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The sociological phenomenon of “church” — from the Greek word “ecclesia” — has been theoretically discussed from Emile Durkheim to Thomas O’Dea to Peter Berger. Durkheim’s seminal text — The Elementary Forms of Religious Life — defines church as ”a society whose members are united because they imagine the sacred world and its relations with the profane world in the same way and because they translate this common representation into identical practices” (1995: 41); this definition, thereby, coincides with religion. In other words, church is a defined group of individuals who profess similar religious worldviews, encompassed as either a small group of individuals — i.e., a neighborhood place of worship — or as an entire people group throughout the world — i.e., Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, etc.
Building upon the scholarly work of both theorists and theologians, Thomas O Dea signifies church as separate from ”sects and ”mysticisms. Specifically, church contains the following attributes: membership designated at birth; formal administration of ”grace” — i.e., salvation; demographic representation of social locations; disposition to convert others; and ability to ”adjust to and compromise with the existing society and its values and institutions” (1966: 68). Sects are differentiated from churches based on their separatism and ”withdrawal from or defiance of (p. 68) institutional norms from the greater society. Additionally, mysticisms are differentiated from churches due to emphasis on individualized religious responses within smaller groups of people. Churches, sects, and mysticisms, however, historically appear in response to each other, O Dea argues, from at least Christianity s conception.
Regarding the ”institution of church, Berger suggests that the Christian church, specifically, ”represents a very unusual case of the institutional specialization of religion, that is, of an institution specifically concerned with religion in counterposition with all other institutions of society” (1969: 123). The Christian religion legitimates the sacred/profane duality, emphasizing the existence of church as a sociological phenomena.
- Berger, P. L. (1969) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Doubleday, New York.
- Durkheim, E. (1995) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Free Press, New York.
- O’Dea, T. F. (1966) The Sociology of Religion. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.