Christian Converser

Ecclesiastical Polity: Diversity In Structure & Governance [2] – Episcopal / Presidential / Apostolic Leadership Structure

Carrying on from the first part of this series with a change of title, polity varies a lot between different churches. The early church in the New Testament appears to have had a congregational type of polity. There is not enough detail there to confirm this and there are naturally differing interpretations due to the somewhat lack of clarity. What we do know is that over time the governance / structure evolved into an episcopal form where a hierarchy of bishops were developed and these became distinct from the laity, or ordinary members, of the church. The distinction over time became more entrenched and arguably more focused on political positioning of the church, especially in Rome, and less about spiritual life. That is not to say there was no spiritual life, there was still plenty of it up until even the reformation and since, in what we now know today as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, which sought to establish themselves as the one true church throughout the known world. These churches have rich ecclesiastical traditions and that aspect of their operation was not neglected even when they sought to be politically positioned in society, and in fact became influential in government over a period and also governed territories for a time (the Papal States being the main or perhaps only example).

The episcopal polity is derived from the authority of the 12 Apostles and the idea that their leadership authority has been continuously and successively transferred down the ages through the laying on of hands. In other words, the bishops of each generation appoint their successors. The whole church leadership is thus appointed, and there is overall a top down hierarchy of leadership in these churches. When the Reformation took place, churches were established that did not follow this traditional doctrine of apostolic succession because their leaders were chosen on the purportment of being directly called by God, rather than being chosen by the leadership of the existing churches. Nevertheless, what has been called in some measure the “presidential ” style of leadership polity or governance has been established in modern day churches, particularly those of a Pentecostal tradition. The assumption herein is that God has appointed new apostles to found and lead these churches, and that these leaders are given sole and exclusive authority over their flocks, with accountability only to God. The difference therefore between traditional and modern forms of episcopalianism mainly rests on whether one considers that the office of apostle has only ever been granted to The Twelve in Jesus’ time and has died out since, or whether God is constantly calling new apostles to leadership today.

In any case, the key characteristic of episcopalian polity is the assumption that the apostle or head of the church appoints all other leaders who are accountable only to him/her and that the only higher authority that an apostle (or senior pastor as they are more commonly called in evangelical circles) is directly to God and not to any other human apart from secular authorities. Thus, leadership of the church is not influenced or in any way directly accountable to the flock or congregation. The obvious weakness is that senior leaders can exert a lot of power over their churches with little or no penalisation for wrongdoing. Protestant churches unlike the RCC often have a board of elders whose role is supposedly to scrutinise and have oversight over the senior leadership. However these are nearly always directly appointed by the senior leader, or perhaps in consultation with the existing elders. The inherent conflicts of interest in such power structures effectively deny any semblance of real accountability. Part of the reason for the problem is that apostolic leaders are often put on a pedestal and are assumed to be more godly and with greater spiritual authority than other leaders. They are often given generous salary and benefit packages and privileged access to church resources.

There is also the tendency to exalt apostolic church leadership especially in the Protestant stream if they have successfully built a large church (particularly a megachurch). This particular article is being written in full reflection of recent and ongoing megachurch leadership scandals that have occurred over the past two or three years, especially in a joint US/Australian context, as well as in historical churches. These almost all follow the same kind of trend: wrongdoing being covered up by the senior leadership until it becomes public knowledge, at which point there is an ignominious “falling from grace”, followed by a large amount of recrimination and fallout. Some of these churches have closed and disbanded, or else continued in a severely weakened form, with an uphill battle to regain their previous credibility, especially if a disgraced leader returns to their former role within a fairly short time frame, or refuses to step down.

How do apostolic led churches get into these situations? Whilst there are some strengths of the apostolic/episcopal style of leadership, such as being able to push through leadership direction and succession in a fairly direct and straightforward way, various common human failings contribute to the problems that are virtually inherent in this leadership style. Part of the issue in Protestant churches in recent years has been the emergence of a highly questionable set of theological beliefs called the New Apostolic Reformation by C Peter Wagner (1930-2016), in which he proclaimed the dawn of a new era of apostolic leadership in the global church, based on his observance of developments in the establishment and growth of new church movements. Wagner stated that these churches were becoming the fastest growing and most influential organisations of their generation. The key problems and challenges with Wagner’s NAR theology are that it over-emphasises the importance of traditional Pentecostal “signs and wonders” beliefs in church formation and practice, whilst also promoting other questionable doctrines such as dominionism and theocracy. Wagner also further promoted the apostolic leadership model through the establishment of various bodies, including the International Coalition of Apostles of which he was the “presiding apostle”. Much controversy was generated by suggestions that these apostles exerted supreme leadership authority by virtue of their purported divine appointment over all churches in their particular region. The NAR has since become a movement in its own right, the idea being that it is quite distinctly different from conventional denominationalism, in that NAR churches come directly under the authority of apostles rather than traditional denominational affiliations.

The idea however hasn’t really caught on that much, and the primary problems are the same regardless of whether a church is associated with NAR or not, that with this style of leadership the question of accountability remains the same. Wagner postulates that these apostles (or senior pastors in traditional churches) are accountable to each other or through some body like a coalition of apostles. The problem with this is that the senior pastor themselves is choosing what to be accountable on. In most of the megachurches and others that follow the presidential leadership model, the senior pastor holds such a degree of domination over their church’s overall leadership that they can effectively decide those questions themselves. In other words, true accountability can only actually occur from within an individual assembly and then from within the members of that assembly; and to achieve this, the leadership structures of the church must be such as to allow the members to bring those questions. That model of leadership will be examined further in the fourth part of this series.