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“Religion in Society, a Sociology of Religion” by Ronald Johnstone Essay


The most interesting aspect of the Johnstone text was Part 3, which talked about the church, sect, and denomination continuum. This aspect was intriguing because it offers an explanation concerning why Christianity has so many divisions. Individuals ascribe to the values and beliefs in a certain group, yet they may not understand the history behind their group. The book places the matter in context and assists Christians in knowing where they belong.


Johnstone (88) first states that the single most differentiating aspect between religious organizations is their mode of membership. If one wants to know whether they belong to a sect or a church, they must determine how they became members of the organization. If one was born into the group, then one is likely to belong to a church; however, if one converted into the organization, then that it is a sect.

Max Weber was the pioneer of these religious dichotomous, and he established some of the features that distinguish the groups. It is this propensity to convert people into the group that makes sects popular among members of the lower classes (Johnstone 88). The text was particularly insightful in demystifying the term sect. Many people often assume that sects are made up of overzealous and brainwashed persons. However, this book illustrated that popular understandings of the term are misguided.

It was particularly interesting to learn about the sect as a religious group. Johnstone (88) explains that sects are less structured than churches. Adherents believe in a spontaneous expression of religion and often include followers in decision-making processes. They are small in size and emphasize active participation in worship. Membership is rigorous and intensely scrutinized. The spontaneity is depicted through leadership requirements as well.

Sect followers place more precedence on charisma and commitment to one’s organization rather than education. Additionally, they espouse the purity of religious doctrine. Many of them dwell on other-worldly concerns. It is this inclination that assists in fully understanding such a religious organization. After reading the textbook, one can trace the intensity of the sect to its focus on the New Testament and the Early Christian Church. Since much has changed since the days of the New Testament church, it is often difficult to follow everything they did to the letter. Society gives sect members a radical label because their insistence on this idealism makes them impractical. The focus on personal effort stems from this inclination, as well.

When one ascribes to a church, the organization often claims universality within its society. Therefore, members of the group regard themselves as citizens. In most circumstances, churches have a monopoly within a state, and they have close ties with secular institutions (Johnstone 89). While sects are highly amorphous, churches are bureaucratic and employ the division of labor. Their religious leaders must be ordained after undergoing a rigorous educational process.

Churches grow through birth, in that new members are born into the institution. Diversity is also highly prevalent in the church. The text was highly useful in clarifying the real meaning of a church because one realizes that greater power rests on institutions rather than individual spirituality. One also realizes that the church is willing to compromise because its institutionalism is unquestionable (Lewis 235). If the emphasis was on individuals, then compromise would have been more difficult. However, because it is the institution that remains resolute, then followers are willing to accommodate their inadequacy.

Denominations are a merger between churches and sects because they mediate between the exclusiveness of the sect and the universality of the church. In denominations, participants accept the legitimacy of another religious group(s). This explains why denominations attract members of the middle class as well as the upper class. Denominations also have a good relationship with the state, although they do not claim universality like churches.

Johnstone (91) affirms that one is less likely to find spontaneous worship in these institutions. Leaders must also go through rigorous educational preparation before leading these organizations. Members are allowed to have limited participation as the institutions acknowledge the prevalence of competing demands. Denominations often grow through birth but also accept membership through conversion.

Part 3 of the text illustrates that these various divisions are ways of resolving conflicts. Some groups may choose to specialize, as is the case with denominations, or divide into various entities. Others may withdraw from a church, spearhead charismatic movements, and engage in missionary societies. However, some may embrace religious inactivity altogether. When a division occurs, members of the group form several groups of the same type. For instance, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists are all elements of the protestant church. Alternatively, the Lutheran Church was divided into Evangelical Lutheran Churches, North American Lutheran, and Mission for Christ Lutherans (Johnstone 91).

The above divisions emanate from conflict, but sects often stem from disagreements over doctrinal issues. Sometimes sects could be interested in preserving traditional values or identities. Many followers may leave the church if they feel that it is not faithful to the original Christian doctrine. They often get frustrated by the mediated grace that is inherent in the church. Some of them may want direct access to grace, without the sacraments, through their personal effort.

They often feel a sense of immediacy in individualizing worship. Usually, these challenges are amalgamated by social, race, economic or ethnic challenges. Most times, sects will compensate for their low social status by focusing on religious matters. Several sects have advocated for poverty as quality of grace. It separates them from the world, which emphasizes material things. Johnstone (93) explains how most sects cater to excluded members of society because the culture has ignored them.

It may be regarded as a way of compensating for a certain type of deprivation, such as economic or social. This analysis in the book is highly insightful because it shows why many sects emphasize otherworldliness. They stay disengaged from the world because society has also neglected them. This textbook was useful in showing that sects meet a certain need. They target persons who have not gotten along well with the state. Consequently, many of them require fewer cases of intervention (Partridge, 138).

Johnstone’s explanations are essential in understanding why sects struggle with continuity. Idealist tendencies always tend to work when groups are small, but as they increase, then the concept becomes untenable. The author explains that at the beginning of the formation of a sect, one is likely to experience high levels of consensus between the members. At this phase, members are not accommodating and insist on rigorous commitment levels.

This assertion illustrates that sects lack universalism. They think of the wider church as a collapsed institution, so they are unlikely to consider them. Johnstone’s explanations were useful in pointing out how personal spirituality insects go hand in hand with intolerance. However, as sects grow, it becomes difficult for them to enforce intense consensus. As such, they will exhibit greater tolerance and acceptance of subgroups (Johnstone 96).

The growing sect also needs plenty of organization and coordination. Because of this, some activities will be scheduled, and commitment will decrease. This means that members may reduce; sometimes, this could widen the gap between the elite and the others. Greater expansion within the sect eventually leads to a crisis of legitimacy. People will begin to question where their true legitimacy lies. They may wonder if it is in the hands of the leaders, a doctrine, the bible, or one such aspect. Whenever the sect finds solutions to these problems, it narrows down prospects for innovation or spontaneity (Johnstone 98).

As the sect continues to increase in number and after answering the above questions, then greater institutionalization will arise. Since charisma cannot be handed down from leader to leader, then the organization will establish norms for succession as well as the qualification needed for leadership. As a consequence, bureaucracy will set in, and leaders will be more officeholders than radicals. Through these assertions in Johnstone’s text, one can place the need for constant renewal of ideas in context. Sects usually start from a radical and literal interpretation of the bible. However, as time progresses and the institution grows, then a need for alteration of these ideals to contain modern developments will become inevitable (Loader & Alexander 3).

Johnstone gives a very intriguing explanation concerning how social status changes in a growing sect. In the beginning, these members may possess equal status in their institution. However, because growth requires the use of buildings and money, then members of the lower status will defer leadership to persons of higher status. As a consequence, the members of the higher status will adopt conservative social standards and exert them among the followers.

Group members of low status will also find that their social mobility is limited. Because of this, even more, conservativeness pervades the institution. The higher the level of wealth in the church, the lower the followers’ commitment to religion. Riches increase anger, pride, and other vices associated with worldliness increase as more people become wealthy. Nonetheless, riches are an inevitable part of growth within a religious institution. Therefore, it is quite difficult to sustain religious revival (Johnstone, 99).

Sects then get to the established phase where they contain elements of being a sect and a denomination. They still possess some radical elements but they are still accommodative and willing to make compromises. At this level, sects have the option of turning into a denomination. Conversely, they may remain an established sect or they may disappear into oblivion (Clarke 36).

The textbook also assists one in understanding the difference between a sect, church or denomination. It is evident that all groups differ from each other on the basis of the tensions they have with the outside world. In fact, Finke and Stark (41) explain this matter quite clearly. Religious organizations do not operate in isolation; they are part of a social-cultural environment. However, the degree to which a religious group maintains practices, values and beliefs that align with their environments will determine whether it is a sect or church. The measure of tension between religious organizations and environments in churches is low but it is quite high in sects.

The text also assists one in understanding why churches have more material wealth than sects. Johnstone has elaborated that churches are highly comfortable with society. This means that members of society can participate in the activities of a church and feel comfortable with it. Since they are at ease with the church’s values, then they can contribute to it financially or materially (Dawson 91). Conversely, sects often espouse their delineation from the rest of society.

Their preachers often talk about the corruption and why members need to act differently. Such tensions will push away the rest of society and will minimize their propensity to contribute financially to those institutions. Furthermore, the isolation inherent in the church means that it has weak political power. The comfort with which church members have with the state makes them politically powerful.

On the flipside, the text may also assist one to comprehend why sects exhibit high growth levels at their earlier stages. Iannaccone (1183) explains that sects may seem strong because of their strictness. When a religious group is strict, it eliminates free riders who often do not commit or participate in their activities. Additionally, it causes them to identify with the collective endeavors of the groups. This eliminates those who would otherwise have done nothing for the institution and incorporates those who do so.


Prior to reading the chapters on sects and church continuums, one would attach negative connotations to sects. However, the text book was enlightening in the sense that it provided a rationale for people’s practices. All religious institutions emanate from the need to meet a certain need, so followers will ascribe to it depending on how well it fits in with their situation.

Works Cited

Clarke, Peter. New religions in global perspective. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Dawson, Lorna. Cults and new religious movements. Oxford & Malden: MA. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Print.

Finke, Roger & Rodney Stark. The churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and losers in our religious economy. NY: Prentice, 1992. Print.

Iannaccone, Laurence. “Why strict churches are strong.” AJS 99.5(1994): 1180-1211. Print.

Johnstone, Ronald. Religion in society, a sociology of religion. NY: Pearson, Prentice-Hall, 2007. Print.

Lewis, James. The Oxford handbook of new religious movements. New York. Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Loader, Colin & Jeffrey Alexander. “Max Weber on churches and sects in North America: An Alternative path toward rationalization.” Sociological Theory 3.1(1985): 1-6. Print.

Partridge, Christopher. New religions: A guide, new religious movements, sects and alternative spiritualities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

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