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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
How are the roles of leadership and authority exercised?
by Kendra Hotz

The polity, or form of governance, of a particular church determines how it selects leaders and interprets the nature of their authority. Christian churches organize themselves in a wide variety of ways, but we can identify three basic models of polity: Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian.

The episcopal polity derives its name from the Greek word for bishop, and is so named because churches that use this polity are governed by bishops. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopalian churches all have episcopal polities. Methodist and some Lutheran churches also use a modified episcopal polity.

These churches note that the New Testament uses several different terms for church leaders, including the terms bishop and elder, and argue that these terms specify different functions and different kinds of authority. Elders serve as pastors to local congregations, while bishops, who are understood as the successors of the apostles, supervise and direct the elders within their jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of a bishop is called a diocese and is usually a geographic area. Bishops have the power to ordain new priests (elders) to office and to determine which congregations they will serve.

The pattern of hierarchy that distinguishes bishops and local priests extends also to distinguish between clergy and laity. Episcopal polities usually draw a sharp distinction between clergy and laity. Clergy are understood to have a special call from God that differs qualitatively from the call that the laity receive to become, say, physicians, carpenters, or attorneys. This call sets them apart to function as priests who mediate between God and the people, and their ordination leaves what Roman Catholics call an “indelible mark” of character that sets them apart from others.

There is also a hierarchy that distinguishes different kinds of bishops. In the early church, bishops of the major cities emerged as leaders over other bishops. Their jurisdiction, called a synod, encompassed several dioceses. In Eastern Orthodox communions, these bishops-of-bishops became known as Patriarchs, and eventually the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is called the Ecumenical Patriarch, emerged as the preeminent bishop. In Roman Catholicism these bishops became known as archbishops, and the bishop of Rome—the pope—emerged as preeminent.

Congregational polity constitutes a second way in which authority is organized among Christian churches. Congregationalists focus, as their name implies, on the local congregation as the locus of authority. They may form associations that set guidelines for member congregations, but power fundamentally flows from the local congregation to the association. Baptists, independent/nondenominational congregations, and the United Church of Christ operate with congregational polities.

Congregationalists argue that the New Testament teaches that it is the concrete gathering of the community, and not a hierarchical institutional structure, that is the church, the body of Christ. Congregationalists believe that each local community should call its own leaders rather than have them appointed by a bishop. Those leaders, moreover, are under the authority of the local congregation.

Congregational polity also differs from episcopal polity in its understanding of the relationship between clergy and laity. Congregationalists generally do not draw a sharp distinction between the two. They believe that all Christians have a vocation; that is, all Christians are called by God to take up certain tasks for which they have particular gifts. The call to serve as a physician, carpenter, or attorney is not qualitatively different from the call to serve as a pastor.

The difference between clergy and laity, then, is simply a difference of function, not a difference of status. Clergy have gifts that enable them to preach and administer the sacraments effectively, and so they are designated by the local congregation to take responsibility for these functions. But clergy are not priests; they do not mediate between God and the people; only Christ does that. Rather, all Christians have equal status before God.

Presbyterian polity offers a third way in which Christian churches organize authority. Presbyterian and Reformed denominations use this polity, which they also see as based on a New Testament model. The term “presbyterian” comes from the Greek term for “elder.” Churches using a presbyterian polity note that while the New Testament does use different terms for church leaders, such as bishop and elder, it does not consistently distinguish nor establish a hierarchical relationship between these. Instead, the New Testament church seems to have included different kinds of leaders who worked together as colleagues and peers.

So, Presbyterian and Reformed churches are governed by elders who work collaboratively to ensure that all of the purposes of the church are pursued with integrity. This collaborative model of authority means that no one person is ever vested with final authority on matters of doctrine or practice. Instead, decisions about belief and practice are always made by groups of elders and are always subject to future review by other groups of elders.

The most basic level at which elders gather to govern the church is at the level of the local congregation. Here elders meet in what is known as the session, consistory, or council. The session will consist of ruling elders who are laypersons elected by the congregation to serve for a set term and will be moderated by a teaching elder who is clergy. Like the congregational polity, presbyterian polity assumes that function, not authority, distinguishes clergy and laity. Clergy are responsible for the means of grace, and lay elders take responsibility for other aspects of church life.

The next level at which elders (both lay and clergy) gather to govern the church is at the presbytery, which consists of all of the local congregations in a certain geographic area. Beyond the presbytery one finds synods that encompass several presbyteries. Finally, elders gather at a General Assembly of the entire denomination. Decision-making authority always flows from the local congregation, through the presbytery and synod, to the General Assembly. But those decisions are subject to review at those more general levels. Likewise, decisions made at the more general level, must always be ratified at the local level.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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