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Sect (from Latin secta , 'party', 'teaching', 'school direction') is a term for a religious, philosophical or political direction and its followers. The term refers to social groups that differ from prevailing beliefs through their teaching or ritual and are often in conflict with their representatives and adherents.

First and foremost, a sect stands for a religious community that has split off from a mother religion . The Christianity is for. B. a separation from Judaism , so seen a Jewish sect. The originally value-neutral expression has acquired a mostly derogatory character due to its history and influence through church language use and has been used increasingly in a negative sense since the 1960s.

In modern religious studies and sociology , neutral, non-judgmental terms such as “ special religious community”, “ new religious community” or “ new religious movement ” are used instead of the term sect .

Concept history


In ancient times , the word αἵρεσις ( haíresis ) was used in Greek and secta in Latin . The Latin secta is derived from the verb sequi ("to follow", specifically: "to be a follower [of a person or teaching]"). The word was first used in the 3rd century BC. Attested by the poet Gnaeus Naevius . A secta was not only a neutral school of philosophy, but also a school of law or the support of a politician.

It was also hairesis Latinized : As a loan word from the Greek, the Latin was haeresis a synonym of secta . Etymologically , hairesis is derived from hairéomai ("take", "choose", "prefer") and originally meant "choice" as well as what you have chosen, what you have decided on (a party, opinion or conviction). From the age of Hellenism , hairesis was a philosophical teaching and its followers, for example the Stoics , Peripatetics or Platonics ( academics ). The term was not only used in philosophical or ideological contexts. In the 2nd century the famous doctor Galen wrote a Greek work on the three most important medical schools of that time, in which he used the term hairesis for them . This influential writing is still quoted today under its Latin title De sectis (literally "About the sects").

In Judaism , the Greek term hairesis was adopted and used not only for Greek schools of philosophy, but also for Jewish theological schools such as the Sadducees , Pharisees and Essenes . There was no negative connotation here either; there was no authority that would have been able to establish a certain dogma or creed as binding as "orthodox" and to introduce a derogatory term for all directions deviating from it. The Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus wrote in the 1st century that in his youth he decided on the hairesis of the Pharisees, which was similar to the philosophical hairesis of the Stoics. In the sense of this usage, the first Christians were referred to as the hairesis of the "Nazarenes" in the context of Judaism.

In contrast to the value-free Jewish use of the term, hairesis was given a negative connotation by the Christians from the beginning, which is already clearly recognizable in the apostle Paul . Although the term has been used occasionally in the early Christian literature nor in the traditional sense as a neutral term, but was in another in communion each faction standing churches among Christians as incompatible with the nature of a church and its mandatory teaching and therefore scandalous. Hairesis in the early church meant deviation from true faith and thereby separation from the community, " heresy ". From the beginning of the second century hairesis has been attested as a theological technical term in this sense; in the following period the word “heresy” dominated, the word was also used as a synonym for schisma (“split”, “split”). The terms “Christian” and “Church” were emphatically denied to those excluded as heretics. There was a heresiological and häresiographische (heresies descriptive) ecclesiastical literature. Justin the Martyr created the first catalog of heretics in the 2nd century.

A derogatory use of the term also occurred in non-Christian literature; In the late 3rd century, the pagan Neo-Platonist Alexander von Lykonpolis took the view that Christianity had experienced a decline, because ambitious and innovative, but incapable of intellectual clarity, sect founders appeared, each of whom had introduced a new hairesis . This has led to confusion and multiple fragmentation.

Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

From the illustrated sect catalog by an unknown artist (around 1647)

The Latin terms haeresis and secta continued to be used in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period , as in the writings of the ancient church fathers, for the derogatory designation of “heresies” and their followers. So the Protestants were called secta Lutherana . In the Eastern Church , Islam was viewed as a variant of late antique Arianism and was therefore officially classified under the sects from the 8th century.

The Latin word was borrowed into Middle High German in the second half of the 12th century. The oldest German evidence relates to the Arians, then demonized as heretics. The German use of the word in the late Middle Ages and in the early modern period corresponded to the Latin in the religious context; secte or sec (k) t was associated with ideas such as "Rotte", "Aufruhr", "Schaltung" and "Discord". After the Reformation it was customary in Germany to call religious groups without recognition under imperial law sects.

In addition to the usually derogatory use of words in religious contexts, from the 16th century onwards there was also a neutral use of terms in Latin and German, taken from ancient texts, to denote philosophical and medical schools.


While in German “sect” was and is used very often in a negative, often strongly derogatory sense, also in modern times, the English word sect has a rather neutral meaning. Thus, in English-language Buddhist literature, sect is used as a value-neutral expression to designate respected schools. The English term cult as a polemical foreign designation corresponds to the German pejorative expression “sect” .

Usage of the term today

Colloquial usage

Title page of the Timm sect from 1905. Hinrich Timm fell into fanatical hatred of the regional church and called for radical change. For years he sat in a madhouse for inciting against the regional church.

In common parlance, sects are often used to refer to religious groups that are viewed as dangerous or problematic in some way, or that are viewed as “heresy” in orthodox theological terms. This applies to both long-standing Christian communities, which differ from the traditional in doctrine or practice, as well as new groups. The latter include in particular those that emerged in the second half of the 20th century and were then referred to as “ youth religions ” because they initially had many young members. "Sect" is often used today as a fighting term. So-called sects are often accused of pretending to be religious denominations, primarily for economic reasons, in order to enjoy the special protection of the state, greater freedoms and rights, and tax exemption. The best known example of this is Scientology .

More recently, the term “sect” has also been used in the secular area, for example to denigrate critics of prevailing scientific doctrines, social practices or splintering off political parties. In June 2018, the OLG Frankfurt accepted it as part of the freedom of expression to call a company a "sect".


The subject of sects repeatedly leads to controversy. Two basic attitudes stand opposite one another: On the one hand, an emphasis on religious freedom and the ideological neutrality of the state. Here caution is recommended in the public evaluation of religious and ideological positions and in measures against unpopular minorities. The opposite stance is taken by those who, in particular, sharply condemn special religious ideological groups and in some cases strive for their social ostracism.

In detail, the controversies revolve around alleged or actual, for example

  • Restrictions on religious freedom of religious fringe groups, e.g. through criticism of their practices, and legal coercive measures,
  • Restrictions on religious freedom through varying degrees of legal recognition
    • Article 4 of the Basic Law allows the Federal Republic of Germany to exercise one's religion freely. There are no restrictions from the article itself, but they are often the subject of current case law. The basic right to religious freedom is only limited by the basic rights of other people and the other basic values ​​of the Basic Law.
  • Restrictions on the freedom of expression of group members,
  • Restrictions on the freedom of movement of group members
  • economic exploitation of members through long working hours and minimal salary,
  • sexual exploitation or cases of sexual abuse of children and adolescents by group members,
  • Human rights violations through intra-group, court-like proceedings,
  • Personality cults around the leaders of the group in question, e.g. B. Osho (Bhagwan) ,
  • Family conflicts, especially if a parent or children have or want to leave the group,
  • Preventing children from accessing education, health care and family members outside the group.

Media coverage

Examples of acts of violence by sects:

  • the mass suicide of over 900 members of the Peoples Temple in Guyana in 1978 ,
  • Assassinations of alleged adversaries by Swami Omkarananda and some supporters of the Divine Light Center he founded ,
  • the Church of the Lamb of God , whose leader Ervil LeBaron had around 25 rivals murdered in the 1970s,
  • the salmonella attack in 1984 on several salad bars in the small town of The Dalles by Osho members, in which approx. 750 residents became ill,
  • the armed Davidian resistance against the US authorities in 1993, in which four police officers and over 80 members died,
  • the mass suicides within the Sun Templars , in which a total of 74 members died between 1994 and 1997 in Switzerland, Canada and France,
  • the Colonia Dignidad , where children were abused and political opponents were tortured,
  • the Heaven's Gate mass suicide killing 39,
  • On March 17, 2000, the mass murder of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda, killing over 1000,
  • Yahweh ben Yahweh, leader of the Nation of Yahweh , responsible for nearly two dozen murders in the 1980s,
  • Jeffrey Lundgren's organization , which killed a family of five in 1989
  • Ōmu Shinrikyō's poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, in which twelve people died and around one thousand people were injured.

State use of terms


In Germany, the Enquête Commission "So-called sects and psychogroups" found in 1998 that the term "sect" in everyday language is increasingly referring to groups who are accused of systematically violating ethical convictions such as human dignity , human rights, freedom, To violate tolerance, self-development or self-realization instead of producing dependency instead of freedom to develop, to degrade people and to guide them to intolerance. The colloquial term sect thus suffers from a considerable lack of differentiation in terms of content; it is highly open to criticism and is therefore not used by the Commission. For the purposes of a neutral description, the terms “new religious and ideological communities and psychogroups” are more appropriate. The Basic Law only knows religions, religious societies and religious communities; In terms of constitutional law, there is therefore no difference between the church and “other forms of religious organization”. As a result, the term church is no longer protected, so that every organization can now call itself a church and use it in a misleading way.

However, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in June 2002 that the state application of the terms “sect”, “youth religion”, “youth sect” and “psycho sect” to the Osho movement was constitutionally unobjectionable, as it did not protect the area of freedom of belief and conscience touched. With a view to the report of the study commission, the court nevertheless recommended that state agencies should no longer use these terms, even if they are constitutionally unobjectionable.


On the occasion of the activities of the Unification Church since the 1970s, the state stepped up against sects. In 1995 a parliamentary commission published a list of 173 organizations known as sects. The total number of members of these organizations was estimated at 400,000. When defining the term, the state circular emphasizes the exploitative character of a sect. In this context, institutions of ideological groups that can develop freely in other countries, such as Waldorf schools, are also under observation .


In 1998, when asked by the National Council, the Federal Council stated that there was no legal term for “sect”. The Federal Chancellery has the task of raising awareness of the topic, but can at most act as a coordinator in matters of the advice center. All advice centers on sect issues in Switzerland are private or church institutions.

Scientific use

In the theological , legal and sociological context , the term “sect” is used, if at all, taking its problems into account.

Theological use

The defense of theological deviations from church teaching hardly plays a role for theologians in the more recent discussion of the subject of "sects". Attention is paid to possible negative consequences for the individual and for his environment that may result from turning to a problematic religious group. Questionable peculiarities can be: an ethical rigor, a sense of superiority, promises of salvation especially for the exclusive elite of the members, high internal pressure in the group, difficult exit opportunities. The exposition of such peculiarities is paired with self-criticism: "Many sectarian traits can also be found within the church". The church's preoccupation with special communities continues to move in the area of ​​tension of warning against wrong ways or self-questioning as a church .

Legal use

The Münchner Rechtslexikon , for example, writes that the term “sect” has lost its meaning in terms of constitutional law because it contains a negative theological assessment. The groups that used to be called “sects” are now mostly grouped under less biased terms such as “new religious movements” or “alternative religions”. Smaller spiritual groups and individuals are sometimes also referred to as "providers of the life support market".

Sociological Definitions

The following three approaches have emerged for the sociological definition:

Firstly, Max Weber's sect concept is best known in German-speaking sociology. Weber different sects of churches by their recruitment mechanisms: sects are voluntarist communities , in which one of the sect because of a personal decision and only after a thorough examination taken will. In contrast, churches Weber institutions , in which one born would.

The Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) used the term in connection with Weber in his typology of Christian community formation: In contrast to the church on the one hand, and mysticism on the other , the sect is characterized by a relatively small number of members, by the desired "personal and inner development “Of faith as well as a close, personal connection between the members. Typical of this lay Christianity is the demand for personal ethical-religious achievements and a personal relationship with God, as well as radical religious equality and fraternity within the group. A sect opposes the hierarchies and the canonical legal systems of the churches. There are three main types of sects:

  • the aggressive sect with a high missionary standard and a pronounced elite consciousness,
  • the sect tolerated by their environment, which rejects violence and practices their own faith in a withdrawn manner, as well as
  • the assimilatory sect that gives in to the pressure of the environment and makes concessions to it.

The sociologist of religion Paul Honigsheim (1885–1963) added newer American sects to the side, which in view of the widespread religious tolerance in the United States had no experience of persecution, African American sects who reacted to the widespread racism by making the “racial priority of theirs Members emphasize ”, as well as, finally, religious collectivist sects. The demarcation of the term sect from the denomination is often not to be drawn clearly.

Another, second, approach by Peter L. Berger sees a sect as an organizational model for the self-protection of ideological minorities. It is based on an orthodoxy based on an ontological concept of truth ( Niklas Luhmann ), i.e. That is, a pre-enlightened orientation in which being is recognized as immutable and imperishable and not as contingent (based on perception). A communicative understanding about the basics of life is considered blasphemous and dangerous. In order to convey the “true doctrine”, they need organizational action and, through the indoctrinating institution, not only shape the worldview of the individual, but also their language in a way that makes communication with outsiders difficult.

A third influential approach used, developed by Bainbridge and Stark, distinguishes sects and cults from churches on the basis of their ideologies. Church ideologies are not in conflict with their social environment, but rather affirm them. Sects and cults, on the other hand, clearly deviated ideologically from their social environment. This approach differentiates between sects and cults on the basis of the emergence of the ideologies associated with them: While sects that emerge from existing religious organizations would modify long-standing beliefs, cults create completely new belief systems.

H. Richard Niebuhr made the observation that sects, which emerged as a schismatic movement from large churches, had the tendency to become churches themselves, but with which they could no longer meet many of the needs of their members, which would lead to renewed splits. Building on this finding, this third approach establishes a tension between sects and society, in which both poles are constantly in motion, which could lead to the social establishment of previously conscious minority groups. The transitions between “sect” and “church” are fluid in this model. In contrast to “sects”, “cults” have their own religious roots. Bainbridge and Stark distinguish three types of cults:

  • Public cults without formal organization,
  • Client cults with formal organization that cover partial needs as well
  • Cult movements with formal organization that cover universal needs.

In this approach, the groups are differentiated according to the type of compensators offered: " Magical " or special compensators promise the manipulation of the environment for their own goals, "religious" or general compensators offer a universal world explanation model.
This distinction goes back in principle to Émile Durkheim : Magic flourishes when scientific means for its verification are lacking or not accepted. But you could not maintain an organization.

In magic-based cults, however, can develop into cult movements with a universal explanation of the world claim, so went Scientology z. B. from a psychotherapeutic self-help system (Dianetics). Cult movements, however, according to Bainbridge and Stark, unlike unorganized cults, provoke contradiction in the social environment.

See also


Conceptual historical studies


  • Hans Baer , Hans Gasper , Joachim Müller: Lexicon of new religious groups, scenes and world views orientations in religious pluralism. Freiburg 2005, ISBN 3-451-28256-9 .
  • Hermann-Josef Beckers, Helmut coal (ed.): Cults, sects, religions. From astrology to Jehovah's Witnesses. Pattloch, Augsburg 1994, ISBN 3-629-00636-1 .
  • Rüdiger Hauth : Next to the churches (= Bible, church, congregation. Vol. 12). Christian Publishing House , 2002, ISBN 3-7673-8012-9 .
  • Reinhart Hummel : Religious Pluralism or Christian Occident? Challenges to Church and Society. Darmstadt 1994, ISBN 3-534-11717-4 .
  • Gabriele Lademann-Priemer: Why are sects so fascinating? Psychological Aspects of Abuse of Religion. Claudius, Munich 1998.

Not religious

Social science

  • Benjamin Zablocki, Thomas Robbins: Misunderstanding Cults. Toronto 2001, ISBN 0-8020-8188-6 (interdisciplinary adversarial treatment of the complex of topics).
  • Hartmut Zinser : The market of religions. Munich 1997.
  • Ulrich Müller , Anne Maria Leimkühler: Between omnipotence and powerlessness. Investigations into the world, society and human image of new religious movements. Regensburg 1993, ISBN 3-89073-676-9 .


  • Nuria Schaub: The protection of small religious communities against state and private discrimination . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-17-019786-2 .

Web links

Wiktionary: sect  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. On the etymology and ancient history of concepts (outside of Christianity) see Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott: A Greek-English Lexicon , Oxford 1966, p. 41 (on hairesis ); Wilhelm Pape : Greek-German Concise Dictionary , 3rd edition, Vol. 1, Graz 1954, p. 59 (on hairesis ); Karl Ernst Georges : Comprehensive Latin-German concise dictionary , vol. 1, 9th edition, Basel 1951, col. 3005 (on haeresis ) and vol. 2, 11th edition, Basel 1962, col. 2559f. (to secta ); Heinrich von Staden : Hairesis and Heresy: The case of the haireseis iatrikai . In: Ben F. Meyer (Ed.): Jewish and Christian Self-Definition , Vol. 3: Self-Definition in the Graeco-Roman World , London 1982, pp. 76-100; Alois Walde , Johann Baptist Hofmann: Latin etymological dictionary , 3rd edition, Vol. 2, Heidelberg 1954, p. 506.
  2. ^ Heinrich von Staden: Hairesis and Heresy: The case of the haireseis iatrikai . In: Ben F. Meyer (Ed.): Jewish and Christian Self-Definition , Vol. 3: Self-Definition in the Graeco-Roman World , London 1982, pp. 76-100, here: 76f.
  3. On the use of the Jewish term, see Heinrich von Staden: Hairesis and Heresy: The case of the haireseis iatrikai . In: Ben F. Meyer (Ed.): Jewish and Christian Self-Definition , Vol. 3: Self-Definition in the Graeco-Roman World , London 1982, pp. 76-100, here: 96f.
  4. Acts 24: 5. See Gerhard Kittel (Hrsg.): Theological Dictionary for the New Testament , Vol. 4, Stuttgart 1966 (reprint of the 1942 edition), pp. 879–884.
  5. Norbert Brox: Heresy . In: Reallexikon für Antike und Christianentum , Vol. 13, Stuttgart 1986, Sp. 248–297, here: 257–264, 275–277.
  6. Alexander von Lykonpolis, Against the teachings of Manis 1f. See Pieter W. van der Horst: 'A Simple Philosophy': Alexander of Lycopolis on Christianity . In: Keimpe A. Algra u. a. (Ed.): Polyhistor. Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy , Leiden 1996, pp. 313–329, here: 313–319.
  7. See for example Walter Gerd Rödel: The "Secta Lutherana" in the shadow of the Sancta Sedes Moguntina . In: Between Conflict and Cooperation. Religious communities in the city and archbishopric of Mainz in the late Middle Ages and modern times , Mainz 2006, pp. 167–180.
  8. a b Christoph Bochinger:  Sects II . In: Religion Past and Present (RGG). 4th edition. Volume 7, Mohr-Siebeck, Tübingen 2004, Sp. 1145-1148. Here: Col. 1146.
  9. Hans Schulz, Otto Basler (ed.): Deutsches Fremdwörterbuch , Vol. 4, Berlin 1978, pp. 104-106 (Lemma Sect), here: 104.
  10. See the documents in Hans Schulz, Otto Basler (ed.): Deutsches Fremdwörterbuch , Vol. 4, Berlin 1978, pp. 104-106.
    Jacob Grimm , Wilhelm Grimm : German Dictionary , Vol. 10/1, Leipzig 1905, Sp. 406-408.
  11. Wolfgang Pfeifer: Art. "Sect". In: Etymological Dictionary of German , Bd. M – Z. Berlin, 2nd edition, 1993, p. 1275.
    Art. “Sect”. In: Hans Schulz, Otto Basler (Eds.): Deutsches Fremdsprachebuch , Vol. 4. Berlin 1978, pp. 104–106, here p. 105.
  12. For example in the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism , edited by Gunapala P. Malalasekera , Vol. 1, Colombo 1965, pp. 436f.
  13. Ulrich Dehn : Sekten I. In: Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart , 4th edition, Vol. 7, Tübingen 2004, Sp. 1144f., Here: 1145.
  14. Martin Kriele: Sect as a 'battle term' . In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , April 6, 1994
  15. Hansjörg Hemminger : What is a sect? , Evangelical Church in Württemberg (PDF; 49 KB) Retrieved on October 4, 2015; Rüdiger Hauth: sects . In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie , Vol. 31, Berlin 2000, pp. 96-103, here: 97.
  16. Sect accusation is freedom of expression. In: June 29, 2018, accessed June 30, 2018 .
  17. Sect files criminal charges against authorities. In: March 15, 2014, accessed March 9, 2018 .
  19. Nadine Helms: Bhagwan Movement: Orgies in the Name of the Lord. In: Spiegel Online . April 12, 2010, accessed June 9, 2018 .
  20. ^ Massacre in Uganda , Tagesspiegel, March 26, 2000
  21. ^ Former cult leader, self-proclaimed 'Black Messiah' seeks parole release , International Herald Tribune, October 6, 2006
  22. ^ So long, Shoko , US News & World Report , September 19, 2006
  23. ^ Final report of the study commission of so-called sects and psychogroups from May 29, 1998, accessed on July 26, 2018
  24. ^ Order of the Federal Constitutional Court of June 26, 2002, Az .: 1 BvR 670/91, accessed on December 18, 2013.
  25. - ( Memento of the original from December 19, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  29. The Swiss Federal Council has no legal definition of a sect
  30. ^ Wolfgang Marhold: Sect . In: Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon , Volume 4, Göttingen 1996, Sp. 194–197.
  31. That is the title of a contribution by Franz Graf-Stuhlhofer , with the subtitle The ecclesiastical dispute with so-called "sects". In: Christian Herrmann, Rolf Hille (ed.): Believe responsibly. A thematic book on Christian apologetics . VTR, Nuremberg 2016, pp. 284–293.
  32. z. B. Max Weber: The business ethics of the world religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. In: Archive for Social Science and Social Policy 41 (3), 1916, pp. 613–744, here: 619.
  33. ^ Ernst Troeltsch: The social doctrines of the Christian churches and groups , Tübingen 1912, pp. 362-370.
  34. ^ Paul Honigsheim: Sects I. Religious History. In: Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart , 3rd edition, Vol. 5, Tübingen 1960, pp. 1657 ff.
  35. Peter L. Berger: On the dialectic of religion and society. Elements of a sociological theory , Frankfurt 1988, quoted by Philipp Flammer: The discussion about the phenomenon of "sects" , licensed thesis at the Sociological Institute of the University of Zurich 1994, chap. 5.
  36. Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge: Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements . In: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18 (2), 1979, pp. 117-131, here: 123.
  37. ^ Benton Johnson: On Church and Sect . In: American Sociological Review 28 (4), 1963, pp. 539-549, here: 542.
  38. ^ Marty E. Martin: Sects and Cults . In: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 332, 1960, pp. 125-134, here: 126.
  39. ^ Rodney Stark: The Class Bases of Early Christianity: Inferences from a Sociological Model . In: Sociological Analysis 47, 1986, pp. 216-229, here: 217f.
  40. Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge: The Future of Religion. Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation , Berkeley 1985, quoted by Philipp Flammer: The discussion about the phenomenon of "sects" , licensed thesis at the Sociological Institute of the University of Zurich 1994, chap. 7th