From the Pastor’s Desk:
Polity: How to organize a Church
Learning about our Brothers and Sister Denominations
The Church, just like every other group of humans, has had to create structures that govern faith and assign authority to make organizational decisions.
We don’t know exactly how the Early Church was setup. It appears that the Apostles and James the brother of Jesus held a great deal of influence and were often looked to for guidance (Acts 15). However, they were sometimes ignored, even by other church leaders (1 Cor. 10:25). It appears that the authority to decide who was a member and who wasn’t was in the gathering of each congregation (1 Cor. 5:3-5).
Currently we have a plethora of styles that denominations and congregations use, here are 3 of the most basic:
Episcopal: Authority in matters of Faith and Organization rest in Leaders at the or near the Top and filter down to the People. This comes from the Greek epískopos, meaning ‘overseer.’
Roman Catholicism is the most recognized denomination in this style, with the Pope at the top, then authority filtering down through the Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, and then the People. Anglicans and the United Methodists also follow this format, however, the Authority lies in the Bishops and not those above them. What marks an Episcopal style is that there are single people who are able to make decisions for the group.
Presbyterian: Authority in matters of Faith and Organization rest in Groups of Elders called out by the People. This comes from the Greek word presbyteros, meaning ‘elder.’ The authority here rests on groups (councils/synods/commissions…) of people choose for their spiritual maturity by the people. This group still has some top-down authority. There may also be Bishops or District Ministers, but their ability to lead rests in the group of elders.
The Presbyterian Church is the most notable who use this system, however some groups, like the Anglicans in the US, have a Presbyter system that shares authority with the Clergy. Many Congregational groups (like the CoB) also have a Presbyter like system to handle certain tasks within the group.
Congregationalist: Authority in matters of Faith and Organization rest in Congregation and/or the Individual. This is us, as a Congregationalist we may elect councils or participate in denominational meetings, but the decisions of those groups are generally unenforceable. Instead, much like the Early Church, it is up to the individual believers and congregations to choose how to (or not to) follow those rulings.
These are just broad brush strokes on polity, you can find a great deal of variation in each group. Not to mention a lot of mixing, such as a congregational church whose pastor acts as the single authority.
What do you think? What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of each group? What do you think best reflects Jesus’s ministry, the Early Church, or the Church that will need to meet the modern world?