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Levels of Classification of Faith Groups

This document describes the terms and levels of classification useful in classifying faith groups taxonomically. The basis for this classification is "what groups are a subset of what other groups." Answering this question results in a branching hierarchy. There are other types of classification, based on such criteria as the size of a group, level of social acceptability, level of political power, theology, number and nature of deity, history, etc. These criteria have nothing to do with the classification scheme described here.

Functional taxonomic definitions for the following words will be discussed below:
Taxonomic classification schemes are usually based primarily on historical descendance. In such a scheme, all Methodist groups would be grouped together, because they are derived from the original Methodist movement. The problem with strictly historical classification schemes is that they end up grouping denominations together which share a common ancestry, but which are now quite different. One reason there are multiple branches of Methodism, Presbyterianism, Baptists, Lutheranism, etc., is that once-unified groups had such strong internal differences in viewpoint over one or more issues that a number of people within the group felt they must formally leave and create a separate denomination (or sect, church, etc.).

Be aware that the taxonomic classification described in this document is distinct from the traditional sociological method of categorizing religious groups as churches, sects or cults (based on the relative degree of separation from or identification with the local majority culture). Note that most journalists, writers and academic researchers no longer use the unmodified term "cult", because of its association with pejorative, non-functional meanings:
"Churches" are the large denominations characterized by their inclusive approach to life and their indentification with the prevailing culture. In the United States, the churchly denominations would include such groups as the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church... Groups that have broken away from the churchly denominations are termed "sects." They tend to follow the [churches] in most patterns but are more strict in doctrine and behavioral demands placed upon members and emphasize their separation and distinctiveness from the larger culture... Typical sects [include]... Quakers and Mennonites... pentecostals... Sects such as the fundamentalist Christian groups have argued for a stringent orthodoxy in the face of the doctrinal latitude allowed in most larger church bodies... While most sects follow familiar cultural patterns to a large extent "cults" follow an altogether different religious structure, one foreign and alien to the prevalent religious communities. Cults represent a force of religious innovation within a culture. In most cases that innovation comes about by the transplantation of a religion from a different culture by the immigration of some of its members and leaders. Thus during the twentieth century, Hinduism and Buddhism have been transplanted to America. In sociological terms, Hindu and Buddhist groups are, in America, cults. Cults may also come about through religious innovation from within the culture. [Source: Institute for the Study of American Religion.]

It is increasingly common today to see classification schemes which are based not on historical ties but on current organizational affiliation or doctrinal similarity. Scholars recognize that the most profound religious and cultural differences among American Protestants are not between traditional denominational divisions, such as Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, etc., but between Liberals and Conservatives. lists data for all groups side by side. But faith groups are divided and subdivided into various levels of classification. Most people will fall into more than one group.

For instance, an individual in the United States may identify herself as "Christian" in a general survey. She is probably aware that her church is quite different from some Christians. She is a Protestant; she has Catholic neighbors who she knows are Christians, but a different kind of Christian. She may explain she is a Presbyterian when telling her coworkers what church she goes to. If she is active in a congregation, she can probably identify a specific religious body (or "denomination"), such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

1. This person's religion is Christianity.

2.    She is part of the Protestant branch of Christianity.

3.       She is Presbyterian. Presbyterianism is a denominational family within Protestantism.

4.          The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the religious body (or denomination) she belongs to.

5.             Finally, the Oakview Presbyterian Church is the congregation she attends.

There may be other levels of division between the religious body (denomination) and congregation levels. These include "diocese", "region", and "stake." These levels of division vary widely between faith groups and are rarely of any sociological or theological significance. They are simply administrative jurisdictions.

The listings rarely identify whether a particular religious group is a religion, religious body, denomination, branch, etc. It is expected that researchers using as a source of adherent statistics are already familiar with the basic organizational nature of their research subject.


For the purposes of taxonomic classification, a "religion" is a group of people and traditions which share a historical background and usually some doctrinal, cultural and ritual similarities. OCRT defines religion and then names examples they would include under this definition: "Any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, and a philosophy of life. Thus we would include Agnosticism, Atheism, conservative Christianity, Humanism, Islam, Judaism, liberal Christianity, Native American Spirituality, Wicca and other Neopagan traditions as religions."

Major religions are never completely unified or monolithic. They can always be broken down into subgroups such as branches, denominations, schools, movements, sects, etc.

From a historical point of view, today's major religions may have emerged from other major religions. The point at which a faith group is no longer considered a sect or division of an older religion, and becomes a religion in its own right can be a controversial one. But there are many groups which scholars generally agree are "religions." For instance, few people today would still call Christianity a Jewish cult or sect. Other major religions include Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Jainism.

The other traditions most often included in lists of "major world religions," but which are also often left out of such lists are Baha'ism (left out because they're such a new tradition or because they are erroneously termed an Islamic sect), Zoroastrianism, Shinto (both left out for being too small or isolated), Confucianism and Taoism (both left out for being ethical systems rather than religions, and because they command the exclusive allegiance of very few adherents who call themselves "Confucianists" or "Taoists").

In each religion there are a few proponents who, in order to differentiate their religion from others, have advanced the idea that their particular religion is not, in fact, a religion at all. Individual Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc. have all done this. (Among Christians, the Calvary Chapel denomination is known for advancing this argument.) In doing so, these commentators forget that the word "religion" has broad meaning and does not imply anything specific or negative about those faith traditions which are generally recognized as being religions. This wordplay is a marketing practice and of no sociological, spiritual, or theological interest. Most religious scholars recognize that there are indeed profound differences between various religions, but they do not feel it undermines their own tradition to use a simple label which allows them to compare their own spiritual tradition to others.

The word "religion" is also used in a generic sense, not applied to a specific belief system or philosophy. (See, for example, various quotes about religion from Such usage, along with commentary about what constitutes "true religion" or "true spirituality" may be useful in a variety of settings, but has no application in taxonomic classification.

A branch is a broad sub-division of a religion. Major branches of the major world religions, and their relative sizes, are listed on's Major Branches by Adherents page.

Denominational Family

A denominational family is a level of classification smaller than a religion but larger than a denomination or religious body. The term is primarily of Christian usage. Typically it reflects a group of now separate denominations which were at one time a single movement or religious body. After initial periods of schism and division, or geographical separation, various religious bodies within the same denominational family typically form alliances, conferences, or other joint groups for consultation and sharing of resources. Examples include the Baptist World Alliance, World Lutheran Federation, and World Methodist Council.

Although in some denominational families the majority of religious bodies within the family now consult together or are united in one form or another, a denominational family is not the same thing as an alliance. There are generally dissenting groups which have no formal ties to other bodies, but which remain linked historically.

The word "denomination" is frequently used interchangeably with "denominational family," as in "the Baptists are one of America's largest denominations." But this usage can be confusing because "denomination" is used more often to refer to distinct religious bodies.

Religious Body (Denomination)

A religious body is an identifiable group of people which is the primary focus of membership and religious activity. Religious bodies are often incorporated or otherwise officially registered with governmental bodies. A religious body typically has a membership roster. In government publications, religious/church "affiliation" often refers to officially belonging to a religious body (or a congregation, which in turn is part of a religious body or organization). They often have their own periodicals and publications. A religious body has an administration and organization unique to itself, responsible for governing or serving or answering to (as the case may be) only its members.

Religious bodies are frequently called denominations, which is not incorrect, but can be less precise because the word "denomination" is often used to refer to an entire denominational family, whereas usage of the term "religious body" is fairly standard.

It is not unusual to see a denominational family such as all Presbyterian religious bodies described as a single denomination ("Presbyterian Church"), but this is not the most common current usage of the term denomination, and it obscures the fact that various Presbyterian groups are quite different from each other and governed independently.

Religious bodies and denominational families are both sometimes called "confessions."


Based on where people live and/or where they choose to attend services, they are usually members of a specific congregation such as the "Oakview Presbyterian Church" or the "Mesquite Mother of God parish" or the "Houston 5th Ward."

A congregation is the main level of fellowship and association with fellow adherents of a faith. Congregations typically meet together regularly, usually weekly. Most congregations have a leader or set of leaders, services for members, and expectations of the congregants.

Other terms used are parish (Catholic), ward (Latter-day Saints), synagogue (Jewish), branch, cell, chapter, reading group. Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and others may belong to a temple. A Muslim may formally be associated with a particular mosque. A Sikh may associate with a gurdwara. Wiccans may join a coven or circle. Baha'is congregate in local assemblies.

Other Terms Commonly Used, But Less Useful for Taxonomic Classification

"Church", "sect", and "cult" are words often used to classify religious groups. These words are mentioned here in order to explain their role (or lack thereof) in taxonomic religious classification. It is not the purpose of this document to provide a thorough theological or sociological definition of these terms.


The term church is used in various places for virtually all levels of classification. Within Christianity it has many theological uses. Some writers refer to a church which is the community of all true believers, regardless of organizations or affiliation. The many uses and meanings of the term make it impractical for the more rigid, technically-oriented classification purposes described here.

People variously refer to the "Christian Church" as being all Christianity, or strictly their branch. Catholics refer to "The Church," meaning the Catholic Church. Some Protestants may refer to "The Church," meaning all Protestants whose thinking is reasonably close to their own. Anglicans speak of "The Church," meaning the whole Anglican Communion.

Other entire religions are also called a "church", especially when they have few or no divisions. Examples include the Church of Scientology and various Japanese New Religious Movements, such as PL Kyodan (one translation of the Japanese word "kyodan" is "church").

"Church" often refers to a denominational branch, such as the Methodist Church (meaning all Methodists, even though all Methodists are not part of a single organization nor do they all accept the same beliefs and practices).

The word "church" is frequently used to describe either a church building (chapel) and/or a congregation. Often a building is synonymous with a single congregation, but this is not always the case. Many congregations may not have their own building, but will meet in the homes of members or in rented facilities, or in the meetinghouse of a different faith group. Often a single meetinghouse (church building) will be used by multiple (2 to 4) Latter-day Saint congregations, which are geographically-based and divided when large enough.


Another term frequently used in sociological and comparative religion literature is sect. Functionally and organizationally, the term "sect" is usually applied to a denomination or a denominational family. Often "sect" refers to a smaller or newer group, or a group which is less socially accepted in a given community.

Sometimes the term "sect" is applied to a specific faith group which is exclusive in nature and does not consider closely related groups to be valid. There are exclusive "sects" such as these within all major religions. Outsiders may view them as dogmatic or fanatical. Those within exclusive groups (such as Jehovah's Witness Christians, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, Ahmadiyyat Muslims, ultra-Orthodox Lubbavitch Jews, or Orthodox Bahai) may view those outside their group as lax in their faith, apostate, heretical, secular or imprecise.

Strictly for the purposes of a branching taxonomical classification, without regards to theology or social respectability, the term "sect" is unnecessary. It may be understood that some denominations/religious bodies are more exclusive in nature than others. Some are bigger or smaller. Some denominations may be socially quite acceptable (few people consider it odd if a co-worker is a Catholic) while others seem to be on the fringes of "normal" society (Most Americans would be shocked if a close friend announced their intentions to join the Old Order Amish church.)

These types of differences are sometimes used to distinguish "sects" from "denominations." Sects can often be classified as denominations in the sense that both types of religious bodies share the previously-mentioned denominational characteristics, such as membership rosters, identifiable administration, and multi-congregational affiliation. But a "sect" does not always indicate that it is the most basic level of division, i.e., a denomination or religious body. Many groups identified by others as "sects" may be further sub-divided, which makes them denominational families or branches.

(See Wuthnow and Finke's The Churching of America: 1776 to 1990 (Princeton University Press) for a book-length description of the perpetual church-sect dynamic in American religious history.)


Another word frequently applied to various faith groups is "cult". This is a term which has lost its usefulness in the field of comparative religion because it has come to mean so many different things and is usually pejorative. The essence of its popular usage today is "any group that we don't like." For these reasons, academic writers and journalists now avoid use of the word in most situations, using words such as "New Religious Movement" (NRM) instead. Currently, usage of the word "cult" by most American periodicals is similar to that of the Associated Press, which uses "cult" only to refer to sociologically divergent groups with less than about 3,000 members, usually highly participatory and usually involved in a high-profile crime or tragedy. With this usage the term has no theological, historical or organizational connotations.

Like "sect," the term "cult" (or NRM) may be useful in classifying faith groups based on their relative level of social acceptance, their size relative to the host population, or how long they have been in existence. Outside the social sciences, members of some religious groups (including Evangelical Protestants) have adopted the word and frequently use it in conjunction with doctrinal or organizational criteria. But the term "cult" is of no use in a branching taxonomical classification which simply describes, for statistical purposes, which groups are part of which larger movements.

This classification scheme:

Religion : Branch : Denominational Family : Religious Body : Congregation

is for the most part based on the current Christian divisional situation. It is potentially inappropriate to apply it generally to non-Christian faith groups. But the classification scheme can be useful if one keeps in mind that attitudes about exclusivity, inclusivity and unity differ among faith groups.

In most traditions, adherents recognize the distinctiveness of their specific group (denomination), but do not necessarily consider other groups "wrong" or invalid. In traditions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism various groups may be termed denominations or denominational families or sects, but may even more accurately be termed "schools," or "paths." Different schools, or divisions within these religions, may have different customs and doctrines, yet consider other schools equally appropriate.

But all major religions also have subgroups which are theologically more exclusive, such as Soka Gakkai Buddhists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Ahmadiyyat Muslims, and many different Christian groups. Such groups may have dialog with and even close ties to other branches and groupings within their broader religious classification, but they do not accept the others as completely valid.

More "inclusive" groupings within the major religions do exactly the same thing, but do so more broadly. Sunni Muslims accept four major schools within Sunni Islam as equally valid, and generally accept Shiite Muslims as true Muslims (with a few non-doctrinal cultural quirks), but they explicitly do not accept Ahmadiyya or the Nation of Islam as truly Muslim. Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Jews generally accept each other as valid expressions of Judaism, along with all Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, but rarely accept Messianic Judaism, Donmeh or Karaites as a valid expression of the religion. Many Evangelical Protestant Christians accept hundreds of different Protestant denominations as equally valid expressions of Christianity, but do not believe that normative Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have completely correct doctrine. The Catholic and Orthodox positions are similar -- generally accepting other branches as fellow Christians, but not affirming that other branches are as equally correct with regards to authority, doctrine, tradition, etc.

It should be pointed out that just because a specific faith group does not accept some other faith groups as equally correct expressions of a religion (or of the true religion), this does not necessarily mean that the group thinks members of other groups are unsaved, lost, evil, without dharma, infidels, etc. Sometimes this is the case; sometimes it is not. Some groups with very exclusive claims pertaining to doctrinal and ecclesiastical authority have among the most inclusive beliefs regarding potential salvation or eternal reward, as is the case with Baha'is, Latter-day Saints and Sikhs.
It should be noted that there are many differences of opinion about religious classification. For various reasons many people wish to place different amounts of emphasis on divisions between faith groups. Some people like to think of all faiths as one. Or they may be more specific, describing all conservative Protestant faiths as a unified Christianity. Other people are adamant that their specific denomination, or even their specific congregation, is absolutely set apart and unique from all other groups.

I have no desire to address such views in this document. They are essentially theological rather than organizational. Regardless of one's theological perspective, there are valid reasons for classifying faith groups along organizational/historical lines. Classification facilitates various forms of sociological and historical research and understanding. The classification scheme I am describing here is my understanding of the methods and terminology most widely used for practical purposes in the academic field of comparative religion.
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Written Dec. 1998. Last modified 23 April 2004.

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