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I realize that Catholics believe in apostolic succession, and that they were explicitly given authority by Jesus himself. In other denominations, what, if anything, other than the choice made by its members gives the church authority over them?

I am speaking here not of "church" meaning a community of Christians, but "church" meaning a specific entity that owns property and instructs its members on what they may or may not do (such as tithing, indulgences, sexual practices, marriage, musical choices, etc.), led by a specific human individual or group.

I used to think that non-Catholics dedicated themselves to a church conditionally -- that is, they stay as long as the church seems to be serving God's will, and leave or seek to change the church if it doesn't. However, in practice that doesn't seem to happen much. I know many Christians who have never even read the Bible directly -- they pray and live solely according to the directions of their pastor and his/her interpretation of God's will, their only direct contact with the Bible is in small quotations strewn about a sermon completely out of context. These particular individuals feel that only a pastor can know what is true, and that as laypeople they are required to follow without question. Is this a mainstream belief, and if so, from what does it stem?

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In most churches I've seen, the members don't allow the church any authority, only the Bible (which the church hopefully teaches). –  dancek Sep 8 '11 at 19:23
    
Lutherans have apostolic succession too, btw. –  dancek Sep 8 '11 at 19:33
    
@dancek I'd forgotten that, thanks. –  HedgeMage Sep 8 '11 at 19:41
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@dancek Can you explain that to me? Actually the apostolic succession was interrupted in Lutheran church when Luther consecrated Nikolaus von Amsdorf a bishop. And why else should there be a high-church movement …? –  Karl von Moor Sep 8 '11 at 19:45
    
@KarlvonMoor: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… -- I don't wanna argue about the issue itself, I'm just saying (some) Lutherans believe they have apostolic succession. –  dancek Sep 8 '11 at 19:50

3 Answers 3

This is a great question.

In the Presbyterian churches I have participated in they have had the following structure:

  • Denomination - An organization (often national) that oversees many different regional bodies (in my denomination called Presbyteries). It is a representative democracy, where each Presbytery has a representative and they vote to determine policy.

  • Presbytery - A regional group of churches. This is also a democracy, each church has representatives (typically elders) who are elected or hired by the members of the church.

  • Church - A church is a local congregation of consisting of voting members and non-voting attendees (there are vows etc for members). The Members vote for people to become elders and deacons, and pastors.

Thus in the Presbyterian system, much like the government of the United States the power of the church and its officials is derived directly from the members of the congregation. If the members are unhappy with their pastor or elders there are procedures in place to remove them from their positions. The congregation is considered to be the "Body of Christ" and thus the source of the Church's operational authority.

The Presbyterian church accepts only the Bible as an infallible doctrinal standard, but also points to the Westminster Confession of faith as a concise statement of their beliefs. The Bible is not amendable, however there are circumstances under which the confession can be amended.

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According to the Latter-Day Saints, apostolic succession and an unbroken line of Priesthood authority is necessary in order to maintain the church, to lead it by the light of revelation and keep it from straying into apostasy. They maintain that due to a combination of persecution from without and apostasy from within, the line of true Priesthood succession was completely lost within a few centuries after the time of Christ, sending the church into a dark age in which there was no divine revelation and no divine authority.

The LDS claim that the Reformation, though noble in its efforts, could not be fully successful, because it was founded on the efforts of man and not on divine revelation and divine authority. The authority had been lost, and could only be restored by direct intervention from Heaven.

This authority was restored to earth by being conferred upon the prophet Joseph Smith by the ancient apostles Peter, James and John, who received it directly from Jesus. Joseph Smith later ordained others to the Priesthood, who ordained others and so on, and records have been kept scrupulously, so that today any LDS Priesthood holder can trace their "line of authority," as it's called, back to that event.

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Wouldn't it be a problem for Joseph to be talking with dead people? There are clear Bible prohibitions against doing that and it got Saul into some trouble. –  The Preacher Sep 9 '11 at 0:30
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@The Preacher: Saul lived before the Resurrection. According to Joseph Smith's account, they were resurrected beings, not "dead people." –  Mason Wheeler Sep 9 '11 at 0:34

This is something that is answered differently by nearly every denomination.

For example, in the churches of Christ we believe that any organizational structure larger than the individual congregation is not well-supported from scripture. Separate congregations can and do work together and recognize a commonality, but none has authority over the others; congregations are led by their own elders, and there is no body, synod, convention, presbyter, diocese, or any other structure than Christ and scripture that has authority over the congregation. We generally do not believe in the use of creeds, and in general strongly oppose any distinction between layperson and clergy, and do not ordain ministers.

This is not to say we do not have ministers or that they are not trained, but we do not "ordain" them, and there is no specific qualification for a minister. I know a few who have not even completed college, but this is the exception and not the rule.

What does happen is that individual members are encouraged to study the bible directly. A congregation will have bible classes for adults as well as children at each worship service, where members will work together to increase their understanding of scripture.

Here, congregations and the church do not have authority over members; Christ has authority over all.

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