Presbyterian Polity and Multi-Site Ecclesiology

This will be the last post looking at the polity/ecclesiology of different theological traditions and comparing them to a multi-site ecclesiology.  I’m sure that much more could be gleaned from looking at some of the Stone-Campbell traditions, Methodism, and maybe some varieties of Pentecostalism, but that will have to be done by others.  Here’s my take (as an outsider) of how a multi-site ecclesiology fits within Presbyterian polity.  I took the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as my representative Presbyterian group for this post in an effort to make it more concrete.

The idea of the presbyter or elder is foundational for Presbyterian polity. This is the term that gives the polity its distinctive name. In this polity, all presbyters are equal, but some have different functions.  Some are ordained as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, while others are elected from the congregation as elders and fellow members of the session. This session is a representative group of presbyters from the congregation that is set apart to lead the congregation. Presbyterian polity does not recognize an office of bishop that is above a presbyter, but instead holds that both titles are used synonymously in the New Testament.

The next level of authority above the session in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the presbytery. A presbytery is comprised of all of the particular churches and ministers of the Word and Sacrament within a geographic district.  As well as viewing a congregation as church, the presbytery is also an expression of church. These presbyteries are part of larger groups, called synods. A synod is a unit of the church that is responsible for more regional aspects of mission. The many synods, in turn, make up the General Assembly. Each of these groups, from congregations to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a whole, is thus led by representative groups made up of presbyters who have been elected from the congregation or the lower governing bodies.  This idea of leadership through representative groups is also fundamental for Presbyterian polity.

Each presbyter is theoretically equal to another, but some acquire more authority when they are elected to be officers in governing bodies on the basis of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Constitution.  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) polity thus functions with a hierarchy of governing bodies, from session to General Assembly, with each having a responsibility to ensure that the lower governing bodies under its purview act in accordance with the Constitution.

Multi-site ecclesiology shares an emphasis on geographic ideas with presbyterian polity, in part because of their widespread nature. The large multi-site church that I studied differs from presbyterian polity by eschewing the use of a hierarchy of representative groups throughout its network for governance. Though it does employ some representative groups in its worship centers and the network as a whole, these groups do not play the powerful role that they do in presbyterian polity.  However, this is not at all to say that presbyterian polity could not be employed in a multi-site church.  Clearly, as a system of governance, it would not conflict with the multi-site idea.

Multi-site ecclesiology shares with presbyterian polity an understanding of church that sees it as something more than a local gathering of believers. For both of these ecclesiologies, church is something that has a larger organizational presence beyond a local gathering.  In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it is in the presbytery, synod, and denominational levels. For the worldwide multi-site church I studied, the idea of church extends to the worldwide network, each worship center within the network, and also the small groups or house churches which also convene on a smaller level.

Presbyterian polity seems to fit well with multi-site ideas.  In fact, I think multi-site ecclesiology differs from Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian expressions, but it is also flexible enough to be able to incorporate ideas from those traditions within multi-site expressions.  It seems that the kind of polity that really conflicts with multi-site ideas is free-church polity, which is ironic, because it appears that the majority of multi-site churches come out of that tradition.  Soon, I will give my best shot at some constructive aspects of what a multi-site ecclesiology involves.

Source: Joan S. Gray and Joyce C. Tucker, Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers, 2nd ed.

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