Methodist Governmental Philosophy

Congregational and Connectional (Hierarchical)

Originally created for the Evangelical Methodist Church in 1964, by Dr. Fred D. Layman, Ph.D., Retired Professor, Asbury Theological Seminary and an Elder in the church.

There is a rather general agreement among church historians and scriptural scholars that the New Testament does not prescribe one form of church government over another. The New Testament makes clear that Christ is Head over the church, but it also provides for the temporal government of the church by duly appointed leaders.

CHURCH GOVERNMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AND HISTORY

In its earliest stage, the church was governed by the Apostles at Jerusalem who exercised control over the church, not only in Jerusalem, but also over Palestine, Samaria, and as far as Antioch in Syria (Acts 2:42; 4:37; 6:1-6; 8:14-17; 9:27; 11:22; 15:2-4; 22-30; 16:4; Ephesians 2:20). Paul exercised apostleship authority over the churches which he founded and appointed local leaders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5, I Corinthians 11:2). But many other churches were not founded by Paul or by the other Apostles, and seem to have established their own forms of government and rule. The New Testament itself provided only that there should be orderly behavior in the church under local leaders and those who “have the rule” (I Corinthians 14:40; I Timothy 3:15; 5:17; 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9), without specifying any particular form which church government should take.

Various kinds of church government have evolved historically out of the necessities of particular situations or out of personal preferences. Three main types have developed in the history of the church, each having several sub-types. These forms are the “Episcopal,” the “Congregational,” and the “Presbyterian.” They differ essentially in their understanding of where the temporal authority for church government is vested. The “Episcopal” type sees governmental power vested in the episcopacy, or council of clerical bishops, and is dispensed from them down through the various levels of the church. The “Congregational” type takes just the opposite view: governmental authority is vested with the local churches and is dispensed from them to the various levels of the church-at-large. The “Presbyterian” type stands between these two other forms: the local churches have the power to elect officers, or “presbyters,” but they then vest all governing authority in these officers.

THE EVANGELICAL METHODIST CHURCH – Congregational and Connectional

At the beginning of its history in 1946, the Evangelical Methodist Church decided in favor of a congregational and connectional form of denominational government. The Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church was adapted to include the hierarchical aspect of Methodist tradition called ‘connectional’. The Constitution of our church states in paragraph 61 of the Discipline that our form of church government is “both congregational and connectional in its form of government.” Paragraphs 63 and 64 then indicate two specific areas of that congregationalism, that is, ownership of local property and call of a pastor. These two specifics do not exhaust our congregationalism; however, for the Discipline states further in paragraph 202 the basic principle of congregationalism:

“The local church, acting in its Annual Church Conferences, constitutes the basic governmental body of the Evangelical Methodist Church. All other conferences and officers derive their administrative powers and duties from the local church acting through its delegates at the appropriate conference and General Conference levels.”

Every local church elects and sends delegates to the General Conferences and every local church can send revisions for changes in the Discipline.

KINDS OF CONGREGATIONALISM

But not everything has been said when a particular church designates its form of government as “congregational,” because there are several different types of congregationalism. These are distinguished primarily by the kinds of relationship that a particular local church has with other local churches in the same denomination and with the total denomination. There are thus three kinds of congregationalism: independent-congregationalism, cooperative-congregationalism, and connectional-congregationalism.

Independent-congregationalism is found among many independent, community churches in America, and is also that form of church government held in the Church of Christ denomination. In independent-congregationalism each local church is an entity in itself and is beholden to no church authority beyond itself. The local church itself creates its own rules of order, elects its own officers, creates and carries out its own programs, and ordains and disciplines its own ministry. It may “fellowship” other churches of the same denomination, but no other church or denominational agency has authority over it. Their bylaws and doctrines can change at any time.

The Southern Baptist denomination is an example of cooperative-congregationalism. There is among Southern Baptists a strong insistence on local congregational government and on the freedom of the local church from denominational control. At the same time, however, there is a recognition that a group of local churches acting in cooperation can do much more than a single local church can do in the work of the Kingdom. Therefore, the Southern Baptists have created denominational “agencies” which help to create and administrate denominational cooperative programs. But the central agencies have no governmental authority over the local church, and the local congregation is free to decide whether it will or will not participate in the cooperative programs of the denomination.

CONGREGATIONAL-CONNECTIONALISM

Congregational and Connectionalism goes beyond both of these forms of congregationalism in stating the relationship of local churches to each other and to the denomination as a whole. At the beginning of its history, the Evangelical Methodist Church elected a congregational and connectional form of church government, but it rejected the independent and cooperative forms in favor of the connectional hierarchical form. In the Minutes of the preliminary organizational meeting held in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 9, 1946, it is stated:

“J. H. Hamblen made a statement relative to the form of government and doctrines of the organization. Three things were emphasized: the need of a congregational form of government with sufficient supervision to make it connectional: the need of sound doctrine; and the need of evangelistic passion.”

The term “connectional” is thus not something added later to the word “congregational,” but was used at the very beginning of our church to designate the kind of congregationalism we would follow. Rev. Lucian Smith, our second General Superintendent, stated, “Dr. Hamblen’s vision was that the Evangelical Methodist Church adhere to the better features of the Episcopal (Methodist – “hierarchical connectional”), and the better features of the congregational (control by the local congregation) concepts of church government.”

The meaning of this form of church government was made clear in the first formal Discipline of 1949. Paragraph 63 in that Discipline stated:

“The local congregation is an integral part of the Conference of churches known as the ‘Evangelical Methodist Church.’ It cooperates with the Annual Conference** (District Conference) and the General Conference, and supports the work through all of its organizations as outlined in the Discipline. It is represented at and reports to the Annual Conference (District Conference), and accepts the Discipline as to general practice and ritual. The local church is congregational in government with property rights vested in the local church…the local church is also connectional.”

This statement has remained essentially the same down to our present Discipline. Congregational and Connectional means that:

“…the entire church operates under the Constitution and By-Laws enacted by the General Conference in the Discipline of the Evangelical Methodist Church. All local churches…operate under the Discipline.” (Paragraph 62)

This further involves the principle that:

“The local churches act cooperatively at the district and general levels by carrying out the programs and following the Discipline adopted by their delegates at these conferences.” (Paragraph 202)

In all this, our hierarchical system of church government makes no provision for independent rejection of, or faltering cooperation with our Discipline and denominational programs.

An important distinction should be noted at this point. Congregational-Connectionalism differs from independent-congregationalism and cooperative-congregationalism in that governmental power and authority in the denomination are not established by a local church, but by local churches (plural) acting and voting through their delegates at the general conference level. In our system, decisions made at the local church conference are binding only on the local congregation and do not obligate any other church or conference. But decisions made by the delegates from local churches at the general conference level are binding on the local churches which make up these conferences. A local church can disaffiliate from the Evangelical Methodist Church (Paragraphs 209, 609; Handbook p. 233, IX), but the vows it signs in the Affiliation Resolution, by which it becomes a part of the denomination, commits the local congregation to follow the Discipline, support denominational programs, and abide by majority vote of the various conferences as a matter of Christian integrity. That is what congregational and connectional is all about—local congregations willing to band together in a biblical ‘connectional’ Christian commitment and take up a common cause of united service and witness for Christ.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE MINISTRY

A second important distinction has to do with the ministry. Unlike the independent and cooperative forms of congregationalism, our ministers are not ordained by the local church but by the denominational General Church Conference (Organization charts, Handbook, pp. 240-241). It is thus a fundamental principle in our congregational and connectional covenant that an ordained minister is first of all a member of the General Conference and is responsible to it for the discharge of their ministry (Paragraphs 801-824). To be ordained he must subscribe “to the form, polity, and doctrines of the Evangelical Methodist Church as contained in the Discipline (Paragraphs 882, 1321). He is responsible to administer the Discipline, agree with our Wesley Arminian theology of biblical holiness, live and promote a lifestyle agreeing with our theological positions, and to promote denominational programs in the local church, along with regular pastoral duties. In those unfortunate instances where a minister violates the trust placed in them by the General Conference, they become subject to discipline, removal from pastoral ministry, trial, and loss of credentials (Paragraphs 1001-1025).

OUR CURRENT SITUATION

The intent of this article is twofold. First, it is written with the intent of encouraging study and understanding of the nature of our church government, clarifying what it is and is not. The Evangelical Methodist Church has never had forms of independent or co-operational as its governmental structure. Yet, a few churches and ministers have never seen the distinction between these and our form of government, even though our form of congregational and connectional hierarchical government has had a consistent expression and definition since the beginning of our church. More often, but not always, this lack of understanding has not been intentional nor out of malice, but has been due to a lack of study of our Discipline and a lack of clarifying statements. This article attempts to be helpful at this point.

But the total effect of a lack of understanding of our system of government has been to retard the orderly growth and development of our church and outreach programs. Therefore, this article is written secondly out of the conviction that the Evangelical Methodist Church has come on a crisis point in its historical development—a crisis which comes to focus on a right understanding of the nature and function of our governmental organization and structure. How we resolve this crisis may well determine whether we begin to renew our growth and eventually reach the stature and effectiveness of the larger sister holiness denominations, or become an increasingly fragmented, obscure, and reactionary little group with little witness, such as has been the fate of a few other holiness denominations.

The General Church began to solidify defining our congregational and connectional government so as to remove obstacles to growth and avoid the pitfalls outlined by Dr. Layman over 20 years ago. Through the action and labor of two former General Superintendents, Dr. Lloyd Garrett and Rev. Clyde Zehr, and the General Superintendent at that time, Dr. Jack Wease, along with the General Council produced revisions to the Discipline, fresh publications, and the creation of a Handbook of the Disciple. This has brought clarity and understanding for our clergy and churches in their understanding of our congregational and connectional government.

The Handbook of the Discipline is published under the title ‘Discipline of the Evangelical Methodist Church’ and is a portion of the same book. Our Handbook was created by the General Council in the mid nineties and received and adopted annually since the 1998 General Conference. It contains all General Conference legislation that is binding upon the all clergy and affiliated local churches. The contents are updated in accordance with any action of a General Conference and reviewed by the Board of Discipline Revision (BDR). The BDR approves any revisions presented to the General Conferences for the Discipline. These revisions cannot be originated by the BDR, but come from local church annual meetings and the General Council.  The BDR functions similar serve to the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church with the authority to recommend striking anything in the Handbook that contradicts the Constitution or the By-Laws. They have consistently affirmed the accuracy of the Handbook at our General Conferences, including the last General Conference in March 2010.

(Revised by Publications, 2004; March General Conference 2010)