When I was being interviewed by the leadership at Bethel with a view to my taking up the pastorate, someone asked me my views on Church leadership. I replied, a little facetiously, "I am not in favour of the monarchical episcopate." The immediate response from a group of ordinary men was, "What?" I then explained that the Monarchical Episcopate is the reign of one Bishop, one-man Church leadership, where the authority finally rests in one person at the top.
The historic episcopal denominations, such as the various national Episcopal churches, many Lutheran national churches and the United Methodist Church of the USA with the various Methodist Episcopal Churches planted by them have evolved a series of checks and balances; that and the fact that many local clergy just tell the Bishops where to go if they do not agree with them, a definition of "canonical obedience" which may be defined as, "I obey the Bishop when I think he is acting canonically". Behind and above the bishops lies the Canon law. Of late even the Roman Catholic Church has had priests who have done this.
But we have seen the rise within evangelicalism of what can only be described as one-man megachurches. Now, there have always been individuals possessing great charisma who have gathered Churches, or regenerated decayed churches and who have as a result had a great following. In these cases it has been hard to deal with such people when they go off the rails. But this is a new phenomenon, dating back to the decline of the old denominations after World War 1.
The old denominations had just that in their favour - they were old. They had a past, a heritage and a tradition. The Methodists had their Conference (British Methodism is not Episcopal), the Presbyterian system was well defined, Congregational Churches had the power to depose their pastor by a majority vote. What was more, they looked back on their heritage, and the Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians could all say "our forefathers tore down episcopacy, we will not build it again." But the new Churches, the Pentecostals in particular, had initially very unclear ideas on the government of the Church. Where one man planted a Church, he could very easily become a monarch.
The modern megachurch does exactly that; the minister is a monarch, accountable to no-one but God. That Divine Right of Kings, so forcefully rejected by our Puritan forefathers, has been brought into the Church as the divine right of pastors. Brethren, this ought not to be so. It tramples on the rights of the Christian people, and it exalts a man to a very dangerous place.
Lord Acton famously wrote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It should be no surprise that churches where the power is concentrated in one man have so often ended up in spiritual abuse, as even elders cannot stop the 'Man of God' in his rampage, however delusional he may have become. The end result in far too many cases is a man who is a little local pope, whom none may question without facing his wrath and ultimately anathema if they persevere in criticism.
This is, I would contend, the necessary result of such a form of monarchical Church government. Make a man a king, and such is the nature of sinful humanity that he will be tempted to act like the worst sort of absolute monarch. Add to that the idea that he has a special personal revelation from God, and you have the sort of mentality that drives the cults. Is it any wonder that a refugee from one of these churches said to a friend of mine, "the Church has become a cult centered on the Pastor"?
I am one of four elders in a Church governed on Congregational lines. For all the criticism that has been made of that system, it has one great advantage; it does not concentrate power in one person, but shares it among the people, it recognises that God's temple is the people of God, and the Holy Spirit dwells in us all. And best of all, it recognises that as councils and synods may err, so too pastors and elders may err.