Sunday, July 31, 2016

Seminary PL17: Leadership Structures in Church History

In church history, how has leadership been structured in different "denominations" or church groups? That is the topic this week. Last week we looked at leadership roles in the early church.

This is the third post on church management in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this seminary series, first I did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the seventeenth post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).
1. As we saw in the previous post, leadership in the earliest church was both "institutional" and "charismatic." It was institutional in the sense that the Twelve were put in place by Jesus while he was on earth, then commissioned as apostles after his resurrection as witnesses to his resurrection. [1] Jesus thus "instituted" a structure of twelve, likely to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel.

It was charismatic in that there was also a strong strand of prophetic ministry that stood outside any system of appointment. "The prophets" of the earliest church were called by God to speak his word at unpredictable times and places. They thus stood outside of any particular structure of leadership. A prophet could come from anywhere to speak to anyone.

From a human standpoint, Paul's apostleship looked charismatic. He was not appointed by the Twelve or by Jesus when he was visible on earth. Paul and other apostles like him were appointed by the risen Christ, largely in individualized experiences. In that sense, while we call Paul an apostle rather than a prophet, his ministry did not fall within any institutionalized structure.

2. This tension between institution and charisma is always present in a living church, although they usually vary in degree. As the church moved forward in history, it is understandable that it moved increasingly toward institutionalization. Official roles and structures make for stability, even as they can diminish flexibility and the spontaneity of charisma.

By the end of the first century, we have Clement of Rome telling the Corinthian church that they do not have the authority to oust their leaders, since those leaders were put in place in an unbroken chain that went back to Paul. Here we find the beginnings of what would become the idea of apostolic succession, the idea that all ministers must go back in an unbroken chain to the original apostles and Jesus.

Certainly it is helpful for ministers to be "recognized" by a community of faith. Most of those who think themselves prophets probably are not. But there is strong New Testament support for the prophet, and no evidence in the New Testament that this role has ever ceased. In the end, it is helpful for ministers to be "ordained" by communities of believers. We should be suspicious of someone claiming spiritual authority who is not recognized by any church. But there is no biblical basis for an insistence on apostolic succession.

3. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch, which date from the early second century (ca. AD110) indicate that a structure had developed in the church with a single, rather powerful "overseer" or bishop in larger cities. [2] This structure would only develop over time. In the first few centuries, the leadership of the church was focused in the bishops of the biggest cities: the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Alexandria, the bishop of Jerusalem, the bishop of Constantinople.

We thus cannot speak of a "Pope" in these centuries. The bishop of Rome naturally accrued increasing power in that Rome was a political power center for the world. But there were church councils from the early 300s to the 500s that held far more power and authority than any individual bishop. Eventually, however, bishop Gregory of Rome (590-604) managed to be recognized as the "first among equals" and the "servant of the servants of God."

So we might say that Gregory I was the first Pope.

4. Even then, he was not considered to have more authority than, say, the bishop of Constantinople. After the Islamic conquests, Rome and Constantinople were the centers of Christianity that remained standing. The conflict over the authority of Rome came to a head in 1054 when the "archbishop" of Constantinople rejected the right of the western church to add words to the Nicene Creed. [3]

By the time the conflict was over, both the Pope and the archbishop of Constantinople had excommunicated each other, and a split between the Orthodox church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church of the West was sealed and continues to this day. [4]

5. All the structures of the churches above are episcopal in nature. The first church structure was much looser, it seems. But throughout most of Christian history, the primary institutional structure of the church has been "episcopal," from the Greek word for an overseer.

Any church structure that has a powerful institutional hierarchy where leaders are appointed from above (rather than elected by the people) is episcopal. Such bishops and archbishops (head bishops) are usually appointed for life. The Roman Catholic Church is of course the most prominent example of a church that is structured in an episcopal way. But also in this category are the Orthodox churches (Greek, Eastern, Russian, American), Anglican and Episcopal churches, [5] and Lutheran churches.

6. There is a second kind of structure that developed after the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s (when large numbers of western Christians pulled out of the Roman Catholic Church). This form of church government is called presbyterian, after the Greek word for an "elder." In a presbyterian structure, the leaders of the church are elected by the members of the church.

It is no coincidence that presbyterian structures of church government rose at the same time that democracy rose in the western world. It is no surprise that both these structures rose as western world became increasingly individualistic. In presbyterian systems, it is not just the ministers who have a say in who the leaders of the church are, but lay people usually get to vote too (i.e., non-ministers).

Presbyterian churches are the most obvious instance of this church structure. My own church, The Wesleyan Church is primarily presbyterian in structure. There is a hierarchy, but it is an elected one, and no one holds a permanent office. Local churches send representatives to "district conferences," whose membership is half ministerial and half lay. They decide matters of that district.

Then there are "general" conferences for large regions like the United States or the Caribbean. Again, with half lay and half ministerial delegates, "general superintendents" are elected.

Some might cynically scoff at such a system, impacted as it is by modern cultural developments. But I would scoff right back at the ignorance that assumes that the same structure works equally well in all times and all places. Representational democracy has worked better in the modern world for most people than ancient monarchies did. And so this form of church government seems to work just as well at this point in history--if not better--than the other forms.

7. The third primary form of church government is the congregational model, in which all the power is focused in a local congregation. Local churches may be part of some association of other churches, but those other churches have no real authority over the local church. Local churches ordain ministers and believe whatever they choose to believe (although in most cases there is strong continuity with other churches that locate themselves in the same tradition).

This form of government is typical of Baptist churches and churches in the "Disciples of Christ" tradition. Independent and community churches generally fall into this category as well. "Freedom of conscience" is a major part of the Baptist tradition, understandably because no local church is beholden to any hierarchy.

The strength of this structure is flexibility and independence. The weakness is the lack of accountability and the potential for false teaching. It is harder to coordinate beyond the local area and, for pastors, harder to come by a new church once you leave the one you are at.

8. Finally, we might say that there are still pockets of charismatic "congregations" that rise out of nowhere. The house church movement is perhaps the best example of what I am thinking here. [6] Leaders are not put in place by the people to whom they minister and in fact we can question whether these groups have leaders. They arise spontaneously and usually do not meet in church structures.

Next Week: Pastor as Leader 18: The Importance of Good Management

[1] Since Jesus himself held no official position, the ultimate roots of church leadership were charismatic in nature.

[2] Sometimes called a "monarchical" bishop.

[3] Namely, the West had added the words "and the Son" to the line of the creed that says where the Holy Spirit proceeds from. But this was just the surface issue. The real issue was how much authority the Pope had.

[4] We should thus distinguish from the "church catholic," which is the Church in all times and all places, and the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome. There are "Old Catholic" churches still today in Europe which are neither Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

[5] The Episcopal Church is the United States' version of the Anglican Church or Church of England, reconceptualized after the Revolutionary War.

[6] I take this last idea from Dr. Bud Bence, who called this structure, "pneumatic."

Leadership in General
Strategic Planning
Church Management

1 comment:

JRS said...

It is very significant that there is no lay/clergy parity in local churches.

Many, I'm guessing most, significant decisions made by local churches are made by laity.

If, and it's a big if, the churches follow the denominational organizational guidelines.