13B – Sects and Cults

This topic aims to explore other religious groups which can be defined as sects and cults.   It is important to acknowledge that some groups make positive contributions while not conforming to orthodox Christianity, while other groups have a very negative impact on their followers.  The links below are designed to support material you will be given in class and enable you to access material about some groups that can be studied in this unit.

  1. Defining a Cult or a Sect

    It is important to think carefully about how the words ‘cult’ and ‘sect’ are defined, because some definitions are of limited use.  For example, in the Oxford English dictionary (Pocket, 9th edition) there are two definitions relevant to our study:

    1. A system of religious worship directed towards a particular person or object.
    2. A small religious group regarded as strange or imposing excessive control over members.

    The first definition includes nearly all religion, including Catholicism.  The second takes the number of followers into account which rules out Catholicism, but is also relative (who is doing the regarding?).

    What is small when it comes to religion?  For example there are 2.4 billion Catholics and 4 million followers of Shinto.  Does that make Shintoism a cult?

    If ‘strange’ is part of the definition, then this is a very subjective criterion.  Who decides what is strange?  To Catholics, believing Jesus went to America is strange, but to the Latter Day Saints believing in the Assumption of Mary is strange.  The same could be said about imposing excessive control; Catholics could consider people at Gloriavale excessively controlled, whereas atheists could consider Catholics excessively controlled.

    Sects are usually considered to be offshoots of a larger religion, because they have developed a difference in belief. In this way, it could be argued that Catholicism began as a sect of Judaism.

    The ability to agree to the Nicene Creed is the measure of whether a group could be called Christian in their beliefs.

    What is important, especially if completing the Achievement Standard for this topic, is that you decide upon a definition and make an argument as to why a group you have studied fits this definition.  ‘New Religious Movement’ may be a more useful term in some instances.   To explore more definitions see Cults.

    Safe Sects? Common features of cults to be mindful of.

  2. Information on Specific Groups

    Jehovah’s Witnesses

    This group developed in America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as an off shoot of protestant Christianity through a Bible study movement.

    Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (‘Mormons’)

    This group developed in early to mid 19th century America and was founded on Christian  and the new ideas of a young man named Joseph Smith.


    Scientology began in mid 20th century in America with the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard, a fantasy author.  Despite the use of a cross in their symbols, there is no basis in Christianity.  This group should not be confused with the Christian Science church.

    Exclusive/Plymouth Brethren

    The Plymouth Brethren started as an offshoot of the Anglican church in the early 19th century in England and Ireland.  Changes in the 2nd half of the 20th century led to this group becoming increasingly isolated.  Their teachings are based in Christianity.  This group should not be confused with the open Christian Brethren Church of New Zealand.


    This church was founded in 1998 by Brian and Hannah Tamaki. It is a church based on Christianity with a Pentecostal worship style.  It grew rapidly at first and came to the attention of the media because of views on controversial issues, the central role of Brian Tamaki and the preaching of prosperity theology.

  3. The Attraction of Sects and Cults

    Destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four basic components, which form the acronym BITE – Behaviour, Information, Thought and Emotional control.

  4. Support Resources for AS90825

    You may be assessed in your knowledge and understanding of Sects and Cults through Achievement Standard 90825.


    Remember that these are resources that fit the generic title of the standard.  You should read the actual standard 90825, the national moderator’s report, and the assessment task that your school has set.


    To meet AS90825 you are required to consider in detail and break down into components essential features of religious expression in New Zealand and to draw and justify conclusion from the information.  Note you are writing about religious expression in NEW ZEALAND. Some material that may help you to respond to the task your school sets includes:

    • Census data on religious affiliation in New Zealand (you might look at the data over a range of years in order to make conclusions).
    • Finding data about various religious groups might be useful for your task.
    • New Zealand Encyclopedia information about Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness and Seventh Day Adventists.


    FaithCentral would love to know about sites that you have found useful in your preparation for assessment to any achievement standard. We are also keen to know what you would find helpful to have on FaithCentral. Please share your resources and views with us via ncrs@tci.ac.nz. Remember we are not miracle workers and will not be able to help the night before the task is due in.