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The information in this article was originally developed for a sociology textbook on Wikibooks: The Church-Sect Typology.

Sociologists have proposed various classifications of religious movements. The most widely used classification in the sociology of religion is the church-sect typology. The typology states that churches, ecclesia, denominations, and sects form a continuum with decreasing influence on society. Sects are break-away groups and tend to be in tension with society.

Cults and new religious movements fall outside this continuum and in contrast to aforementioned groups often have a novel teaching. They have been classified on their attitude towards society and the level of involvement of their adherents.


Sociological church-sect typology

Church-sect continuum.svg

This church-sect typology has its origins in the work of Max Weber. The basic premise is that there is a continuum along which religions fall, ranging from the protest-like orientation of sects to the equilibrium maintaining churches. Along this continuum are several additional types, each of which will be discussed in turn. The reader may notice that many of labels for the types of religion are commonly employed by non-sociologists to refer to religions and tend to be used interchangeably. Sociologists, when speaking technically, will not use these labels interchangeably as they are designations for religions with very specific characteristics.

These differing religions are often classified by sociologists as ideal types. Ideal types are pure examples of the categories. Because there is significant variation in each religion, how closely an individual religion actually adheres to their ideal type classification will vary. Nevertheless, the classification scheme is useful as it also outlines a sort of developmental process for religions.


Church and ecclesia

The church classification describes religions that are all-embracing of religious expression in a society. Religions of this type are the guardians of religion for all members of the societies in which they are located and tolerate no religious competition. They also strive to provide an all-encompassing worldview for their adherents and are typically enmeshed with the political and economic structures of society.

Johnstone[1] provides the following seven characteristics of churches:

  1. claim universality, include all members of the society within their ranks, and have a strong tendency to equate "citizenship" with "membership"
  2. exercise religious monopoly and try to eliminate religious competition
  3. are very closely allied with the state and secular powers–frequently there is overlapping of responsibilities and much mutual reinforcement
  4. are extensively organized as a hierarchical bureaucratic institution with a complex division of labor
  5. employ professional, full-time clergy who possess the appropriate credentials of education and formal ordination
  6. primarily gain new members through natural reproduction and the socialization of children into the ranks
  7. allow for diversity by creating different groups within the church (e.g., orders of nuns or monks) rather than through the formation of new religions

The classical example of a church by this definition is the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the past. Today, the Roman Catholic Church has been forced into the denomination category because of religious pluralism, or competition among religions. This is especially true of Catholicism in the United States. The change from a church to a denomination is still under way in many Latin American countries where the majority of citizens remain Catholics.

A slight modification of the church type is that of ecclesia.[2] Ecclesias include the above characteristics of churches with the exception that they are generally less successful at garnering absolute adherence among all of the members of the society and are not the sole religious body. The state churches of some European nations would fit this type.


The denomination lies between the church and the sect on the continuum. Denominations come into existence when churches lose their religious monopoly in a society. A denomination is one religion among many. When churches and/or sects become denominations, there are also some changes in their characteristics. Johnstone provides the following eight characteristics of denominations:

  1. similar to churches, but unlike sects, in being on relatively good terms with the state and secular powers and may even attempt to influence government at times
  2. maintain at least tolerant and usually fairly friendly relationships with other denominations in a context of religious pluralism
  3. rely primarily on birth for membership increase, though it will also accept converts; some actively pursue evangelization
  4. accept the principle of at least modestly changing doctrine and practice and tolerate some theological diversity and dispute
  5. follow a fairly routinized ritual and worship service that explicitly discourages spontaneous emotional expression
  6. train and employ professional clergy who must meet formal requirements for certification
  7. accept less extensive involvement from members than do sects, but more involvement than churches
  8. often draw disproportionately from the middle and upper classes of society

Most of the major Christian bodies formed post-reformation are denominations by this definition (e.g., Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists).


Sociologically, a "Sect" is defined as a newly formed religious group that formed to protest elements of its parent religion (generally a denomination). Their motivation tends to be situated in accusations of apostasy or heresy in the parent denomination; they are often decrying liberal trends in denominational development and advocating a return to so-called "true" religion.

Leaders of sectarian movements (i.e., the formation of a new sect) tend to come from a lower socio-economic class than the members of the parent denomination, a component of sect development that is not yet entirely understood. Most scholars believe that when sect formation involves social class distinctions, they reflect an attempt to compensate for deficiencies in lower social status. An often seen result of such factors is the incorporation into the theology of the new sect a distaste for the adornments of the wealthy (e.g., jewelry or other signs of wealth).

After their formation, sects can take only three paths - dissolution, institutionalization, or eventual development into a denomination. If the sect withers in membership, it will dissolve. If the membership increases, the sect is forced to adopt the characteristics of denominations in order to maintain order (e.g., bureaucracy, explicit doctrine, etc.). And even if the membership does not grow or grows slowly, norms will develop to govern group activities and behavior. The development of norms results in a decrease in spontaneity, which is often one of the primary attractions of sects. The adoption of denomination-like characteristics can either turn the sect into a full-blown denomination or, if a conscious effort is made to maintain some of the spontaneity and protest components of sects, an institutionalized sect can result. Institutionalized sects are halfway between sects and denominations on the continuum of religious development. They have a mixture of sect-like and denomination-like characteristics. Examples include: Hutterites, Jehovah's Witnesses, Iglesia ni Cristo, and the Amish.

Most of the well-known denominations of the U.S. existing today originated as sects breaking away from denominations (or Churches, in the case of Lutheranism and Anglicanism). Examples include: Methodists, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists.

Cults or new religious movements

By sociological typology, cults are, like sects, new religious groups. But, unlike sects, they can form without breaking off from another religious group, though this is by no means always the case. The characteristic that most distinguishes cults from sects is that they are not advocating a return to pure religion but rather the embracement of something new or something that has been completely lost or forgotten (e.g., lost scriptures or new prophecy). Cults are also much more likely to be led by charismatic leaders than are other religious groups and the charismatic leaders tend to be the individuals who bring forth the new or lost component that is the focal element of the cult.

Cults, like sects, often integrate elements of existing religious theologies, but cults tend to create more esoteric theologies synthesized from many sources. Cults tend to emphasize the individual and individual peace. Cults also tend to attract the socially disenchanted or unattached (though this isn't always the case[3][4]). Cults tend to be located in urban centers where they can draw upon large populations for membership. Finally, cults tend to be transitory as they often dissolve upon the death or discrediting of their founder and charismatic leader.

Cults, like sects, can develop into denominations. As cults grow, they bureaucratize and develop many of the characteristics of denominations. Some scholars are hesitant to grant cults denominational status because many cults maintain their more esoteric characteristics (e.g., Temple Attendance among Mormons). But given their closer semblance to denominations than to the cult type, it is more accurate to describe them as denominations. Some denominations in the U.S. that began as cults include:Christian Science, and The Nation of Islam.

Finally, it should be noted that there is a push in the social scientific study of religion to begin referring to cults as New Religious Movements (NRMs). This is the result of the often pejorative and derogratory meanings attached to the word "cult" in popular language. Most religious people would do well to remember the social scientific meaning of the word cult and, in most cases, realize that three of the major world religions originated as cults by typological definition including Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism.


Religious scholar John A. Saliba[5] notes the many attempts to draw a classification or typology of cults and/or sects, but concludes that the divergences that exist in these groups' practices, doctrines, and goals do not lend themselves to a simple classification that has universal approval. He argues that the influx of Eastern religious systems, including Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism, which do not fit within the traditional distinctions between church, sect, denomination and cult, have compounded typological difficulties.[6]

Wallis' distinction between cults and sects

The sociologist Roy Wallis (1945 - 1990) introduced differing definitions of sects and cults. He argued that a cult is characterized by "epistemological individualism" by which he means that "the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member." Cults, according to Wallis, are generally described as "oriented towards the problems of individuals, loosely structured, tolerant, non-exclusive", making "few demands on members", without possessing a "clear distinction between members and non-members", having "a rapid turnover of membership", and are transient collectives with vague boundaries and fluctuating belief systems Wallis asserts that cults emerge from the "cultic milieu". Wallis contrast a cult with a sect that he asserts are characterized by "epistemological authoritarianism": sects possess some authoritative locus for the legitimate attribution of heresy. According to Wallis, "sects lay a claim to possess unique and privileged access to the truth or salvation and their committed adherents typically regard all those outside the confines of the collectivity as 'in error'".[7][8]

Cult and/or new religious movements

Stark and Bainbridge

The sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge[9] distinguish three types of cults, classified on the basis of the levels of organizational and client (or adherent) involvement:[9][10]

  1. audience cults, that have hardly any organization because participants/consumers lack significant involvement
  2. client cults, in which the service-providers exhibit a degree of organization in contrast to their clients. Client cults link into moderate-commitment social networks through which people exchange goods and services. The relationship between clients and the leaders of cults resembles that of patients and therapists.
  3. cult movements, which seek to provide services that meet all of their adherents' spiritual needs (although they differ significantly in the degree to which they use mobilize adherents' time and commitment)

The sociologist Paul Schnabel has argued that the Church of Scientology originated from an audience cult (Hubbard's books) and a client cult (Dianetics the org) to a cult movement.[11]

Roy Wallis

The sociologist Roy Wallis introduced a classification-system of new religious movements based on movements' views on and relationships with the world at large.[10][12][13][14]

  • World-rejecting movements view the prevailing social order as having departed from God's prescriptions and from the divine plan. Such movements see the world as evil, or at least as materialistic. They may show millenarian tendencies. ISKCON, the Unification Church and the Children of God exemplify world-rejecting movements.
  • World-accommodating movements draw clear distinctions between the spiritual and the worldly spheres. They have few or no consequences for the lives of adherents. These movements thus adapt to the world, but they do not reject or affirm it.
  • World-affirming movements may have no rituals and no official ideology. They may lack most of the characteristics of religious movements. They affirm the world and merely claim that they have the means to enable people to unlock their "hidden potential". As examples of world-affirming movements, Wallis mentions Erhard Seminars Training and Transcendental Meditation.

See also

Study of religion


  1. ^ Johnstone. 1997. Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion. Upper Sadle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  2. ^ von Wiese 1932
  3. ^ Aho. 1990. Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. Washington: University of Washington Press.
  4. ^ Barker, Eileen. 1984. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing. London: Blackwell.
  5. ^ Saliba, John S.J. Understanding new religious movements second edition 2003 ISBN 0-7591-0356-9 Altamira Press, book flap
  6. ^ Saliba, John A., Understanding New Religious Movements, pp.24-5, (2003), Rowman Altamira, ISBN 0-759-10356-9
  7. ^ Wallis, Roy The Road to Total Freedom A Sociological analysis of Scientology (1976) available online (bad scan)
  8. ^ Wallis, Roy Scientology: Therapeutic Cult to Religious Sect abstract only (1975)
  9. ^ a b Bromley, David. "New Religious Movements". Encyclopedia of Religion and Society edited by William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor. Altamira press. Retrieved 2007-07-21.  
  10. ^ a b Saliba, John S.J. Understanding new religious movements second edition 2003 ISBN 0-7591-0356-9 Altamira press, pages 140-141
  11. ^ Schnabel, Paul Tussen stigma en charisma: nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en geestelijke volksgezondheid/Between stigma and charisma: new religious movements and mental health Erasmus University Rotterdam, Faculty of Medicine, Ph.D. thesis, Dutch language, ISBN 90-6001-746-3 (Deventer, Van Loghum Slaterus, 1982), pages 82, 84-88
    literal English translation: "Scientology is a fully developed innovative cult movement [...] Scientology grew out of a client cult (Dianetic) and an audience cult (Hubbard's books)"
    Dutch original: "Scientology is een volledig ontwikkelde innovatieve cult movement [...] Scientology is voortgekomen uit een client cult (Dianetics) en een audience cult (de boeken van Hubbard)."
  12. ^ Wallis, Roy (December 1983). "Sex, Violence, and Religion". Update nr. VII 4. pp. 79–99. Retrieved 2007-07-21.   citing Roy Wallis The elementary forms of the new religious life. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1984, pp. 10-39
  13. ^ Bromley, David. "New Religious Movements". Encyclopedia of Religion and Society edited by William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor. Altamira press. Retrieved 2007-07-21.  
  14. ^ Björkqvist, K. (1990). "World-rejection, world-affirmation, and goal displacement: some aspects of change in three new religions movements of Hindu origin.". N. Holm (ed.), Encounter with India: studies in neohinduism. Åbo Akademi University Press, Turku, Finland.. pp. 79–99. Retrieved 2007-07-21.  

Further reading

  • Ayella, Marybeth F. Insane Therapy: Portrait of a Psychotherapy Cult,, 1998
  • Bainbridge, William Sims, Satan's Power: A Deviant Psychotherapy Cult, 1978
  • Chryssides, George D., "New Religious Movements - Some problems of definition", Diskus, Internet Journal of Religion, 1997. Available online
  • McGuire, Meredith B. Religion: the Social Context fifth edition (2002) ISBN 0-534-54126-7
  • Pilarzyk, Thomas ‘’The Origin, Development, and Decline of a Youth Culture Religion: An Application of the Sectarianization Theory’’ in "Review of Religious Research" 20, 1:33-37, 1978)
  • Singer, Margaret, Ph.D. and Janja Lalich,Crazy Therapies: What Are They? Do They Work?, Ph.D., 1996.
  • Wallis, Roy Scientology: Therapeutic Cult to Religious Sect in Sociology, Vol. 9, No. 1, 89-100 (1975) abstract available online
  • Wallis, Roy The Road to Total Freedom: A Sociological analysis of Scientology (1976) Columbia University Press ISBN 0-231-04200-0 available online (bad scan)

External links


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