Sociology, especially in its classic works, provides analytic perspectives for  understanding specific ecclesiastic religious phenomena (i.e., churches  and  church oriented  religions). But long  before  the  birth  of  sociology –  in  its contemporary  empirical  version  –   modern philosophy,  both  Continental  and  Atlantic, was deeply  engaged with  the  ecclesiological question  (Olivetti  1992).  This   philosophical attention attributed special theoretical relevance to  observation of certain socioreligious phenomena. This was particularly true in the classical era of the philosophy of religion – in the specifically modern  meaning  of  the  term  – especially from Hume and Kant through Hegel. This  emerged in the attempt to consider and represent  the  tension  between  philosophical ecclesiology and  theory  of society (a tension that implies themes such as secularization, the relationship between church and state, the relationship between religion and morality, and the process of social differentiation and its limits). Thus  the  ecclesiological  question,  as a close relationship between the empirical and the theoretical sphere,  plays a  crucial role for  that aspect of the crisis of onto theological metaphysics known as philosophy of religion, regardless of the various solutions proposed by individual scholars. An exemplary case is Religion as the epilogue  to  Kant’s  transcendental  program. Kant deals with the need to think and represent the church, but also with the contradiction of the  more  general  assumptions  this  line  of thought leads to. Another example is the classical (especially romantic and idealistic) theme of the opposition of invisible and visible church.

This  theoretical  and  cultural  context  was an important  part  of the  terrain  where contemporary sociology started  to  appear in  the mid nineteenth  century,  first  as sociology of religion. This  implied that the new discipline would pay special attention to the definition of ‘‘church’’ and remain devoted to this specific question.  This  turned  out  to  be only partly true, and even then only sporadically.

Classic Authors

Weber   (1963)  and   Troeltsch   (1960)  first defined church as a specific kind of religious organization which enforces its  decisions by means  of  psychic  coercion realized  through managing religious benefits. As opposed to a sect, a church has a more hierarchical and more bureaucratic organizational structure, is larger, offers a way of belonging which is generally universal   and   therefore   exploits  territorial boundaries, has a generally lower level of intensity of participation, has a culture, a degree and a form of differentiation which is less radically opposed to those of the social context in which it operates, and suffers from greater inertia and resistance to  change and  innovation (Wilson 1997; Wuthnow 1988). This comparison shows how  the  concept  of  church,  as  opposed  to that  of sect, is multidimensional. There  is a plurality of roots (theological, sociological, etc.) to that opposition, but also a potential instability, with a risk of explosion when social forces (especially social  differentiation)  reduce  the correlation  among  these   dimensions.   This orientation, right from the start, thus conceived of a church in terms of its greater complexity and articulation compared to a sect (Guizzardi & Pace 1987). Careful bibliographical analysis by Beckford (1973, 1984) shows that even today the   prevailing   sociological  conceptions   of church can be traced to the positions outlined in the works of Weber and Troeltsch. Even in the past two decades, attempts to define church more carefully in conceptual terms have usually been oriented towards this  tradition.  This  is true  for the new paradigm of rational choice theory applied to the analysis of socioreligious phenomena: church and sect are assumed to be theoretically distinct kinds of religious organization. The new theory is used to express the two concepts and their formal and operational opposition  (Iannaccone  1988:  242;  Stark  & Bainbridge 1996: 124).

Over time, the sociological idea of church as a  specific kind  of  religious organization has encountered problems and limits. At the general level, a first critical trend  was identified by Kaufmann (1974): empirical studies began to  focus on topics related to  individual religious  experience  or  behavior,  or  related  to basic   and    therefore    small sized   religious groups, but ignored broader religious organizations. Whether this is the cause or effect (or both) of the guiding characteristics of this first analytic perspective is now less important than the growing risk that – on this basis – the sociology of religion will lose its ability to examine more complex religious phenomena.

Among these limits, there were the effects of  the  various  disciplinary  contributions  in defining the church/sect  opposition, or at least its vulgata (Swatos 1975, 1976). In other cases, the  difficulties  in  applying  the  church/sect conceptual scheme could be attributed  to the specific socioreligious context  in  relation  to which that  opposition was elaborated. It  was much less complex than later socioreligious contexts. In any case, there is no reason to suppose that the church vs. sect scheme was more appealing for its useful simplicity than for any real analytic power at the time of its first and classic elaboration.

Even the best analytic systems cannot predict how social situations will change. This does not mean, however, that eventual conceptual redefinitions forced by social changes cannot refer back to previous analytical systems and start from  there  (Swatos 1976: 142; Guizzardi  & Pace  1987).  During   the  twentieth  century, Niebuhr  (1975), with his work on the  social roots  of  the  process of  denominalization of American  Christianity,  provided  one  of  the best known examples of overcoming and integrating the church/sect  scheme as a means of accounting  for  the  dramatic  transformations which had taken place in religious organizations and institutions. Niebuhr, in presenting the reasons for his research and in describing its first results, interprets these social transformations in terms of degrees and forms of social differentiation,  and  in  terms  of degrees and  forms of ‘‘internal’’ religious complexity (Niebuhr 1975: 283). And these are nothing but the exact same questions already noted at the onset of theoretical and cultural debate over the ecclesiological issue.

Later,  the  influence of the  work of Luck mann  (1967) –  especially a  very  simplified interpretation of his ideas, in agreement with the orthodoxy of secularist ideology – may have helped to spread the opinion that the crisis of this approach to the analysis of religious organizations, especially those that were larger and/ or more ecclesiastical, was actually proof of the incompatibility between modern organizational principles and spiritual or religious phenomena and experiences. Beckford himself, although he proposed a moratorium on using the church/ sect conceptual couplet, justified his proposal for very different reasons. Beckford (1984) argued  as  follows: the  growing difficulty in understanding  large institutionalized religions such as churches is strongly and primarily related to the challenge in understanding the great  transformations  (above all,  differentiations)  inside  religious realities, and  between these realities and the social context. For example, it is no longer possible to assume, a priori, that churches rather than sects are capable of greater adaptation to today’s social contexts (see Wuthnow 1988: 495).

It  appears that  Kaufmann’s (1974) appeal had not  been sufficiently accepted. Nonetheless,  although  it  is  increasingly difficult  to understand ecclesiastical realities simply as particular forms of religious organization, important contributions to the sociology of religion can still emerge from organizational studies and from the sophisticated tools of this discipline (Di Maggio 1998). This has been shown particularly in the case of Catholicism (and therefore of a church), where it is increasingly clear that a vast number of organizations are working, both generalist  and  specialist.  In   sum,  could  a church of such internal complexity, operating in  such  a differentiated context as advanced modern society, still be studied as an organization, and, as if that were not enough, as a single organization?

It  is precisely this situation that  allows for the possibility of a radically different analytic perspective. This change lies in a sort of break in  the  requested  moratorium.  The  proposal radicalizes, rather than abandons, the organizational approach to all collective religious phenomena,  historical  churches  included.  The possibility is  considered  by  several scholars, using very different conceptual and theoretical means. For the most part, these texts share a double refusal: a refusal to reduce sociology of religion to a sociology of individual religiosity (whether ‘‘diffused,’’ ‘‘implicit,’’ or other) and a refusal to assume large scale religious realities as a starting point for doing research.

These options are shared by many scholars, even when they share little else. They are very clear, for example, in the work by Chaves, who takes the Weberian idea of religious organization as one of his starting points and traces its consequences (which, in  many empirical and theoretical works, have been shown to be quite interesting). Thus,  the heart of his analysis is the minimum religious organization, the congregation in the American case, as the reality where   two   structures   meet:   the   religious authority   structure   and   religious  agencies. What  is important  here  is that  this  analytic strategy  radically eliminates  any  concept  of church.  From   this  point  of  view  ‘‘church sociology’’  would appear to be nothing but a trap (Chaves 1993).

This  conclusion clearly reveals one  of the possibilities for managing the difficulties created by the great internal and external complexity inherent  in sociological analysis of such religious realities as churches. It is worth under scoring a couple of corollaries to this. First, the sociology of religion could benefit from distancing itself not just from the concept of church, but also from those of religion and secularization. This would allow for a more detailed view of phenomena previously considered to fall into these categories. Second, a corollary which is perhaps an axiom: here once again there is a recognition of the need to concentrate on the phenomena of social differentiation, and above all to ‘‘de Parsonsify its current theory (Chaves 1994).

Right from the start of sociology there has been at least one other way to understand the church conceptually, although it has not been as  widespread as  the  one  above. Durkheim (1965) defines church as a community whose fellows are connected to  each other  through shared representations of the sacred and of its relationships and distinctions with the profane, and resulting in identical practices expressing these shared representations. This  means that ‘‘church’’ must  cover  not  only  institutional phenomena, but  also organizational phenomena. Once again, even if in  a different way, there is the necessity of coping with complexity and social differentiation implied by the church question:  complexity  of  social  phenomena, organizations and institutions, and beliefs and behaviors, from religion to social environments. Durkheim considered differentiation as a positive phenomenon up to a certain point, after which  it   becomes  dangerous.  Further,   he assigns religion (more precisely, church) a key role in  managing and containing the  process through  which social differentiation increases social complexity.

Durkheim inspired sociological thought and imagination, while the attempt to operationalize his concepts and formalize his theories has met with difficulty and has not always succeeded. This  was also the  case for  his  sociology of religion and his concept of church. However, there are echoes or at least apparent analogies with that sociological concept of church in later sociological research. Talcott  Parsons (1951), for  example, treats  churches  as  the  greatest expression of the institutionalization of beliefs, thereby ensuring them a significant active role within and for the social system (Moberg 1984). It  is easy to imagine how the ongoing social differentiation  of  both  social functions  and social ‘‘levels’’ (Luhmann 1985b) created problems for trust  in the empirical usefulness of such a concept of church.

Contemporary Sociology

The ecclesiological question appears as both a theoretical  and  an  empirical  question.  It  is characterized by the need to account for (and the difficulty of so doing) very high degrees of complexity and  for the  equally high  degrees and multiple forms of differentiation. It entails the double requirement of not ignoring the organizational dimension and not reducing church to that dimension. In addition, the ecclesiological question as addressed from a sociological perspective is made more difficult by the requirement for empirically operative concepts.

As seen by Chaves and others, a solution to such difficulties can be found that  excludes, among other  things,  the  usefulness itself  of any concept of church. Yet it is also possible to find the opposite approach in the sociological literature:   conceptual   proposals   concerning church elaborated within an analytic paradigm that accounts for the level of complexity and the level and forms of differentiation characteristic of advanced modern societies.

Few proposals satisfy these criteria, and they differ greatly. One, however, stands out: that offered by Luhmann  (1977, 1985a, 2000) and already used by other scholars (even if Luhmann’s disciples are not always aware of this). The  paradigm proposed by Luhmann  on the basis of system theory is noteworthy for the radical way in which it focuses attention on questions  of  social complexity, contingency, and functional differentiation, especially that phase in which the main characteristic is the differentiation of society by functions (the phase coinciding with  advanced modernization). In  the domain of social systems, in reciprocal system/ environment relationships with personal systems (both processes independently reducing either internal or external complexity), Luhmannian categories distinguish between three  types of social systems: interaction,  organization, and society (the last one by means of an increasing functional differentiation tends to become global society: Weltgesellschaft).  These social systems consist of communicative events. The very high level of social complexity, as well as the extreme contingency  of  each  communicative  event, depends on the degree reached, and on the form taken, by the  social differentiation processes. The growth in differentiation between functions leads to a noticeable increase – tendentially radicalizing – of the differentiation between interactions, organizations, and society, with all three in a  system/environment  relationship  with  the others.  With  regard  to  Chaves’s suggestion, Luhmann does not include a transcendental catalog of social functions or functional societal subsystems; this reveals just how far his theory of social differentiation is from that of Parsons.

The  assumptions and  solutions offered by Luhmann obviously have to be discussed, but they  clearly provide  a  sociological paradigm that  addresses the  theoretical background of the ecclesiological question. The fact that Luhmann identifies a possibility for religion in such a social scenario is particularly relevant here. In  fact, the  process of social constitution of the meaning and the phenomenon of communication  implies  two  problems  in  particular (Luhmann  1985a). The  first is the reduction of indeterminate or indeterminable complexity to determined or determinable complexity. The second and connected problem is that  of the deparadoxalization of the social system’s self reference. These problems have hitherto been resolved by  social performances ensured  by religious  traditions.  There   is  no  reason  to believe, however, that this means that religions are not constantly exposed to competition concerning  this  social  function  from  potential functional  equivalents  –  competition  where the outcome is always unpredictable.

Luhmann’s  (1977: 56) analysis of  religion elaborates  and   uses  a  concept  of  church. Church  is religiously specialized communication.  Church  is  more  or  less  analogous to money in the economic subsystem, law in the political subsystem, scientific truth  in the scientific subsystem, etc. In the course of the process of functional social differentiation, each subsystem (politics, economy, religion, science, etc.)  manages three  types  of  relations: with other subsystems (Leistungen), with the society system (Funktion), and with itself (Reflexion).

Religious communication,  or  church,  is  the Funktion of the religious subsystem. From the religious subsystem, as from any other functionally specialized societal subsystem, one can observe the differentiation of functions within society. ‘‘Secularization’’  is then the religious mode for  understanding  the  phenomenon of functional differentiation: understanding a relative reduction in influence and – simultaneously – a relative increase in the independence of the religious subsystem from other functional sub systems. This mode has an equivalent in each of the other functional subsystems.

The nexus between the ecclesiological question and that  of social differentiation is once again apparent; in this case, however, it takes the form of a potentially direct and not inverse correlation. In fact, the more society is functionally differentiated, the better the conditions become for a clear manifestation of religious phenomena  with  specifically ecclesial traits. Obviously, religious traditions may or may not exploit these social conditions.

The concept of church (or religious communication) also appears to have a characteristic which distinguishes it from some forms of specialized social communication,  even as it links it to others. Religious communication is governed by  a  code  (transcendence/immanence),  but does  not  have  its  own  medium  (Luhmann 1977:  72;  2000  187).  In  short,  Luhmann’s sociological perspective allows for a concept of church  more or  less comparable to  those of specialized communication through law, money, scientific truth, or other media.

We have to consider two objections to Luhmann’s idea of church, in order to clarify some aspects of the question. Especially in a global society, and with religion as its equally global specialized subsystem,  the  use  of  the  term ‘‘church,’’ derived from a particular religious tradition, can raise suspicions that such a general phenomenon (religious communication) is not encompassed by the term (church). This objection obviously cannot be addressed with extra sociological  responses,  such   as   those offered by a certain Christian theology through demonstration of ecclesiology  with an important  ecumenical and interreligious dimension, or by historical research stressing the decisive role played by the  Christian  tradition  in the development of a global religious system (Beyer 1998). On the contrary, it may be useful to turn back to an empirically useful distinction, such as that between money and currencies, according to which it is possible therefore to use the term ‘‘church’’ in this case as both analogy and in more precise terms. This leads us to address a second group of critics.

If  the  process of functional differentiation tends to radicalize the differentiation between social ‘‘levels’’ or types of social systems (inter action, organization, society), it  is  also clear how church (societal religious communication) is not a type of religious organization (a great difference  appears  between  this  concept  of church and that of religion at a societal level used by authors  like Karel Dobbelaere, who adopt completely different paradigms such as those distinguishing between micro, meso and macrosocial levels). Nonetheless, once the con tents of the concept of church are delimited, it would be a serious cognitive oversight not to prepare conceptual instruments that allow us to identify and distinguish ecclesiastical and non ecclesiastical religious organizations, as well as individual  ‘‘church oriented  religiosity’’ and other kinds of religiosity.

Luhmann’s  proposal  is  particularly  useful because it allows for the rather analytical consideration of the relationship between organizations  and  society. The  more  society and  its subsystems become unorganizable through advanced modernization, the more organizations have  achieved a  previously unthinkable  importance. Organizations, in fact, can influence societal communication (and vice versa). This naturally  holds  true  for  religion  (Luhmann 1977: 272; 2000: 226), starting with the phenomenon of governance of communicative codes – through    ‘‘religious  dogmatics’’  (Luhmann 1977: 72). This is the ground for distinguishing between organization as more or less able to influence the governing of religious communication, and therefore between church (Kirche) and ecclesiastical organization  (Amtskirche) with such an ability.

Returning  to  the  first  objection (why call societal religious communication ‘‘church’’?), the way in which the term ‘‘church’’ is used can be  appreciated, both  to  give a  name to the  concept  of  specialized religious communication in general (according to an analogy) and a name to those phenomena of religious communication where the  main  influence in codification is that  of organizations active within the Christian religious tradition (where ‘‘church’’ is a religious currency or just a kind of money). One can also imagine a religious communication regulated according to Christian schemas which influence (or fail to influence)   religious     organizations,     religious interactions, and forms of religiosity, inside or outside Christian religious tradition. For example, the study of Christian liturgy lends itself to a delineation of the advantages of such a set of distinctions and concepts. The study of Christian theology and the scope of its influence can also be mentioned in this regard.


Luhmann’s  concept  of  church  (or  religious communication) has begun to be used implicitly and explicitly and produced results. First of  all, this  understanding  of  the  degrees of differentiation between functions and between types of social systems provides the basis for that concept of church, and can help to reduce the occasionally paralyzing emphasis placed on intuitions  such as the  well known ‘‘believing without   belonging’’ (Beckford  1984;  Davie 1990). In broader Luhmannian sociological theory,  this   (like  the   unorganizability  of  the church) is one of the effects of the religious variant of the differentiation between organizations and society, and therefore between religious organizations and societal religion (as well as between religion and religiosity). This does not  exclude and actually stresses the  current potentialities of ecclesiastical organizations in terms of recruitment and participation. The realization of participative potentialities related to  ecclesiastical (and  non ecclesiastical) religious  organizations in  an  advanced modern society cannot be measured and assessed through a comparison with situations marked by  lower  degrees  of  social  differentiation. A similar benefit in utilizing the Luhmannian approach to church and religion is its answer to the proposal to abandon the concept of secularization (Chaves 1994) because of the presumed lack of analogy between religion and other sub systems in terms of managing and representing functional  differentiation.  Beyer  (1994)  has fully demonstrated the advantages of using this conceptual approach for the recognition and the study of the process of religious globalization and the formation of the global religious system.

It has also been shown how in this perspective it is possible to find analytic indications useful for overcoming the ‘‘puzzle’’ emerging in  the  debate between the  new and  the  old paradigm, such as that in the Italian case (Diotallevi 2001, 2002). If,  as the  new paradigm suggests,  there   are   insufficient  reasons  to assume a necessary correlation between social modernization and  decline of organized religion, it is difficult to explain the case of Italy, an apparently efficient religious monopoly (and yet  a  ‘‘church  religion’’ monopoly  working within a social context of advanced modernization, and therefore contrary also to the old paradigm’s predictions). Yet, thanks to the use of Luhmann’s perspective, it is possible to capture the degree of internal diversification of religious supply that certain church polities and policies have allowed to develop. This  understanding, however, is possible once it is clear that within a single ecclesiastic religious tradition many religious firms may operate: once it is clear that a church is not necessarily a religious organization, through the recognition that this church may ‘‘have’’ many religious organizations.


  1. Beckford, A. (1973) Religious Organization. Current Sociology 21(2).
  2. Beckford, A.  (1984) Religious Organization: A Survey of Some Recent Publications. Archives  des sciences sociales des religions  57(1): 83-102.
  3. Beckford, A. (1991) Religion and Advanced Industrial Society. Unwin Hyman, London.
  4. Beyer, (1994) Religion and Globalization. Sage, London.
  5. Beyer, (1998) The  Religious System of Global Society: A  Sociological Look  at  Contemporary Religion and Religions. Numen 45: 1-29.
  6. Chaves, (1993) Denominations as Dual Structures:  An  Organizational Analysis. Sociology  of Religion 54(2): 147 69.
  7. Chaves, (1994) Secularization as Declining Religious Authority. Social Forces 749-74.
  8. Davie,    (1990)  Believing  Without   Belonging. Social Compass 37: 455-69.
  9. Di Maggio, (1998) The Relevance of Organization Theory to the Study of Religion. In: Demerath, N. J., III  (Ed.), Sacred Companies.  Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 7-23.
  10. Diotallevi, (2001) Il Rompicapo della Secolarizza zione Italiana. Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli.
  11. Diotallevi, (2002) Italian Case and American Theories: Refining Secularization Paradigm. Sociology of Religion 63(2): 137-56.
  12. Durkheim, (1965) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Free Press, New York.
  13. Guizzardi, & Pace, E. (1987) La chiesa e le altre organizzazioni religiose. In: De Masi, D. & Bonzanini, A. (Eds.), Trattato di Sociologia del Lavoro e dell’Organizzazione. Angeli, Milan, pp. 493-532.
  14. Iannaccone,    R.  (1988).  A  Formal  Model  of Church  and Sect. American  Journal of Sociology (suppl. 94): 241-68.
  15. Kaufmann, -X. (1974). Religion et bureaucratie. Le  proble`me de  l’organisation religieuse. Social Compass 21(1): 101-7.
  16. Luckmann, (1967) The Invisible Religion. Macmillan, New York.
  17. Luhmann,  (1977) Funktion der Religion. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.
  18. Luhmann, (1985a) Society, Meaning, Religion Based on Self-Reference. Sociological Analysis 46:5-20.
  19. Luhmann, (Ed.) (1985b) Soziale Differenzierung. Zur Geschichte einer Idee. Westdeutscher, Opladen.
  20. Luhmann,  (2000) Die Religion der Gesellschaft. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.
  21. Moberg, O. (1984) The Church as a Social Institution: The Sociology of American  Religion.  Backer, Grand Rapids, MI.
  22. Niebuhr, H. (1975) The Social Sources of Denomi nationalism. New American Library, New York.
  23. Olivetti, M. (1992) Analogia del soggetto. Laterza, Roma-Bari.
  24. Parsons, (1951) The Social System. Free  Press, New York.
  25. Stark, & Bainbridge, W. S. (1996) A Theory of Religion. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.
  26. Swatos, H., Jr. (1975). Monopolism, Pluralism, Acceptance, and Rejection: An Integrated Model for Church  Sect  Theory.   Review of  Religious Research 16(3): 174-85.
  27. Swatos, H.,  Jr.  (1976). Weber  or  Troeltsch? Methodology, Syndrome,  and  the  Development of Church  Sect Theory. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 15(2): 129-44.
  28. Troeltsch, (1960) The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Harper & Row, New York.
  29. Weber, (1963) The Sociology of Religion. Beacon Press, Boston.
  30. Weber, (1978) Economy and Society. University of California Press, Los Angeles.
  31. Wilson, R. (1997) Religiosa, organizzazione. In: Enciclopedia delle Scienze Sociali, Vol. 7. Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana ‘‘G. Treccani.’’
  32. Wuthnow, J. (1988) Sociology of Religion. In: Smelser, N. J. (Ed.), Handbook of Sociology. Sage, Beverly Hills, pp. 473-510.

Back to Sociology of Religion