Religious Organizations

Cult

Cult refers to a religious movement or group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate cults from sects, according to sociologists

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior.
  • American sociologist Howard P. Becker created four categories by splitting church into “ecclesia” and “denomination,” and sect into “sect” and “cult”.
  • Cults, for Becker, were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs. Unlike sects, which are products of religious schism that maintain continuity with traditional beliefs, cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.
  • Those critical of cults share the assumption that some form of coercive persuasion or mind control is used by cult leaders to recruit and maintain members.

Key Terms

  • apostate: A person who has renounced a religion or faith.
  • denomination: A class, or society of individuals, called by the same name; a sect; as, a denomination of Christians.
  • ecclesia: The congregation, the group of believers, symbolic body or building.

The word “cult” in current popular usage usually refers to a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre. Originally denoting a system of ritual practices, the word was introduced into sociological classification in 1932 by American sociologist Howard P. Becker. In the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior. They have been criticized by mainstream Christians for their unorthodox beliefs.

image

Rev. Jim Jones: Jim Jones was the leader of the Peoples Temple, a cult that committed a mass murder-suicide in 1978.

Becker’s Typology

Becker created four categories by splitting church into “ecclesia” and “denomination”, and sect into “sect” and “cult.” Cults, for Becker, were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs. Sociologists still maintain that unlike sects, which are products of religious schism that maintain continuity with traditional beliefs and practices, cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.

While most scholars no longer refer to any new religious movements as cults, some sociologists still favor retaining the word as it was used in church-sect typologies. Other scholars and non-academic researchers who use the word do so from explicitly critical perspectives, focusing on the relationship between cult groups and the individuals who join them. These perspectives share the assumption that some form of coercive persuasion or mind control is used to recruit and maintain members by suppressing their ability to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest. Mind control refers to a process in which a group or individual “systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated. ”

Opponents

Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the anti-cult movement tend to define a cult as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behavior are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities. The role of former members, or ” apostates,” has been widely studied by social scientists. At times, these individuals become outspoken public critics of the groups they leave. Their motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the narratives they construct, are controversial. According to researchers who have studied apostates, there are several cases where hostile ex-members shade the truth and blow minor incidents out of proportion.

Sect

A sect is a group with distinctive religious, political, or philosophical beliefs.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the varying ways that sects have been understood over time.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Although in the past the term “sect” was mostly used to refer to religious groups, it has since expanded and in modern culture can refer to any organization that breaks away from a larger one to follow a different set of rules and principles.
  • The historical usage of the term sect in Christianity has had pejorative connotations, referring to a group or movement with heretical beliefs or practices that deviate from those of groups considered orthodox.
  • Among the first to define sects were the sociologists Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch.
  • There are differences between sects and cults in the degree that members are recruited and kept. A sect may also have members who choose to leave later, whereas a cult uses any means necessary to keep its members, including coercion.
  • Sectarianism is sometimes defined in the sociology of religion as a worldview that emphasizes the unique legitimacy of believers’ creed and practices and that heightens tension with society.
  • Sectarian violence refers to violence inspired by sectarianism. Some of the possible inputs for sectarian violence include power struggles, political climate, social climate, cultural climate, and economic landscape.

Key Terms

  • cult: A group of people with a religious, philosophical or cultural identity sometimes viewed as a sect, often existing on the margins of society or exploitative towards its members.
  • sectarian violence: Sectarian violence or sectarian strife is violence inspired by sectarianism, that is, between different sects of one particular mode of ideology or religion within a nation or community.
  • sectarianism: Rigid adherence to a particular sect, party, or denomination.

A sect is a group with distinctive religious, political, or philosophical beliefs. Although in the past it was mostly used to refer to religious groups, it has since expanded and in modern culture can refer to any organization that breaks away from a larger one to follow a different set of rules and principles. The term is occasionally used in a malicious way to suggest the broken-off group follows a more negative path than the original. The historical usage of the term “sect” in Christianity has had pejorative connotations, referring to a group or movement with heretical beliefs or practices that deviate from those of groups considered orthodox.

There are several different sociological definitions and descriptions for the term. Among the first to define them were the sociologists Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. In the church-sect typology, sects are described as newly formed religious groups that form to protest elements of their parent religion. A sect differs from cults in the degree that members are recruited and kept. Whereas the cult is able to enforce its norms and ideas against members, a sect has followers, sympathizers, supporters, or believers. A sect may also have members who choose to leave later, whereas a cult uses any means necessary to keep its members, including coercion.

Sectarianism is sometimes defined in the sociology of religion as a worldview that emphasizes the unique legitimacy of believers’ creed and practices and that heightens tension with the larger society by engaging in boundary-maintaining practices. Wherever people of different religions live in close proximity to each other, religious sectarianism can often be found in varying forms and degrees. In some areas, religious sectarians (for example Protestant and Catholic Christians in the United States) now exist peacefully side-by-side for the most part. Within Islam, there has been conflict at various periods between Sunnis and Shias. Shi’ites consider Sunnis to be damned, due to their refusal to accept the first Caliph as Ali and accept all following descendants of him as infallible and divinely guided. Many Sunni religious leaders, including those inspired by Wahhabism and other ideologies have declared Shias to be heretics and apostates.

The ideological underpinnings of attitudes and behaviors labeled as sectarian are extraordinarily varied. Members of a religious or political group may believe that their own salvation, or the success of their particular objectives, requires aggressively seeking converts from other groups. Adherents of a given faction may believe that for the achievement of their own political or religious project their internal opponents must be purged. Sectarian violence refers to violence inspired by sectarianism. Some of the possible inputs for sectarian violence include power struggles, political climate, social climate, cultural climate, and economic landscape.

image

Church-sect continuum: Before describing these different religions, it is important for the reader to understand that these classifications are a good example of what sociologists refer to 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.

The Christian Church

The Christian Church is the assembly of followers of Jesus Christ; in Christianity, a church is the building where its members meet.

Learning Objectives

Describe the Church as the assembly of followers of Jesus Christ, and the building where its members meet.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The early Church originated in Roman Judea in the first century AD, founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who is believed by Christians to be the Son of God and Christ the Messiah.
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodoxy each claim to be the original Christian Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church bases its claim primarily on its traditions and beliefs of the original Christian Church.
  • The Roman Catholic Church teaches in its doctrine that it is the original Church founded by Christ and the Apostles in the 1st century AD.
  • State churches are organizational bodies within a Christian denomination which are given official status or operated by a state.
  • Churches of Christ are autonomous Christian congregations associated with one another through common beliefs and practices. Members of the Churches of Christ believe that Jesus founded only one church, that the current divisions between Christians are not God’s will, and that the only basis for restoring Christian unity is the Bible.
  • Protestants believe that the Church, as described in the Bible, has a twofold character that can be described as the visible and invisible church. The invisible church consists of all those from every time and place who are vitally united to Christ through regeneration and salvation and who will be eternally united to Jesus Christ in eternal life. The visible church refers to the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacrament.
  • State churches are organizational bodies within a Christian denomination which are given official status or operated by a state.

Key Terms

  • Invisible Church: The invisible church or church invisible is a theological concept of an “invisible” body of the elect who are known only to God, in contrast to the “visible church”—that is, the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments.
  • assembly: A legislative body; e.g., the General Assembly of the United Nations.
  • state churches: State churches are organizational bodies within a Christian denomination which are given official status or operated by a state.
  • church: a Christian religious institution or building

The Christian Church is the assembly or association of followers of Jesus Christ. The four traditional notes of the Christian Church are unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. In the New Testament, the term “church,” which in Greek meant “assembly,” is used for local communities, and in a universal sense to mean all believers. In the Christian religion, a church is the building or structure used to facilitate the meeting of its members.

The “Original” Church

The early Church originated in Roman Judea in the first century AD, founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who is believed by Christians to be the Son of God and Christ the Messiah. It is usually thought of as beginning with Jesus’ Apostles. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodoxy each claim to be the original Christian Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church bases its claim primarily on its traditions and beliefs of the original Christian Church. By contrast, the Catholic Church teaches in its doctrine that it is the original Church founded by Christ on the Apostles in the 1st century AD. Since the Protestant Reformation, most Protestant denominations interpret “catholic,” especially in its creedal context, as referring to the Protestant concept of an eternal, invisible church of Christ and the Elect. Anglicans generally understand their tradition as a a middle path between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Christianity on one hand, and Protestantism on the other.

Churches of Christ

Churches of Christ are autonomous Christian churches associated with one another through common beliefs and practices. They seek to base doctrine and practice on the Bible alone, and seek to be New Testament congregations as originally established by the authority of Christ. Members of Churches of Christ believe that Jesus founded only one church, that the current divisions between Christians are not God’s will—the only basis for restoring Christian unity is the Bible. Many Protestants believe that the Church, as described in the Bible, has a twofold character that can be described as the visible and invisible church. The invisible church consists of all those from every time and place who are vitally united to Christ through regeneration and salvation and who will be eternally united to Jesus Christ in eternal life. The visible church—the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacrament—consists of all those who visibly join themselves to a profession of faith and gathering together to know and serve the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.

Political Significance

Churches can also have political significance around the world. State churches are organizational bodies within a Christian denomination, given official status or operated by a state. State churches are not necessarily national churches in the ethnic sense of the term, but the two concepts may overlap in a nation state where the state boundary largely corresponds to the distribution of a single ethnic group defined by a specific denomination. State churches, by contrast, may also be minority denominations which are given political recognition by the state.

image

Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant: Different Christian Sects construct their own Churches, which are their places of worship

The Ecclesia

Ecclesias are different from churches because they typically must compete with other religious voices in a community.

Learning Objectives

Distinguish ecclesia from churches and denominations.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While a church is an institution that acts as the religious guardian for all members of a community, and that tolerates no competition, an ecclesia is less successful at garnering absolute adherence among all members.
  • State churches are organizational bodies within a Christian denomination that are either given official status by a state, or operated directly by a state. State churches in Western Europe are generally ecclesias.
  • An ecclesial community is, in Roman Catholic terminology, a Christian religious group that does not meet the Roman Catholic definition of a church.
  • In Catholic canon law, a church is an ecclesial community headed by a bishop or someone recognized as the equivalent of a bishop.

Key Terms

  • particular church: In Catholic canon law, a particular church is an ecclesial community headed by a bishop or someone equivalent to a bishop.
  • ecclesial community: An ecclesial community is, in Roman Catholic terminology, a Christian religious group that does not meet the Roman Catholic definition of a “Church”.
  • state churches: State churches are organizational bodies within a Christian denomination which are given official status or operated by a state.

Church is a classificatory term used to describe the institutional expression of religion. Churches typically tolerate no religious competition, and serve as the guardians and guides of spiritual life for a particular group of people. Churches can be contrasted with denominations, which do involve competition between religions. A church, through its institutional presence, typically strives to provide an all-encompassing worldview for its adherents. It is also almost always enmeshed with the political and economic structures of a society. A striking historical example of this is the Holy Roman Empire.

A slight modification of the church type is that of ecclesia. Ecclesias include the above characteristics of churches, but they are generally less successful at garnering absolute adherence among all of the members of the society. Ecclesias are also typically not the sole religious body in a particular societal space. The state churches of some European nations would fit this type. State churches are organizational bodies within a Christian denomination that have been given official status by a state, or are directly operated by a state. The Anglican Church of England, for example, is a state church that does not have the adherence of all English citizens. Because of this, it is considered an ecclesia.

An ecclesial community is, in Roman Catholic terminology, a Christian religious group that does not meet the Roman Catholic definition of a church. Although the word “ecclesial” itself stems from the Greek word for “church” or “gathering,” ecclesias are not necessarily churches. The Catholic Church applies the word “Church” only to Christian communities that, in the view of the Catholic Church, “have true sacraments in light of Apostolic succession” and that possess a priesthood and the Eucharist. In this way, certain ecclesia fail to meet the requirements for a church. In Catholic canon law, a particular church is an ecclesial community headed by a bishop or an equivalent figure.

image

Choir of an Ecclesia: Catholic Mass

Religious Denominations

A religious denomination is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity.

Learning Objectives

Explain why denominations form within religions.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Christian denominations include Eastern Orthodox, Anglicanism, and the many varieties of Protestantism.
  • The four branches of Judaism include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
  • The two main branches of Islam are Sunni and Shia.
  • Denominationalism is the division of one religion into separate groups, sects, schools of thought, or denominations.
  • In Christianity, non-denominational institutions or churches are those not formally aligned with an established denomination, or that remain otherwise officially autonomous.
  • Ecumenism mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation.
  • The term interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions and spiritual or humanistic beliefs

Key Terms

  • interfaith dialogue: The term interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion; this dialogue often promotes understanding between different religions to increase acceptance of others, rather than attempting to synthesize new beliefs.
  • ecumenism: Ecumenism mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation.
  • denominationalism: The division of one religion into separate groups, sects, schools of thought, or denominations.

A religious denomination is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity. The term describes various Christian denominations (for example, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicanism, and the many varieties of Protestantism). The term also describes the four branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist), and describes the two main branches of Islam (Sunni and Shia). Denominationalism is the division of one religion into separate groups, sects, schools of thought, or denominations.

Denominations often form slowly over time for many reasons. Due to historical accidents of geography, culture and influence between different groups, members of a given religion slowly begin to diverge in their views. Members of a religion may find that they have developed significantly different views on theology, philosophy, religious pluralism, ethics, and religious practices and rituals. Consequently, different denominations may eventually form. In other cases, denominations form very rapidly, from a split or schism in an existing denomination, or if people share an experience of spiritual revival or spiritual awakening and subsequently choose to form a new denomination.

In Christianity, non-denominational institutions or churches are those not formally aligned with an established denomination or those that remain otherwise officially autonomous. Non-denominational congregations may establish a functional denomination via mutual recognition by other congregations with commonly held doctrine, policy, and worship—without formalizing external direction or oversight in such matters. Some non-denominational churches explicitly reject the idea of a formalized denominational structure as a matter of principle, holding that each congregation is better off being autonomous.

In a similar but different vein, ecumenism mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation. It is used predominantly with reference to Christian denominations and churches separated by doctrine, history, and practice. Within this particular context, the term ecumenism refers to the idea of a Christian unity in the literal meaning: that there should be a single Christian Church. At a broader level, the term “interfaith dialogue” refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions and spiritual or humanistic beliefs—at both an individual and institutional level.

image

Religious Symbols: Symbols of Various Faiths