Types of Religious Organisation: The Denomination

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.

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According to Neibuhr, denominations have about 6 characteristics:

  1. Like churches, denominations draw members from all sections of society: they are inclusive.
  2. Like churches, denominations have formal organisations and are hierarchically organised with a bureaucratic structure.
  3. There tend to be several denominations in a society, so they do not have universal appeal
  4. Denominations do not claim a monopoly on truth.
  5. Unlike churches, a denomination does not identity with the state and believes in the separation of church and state.
  6. 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.

 

Sources

  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book
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Types of Religious Organisation: The Church

Ernst Troeltsch (1931) used the term ‘church’ to refer to a large, hierarchically organised¬† religious institutions with an inclusive, universal membership, typically with close links to the state.

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According to Troeltsch* Churches have about 5 characteristics:

  1. Churches tend to have very large memberships, and inclusive memberships.
  2. Churches tend to claim a monopoly on the truth.
  3. Churches have large, bureaucratic, hierarchical structures
  4. Churches have professional, paid clergy
  5. Churches tend to be closely tied to the state.

Criticisms of the ‘concept’ of the church

Steve Bruce (1996) suggests that the above definition of church may have been true in pre-modern Christian societies, but ever since the Reformation, and especially since the increase of religious pluralism, this type of definition of a ‘church’ no longer applies to organisations which formally call themselves churches in modern societies – organisations such as the Church of England.

There are several examples of ‘churches’ which do not fit the above definition:

  • The Church of England does not have universal membership.
  • Many churches today do not claim a monopoly on the truth, they tend to be tolerant of other faiths.
  • The links between the church and the state are not as strong as they once were.

It seems then, that the only ways in which modern churches resemble Troeltsch’s definition lies in their organisational structure.

Sources

  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book