Lec. 11 (supplement): Types of Religious Organization

Church, Sect, & Mystic*



From Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Trans. Olive Wyon. University of Chicago Press Phoenix Edition, 1981 [1911]; see esp. vol. I, pp. 328-82 & vol. II, Conclusion


  1. Church
    1. organic-body of Christ
    2. a positive taken-for-grantedness
    3. hierarchical, even elitist
    4. role models—saints, priests, teachers
    5. partial willingness to accept the world as it is in hopes
    6. of transforming it

    7. potential for authoritarianism
    8. danger of being coopted by powers of world
    9. can mobilized tremendous resources of resistance
  1. Sect (dominant mode of American Christianity)
    1. voluntary associational style (no organic claim on members)
    2. individual has priority over church, society is secondary
    3. draws a sharp line between members & others
    4. saints & reprobates

    5. anti-elitist, insists on priesthood of all believers
    6. tendency toward legalism
    7. primarily lower income & less educated groups
    8. tempted toward withdrawal from world
    9. fragile organizational structure
    10. emphasis on purity leads to splits
    11. though potentially critical of world, sects often have been
    12. congenial to capitalism

    13. can play into liberal drive to privatize & depoliticize religion
  1. Mystical Type (e.g., Ann Hutchison, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman)
    1. has become a major form in late 20th cent.
    2. not necessarily mystical in traditional sense
    3. "spiritual" vs. "religious"
    4. rooted in the NT, esp. Johannine writings.
    5. radicalizes & almost absolutizes religious individualism of
    6. sect

    7. class appeal opposite that of sect: prosperous & well-educated
    8. lacks social discipline
    9. common among those sitting in conventional pews
    10. many mystic types never go to church


*Troeltsch’s typology is obviously biased and makes most sense in the modern Christian West. There are, however, parallels in other religious traditions and not only in the modern West. The point is that if you recognize the limits of this typology it still may illuminate social processes, including non-religious ones such as sectarian-like developments in political organizations.