views updated May 11 2018


The term "church" dates back to a Christian context in the third or fourth century after Christ to denote an "assembly of believers." Since then, the use of the word has spread worldwide to denote a variety of Christian as well as non-Christian groups. The label is also used to describe a variety of forms of religious organizations, including those sometimes referred to as "cults," "sects," or "denominations."

Within the social sciences, however, the concept of "church" has a long and complex history. The concept first became influential as part of an idealized typology of religious organizations (a.k.a. church-sect typology) constructed by Max Weber in his massive work Economy and Society and later elaborated by Ernst Troeltsch in The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches.

In his church-sect typology, Weber focuses on the relationship between a society's political contexts and its religious communities. He sees the church type and the sect type as opposing models of religious organization, distinguished primarily by their very different relationships to the society in which they exist. Whereas the church is defined largely in relationship to its alliance with secular political authority in pursuit of its goal of world domination, the sect is characterized by its withdrawal from society, the voluntary basis of its membership, the subjective acceptance of Christ into the lives of its members based on an individual conversion experience, and the small, democratic nature of its community.

Weber and Troeltsch draw heavily on the model of the European Catholic Church to illustrate the main characteristics of the church type, while drawing on the example of Christ's apostles and the monastic orders of the Catholic Church for their model of the sect type.

Weber's church model is distinguished by a number of historically related characteristics:

  1. The goal of the church organization is world domination, and through universal conversion.
  2. Church organizations typically enjoy the support and sponsorship of one or more political states.
  3. This alliance with secular authority forces the church to accommodate itself to the values of the secular world.
  4. Religious membership within a state-church regime is compulsory, a matter of birth or citizenship rather than choice.
  5. In church organizations, salvation and grace tend to be both formal and objective, allowing them to be ritualistically administered by professional specialists independent of the conscious volition of participants, as in the case of infant baptism, conversion by conquest, or membership by birth. These characteristics are elaborated more fully below.

To understand Weber's reasoning it is important to recognize that his concept of the church is modeled on a historical European context in which state-church alliances are normative. In this context, religion is a state-supported political institution. All citizens are automatically members of the state-established church and are required by law to pay taxes in support of that church. The church and the religious values it supports are a primary institution through which the state exercises social control and maintains its authority among the people. For this reason religious dissent can be viewed as a challenge to political authority. Religious dissenters were often treated harshly as political criminals and were often killed for refusing to accept the religious views of the state.

Weber saw world domination by a single faith as the primary goal of the church organization. Consequently, many of the characteristics he associates with the church function to further this end. The goal of world domination is mainly pursued through the strategy of universal conversion—that is, the conversion of the world's population to the faith of the true church. In Weber's observation, the alliance of church and state is instrumental to this goal insofar as churches have historically pursued the goal of universal conversion through the territorial and political expansion of state power. As nations conquer new territories, the church has followed. For Weber, religious conversion goes hand in hand with colonization both as a means of reinforcing the social and political control of conquered populations and by extending, through persuasion and coercion, the extent of the church's influence. This form of territorial conversion is made possible through the mechanism of compulsory membership. The citizens of nations that have been conquered through war or annexation thus become "converted" to the religious faith of the conquerors.

Another device that functions in the service of universal conversion is the "formalized means of acquiring grace and salvation." Weber argues that through a process of institutionalization, the charisma or mystery of a religion is eventually separated from a particular person or leader (such as Christ or the pope) and relocated to an institution or office. The transformation of charisma from a person to an institution is achieved through a lengthy organizational process marked by the development of a professional priesthood; the rationalization of dogma and rites; and claims of universal domination that transcend allegiances to family, household, ethnicity, or nation. An important outcome of this transformation is the objectification of the church's authority and discipline, which allows one to obtain grace and salvation through formal as opposed to subjective means.

The objectification of salvation is important because it makes the mass conversion of politically conquered peoples possible. Through the objectification of salvation, entire nation-states can be converted to the "true faith" en masse, by observing formal rituals. Weber contrasts this with the case of sect membership, in which conversion to a faith must be voluntary and must be based on an individual conversion experience.

For Weber, the political strategies pursued by church organizations inevitably lead to compromises between religious values and worldly goals. Troeltsch's work elaborates the organizational problems that the pursuit of universal domination creates for the Christian churches. He shows that in seeking to dominate the world, the church is forced to accommodate itself to secular values. Thus a consequence of the church type is its tendency to adjust to, and form compromises with, existing society and its values and institutions. These compromises set up a dynamic tension with the church's religious values, and in turn lead to the formation of revolutionary sects within the church that seek to return the church to its religious priorities. Troeltsch sees the monastic orders of the Catholic Church as an illustration of these revolutionary sects. He sees them as a source both of tension and of potential renewal for the church.

Because of the centrality of the state in Weber's understanding of the church, Weber's understanding of the concept may be more useful for investigating the dynamics of religious institutions where state-church alliances still exist around the world. However, the guarantees of religious freedom that exist in the United States have posed problems for the translation of this concept to the American context.

The Church Concept in the American Context

Weber's writings on religious organization are both complex and historically conditioned by the European context. This has lead to many debates among American scholars concerning the utility of Weber's church type in the context of the United States. A chief obstacle to the conceptual translation of his work is the absence of the church-state relationships that Weber assumed were a foundation of church authority. In the United States there is a constitutional separation of church and state that gives rise to a diversity of competing religious beliefs. Whereas the European church-state model supports a monopoly of faith by a single church, the explicit separation of church and state in the United States supports a competitive marketplace of faiths and religious organizations. While there may be de facto compulsory membership in that children generally adopt the religious faith of their parents, legally all religious belief is voluntary, and indeed, over the life course, many people switch their religious allegiances.

A further complication is that many of the religious institutions in the United States today originated as European churches that were transplanted to American soil by European immigrant groups. The Catholic Church in America, for example, has many of the characteristics ascribed to Weber's church type but is also very different in many ways from its European counterpart. Scholars have argued that the American Catholic Church has more in common with its American Protestant neighbors than it has with the European Catholic Church because the American Catholic Church been forced to accommodate itself to the competitive marketplace that characterizes the American religious environment.

Contemporary Usage of the Church Concept

The United States is overwhelmingly Christian in character, and many religious groups call themselves a "church." However, the freedom of religion in the United States makes many of Weber's assumptions and defining characteristics moot. So-called churches in the United States are largely voluntary associations; they cannot pursue the goal of universal conversion through political domination, nor can they exercise a monopoly of religious authority. Instead they must achieve conversion through strategies of persuasion and evangelization while competing in a marketplace of religious ideas. This forces them to resemble in many respects what Weber called the "sect type" organization, in which religious membership is voluntary, salvation depends on the subjective choice of the member, and religious authority tends to be communal and democratic.

Attempts to reclaim the utility of the church-sect model by American scholars, however, have led to a number of other conceptualizations of "church." One of the more fruitful strategies has been to abandon the multiplicity of characteristics that Weber identified as being associated with the church type and select one theoretical dimension on which to classify a range of religious organizations. Thus Peter Berger proposed defining religious organizations as either "church" or "sect" based on where they were located on a dimension he called the "nearness of the religious spirit" (1954). Benton Johnson proposed classifying religious organizations based on their degree of acceptance or rejection of the social order in which a religious body is located, or the degree to which they are in tension with society (1963). More recently Laurence Iannaccone (1994) has adopted a similar approach in seeking to define religious organizations in terms of the social "costs" or demands they place on members.

Another strategy for classifying religious organizations in the American context has been to create new "types" of religious organization, such as the "cult" (Becker 1932), the "denomination" (Niebuhr 1929), the "established sect" (Yinger 1946), and the "ecclesia" (Becker 1932), or to distinguish among various types of sects based on their worldviews (Wilson 1959). While these strategies reject the utility of the church-sect typology, they acknowledge the conceptual foundations of Weber's work.

Today the term "church" is rarely used to label a distinctive form of religious organization. It is used to denote a range of organizational types, from the universal Catholic Church to the local neighborhood congregation. The word "church" appears in the names of a variety of religious organizations, including those that are as theologically and organizationally diverse as the "Unification Church," the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," the "United Methodist Church," and the the "First Presbyterian Church." Thus perhaps its original definition remains its most useful, a term used to denote an "assembly of believers."

In the United States, the term "denomination" seems to have replaced the term "church" as a generic descriptor for national religious membership organizations, particularly those from a Christian background. Some of the common characteristics associated with the term "denomination" include voluntary membership, a national orientation, and association with one of the traditional religious families in the United States.

See alsoAnthropology of Religion; Church and State; Church Growth Movement; Communes; Cult; Denomination; Names and Naming; Peace Churches; Practice; Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Sect; Sociology of Religion.


Becker, Howard. Systematic Sociology. 1932.

Berger, Peter. "The Sociological Study of Sectarianism." Social Research 21 (Winter 1954).

Iannaccone, Laurence R. "Why Strict Churches Are Strong." American Journal of Sociology 99, no. 5 (1994): 1180–1211.

Johnson, Benton. "On Church and Sect." AmericanSociological Review 28 (1963): 539–549.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. 1929.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the ChristianChurches, vols. 1 and 2, translated by Olive Wyon. 1981.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, vols. 1 and 2, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. 1978.

Wilson, Bryan. "An Analysis of Sect Development." American Sociological Review 24 (1959): 3–22.

Yinger, J. Milton. Religion in the Struggle for Power. 1946.

Patricia Mei Yin Chang


views updated May 17 2018

church a building used for public Christian worship. Also (with upper case initial) a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines; the Church, the hierarchy of clergy of such an organization, especially the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church.

The word is recorded from Old English (in form cir(i)ce, cyr(i)ce), ultimately based on medieval Greek kurikon, from Greek kuriakon (dōma) ‘Lord's (house)’, from kurios ‘master or lord’.
the Church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers the passive strength of Christianity can outlast agression.The saying is recorded from the mid 19th century, but derives originally from the Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza (1519–1605). Beza was replying to the King of Navarre, who had attempted to excuse the massacre of Huguenots at Vassy by Guisard forces on the grounds that the Protestants had thrown stones at the Duke of Guise and his followers to provoke them.
Church Militant the whole body of living Christian believers, regarded as striving to combat evil here on earth.
church mouse a mouse living in a church, proverbially taken as a type of poverty, as in poor as a church mouse.
Church of England the English branch of the Western Christian Church, which combines Catholic and Protestant traditions, rejects the Pope's authority, and has the monarch as its titular head. The English Church was part of the Catholic Church until the Reformation of the 16th century; after Henry VIII failed to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon he repudiated papal supremacy, bringing the Church under the control of the Crown.
Church of Scotland the national (Presbyterian) Christian Church in Scotland. In 1560 John Knox reformed the established Church along Presbyterian lines, but there were repeated attempts by the Stuart monarchs to impose episcopalianism, and the Church of Scotland was not finally established as Presbyterian until 1690.
Church Slavonic the liturgical language used in the Orthodox Church in Russia, Serbia, and some other countries. It is a modified form of Old Church Slavonic.


views updated May 11 2018

81. Church


the belief that the church as an organization is independent of and equal to the state, with its highest authority lying in its collective membership.
the rank or office of a deacon.
Eastern Church. sacristan.
an excessive adherence to the doctrines and practices of the church. ecclesiastic , n., adj. ecclesiastical , adj.
Rare. an opposition to the church.
a descriptive study of the church. ecclesiographer , n. ecclesiographic, ecclesiographical , adj.
an intense devotion to church forms, authority, and traditions.
1. the study of church building and decoration.
2. Theology. the doctrine of the church.
3. the policy and operations of the church. ecclesiologist , n. ecclesiologic, ecclesiological , adj.
an abnormal fear or dislike of the church.
a dissertation on church festivals.
a mania for priests.
a list of the lections, or texts, to be read in church services through-out the canonical year.
formerly, a ninth part of a parishioners movable property, which was claimed upon his death by the clergy in England. See also 239. LAW .
a person who leads a church choir or congregation in singing.
sacrist, sacristan
an official or cleric appointed curator of the vestments, sacred vessels, and relies of a religious body, church, or cathedral.
simonism, simony
the sin or offense of selling or granting for personal advantage church appointments, benefices, preferments, etc. simoniac, simonist , n.
Church Law. the taking of property by an incumbent upon resignation or any other departure. See also 366. SHIPS ; 391. THEFT ; 413. WAR .


views updated May 17 2018

church. Edifice for public Christian worship, distinguished from a chapel or oratory, which in some respects are not public in the wider sense. Church-plans are of two basic types: the basilican form with clerestoreyed nave, lean-to aisles, apsidal east end, and some kind of porch or narthex; and the centralized plan derived from Byzantine domed spaces and from circular or polygonal mausolea associated with important tombs and martyria. The simplest type of church-plan (e.g. in Anglo-Saxon times) consisted of a nave (for the worshippers) and the smaller chancel (for the clergy) containing the altar and approached through an arch. Larger, more important churches had several chapels, two or four transepts, towers, and other structures such as cloisters, porches, a baptistery, and a chapter-house.


views updated May 11 2018

Church (from Gk., kuriakon, ‘belonging to the Lord’). The institution of Christianity. The word may refer to the whole number of organized Christians everywhere, to a particular denomination, to a local congregation, or to a building where Christians assemble. Reflection on the nature of the church, ‘ecclesiology’ (Gk., ekklēsia), is also a traditional part of Christian teaching.

In Orthodox understanding, the Church must be constituted by the apostolic succession, and be episcopal in character. It must accept the first seven Councils, and its doctrine is held within that parameter.

For Catholics, the Church is characterized as ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’. Thus conceived, it is a visible body; its membership, its orders of ministers, and its unity are all constituted by participation in visible sacraments.

The Reformation gave rise to two major doctrines of the Church: (i) that it is a visible body, and, in God's intention, one (though divided if corruption and error have demanded a reformation); and (ii) that the true church is an invisible body, since it is by the personal commitment of faith that a person is saved and made a member of it.


views updated Jun 27 2018

church / chərch/ • n. a building used for public Christian worship: they came to church with me. ∎  (usu. Church) a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines: the Church of England. ∎  (the Church) the hierarchy of clergy of such an organization, esp. the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England. ∎  institutionalized religion as a political or social force: the separation of church and state. ∎  the body of all Christians.• v. [tr.] archaic take (a woman who has recently given birth) to church for a service of thanksgiving.


views updated Jun 11 2018

church Community of believers. Although adopted by non-Christian movements such as scientology, it is usually used in reference to Christianity. The characteristics of the Christian Church as the whole body of Christ's followers are described in the Nicene Creed. The church is also the name of the building used for worship by Christians. Churches vary from the stark plainness of some Protestant chapels to the grandeur of the world's major cathedrals.


views updated Jun 11 2018

church A church is a large, bureaucratic, and hierarchical religious organization, which typically recruits from the upper and middle classes. It has a priesthood, sacraments, and formal liturgy. Lay participation, especially in worship, is not necessarily encouraged. These definitional characteristics confine the use of the concept largely to a Christian context. The church is accommodated to existing social arrangements and regards the state as a necessary aspect of political control over society. Individuals are born into the church and become permanent members through infant baptism. The church as an ideal-type is contrasted with the sect. See also CULT; DENOMINATION.


views updated May 17 2018

church OE. ċir(i)ċe, ċyr(i)ċe = OS. kirika (Du. kerk), OHG. kirihha (G. kirche) :- WGmc. *kirika — medGr. kūrikón, for kūriakón, sb. use (sc. dôma house) of n. of kūriakós pert. to the Lord, f. kū́rios master, lord.
Hence church vb. present or receive in church. XIV. churchman ecclesiastic XVI (earlier XIV kirkman); male member of the church (of England) XVII. churchwarden XV. churchyard XII.


views updated May 14 2018


This entry consists of the following articles:

church polity
church membership