How are the roles of leadership and authority exercised?
by Kendra Hotz
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
©2006 Kendra Hotz
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).
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.