I pastor a wonderful church. It is a church that is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Since I am attending the California Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting this week I thought I would write a few lines about the difference between hierarchical and independent churches.
Full disclosure: I have been a part of SBC churches my entire life. In fact, my mom used to tease me that I was in church at least eight months before I was born. When I was born my family belonged to an SBC church that had what was called the “Cradle Roll”. Ladies from the church would visit church families with newborns and enroll the newborn in Sunday School. In my case, this happened before I left the hospital.
This being said, many, if not most, of those who are members or attend Copper Springs Church do not have this background. For many, Copper Springs is the first SBC church they have attended. This seems like a good time to write a little about independent vs. hierarchical churched and specifically some of the ways SBC churches work together.
A hierarchical church system is one in which a governing body, at a national or international level, directs and dictates the practice of the local church. This would most often include: the placement of pastoral staff, the general outline of liturgy and services, as well as, the ownership of property.
An example: In the Catholic Church it is the church, headquartered in the Vatican, that owns all the property. When it comes to the assignment of priests there are two types. First you have what are called “Order” priests. These are priests who have taken vows within a priestly order like the Franciscan Order. These priests are assigned and directed by the Order. The other type of priest is called the diaconal priest. These are priests who, in most cases, come from a geographical area and have committed to spend their priestly careers in that geographical area. In either case, the local parish (church) has no say in who comes to serve as their priest.
With the independent church model, the local church is the base unit. Each local church functions, authoritatively, independently of any other governing body. Each church decides matters of religious practice and generally owns, as well as, manages their own property. Also, each church calls/employs pastoral staff. This is done by congregational vote or by elder appointment. You will find both congregational and elder governance in SBC churches, although traditional there are more congregational churches.
Most independent churches enter into cooperative/collaborative relationships. In the Southern Baptist denomination these relationships are at three levels. First, the local association of churches is a group of churches within a local geographic area that work together in ministry. Second is the state level. In California, that is the California Southern Baptist Convention. Finally, there is the Southern Baptist Convention that operates at the national level.
For each of the SBC cooperative group the local church elects messenger to represent that local church at meetings for the local association, the state convention and the national convention. The key is this: the SBC as a denomination has no authority over a local church. If a local church is deemed not to meet the fellowship requirements of the cooperative group the messengers from that church are not recognized and are not able to participate in meetings.
The bottom line is this: in the hierarchical denominational it is the larger ecclesiastical governing group controls matters of faith and practice. In the independent church, matters of faith and practice are determined within the local church.