H. Richard Niebuhr
H. Richard Niebuhr (The Social Sources of Denominationalism, 1929) popularized the origin of sect groups following the work of Max Weber. Simply put, the standard religious group (in christianity) is the Church. Perceived problems in churches lead groups of people to leave, and form their own groups to renew the churches. Initially, the new renewalist group is a sect. In time, processes of routinization and institutionalization predict the sect will become a church. Most people use more common terms, the denomination to describe the institutional church groups, and the sect to describe the recent and less formal groups.
Church vs. Sect Characteristics
Churches involve roles and statuses that are ascribed and sects have roles and statuses that are achieved. Churches are born into, while sects are joined. Donald Durnbaugh coined the term believers’ church to describe the sect group more generally. Sects are known for producing ethical rigour or having high standards of behavior. Many children of sectarians either do not join, they leave, or they go through the initiation, usually adult believers’ baptism, and join. These kind of boundaries, if maintained, can keep the group different enough to continue. However, it is more likely that if the group survives, the early experiences of persecution and isolation will be replaced by contacts and interchange with the larger society and the group members will experience personal successes of various types and be welcomed into the larger social group. This, quickly leads to compromises with the larger society over social ethics and social mobility or success.
Because churches reproduce largely through reproduction of the family, entry is through baptism at the time of birth. In time, ascribed differences in the larger society, related to family of origin, such as social class, race and ethnicity, and even who can lead are fairly rigid. The sect, in theory, opens up the opportunity structure, since new members must show signs of renewal and be accepted into the group. Thus, the sect is by definition outwardly evangelistic, and requires a high cost to overcome the boundaries to membership. The church baptizes everyone in the family, or even a region, but by definition the mass is not required, nor is it considered possible, to uphold unusually high standards.
Niebuhr (Social Sources, p. 24-25) felt that the denominations failed by promoting warfare like they had promoted slavery previously. In contrast, this notion that new sect groups in the early 20th century were much more likely to be pacifist, following Jesus’s teachings in the sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7), drives my research.