Perspective: Can a Church Survive if It Gives Up Its Sectarian Identity?

Sociologists of religion define “sect” in a way that differs significantly from that of the dictionary. Dictionaries define “sect” as a group that has broken with either the orthodoxy or organization they once were part of. Sociologist, however, use “sect” to designate groups that generate a “high state of tension with their environments.” Churches, on the other hand, are defined by sociologists as “religious bodies in a relatively low state of tension with their environment.”1 Between these two manifestations of religious faith, church and sect, there will always be tension and often outright enmity because both view the other as betraying their common faith. In Adventism conflict between sect and church broke out in the 1950s over the publication of "Questions on Doctrine (QOD)."2

When a sect is successful it tends to fills up with successful people, and successful people typically want respect and recognition from the people they interact with in society at large. They want religious services that are orderly and dignified and they want preachers who are polished and educated. Adventism was destined to move in this direction when it began to build health institutions. Sanitariums and hospitals needed nurses and doctors and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and accountants and lawyers—educated people, professionals. And when they interacted with the American upper class (the only people who could afford the health services offered by the church), they did not want to be embarrassed by undereducated Adventist ministers. Consequently, the pressure was on to establish colleges and a seminary to bring the Adventist clergy up to the educational standard that well-off Americans were used to see in their own ministers.

By the 1950s Adventist leaders felt confident enough theologically to challenge the evangelical world to reassess its classification of the church as a “cult” (essentially the dictionary definition of “sect.”). The result was a series of high level meetings that led the church to issue QOD—a restatement of Adventist beliefs (in the words of Edwin Zackrison) “in language the evangelical world could understand.”3 Almost immediately, a section of the church—those who relished the high tension sect life that Adventists had led since its beginning—rose up in protest.

In North America, retired Adventist administrator and theologian, M.L. Andreasen4 accused the Adventist leadership of having betrayed the historic Adventist faith.5  In Australia, college student Robert Brinsmead sounded the tocsin. For the first time in Adventist history, the sacrosanct leaders of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists were publically attacked as enemies within the walls, traitors to the faith. From the late fifties to the Glacier View conference in 1980, a low-level civil war disturbed the peace in the Adventist church, especially in North America and Australia.

Echoes of this conflict between sect and church can still be heard, but with the virtual destruction of Ellen White’s authority and with it, the credibility of the sectarian elements of Adventist theology, the church won out over the sect, although it was very much a pyrrhic victory. Sociologists Finke and Stark put it this way: “When successful sects are transformed into churches, that is, when their tension with the surrounding culture is greatly reduced, they soon cease to grow and eventually begin to decline.”6  Church growth has always been driven by high-tension “sects” and not churches.

The sociology of religion is quite an eye-opener to those who stumble into its world. What you thought was unique, what you saw as a struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, between conservatives and liberals, turns out to fall into well-established sociological categories. There is nothing unique about the conflict that Adventism underwent between 1950 and 1980. Methodism, the lay movement that Ellen White came from, went through a very similar development in the second half of the 19th century, and as the former sect became a respectable church with educated clergy, the church began losing members and groups broke out and started the sect-church cycle all over again. The Lutheran church in North America and its struggle with the Missouri Synod in the 1970s is another close parallel.

Christians of all types are faced with the fact that churches come in two basic varieties: a low-tension church for the successful and a fire-brand sect (in the sociological sense) for the less successful. Unfortunately for the low-tension conformist churches, they are doomed to wither on the vine unless they are able to recreate some of the qualities of the sect within its walls. When there is no tension between church and society, there is little need to sacrifice time and money to celebrate the beliefs and values you already hold. Sects, however, emphasize the gulf between world and church and the dire consequences of remaining on the wrong side of it. That is a message that both delights and offends, and that is what drives growth.

The rise of the American prosperity-worshiping mega churches might seem to contradict this principle, but what has happened here is that the sect has redefined the gulf between believer and unbeliever in terms of wealth. They have substituted wealth for heaven and poverty for hell. They address people who find themselves in financial hell and promise them the wealth of heaven both here and in eternity. It is a message that offends most of us here, but that sets it apart and gives it power to grow.

Finally, churches not only have to deal with the impact that wealth and success have on their members; there is also the problem of scholarship. One thing that has always shorn sects of their high-tension theology is scholarship.

It may be that secularization ensues whenever religion is placed within a formal academic setting, for scholars seem unable to resist attempting to clear up all logical ambiguities. Rather than celebrate mysteries, religious scholars often seek to create a belief system that is internally consistent. Finding that things do not fit exactly, they begin to prune and revise and redefine." 7

So what does this tell us about the future of Adventism? First of all, it’s bad news for people who live in countries in which this article is being read. The good news is that outside the developed world, the Adventist Church is still a sect, hence the massive growth that has taken place there. And if the General Conference wants that growth to continue, it should do the counter-intuitive thing and convert all colleges in the developing world into Bible schools with a vocational emphasis—and pray that these countries remain poor.

Once a sect has become a church, to survive it needs to offer something that people don’t have, such as a community with friends and causes that appeal and offend.8 And for the sake of its survival, it must embrace those who have been less fortunate in life. Churches made up of successful people will die. Don’t the synoptic gospels imply as much?

1. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990 (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J. 1992) pp. 40-41
2. Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. An Explanation of Certain major Aspects of Seventh-day Adventist Belief (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C., 1957)
3. Edwin Zackrison, chapter 9 of upcoming “Profile of a Religious Man”
5. Letters to the Churches (Hudson Publishing, 1959)
6. Finke and Stark, p. 148
7. Finke and Stark, p. 45
8. In politics, that is how Fox News became such a success. It created a community for people who had always lived on the margins of politics and they offered everybody the chance to identify with a cause that was bound to delight and offend a lot of people. The challenge that Fox now faces is to remain a sect in the face of its success. You can already see that the daily taunts of comedians and pundits have taken a toll. Most people, at the end of the day, crave respect and recognition, but if they give in to that yearning, the sect is gone and growth will stop.


Aage Rendalen is a foreign language teacher in the Richmond Public School system in Virginia.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

thank you for a well written and reasoned evolution of Adventism. Thus we see Pastor Wilson’s attempt at driving the denomination back to its roots. He seems to have the ear of the South and a large portion of the international community. I stand with the Apostles Creed as expounded by Paul and John.I also find great comfort in the Psalms. I am very interested on how Edwin completes his autobiograph. Even now the tension is beginning to build. Tom Z


I disagree that the QOD episode fits into Aage’s “Sect v. Church” analytical tool. The non-Adventists (Martin, Barnhouse) whom the Adventist QOD insiders (Froom, Read, Anderson) were dealing with were theologically Calivinist/Presbyterian. It might be true that the Adventist insiders craved their approval, and to be taken off their “cult” list, but I don’t see this as a Sect v. Church issue, because there is just as much “Church-y” respectability in the Arminian/Methodist theological tradition that the Adventist Church comes from as there is in the opposing Calvinist/Presbyterian tradition. And make no mistake, the desire to flatter the Calvinist view of “total inability” is what was behind the QOD insiders’ decision to repudiate EGW’s clear teaching on the post-Fall human nature of Christ.

I think the 1980 Desmond Ford episode fits more easily into Aage’s Church v. Sect dichotomy, because the SDA 1844/Sanctuary doctrine is clearly sectarian and shared by no other denomination. But what happened in 1980? The Church forthrightly repudiated Ford, opting for the sectarian path. So the Ford episode does not support Aage’s view that the SDA Church has gradually morphed from a sect into a church.

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Aage, you have eloquently described the trajectory of the church. In its struggle to maintain its once important position in the U.S. and Australia it has failed and will continue to fail at adding new converts and even maintaining its position as members and their children become more highly educated and question the church of their heritage.


Indeed, sociological contexts have oftentimes been disregarded or spiritualized away (when church growth in certain areas of the world is discussed). Thus the article needs to be applauded for delineating some painful truths.

At the same time I am wondering what to do with this succinct piece of sociological insight. Surely, reverting back to a “sect status” is not an option - for reasons that might be completely outside the sociological realm. Should I therefore just resign to the fact that I might still be able to enjoy my church - while there will be nothing left for the generation of my children and grand children? There certainly are indications that this might happen - not very satisfying either.

In other words - is there a way to be relevant in this world without being/becoming a sect? I whish we were at least honest enough to struggle for answers.


Sect vs Church. An artificial construct used by powerful people to define what is orthodoxy.

What matters is faithfulness to the Bible.


We need to understand these terms are man-made and are limited in defining what has been labeled “sect” or “church” and their functions… It is disconcerting, however, to know that our experiences with the church has followed such a predictable ebb and flow. It really puts into question to what extent we have free will as we function within these organizations and beyond. It seems there are patterns governing everything man touches; and we just fall into line like rats on a wheel. I guess some people are OK with that, fulfilling their prescribed path though all this. I’m not - but do I even have a choice as we are part of this culture?

Thank you, Aage, for this sociological analysis of the “life cycle” of “sects” and “churches”. I agree with Tom, that this is both “well written and reasoned” account of the “evolution of Adventism” (though I see a few details here and there differently than what you describe, but that’s OK and to be expected).

I disagree, however, when you project this cycle onto the “future of Adventism”. Though I agree, there are a number of voices in Adventism… including those of our present GC President… which make this projection quite plausible.

But this, IMO, does not take into account several factors… not only present, but past as well.

For starters, the concept of control of individuals was so foreign to the thought of Ellen White that she used some of her very strongest language in opposing the idea of one person controlling the mind of another. For those who are not familiar with this, check out the book Ministry of Healing and look for the section called “Mind Control”.

But even more important is the state of the world-views that abound in the world today… especially that of postmodernism… which, while it means many different things to different people… is actually a great… maybe the greatest since the time of Paul… opportunity for introducing non-believers to the real Jesus Christ Who is God Incarnate… and who is in Himself the Answer to all of the longings of the human race… not merely those who already call themselves “Christian”.

But meeting the challenges that postmodernism presents does take definite “re-framing” of our concepts of how to do Evangelism… not merely in style and form, but in language and metaphor and authority base as well.

I will not attempt to describe this here. What I will do is point to a series of five presentations given at Oxford University, published on Youtube, Feb 23, 2015, by Tim Keller, pastor of a large church in Manhattan which specializes in the same types of University students as does Oxford.

The Series is called “Uncover”. The first presentation is entitled, “Uncovering Meaning” and those that follow address in turn, the universal human needs for “Satisfaction”, “Freedom”, Identity, and Hope.

At the beginning of this first one, Keller introduces the whole series.

I hope that not only you, Aage, but also a number of other conversationalists here, will listen carefully, and thoughtfully, to the whole series.


Hmmm… Sirje, no choice, no free will (psychology), no meaning (philosophy) sounds quite helpless and depressing - especially if even any opposition to such thoughts are so well explained:

It is in moments like these that constructivism is quite tempting to me (while at other times I can be quite Freudian). Personally I thrive on answers from sociology and psychology - yet the older I get, the more “blurred” my vision becomes - and the need for community (not “masses”, not mega … not sects either) grows. Would that be a direction?


Of course, pago…let’s forget about sociological implications and history because it could not possibly define the SDA church. Faithfulness to the bible is good but following the Spirit is just as important because one without the other makes an incomplete picture.


As we age the need for community is greater, but the community becomes smaller.
No one can really be freely personal and intimate in large communities which is why family becomes our most important and loving community. We too often do not cherish our families as so important until we realize that they are the only ones who truly love and care for us.


Ah, the temptation to become respectable in the eyes of the world! Isn’t that what the Apocalypse is all about?

Come out of her My people, that you be not partakers in her sins.

Trust God.


Should the church attempt to be disrespect able?

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LOL … No ‘attempt’ needed, as long as it presumes to be the sole arbiter of God and salvation.

Trust The Process.


David, I think that you are conveniently not seeing why:

And conveniently why:

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Finke and Stark’s book, The Churching of America (referenced in the article) is one I would highly recommend, although it is more than 20 years old. Here are a couple of quotes I did not include in the article:

“The Presbyterians [after the Revolution] worked tirelessly for unity, which they understood to be rooted in uniformity. Through their efforts to enforce strict national standards on polity and doctrine, they frequently shattered the very unity they sought and prompted regional schisms.” (p. 75)

And here is a quote from John Wesley, cited by Finke and Stark (p. 159), in which Wesley anticipates the transformation from sect to church–and tries to answer Andreas Bochman’s question about what can be done to retain the relevance of a low-tension church:

“Religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”
“We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and save all they can, this is, in effect, to grow rich. What way, then, can we take, that our money may not sink us into the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other way under heaven. If those who gain all they can, save all they can, will likewise give all they can, then the more they gain, the more they grow in grace, and the more treasure they lay up in heaven.”

In other words, once you’ve met your own needs, you need to be just as passionate about meeting other people’s needs. So, maybe the future of the church would be the practice of Gospel ethics.


It’s true that Adventism begins to make a lot of sense when studied from the perspective of religious sociology. Unfortunately the Sect-Church continuum usually goes in one direction, because the Church will naturally want to trim the sectarian elements away. There are two social variables which slow the process and both have been featured in Adventism. First third world immigration will infuse the church with sect-like qualities. Second a steady flow of converts or first generation believers will maintain that sect presence. These factors have allowed Adventism to delay the aging process and in this way we are rather an unusual case study. But there is no denying that the problem issues at the General Conference are essentially Sect/Church issues, or Sex(meaning gender)/Church issues.


The shoe is on the other foot; Aage is ignoring the details of these cases to fit them into his analytical framework. The QOD movement has had very significant penetration into the official church, but it is not a clear case of sect v. church, because the Arminian/Methodist tradition that the QOD movement rejects is just as respectable, from a scholarly and theological point of view, as the Calvinist/Presbyterian tradition that it embraces. And as to Fordism, it may be the case that the Spectrum commentariat has ceased to believe in the sanctuary doctrine, but no official branch or organ of the church has repudiated the sanctuary doctrine.

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So you say…but then again, what you are stating is your particular point of view albeit with an interpretive example.

Perhaps, but you well know that this is a controversial topic and not an “accepted” fact to many of us. Just because no official SDA “organ” has repudiated it (SD) certainly doesn’t make it true. They need to hold on to it because it is part of the “string of pearls”…if the necklace breaks, all of the pearls may fall.



The Bible is a bunch of stories that illustrate the underlying principles of God, mostly by how man does not grasp them because of his ignorance. And you want us to replay them?

Trust The Process.