Part 3: Jehovah's Witnesses Not a Sect?

Alan Feuerbacher

The Society goes to some length in the series of articles in the September 15, 1983 Watchtower to establish that Jehovah's Witnesses are not a sect. This conclusion, and the reasoning behind it, are emphasised in the section "Do You Remember" in the December 15, 1983 Watchtower, which says:

Jehovah's Witnesses are not disciples of a human leader or teacher. Jehovah God and Christ Jesus are their teachers. Hence, Jehovah's Witnesses are not a sect.

However, this conclusion is not in line with the normal usage of "sect" in English. The writers of these articles have gone to some length to avoid acknowledging this common usage. For some reason they don't like the word. Let's analyze the articles to see why I can say this.

The first article begins by saying that most religions are divided into sects:1

Some of these [ten main religions, but 10,000] sects are long-established religious groups and consider themselves to be full-fledged churches. Certain old religions are divided up into sects...."

The article attempts to distinguish between the words "church" and "sect" in both the above quotation and in the subheading "Church or Sect?":2

The word "church" does not have the same connotation in all countries.... Even in [predominantly Protestant] countries, generally a person cannot say he belongs to a church unless he is a member of the larger, long-established Protestant religions. Otherwise he is viewed as belonging to some sect. True, in the United States even small offshoot religions are often honored with the name church. But in most other countries they would have to content themselves with being called a sect."

This is the writer's first set of errors. We are not concerned with how "church" or "sect" is used in various countries; we are concerned with English in places where it is spoken as a native language. The important things are the meanings of the words "sect" and "church" as currently used by native English speakers. After all, native speakers define the language. True, some connotations of the English words are different in other countries, as the Watchtower writers have mentioned, but what they really mean is that the connotations of the words, when translated into other languages, are sometimes different. However, sometimes the connotations of the translated words are identical across languages.

Webster's Dictionary3 lists, among others, one definition of "church:"

3: a body or organization of religious believers as: a: the whole body of Christians b: DENOMINATION c: CONGREGATION

The capitalized words are stated to be synonyms for "church." Webster's also lists, among many others, one definition of "sect:"

b: a religious denomination.

Roget's Thesaurus lists the words "sect," "church," "denomination" and "persuasion" as the most common synonyms for each other.4 Many other dictionaries show that although some connotations of the words "church" and "sect" differ, other connotations are identical or nearly so. The Watchtower writers have ignored the similar connotations of "church" and "sect," and implied that the words have only different connotations. They state "church" means only an established religion (i.e., that of many) whereas "sect" means anything else. It is, however, for this discussion irrelevant that the equivalent of these words in languages other than English have differing connotations. The only important factor is how native English speakers use the words.

Next the writers attempt to define "sect." They state two of the many definitions (references are not stated), ignoring all definitions that do not suit their purpose:

A sect has been defined as "a comparatively small recently organized exclusive religious body; esp: one that has parted company with a longer established communion." According to another definition, a sect is "a dissenting religious body; esp: one that is heretical in the eyes of other members within the same communion."

With these incomplete definitions established, the writers then trace the etymology, or history, of the word (again references are not stated):

Some claim that the word "sect" is derived from the Latin verb secare (to cut) and define a sect as a group that has broken away from an established church. Others trace the word "sect" back to the Latin verb sequi (to follow) and thus apply it to a group that follows a particular human leader or teacher.

The remainder of the four articles use these restricted definitions to prove that all other definitions are incorrect.

I've looked up the definitions of the word "sect" in dictionaries published in Britain and the United States. Common word usage in these countries, as defined in these dictionaries, certainly defines the words.

1. A group of people with religious or other beliefs that differ from those more generally accepted.5

2. 1. A system of religious belief. 2. Those who accept and practice a particular religious belief.6

3. 1. a religious denomination, esp. one deviating from a generally accepted tradition. 2. any group united by a specific doctrine or under a leader.7

4. 1 a: a dissenting or schismatic religious body; esp: one regarded as extreme or heretical b: a religious denomination.... 3 a: a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or to a leader.8

5. A body of persons following certain principles or doctrines (as, a philosophical sect); esp., a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination; often, a party or school among the professors of a religion; sometimes, a party regarded as deviating from the general religious tradition, or as heretical; sometimes, a body separated from a particular church; a body of dissenters from an established church;....9

6. 1. a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination. 2. a group regarded as deviating from the general religious tradition or as heretical. 3. (in the sociology of religion) a Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.10

7. 4. A religious following; adherence to a particular religious teacher or faith.... c. In modern use, commonly applied to a separately organized religious body, having its distinctive name and its own places of worship; a denomination. Also, in a narrower sense, one of the bodies separated from the church. The Sects: applied by Anglicans to the various bodies of Dissenters, by Roman Catholics to all forms of Protestantism.11

Note the preceding definitions contain, but are not limited to, the definitions of "sect" as presented by the Watchtower writers. Several references trace the etymology or derivation of "sect:"

8. Etymology: from Middle French secte group, sect; from Late Latin secta organized ecclesiastical body; from Latin secta way of life, class of persons; from Latin sequi to follow.12

9. a[dopted from] F[rench] secte...., or directly ad[apted from] L[atin] secta following (used as cognate object in sectam sequi, to follow a person's guidance or example), hence a party or faction, a philosophical sect or school, a class or profession...., f[rom] sequi- root of sequi to follow.... It has been maintained that L[atin] secta is the fem[inine] p[articiple] of secare to cut.... some of the uses of secta are more satisfactorily accounted for by derivation from sequi than from secare.13

I don't see how it could be clearer, from these definitions, that the word "sect" can legitimately be applied to Jehovah's Witnesses. Do general circulation English language newspapers and journals err when they do so? Not according to the dictionaries. It is not up to a specific speaker of a language to create for a word whatever meaning he wants. The Watchtower has no business trying to redefine the English language word "sect."

The writers of these Watchtower articles have restricted the meanings of "sect" to those definitions which enable them to prove their point. They have not mentioned the word also has more general meanings, but they are restricting the meaning to a narrow sense. Also note they say some unspecified "others" apply "sect" to "a group that follows a particular human leader or teacher." But none of the definitions I've quoted or seen in other references mentions that a human has to be the leader. Definition 3. above mentions a group united by a specific doctrine or under a leader. Definition 4. mentions a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or to a leader. Definition 5. mentions following certain principles or doctrines. Definition 7. mentions adherence to a particular religious teacher or faith. Note the common threads: united under a doctrine, principle or faith; or united under a leader or teacher. One may argue that it is implicit in these definitions that the leader must be a human. But the definitions do not require it, and the Watchtower writers have not so argued. They have inserted "human" into their definition without justification and without telling the reader. They have also ignored the common threads in the definitions, which do not refer to a "human". The writers assume that most readers will miss the point. This is proved by their statement that "the members of many of these [10,000 churches and] sects follow some human leader, whereas Jesus Christ stated: 'Your Leader is one, the Christ.'"

In the derivations of "sect" from older words, most of definition 9. above correctly describes Jehovah's Witnesses as a religious body; so does definition 10. Christianity certainly is a "following;" it follows Christ. It follows "a particular course of conduct," it follows "a person's guidance or example" -- Jesus' and Jehovah's guidance and examples. And Jesus certainly is and was a person.14 Christianity is a "party," as Webster's gives one definition of "party" as "a person or group taking one side of a question, dispute, or contest." Christians are on Jehovah's side on the question of universal sovereignty.

The last acknowledgement in the Watchtower articles that the writers are using "sect" in a restricted sense appears in a statement on page 9:

[Jehovah's Witnesses] are not a sect, inasmuch as they are neither the disciples of some human teacher or leader nor an offshoot of any one church or sect.

The acknowledgement appears in the use of the phrase "inasmuch as." Then the writer takes a step toward his goal, again glossing over the point about "human leader," with the statement "they follow no man but rather God and His Son...." The writer of the later "Do You Remember" article seems to think that this is the main point and the matter is closed, but he has surely ignored the reasoning leading to this point.

By the third article in the September 15 Watchtower series, the writers drop all reference to the common usage of "sect," and apply it only in the restricted sense of the first article. Again, the reader is not informed of this. "All the churches of Christendom originally were sects." The writers do not care that by common usage as reflected in the dictionary definitions all religions are still sects -- they only want to point out that all churches of Christendom started off as offshoots of something else and that these offshoots always followed men. At this point they want the reader to know full well that a sect has only the above bad connotations. Other references to "sect" in paragraphs 11 and 15 of the article further show this.

The final, crucial argument comes in the fourth article, page 17, para. 8, where the writers object to the fact that "Jewish sects disdainfully called the early Christians a sect." They then say

the apostle Paul rejected this misnomer, stating: "According to the way that they [his religious enemies] call a 'sect,' in this manner I am rendering sacred service to the God of my forefathers." (Acts 24:14)

I don't see how the writers can say that Paul, in this scripture, is rejecting anything. Paul merely acknowledges without comment that the Jews call his form of worship a sect, when he says "in this manner...." This is further borne out by looking at this scripture in Bible translations other than the New World Translation:

But this I confess unto thee that, after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers. (Authorized Version)

But this I acknowledge to you, it is in the way of the movement they call a sect that I am worshipping our fathers' God. (The Bible in Living English)

What I do admit to you is this: it is according to the Way which they describe as a sect that I worship the God of my ancestors. (The Jerusalem Bible)

But this much I will admit: I am a follower of the new way (the 'sect' they speak of), and it is in that manner that I worship the God of our fathers. (The New English Bible)

However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers, as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. (The New Testament New International Version)

The Watchtower writers do not explain in what manner they think Paul is rejecting "this misnomer." Again, without justification or explanation the writers merely state their conclusion. I see nothing in the scripture where Paul objects to the term -- in fact he acknowledges its use.

The writers also say that the Greek word "hai'resis," from which "sect" is translated, denotes "a body of men separating themselves from others and following their own tenets." As usual, the source of the definition is not stated. According to Strong's Concordance15 "hai'resis" means:

properly a choice, i.e., (esp) [but not limited to] a party or (ab[stractly]) disunion.

Also see Aid to Bible Understanding under "Sect." The above description could certainly be applied to early Christians. They were "a body of men." They separated "themselves from others" (2 Cor. 6:17). They adopted Jehovah's principles, as taught by Jesus, as their own, in their hearts (Jer 31:33), and so these principles became "their own tenets." What more is needed to fit a definition?

The definition says nothing about whether the "body of men" came up with the tenets themselves, nor does it say anything about where the tenets originated -- only that the tenets are "their own," as opposed to being also the tenets of some other group. Finally the writers say:

In no way could Christians be called a sect, for they were following Jesus Christ, not any man. Further, they were certainly not an offshoot of one of the sects of Judaism.

That a religious body does not need a human leader to be called a sect can easily be seen from the following argument: Satan is the god of this system of things and all false religious sects are under Satan. Therefore Satan is the leader of all false religious sects. Satan is not a human. Q.E.D.

It seems to me that the writers think of the term "sect" only as a derisive one -- therefore they put much effort into proving that Jehovah's Witnesses are not a sect. Often, but not always, others who speak of a sect use the term derisively. But that should not be surprising. If one believes that one's religion is true and that a sect is a derisive word for other religions, then of course one will use that term to describe other religions and object to anyone else's using it to describe one's own. Note especially in definition 7. above, how Catholics describe Protestants. They are correct in doing so.

It is the same with the word "heresy," which is translated in the Authorized Version from the same Greek word "hai'resis," as is "sect." Catholics are perfectly justified in calling Jehovah's Witnesses heretics. Likewise Jehovah's Witnesses are justified in calling Catholics heretics or apostates. The merits of the religion are irrelevant to the question of word use.

It seems as if the writers are making the sort of imaginary distinction earlier Watchtower writers made in trying to distinguish between religion and worship. Religion always implied false religion and worship always implied true worship, as if there were no such thing as true religion or false worship, a la "Religion is a snare and a racket."

There are a large number of English speaking people who are agnostic or atheist. They have no prejudice about using "sect" as a synonym for "religion" or "philosophy." As native English speakers, they are perfectly well justified in using "sect" in any commonly accepted way.

As an example of this sort of word use, everyone knows what a "metal" is. However, astronomers use the word "metal" in a technical sense to refer to any substance that is not hydrogen or helium. Also, some people often refer to the music style called "heavy metal" as just "metal." Using your knowledge that compact discs (CD's) are made of plastic, if an astronomer told you that the compact disc in his hands was "metal," what would he mean? Answer: you could not tell, because of the several definitions of "metal." To know what he meant you would have to know the context in which he posed his statement. He could not argue that the CD was or was not "metal" unless he defined his context, because in some contexts a CD is "metal" and in some it isn't.

It should be clear from the preceding discussion that to prove a narrow point of view the Watchtower writers distort the common usages of an English word that has multiple connotations. They ignore most of those connotations and do not seem to understand that word definitions are inclusive, not exclusive. If a thing fits any commonly accepted definition, then use of the word to describe the thing is proper. The writers even admit this as respects common usage of "church" in the United States, but then ignore it as if common usage in the largest English speaking country in the world is of no significance. If the writers want to prove that Jehovah's Witnesses do not have a human leader, or any of the other points they discuss, then they should do so without trying to prove that Jehovah's Witnesses are not a sect. I've shown that by all common English language usage Jehovah's Witnesses are a sect. The usage appears in books, magazines, and newspapers; it is almost always neutral. In the final analysis, who cares?


1 The Watchtower, p. 3, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, NY, Sept. 15, 1983.

2 ibid, p. 3.

3 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Co., Springfield, Mass., 1979.

4 Roget's International Thesaurus, Fourth Edition, Harper & Row, Inc., 1979.

5 Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980.

6 Roget's II The New Thesaurus, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Mass, 1980.

7 The Random House Dictionary, Ballantine Books, New York, 1978.

8 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Co., Springfield, Mass., 1979.

9 The New Century Dictionary of the English Language, D. Appleton-Century Company, London, 1946.

10 The American College Dictionary, Random House, Inc., New York, 1962.

11 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1971.

12 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Co., Springfield, Mass., 1979.

13 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1971.

14 Organized to Accomplish Our Ministry, p. 12, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1983.

15 The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.