Different Church Governments



An Analysis of the Different Church Government Systems



       The researcher simply laid down his analysis on the different church government systems. Chapter 1 discussed the similarities and differences of the Papal and Episcopalian church government system as well as the Congregational and the free church. Chapter 2 discussed the evaluation of the four church government systems based on the perspective of the Presbyterian Church government perspective. This paper concluded that the Presbyterian Church Polity is the most balanced church polity since it is the midway between the Papal/Episcopal Polity and the Free/Congregational Polity.



Chapter 1

Contrasting the Different Forms of Church Governments


A. Similarities and Differences of Papal and Episcopalian Church Government Systems

 Similarities of Papal and Episcopal

       There are several similarities between Papal and Episcopalian Church Government Systems. First, both church governments operate in a hierarchical model. Hoeksema wrote that “the general doctrine of the Episcopal Church is the presence of a superior order of the officebearers…which is called the ‘episcopoi,’ and are the overseers not only of the members of the church but also of the inferior officebearers, priests and deacons”(1966, 625). In a diagram, the hierarchical structure of the Episcopalian Church Government looks like this:


Episcopal Hierarchical Structure

       In a similar way, Hoeksema presented that the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church is really an absolute hierarchy ruled by an infallible pope. He said, “for if the bishops are supposed to be a perpetual corporation, they need a head authorized to exercise jurisdiction over them. The laity has no voice in the appointment or calling of their own officebearers”(1966, 624). Boff supported this claim by saying that “the hierarchy is structured in a schematic and rigid form. In terms of decision, the participation of the faithful is totally mutilated. Decision is restricted to the pope-bishop-pastor axis”(1992, 30). Thus, in a diagram, the hierarchical structure of the Papal Government looks like this:





       The second similarity between Papal and Episcopal is that both systems have different levels of ministry or different degrees of ordination. Erickson explained that “the first level is that of the ordinary minister or priest... authorized to perform all of the basic duties associated with the ministry (they preach and administer the sacraments). A second level of ordination constitutes one a bishop and invests that individual with certain special powers”(1998, 1081).

The third similarity between Papal and Episcopal is that both subscribe to the theory of “apostolic succession of the Church” and of the “apostolic succession of Ecclesiastical Office.”

“Apostolic succession of the church” refers to the permanent link of Christendom with the ministry of the Apostles as founders and in permanent harmony with their decisive testimony… As it is acknowledged by us also with all Christendom, in the words of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” The relationship of the whole Church as an apostolic Church to the apostles is not only of a spiritual but also of an historical character because the Spirit moves in, with, and underneath the process of human tradition in which the canon of Holy Scripture, and hence specific contents of the preaching and deeds originating at the time of the early apostolic age, is handed down from generation to generation. (Kung, 1964, 155)

       Linked with the theory of “apostolic succession of the Church” is the theory of “apostolic succession of Ecclesiastical Office” which occurs within the framework of the “apostolic succession of the Church.” Thus, the (Ecclesiastical) office is and remains unconditionally subordinate to the unique authority of the apostles in regard to the decisive form of the attestation to Christ (Kung, 1964, 162). Boff simplified it by saying that Christ transmits all power to the Twelve, who transmit it to their successors, the bishops…” (1992, 24). Thus, based on the theory of “apostolic succession of Ecclesiastical Office,” the office of the bishop received its power to ordain ministers or priests. As Erickson wrote:

Viewed as the primary channel by which God expresses his authority upon earth, bishops have in times past exercised wide responsibilities in temporal affairs. In some forms of episcopacy, they are considered the princes of the church or even, as we have already suggested, the church itself… By the laying on of hands in the ceremony of ordination, the authority of the apostles has been transmitted down through history to the bishops of today… In laying hands upon a candidate for ordination, the bishop vests in the candidate the powers that attach to the ministry (1998, 1082)

       The fourth similarity between Papal and Episcopal is that authority resides in the bishop. Erickson said that “the genius of the Episcopal system is that authority is fixed in a particular office, that of the bishop” (1998, 1081). He said further that

the bishop is the key to the functioning of church government. Some would go as far as to say that the episcopacy is of the very essence of the church: the church cannot exist without it. Indeed, a few would even assert that the episcopacy is the church. Those who claim that the episcopacy is necessary to the very being of the church include the Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics (or High Church Anglicans). Others, such as Low Church Anglicans, see the system of bishops as but one of a number of forms of church government with scriptural basis. They do, however, view episcopacy as the best system for doing the work of the kingdom... The role of the bishops is to exercise the power of God that has been vested in them. Their authority transcends that of ordinary ministers. (Erickson, 1998, 1081)

       The fifth similarity between Papal and Episcopal is that both are governed by “parishes” and the “diocese.” Boff labeled this system as “parochiology”(1992, 23). Consistent with the theory of “Christendom” (Kingdom of Christ), the parish displays the rule of Christ while the diocese displays the physical geographical territory in which the parish exercises its authority. Erickson explained that “there is, in this scheme, little distinction between the visible and the invisible church”(1998, 1082). “In the Episcopalian system, an archbishop has authority over many bishops. They in turn have authority over a “diocese,” the churches under the jurisdiction of a bishop. The officer in charge of a local parish is a rector (or sometimes a vicar, who is an “assistant” or one who substitutes for the rector)” (Grudem, 1994, 923-924). “The bishop also has the responsibility of preserving the true faith and the proper order within a particular geographical area by exercising discipline” (Erickson, 1998, 1082).

Differences of Papal and Episcopal

       Though Papal and Episcopal have similarities, they differ in several ways. The highest office in the Episcopal Church is the “Archbishop” while the Papal operates through the primacy of the bishop of Rome (pope). The main reason for adding the papal office is that “the real successor of the apostles is the person of the pope. For if the bishops are supposed to be a perpetual corporation, they need a center or head authorized to exercise jurisdiction over them”( Hoeksema, 1966, 624). The Papacy is basically “the most highly developed episcopal form of government where the bishop of Rome emerged as the supreme bishop and came to be referred to as the pope or the father of the entire church” (Erickson, 1998, 1082). “The pope exercises his authority through the bishops. While they may act independently of him, the fact remains that they have received their powers from him. He is the absolute and ultimate source of authority within the church” (Erickson, 1998, 1083)

       With regards to the theory of “apostolic succession of the Church” and of the “apostolic succession of Ecclesiastical Office,” the papacy, on one hand, adopted the theory of unbroken “apostolic succession of individual bishops” from Peter to the present Pope. The main basis is the writing of Irenaeus. Herbermann proved that Irenaeus “speaks of Hyginus as the 9th Bishop of Rome, thus employing an enumeration which involves the inclusion of Peter as first bishop. Irenaeus also speak of the two apostles (Peter and Paul) as together handing on the episcopate to Linus”(1913, 446-447). In addition, Irenaeus wrote:

Because it would be too long in such a volume as this to enumerate the successions of all the churches, we point to the tradition of that very great and very ancient and universally known Church, which was founded and established at Rome, by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul: we point, I say, to the tradition which this Church has from the apostles, and to her faith proclaimed to men which comes down to our time through the succession of her bishops, and so we put to shame…all who assemble in unauthorized meetings. For with this church, because of its superior authority, every church must agree – that is the faithful everywhere – in communion with which Church and tradition of the Apostles has been always preserved by those who are everywhere.’ He then proceeds to enumerate the Roman succession from Linus to Eleutherious, the 12th after the Apostles, who then occupied the See” (Herbermann, 1913, 446-447).

       This historical proof made the Papacy claim to be the only guardian of divine revelation on earth. As Yorke argued:

Outside of the Roman Catholic Church there is not a single denomination that claims infallibility. Each one of them claims to have a Revelation yet not a single of them claims that that revelation is infallible. If there is a revelation, that revelation must be in the hands of some infallible authority. Hence, if God appointed any body of men, or has appointed any man, to be the mouthpiece of that revelation, to be His messenger, that messenger must be infallible. If he makes a mistake, if he can corrupt the message, then it is no longer God’s revelation”(1903, 209-229).

       On the other hand, the Episcopal Church rejected the theory of the historical succession of individual bishops. Kung rightly presented:

Apart from the fact that the principle of an Episcopal succession is expressed only relatively late in the early Catholic Church and that up to now no historical proof has been produced of a chain of Episcopal succession, it must be rejected in two other circumstances: (1) If Episcopal succession is regarded as the exclusive means for the transmission of the full authority of office. Against this contention it must be argued “that the mission to a pastoral office cannot be established in a uniform way of transmission and succession from person to person, that a real mission and authorization thereto can be effected through the Holy Spirit by extraordinary means. (2) If the Episcopal succession is regarded as a guarantee of the tradition of pure doctrine and of the preservation of the unity of the Church. Against this criterion it may be argued that: “No ecclesiastical office as such as has been given the promise that its holders cannot lapse from the faith (1964, 163).


B. Similarities and Differences of the Congregational and the Free Church.

Similarities of Congregational and Free Church.

       Both Congregational Church and the Free Church have several similarities. First, both subscribe to the principle of autonomy (independence of the local church). Erickson explained that

by autonomy we mean that the local congregation is independent and self-governing. There is no external power that can dictate courses of action to the local church… Each congregation calls its own pastor and determines its own budget. It purchases and owns property independently of any outside authorities. While it may seek advice from other churches and denominational officials, it is not bound to follow that advice, and its decisions do not require outside ratification or approval. (1998, 1089)

       Second, both Congregational and the Free Church subscribe to the principle of democracy (authority resides on the members). Erickson explained that by democracy “we mean that every member of the local congregation has a voice in its affairs. It is the individual members of the congregation who possess and exercise authority... Much is made here of the priesthood of all believers” (Erickson, 1089-1090).

Difference of the Congregational Church and the Free Church

       The major difference between the Congregational Church and the Free Church is the presence and absence of organizational system. On one hand, “the Congregational Church follows a systematized congregational structure. There are basically four major paradigms in the exercise of leadership as practiced by the Congregational Churches. “First is the ‘pure democracy paradigm’ wherein all the members of the congregation participate in all the activities of the church since they don’t have any official leader. Second is the ‘single leader paradigm’ wherein the minister serves at the mercy of the whole congregation. Third is the ‘plural leader paradigm’ wherein the minister has assistants who serve at the mercy of the congregation. Last is the ‘corporate board paradigm’ wherein the members of the congregation elect their minister(s) as well as the members of the Board of Trustees who are official members of the church” (Grudem, 1994, 928-936). The members of the Board of Trustees, in turn, monitor and supervise the minister(s). Any major decision has to be made on the basis of the consent of the congregation. In a diagram, the corporate structure of the Congregational Church looks like this:


Congregational Church Structure


       On the other hand, the Free Church does not follow any structure at all. “The church would deny that any form of government is needed. It would depend on all the members of the congregation being sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. Decisions would generally be made by consensus”(Gruden, 1994, 936). The Free Church simply eliminated the idea of a visible church. As Erickson said “they hold that the church exists on earth primarily in its invisible form, which is made up of all true believers. Thus, there is no need for an organization involving specific officeholders as such. The presidency of the Holy Spirit is the ruling force” (1998, 1093). The diagram of the Free Church looks like this:


Free Church Government System







Chapter 2

Evaluation of the Different Forms of Governments from a Presbyterian Perspective


            Papal and Episcopal

       The strength of both Papal and Episcopalian system is the strong safe guard on the part of the clergy (ordained ministry). In other words, there is no interference on the part of the congregation as to the line of authority of the clergy. However there are various objections to the Episcopal form of church government.

One is that the system is too formalized; there tends to be more emphasis on the office than on the person who holds it. Exception is also taken to the theory of apostolic succession; the historical record seems weak and ambiguous at best. Further, advocates of the Episcopal form of church government give insufficient attention to Christ’s direct exercise of lordship over the church (Erickson, 1998, 1084-1085).

            In spite of the objections, the Papal and Episcopalian form of government works well if properly executed. The strength of this system is the proper molding of the leader. As Lang wrote:

So far as possible, candidates for the priesthood were to be kept removed from the world until they had sunk deep roots in the firm and rich soil of clerical life. Only then could they be trusted to undertake their rigorous work of the ministry…. And the result, generations of priests, deeply trained in habits of personal piety and imbued with a profound loyalty to the Church, formed a dedicated Catholic laity, upon whose support and cooperation bishops and priests could proudly and unquestioningly rely (1993, 10).

       This perspective explains the reason behind the specialized training of the candidates to the episcopacy (clergy or ordained ministry). This is known as the traditional schooling method which was adopted from the Greeks. Several years of training (about 7-10 years) were dedicated aiming to develop the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor of the candidate to the clerical life. About 4 years was dedicated for liberal arts to train the knowing; about 3 years was dedicated for divinity courses to train the being; and about 1-3 years is dedicated for apprenticeship to train the doing. In other words, this approach seeks to train the head, the heart, and the hands.

       The ideals of the papacy/episcopacy really worked well if executed properly. However, the problem arises when the bishop gets corrupted. Yorke said that even “the Pope is a man like any other men. Indeed, there were some popes who were unworthy of their sacred office (1903, 209-229). Moreover, the papacy/episcopacy paradigm has a difficulty in making changes in the church since there is a need to undergo the process of going to the top for approval no matter how immediate the change has to be. Furthermore, another problem of the papacy/episcopacy paradigm is that more often the leader is too far apart from the real world that he cannot be in contact with the realities of the daily life of the laity because the clergy is living in his own limited ideal world. Nonetheless, the papacy/episcopacy paradigm maintains unity since there is only one head.

Dr. Paul Seung-Oh An commented that the “strength of the Episcopal Church is its stableness because the church provides full money for the pastors. However, its weakness is “inertia” wherein the pastor do not work harder because he is already secured” (2000, p. 5).

Free and congregational

       The main advantage of both the Free Church and the Congregational Church is that those who make the church rules are those people who are bound to obey the rules. Moreover, the people who make the church rules in this system are in contact with the reality of their cultural worldview. They can change their by-laws any time to suit their situation since they are in contact both with their national culture as well as with their organizational subculture. Thus, changes can happen fast and easy through majority vote with no much hassle from authorities. Sobol correctly said that

the new paradigm that is emerging is more practical than altruistic. Authority is being shifted to frontline workers not to help them actualize themselves but to improve quality and productivity. At the heart of the new vision is one simple fact: The top-down style of making decisions is too sluggish and too removed from the action to produce the quality goods needed to compete in today’s market. At the same time, the new vision is based on communication, the free flow of ideas, and the reaching of full human potential. It puts people first. Rigid organizational lines give way to flexible networks, and the questioning of old thinking is not only encouraged, it’s expected (1992, 19).

       This new paradigm allows the congregation to have the authority in deciding how to improve the quality and productivity of their church since they are the customers who are in need of the service of the church. In other words, the service of the church must really meet the needs of the congregation. Thus, the congregation should be the authority in telling their needs which the pastor and the church workers should meet. As a result, Barna came up with the principle of “marketing the church.”

       Church marketing is the performance of both business and ministry activities that impact the church’s target audience with the intention of ministering to and fulfilling their spiritual, social, emotional, or physical needs and thereby satisfy the ministry goals of the church (1988, 48).

       The rise of “statistical research” in the church seeks to measure the impact of the service of the church in meeting the needs of the congregation as well as the target audiences. Any misappropriation in the statistical study will result to a change of service on the part of the pastor and other church workers to meet the needs of the congregation as well as their target audience.

       The only problem of this system is anarchy. Anarchy arises when there is no more sign of authority or when they make laws today and change it the next day. As Dr. Paul Seung-An said “the weakness of Congregational Church is when the congregation can not agree with each other” (2000, 5). In addition, Erickson presented several objections to the congregational form of church government.

       The first objection is that the congregational scheme disregards the biblical evidence for apostolic (and hence Episcopal) authority. Second, it is noted that there was a separation of the offices of bishop, elder, and deacon rather early in church history. Finally, while it is true that Paul’s letters are addressed to whole congregations rather than their leaders, John’s letters to the seven churches were addressed to the “angel” or “messenger” of the respective congregations, presumably the ruling elder in each case. (1998, 1092-1093).



       After presenting the analysis of the different forms of church governments, the researcher (a student of Presbyterian Polity) concludes that the most balanced church polity is the Presbyterian Polity since it is the midway between the extreme Papal/Episcopalian Church Government System and the extreme Free/Congregational Church Government System. The Presbyterian Form of Church Government simply avoided the extremes of both radical democratic liberalism of the Free/Congregational Church Government as well as the radical monarchial legalism of the Papal/Episcopal Church Government. On one hand, the Presbyterian Polity urged respect for the rule of law within the church. On the other hand, the Presbyterian Polity also urged respect for the democratic process within the church. Thus, the rule of law prevented the democratic principle from promoting a faith swayed by fleeting fashions and public opinions while the democratic processes prevented the rule-of-law principle from promoting an inflexible and outmoded orthodoxy.





An, Paul Seung-Oh. 2000. Church planting, evangelism, and mission: PS45 class notes. Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Barna, George. 1988. Marketing the church: what they never taught you about church growth. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navepress.

Boff, Leonardo. 1992. Ecclesiogenesis: the base communities reinvent the church. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Erickson, Millard Jr. 1998. Christian theology, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books.

Grudem, Wayne. 1994. Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Herbermann, Charles G. 1913. The catholic encyclopedia. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc.

Hoeksema, Herman. 1966. Reformed dogmatics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformed Publishing Association.

Hudson, Henry T. 1881. Papal power: its origins and development. USA: Evangelical Press.

Kung, Hans. 1964. Structures of the church. London: Burns & Oates

Lang, G. 1993. Ministerial training in historical perspective: a study in form and function in relation to the minister’s role as change agent or preserving agent. In E. Elliston (Ed.), Leadership training models: ML540 Reader (pp. 2-10). School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary.

Yorke, Peter C. 1903. The infallibility of the pope: cabinet of catholic information. New York: W.P. O’halloran & Co., Publishers.



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