Sects, Christian

Sects, Christian.

The various sects which have arisen in the Church from time to time are, treated of under their several appropriate captions in this Cyclopaedia. This article has to do simply with the idea of sectarianism, and with the ethical and legal aspects which the question assumes in certain lands.

The word sect occurs in classical literature (in Cicero, Tacitus, etc.) in the sense of sequor as involving the idea of separation to some leader rather than that of separation from some body. It consequently might be applied to Christianity itself at the beginning, when devotion to Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be the prominent trait of the new tendency. In a later period the word came to signify separation from, as if derived from secure, to cut off. This has continued to be its principal meaning to our day. Protestantism is evidently prohibited from employing the word in this sense by the fundamental principle which concedes the right to personal convictions and the free expression of beliefs; · and it is a somewhat unusual term in the vocabulary of American ecclesiasticism, whose occurrence in almost every instance is explained by an implication of heresy as charged upon the ecclesiastical body to which the term is applied.

In European countries where State churches have been established the case is different. Separation has there often been regarded an odious offence, and has sometimes been construed into a crime against the State. The Pietism of the 17th century did something to break down this prejudice by revealing to the world an orthodoxy and piety superior to those of the churches, and the pseudo-enlightenment of later days likewise contributed to this end by advocating an absolute freedom of thought; but in both continental and insular Europe the term sect still carries with it a stigma, and to many minds involves the notion of heinous guilt.

In the Romish Church this term is not in general use, and is employed only as the synonym of heresy or schism. This meaning was adopted by the Reformers and developed, so that Luther regards the sect as a mob and a fanatical clique. Both Lutherans and Reformed refused to tolerate any deviation from scriptural standards as understood by themselves, an apparent inconsequence whose explanation lies in the fact that these men had attained to positive convictions of truth; they saw but a single and exclusive object on which faith might lay hold, and could not conceive of diversities of view respecting that object. The unhappy Peasants' War confirmed Luther in his aversion to the idea of absolute toleration, and his influence contributed towards Raking sectarianism an offence against both Church and State.

The efforts of men to prevent the development of sects were, however, always counteracted by principles which underlay the ecclesiastical systems held by themselves. Not only does this apply to the principle of Protestantism, that freedom of religious belief is the right of every person, but it is shown in the results of territorialism and collegialism in the churches of Germany. The former of these systems had for its leading principle the notion that the ruling prince of any territory should possess absolute power over the exercise of religion within his dominions, but that he should regard all religious as equal so long as none of them should endanger the welfare of the State. The latter system practically located all ecclesiastical power in the particular congregation. It is evident that neither of these systems was calculated to repress a tendency towards sectarianism. Another factor in the problem was furnished by the extensive changes made in the map of Europe at the close of the 18th century, the breaking-up of states and dividing of their populations insuring a more cosmopolitan character to the inhabitants of countries, and thus reacting on their relations to the Church. When, finally, it came to be understood that the only claim of an evangelical Church to recognition by the State is that its roots strike down into the faith of the people, the last barrier in the way of complete toleration was practically overthrown. The logic of the situation is clear, and a hearty acceptance of the conclusion to which it leads is delayed only by prejudice and political considerations. In most of' the countries of Protestant Europe, however, grave difficulties still prevent the exercise of ecclesiastical functions by dissenting ministers, and the established churches are favored by existing laws.

The relation of private conscience to the question of sectarianism regarded as a separation from an existing Church evidently demands consideration under every ecclesiastical system. Frequently the motive which lends to the separation of an individual from his Church not a good one: he is devoted to some specialty which he general Church disregards in her teachings, e.g. Millenarianism, etc., or he finds too much of worldliness, fashion, regard for wealth, etc., in the Church, and too many unworthy members. Clearly, separation from Church of Christ in which the pure Word of God is reached and the sacraments are duly administered is allowable only in answer to the clear call of duty; and,' s a general rule, separation should take place only by compulsion, as in the case of the separation of Luther corn the Romish and of Wesley from the Anglican Church. On the whole subject, see Herzog, Real-Encyklop, s.v., and the literature there mentioned.

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