Authority in the Local Church—A Comparative Study | Part 2

In the previous post I set out the parameters and agenda for this comparative study of church governance. In today’s age how the church is to be governed is often left to modern pragmatics, or at worst it is simply an after-thought, something inconsequential.

As I said in the previous post, I will be arguing in favour of an elder-led congregational model as opposed to an episcopalpresbyterian, and an elder-rule model of church government.

I believe the elder-led congregational model most accurately adheres to biblical theological ideas of 1) the divine image’s function, 2) the new covenant realities promised in Scripture, 3) best makes sense of the New Testament’s presentation of the two types of authority present in the church—that of the elders and the congregation—without flattening or exaggerating these two authorities.

It is however expedient to be informed about other views, lest we keep contributing to an echo chamber that dulls out any and every other voices around us. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the Episcopal (a.k.a ‘Anglican’) and Presbyterian models of church government (polity).

It is…expedient to be informed about other views, lest we keep contributing to an echo chamber that dulls out any and every other voices around us.

The Episcopal Model

The episcopal model of church polity ultimately locates the final earthly authority of the church to a single bishop over several churches.[1] The belief that lies behind this model is that the position of bishops is a continuation of the apostolate.[2]

What does history have to say? The episcopalian model of church polity emerged in the early centuries of Christianity. Church historian Mark Dever suggests that it was amidst the struggles of identifying orthodoxy over and against a sea of heresy that the church opted for centralising power and authority. Doing so enabled churches to protect conformity to orthodoxy, even establishing uniformity, which, no doubt is a noble aspiration. [3]

What does this actually look like? Typically, this model follows a three-tiered hierarchal structure in which local churches are governed by a presbyter or priest and served by deacons. A number of these local churches then fall within a demarcated area known as a diocese. Each diocese is then governed by a single bishop; and, in some cases, an archbishop will preside over the bishops of a given diocese.[4]

Where is this in the Bible? The Scriptural support for the episcopal model lies in a few places. Firstly, Jesus’ appointment of the twelve and the subsequent appointments of the apostles and the elders/bishops are considered as normative for today. Since Jesus and the apostles selected bishops to oversee churches, the same practice needs to continue (Matt 10:5–15; Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5). Second, advocates of this model point to the position of James as bishop of Jerusalem, suggesting a precedent for this model (Acts 12:17; 15:13). And third, as mentioned briefly above, the historical argument: that there is a line of direct succession from the apostles to today’s bishops, serves to enforce the belief that authority rests with a single bishop.[5]

How is authority used in this model? As to the nature of this authority, it is commonly argued that the bishop has power to consecrate and appoint other offices, following the model of the apostles in Acts 14:23 and Titus in Titus 1:5.[6] More than that, though, with the episcopal model, as Millard Erickson rightly notes, there is “little distinction between the visible and the invisible church. The bishops define the church.”[7] As such, some, such as Cyprian, have gone so far as to locate the church’s essence, as existing in the bishop himself: “The bishop is in the church and the church is in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the church.”[8] The logical end of this thinking is much of what we see in the Roman Catholic Church, where the bishop of Rome emerged as the supreme bishop and came to be referred to as the pope or the father of the entire church; speaking infallibly into matters of faith and practice since he is merely continuing the pastoral office of the Apostle Peter.[9]

Some, such as Cyprian, have gone so far as to locate the church’s essence, as existing in the bishop himself.

The Presbyterian Model

Similarly, instead of giving a single bishop authority over several churches, the presbyterian model gives a gathering of elders this authority.[10]

What does this actually look like? Typically, the presbyterian model also follows a hierarchal structure in which each local church elects elders to a session—that is, a board of elders—who then govern the church. Some of these elders however are also members of a presbytery, which, as a collective body, has authority over several churches in a region. Additionally, several of the members of the presbytery are also members of the General Assembly, which usually has authority over all the Presbyterian churches in a nation or region.[11]

What does history have to say? The presbyterian model formed among Calvinist groups during and subsequent to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The presbyterian model formed among Calvinist groups during and subsequent to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Louis Berkhof explains the precise location of authority within the presbyterian model:

The power of authority of the Church does not reside first of all in the most general assembly of any Church, and is only secondarily and by derivation from this assembly, vested in the governing body of the local church; but that it has its original seat in the consistory or session of the local Church, and is by this transferred to the major assemblies, such as classes (presbyteries) and synods or general assemblies…Such a wider organization undoubtedly imposes certain limitations on the autonomy of the local churches, but also promotes growth and welfare of the church, guarantees the rights of the members of the Church, and serves to give fuller expression to the unity of the Church.[12]

Thus, much like the episcopal model, local churches in the presbyterian model are governed by an authority that exists outside of the gathered local church.

Where is this in the Bible? Advocates stress a correlation between the Jewish synagogues of the 2nd century, which were typically ruled by at least ten men who were elders.[13] Additionally, the events of Acts 15 serve as paradigmatic for the NT church. Questions of ecclesiological importance, such as matters of doctrine, faith, and practice, were resolved by a ‘proto-General Assembly’ or Synod. It is generally believed that the hierarchal structures that establish formal relationships between churches are beneficial for ensuring orthodox faith and practice.

Look out for the next post where I’ll be surveying the elder rule and elder-led congregational models.

[1] Jonathan Leeman, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2016), 3.

[2] Robert D. Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, (Geanies House, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2005), 933.

[3] Mark E. Dever, By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life, (Washington, D.C.: 9Marks, 2006), 15.

[4] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 255; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 923.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 993–994.

[6] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief,(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013), 1027.

[7] Erickson, Christian Theology, 992.

[8] Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 258.

[9] Erickson, Christian Theology, 992–993; Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 259.

[10] Leeman, Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, 3.

[11] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 926.

[12] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 584.

[13] Erickson, Christian Theology, 997.


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