Monday, October 27, 2014

Congri-presby-piscopal Church Structure and Governance

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about different types of church government:

Q:  How does a church or denomination handle its business?  What is the meaning of all those unfamiliar words I see on church signs, like Congregational, Episcopal, or Presbyterian?

If we begin with the Bible, we find that the New Testament has very little to say about how a congregation or a group of congregations govern themselves.  While there are exhortations for Christians to unite with a single mind around the doctrine of the Apostles and to help support one another in times of hardship, there are no details of structure given to govern how this is to be administered. 

There are three traditional forms of structure that have been adopted by groups of churches, and these bear the labels of the three terms listed in the question above.  Often, if a denomination is convinced that one of these forms is Biblically mandated, they make the choice to include that term in their name. 

When the term Congregational is used this typically indicates that the congregation is externally independent of control from a larger national or regional authority.  Internally, this usually means that the congregation is operated as a true democracy with congregation members having equal influence over decisions of the congregation.  While Congregational churches may join together as a denomination, this is usually for the purpose of joint work like missions or seminary training and affairs are governed from the congregational level upward to the denominational leadership. 

The term Episcopal is derived from the Greek word for a bishop, and is used to refer to a structure in which one or more levels of bishops are given authority to govern a group of churches.  While bishops are given a great deal of influence toward the congregations over which they are assigned, they also bear a great deal of responsibility to exercise care for them as a pastor would his congregation, particularly by being a pastor to their pastors. This is the most top-down of the structures, and often the local clergy exercise a high degree of influence over congregational life just as the bishop exercises influence over the congregations under his care.  

The term Presbyterian refers to leadership by a group of elders and is derived from the Greek word for elder.  Presbyterian denominations typically govern each congregation with a group of elders, and each level of structure above the local congregation is usually governed by a group of authorities rather than a single individual.  If a single individual is named in a leadership role, his role would be primarily administrative, consisting largely of organizing and facilitating the work of the larger group that actually does the governing. 

Some denominations do not bear one of these words in their name, even though they do adhere to one of the above structures.  The most prominent example of this would be the Roman Catholic Church, which has an episcopal form of governance.  Other denominations do not fit into any of these categories of governance, but instead have a hybrid form of governance, which might embrace elements of two, or even all three structures.  Many times, several denominations in the same theological family, bearing the same name, might all have different forms of governance.  Lutherans, for example, can be found with any of the three traditional structures or a hybrid form of governance. 

Still other congregations consider themselves independent, or might prefer the term non-denominational.  If a congregation is truly independent, then they would have only internal governance and would not be accountable to a larger structure beyond the congregation.  They could also structure that internal governance in any way that they were convinced was proper. 

However, most congregations have found that there is great wisdom to having accountability beyond their own congregation, so even those that are not part of a formal denomination have begun to form "networks" in recent years.  These networks are considerably looser than traditional denominations, but allow their member congregations to provide accountability for one another and to work together on things such as mission work. 

Ultimately, it is what a congregation teaches, and not how it governs itself, that is of primary importance.  Each of the forms of governance has its benefits and its challenges, but when used properly they do not become the focus of attention.  Instead, their intended role is that of supporting and advancing the Church’s proclamation of Christ.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What is the Appropriate Age to First Receive the Lord's Supper?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question seeking an explanation for the diversity of ages at which different types of Christians begin receiving communion:

Q:  Why do different types of Christians begin allowing children to receive communion at so many different ages?  Is there a connection between Communion and other rituals such as Baptism or Confirmation? 

The most likely reason that there is so much diversity on this matter of congregational practice may be that there is no instruction given on the topic in the Bible.  Church history, likewise, has shown significantly mixed outcomes on this question. 

We do have writings from the second generation of Christians that show evidence that young children were being Baptized soon after birth, and an instruction that only the Baptized are to be communed.  However, it does not specify whether communion ought to begin immediately after Baptism or if there is a time later in life where communion reception is initiated. 

In today’s churches, we see that the Eastern Orthodox are communing even babies so young that the bread and wine must be mixed together and fed to them with a spoon.  Roman Catholic Christians begin communing children during their elementary years, then administer confirmation during adolescence.  Some Sacramental denominations outside of Catholicism also commune children prior to Confirmation, while others begin administering communion to children at the same time as confirmation, usually in their early teenage years. 

Among Christians who emphasize the Sacraments to a lesser degree or who see them as merely symbolic acts, there is a greater diversity of practice.  Some allow children to commune immediately upon being baptized (although not as babies, but at an age old enough to request Baptism).  Others allow children to commune when the parents and pastor deem them ready at some point after Baptism, while still others have disregarded the Baptismal connection altogether and allow individuals to make their own decision about communing, regardless of Baptismal status. 

The only Bible verse that approaches an answer to this question comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, when he says,

“Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself”

Paul instructs the Corinthians that those who receive the Lord’s Supper need the ability to examine themselves before receiving it.  This includes some degree of awareness regarding sin, repentance, and what is actually occurring at the Lord’s Supper, but beyond that it does not seem possible to discern a particular age from Paul’s instructions. 

At some times and places, it was assumed that children were not capable of reason until a particular age – usually around puberty.  This same assumption, which comes from human observation rather than from Biblical research, is the source of both the tendency for protestants to commune children around that time as well as the Baptist and Anabaptist assertion that an “age of accountability” exists prior to which children are not responsible for their sins and should not be baptized. 

However, based on purely Biblical considerations, we are left only with the imprecise requirement that communicants be capable of examining themselves.  The broadness of this command leaves us with a situation where, except for those communing babies and toddlers or communing the unbaptized, the rest of the Christian world seems to be within the boundaries of New Testament instructions on the matter. 

With the understanding that the Lord’s Supper is one of the diverse ways that our Lord delivers His grace, along with His Word and baptism, and with the understanding that it is the Lord’s promise that makes His Supper valid and effective, it would be unnecessary either to fear that a church is withholding salvation by delaying admission to communion until a certain age, or that one must necessarily complete certain additional milestones to be admitted.  

Instead, within the previously mentioned boundaries – that recipients of Communion be baptized and capable of self-examination - it is the responsibility of congregations and denominations to discern what is wise for their circumstances and develop a consistent practice that accurately reflects the doctrine that they teach.