Friday, March 4, 2016

Why be congregational?


There are three types of church polity: episcopate, presbyter, and congregational. That's it. There really are only three, so it is pretty easy to remember. Every Christian church can be put into one of these three categories, and sometimes a church can be in one category on paper but act like it is in another category in real life. When I first explored my call into Christian ministry, I considered the path to ordination and ministerial service in each these types of polities. In the end, I felt God was leading me into the congregational church. This includes a number of denominations, but identifying which denominational structure was the first step for me. Because it was a deliberate decision, I would like to share the fruit of my exploration.

First, let me describe (quite briefly) each type of church polity. In an episcopate, a bishop presides. In a presbyter, an office bearer exercise teaching, priestly, and administrative functions, and the presbytery maintains ownership and responsibility for local congregations. Congregational polity is the form of Protestant church government in which each local church acts as an independent, self-governing body, while maintaining fellowship with like congregations.

All three types of church polity have advantages and disadvantages. Each form of church polity was created by humankind. Therefore, each one is in some way flawed. In episcopates, like the Methodists or Episcopalians, a bishop can intercede with an errant congregation. However, an errant bishop can be quite problematic for a congregation. Presbyteries can represent the congregations, yet maintain the necessary control to intervene in problems in a specific parish. However, presbyteries can also get bogged down with committees and bureaucracy.

Congregational polity best represents my beliefs because I have faith in people. It is true that people can be disappointing, but I believe that no one is better equipped to make decisions for a local congregation than the congregation itself. The members have each been given a brain, a conscience, and the ability to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. The congregational polity also represents humankind’s freedom in Christ.

My belief in congregationalism is not meant as a judgment against episcopates or presbyters. It reflects my spiritual journey, my reading and understanding of the Bible, and my faith in God at work in people's lives and churches. That being said, I cherish the times in my life when, with people from many different polities and denominations, I have broken bread in celebration and remembrance of Jesus. 

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