Sociological Classifications Of Religious Movements

Various sociological classifications of religious movements have been proposed by scholars. In the sociology of religion, the most widely used classification 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 from more mainstream religions and tend to be in tension with society.

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

Main articles: New Religious Movement, New Religious Movements and Cults in Popular Culture

Herättäjäjuhlat, or the Awakening festival, in Seinäjoki, Finland in 2009

Herättäjäjuhlat, or the Awakening festival, in Seinäjoki, Finland in 2009

Church-sect typology

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.

Many labels 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 holds as their ideal type categorisation will vary. Nevertheless, the categorisation scheme is useful as it also outlines a sort of developmental process for religions.

A diagram of the church-sect typology continuum. Include church, denomination, sect, cult, new religious movement, and institutionalized sect.

A diagram of the church-sect typology continuum. Include church, denomination, sect, cult, new religious movement, and institutionalized sect.

Church and ecclesia

Further information: Church (congregation)

Johnstone provides the following seven characteristics of churches:

  • Claim universality, include all members of the society within their ranks, and have a strong tendency to equate “citizenship” with “membership”
  • Exercise religious monopoly and try to eliminate religious competition
  • Are very closely allied with the state and secular powers; frequently there is overlapping of responsibilities and much mutual reinforcement
  • Are extensively organized as a hierarchical bureaucratic institution with a complex division of labor
  • Employ professional, full-time clergy who possess the appropriate credentials of education and formal ordination
  • Primarily gain new members through natural reproduction and the socialization of children into the ranks
  • 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 Catholic Church, especially in the past, such as the State church of the Roman Empire.

Islam is a church in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where there is no separation of church and state. The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia states: “[The Constitution of Saudi Arabia is] God’s Book [the Qur’an] and the Sunnah of His Prophet [Muhammad]”. These nations are ruled under an official interpretation of religious law (Salafi in the case of Saudi Arabia), and the religious law predominates the legal system. Saudi Arabia, however, lacks Johnstone’s criteria for an ordained clergy and a strictly hierarchical structure, although it has the ulema. In the Shi’a denominations, there is a professional clergy led by a Grand Ayatollah.

A slight modification of the church type is that of ecclesia. 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.


Main article: Religious denomination

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 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 often decry liberal trends in denominational development and advocate 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, 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.

An example of an institutionalized sect that did not become a denomination are the Mennonites.

Cult typology

Main article: Cult

The concept of “cult” has lagged behind in the refinement of the terms that are used in analyzing the other forms of religious origination. Bruce Campbell discusses Troeltsch’s concept in defining cults as non-traditional religious groups that are based on belief in a divine element within the individual. He gives three ideal types of cults:

  1. a mystically-oriented illumination type
  2. an instrumental type, in which inner experience is sought solely for its effects
  3. a service-oriented type that is focused on aiding others.

He also gives six groups in the applications of analysis:

In the late nineteenth century, there have been a number of works that help in clarifying what is involved in cults. There are several scholars of this subject, such as Joseph Campbell and Bruce Campbell, who have noted that cults are associated with beliefs in a divine element in the individual. It is either Soul, Self, or True Self. Cults are inherently ephemeral and loosely organized. There is a major theme in many of the recent works that show the relationship between cults and mysticism. Campbell brings two major types of cults to attention. One is mystical and the other is instrumental. This can divide the cults into being either occults or metaphysical assemblies.

On the basis that Campbell proposes about cults, they are non-traditional religious groups based on belief in a divine element in the individual. Other than the two main types, there is also a third type. This is service-oriented. Campbell states that “the kinds of stable forms which evolve in the development of religious organization will bear a significant relationship to the content of the religious experience of the founder or founders.”

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 embracing 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, 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. 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 US that began as cults include Christian Science and the Nation of Islam.

Finally, 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 derogatory meanings attached to the word “cult” in popular language.


Religious scholar John A. Saliba 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. Koehrsen shows that the difficulties of classifying religious groups according to the typology even apply to Christian congregations. Single congregations continuously move on the church-sect spectrum. They switch between “churches” and “sects”, strategically adapting their religious practices to the given context.


Lorne L. Dawson examines the history and future of the church-sect typology in a 2008 article, opining that the typology survives as a useful tool.

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.” According to Wallis, cults 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 contrasts a cult with a sect in that he asserts that sects 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, such as collective salvation, and their committed adherents typically regard all those outside the confines of the collectivity as ‘in error’.”

Cult and/or new religious movements

Stark and Bainbridge

In 1975, the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge distinguish three types of cults, classified on the basis of the levels of organizational and client (or adherent) involvement:

  • Audience cults which have hardly any organization because participants/consumers lack significant involvement.
  • 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 client cults resembles that of patients and therapists.
  • 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 (the readership of Hubbard’s book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and the Astounding Science Fictionarticle which had preceded it) into a client cult (Dianetics) then into a cult movement (the Church of Scientology).

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.

  • World-rejecting movements view the prevailing social order as deviant and a perversion of the divine plan. Such movements see the world as evil or at least as materialistic. They may adhere to millenarian beliefs. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (a.k.a. “Hare Krishnas”), the Unification Church, the Brahma Kumaris 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 adapt to the world but they do not reject or affirm it.
  • World-affirming movements might not have any rituals or any formal ideology. They may lack most of the characteristics of religious movements. They affirm the world and merely claim to have the means to enable people to unlock their “hidden potential”. As examples of world-affirming movements, Wallis mentions Werner Erhard’s est and Transcendental Meditation.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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