H.R. Niebuhr (1929) was the first sociologist to distinguish between a church and a denomination. His distinction was based on a study of religion in the U.S.A.
Denominations share some, but not all of the features of churches.
Examples of denominations include the Methodists, the Pentecostals and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
According to Neibuhr, denominations have about 6 characteristics:
- Like churches, denominations draw members from all sections of society: they are inclusive.
- Like churches, denominations have formal organisations and are hierarchically organised with a bureaucratic structure.
- There tend to be several denominations in a society, so they do not have universal appeal
- Denominations do not claim a monopoly on truth.
- Unlike churches, a denomination does not identity with the state and believes in the separation of church and state.
- Some denominations place more restrictions on their members: for example the Methodists and the Pentecostals.
Steve Bruce suggests that denominations have become more important in society with the rise of religious pluralism.
Criticisms of the ‘concept’ of the denomination
The concept may be too broad to be useful. There is disagreement over whether certain religious organisations should be classified as sects or denominations.
- Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
- Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book