Protestant Denominational Structures

Paid Online Writing Jobs

Get Paid to Write at Home

Get Instant Access

In this chapter, we consider the emergence of the structures of Protestantism, from the time of its origins to the more recent period. The essential point that emerges from any historical analysis of the emergence of these structures is that they are remarkably fluid. While older Protestant groups, particularly those that trace their origins back to the sixteenth century, have often found themselves trapped within inflexible institutional structures, more recent groupings have developed leaner, more efficient, and above all more responsive structures.

The three traditional types of Protestant church organization may be designated as episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational. Each of these was developed within a European context and has subsequently been transplanted to American, African, and Asian contexts—not always with total success—as Protestantism has expanded. One of the challenges faced by Protestantism in the twentieth century was rethinking these European prototypes for church order, most of which emerged during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Many Protestant churches cannot easily be assigned to any of these three broad categories. For example, Methodism embraces a family of denominations that possess a rich variety of traditions. Some—such as the United Methodist Church—can be regarded as essentially episcopal; others, however, place greater emphasis on the autonomy of the local congregation. Even denominations that appear committed to one specific model often display a far greater variation than might be expected. Anglicanism, for example, is rightly regarded as an episcopal form of Protestantism. Yet in practice, many evangelical Anglicans adopt a congregationalist approach to church order, regarding bishops as possessing a purely symbolic function rather than exercising genuine authority or leadership. Nevertheless, despite being so obviously porous, these three categories are helpful in exploring the shaping of Protestantism and understanding its distinctive forms.

In the 1520s, the first evangelical groups began to emerge in Germany and Switzerland. While reforming factions, such as the Walden-sians, had existed throughout the Middle Ages, these tended to be movements existing within the church—not always with its permission and blessing. These pressure groups acted as lobbyists, advocating reform and redirection. On occasion, they posed such a threat to vested interests within the church that they were designated as heretical, even though their religious views often fitted comfortably within the ample theological girth of the medieval church. The real threat lay in the challenge they posed to papal authority.

The emergence of Lutheran and Zwinglian factions as distinct eccle-sial groups changed things significantly. Not only were Protestants placed under some external pressure by their critics to justify such acts of schism, which seemed to deny them access to any of the benefits of the Christian faith, but they also experienced internal pressure from their supporters to clarify how these communities were to be structured and organized.

The simplest option emerged in England during the 1530s. Henry VIII's reformation of the English church involved the relatively simple measure of replacing the authority of the pope with that of the monarch, making as few doctrinal adjustments as possible, and leaving ecclesiastical structures unchanged. Even after the major changes wrought during the reigns of Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I, much the same self-understanding of the English church remained: it retained its traditional Catholic structures—such as dioceses, provinces, archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, priests, and dea-cons—but these enfolded an essentially Protestant understanding of the Christian faith.

As British influence increased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, colonial churches were established throughout its empire; based on English models, these churches defined their identity through an episcopal church structure and the doctrinal and liturgical formulations of the Book of Common Prayer (1662). The adoption of the name Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA) was intended to emphasize the distinctive feature of this version of Protestantism—its episcopal form of church government.4 The use of the King James Bible (1611) for the public reading of scripture reinforced this sense of a distinct global Protestant church communion. This sense of shared identity was further strengthened when the archbishop of Canterbury agreed to summon all 144 Anglican bishops to a "national synod of the bishops of the Anglican Church at home and abroad" to meet under his leadership at Lambeth Palace in London in 1867.

The episcopal model is primarily used by those Protestant denominational families that have the closest historical roots to the medieval church and that saw reformation as applying primarily to doctrine and liturgy and only secondarily to church structures. This form of church government sits uneasily with some core Protestant principles, especially the "priesthood of all believers." Many Protestants in episcopal denominations argue that the structure locates an excessive amount of power in the person of the bishop, opening the way to the reemergence of the medieval "prince-bishop."

Luther's reformation of church structures, though more radical than its English counterpart, was conservative by broader European stan-dards.5 It seems that Luther did not deem it necessary to be unduly specific in matters of church structure or organizations. Luther regarded the organization of the church as a matter determined by historical contingency, with no need for theological prescription. For Luther, the church was not about institutional structures but about the "sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd."

Luther's successors could thus see themselves as free to develop church structures that would be best adapted to their situations. Luther himself did not envisage retaining bishops. Elsewhere in Europe, however, most Lutheran churches were episcopal—that is, governed by bishops.6 In North America and elsewhere, Lutherans would adopt congregational and synodical forms of government, in which local churches link together for common purposes. In the United States, Lutherans gradually coalesced into three distinct bodies: the Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and the American Lutheran Church. The American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and a third group, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, united in 1987 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The Lutheran World Federation, founded in 1947, aims to provide a forum in which the world's diverse Lutheran bodies can discuss issues of mutual concern.

We see here the emergence of the notion of a "denominational family"—a group of churches that arose from a common Protestant origin through schism, division, or geographical separation. These churches within the same denominational family generally form alliances, confederations, and other joint groups for consultation and the sharing of resources. A good example is the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Reformed Christians in 218 churches in 107 countries. Other examples include the Baptist World Alliance, the World Lutheran Federation, and the World Methodist Council. These bodies seek to sustain a distinctly denominational vision of Protestantism while allowing their member churches to remain flexible in actualizing that vision in their local situation.

John Calvin was responsible for the most significant development in sixteenth-century Protestant thinking on the structures of the church. Whereas most earlier Protestant writers had assumed that the New Testament did not lay down any specific form of church structure, giving each church a significant degree of freedom to reform or redevelop existing historical models, Calvin insisted that a highly specific form of ministry was stipulated by scripture—and should therefore be embodied at Geneva.

Calvin identified a fourfold structure of pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons in the New Testament. Pastors were called to preach and teach, to administer the sacraments, and to visit the sick.7 The teachers (or "doctors") were to instruct their congregations in those things that were necessary to salvation. The elders (or "presbyters"), who were to be elected within the congregation, were to ensure good order within the church.8 (The importance attached to the role of the elder [presbyteros in Greek] in church government lies behind the use of the word "presbyterian" to describe this distinctive approach.) Finally, the deacons were called to care for the sick and support the poor.9

As a result, Calvin's reformation possessed a distinctive church structure that proved well adapted to the situation of Geneva itself, and—although this cannot have been in Calvin's mind at the time—to the new challenges and opportunities that subsequently arose in the New World. Even by the time of Calvin's death in 1564, Calvinism had become established as the most formidable alternative to Roman Catholicism in western Europe, assisted to no small extent by Calvin's brilliance in recognizing the importance of ecclesiastical organization and structuring to the survival of a movement. His successors recognized the importance of applying this idea to his religious thought as well, that is, to supplement Calvinist ecclesiastical institutions with equally resilient intellectual structures.

The presbyterian system of church government has proved highly influential in modern-day North America and Korea, while its impact on European Protestantism has been much less marked. Many Presbyterians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries held that they were restoring the original form of church government, but this position would not be vigorously defended by many Presbyterians today. While insisting that Presbyterianism is a biblically warranted form of church government, most writers within this tradition accept that patterns of church order have undergone historical development and that a variety of valid church orders may be recognized.

Presbyterianism now designates a congregational family, not a single denomination. In the United States, the largest such group is presently the Presbyterian Church (USA), headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. This congregation was formed in 1983 as a result of a reunion between the predominantly southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the predominantly northern United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA). Other Presbyterian denominations in the United States currently include the Presbyterian Church in America, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Yet many regarded presbyterianism as giving too much power to the pastor. Such disagreements emerged forcefully during the period of the Westminster Assembly, when even John Milton was led to set to one side his "calm and pleasing solitariness" in order to become a voice in the "troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes" then taking place. For Milton, the new ascendant presbyterianism simply replicated the authoritarianism of the old episcopal structures. "The episcopal arts begin to bud again," he grimly remarked. For such reasons, many preferred an alternative that they regarded as entirely consistent with the Reformed tradition and well grounded in the New Testament—congregationalism.

The essence of the congregational model is that of local, autonomous congregations that are not under any centralized control. For congregationalists, the New Testament era knew only individual congregations that were not subject to episcopal or presbyterial control. The idea emerged toward the end of the sixteenth century. It can be seen in Robert Browne's 1582 treatise Reformation Without Tarrying for Any, which affirms the principle of the gathered church, its independence from bishops and magistrates, and its right to ordain its own ministers. By locating power within the church firmly in its membership, the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" can be upheld. Ministers, while called to lead, are fundamentally understood to act in a ministerial, not magisterial, role. Congregationalists are generally reluctant to demand assent to specified confessions of faith, believing that such a requirement undermines the independence of the local congregation.

Although congregationalism had its origins in England, it has been most significant in the religious life of the United States.10 The Puritan congregations in the Massachusetts Bay area in the early seventeenth century generally adopted a congregationalist church polity because they were anxious to avoid the problems with authority they had experienced in England. The most significant manifestation of a congregational polity today, however, is found in the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents a voluntary association of individual Baptist congregations, each retaining its own identity and sovereignty. So influential has this group become within American Protestantism that many outsiders fail to appreciate that the term "Baptist" designates a much broader range of options, both religiously and politically.11

From its foundation in 1845 until 1925, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) avoided adopting any centralized belief system. In 1846

William B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC, published The Gospel Developed Through the Government and Order of the Churches of Jesus Christ, in which he argued that Baptists, because they are governed by the Bible, do not need creeds or confessions. "Why not," Johnson asked, "use the Bible as the standard? Can man present God's system in a selection and compilation of some of its parts, better than God has himself done it, as a whole in his own book?" This strong statement of the autonomy of each local congregation under the Bible remains central to the SBC today. However, that position has been supplemented by statements that some Baptists believe might represent "creeds" or "confessions" and thus undermine their congregationalist ethos.

In 1925 the SBC produced its "Statement of the Baptist Faith and Message." Although the SBC was emphatic that this document was descriptive and not prescriptive, to some it represented a centralizing trend that corroded the SBC's fundamental commitment to congregational sovereignty.12 To most Baptists, however, the statement—which has since been modified on a regular basis, to respond to new developments within the church and society—is not a document that imposes a centralized authority but one that offers guidance. In setting out its 2000 revision, the SBC reaffirmed that "Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches. We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers, affirming together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God."

The emergence of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century has reopened the question of Protestant structures. For many Pentecostals, structures are an impediment to the movement and action of the Holy Spirit. Excessively rigid and unresponsive structures might hinder or even "quench" the work of the Spirit, on which the worship and mission of the church ultimately depend. Whereas Catholics tend to discuss their identity in terms of ecclesiology, and classic Protestants in terms of their doctrine of the "Word of God," Pentecostals tend to identify themselves primarily (some possibly exclusively) in terms of their doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Everything else—including both the practicalities and theories of church structures—are seen as secondary to a right understanding of how the Holy Spirit operates and is experi enced. Where Protestants and Catholics tend to develop ecclesiologies based on Ignatius of Antioch's maxim "Wherever Christ is, there is also the Church," Pentecostals tend to be guided by a maxim of Irenaeus of Lyons: "Where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and all grace. 13

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment