Religious Organisations: Churches, Sects and Denominations
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Last updated 17 Jul 2018
Traditionally, most people with a religious belief belong to some manner of religious organisation.
While, within the Christian tradition, most might describe their organisation as a “church” there have been various attempts to differentiate between the very different sort of religious organisations that exist, from huge organised, international churches to small, localised chapels.
In everyday usage, we use the word church as a fairly generic descriptor for both the organisations and the buildings of organised Christian religion; denominations are the different branches of the Christian church, born from historical schisms (e.g. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) and sects are much smaller organisations. However, sociologists and theologians have not always used these terms in quite that way.
The first sociological typology of churches came from Max Weber who differentiated between churches and sects, identifying churches as large organisations and sects as small ones and noting various social differences between the two.
Today, sociologists tend to the use the typology of Ernst Troeltsch (1912), which developed the ideas of Weber:
Religious Organisations - Troeltsch’s typolog
- They claim a monopoly over the truth: that is, they claim that their position is true and that the views of religious groups are false.
- They are closely connected to the state. Many countries have an “official religion” or state religion (such as the Anglican church in the UK, where the Queen is both head of state and head of the church and bishops sit in the House of Lords). Confusingly, because we associate these terms specifically with Christianity, sociologically, in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, Islam clearly fits many aspects of the typology of a church.
- They have a developed, hierarchical bureaucratic structure. There will be clear lines of seniority in the clergy (who are paid a salary) and hold a number of rules and regulations. Despite the rules and regulations, churches tend to make relatively few demands on their members. In this way active membership can generally fit around a normal, working life, making it accessible to people from a range of social backgrounds.
- Churches are mainstream, conservative organisations that seek to defend the status quo. They seek to be open and universal but are attractive to those on high incomes (the ruling class) who have an interest in preserving society as it is and resisting social change.
- People are often born into a church, rather than choosing it. Indeed, they are likely to be included in the church before they are old enough to understand its teachings. They are not generally expected to prove their faith or commitment.
- A clear example of a church, for Troeltsch, would be the Roman Catholic Church.
Troeltsch characterised sects as organisations that broke away from a church (through a schism) because they were dissatisfied with its teachings or practices. This would be a small-scale schism with the sect formed by dissatisfied members of a congregation rather than a split towards the top of the hierarchy.
Troeltsch said of sects:
- They claim a monopoly over the truth and are often hostile to other religious organisations
- They do not have a complex, bureaucratic hierarchy, instead usually being led by a charismatic leader.
- They are small
- They demand total commitment from members, and therefore are not accessible without significant sacrifices on the part of members
- They are usually hostile to the state and to mainstream society (what Wallis called world-rejecting)
- Often made up of marginalised, deprived groups, such as those on low incomes or from marginalised minority-ethnic groups.
Sects might include extremist organisations like Jim Jones’ the People’s Temple or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. These are the sorts of organisations that (outside sociology) we might refer to as cults (see next section).
Troeltsch used the term to refer to small Christian organisations like the early Methodists, Baptists and Calvinists who over the time moved into the mainstream, becoming what Niebuhr called denominations.
Sects tend to grow quickly (especially if there is a charismatic leader) but can also decline very quickly. If the sect was built around a leader, then that leader’s death can also lead to the end of the sect. Also if the sect made some specific predictions (for example, the end of the world!) then the prediction not coming about can also lead to the quick demise of the sect.
Should the sect survive and grow, it is likely to lose the characteristics of a sect, becoming more formal, established and respectable.
This can be described as the life cycle of a sect and suggests that sects will not last more than one generation – they will either die out or transform into a denomination.
Denominations were not part of Troeltsch’s original typology. However H. Richard Niebuhr (1929) – who used some of these terms somewhat differently – recognised that what Troeltsch called sects often changed over time, becoming more formal and church-like. This half-way house between sect and church is described as a denomination.
- They are not closely connected to the state and will comment and campaign on social issues
- Their membership is larger than a sect but smaller than an established church
- They have some bureaucracy and hierarchy, but less than an established church
- They often do not claim a monopoly over the truth being quite accepting of other denominations, churches and religions.
- Examples would be the Methodists and the Baptists (today).
Evaluating sociological definitions and explanations of these religious organisations
- It is often the case with typologies that reality never quite fits with the theory. Many religious organisations have some elements of more than one type. Also organisation change over time or between different places. In countries where the Roman Catholic Church is the dominant or established religion it fits the church typology rather neatly, whereas in somewhere like the UK it might have more of the characteristics of a denomination. In some countries, like Iraq or Sweden, the Catholic Church is very small indeed.
- Steve Bruce (1995) questions whether Troeltsch’s typology for church still applies to contemporary society. He points out that in modern western societies we now have religious pluralism meaning that it is much harder for churches to claim a monopoly over the truth. He points to how the Church of England is not always a conservative force any more, often taking critical positions about government policies and campaigning for change. Others have pointed out that religious pluralism has led to a decline in churches but a growth in other forms of religious organisation
- A related argument is made by Roland Robertson, who points to increasing disagreements between established churches and governments, partly as a result of secularisation in society and governments being less concerned about the attitudes of churches and also as a consequence of globalisation
- In modern western societies it is less usual for most people in a society to belong to a church. For example, in the UK, the Church of England is the established church yet has fewer than 1 million active members (out of a population of nearly 66 million).
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