Vol. 9, No. 1
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The word "sect" is found in the KJV of the Bible five times. Every instance is in the Book of Acts, where it is used three times to refer to what we might call "denominations" among the Jews, and twice to refer to the church of Christ. In both instances (Acts 24:5 and 28:22), it is in some way connected with the Jews, leaving us with the very definite impression that the church was looked upon by many, especially among the Jews, as a mere sect so common to the Jews in that time.
In every instance of the use of the word in the Book of Acts, it comes from the same Greek word meaning, according to Thayer, "a body of men following their own tenets." Tenets refers to teaching or doctrine; consequently, there were the tenets of the Sadducees, the Pharisees and those of the "sect of the Nazarenes" (Christians), "spoken against everywhere."
For the body of Christ to be looked on, both in Palestine and in Rome, as a Jewish sect would have certain, very important disadvantages. The Jews would look on them as nothing more than one of the many sects among themselves and dismiss the teachings of Christ in that manner. Not only so, but they were looked on by both Jews and Gentiles as a troublesome sect, and as the Jews of Rome pointed out to Paul, they were spoken against all over the Roman world. The Gentiles would, no doubt, look on them as nothing more than a troublesome Jewish sect, and as a result of this, Christians would have a much more difficult time reaching them with the Gospel. That they had a difficult time reaching both Jews and Gentiles with the Gospel is evidenced, we believe, by the terrible persecutions that were suffered by Christians, like those suffered by Paul. In addition to all this, there would be very little compunction against persecuting them severely by both groups.
However, the Jews in Rome, knowing of the prestige of Paul, wanted to know what he had to say regarding the sect of which no one spoke well. Paul actually belonged to this "sect," which was the reason he was in Rome, though he referred to his being there for "the hope of Israel." "The hope of Israel," as well as the hope of everyone else in the world, was bound up in Jesus Christ the Son of God and in the glorious Gospel presented in his name. Israel had been led to this hope by the great and grand Law of Moses, which God likened to a pedagogue (a slave charged with the responsibility of supervising the life and morals of boys until they came of age). When Jewish conversions to Christ began on the Day of Pentecost, those converted came of age, so far as the Law was concerned. If the Law of Moses had never existed, Israel would never have had such a hope, and if the Gospel of Christ had not been proclaimed, such a hope could never have been realized.
The ancient church was looked upon as a sect because her teachings did not seem to measure up to the so-called "mainstream" teachings of the Jews. Paul pointed out that the Jews had reduced the Law of Moses to a system of works (Romans 9:32), a system of rites, rituals and ceremonies such as circumcision and the observance of holy days, and refraining from certain foods. Indeed, ancient Christianity was very different from that sort of religion and is very different even today. We have no interest in engaging in ceremonies for ceremonies' sake as is the case with many of the denominations claiming to be "Christian" in our world. The ceremonies are cold, ostentatious and convey little or no relationship to those things taught in the New Testament of our Lord. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons churches of Christ are still considered a "sect" to be spoken against. However, those using such derogatory terms regarding the church should open their Bibles and see who the sects really are. The sects are not those standing foursquare on biblical teaching, but those developing all kinds of tenets of which the Bible knows nothing. We believe that God forever erased the stigma of being a Jewish sect from the church when he destroyed Judaism, which has never been practiced since the final fall of Jerusalem.