Churches, Denominations, Sects & Cults
World religions distinguish themselves by their beliefs in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers considered to have created and to govern the universe. Many of these religions are further distinguished internally by various subdivisions that differ on issues of orthodoxy, theology, and practice. For the purposes of this article, the discussion will focus primarily on Christianity. Christian denominations comprise a large group of congregations united under a common statement of faith. In general, Christian denominations are aligned with the Eastern (or Orthodox) Church, the Western (or Catholic) Church, or are considered Protestants. In addition, many religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, also have numerous sects and cults. Sects are distinct subgroups united by common beliefs or interests within a larger group. Cults comprise groups that deviate sharply from and strongly reject the prevailing culture, are dominated by a charismatic leader, require total commitment, include a comprehensive ideology, and are aggressive and often manipulative in efforts to recruit new members. Understanding the differences between these sub-groupings can help social scientists understand the role of religion on society and its effects on the worldview of the people in that culture.
Keywords Church; Congregation; Cult; Denomination; Fundamentalism; Religion; Schism; Sect
Sociology of Religion: Churches, Denominations, Sects,
Terms used to refer to various groups and subgroups within religions can be puzzling even to an insider. Even the very definition of religion may be confusing, for they take such varied forms across cultures. To illustrate one difficulty in defining religion, one needs only look toward Buddhism. Most Buddhist sects do not acknowledge the existence of a creator god or any other supreme being, for that matter. Siddhartha Gautama, most commonly referred to as the Buddha, and the other buddhas are not considered deities but as teachers.
Religions may be defined as the personal or institutional systems that are grounded in a belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers considered to have created and/or to govern the universe. However, the nature of this supernatural power, how one should act toward the it, and other belief systems surrounding the supernatural are open to debate and create the distinctions between different religions. In addition, belief in a common deity alone is not sufficient to define religion. For example, while Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all are based on the belief of one god and all trace their roots back to Abraham, these three belief systems are considered to be different religions because of their beliefs on the nature their deity and what that deity requires of them.
Even within a particular religion, there may be various types of subgroups that differentiate their members from one another based on their beliefs about their deity or on what that deity requires of them. For example, Judaism comprises several different subgroups, including Orthodox, Reformed, and Conservative, which differ on the strictness with which they interpret the Torah and Talmudic teachings. Similarly, Islam includes various subgroups including the Sunnites and Shiites. Christianity also has a diversity of subgroups, and a complete discussion is well outside the limitations of this article. In general, however, one can argue that Christianity can be categorized into three main groups: the Western or Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern or Orthodox Church, and various Protestant denominations.
For the purposes of brevity, this article will use the monotheistic religions of the Western world as examples. These examples are used first because these are the traditions most likely to be familiar to our readership, and second because of their relative similarity to each other. For a detailed description of the variety of world religions see Huston Smith's World Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions.
The Christian Church
Part of the confusion about the Christian Church arises from the term church itself. Although the term church is usually used to refer to the building in which Christians meet for worship, the term includes several meanings. When capitalized, the term can refer to the Christian religion in general (as in the Christian Church or the Church), a major subcategory of the Christian Church (e.g., the Eastern Church, the Western Church, or the Catholic Church), or to a specific denomination (e.g., the Lutheran Church or the Baptist Church). The capitalized term can also be used as part of the name of a particular congregation (e.g., St. Mary's Catholic Church or the First Baptist Church). When used in lower case, the term can be used to refer to a building in which a particular congregation meets (e.g., "the church roof needs to be repaired") or to the congregation that meets together for religious services (e.g., "after Sunday services, there will be a church-wide meeting"). The term is also used to refer to a worship or other service held by a congregation (e.g., "I go to church on Sunday mornings"). In addition, the term church can be used to differentiate between ecclesiastical power and secular power (e.g., the separation of church and state). The term church is generally used only in the Christian religion and not Judaism or other religions.
To understand the differences between subgroups within religions, the Christian Church serves as a good example. Originally, when Christianity was founded in the first century, there was no differentiation between branches, denominations, sects, or the like: It was all one church. This was often referred to in church documents as the catholic and apostolic church; the use of the lowercase word "catholic" denoted that it was universal. However, with time, differentiations began to appear in the various churches due to language, cultural, and political differences. Although beleaguered, the Roman empire survived in the East for another thousand years. However, it frequently encountered secular intervention in church matters. In the West, however, ecclesiastical leaders wielded political power. Because of growing cultural differences between East and West, decisions made in the Eastern Church were often made without the input or participation of the West. As a result, permanent schisms arose. In particular, a number of theological differences arose between Eastern and Western churches. In 1054, the Great Schism occurred, marking a permanent difference between the Eastern Church and the Western Church.
While referred to as the Great Schism, this was not the only schism in the Christian Church. In 1517, Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk) wrote ninety-five theses intended to open dialogue with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church over matters of what he perceived as corruption at the highest levels. He nailed this document to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg, Germany. Rather than opening dialogue as Luther had intended, this action precipitated the Protestant Reformation and the eventual proliferation of various denominations within the Christian Church. According to the Handbook of Denominations in the United States (1995), there are currently approximately two hundred Christian denominations in the United States. A denomination comprises a large group of congregations united under a common statement of faith and organized under a single legal and administrative hierarchy. The Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches, for example, are all considered separate Christian denominations. To be considered a denomination and not a separate religion, the groups need to adhere to the same general tenets of the religion. The fact that they are separate denominations signifies that they disagree on one or more items of theology, doctrine, or practice that are not central tenets of the faith.
In addition, there can be denominational subgroups within a broad denominational line. For example, according to the Handbook of Denominations, there are twenty-seven distinct denominations of Baptists, eleven distinct denominations of Lutherans, eleven Methodist denominations, and nine Presbyterian denominations. Frequently, these splits occur over matters of theology. However, this is not always true. For example, one of the reasons that the Southern Baptist Convention broke off from the main body of Baptists in 1845 was over the political issue of slavery. To complicate matters further, whether a group of churches constitutes a denomination or not can be a debatable matter. For example, the Independent Fundamental Churches of America consider themselves to be nondenominational but are listed as a denomination (and so considered by many others) in the Handbook of Denominations.
The Creation of Denominations: Theological or Political?
The reasons for religious groups splintering into multiple denominations can be political, theological, or a combination of both. The breaking of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church during the time of Henry VIII, for example, was done largely for political reasons revolving around Henry's needs to produce a male heir and the primacy of the papacy in its ability to keep Henry from divorcing his wife whom he believed to be infertile. On the other hand, the current controversy in the worldwide Episcopalian Church over the ordination of openly gay priests and bishops is one of theology and disagreement over the interpretation of the Christian scriptures. Similarly, the split of Lutherans and...
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