Flip asked over on my post on congregational polity to explain some of the theological terms in it. Really, I should do that more often, since there is often the possibility of multiple similar terms, not to mention that they may not translate literally to readers' native tongues. I'll just do all of the terms I can spot; it might lead to an interesting discussion.
Let's start with the basics of what I was discussing. Church polity is the system of government used by a given church. Among most types of churches, we find three types of polity: episcopal, presbyterian or congregational. These can be made almost perfectly analogous to “perfect forms” of government: the absolute monarchy, democratic republic and pure democracy, respectively. Of course, it is rare that any of these “out in the wild” in pure form, but likewise, it is rare that church polity is existent in a pure form (although, as I will show, I think the presbyterian form is most likely to be found in a pure form).
By episcopal, I do not mean the Episcopal Church (Anglicanism in America), although the Episcopal Church is, logically enough, episcopal in government. Simply put, episcopal polity is the polity in which bishops (Greek: episkopos) rule. Other denominations with bishops include, obviously, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, among others. I suspect I don't need to mention this, but technically a bishop is generally considered to be someone consecrated by another bishop in a line that should go back to the apostles. Because of this system of spiritual inheritance, churches such as the Anglican Church and the Old Catholics can claim apostolic authority that must be recognized by the Church of Rome. Some protestant groups use the term more loosely; I'm not sure if the looser usage can be completely traced back to John Wesley, but he did encourage it in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the fledgling U.S. (the ancestor to modern U.S. Methodism), since he allowed the group to ordain a bishop by itself (he had no apostolic authority to do so, nor did anyone else involved).
Presbyterian polity, like episcopal polity, shares its name with its most enthusiastic American adopter, the Presbyterian Church (be it PC (USA) or PCA or something else). By presbyterian, I mean a church governed by a “session” (council) made up of the minister(s) and lay elders. The session is under the presbytery, which is a body made up of representatives from member churches. Likewise the synod is over the presbytery and the General Assembly is over the synods. This is a very representative form of government, but also proportions a nice amount of control over the churches to the ministers and other congregations, keeping some accountability between denominations. This was the polity of the ruling English Puritans when Cromwell came to power.
Congregational polity technically is a polity in which the individual congregation is completely autonomous in rule. Most congregationalists do cede some authority to higher level groups. For example, in the Evangelical Free Church of America, we have districts and so forth that fit fairly analogous to the presbyterian hierarchy. The key thing with congregationalists, however, is that we can cede at any time from the denomination, have complete control of our property and the selection of pastors. The denomination cannot seize a church for bad doctrine, although it can disfellowship with it.
This form of polity, as I noted in my last post on the subject, has its good points and bad points. Increasingly, I've decided that presbyterianism is a better model, although I continue to see some distinct advantages in congregationalism. Congregationalist movements have often merged with presbyterian movements as they get older, since there is a tendency to create an increasingly powerful governing body and therefore the polity shifts toward presbyterianism. Baptists are the best known congregationalists today, but the original American congregationalists were known simply as the Congregationalists and they are now part of the United Church of Christ.
Another term I used was non-denominational, which is the term Flip specifically asked about. Just to put us on the same page, I will define a denomination as any group of Christians which I may or may not agree with on all things, but is still a part of the one true Church (what C.S. Lewis calls “mere Christianity”). That is, I'll never be a Pentecostal or Roman Catholic, because I disagree on finer points of theology with those groups, but they are still members of the true Church (I'm speaking generally here, not about individuals). On the other hand, groups that consider themselves the exclusive Christian church (in exclusion to all other denominations) or disagree on the essentials of the faith are likely sects and not a denominations; think of the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. So, when I refer to denominations, I mean the Baptists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Catholics, etc.
So, then, what is a non-denominational church? Well, they are really a member of the denomination of non-denominationals. Really, it might make more sense to call them “adenominationals” instead of non-denominationals. I won't try to explain their reasoning, but they feel it is preferable to not be affiliated with a national or regional organization, but rather are totally autonomous. Congregational churches often become non-denominational churches by withdrawing from their congregational denomination, likewise, sometimes non-denominational churches will eventually affiliate, usually with a congregational denomination. Non-denominational churches are not always congregational in nature, however. They may also be authoritarian in rule, especially in the ones I referred to as cults of personality, where you may see a really popular pastor essentially “rule” the church with no accountability above (in the form of a denominational association) or below (from the congregation, save for the fact that the pastor must keep the congregation from quitting).
In my opinion, to which I mean no disrespect to my non-denom friends, this lack of accountability is dangerous and breeds corruption much like that of an episcopal polity — since the only thing keeping the leaders under control is a need to avoid defections to other churches, a lot of things can happen that would not occur in a congregational or presbyterian church. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the cliche goes. Even congregational polity in a non-denominational church is on shakier ground, since there is not even the need to exit a denomination before the group can change what its doctrinal beliefs are; that is, creeds and statements of faith have the least authoritative value in this type of system.
The churches that end up being cults of personality will usually either fizzle out on the death of the founder or follow the process Max Weber called the routinization of charisma into a church with more systematized doctrines that slowly begins to look somewhat like a denomination. Weber's process simply notes the obvious: the charismatic leader will die and, at that point, a group cannot hang together merely on that charisma anymore, but must come up with another way of sticking togther: it must systematize.
There may be other types of church polity, but it seems to me that almost all of them will fit somewhere between these on a right/left spectrum. I'm sure I've treaded on the positions of some of you, although I hope if I have done so that I have done so in a way that makes it clear that I do not question one's membership in the one Church of Christ based on what polity you like or live under (I make that distinction since I'm advocating presbyterianism presently despite being in a congregational church).
That's all he wrote for tonight, for I am tired. Feel free to critique, add to or just plain discuss this stuff in the comments. I'd be interested in hearing everyones' thoughts on both the editorializations and the parts I hope are relatively factual.