Recently, a discussion about ecclesiology erupted in the comment section of one of my posts. For those not schooled in the iologies of theology, the word ecclesiology means:
The branch of theology concerned with the nature and the constitution and the functions of a church.
There are three types of church government (polity) :
Congregational polity draws its name from the independence of local congregations from the authority and control of other religious bodies. Paige Patterson has summarized congregational polity as follows:
“The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines “congregationalism” as “that form of Church polity which rests on the independence and autonomy of each local church.” According to this source, the principles of democracy in church government rest on the belief that Christ is the sole head of his church, the members are all priests unto God, and these units are regarded each as an outcrop and representative of the church universal.” (Who Runs the Church?: 4 Views on Church Government, Steven B. Cowan, gen. ed., p. 135, Zondervan 2004)
Churches organized with a congregational polity may be involved in conventions, districts or associations which allow them to share common beliefs, cooperate in joint ministry efforts and regulate clergy with other congregations. Churches organized with a congregational polity generally disapprove of acknowledging authority in councils or other proceedings involving delegates or representatives from outside the local congregation. However, congregational polity does not prevent a local congregation’s leadership from adopting the decision or position of another congregation or a council or other gathering.
Churches which operate with this form of polity include Baptists, Church of Christ, independent Evangelical Churches.
Episcopal refers to a form of church government in which the office of Bishop is a key authoritative role. The word episcopal is from the Greek word for bishop. In this system, the local church is part of a hierarchy of clergy who oversee and govern the church denomination. This usually involves regional (diocese) bishops headed up by an Archbishop.
Denominations which operate with this form of polity include Eastern Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicanism, Methodism, and Lutheranism.
Common in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, this form of church government is commonly described as “Elder-run” or “Presbyter-run”.
Typically, original authority–that is the authority that the church believes Christ gave to it–is said to reside at the local elder level in this model of polity. Thus the “highest” authority in a presbyterian or reformed church (after Christ) is said to be the Elders of the church. Those elders are typically elected by the congregation on a periodic basis (usually a term lasts about 3 years). Sometimes elders are elected by the drawing of lots.
Those who are elected to office serve their terms as the spiritual/theological/moral/visionary leaders of the congregation. They also then participate in the governance of the regional body of churches (sometimes called a “classis”) by sending delegates to a classis meeting on a regular basis. The “classical” level of church governance, in the presbyterian model, is not a higher authority, but rather is seen as a “delegated” authority–one that only derives it’s power from the acquiescence of the Elders at the local level.
In a similar manner, Classis will send a select number of delegates to a still broader body of authority, sometimes called a Synod. The Synod will meet regularly (yearly, for example) to discuss major issues of theology and practice facing the whole denomination. Synod too, however, does not have a “higher” authority, except insofar as its “delegated” authority is accepted by classes and local Elders.
These are general definitions and many churches and denominations have polity peculiarities that make it difficult to categorize them.
Since I was a Baptist pastor for many years, it is not uncommon to find Baptist church members and pastors commenting on what I write. Recently, a commenter defended the polity of the Baptist church. Another commenter objected and said the congregational form of church government could not be supported from the Bible. Yes it can. No it can’t. Yes it can.
I no longer have a dog in the ecclesiology fight. As an atheist I find great amusement when Christians of differing viewpoints appeal to the Bible to “prove” their view. Proof texts abound. Every person is certain they are right and the other person is w-r-o-n-g. If there is ONE thing I know about the Bible it is this…you can prove most anything with the Bible. The Bible is like the shape-shifters on TrueBlood. A shape-shifter is able to change into different animal of human forms and the Bible is just like that. Under the power, control, and interpretation of a Christian, the Bible can be made to say most anything.
Knowing what I know and have experienced as a Christian and a pastor, I think the congregational form of church government is a bad idea. With little to no oversight, churches and pastors can, and often do, act in ways that are abusive and harmful to church members. That said, I don’t think the episcopal or presbyterian form of church government is necessarily any better. It can be, depending on the checks and balances that are in place. The Roman Catholic Church has one of the most structured governmental systems around, yet the Roman Catholic Church is rife with abuse and criminal cover-ups. (and I am at a loss to understand how anyone can remain a Catholic)
What matters to me is what churches and denominations actually do. I am not interested in the various theological arguments for or against a particular ecclesiology. What matters is how business is conducted and what oversight and checks and balances are in place.
No church or denomination is immune from abuse taking place. What matters is how charges of abuse are handled. Do church leaders try to handle the charges internally? Do they consider abuse charges a matter of church discipline? How willing are they to involve the police, human services, or child protective services when a church member, church leader, or pastor is accused of abuse?
Generally, I do not advise people to attend Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches, nor do I advise people to attend Southern Baptist churches or independent Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal churches. My reason for this advice is quite simple. There is no control or oversight and abuse claims are often handled internally or considered a “church issue” and not anyone else’s business.
Often, the only thing that matters is maintaining the church’s “testimony.” Better to bury an abuse claim than ruin the church’s reputation in the community.
Another concern I have is over the emotional, mental, and spiritual abuse that often takes place in these churches. God called, God ordained, authoritarian pastors, armed with an inerrant, infallible Bible, routinely abuse and manipulate parishioners. While such abuse is not criminal, it is harmful and the cause of incalculable pain and suffering. (as email after email from abused Christians tell me)
With the advent of the internet (and that’s an advent I can believe in) what has been done in secret is now being exposed. No longer can churches and pastors routinely misuse and abuse church members without fear of exposure. Church members can now take to the internet and find places to publicly share their story. One can only hope that such exposure will force change and, if necessary, result in criminal prosecution.
I am sure some well-intentioned commenter is going to try to tell me why their church, denomination, or pastor is not like this and that I am painting with too broad of a brush. I am sure someone will tell me that I shouldn’t judge everyone because of the actions of a few.
Don’t bother. I am immune to such verbiage and I know better. I have seen too much and I know too much. I have talked with too many people and I have had countless email interactions with people who have been misused and abused.
Such things are not limited to Christianity, as the recent Boy Scout revelations show. We should be concerned about abuse no matter where it happens and no matter who is doing it. My focus is on Evangelicalism because it is what I am most familiar with and I much better informed about what goes inside Evangelical churches. As I have often said, I know where the bodies are buried.