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A Discussion Of Church Governance That Are Practiced Today

There are basically five types of church governance that are practiced in Zimbabwean Christian landscape today. Of these five, three are the traditional and universally known categories, namely episcopal, congregational, and Presbyterianism. 

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A Discussion Of  Church Governance That Is Practiced Today.
The other two, that is, connexional and that of mega-churches or one-man led churches hybrids or modifications of the three and they are usually prevalent in Methodist Church in Zimbabwe and other African Independent Churches (IAC) while the aforementioned three are mainly evident in missionary established churches in Zimbabwe.

 This paper will seek to define these four types of governments, indicating the local denominations were such types are prevalent. The paper will further highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each of the types of governments as applied in the Zimbabwean context today. This paper will use the phrases church polity and church government style interchangeably.

This paper will start by looking at the Episcopal system of church governance. Livingstone (1977:175) defines episcopacy or an episcopal system as a “system of the church governed by bishops.” The bishop (or other designations depending with the denomination) will be technically the ‘episcopal head’ of the church. In most cases such a head is vested with executive (and sometimes worryingly sweeping) powers. Most mainline churches in Zimbabwe do use this system of church governance. These include the Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran among others.

On the strength of episcopacy, Mathew (2012) argues that “Bishop led church provides a strong structure… The Bishop thus can make decisions that keep the church unified…, and the confusion that would exist in congregation led churches or Presbyterian churches would be replaced by the order of the bishop”. Again, this system is able to respond quickly to heresy and take corrective action against such ministers, mainly because of the centralization in the way ministers are appointed. Secondly, it is easier for more resourced assemblies to share resources with the disadvantaged ones as resources are also centralised. Congregations also will have a shared vision that they run with and that makes supervision, correction and monitoring relatively easy for the leadership.

On the other hand, episcopacy has its own disadvantages that people need to look into. Because of the executive powers vested in one person, there is bound to be tendencies for dictatorship in this kind of system. Further, appointments may end up being compromised by nepotism, tribalism, favouratism, among other compromises at the expense of meeting the real needs of the organisation.

Secondly, we will look at the Presbytarianism as a type of church government. Presbyterianism is “a form of ecclesiastical polity wherein the church is governed by presbyters” according Livingstone (1977:413). Unlike, congregationalism, presybetarianism may not be seen as purely democratic “ because elders/overseers govern according to their obedience to the Word of God and with the authority that Christ has given them.” Mathew (2012).

This system of governance has its own advantages and challenges. The advantages of this system will include what its proponents view as the leadership polity congruent to the New Testament church. Longman (1977:413) lends credence to this observation by arguing that “its proponents in the 16th and 17th Centuries regarded it not as an innovation but a restoration of the apostolic model found in the NT, and many held it to be the only legitimate form of church government”. Again, because ministers are elected by the people one would assume that such ministers are deemed to be relevant to the needs of the local assembly and would have the requisite skills to meet those ministerial or pastoral needs, unlike a situation whereby central authority does the “hiring” and “firing”. Another advantage, especially in a Zimbabwean context, is that there is promotion local initiative and hence accountability is easy to follow. For example, in the area of fundraising: people are motivated to give because what funds are used for meet their needs and such funds can be easily accounted for locally.

Thirdly the congregational type of governance is yet another to consider. “this is form of church polity which rests on the independence and autonomy of each local church” (Longman 1977:125). In this type of church polity there is no centralization of authority. Mathew (2012) further adds that in an ideal congregational polity “the idea is that the entire congregation is responsible for the decision making of the church.” Again, in such churches, “the majority rules, the democracy style of government where the people vote to elect their pastor and the church board to administer the affairs of the church” Lim (1997). Churches practicing this type of governance in Zimbabwe include Baptists (various denominations in Zimbabwe), United church of Christ, and United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, among others.

One significant feature of a congregational system is that “ a congregation led church will make decisions as a church instead of leaving the control and thinking to leadership” Mathew (2012). This can be both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength in that there is congregational ownership of decision making process and hence such decisions are easy to implement. On the other hand, this slows down decision making process and the risk of the process being hi-jacked by ill-informed elements I very possible and hence compromising the quality of the final decision made.

Connexional polity is another type of church governance practiced in Zimbabwe. This polity is modification of the episcopal polity. It a “combines a loose episcopal hierarchy with a bottom-up structure, centered around small groups of congregations called circuits”. This system is prevalent in (and unique to) the Methodist church in Zimbabwe and other smaller denominations. While committees seem to bring some form of democracy in decision making, they tend to add unnecessary bureaucratic red tape and often times those with more influence despite their spirituality will hi-jack the process and hence compromise the decision-making process.

Finally there is a mushrooming of mega churches that follow a combination of the styles above. Most of them are effectively one-man (sometimes one-woman) led churches with no structures of accountability at all. These are modeled after the typical American Tele-Evangelists led churches. In instances like those the risk for doctrinal error is prevalent for there are no regulatory or boards of accountability that can hold the leader accountable.

The above categories are generally an approximation of the types of church governments in Zimbabwe. As noted above, one should always bear in mind the fluidity of most church denominations in Zimbabwe, as in not having a fixation with one form of church polity. Sometimes they have a modification or a hybrid of several in one. This is a more accurate assessment of the African Independent Churches in Zimbabwe.



Lim, Israel CS (1997) ‘Church Government’, Available at:
(Accessed 22 May 2014).

Livingstone, EA 1977. The Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Mount, Mathew (2012) ‘Compare and Contrast of Five Views of Church Government’, Yahoo Contributor Network, 24 December.  Available at: (Accessed 22 May 2014).

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2014). Ecclesiastical polity, 5 May. Available at (Accesse