Models of Church Government

I was in a Sunday School class not long ago, and the "facilitator" (his word) was working through a lesson he apparently extracted from a book he got from the pastor. Read through this portion of his handout (the links are to my comments below) and guess which denomination is being promoted:

6. Four Forms of Church Government
a. Papal
i. Not supported in God's word
ii. Has very dangerous potential for corruption
b. Episcopalian
i. Authority resides in bishops and clergy
ii. No scriptural foundation
c. Presbyterian
i. Representative form of government that places authority in sessions, presbyteries, synods and assemblies, rather than in the local church
ii. Not accurately defendable from God's word
d. Congregational
i. Authority remains with the local church
ii. Individuals or committees may perform certain responsibilities but always answer to the Lord and the local congregation
iii. No other center of power or authority is recognized
iv. The New Testament pattern of the-church (Acts 15 - meeting)

Each Baptist church is autonomous (self governing) No hierarchical body can dictate to any local church as to how its business is to be conducted...

Now I have nothing against the Baptists. They have some good insights (see remarks below). But this is a crock of, if not blatant lies, then at least self-deception. It's not that I have a problem with this particular division into categories. Categories help us understand ideas by sorting out differences and similarities, but all such categorizations are human and fallible -- except those few given us by God, which this is not.

Among these four, the "Papal" model is in reality indistinguishable from "Episcopalian" except for the additional authority granted to the top bishop, which came about after King Henry VIII pulled the Church of England out of the Roman church. The difference is historically political, not theological.

Similarly, there is not much difference between the "Episcopalian" and "Presbyterian" models (whose names are derived from the two different Greek words which are consistently used in the NewTestament to refer to the same persons), except that the lay people choose the first level of the Presbyterian hierarchy, whereas the bishops make that choice in the more Biblical Episcopalian model.

Consequently, there is also not much difference between the "Presbyterian" and "Congregational" models, except for the number of levels of hierarchy. It's like each of the four models differ from the next in line by one point only. As we shall see, the Baptists do not occupy the theological high ground here.

Every one of the negatives attributed to the competition is at least as true of the preferred category, and the one Scriptural positive given for it is no less true of the others. Furthermore, its other presumed positives are actually negatives. Let me consider the points in turn:

Not supported in God's word

There is no Scripture telling us "Thou shalt have a Pope." The reverse teaching [Matt.23:8-11] applies equally all the way down to the local pastor. Most Baptist ministers -- including the one in this church -- are local popes in their own church, which authority is not supported in God's word any more than the top dog in the Roman church. Everybody everywhere wants to be chief, not indian, and that's not the way God said to do it.

It's not like the papacy is completely devoid of Scriptural support. Jesus did give Peter some legitimacy in being a "rock" on which he would build his church. Yes, the words are different, but in degree, not kind. Peter needed to grow into the job. Paul singles out Peter several times in his epistles as a church authority. That's all inferential, but (slightly) more justified than inferring congregational voting from the fact that the people gave consent to the Apostles' prior decision in Acts 15:22.

No scriptural foundation

This claim is just plain untrue. "Episcopos" is a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to church leadership. Jesus appointed the first of them and called them "Apostles" and they appointed leadership in the churches they started. When there was a problem, the churches sent to Jerusalem for the Apostles to decide. In Acts 15, James (the top Apostle at the time) made a judgment [1st-person singular pronoun, not plural, in v.19], which the rest of the Apostles, then the elders, then the people -- in that order [v.22] -- agreed to, and then the letter was sent out to all the churches in the hierarchy for compliance. This is top-down (episcopalian), not bottom-up (congregational). But it's an example of what God's appointed Apostles did in that one occasion, not a command that all churches everywhere should do things this way. However, we have no other such detailed example of how things were decided, so this is the text the Baptists (wrongly) use to support their anti-hierarchicalism.

Not accurately defendable from God's word

As I already showed, this is equally true of all the categories here given. There is nothing in Scripture at all to support church members voting for anything at all. That is a particularly American heresy. People can be admitted into membership long before they are mature enough [1Tim.3:6] to be able to make sound theological and ecclesiastical judgments, and that temptation should not be set before them [Luke 17:1].

The American Kool-Aid is "that all men are created equal," and all American school children drink it. It may originally be a Christian notion, but it's not Biblical, certainly false and probably toxic, for it denies to Americans a visible human metaphor for sovereignty. Part of that toxin is that everybody has an equal right to vote on their governance. Most people are unwilling even to become informed about the candidates and issues, so their vote is worthless, if not damaging to the body -- just look at who is President today! In the Biblical model, God chooses and appoints people to do His work. Sometimes that work includes appointing successors. There are no volunteers in God's economy, not even to get (vote) people into particular jobs. The episcopal model here is clearly more defendable from Scripture than the congregational model.

Has very dangerous potential for corruption

"Power corrupts" and everybody who wants power is corruptable. That's true not only of the Pope, but all the way down to the local pastor, whoever is top dog in his little kingdom can be corrupted by it. The Baptists are not immune. Small-church Baptist pastors have less absolute power, so the most corruptable people look elsewhere -- such as among large-church Baptists. It's a matter of degree, not kind. People lower down than top dog are also corruptable, but at least there is accountability, because somebody higher in the ranking can enforce standards. The Baptists lack that accountability. Furthermore, the extra layers of hierarchy protect the lower levels from corruption at the top. The Baptists lack that insulation also.

Authority remains with the local church, No other center of power or authority is recognized

The result is that the Baptists are the most factious of all denominations. Jesus prayed to the Father that his church would "be one" as he was one with the Father, but faction works in the opposite direction. When there is nobody to tell them "You two stop fighting and say you're sorry," then the kids do not stop squabbling and they break apart the family. Baptists do that, and it's not a virtue. People need somebody with a big stick to keep them in line. God of course has the biggest stick, but nobody gets to find out until it's too late. Besides, the squabblers and the factions (the Greek word is "heresy") aren't listening to God. Otherwise they wouldn't be fighting each other. The result is a zillion Baptist denominations, and a zillion tiny Baptist churches in each. The local phone book containing this particular church lists more Baptist churches than the next four denominations combined. It's not a virtue.

Baptist Distinctives

Baptize. There are some things the Baptists can promote as advantages. The first is implied by their name: Baptists baptize. The (untranslated) Greek word "baptize" means to dunk, which is probably why it's not translated. Nobody else pokes people under the water, so if they had translated the word into English instead of preserving the Greek spelling, those other denominations would be embarassed. Obviously there were no Baptists on whatever committee first imported that Greek word untranslated initially into Latin, and from there into the English language and Bible.

Priests. Most Baptist preachers do not actively teach it, and the notion actually began with Martin Luther (not a Baptist), but Baptist doctrine usually claims the "priesthood of all believers." Everybody stands or falls before God with no priest or pastor intermediary. But pastors and popes alike are corruptable, they crave power, and an independent laity works against that. So nevermind what the official dogma claims, the pastors do not actively promote a flat church structure. The Plymouth Brethren and Church of Christ are probably the only denominations that make the dogma into fact. The truth is, most people do not want to spend that much effort in managing their own spiritual affairs, they'd much rather pay the pastor to do it. And Baptist pastors are just as eager to do it as any other. For what it's worth, congregational voting at least does lip service to the dogma.

Sacraments. Baptists tend to be anti-sacramental, but I don't see that as an advantage -- nor even particularly Scriptural. Mostly it's just semantic legerdemain. The two institutions that they deny to the laity (baptism and communion) are done in a church context, which essentially makes sacrements of them, regardless what they claim. And by excluding other passages of life from the set, they implicitly push the lives of their people away from the church and make it easier for the rest of the country to accept abortion and homosexual "marriage" and suicide -- christening and marriage and unction are sacraments in Roman Catholic theology, which asserts the Church's (and thus God's) authority over those events. Baptists don't have that, and they have consequently projected their secularism into the rest of the nation, to the loss of all of us.

There may be other Baptist distinctives, but I can't think of any at this time. The Sunday School facilitator seems to think there are eight (obviously forced into a Procrustean acronym on the denominational name), but most of those are not denominational distinctives at all, but mere prejudice against the other denominations, or else repetitions of the basic themes or just something thrown in to fill out the acronym.

Tom Pittman
2014 June 7