Church history is an amazing field of endeavor. I wish I had taken that up in my college years, but I doubt you can make a living out of it or at least I doubt that I could do so. Anyway division within Christianity [by that I mean those who accept at a minimum two points: 1) God is three Persons & One God; 2) Jesus Christ is fully God and fully Human]. All Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic communions accept this as truth.
Many people will then proceed with the what happens to me issue of Sorteriology(the study of salvation). It’s a natural inclination, however the difficulty with this position is in the selection of the authority by which one determines the process of salvation. All three groups will again agree that the Bible is the word of God. The problem is first that the church existed prior to the canon of the Bible. If one wanted to claim that the Bible is only the books in the Old testament, then one could support the view that the Bible existed prior to the church; however we already have such a group- we refer to them as Jews.
The next step then is in the area of Eccelesiology. The study of church gov’t is foundational to most of the issues that divide Christianity IMO. It has the same issue of Sorteriology, but one can use church history to see how the church understood just what they received from Christ and the Apostles and those who followed behind them. Knowing when these variations in church gov’t started, by whom and on what basis provides a working basis on which to discuss this topic. It would be les difficult to simply select the canon of scripture first (as many will) and develop their Sorteriology first then their Eccelesiology.
Sadly I would venture that the overwhelming majority of Christians accept their form of church gov’t, based more on good preaching, good choir/music, how that local church’s beliefs line up with their own personal beliefs and a good support community. IOW most individuals will accept very different forms of eccelesiology based on other factors I would deemed as subjective matters.
I have taken the matter in reverse historical order of when these ideas gained acceptance by (IMO significant portions of Christians). Being Catholic I am biased in that I list the Catholic Church last, since I believe it to be the oldest and the one established by Christ to perform His mission on earth.
It is very difficult to pick a given denomination as being representative of the whole when it comes to our first gov’t system in Christianity which is called -Congregationalism. Most scholars would made a case for
John Smyth [yes I broke down and got lazy and used Wikipedia as an autoritive secondary source -God forgive me] established this style of church gov’t. Since the Baptist are the largest representative of this doctrinal position today, I select their definition of The Church
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.
Matthew 16:15-19; 18:15-20; Acts 2:41-42,47; 5:11-14; 6:3-6; 13:1-3; 14:23,27; 15:1-30; 16:5; 20:28; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 3:16; 5:4-5; 7:17; 9:13-14; 12; Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:19-22; 3:8-11,21; 5:22-32; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:18; 1 Timothy 2:9-14; 3:1-15; 4:14; Hebrews 11:39-40; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Revelation 2-3; 21:2-3. [Underlining by myself]
and a warning from a Baptist pastor in temptation by the SBC to centralize local church authority[well intentioned as I understand it-eliminate deviation in doctrinal matters- what Catholics would term heretical] which I though may be helpful as well under Congregationalism.
Note that the local church is called autonomous, guided by Christ through a democratic process and the individual is accountable to Christ (infered here is that the individual is not accountable to the local church, although one would assume that the two would be linked in theory since both are guided and accountable to Christ). It also acknowledges that all believers in every age is part of the body of Christ. The difficulty in defending this position is that it didn’t exist prior to 1600 A.D. Hence most defenders will jump back to the 40 to 60 A.D. time frame, claiming that they have restored what was lost in the past 1550 years. The only way to restrict the arguement is to limit the authority to the Bible alone, because the position does not exist in the historical record.
Next is Presbyterianism which was a bit easier to nail down simply because, they like those that follow in this discussion adhere to a more structure system of the church.
The scripture doth hold out a presbytery in a church.
A presbytery consisteth of ministers of the word, and such other public officers as are agreeable to and warranted by the word of God to be church-governors, to join with the ministers in the government of the church.The scripture doth hold forth, that many particular congregations may be under one presbyterial government.
This proposition is proved by instances:
I. First, Of the church of Jerusalem, which consisted of more congregations than one, and all these congregations were under one presbyterial government.
This appeareth thus:
First, The church of Jerusalem consisted of more congregations than one, as is manifest:
1st, By the multitude of believers mentioned, in divers [places], both before the dispersion of the believers there, by means of the persecution, and also after the dispersion. 2dly, By the many apostles and other preachers in the church of Jerusalem. And if there were but one congregation there, then each apostle preached but seldom; which will not consist with Acts vi. 2. 3dly, The diversity of languages among the believers, mentioned both in the second and sixth chapters of the Acts, doth argue more congregations than one in that church.
Secondly, All those congregations were under one presbyterial government; because,1st, They were one church.2dly, The elders of the church are mentioned.  3dly, The apostles did the ordinary acts of presbyters, as presbyters in that kirk; which proveth a presbyterial church before the dispersion, Acts vi. 4thly, The several congregations in Jerusalem being one church, the elders of that church are mentioned as meeting together for acts of government; which proves that those several congregations were under one presbyterial government.And whether these congregations were fixed or not fixed, in regard of officers or members, it is all one as to the truth of the proposition. Nor doth there appear any material difference betwixt the several congregations in Jerusalem, and the many congregations now in the ordinary condition of the church, as to the point of fixedness required of officers or members.Thirdly, Therefore the scripture doth hold forth, that many congregations may be under one presbyterial government.
II. Secondly, By the instance of the church of Ephesus; for,
First, That there were more congregations than one in the church of Ephesus, appears by Acts xx. 31, where is mention of Paul’s continuance at Ephesus in preaching for the space of three years; and Acts xix. 18,19,20, where the special effect of the word is mentioned; and ver. 10. and 17. of the same chapter, where is a distinction of Jews and Greeks; and 1 Cor. xvi. 8,9, where is a reason of Paul’s stay at Ephesus until Pentecost; and ver. 19, where is mention of a particular church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, then at Ephesus, as appears, Acts xviii. 19,24,26. All which laid together, doth prove that the multitude of believers did make more congregations than one in the church of Ephesus.Secondly, That there were many elders over these many congregations, as one flock, appeareth.Thirdly, That these many congregations were one church, and that they were under one presbyterial government, appeareth. The scripture doth hold out another sort of assemblies for the government of the church, beside classical and congregational, all which we call Synodical.Pastors and teachers, and other church-governors, (as also other fit persons, when it shall be deemed expedient,) are members of those assemblies which we call Synodical, where they have a lawful calling thereunto.Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and oecumenical.It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that there be a subordination of congregational, classical, provincial, and national assemblies, for the government of the church.
The difference btwn Presbyterianism and Congregationalism is that it believes that while scripture does indicate local churches, there is a structure of pastoral authority which the collective local churches and the individuals are required to submit too. It’s major jump off point btwn it and the Episcopal system is because scripture does show bishops(overseer) in functions of that of a presbyter. In fact scripture shows Apostles doing the same as well. Hermeneutics (interpretation) of scripture therefore becomes important.
The next system of government is Episcopal. Depending on whom one speaks to there are 3 versions or practioners of this system. The first Anglicanism has historically been defined by the 39 articles.
XIX. Of the Church.
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
XX. Of the Authority of the Church.
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils.
[The Twenty-first of the former Articles is omitted; because it is partly of a local and civil nature, and is provided for, as to the remaining parts of it, in other Articles.]
The original 1571, 1662 text of this Article, omitted in the version of 1801, reads as follows:
“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”
I think most Anglicans would agree that the first break with Rome was not valid (King Henry VIII); however most would disagree with what they would term the second with Queen Elizabeth I. Their position would be that it was a political move by the papacy, rather then a theological break with Rome as the Catholic church claims.
Next is Orthodox like Catholicism both claim to be the True Church established by Jesus Christ. Both groups believe that Christ willed One church, episcopal in nature, sacramental, perserved in apostolic succession with the Bible as God’s word with the church as it’s guardian in interpretation, which it views through the greater body of work refered to as Tradition.
The two major differences btwn the two groups are the issue of the role of the bishop of rome in the church and the filioque (procession of the Holy Spirit) as contained with the symbol of the Catholic creed, but not in the former. [A lenghty discussion in itself].
That’s it in a nut shell. I’ll make an update and refer back to this in another article. If those of you from other communions believe they have a better primary source for their communion, I’d be interested in it.
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