Church Governance: What Kind Do You Live Under?

by drwinn on April 22, 2015

Leadership in #ChurchWorld comes in all varieties. Some of the variety depends on the style of hierarchical governance structure the group was birthed under. There are three standard kinds of church governance. They are: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational.

Episcopalian: Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and some Lutheran.

This form of government may be the oldest going back to Ignatius of Antioch (50-110). In his writings, he stressed that governance of the church was one bishop in each city who was assisted by presbyters and deacons.

Presbyterian: Presbyterian, Reformed often called elder-led church.

This form of government suggests that the authority in a church resides at the local elder level. Elders are usually elected by a congregation for a specific amount of time. These elected elders serve as the theological, moral, spiritual, and visionary leaders of their congregation. A pastor in this governmental system is one of the elders who has no special authority except because of his or her training is often seen as the expert in the spiritual and theological life of the congregation.

Congregational: Baptistic, Pentecostal-Charismatic, Congregational, Lutheran, Independent.

This form of governance rests in the autonomy and independence of a church. It comes in several varieties. The most popular seems to be the sole pastor led church. In this form the sole pastor is the primary leader and functions as the decision maker. The sole pastor is usually the founder of the church or has been appointed by the previous sole pastor, i.e., often the original church planter. This form uses as its support a view with a reading of Scripture that views a general pattern in the Old and New Testament with sole leaders, i.e., Moses, James, the brother of Jesus, and the pattern of the early church who had leaders like John Chrysostom and Augustine, all probably influenced by the synagogue model. I have written about this here.

A second kind of polity under this form is a democratic congregation. This form elects a board of directors who are invested with the decisions of the church. Sometimes there is a sole pastor mixture who works with an elder or deacon board for decision making. These pastors are usually CEOs of their organization tasked with the day to day running of the church.

A third way of the congregational polity is a plurality of elders who make the decisions for the congregation as they meet together.

I think George Ladd sums it up best in his book: A Theology of the New Testament when he says: “It appears likely that there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and that the organizational structure of the church is no essential element in the theology of the church” (579).

What Kind Do You Live Under?

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