In recent decades it has become customary, in fact, fashionable, to refer to early Christianity as a ‘sect’. Only occasionally, however, does one encounter any sustained attempt to explain this category, to justify its use as an analytical model for the study of early Christianity and to consider its implications from a social-scientific perspective. The sociologist Bryan Wilson, in summarizing the features typical of sects and the supportive environment they provide, has noted:
A sect serves as a small and ‘deviant’ reference-group in which the individual may seek status and privilege and in terms of whose standards he may measure his own talents and accomplishments in more favourable terms than are generally available in the wider society. It alters the context of striving, puts a premium on attributes different from those counted significant in the world, and provides the reassurance of a stable, affective society whose commitment and value-structure claim divine sanction and divine permanence. Its ideological orientation and its group cohesion provide a context of emotional security so vital to the adherent that its teachings necessarily become, for him, objectively true. It is for the individual an adjustment and an accommodation, offered even at the cost of institutional maladjustment.
To study the sect as a total social entity, Wilson has observed in a further study (1988:231-232), involves providing an account of, among other items, its teachings and their provenance, the movement’s origins as a separated body, the course of its development, the character and transmission of its leadership, the source of its appeal, its methods of recruitment, the nature of ‘conversion’, the social composition of its constituency, the maintenance of social control, its economic structure, the extent to which children are retained in the movement, its capacity to motivate and mobilize its members, the relationship of ideology