As explained in a previous question, one Baptist Distinctive is the rejection of a central Church authority (whether an individual or a governing body). Instead, we hold fast to the autonomy of the local Church.

This has been my view, and coming from this perspective, I wonder what the doctrinal basis is for having a central authority. This could be answered from the perspective of any denomination that does have a central authority. This is not intended to be an argument for or against the validity of any claim. I would, however, ask that the responses be supported, either by scriptures, or by official Church statements, or other supporting documentation.

I realize that different groups may have different, or common answers, and that there may not be one "right" answer, but rather several "right" answers. If I need to pick a denomination for the question to be valid, I will certainly do so.

  • A doctrinal statement might just say "the structure of the church is...", just like for Baptists it basically says "the local church is autonomous". That doesn't sound like what you are looking for. Are you looking for why denominations think that structure is a good idea? Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 14:27
  • Not necessarily. Your answer was pretty much what I was looking for from a Catholic perspective. I know that there are other denominations that believe in the organizational structure as ordained by God. LDS for example, and I'm sure there are others. I'm looking for the basis of these beliefs, not to argue their validity, but simply to learn and see things from a different perspective. For those that organize in such a way for non-doctrinal reason aren't really what I was looking for, and those would be the ones that just "think structure is a good idea". Commented Nov 30, 2011 at 1:08

4 Answers 4


Support for central authority and organization is not strongly evident in the gospels, possibly because they were written with the purpose of telling the story of Christ and not the purpose of establishing the church. We do see a lot of evidence of a church organization in the book of Acts. As the article that DJClayworth linked to points out, Paul's later epistles are laden with references to church organization because organizing the church was an important concern of his.

Here are three NT passages that can be interpreted to support church authority and organization:

Luke 6:13 (KJV)

13 And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles;

Ephesians 2:19-22 (KJV)

19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;
20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;

Acts 14:23 (KJV)

23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.

A central church authority is a necessary byproduct of believing that certain ordinances are necessary for salvation. Ordinances often have rules for who can be administered to as well as how it must be done. Church authority is a very orderly and efficient way to regulate those requirements. The Old Testament is an excellent example of this. Notice that churches who put more emphasis on ordinances also have more structure (Catholic, Orthodox, and LDS churches, as well as the Jewish faith). And it's not just a good way to regulate the ordinances, but also a good way to regulate doctrine.

For more on the Catholic views, I would read the article referenced earlier by DJClayworth from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Its dense, but its thorough.

The LDS Church has lists of scriptures that they believe support church authority and organization. As expected, some references are from the Book of Mormon and other extra-biblical canon.

  • Excellent answer! Commented Dec 3, 2011 at 7:48
  • While the other answers were good, I chose this one because it provided a very insightful explanation of the relationship between the importance of ordinances and the importance of structure. In reading that, I literally slapped my forehead and said "duh!". It was blindingly obvious once it was pointed out, and it applies to pretty much every denomination I've "tried out" or know of, rather than one specific view. Again, excellent answer. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 2:25

A good article about the nature and structure of the Church according to Catholic doctrine can be found here. In short the Catholic view is:

  • The Church was instituted by Christ as one organization, not many
  • The church was hierarchic from the beginning. Local churches frequently sought approval from the central authority (the Apostles) even in Apostolic times, and church leaders were appointed by leaders from outside the local congregation.

The Anglican church disagreed with the Catholic church not on the desirability of a central organization, but only on whether national churches should be answerable to the worldwide church.

  • 1
    I'd contest that leaders were not typically "appointed from outside the local congregation"
    – warren
    Commented Nov 30, 2011 at 14:34
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    True, but it's expressed in this answer as a fact, not as a view. Comments on an answer's factual accuracy do belong here as they are concerned with improving the answer.
    – Waggers
    Commented Nov 30, 2011 at 18:25
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    @warren: The few examples we have from the New Testament show leaders were appointed from outside the congregation: Paul appointed Timothy to oversee the church in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3) where some leaders were teaching heresies, and Titus to oversee the churches in Crete (Titus 1:5). Do you have evidence that these were atypical? Commented Dec 3, 2011 at 23:36
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    @warren: But Timothy, the overseer or bishop, was an outsider. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 19:10
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    I thought "outside the local congregation" was describing the person doing the appointing, not the person being appointed.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 23:11

A central church authority can restore order when leaders of local congregations step out of line. We see an early example of this in the church in Antioch:

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. —Acts 15:1-2

The apostles and elders considered the matter, and sent instructions back to Antioch:

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, with the following letter: "The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell." —Acts 15:22-29

The letter settled the dispute:

So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. —Acts 15:30-31

Paul and Barnabas did not have enough authority on their own to combat the heresies of this group that had infiltrated their church. Leaving each congregation to its own resources would have been disastrous.


Although I'm not Catholic (If I had to I'd consider myself part of the Christian Church) I have friends and family that are Catholic and they have explained to me that the scriptural basis for central church authority comes from Matthew 16:18 and John 21:15-17 where the belief is that Jesus recognised Peter as head of the church on Earth (with Christ being its heavenly head) thus creating a central authority.

From there it is through Sacred Tradition they consider every pope to be Peter's successor and the rightful superior of all other bishops.

An expanded explanation of Peter being the first pope can be found here: Saint Peter

  • 1
    That's a good answer from a (I assume) Catholic perspective. Thank you for it. Would you be willing to modify the answer to specify the denominational perspective explicitly? There is great debate over whether Jesus is stating that Peter is the rock, or Peter's faith is the rock upon which He will establish his Church. The belief that these verses establish Peter as the head of the Church are a matter of debate. Specifying the denominational perspective would make this a more solid answer because it would ward off having that debate here. Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 1:57
  • I'm not actually from a Catholic background, although I have some family and friends that are. I've asked them about this before and that's the answer I was given. I'll modify my answer though if it's needed.
    – Zach
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 3:41
  • I don't think it's necessary. I just think the answer would be more solid. (then again, I'm not the authority on solid answers. ;-))No worries. Again, thanks for the answer.. Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 4:06

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