Trinitarian Church Governance

In my post earlier this week, and the connected essay, I explained my ecclesiological reasons for deciding to enter the Episcopal Church. I also believe that there are foundational theological issues at stake in church governance and that these issues are rooted in God’s Trinitarian existence.

I would suggest that whatever form of church governance we choose – episcopal, congregational, or otherwise – there are certain principles of the Triune life that apply to the way we do church. Among these principles are:

Inclusion. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one God because they are fully included in each other’s life. We call this perichoresis, the mutually indwelling and inclusive life of the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father, and the Spirit in the Father and the Son.

Based on this Trinitarian principle of inclusion, church governance should include everyone in the church. For example: however your congregation is structured with pastors, elders, councils, etc., everyone in the congregation should be allowed to participate in making decisions on big issues such as how to do ministry and the way money is spent. Likewise, even in an hierarchical denomination, everyone should participate in denominational decision making. For example, the churches and their pastors should have formal methods of input and consent as to who their district, regional, national, and international leaders will be. They should be kept informed of how the money they donate to the denomination is being used, including the salaries of their leaders. The Episcopal Church, for example, is hierarchical but representatives of the clergy and laity are included in its denominational life through diocesan and national conventions.

Mutual accountability. God’s inclusive life as Father, Son, and Spirit means that the Father never does anything apart from the Son, or the Son apart from the Father, or the Spirit apart from each of them.

So, for example, congregations need to be held accountable to one another – either through a bishop, a presbytery, or an association. No congregation should be acting on its own, without connection or accountability to the larger Body of Christ. It is also important that bishops, prebyteries, and associations be accountable to the congregations whom they serve. This is one reason I prefer the Episcopal Church over other episcopally organized denominations. An Episcopal bishop is not only accountable to other bishops but also to the clergy and laity of the diocese.

Transparency. A life of inclusive mutual accountability naturally leads to transparency. T.F. Torrance is famous for saying that there is no God hiding behind the back of Jesus. In Jesus we have been given a transparent, full revelation of what God the Father, Son, and Spirit is really like.

In church I think this means that we don’t keep any more secrets than are absolutely necessary. For example, as a pastor I need to keep people’s confession and counseling issues secret, but my salary should be an open book to the people who pay it. Issues of leadership, ministry, or finances – whether within the congregation or the denomination – should be anticipated, talked about openly, and planned for through open discussion. Big issues like these shouldn’t be kept secret among a small group of insiders until circumstances force a public acknowledgment of them.

Even though I prefer episcopal church governance, for the reasons outlined in my essay, I think these principles of inclusion, mutual accountability, and transparency apply to any church organization of any structure or size. In fact, I would suggest that it is impossible for a church to be healthy and successful in its mission unless these basic principles of the Triune life of God are embraced, formally enshrined into the structure of the church, and consistently revisited over time as the church grows, changes, and faces new challenges.

~ Jonathan Stepp

10 comments so far

  1. Jane Hinrichs on

    Great explanation!

  2. Wanderlei on

    I am a member of GCI living in São Paulo- Brazil. We have been living alone for many years with no pastor, accontability or participation in any decisions or communion with the leaders internationaly. They came and visit us, we complain, and then they live us again alone for more 5 or 7 years.
    I believe in what your say – God lives in communion, therefore the members in Jesus body should also live. Even the smallest members in the body shold participate in comunion with the rest of the body, like small fingers conected with the hand, feeling the life of the body, and participating in it in a vivific way.

    God blesed you Jonathan and your family. You have been one of my
    pastors for many years, through internet, since there is none here in Brazil. We have listen all your sermons, thank you, they have been important for us.

    Wanderlei

    • Pastor Jonathan on

      Hi Wanderlei,
      Thank you for your kind words, it’s very encouraging to know that Jesus is blessing you through my sermons and ministry.
      I am very sorry to hear about the isolation you have been experiencing, I will begin praying for you and for the Father’s encouragement for you in what you are going through. Perhaps we can be in touch with each other a little more often through this blog, email, etc. I will continue writing here and posting sermon audio, so we will have that connection and perhaps we can build on it in order help you feel a little more connected to the Body of Christ.

  3. Wanderlei on

    Thank you Pastor Jonathan. We would like to build a connection with you.
    My e-mail is: xxxxxxxxxx.com.br

    Wanderlei

  4. Jerome Ellard on

    Hey, Pastor Jonathan!

    All I can say, is I love you!

    • Pastor Jonathan on

      Thanks, Jerome, I love you too! Thanks for all your encouraging comments on the blog and emails over the years. Let’s stay in touch and keep talking about the gospel!

  5. Micah Royal on

    Posted this on facebook too…
    Just read your blog on inclusion, mutual accountability, and transparency. I shared it with some folks in the association of churches my church-start is a part of. I don’t personally see the episcopal model as necessarily the best embodiment of those always, but I definitely agree with the essential nature of those principles and love how you grounded them in the Trinitarian life of God which we are invited to share in through Christ in the Spirit. I think a key issue churches and other faith organizations face is that Christ modeled a divestment of power, a kenotic process of leadership through service. So much of how churches function are exactly the lording it over others which Jesus seems to decry in some of his confrontations of the religious & political leaders of his day. I think the possibility of such abuse of power is part of why I am skeptical of hierarchical models such GCI used to (and may still) have and that the episcopal churches have — although the Episcopal Church USA has, as you mentioned, developed “checks” on those powers which, for instance, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have yet to implement. (I have not kept up with the governance of GCI enough to know if they still have their autocratic model). But I have to admit it is not just hierarchical churches that have this problem. The congregation where Kat and I pastored before our current church-plant was congregational and in an association, however went through problems when some of its leaders began to exclude other congregation members in key decision-making, become secretive about what was happening in the church, and attempted to sidestep their accountability to the congregation. It wreaked havoc on the church and created a very spiritually destructive environment and caused what I considered and called out as real abuses of power. So I am not sure if there is a “perfect” model to practice these principles but I do agree there is a sense that these three principles are necessary for a health church, denomination, or association but most importantly are grounded in the Triune life of God into which we have been baptized through the Son of God.

  6. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Micah, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I agree that the Episcopal Church has done a better job than the Catholic and Eastern churches in making their episcopal governance inclusive, accountable, and transparent – in fact, I’d say they’ve done a better job than many other churches in the Anglican Communion. That’s one of the main reasons that I would choose them over other episcopally governed churches.


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