Christian faith communities utilize various polities. They vary and overlap, but fall basically into categories thus:
- Episcopal. The word means “overseer” or “bishop.” Anglican, Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopalian and other mostly liturgical denominations give final authority to bishops who oversee regions in which pastors/priests have authority in local congregations.
- Presbyterian. The word means “elder.” A group of (hopefully) wise, spiritually mature people oversee the mission of the church. Most evangelical, Pentecostal, nondenominational, and Presbyterian churches operate this way.
- Megachurches (which are a dying breed) adopted acorporate modelin which the pastor is the CEO and a board of directors (too often successful business men appointed by the pastor) keeps an eye on things.
- Congregational. Baptist, Brethren, Mennonite, Churches of Christ, Anabaptist, and Neo-Anabaptist churches all hold that the entire membership, theoretically living in unity, love and harmony, discerns the will of God as they meet collectively. Final authority rests with the congregation, rather than with any denominational overseer. Each congregation is autonomous. Congregations can, if they so choose, enter covenant relationships with other congregations, thus resulting in associations, districts, regions, and so on. Regions or districts can, if they so choose, enter into covenantal relationships with others districts or regions. Thus, national and international denominations. Historically, those covenants are taken very seriously.
Any system can work provided it is directed by humble, intelligent, kind, loving people who only desire to serve others.
Every system breaks down when selfish, greedy, ambitious, controlling people run it.
No system can claim exclusive biblical authority – one can find Bible verses to support any and all of them.
Before the wedding and homogenization of church and state/empire in the post-Constantine era, churches were not corporations or legal entities; they did not own property, and there was no such thing as a church building. Followers of Jesus met in homes, lived in a shared economy, holding all things in common, studied the Bible, worshipped, ate together, partook of Holy Communion/Eucharist, and collectively met the needs of the poor in their cities. No one owned anything because everyone owned everything. There was, therefore, no poverty, want, or economic worry. There were similar fraternal organizations in the Roman Empire, but no others focused on helping the sick, poor, incarcerated, mentally ill, and disabled. Christians invented the first hospitals, orphanages, and care facilities.
Organically, a natural leadership arose consisting of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers. (By the way, both women and men served in all these capacities.) There was no clergy-lay division. Everyone was equally valuable and loved. All were encouraged to share whatever gifts they had with others, whether it was song, or a scripture lesson, or chicken soup.
Apostles, prophets and evangelists were generally itinerate – they traveled from city to city, congregation to congregation sharing their gifts. Apostles were originally eyewitnesses to the resurrection. They were sent forth into virgin soil to proclaim the gospel, plant new churches, appoint elders, and serve as spiritual mothers and fathers. In the first 300 years of church history, they covered the entire Roman Empire and all the nations across the Silk Road to China and Japan.
Prophets also traveled from place to place forth-telling specific messages from the Holy Spirit. They were honored everywhere they went, but quickly dismissed if they ever asked for money or a meal.
Itinerate evangelists preached the good news to pagans everywhere, persuading them from scripture to accept Jesus as Lord and be baptized into a local community. There was no such thing as “accept Jesus as your savior, then look for a church you like.” If you came to faith, for example, in Ephesus, you became part of the community of believers in Ephesus who were living life together in a communal or semi-communal way.
Elders and deacons, who were chosen by the congregation and appointed by the spiritual leaders, oversaw the local congregations on a day-by-day basis. Elders were responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the group; deacons were charged with making sure everyone’s material needs were being met.
First among equals was the pastor-teacher, whose primary responsibility was to teach scripture (her or his teaching was considered of higher value than any prophecy) with the goal of spiritually equipping the believers to do the work of the ministry. The work of the ministry was sharing the good news with everyone and serving those who were marginalized, persecuted or disenfranchised.
Everything in the early church was decided by consensus, although naturally some people’s opinions were considered more deeply than others because they came from wise and mature people of integrity.
The group would meet, spend time fasting and praying, worshipping, confessing, seeking reconciliation, and taking Communion, then discuss an issue, giving everyone a say-so until a consensus was reached. There was no coercion, no control, no lording over anybody.
Can we get back to that?