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Religion Library: Protestantism

Community Organization

Written by: Ted Vial

Presbyterians have a pyramid structure: each individual church has a consistory or session, composed of members of the congregation. Above each congregation is the presbytery, which consists of elders and ministers from each congregation in a designated area. Above the presbytery is the synod, and finally the governing authority is the General Assembly. It is crucial to Presbyterians that at each level both clergy and laity are represented. This derives from the Reformed principle (that they share with Luther) of the priesthood of all believers. There are no intermediaries between individuals and God, each human is equally a sinner, and each saint (saved human) has equal status. Ministers are called to their offices because of special gifts (preaching, for example), but others have gifts equally necessary for the community, and ministers enjoy no special status.

Like the Congregational tradition, Baptists have a congregational form of church polity, where each congregation has freedom to govern itself and where major decisions within a congregation are usually made in accord with a vote by the members of the congregation. Though they avoid terms like "denomination," some Baptist groups, like the Southern Baptist convention, function as a hybrid between pure congregationalism and denominationalism. For example, they elect representatives to state and national conventions. The national convention selects an executive committee to make decisions in the periods when the convention is not in session.

Some churches identify themselves as "non-denominational." Sometimes such churches are truly independent congregations; other times they link themselves loosely with other churches of similar theology, though without a set institutional hierarchy. They identify themselves simply as "Christians" (rather than, for example, Baptists or Lutherans). Such churches tend to be fairly conservative and call themselves biblical rather than creedal. That is, they believe that the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (the ultimate authority of the Bible) is best upheld and honored by not creating competing authorities such as creeds. This is often also undergirded by the belief that the Bible is clear in its basic teachings, and so there is no need of a creed to interpret it.

A good example of an important and very large non-denominational church in the United States is Willow Creek outside of Chicago, Illinois. Begun as a youth ministry by Bill Hybels in the 1970s, it has grown and currently has over 17,000 members. While not affiliated with a denomination, it has built five campuses in the Chicago area. In addition, churches of any size and denomination (or no denomination) with "an orthodox understanding of Biblical Christianity" can join the Willow Creek Association.

Study Questions:
1.     Do Protestant Churches have central leadership? Explain.
2.     How does scripture help to organize the Protestant community?
3.     What is the role of ordained leaders within the Protestant community organization?
4.     How do denominations influence the structure of the community?


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