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Religion Library: Christianity


Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Dispute resolution in the early Church was handled in one of two ways. The churches sought consensus from all bishops in gatherings called Church councils. As the western Roman Empire crumbled, and with it the political unity and stability of western Europe, the bishop of Rome was increasingly the focal point for political continuity. Eventually the pope became the ultimate authority for the Roman Catholic Church, the western branch of Christianity.  In contrast, the eastern Roman Empire continued for another thousand years, allowing the eastern Church to develop a less centralized form of hierarchical clerical organization. No single bishop in the Eastern Orthodox tradition possesses final authority over matters of Church belief and practice. To this day, only consensus achieved at a Church council has ultimate authority in the East. In the West, problems and abuses associated with the tightly centralized organization of clergy sparked the Protestant Reformation, leading to the establishment of separate churches, called denominations, with different leadership norms.

Public Domain

Leadership styles in Christian churches today
Episcopal leadership
governed by bishops
Presbyter leadershipCongregational leadership
Roman Catholic
Eastern Orthodox
Other free churches
Emphasis on apostolic succession: bishops as inheritors of authority"Ruling elders" have authorityLocal churches are self-governing

The leadership styles of contemporary Christian churches can be sorted into three broad categories. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, and Lutheran churches follow an episcopal (governed by bishops) leadership style. These churches place a high value on the doctrine of apostolic succession, believing that the bishops are the inheritors of the authority of the apostles. Presbyterian churches invest the presbyters with leadership and authority. Seeing no evidence for the doctrine of apostolic succession in the New Testament, Presbyterian churches invest authority in the session, an assembly of members comprised of the minister or ministers and ordained laity, called ruling elders, elected by the congregation. The minister presides, but all elders have an equal right in discussion and in voting. Finally, Baptists and many free church traditions follow a model of congregational leadership in which local churches are independent and self-governing; while a minister leads the congregation, community decisions are made by majority vote.

There is a great deal of room for variation within these models of leadership, and some churches do not fit neatly into any one of these categories. Specific clerical and other leadership customs are discussed in the separate articles on the different Christian traditions.

Study Questions:
1.     How was Christianity originally hierarchical? Is it still structured this way? Explain.
2.     Describe how political instability helped to solidify the pope's place of power.
3.     What are the three broad leadership categories within Christianity? What denominations fall under each?


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