Religious Organization

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Religious Organization

Religious authority in East and West

Leaders, members, and organization

Hierarchy and the priestly function

Religious administration and polity

Religious control of property

Church, sect, and denomination

Religious training and recruitment

Bureaucratization in the modern church


Religious organization is the complex of institutionalized roles and procedures which regulate the relations of men with the supernatural order, however such an order may be conceived. It may involve the regulation of religious practice and the promulgation of true, and suppression of false, doctrine; procedures for the recruitment, education, and professional socialization of religious specialists; the structure of authority among them; the basis, extent, and nature of their authority over the laity and its territorial and temporal coordination; the control of religious places, periods, premises, and equipment and such property and temporalities as accrue in the establishment of this control.

Despite the wealth of religious scholarship, there are very few studies of religious organization, and of this exiguous literature very little employs sociological analysis. Organization theory as developed in sociology has little relevance to non-Western religions. In Western Christianity and Judaism, religious roles and procedures constitute articulated structures which, with increasing self-consciousness, approximate to bureaucratic models; however, even in the West, the extent of this approximation is limited by the inherent nature of the religious quest. The patterns of affective neutrality, role specificity, performance expectations, self-orientation, and even universalism, which characterize the dominant organizational mode of Western society, are all, in greater or lesser degree, alien to religious institutions, roles, relationships, and values. The comparative historical analysis of Max Weber, although not specifically concerned with organization as such, and the more typological studies of Joachim Wach remain the outstanding works in this field.

In non-Western societies, religious activities are usually an intimate part of the life of the local community and lack an independent and articulated organizational structure. There may be loose association between communal activities and those of regional religious centers. Local religious agents operate within the community, and their responsibilities do not extend beyond it. Family, kinship, tribal, local, and even national cults represent a high degree of convergence of political and religious institutions; such cults were found widely in ancient civilizations, as documented by William Robertson Smith (1889), N. D. Fustel de Coulanges (1864), C. W. Westrup (1939–1954), Marcel Granet (1922), Martin P. Nilsson (1941–1950), and (more sociologically) by Max Weber (1922a) and Joachim Wach (1944). The development of a national cult is apparent in the Old Testament, and Bellah (1957, chapter 4) makes evident its importance in Japanese Shintoism.

Religious authority in East and West

Religious roles are universal, but they are not always performed by full-time specialists. The part-time functionary has less opportunity than the full-time specialist to acquire authority and thus can be less adequately integrated into an organization. Autonomous religious authority is likely to arise only where the mystical and magical offices of religious functionaries are regarded by secular authorities as indispensable for the legitimation of their power. This was a function of the Brahmins in early Hinduism, but they did not evolve a religious organization of the rational hierarchic type; the preeminence of religious status may itself have limited such a development. The Brahmin caste was a hereditary guild which monopolized religious functions; religious power tended to be localized and particular, diffused within the wider society but not subjected to division of labor and hierarchization within the stratum.

In contrast, Christian priests lacked this ascriptive basis of status; the hereditary principle was checked by the imposition of celibacy; charisma was attached to the office rather than to the person; and appointment to office was often dependent on political agencies. Under these circumstances, religious functionaries often stood in a relationship of uneasy interdependence with political authorities. Religious authority, limited in its exercise over secular society, developed as a hierarchic structure within the religious institution itself. The religious institution gained coherence by modeling itself on the political structure, which, in certain circumstances, it came to supersede or transcend. The articulation of responsibility within the religious institution necessarily involved insistence on the coherence and exclusiveness of doctrine and liturgical practice. This insistence created divisions in Christianity after political and coercive power was lost to the church, but the principles of coherence and exclusiveness became characteristic of all the separate Christian organizations.

Leaders, members, and organization

An important variable affecting religious organization is the extent to which religion is founded on prophecy. Certain religions, such as Christianity, rely on conversion to the teachings, ritual, ethics, and example of the prophets who founded them. In religions which do not trace their foundation to a prophet, allegiance is determined largely by ethnicity, though even within the traditions of founded religions, insulated religious communities arise in which birthright and, hence, ethnicity become the principal, if not exclusive, criteria of eligibility for participation (Hostetler 1963; Francis 1948). The degree of voluntary commitment which they demand clearly differentiates founded from unfounded religions. Christianity almost always requires voluntary commitment, however formal this may be in practice. In traditional Hinduism, by contrast, voluntary acceptance of ritual obligations by the unentitled would be inconceivable, while their neglect by Hindus, with the implied rejection of caste obligations and the status claims of Brahmins, could bring only spiritual perdition and social ostracism (Weber [1921] 1958, pp. 8 ff.; Hutton [1946] 1964, chapters 6 and 7). Although the convergence of ethnic, social, and religious status in Hinduism was challenged by the development of distinctive cult practices, such as the Lingayat (Weber [1921] 1958, pp. 298 ff.), these cults also lacked systematic organization and have frequently been vulnerable to reabsorption into the caste structure.

The case of Judaism

In Judaism after the Diaspora, the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of priestly authority made religious practice the distinguishing criterion of Jewish identity and the focus of ethnic and community values. Jewish communities were organized around the synagogue, which became the surrogate of the Temple, as did the rabbi of the priest. Rabbinical patriarchs superseded the priestly hierarchy, but once they were deprived of political power and dispersed in relatively small communities, the principal function of rabbis became that of interpreters of the law, and it was from this function that they derived their authority as religious and community leaders. A high degree of uniformity of faith and order rested on principles drawn from the synagogical service. Whereas the prophet legitimated his authority in terms of divine inspiration and the priest in terms of hereditary right to perform sacrifice, the rabbi’s claim rested on his knowledge of the law, which covered ritual, taboos, and civil matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

Thus, the rabbi’s role traditionally had community significance rather than specifically religious significance. This fact and the fact that the rabbi’s role is open to all Jewish males who undergo appropriate instruction are conditions which limited the development of hierarchy, especially when we take into account the dispersal of Jews into small communities. At a relatively late date, rabbis in dispersed European communities formed wider associations, but even today “there is …little formal hierarchical organization …and the role itself remains functionally diffuse . . .” (Carlin & Mend-lovitz [1958] 1960, p. 379). Discrimination and persecution enhanced the significance of synagogic organization and of religious ritual and law for European Jewry, whereas in less intolerant contexts, Jews let their observance of law and ritual decline and became more fully assimilated to the host society (Strizower 1962). In industrial societies, modern Judaism has increasingly adopted the type of organization characteristic of Christian de-nominationalism (Steinberg 1965). This process has been facilitated by the fact that authority resides very largely in the individual congregation (Sklare 1955, pp. 40-42). Rabbinical authority has declined as the rabbi’s functions have grown less relevant to modern life. Although Judaism is today essentially a nonconversionist religion, the secularization of Jewry has led to extensive diversification of religious commitment on the part of individual Jews and given modern Judaism some of the characteristics more typical of founded religions.

The problem of authority

All religions have had the problem of enforcing their own practices and eliminating indigenous magical preoccupations. The acceptance of the ethical prescriptions of Buddhism originally implied the cenobitic life, and initially Buddhism lacked organizational precepts for the control of the laity; thus its development as a lay religion depended on political support. Without a theology or a liturgy, Buddhism, in its lay expression, was less protected than most religions from the accretion of indigenous magical traditions; hagiolatrous, idolatrous, and logolatrous tendencies developed, especially in Mahayana Buddhism. Abbots acquired religious and political control of lay populations, most notably in the lamaseries of Tibet.

Christianity, with its strong authority structure, and in the context of an increasingly rational climate of thought, was widely successful in eliminating magical practices and in enforcing religious observance—sometimes, where it has dominated political agencies, by punitive measures. But even Christianity has been less successful in its mission territories; and among the country people of even long-settled Christian areas, and among unacculturated urban groups, magical ideas persist, especially in non-Protestant countries (Siegel 1941; Bastide 1960).

Hierarchy and the priestly function

Religious institutions may attain a high degree of organizational, doctrinal, and ritualistic consistency from the association of religious roles with political or legal roles or in imitation of political structures.

Christian hierarchies

The Christian church, growing up outside the political framework of the Roman Empire but later becoming affiliated to it, evolved an autonomous hierarchy. Its organization withstood the subsequent fragmentation of the previously supporting political structure and in some circumstances assumed political authority. In contrast to the profuse variation evident in Far Eastern religions at local and regional levels, Christianity, in spite of its numerous divisions, appears inherently more monolithic in structure. For example, simultaneous allegiance to Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism has occurred in China and, with the addition of Shinto, in Japan. Among the world’s religions, organization based on a universalistic principle of rigorously exclusive voluntary belief is a characteristic only of Christianity and Islam (Judaism, being ethnically based, is not universalistic).

Christianity inherited exclusiveness from Judaism but soon accepted the universalistic principle of voluntary commitment. Early Christians were organized as self-chosen autonomous congregations of saints, probably under colleges of presbyters. Priestly functions, partially derived from Hebrew sources, developed with presbyters and deacons instead of the Aaronic priests and Levites, according to the Epistle to the Church at Corinth of Pope Clement i (fl. A.D. 96). Whether the early leaders were congregationally chosen or were itinerant apostolic deputies, and what rights congregations had over them are questions which are disputed. Some local leaders, such as Ignatius of Antioch (fl. A.D. 115), claimed considerable eminence and from metropolitan centers acquired authority over surrounding areas. Thus a monarchic type of episcopacy developed. Bishops were only gradually subordinated to the authority of metropolitan centers and finally to the papacy (Telfer 1962). The hierarchy of the imperial state influenced the development of religious hierarchy. Struggles between rival centers, which often espoused mutually heretical doctrines, finally resulted in increased centralization and coordination, the growth of which was also facilitated by the metaphysical doctrine of one universal church, of which particular congregations were seen as localized expressions. Hierarchy thus extended both above and below the episcopal level, and the pope came to appoint men to bishoprics (unless a temporal authority usurped this power) and instituted the metropolitan title legatus natus, which was normally conferred on archbishops as a reinforcement of papal control.

The modern Roman church declares that a bishop has sovereignty in his diocese; that the episcopate is of divine right; that the pope cannot arrogate episcopal rights; and that bishops have not become his instruments. However, it also asserts that the pope, as the universal ordinary, has power over all churches and that bishops owe personal allegiance to the holy see (Rahner 1964; Rahner & Ratzinger 1961; Telfer 1962). The nicety of theological argument cannot conceal the reality of papal power; indeed, the laity as such has no influence in the appointment of bishops in the Roman church. However, in the autocephalous Greek Orthodox church the laity retains vestiges of at least nominal control, although real power is in the hands of the bishops, whose executive functions are vested in an annually appointed synod of 12 of their number under the permanent presidency of the archbishop of Athens (Hammond 1956, chapter 4). In the Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, the religious hierarchy stands above the laity and gives these churches the character of objective, external, and transcendent institutions (Troeltsch [1912] 1931, pp. 331-343; Yinger [1957] 1961, chapter 6).

Islam—a society under law

Although Islamic society was theocratic, the absence of priestly roles meant that hierarchization occurred in its political rather than in its religious institutions, which never acquired autonomy from the political system established in the name of the prophet. Political power was consolidated with religious sanction, toward the achievement of a new integration of society transcending the tribal level (Watt 1961; Levy [1931–1933] 1957, chapter 1). The prophet’s successors, the caliphs (imams), were, in orthodox Sunnite theory, exponents of the divinely inspired law, and their function was to preserve religion and exercise leadership (Ibn Khaldun [1375–1382] 1958, vol. 1). In early Islam caliphs held the office of judge, later delegated, and came to exercise royal authority at certain periods. The Sunnite caliphs enjoyed no sacredness of character; they were never popes, as medieval Christians supposed (Daniel [1960] 1962, p. 225) and as was supposed of the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century. (Some Shi’ite sects regard the caliphate as a divine institution, but their attempts to secure power for the descendants of Ali met with little success: the Fatimids of Egypt were the only important Shi’a caliphs.) Hierarchization occurred in Islam in the administration of the sacred law (sharīah) and not in connection with specifically religious functions.

Islam has always been a community under the law as much as a society with a particular religion. Orthodoxy was determined not by councils but by the consensus (ijmā) of the learned doctors (’ulama.̄) who administered the law within the four interpretative traditions which developed. In the Ottoman Empire, political and religious institutions were one in theory and closely related in fact. Religious functionaries administered education and law, but no autonomous religious organization arose. Distinction between various functionaries never became rigid: the ’ulamā were teachers, preachers, legists, and magistrates (qādī), sometimes interchanging roles. As payment and pensions were increasingly granted to ’ulamā in principal cities, they passed increasingly under centralized executive control. Spiritual affairs, conceived in terms of the sacred law, eventually passed to the supreme jurisdiction of the mufti (jurisconsult) of Istanbul, who, as officially appointed head of the leading school of Islamic law, provided legitimation for the sultan’s authority (Gibb & Bowen 1950–1957, chapter 9).

But even this development did not provide the basis for an independent religious authority structure. The hereditary principle persisted at the fringe of Islamic social structure, in the ranks of the Shārīf (supposed descendants of the prophet), and even in the local office of mufti (an office unlike that of qādī in that it relied on fees for legal consultation and not on a stipend for the discharge of official duties). But since Islam lacked specific priestly functions, the hereditary principle did not bring into being a sacerdotal guild. In all religions, the sacramental element of priestly office appears to be a necessary condition for the development of an independent and centralized religious hierarchy.

In Islam the main factors preventing the development of such a hierarchy appear to have been the restriction which developed on the interpretation of the law; the minimal liturgical character of religious practice and the absence of sacerdotalism; the unrestricted eligibility of all men to perform religious functions; and the establishment of social control through hierarchically organized agents whose functions emphasized the legal rather than the sacred aspects of religiously given law.

Religious administration and polity

If a founded religion is to survive, it must evolve an organization that will outlast its charismatic founder. Max Weber termed this process “the routinization of charisma.” New roles of teacher and legist evolve and are institutionalized. The new functionaries elaborate and codify the prophet’s teachings, and priests, if priestly office exists, superintend the development of rituals and liturgies.

Monks and laymen

These very general characteristics of founded religions should be borne in mind when we compare East and West. Buddhism, for instance, is vested in a religious order, the members of which neither superintend parishes nor serve congregations. Theravāda Buddhism in its pure form makes few concessions to the laity: the true disciple of the Buddha is not the householder, but the monk. Salvation is remote, and complete renunciation of the world is an ideal practically impossible of attainment. Monks perform ceremonials for laymen, and act as objects of that charity by which laymen can accumulate merit; but the meditation in which, ideally, the monk is engaged is a more meritorious activity. “…The Buddhist clergy are not in charge of the laity…. Having retired from the world for self-improvement, the monk expects the layman to come to him” (Wells [1939] 1960, p. 11). The rituals that monks undertake for laymen in Thailand, Ceylon, Burma, and Japan are neither intercessions nor sacramental acts. The hierarchies that have evolved, for example, in Thailand, where Buddhism has been closely associated with the monarchy, are essentially internal to the monastic order itself, even though hierarchs perform state ceremonies (for example, in Thailand), exert political pressure (in Ceylon and Vietnam), or even, as in certain periods in Japan, exercise some political control. In the Theravada countries, lay Buddhist associations have developed, modeled on Western types of organization and, in Ceylon, directly due to the influence of the Theosophists. In Tibet, where monachistic theocracy developed, and where Tantrie magic deeply penetrated Buddhist practice, a religious hierarchy evolved which established la-maism as a distinctive type of Buddhist theocracy. The lamas represented multiple, vicarious, and constantly renewed manifestations of saviorhood in their persons, not by any ordination from above, but by virtue of birth and discovery. Ecclesiastical organization was centered around these manifestations of the Buddhahood, and lamas assumed regulation of the political order. Regulations found in religious writings were intended primarily for monks, and although extended in some measure to the laity, there was no formal code prescribing religious observances for the Tibetan. Monks and lamas did not supervise morals, but offered solace, contact with clairvoyant wisdom, and thaumaturgical power (Ekvall 1964).

The Christian parish

In Christianity, bishops divided their dioceses and delegated their sacerdotal authority; thus local units were established, in each of which a priest served the population. Parish organization was the comprehensive territorial provision of religious facilities and religious control. Parochial cures derived from episcopal divine right, and parish priests were supposed to serve all residents in their district, all of whom had religious obligations. The theoretical assumptions implicit in this ecclesiastical organization depended ultimately on the principle of political support for religious monopoly. Parish organization was transformed once the secular authorities permitted religious diversity and even permitted bishops of different churches to claim spiritual jurisdiction over the same territory. Once this occurred, religious movements became voluntary associations on what was effectively a denominational pattern, even though the traditional churches retained the styles and ecclesiastical theories of the older pattern of organization.


Congregational polity rests on different bases of authority—democratic rather than authoritarian and hierarchic. The religious leader is called by the congregation of the self-chosen. He may be accredited by a seminary or by a college of other ministers, but there is always an assumption of spiritual equality among the believers and political equality in the management of their affairs. Furthermore, the laity may assume sufficient knowledge and divine guidance to resist false teaching. Authority beyond the local level may be ill-defined, even in advanced societies with good systems of communication, although local congregations of those who accept a particular theological position are almost everywhere in some form of loose association. Where religious and political institutions are closely associated (as they were in Islam for much of its history and in seventeenth-century New England Congregationalism), political officials may acquire general superintendence of religious faith and practice.

A necessary condition for congregational autonomy is the absence of sacerdotalism. The religious leader is an administrator, perhaps also a preacher and a pastor. He enjoys neither monopoly nor charisma of office. He may, as in Judaism, acquire enhanced social status by virtue of scholarship or piety, and these may be the demands of the role. All religious roles are achieved rather than ascribed, and there is open recruitment. Where strong differences of education exist between minister and congregation and are reinforced by the establishment of such institutions as seminaries, law schools, and the Islamic divinity school (madrasah), tendencies for ministerial and lay expressions of faith to diverge may be noted. If the religion of the learned becomes too intellectual or formal, popular movements, often reasserting the validity of experiential religion, arise in congregational polities as readily as in church organizations (for example, Hassidism in eighteenth-century Judaism and Sufism in Islam). Alternatively, congregational control often diminishes in practice, and an intellectual leadership may introduce new doctrines and liturgies— a process illustrated in the rise of Unitarianism among Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Synodical government

Presbyterianism is a semicongregational polity in which the synodical authority of ministerial and lay representatives at regional and denominational levels is combined with safeguards to preserve some autonomy for local congregations. In the Church of Scotland a complex structure of checks and balances operates to give maximum democratic representation (Highet 1960). A variant pattern of synodical government was forged, though not without schisms, in English Methodism, but with the balance of authority persisting in the denominational conference. Other modern denominations have adopted the same type of system.

Congregationalism and sacred law

Congregational polity is legitimated by appeal to Holy Scripture as an objective body of law superior to the authority of institutions—such as the Roman church—which claim a monopoly on scriptural interpretation. Congregational groups usually accept a brief creed stating their understanding of the central teachings and requirements of scripture. This is typical of the Protestant demand for “the priesthood of all believers” (that is, a nonsacramental priesthood)—a demand which relies on open access to the Scriptures, widespread education, individual right of comment within a broad interpretative framework, and a democratic polity of the kind established by the Congregationalists and Baptists. However, both of these denominations have a professional ministry, in continuity with historic Christian tradition, and this has permitted division of labor and ministerial education, which has grown increasingly specialized. In the absence of a clear authority structure, the professional minister in congregationalist denominations is subject to acute role conflicts and contradictions of status. Clergy role problems are not of course confined to congregational polities, though they appear to be most acute there. Perhaps because this type of ministry is prevalent in the United States these problems have been the subject of numerous sociological investigations (Fichter 1961, chapter 6; Gustafson 1954; Blizzard 1958).

The most radical congregational groups reject a professional ministry, since they believe that any man may minister to others. In the Methodist church, lay ministry became widely established, though it arose from secular democratic pressures rather than in response to a specific theological orientation. It had been developed earlier among the Quakers; it developed as “mutual ministry” among the Disciples; and in some sects, notably the Plymouth Brethren and the Christadelphians, it has been accompanied by a persistent antiprofessionalism.

Islamic organization

Islam has always manifested the equality of believers, and any sane male adult may lead others—ideally a quorum of 40— in prayer. In Ottoman Islam, various classes of mosque officials arose in the big mosques; the imām, who technically deputized for the caliph, was an ’alim (learned doctor). With him was often associated a preacher and also a khatīb, who delivered two harangues on Fridays; a múazzīn to call the faithful to prayer was an indispensable, but usually unpaid, official. The qādī, mistaken for a bishop by many Christian writers, administered the sharīah, and the muhtasib served as public censor, ensuring among other duties the maintenance of public morality and the upkeep of the mosque (Levy [1931–1933] 1957, pp. 330 ff.; Gibb & Bowen 1950–1957, pp. 95 ff.). In rural areas today, although the mosque is losing many of its extrareligious functions, it is still the center for ceremonies and charitable activities. Such a mosque usually belongs to the community, but it is the regular attenders who elect elders to look after it. The local imām is the spokesman of the ’ulamā, but there are no formal channels of communication, and “the various ’ulamā neither appoint nor discharge village imāms. This responsibility rests finally with the members of the mosque” (Barclay 1964, p. 165). At village level, the imām may get no pay and may have other means of making a living, in much the same way as a parish priest in Greek Orthodoxy. In big city mosques, however, where government or endowment supports religious activities, there is usually a permanent imām.

Religious control of property

Religious organization, even in millenarian sects, involves ownership of property. In the case of Hinduism, the Brahmins initially acted as chaplain—magicians to princes but came increasingly to own, or at least to control, the temples and shrines (Weber 1921). A prebendary system evolved, and members of the priestly class came to acquire property of their own, to which were extended the attributes of sanctity and inalienability. Since Brahmins were a religious stratum and were not hierarchically organized, such property became the property of families or local organizations.

In Western Christianity, by contrast, property came to be owned by a unified church corporation once the Hildebrandine reforms had established a celibate clergy. Indeed, the Roman church, in spite of disendowment in various countries and periods, is one of the largest corporate property owners in the world, even if one leaves out of account its specifically undeployable wealth in the form of church premises and religioartistic assets. This wealth is controlled by specialized agencies which the hierarchy has empowered, and their functions are not open to lay scrutiny. The power of these agencies and the extent to which economic action is dictated by spiritual or political considerations have never been subjected to sociological analysis. The church is a large shareholder in many, especially Italian, enterprises and operates in the capital markets of the world. The invested wealth of the Roman church is thought to be more than $5,000 million.

The Church of England has assets of about $560 million; it has entrusted its financial concerns to a body of commissioners, who operate on the stock market in much the same fashion as other investors. The profits from their operation are used partly for subsidization of clerical stipends, which are a more significant issue for the largely non-celibate Anglican clergy than in the Roman church, from whose celibate clergy more complete allegiance can be commanded, and upon whom it can impress more effectively the virtue of frugality. All of the financial operations of the Church of England are open to parliamentary inquiry.

The absence of hierarchy in other religions, and of a rational financial structure in non-Western societies, has restricted the accumulation of corporate deployable wealth as it has occurred in Christianity, although local religious functionaries have frequently controlled large proportions of local property. Religious premises are often locally controlled, either, as is partially the case in the Church of England, under vested rights of local patrons or through local religious authorities. In the Church of England the right to present priests to “livings” has tended (if we exclude crown and government patronage) to pass increasingly from private to episcopal control (Mayfield 1958; Paul 1964, pp. 195-197). In Islam, local communities are often responsible for mosques, and the local imam may persuade regular attenders to undertake repair work on the mosque. The endowment system—a consequence of the emphasis on almsgiving—became extensive in Islam and of such proportions that some governments have maintained special ministries to supervise the waqf (endowments) which support mosques, especially in the cities (Guillaume [1954] 1961, pp. 178 ff.; Gibb & Bowen 1950–1957, chapter 12; Smith 1957, p. 205).

Protestantism has usually left control of property to local trustees, but denominational control and the centralization of financial administration have been extended. This appears to have gone furthest in connexional bodies, such as the American Methodist church (Muelder 1963, pp. 148 ff.).

Church, sect, and denomination

The designation “church” defines an autonomous corporate institution hierarchically organized and served by a professional priesthood. Churches that conform to all these specifications are found only in Christianity; the structural arrangements of other religions are best referred to as religious institutions.

The concept “sect,” however, has wider application. In a religion which lacks central organization, members who feel themselves to be religiously deprived and who therefore seek new facilities, new activities, and re-estimations of their social worth can usually be accommodated by the ready accretion of beliefs and practices to the dominant tradition. Only where the social and religious status of established functionaries is threatened are such demands likely to be universally resisted; this may be the occasion for the emergence of a sect—that is, a new religious movement which rejects the authority of the dominant religious tradition.

Although sects arise not only from distinct processes of schism, we may refer to a sect whenever the relations between the new movement and the one from which it has seceded are characterized by mutual rejection and exclusion (reserving the term cult for movements in which such exclusiveness is absent). This process occurs most typically where the dominant religion is centrally organized. But even in centralized religions, rejection of sectarian elements may occur piecemeal—witness the gradual rejection of Methodism by the Church of England or Methodism’s own steady development of sectarian features toward the end of Wesley’s life and in the decades following his death. “Sect,” then, is a concept of wider applicability than “church,” even though the sharpest contrast occurs in the case of Christianity (Troeltsch 1912; Brewer 1952; Wilson 1963).


The sect exists in a relationship of tension with the wider society. Over time this tension may diminish, and as this occurs the sect may evolve into a denomination (Niebuhr 1929). This is by no means an inevitable process; it is true only of certain types of sects and is more conspicuous in the United States than in Europe (Wilson 1959). It has also been maintained (Martin 1962) that not all denominations have evolved from sects. Denominationalism is the typical form of religious organization in the pluralist industrial society. The denomination does not claim universal allegiance coterminous with the state, as does the church; it claims less institutional objectivity. Like a sect, it emphasizes voluntary adherence, but it claims no monopoly of truth and demands much less of its adherents in the way of doctrine or morals. As an institutional form it evidences the diminution and compartmentalization of religious influence in industrial society. Even where it inherits the hierarchic authority structure of the church, it offers more lay opportunity in government. Its religious leadership, in contrast with that of most sects, tends to grow more professional; as Paul M. Harrison (1959) has shown, denominations have a tendency to become bureaucratized.


Denominationalism implies a degree of exclusiveness and inner coherence usually lacking in non-Christian religions. Hinduism gives the individual a choice of cults that emphasize a particular style of devotion to one or another deity (Eliot 1921, chapter 25; Wach 1944, pp. 127-130). Christianity has also evolved devotional cults to particular saints within the Roman church and even personal followings for occasional charismatic individuals, but such movements are more fully coordinated with more regular practices and are subjected to established procedures of discipline and superordinate central authority. Centrally organized, stable movements of a nonexclusive type, which are, however, more distinctive than church parties, have also arisen in Protestantism: Moral Re-Armament, Anglo-Israelism, and the Faith Mission are examples (Eister 1950; Wilson 1967).

Monasticism and lay orders

Monasticism, in which high religious commitment was emphasized by the renunciation of property, sexuality, and personal independence, was the very basis of early Buddhism, and it has been of great importance in Christianity, both under the direction of organized orders in the Roman church and in a more diffuse form in the Orthodox churches. However, it is of reduced significance today. Monasticism, the collegium pietatis, and the inner fraternities (for which Wach 1944, pp. 174-186 provides a typology) exist only with the support of the mass of the laity. The maintenance of that support has become an increasing problem for all religions and has tended to direct them from monastic to other patterns of religious commitment. This concern for lay support was, according to Weber ([1921] 1958, pp. 238-240), a principal factor in the transformation of Buddhism from a monastic to a missionary religion.

Among Muslims the development of lay orders (tarīqah) has demonstrated the need for more immediate allegiances and a stronger emotional orientation than the dominantly legalistic and unritualistic monotheism of the faith provides. Evans-Pritchard (1949, chapters 1-3) sees the Sanusiya in Cyrenaica as a reintegrating agency in an otherwise divisive society. Although the tariqah emphasize their orthodoxy, they establish new structural features and superimpose new units of polity, sometimes maintaining their own schools, rituals, and meeting houses. They are not exclusive; members of different tarīqah may, according to H. B. Barclay (1964, p. 170), pray together in the same mosque, and some men may belong to more than one tarīqah. Through the lodges (zawīyah) new local hierarchies are created, which wield effective power often on the hereditary principle; around this hereditary lineage a cenobitic fraternity arises. The order uses religious feeling as the basis for more dynamic forms of social control. The ’ulamā themselves became incorporated in the more orthodox orders and this alliance of orthodoxy with Sufism “supplied [it with] a concrete organization which spread over all ranks of society and found a place in it for every member” (Gibb & Bowen 1950–1957, vol. 1, part II, p. 78). The Muslim orders provide an emotional outlet similar to that afforded by the cults of saints which are a widespread accretion to Islam in north Africa (Gellner 1963).

Religious training and recruitment

The recruitment and training of religious specialists is a field in which very little sociological study has been undertaken. The ascriptive basis of priesthood in traditional Hinduism and Judaism sustained hereditary guilds which monopolized religious functions. Training was thus an apprenticeship in ritual, the mysteries of which were protected by the sanctified social status of its practitioners. In Hinduism the novice was personally subordinated to his teacher’s authority. The diversification of Hindu cults and philosophies meant that the postulant for religious experience (usually of a private, ecstatic nature) need no longer be a Brahman but could learn from the guru of his choice. Buddhist monks maintain a novitiate with open access and egress; classic Buddhism expects no more of the monastic novice than that he should learn the dharma, and accept ten precepts which call for a somewhat more exacting renunciation of worldly attachments than that expected of the laity. The ordained monk rehearses the 227 rules of monastic life. The Buddhist monk of Ceylon and other Theravada countries is seeking his own salvation, although he does set an example for others and provides them with opportunities of acquiring merit (Ames 1964). He is not a priest, takes no vows, administers no sacraments, and is not prevented from leaving the order at will: “he has no other sanctity than attaches to his own good living” (Coomaraswamy [1916] 1928, pp. 154-155). In Theravāda Buddhism, particularly as it is practiced in Burma and Thailand, it has been usual for boys to spend some time in a monastery as part of their regular education (Eliot [1921] 1954, vol. 3, p. 69; Wells 1939; Nash 1965).

In Christianity, clerical education has evolved along increasingly rational lines, but a sense of vocation (or “calling”) is regarded as crucial to occupational selection and training. The Roman church not only stresses the sense of vocation but also presents training for the priesthood as a gradual induction into mysteries which culminates in the acquisition of priestly charisma. Throughout Christianity priesthood is conceived as a lifelong commitment, and ordination is a permanent investment of sacerdotal authority. At the episcopal level, the Roman, Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Anglican churches emphasize apostolic succession. Scholarly education has, however, steadily grown as a requisite of clerical office in Christianity, and there has been, especially in Protestantism, a tendency to reduce the emphasis on the exclusively mystical aspects of clerical functions. As universities have been secularized, clerical education has tended to shift to theological institutions. These are conducted, even within Protestantism, with an intensification of moral rigor that often approaches the monastic, thus achieving a more intense socialization to the clerical role (Fichter 1961). In the Greek Orthodox church only a small percentage of the parish priests have more than a few years of any sort of education, though recently a number of Orthodox seminaries have been established.

Bureaucratization in the modern church

Administrative centralization has been a conspicuous process in contemporary Christianity. As movements have sought to take advantage of modern techniques and procedures for promoting their mission, they have been obliged to adopt bureaucratic and professionalized organization. The inappropriateness of bureaucracy for the diffuse, affective, and collectivity-oriented values of faith has not prevented its adoption by church organizations (see Etzioni 1961, part I; Paul 1964; Wilson 1965).

The tensions of the situation have been experienced most acutely by those denominations with strong theological dispositions to congregational polity and lay control. Congregationalism itself was basically anticlerical rather than specifically anti-professional, but the shift of decision making from local to denominational level and the development of departmental specialists with far-reaching powers have given rise to fear of a return of an episcopacy. Theological considerations frequently sanctify particular organizational forms or proscribe certain institutional arrangements. This is most evident in the case of sects (Wilson 1967); however, the same dogmatic support underlies church organization, and, though less uncompromisingly, that of denominationalism (see, for instance, Harrison 1959). The analysis of the relationship of ideology and institutional arrangements still awaits the attention of sociologists of religious organization.

Bryan R. Wilson

[Directly related are the entriesReligion; Religious Observance; Religious Specialists; Sects And CultsOther relevant material may be found in the articles onBuddhism; Christianity; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; Social Movements; and in the biographies ofTroeltsch; Weber, Max.]


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