Church government by the pastor

Continuing our earlier discussion about denominations and non-denominations, we need to consider another factor:  church government.  Some denominations define themselves not by their theology but by the way they are governed.    Presbyterians have a system of elders (presbyters, in the Greek).  Episcopalians have bishops.  Congregationalists have voters.  Other denominations have some variation or combination of these three basic structures.  But non-denominational congregations tend to have a different approach to church government that I think is unique in church history.

In most non-denominational congregations–as well as, I have heard, in some Baptist, Pentecostal, and similar denominations–a pastor gets out of Bible College or seminary, gets a meeting place or buys property, and then just starts a church.  A congregation doesn’t call him.  He just starts preaching, assembling a  congregation of his own.  New churches aren’t started by a mission board, a denominational office, or any institutional entity.  The pastor is an entrepreneur, and if he is successful, the congregation grows, builds a huge worship complex, and a megachurch is born.  (The entrepreneurial model explains much about the church growth movement–its use of marketing techniques, its attempt to appeal to large numbers, etc.)

The church government in this arrangement is pretty much the pastor.  As one pastor of this sort of church explained to me, “I am the C.E.O.  The members are my employees.”  He has no voters’ meetings to worry about (so this isn’t really congregational), no hierarchy to answer to (no episcopalianism), and not even fellow pastors and lay leaders to be accountable to.  The pastor is the authority in the congregation.

I realize that this doesn’t fit all non-denominational congregations, and there is much diversity in how congregations like these are run.  They often have elders, congregational voting, committees, and boards, though they may not have as much authority as they would in other denominations.  Certainly, if a pastor leaves, the congregation he started will call someone else.

Some of you pastors of denominations that don’t give you so much autonomy might this sounds like a pretty good deal.  But is it really?  Though church government by the pastor is mostly practiced in “low church” traditions, it seems to me to be extremely “sacerdotalist,” an exaltation of the pastoral office usually associated with priests, but even more so, since priests tend to be under the authority of bishops.

Our previous discussion, linked above, talked about the diversity of these arrangements, but it also included a poignant comment about the problems of unchecked pastoral authority.

I’d still like to learn more.  (For example, when a pastor starts a congregation and functions as its sole leader, is it possible for him to be removed from office in the case of some malfeasance?)  Am I missing something in this account of how this system works in practice?

By the way, Lutheranism can be found in church bodies with many different kinds of church government, that not being explicitly defined in the Book of Concord.  Scandinavian Lutherans have bishops, with Apostolic Succession.  A few years ago, a Swedish archbishop consecrated the bishops of the ELCA, so that church body too claims Apostolic Succession, along with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans.  We Missouri Synod Lutherans hold to our founder C. F. W. Walther’s understanding of church and ministry, which locates the church in the local congregation, which has the authority to exercise its functions by calling pastors.  A “synod” is a voluntary association of like-minded congregations, so our name too has reference to church government.  (“Missouri” refers to where the headquarters is.  I think we should refer to a city, not a state, as in the Church of Rome, or Corinth, or Ephesus.  Maybe we should change our name to Lutheran Church St. Louis Synod.)  In practice, the LCMS has elements of all three basic structures.  The Wisconsin Synod has a somewhat different understanding of church government, which I’m not sure I understand fully, so someone else can explain it.

Church government is sometimes a contentious issue among Lutherans.  To what degree is it important and to what degree is it not so much?

 

 

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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