Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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In its many permutations and combinations as an explanation of religious organization and religiosity, church-sect theory may be the most important middle-range theory that the sociology of religion has to offer.

Although the terms church and sect have a long heritage in the writings of church historians, credit for their first attachment to sociological concepts belongs to Max Weber. Their first popularization among students of religion in the modern sense, however, was through H. Richard Niebuhr's adaptation of the work of Weber's sometime associate Ernst Troeltsch. To understand some of the confusion and debate in contemporary sociological usage, it is helpful to review how the concepts fit into Weber's sociology of religion and how Troeltsch's work modified them.

Weberian Sociology and Troeltschian Syndrome

Weber's sociology is united by the overarching thematic element of the process of the rationalization of action. Weber was attempting to answer the question of why the universal-historical rationalization-disenchantment process had come to fruition most completely in the Anglo-American spirit of capitalism. As a part of this project, Weber also had to develop an analytical method that would permit him to resolve the dilemma of his commitment to the principle that sociology was a scientific discipline, on the one hand, and on the other, the difficulty in supplementing empathic verstehende Soziologie with anything even approximating experimental accuracy. Weber's answer was a comparative methodology using the tool of the ideal-type —a hypothetically concrete reality, a mental construct based upon relevant empirical components, formed and explicitly delineated by the researcher to facilitate precise comparisons on specific points of interest. Like the "inch" in measurement, the conceptualizations of "church" and "sect" serve to enable two or more religious organizations to be compared with each other; church-sect theory in Weber's usage was not a standard to which religious organizations were compared but by which they were compared. The critical differentiating variable for Weber was "mode of membership"—that is, whether the normal method of membership recruitment of the organization was by "birth" (church) or "decision" (sect).

In the transition from Weber to Troeltsch's The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches , the church-sect typology underwent significant alterations. Troeltsch was not a social scientist but a theologian attempting to relate types of religious experience to the varieties of social teachings with which they might be correlated. In so doing, he departed from Weber on two critical points. First, he shifted the emphasis of the type from organization to behavior. Second, he stressed the notion of "accommodation" or "compromise" as differentiating between the different religious styles. The first departure is most clearly seen in Troeltsch's positing of three types of religious behavior: churchly, sectarian, and mystical. The third of these is now generally dropped from consideration by church-sect theorists; in Weber's conceptualization, it occurs in a separate bipolar typology, namely, that of asceticism-mysticism. Nevertheless, the presence of the mystical type at the outset of Troeltsch's discussion suggests that he was actually using the terms in a conceptually different operation from that to which church-sect is usually put in organizational analysis. The "dichotomy" of church-sect that has been attributed to Troeltsch—whatever its value—must be understood within his three-way scheme and within the instrumental context of the Weberian ideal-type as well. Troeltsch shared with Weber primarily method, partially content, and peripherally project. Weber and Troeltsch were working on different, although related, questions; Troeltsch understood Weber's concept of the ideal-type, capitalized on what Weber termed its "transiency," and hence made church, sect, and mysticism work for his own purposes.

Subsequent church-sect arguments have largely revolved around an overemphasis upon the Weber-Troeltsch association that assumes that because Troeltsch used Weber's method and to some extent his content, the intention of Troeltsch's work was the same as Weber's, which it was not. What Troeltsch himself calls a "sociological formulation" of a theological question has been misidentified with Weber's attempt to solve a sociological problem . We see the difference between the two projects clearly in the critical distinguishing elements that form the focus for each one's work. Whereas Weber uses mode of membership, Troeltsch adopts accommodation or compromise. While mode of membership can be ascertained relatively directly, accommodation has a more mediated character: What is and is not accommodation is more perspectival. A theological rather than organizational focus comes to frame the theory.

The basis for the shift in usage lies in the way in which the theory was introduced to English-speaking audiences, with the corresponding void created in German scholarship as a result of the two world wars. The first major American publication to use the types was the work of another sociologically inclined theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929). Although at times possessed by a rather naive evolutionism and narrow perspective, Niebuhr's work contributed a significant element that was lacking in earlier treatments. He used church and sect as poles of a continuum, rather than simply as discrete categories. Niebuhr did not merely classify groups in relation to their relative sect-likeness or church-likeness but analyzed the dynamic process of religious history as groups moved along this continuum. An unfortunate result of Niebuhr's work, however, was that taken by itself it tended toward the reification of the types and the hypothetical continuum that he in turn posited. It thus contained further seeds for church-sect theory to develop into an evaluative device, quite outside the sociological frame of reference in which it was conceived. This disjuncture was compounded by the fact that Troeltsch's Social Teachings was translated in 1931, whereas Weber's methodological work was not available in translation until 1949. Many of the subsequent difficulties that have attended church-sect theory may be traced to the strange movements of this framework and its methodological base across the Atlantic.

Elaboration, Reaction, and Revision

Subsequent elaborations of church-sect theory have been clearly dependent upon the work of Troeltsch and Niebuhr. The original "church-sect dichotomy" became generally interpreted as a continuum having a multicriteria basis for its analyses. Howard Becker (1932) was the first American trained as a sociologist to use and extend church-sect theory. Attempting to facilitate increased specificity, Becker delineated two types within each of the original two types, resulting in a cult-sect-denomination-ecclesia model. In thus developing the typology, Becker abandoned the ideal-type method for that of "abstract collectivities," ideal realities rather than constructs.

J. Milton Yinger in Religion and the Struggle for Power (1946) increased the limitations for specific points along the continuum, extending Becker's four types to six: cult, sect, established sect, class church/ denomination, ecclesia, and universal church—the latter most clearly evidencing the increasingly theological focus of the usage. Yinger went further in his specification, however, by subtyping sects in terms of their relationship to the social order—whether they were accepting, avoiding, or aggressive. This development began a wave of interest in the sect type within church-sect theorizing, with numerous writers offering contributions on the best way of treating this possibility, the most lasting of which has been that of Bryan Wilson (1959). The result of this strategy was to shift the focus of church-sect theory from a tool for comparative analysis toward a classificatory system to apply sociological jargon to religious organization.

An exception to this general tendency to focus on religious organizations (first "sects," later "cults") that were increasingly more marginal to mainstream society was the publication of a seminal essay on the denomination by David Martin (1962). Although it did little to stem the tide of interest in marginal groups at the time, Martin's article would bear fruit in various ways in new typologies that appeared in the late 1970s. The action sociology models of both Wallis and Swatos as well as the rational choice models of Stark and his colleagues emphasize the importance of denominational religiosity as the typological alternative to sectarianism (and cultic forms).

On the heels of these developments came criticism of the framework. A number of critics denounced the orientation as meaningless or, at best, woefully inadequate to systematic investigation of the empirical world. Church-sect theorizing has been criticized as ambiguous and vague, lacking precise definitions, unsuited to tests for validity and reliability, merely descriptive rather than explanatory, less informative than other possible approaches, historically and geographically restricted, and unrelated to the rest of sociological theory. Despite all of these criticisms, however, the theoretical framework into which church-sect has evolved has allowed a tremendous amount of data to be organized and reported.

In response to these criticisms, a number of scholars have made revisions within the church-sect framework, making it a more viable theoretical orientation for the sociology of religion. Yinger (1970), Paul Gustafson


Figure C.1
Robertson's Church-Sect Model

(1967, 1973), Roland Robertson (1970), Roy Wallis (1975), and William Swatos (1979), for example, each have suggested the value of an explicit visual scheme for modeling and analysis. (The Robertson and Swatos models are illustrated in this entry; Yinger's model appears in his entry.) Bryan Wilson, whose work on sects has now spanned almost 40 years, has come increasingly to accept a Weberian approach. Stark and Bainbridge (1979) have reached back into earlier work by Glock and Stark to use pieces of church-sect theorizing in their "rational choice" modeling.

Neo-Weberian Analyses

Particularly significant to this process of rethinking church-sect theory was the work of Benton Johnson. Early in his career, Johnson (1957) critiqued the Troeltschian approach to church-sect. In Johnson's subsequent work (1963, 1971), he returned to Weber, not directly to his discussion of church-sect but to Weber's distinction between emissary and exemplary prophets. From this perspective, Johnson focuses upon the single universal variable property of a group's relationship to the social environment in which it exists. "Church" is employed as the polar type of acceptance of the social environment, whereas "sect" is the polar type of its rejection . This conceptualization is similar to an earlier one proposed by Peter Berger (1954), in which the more-difficult-to-operationalize variable "nearness of the spirit" was the central focus. In later work, Bryan Wilson (1973) also embraced "response to the world" as the principal basis for classification of sects in an ideal-typical (rather than taxonomic) way. Johnson contends that the sociologist should strive toward the discovery of universal properties at a high level of generality that vary in such ways that typologies might be constructed. He sees "acceptance/rejection of the social environment" as a single variable around which empirical church-sect distinctions may be grouped and asserts that this typological approach is superior to one that simply adds types as historical circumstances alter. Johnson's work has significantly affected such differing streams as Swatos's situationalism as well as the rational choice modeling of Stark and his colleagues.


Figure C.2
Swatos's Church-Sect Model

Although Johnson's distinction possesses definite advantages in terms of conceptual parsimony, its lack of integration of the historical differences in the basic social structures and cultural systems in which religious organizations function produces potential difficulties in macrosociological analyses. Whereas the microsociologically based rational choice model focuses primarily on the effects of the organizational experience of the decision maker and only secondarily on the organization-system component, a more culturally oriented analysis would note that different system contexts produce different styles of organizational response that cannot be entirely comprehended by a single, universal variable component. Thus Swatos crosscuts Johnson's acceptance-rejection dichotomy with the sociocultural system polarity of monopolism-pluralism. Following upon the work of both Peter Berger (1969) and David Little (1969), Swatos contends that the nature of the sociocultural system shapes the patterns of acceptance and rejection that become expressed in specific religious organizational forms and rationales. In related work, Swatos (1981), following up leads from Martin and Wallis, has criticized the use of "cult" in Stark's church-sect modeling; Swatos argues that from the Weberian point of view out of which church-sect theorizing sprang, "cult" is properly contrasted to "order" as organizational manifestations of the mysticismasceticism typology, rather than incorporated into church-sect itself.

See also Denominationalism, H. Richard Niebuhr, Ernst Troeltsch, Max Weber

William H. Swatos, Jr .


H. Becker, Systematic Sociology (New York: Wiley, 1932)

P. L. Berger, "The Sociological Study of Sectarianism," Social Research 21(1954):467-485

P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969)

A. W. Eister, "H. Richard Niebuhr and the Paradox of Religious Organization," in Beyond the Classics ? ed. C. Y. Glock and P.E. Hammond (New York: Harper, 1973): 355-408

W. R. Garrett, "Maligned Mysticism," Sociological Analysis 36(1975):205-223

P. Gustafson, "UO-US-PS-PO," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 6(1967):64-68

P. Gustafson, "Exegesis on the Gospel According to St. Max," Sociological Analysis 34(1973):12-25

P. Gustafson, "The Missing Member of Troeltsch's Trinity," Sociological Analysis 36(1975):224-226

B. Johnson, "A Critical Appraisal of Church-Sect Typology," American Sociological Review 22(1957):88-92

B. Johnson, "On Church and Sect," American Sociological Review 28(1963):539-549

B. Johnson, "Church and Sect Revisited," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 10(1971):124-137

D. Little, Religion, Order, and Law (New York: Harper, 1969)

D. Martin, "The Denomination," British Journal of Sociology 13(1962):1-14

H. R. Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Holt, 1929)

R. Robertson, The Sociological Interpretation of Religion (New York: Schocken, 1970)

R. Robertson, "On the Analysis of Mysticism," Sociological Analysis 36(1970):241-266

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, "Of Churches, Sects, and Cults," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18(1979):117-131

W. H. Swatos, Jr., Into Denominationalism (Storrs, Conn.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1979)

W. H. Swatos, Jr., "Church-Sect and Cult," Sociological Analysis 42(1981):17-26

E. Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches , Vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1931)

R. Wallis, "Scientology," Sociology 9 1975):89-100

M. Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (New York: Free Press, 1949)

M. Weber, "On Church, Sect, and Mysticism," Sociological Analysis 34(1973):140-149

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)

B. Wilson, "An Analysis of Sect Development," American Sociological Review 24(1959):3-15

B. Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (New York: Harper, 1973)

J. M. Yinger, Religion and the Struggle for Power (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1946)

J. M. Yinger, The Scientific Study of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1970).

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