Although the term sect has played a role in both political sociology and the study of social movements at the hands of many Marxians as well as such early sociologists as LeBon, Sighele, Park, and Simmel, its primary continuing application has been among sociologists of religion in the context of church-sect theory. The dominance of this use has led to its virtual abandonment in other sociological subfields. In this context, a sect may be defined as a voluntary religious association whose members enter it as a result of a personal decision to join, which decision is then subject to confirmation by the existing members of the association. It contrasts with a church, whose members are said to be “born” into it, either by nationality or ongoing familial commitment.

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. It is also the case that, though termed church-sect theory, a more accurate phrasing for actual usage of the construct would be sect church theory, since the preponderance of research and debate has been directed toward the sect type and changes that do or do not occur in religious organizations from sectarian origins into other sociological types.

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 popularization among scholars of religion in the modern sense, however, was through ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr’s adaptation of the work of Weber’s sometime associate Ernst Troeltsch, himself a historical ethicist. To understand much of the debate and confusion in contemporary sociological usage, it is necessary to review how the concepts fit into Weber’s sociology of religion and how the Troeltsch-Niebuhr synthesis introduced corruptions into that use that impaired their analytical power.

Weberian Sociology and Troeltschian Ethics

Weber’s sociology is united by the overarching thematic element of the processes 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 part of this project Weber wanted to employ an analytical method that would allow him to maintain his commitment to the principle that sociology was a scientific discipline while dealing with historical data, wherein heretofore empathic verstehende Soziologie had failed to achieve conclusions that could in any way be compared to the accuracy of the experimental method. Weber’s answer was the comparative method 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. The conceptualizations of “church” and “sect,” like an inch in the measurement of length, serve to enable two or more religious organizations to be compared to 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” – 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 (1912), the church-sect typology underwent significant alterations. Troeltsch was not a social scientist but a theologian attempting to relate types of religious experiences with the varieties of social teachings to which they might be correlated. In doing so, he parted company with Weber’s work in two critical ways. First, he shifted the emphasis of the type from social organizational to behavioral. 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 work it occurs in a separate bipolar  typology  of behavioral orientation, namely that of asceticism mysticism. Nevertheless, the presence of the mystical type within Troeltsch’s formulation 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 must be understood within both his three way scheme and the instrumental context of Weberian ideal typical method. 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 ”transient” nature, and hence reformulated the concepts of church, sect, and mysticism to work for his own purposes.

Subsequent church-sect debates have largely been the result of an overemphasis upon the Weber-Troeltsch association that assumes that because the two men were colleagues (and even lived in the same building for a number of years) and 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. The difference between the two projects is clear 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 – hence sociological – focus comes to frame the theory.

The basis for the shift in usage and concomitant confusion lies in the way in which the sect construct was introduced to the English speaking audience, with the corresponding void created in German scholarship as a result of the two world wars. The first major English language publication to use the types was the work of another sociologically inclined theological   ethicist,   Yale   professor   H. Richard Niebhur’s 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. This approach found its down side, however, in that taken by itself it tended toward the reification of the types and the hypothetical continuum that he posited. It thus contained powerful seeds for church-sect theory to grow into an evaluative device, quite outside the ”value free” comparative sociological frame of reference in which it was conceived. Sect to church modeling not only turned the word order around, it also turned church sect theory from an analytical device to a quasi ethical evaluation. This disjuncture was compounded by the fact that Troeltsch’s Social Teachings was translated in 1931, providing a kind of ”classic” legitimation for Niebuhr’s approach, whereas Weber’s methodological work was not available in translation until 1949. Many of the subsequent difficulties that have attended church sect theory can 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 via Niebuhr. The original church-sect dichotomy became generally interpreted as a continuum having a multicriteria basis for its analyses.

Howard Becker 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 his 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 subsequently 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 is Bryan Wilson’s ”An Analysis of Sect Development” (1959). The results of this strategy were, on the one hand, to shift the focus of church-sect theory away from both comparative and evaluative analyses toward a classificatory system of the bases and outcomes of religious organizational development in the wake of social systemic variables; and on the other hand, it invited a focus on religious movements that were relatively marginal to main stream society, hence prepared the way for the emergence of the subfield within the sociology of religion known as New Religious Movements (NRMs) beginning in the 1970s.

An exception to this general tendency to focus on societally marginal religious organizations (first ”sects,” later ”cults”) was the publication in the British Journal of Sociology of a seminal essay by David Martin in 1962 simply titled ”The Denomination.” 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 typological formulations that appeared in the late 1970s. The action sociology models of both Roy Wallis and William H. Swatos, Jr., as well as the rational choice models of Rodney 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 also 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 made revisions within the church-sect framework, making it a more viable theoretical orientation for the sociological study of religion. Yinger, Wallis, Swatos, Paul Gustafson, and Roland Robertson, for example, have each suggested the value of an explicit visual scheme for modeling and analyses. Wilson, whose work on sects spanned over 40 years, came increasingly to accept a Weberian approach and was among the first to attempt to take aspects of sect analysis outside the orbit of Western religions and societies in his Magic and the Millennium (1973). Stark and colleagues have reached back into earlier empirical work by Glock and Stark to use pieces of church sect theorizing in their ”rational choice” modeling, demonstrating that it is possible to tie the framework to large data sets.

Neo-Weberian Analyses

Particularly significant to the process of rethinking church-sect theory was the work of Benton Johnson. As early as 1957, Johnson critiqued the Troeltschian approach to church-sect. In subsequent work, he returned to Weber – not directly to Weber’s discussion of church-sect, but to his 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. Wilson thereafter 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 empircal church-sect distinctions may be grouped and asserts that this typological approach is superior to one that simply adds ”types” as historical circumstances alter. These are in fact not types at all, in the Weberian sense, but categories. Johnson’s work has significantly affected such differing streams as Swatos’s situationalism and the rational choice modeling of Stark and his colleagues.

Although Johnson’s distinction possesses enormous advantages in terms of conceptual parsimony, its lack of integration of the historical differences in the various sociocultural 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 cross cuts Johnson’s acceptance-rejection dichotomy with the sociocultural system polarity of monopolism-pluralism. Following on the work of David Little, 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, following leads from Martin and Wallis, Swatos 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 polar organizational manifestations of the mysticism-asceticism typology, rather than incorporated into church-sect theory. Cults in turn have charismatic leaders, while orders have virtuosos. Patricia Wittberg’s analysis of the dramatic decline of Roman Catholic religious orders in the western societies during the second half of the twentieth century, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders (1994), particularly illustrates the appropriate use of the order/virtuoso combination and then deploys it within an explanatory structure that suggests the sociosystemic characteristics that lead not only to that decline but also to the corresponding rise of charismatic types of religious experiences and organizations.

Building  on  these   foundations, Michael York’s study of New Age and neopagan movements, The Emerging Network (1995), demonstrates the continued value of church-sect typologizing as a conceptual tool within a larger analytical framework through which these phenomena may also be studied profitably. The concept of network which York introduces in his work has been further elaborated by Hizuru Miki in a church-sect schema as a polar type to organization. These advances facilitate both cross cultural comparisons and the analysis of both new religious movements and quasi religions, some of which have heretofore been treated under the now ideologically loaded concept of cult. Thus, church-sect theorizing continues to be a part of ongoing sociological scholarship, well beyond its initial foundations, but also more closely linked in analytical style to those foundations than it was in the period from the 1930s to the 1970s.


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