whilst others prefer to play golf or clean the car? Of course, we must always remember how Jesus told us that those two little coins which that poor widow put into the collection were more valuable than the more impressive sums that others contributed. But that all she had. Which of us has ever emptied all the money in our pocket or handbag into the collection?

But there’s a third reason why people find sects attractive. If they are going to survive they have to be a tight-knit community of people. The appeal of belonging to a small minority gives that minority a sense of importance and significance. You become a large fish in a small pond.

That’s why sects become very supportive of their members. You never find anyone who belongs to a sect in dire poverty for any length of time. Someone who belongs to the sect will always see it as their particular duty to minister to the person in need, whether it’s a personal problem, being a baby-sitter or helping a house-bound person by doing their shopping for them. Why do they so supportive? Because sects value their individual members far more than we do. They see them as their treasures, rather than people who happen, like us, to ‘enjoy doing that sort of thing on Sunday’.

Take a look at the person beside or in front of you in the pew. You may like or dislike them; you may not even know who they are. But it’s quite likely that God has guided them, and you, to sit beside one another in church this morning for reasons which He alone knows best. At least you can say ‘Good morning!’ to them (which is a code-prayer for ‘May God give you a good morning’). Next Sunday if you see them preferring to sit as far away from you as possible then that’s as a sign that God intends someone else to minister to them on His behalf.

So far we have only looked at the good things we can learn from looking at how and why sects attract people. So here are two of their thoroughly bad aspects which we would do well to learn and take warning from.

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