On Congregationalism and Presbyterianism

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:31 AM

Ok, so over the last few days I've shown my criticisms of non-denominational churches and episcopal churches (defense of congregationalism, church polity overview). Now, in the interest of fairness, I shall deal with the problems of the remaining two which I am generally the most in favor of: congregationalism and presbyterianism.

Congregationalism has a key advantage: by placing the power within the body of the church there is the least amount of likelihood that there will be undue elevation of the clergy at the expense of the priesthood of all believers. The independence of the churches, as I've attested to many times, also helps individual churches escape a denomination that has lost its way. The problem is that this leaves a bit of a mess too.

The loose knit nature of this system has allowed for the formation of the Unitarian-Universalists, the United Pentecostal Church and other pseudo-Christian groups. Since the denomination cannot force its member churches to follow its creed, the only hope when local churches become heretical is to part ways with them. If the denomination could have seized the churches from the rogue ministers, the Unitarian church could have been cut off before it ever fully formed, for example.

Moreover, the very system that insures that the individual members of the congregation aren't unduly lowered below the clergy also makes it hard for the clergy to serve as even the spiritual leaders of the congregation. For example, I have a dear friend who is a pastor. He has been ousted from multiple congregations for little or no reason; he's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet but for some reason people don't appreciate him. Besides arbitrary removals, this system of polity also makes church discipline very hard. One of the most spectacular theologians in the history of these United States found this out when he was ousted from his own congregation; Jonathan Edwards was asked to leave the church he pastored since he insisted on a personal conversion experience on the part of members (as opposed to being full church members simply because the family had been there for generations). Kevin noted the problems for clergy in congregational churches in the post that set in motion my present set of posts on the subject.

Finally, the congregational system, particularly in its most independent strains, leads to frequent schisms over lesser issues. The tendency to lean toward pure democracy (i.e. mob rule) seems to have a tendency to cause congregational churches to split quite frequently, forming many little churches that will someday split again.

Presbyterianism avoids a lot of these problems. Technically, the minister should be responsible to the presbytery, not the congregation. While that still means the clergy must answer to a body composed partially of lay members, it avoids the nasty situation wherein the pastor is essentially suppose to “lead” his or her bosses. Presbyterianism, however may in the view of some, elevate the clergy too high. By making the clergy part of the ruling body, the local minister may acquire a higher level of authority than the same would acquire under an episcopal system. This is what lead to the quote of John Milton I cited a few days ago, “the episcopal arts bud again.” Milton had been a staunch supporter of presbyterianism until it actually happened in Puritan England and he saw it didn't do what he expected; instead of a few bishops, he saw the entire clergy becoming bishop-like. As a whole though, I don't think this happens.

Moreover, because the churches aren't free to leave at will, yet decisions must filter through republican governmental bodies rather than individuals, it seems harder for these churches to move to hetrodoxy. The PCUSA, from what I've gathered, has tried to do a lot of the things that the UCC (congregational) Episcopal Church (obviously episcopal) and UMC (episcopal) are busying themselves doing, but it has been much more difficult to get a consensus to do so (I don't claim to be an expert on the PCUSA, so I could be wrong, but that's the impression I have received from several key decisions over the past few years). This again reminds me of our own federal governmental theory — the government may eventually ignore the constitution on an issue, but it takes a lot of work to do so on a large scale. Conversely, having tons of hierarchal committees can also create a bureaucratic mess that doesn't fix things that it should.

In other words, I see major flaws in each of the systems. It may be that churches in different situations will have the best results with different types of systems. For example, a network of churches established by missionaries and filled with brand new Christians would probably be best run by an episcopal-like system. Of course, any system run by fallen humans will have its problems, it is just a matter of trying to find the system that seems to rein in human tendencies to the best extent possible.

Tags: Religion

Join the Conversation

4 comments posted so far.

Re: On Congregationalism and Presbyterianism

“by placing the power within the body of the church there is the least amount of likelihood that there will be undue elevation of the clergy at the expense of the priesthood of all believers.”

At one level, isn’t that like saying no one over the age of 21 should be allowed to drive a car because it is more likely they will drink and drive? Or, better analogy, like saying the office of US President should be limited to those under the age of 35, because younger people are less likely to be addicted to the power?

I hear the argument you are using. I just disagree with it. Better to find ways of dealing with rogue elders than to replace the sysem in entirety with one that places the untrained and unqualified in positions of authority.

Of the traditional, mainline models, the presbyterian system probably comes closest to the model I see in Scripture, though most presbyterian denominations are having trouble implementing it, these days, largely due to ordaining the wrong types of individuals as elders. They ordain those who like the power or who are shrewd in the business world, without paying much attention to biblical qualifications and character.

The episcopal system does the best job of guarding against “the unqualified,” but to a fault. And, I think any role beyond a regional director should be purely support and administration, not authoritative. I’d like to see both the church and the United States move to a model of regional institutions loosely held together at a national and global level. The UMC, of all denominations, probably comes the closest to this, with the primary authority in the church lying at the regional conference level.

Posted by kevin - Mar 29, 2005 | 7:35 AM- Location: Milwaukie, OR

Re: On Congregationalism and Presbyterianism

Kevin, to an extent, I agree with you (hence why I have sided with presbyterianism in these posts). On the other hand, I think it is useful to involve the entire church in decision making (especially fiscal/operational parts of decision making) since they are the ones that keep the church going and involving them makes them more likely to feel like supporting the church. It really works pretty well in many cases, I think.

But it isn’t going to work well in a body that has mainly new/immature Christians. You need a large swath of the congregation to be essentially qualified to be elders (which in a healthy church would be the case, but not all churches are healthy).

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Mar 30, 2005 | 6:25 AM- Location: MO

Re: On Congregationalism and Presbyterianism

Even in a healthy church, I don’t see the majority being “elders.” If we have that many elders in the church, we need to be sending them out to plant new churches.  :)

Good elders are going to involve the people. Good leaders don’t make rash decisions. Servants of Christ look to further the Kingdom, not the self.

In Heaven, we’ll have pure communism. We won’t need the authority systems we have today. But, God’s pretty smart. He knows we need clear boundaries and guidelines to get us through our stay on this earth, so He gave us some.

Knowing all forms can (and will) lead to corruption, I’m going to stick with the form best described in scripture. Other models might make sense and will certainly help to prevent one form of corruption, but only by opening room for new forms of corruption.

Let’s have congregational churches that appoint trusted, honest, godfearing men to lead them. Then, if an elder is out of line, follow scriptural guidelines to gently restore him or let him go. In theory, this should be by the authority of the rest of the elders, not the general populace. If the entire elder board is corrupt, it may be time to find a new church. :P

Posted by kevin - Mar 30, 2005 | 7:58 AM- Location: Milwaukie, OR

Re: On Congregationalism and Presbyterianism

Kevin — I primarily meant that you have a good portion of the church that you could see being picked as potential candidates for eldership. That is, I can think of several dozen people in my church that would be very good, and many more that I don’t know but I’d imagine would be fine. But, my church has a lot of mature Christians that have done pretty much everything imaginable in the church (that isn’t why I say they are mature, but that does mean they also have the experience to handle the job). On the other hand, a church like Willow Creek is going to have mainly immature Christians by design, and therefore it might be a different situation.

I’m thinking back to the founding of Congregationalism in the U.S. (and England) with the Puritans. The ones that became Congregationalists were serious Christians, not new converts, so probably any of them (or a majority of them) could be an elder… but you still need an elder board, of course. The problems in Congregationalism happens in the third or fourth generation when the majority of members are no longer anything other than Sunday Christians and therefore the ones running the church shouldn’t be. You need revivals every few decades for a congregational model to work well, something my church seems to have been blessed to experience, but of course, expecting that might not be the best way of planning church governance.

OF course, if the elder board is completely corrupt, I entirely agree (presumably that means the pastor and most of the congregation is corrupt too)! :-)

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Mar 30, 2005 | 10:59 PM- Location: MO

Create or Sign In to Your Account

Post as a Visitor

:mrgreen: :neutral: :twisted: :arrow: :shock: :smile: :???: :cool: :evil: :grin: :idea: :oops: :razz: :roll: :wink: :cry: :eek: :lol: :mad: :sad: :!: :?:
Remember my information