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.  

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