Table of Contents
The Early Church 3
The Catholic Church Government 6
Church Government and Secular Government 9
Government and Protestantism 11
Ongoing Changes 12
Church government is a self-explanatory phrase for the mode of governance of the church, but the phrase has different meanings. The basic structure of governance in the Christian church derives from interpretations of the biblical text, with this structure mirroring the relationship between God and His followers. The structure of governance in the church ranges from the complexities of the Catholic Church, complexities in part created by the centralization of power in the Church as well as by its size and long history, to leaner and more decentralized structures for many Protestant groups, down to much simpler structures for smaller church groups that may not be linked to a larger external church structure. Many of the elements followed by most Christian churches, with the relationship of leader-flock between the priest/preacher and the congregation, derive from the relationship between Christ and the Apostles and then the relationship they had with other followers. This was certainly the derivation of the basic structure of the Catholic Church, which itself had variations in terms of that structure and the nature of the leadership, a structure that changed through history as various forces had an impact on the Church. Church government may be highly centralized or almost completely decentralized, with an extensive hierarchy or with a relatively simple hierarchy. The very idea of church government, though, implies some form of hierarchy, as does almost any type of government. Differences are found in how that hierarchy is formed, identified, operated, and viewed by the congregation. In many cases, the governance is imposed by the church itself. In other cases, the congregation decides many matters, including who will be given the role of preacher and spiritual advisor. Again, most of the differences derive from historical roots.
In a comparison of the Catholic church with a major Protestant group, the United Church of Christ (UCC), McMullen shows that the two have very different institutional structures, or "polities," “where a polity refers to a denomination's form of government. The Catholic church is an episcopal polity that has a hierarchical structure invested with formal authority; the UCC is a congregational polity with a decentralized structure, where all formal authority is situated in the local church.”1 There is a range of governing structures possible between the two on a scale of hierarchical strength.
Over time, the nature of church government changed, and it should be considered that the form which the government of the church takes in any given age is “an outward expression of a spirit working from within--the embodiment of some intelligible purpose.”2 Meaning can be found in the changes which have taken place in ecclesiastical organization, and these forms show at any moment in history what interests were paramount. The Early Church
The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus himself through his apostle Peter. Jesus announced the formation of the Church and appointed Peter as its head. When Peter was dying he appointed Linus to take his place and continue his teachings, and when Linus was about to die he appointed Cletus, and so on so that there was always a leader or Pope to lead and to interpret the teachings of Jesus to the members of the Church. By the second century A.D., the Christian church had developed as an institution to the point where it had a clearly defined system of authority based primarily on its Scriptures, its creed, and its hierarchy of bishop, priest, and deacon. The history of this development is in some dispute. The Church was based on the belief that it had been founded by Jesus who had conferred authority over the church on his twelve apostles. The Church was created by the resurrection of Jesus, a miraculous act of God. The two most important rituals in the early church were first the Eucharist, which was celebrated by repeating Christ's words at the Last Supper over bread and wine in obedience to his command to remember him and in the conviction that he was present as their risen Lord, and second was the initiation rite of baptism, a cleansing with water that was regarded as an essential part of conversion to Christ and admission to the community. The authoritative structure that was developed for the Church was intended to avoid the problems that were foreseen: "There was a real danger of its tradition being swamped in a mass of conflicting interpretations of the meaning of Christ's life and resurrection."3 This structure was highly successful at maintaining the core of the Church against the challenges of other sects and of various divisions within the church itself, often leading to massive schisms and to the separation of portions of the old Church into new factions. Perhaps the most massive of such changes came with the development of Protestantism, but the Catholic Church survived even that challenge and continues today to serve as a bastion for the protection of core...