Jesus Christ has one body with many members. The one body is the global church throughout space and time, and the many members are the individual believers who comprise that body. In addition, there are what we call "churches", or "congregations", which are local gatherings of that one global church.
No one congregation can say to the others, "I have no need of you" (1 Corinthians 12:21). No congregation should act as though it were truly independent. Instead, each congregation needs to express its interdependence with the other congregations in some way. It needs to forego its autonomy and allow itself—in some ways—to be directed by the wider church (much as an individual believer would allow him/herself—in some ways—to be directed by the local church to which he/she belongs).
Thinking aloud (i.e., what follows could be very inaccurate!), three models of interdependence spring to mind, each of which seems to emphasise a different source of authority over the local congregation. Those three sources of authority are:
- the consensual authority of the church today,
- the written authority of the church of the past (expressed in creeds and confessions), and
- the authority of individual leaders of the church today.
Three models of interdependence within the body of Christ:
- Congregationalism (with strong and active associations), for example, FIEC, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. No congregation in the association wants to leave the association, because the association is extremely valuable (although they are free to leave if they wish to). But the bounds of the association, and its aims, are clearly defined, decided by the congregations collectively. Thus the primary source of authority over the individual congregations is the consensual authority of the church today. That is not to say it is the only source of authority. The members of the association value the past, and see themselves as following in the orthodox Christian tradition, clearly articulated in the Protestant Reformation. And the association has individual leaders who are highly respected. These may be elders (pastors) of prominent congregations who often speak at conferences, and whose voice is greatly respected within the association for setting its strategic direction. Or some elders (or "presbyters") may be set aside (or "consecrated") to an itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in the congregations of the association, and to supporting the elders of those congregations. But the dominant authority is the consensual authority.
- Presbyterianism. One difference compared with the first model is that the individual congregations are seen to be part of the wider denomination, rather than the denomination being an association of congregations. This would generally mean that individual congregations are not free to leave the denomination, in the way that self-governing congregations are free to leave an association. Presbyterian denominations also tend to have a much more detailed written standards, to which the elders (presbyters) subscribe. This tends to make the dominant source of authority the written authority of the church of the past (expressed in creeds and confessions). There is consensual authority among the various congregations, but the purpose of the various presbyteries and synods is largely to interpret the authority of the written standards of the denomination. And there may well be individual elders who are set apart (or "consecrated") to a more itinerant ministry within the wider denomination, but these people would not usually have a very prominent role.
- Episcopalianism. The name comes from the Greek word, episkopos, meaning "overseer", which is typically rendered in English as "bishop". In this model, a bishop is a presbyter (or "priest") who is set apart (or "consecrated") to an itinerant teaching ministry within a particular geographical area. Given the prominence of the bishops, it tends to be that the dominant source of authority over local congregations in this model is the authority of individual leaders of the church today. There is also the consensual authority; for example, the Church of England has a multitude of synods and councils, with considerable power. And there is also the written authority of the church of the past, for example, in the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles, although this authority may be disregarded to a greater or lesser extent.
What can we conclude from this? (Or what am I trying to encourage you to conclude by this very biased and simplistic presentation?!) It seems that there are great similarities between these three models of interdependence, but that they tend to emphasise different (legitimate) ways of expressing that interdependence. Maybe a balanced approach is needed? And maybe it's not too dissimilar to the operation of a local congregation, which would tend to have those three sources of authority: the consensual authority of the church meeting (commonly emphasised in congregational churches), the written authority of the congregation's constitution (commonly emphasised in presbyterian churches), and the personal authority of its leaders (commonly emphasised in episcopal churches)?
Of course, all of these sources of authority can be used to a greater or lesser extent. A congregational association might be very controlling, or it might be very broad and basically nonexistent. Or a presbyterian church could be extremely narrow (and prone to schism) or extremely broad. Or a bishop in an episcopal church might seek to exert too much control, or might not actually exercise very much authority at all.
In addition, there is the complexity that congregations within any one of these structures have to recognise the existence of congregations outside of those structures. An Anglican congregation cannot say, "I have no need of you," to the congregational or presbyterian congregation down the road, or vice versa (or the three-way equivalent!). So, while these structures are valuable, they are not the whole story.