Churches: The Dance of Forms


Charles asked me to write about how I analyze churches.

I view churches by how they are organized. The three platonic ideals are:
congregational, presbyterian, and episcopal.

The church in which I was raised was congregationally organized. The religious analog of democracy. The local congregation owned the church building, the pastor’s house and the treasury. These churches are run by the older ladies. They are so decentralized that they are not prone to corruption. Bickering, gossip, back-stabbing, but not corruption. When dogmatic arguments happen they tend to muddle through or fission into smaller congregations. We all know church denominations so small that nobody pays them attention.

Sometimes the church is owned and run by the pastor. These presbyterian churches are run like small businesses. The congregation are essentially an audience. They can grow quickly if the pastor is very good and shrink quickly depending on his ability and behavior. They can be prone to venality. Terry’s family once sought to join a church near their house and were asked about their income. That is preaching for profit. Of course it also allows the preacher to follow his conscience. [ Guililand’s Dilemma: Once you start following your conscience nobody can trust you. ] The real challenge to presbyterian churches is when a pastor dies or retires. To whom does he pass on the congregation? Is the value of the church his retirement plan? What if his heirs disagree religiously? These do not lead to long term stability.

An episcopal church is a corporate entity. A bishop on top runs the whole thing. The priests and congregation have little input into doctrine. The church, treasury, and lands are owned by the bishopric. If the bishop on top is trustworthy then the whole of the church follows his lead. It is the analog of an empire. It is only subject to venality on a large scale. The greed of the priests does not automatically infect the whole structure. Its beliefs are stable over long periods. There is little democratic constraint. When the person or committee at the top acts badly, the congregation must either accept or leave. There is little ability for a member to follow his own conscience. If a priest disagrees with the church he must either knuckle down or schism off into a separate church. As the church grows larger it may become brutal. Even if brutality is not intended, the power discrepancy is notable. Governments favor episcopal churches because they can be controlled.

Now, no real church falls precisely in these categories. But they are useful to analyze the churches that one finds.

The Roman Catholic church started out as a congregational church. The early Popes were elected by the entire congregation of Rome. That was how one became the bishop of Rome. Augustine was similarly elected the Bishop of Hippo. It is interesting to note when the Papacy became episcopal.

The church in which I was raised has a bishopric to which the congregations send delegates. This body runs seminaries and tries to maintain an even doctrine. The Bishopric controls a surprising amount of money and has become less dependent upon the congregations. With its independence has come a tendency to do things opposed by the members. I suppose this tension is healthy and has been going on longer than I’ve been alive, but it sometimes feels as thought the nature of the church is following a path I dislike.

There you have it. Do you seek a church in which you follow your conscience? Do you believe inspiration is limited to those at the top of the church? What will the inevitable drift of the church lead to? These are eminently adult questions and they also apply to other organizations. The US government was essentially congregational before the Civil War and the 17th amendment. It is now almost totally episcopal. This is a tool I use for these analyses. Use at your own risk.


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