Lesson 3 — England and Church Organization

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will see the similarities of the groups influenced by Calvin’s thought, despite their different views about church organization.

  1. Disagreements. The reformed church has divided into many separate groups.  Most of these divisions took place in England.  The divisions were not caused as much by differences in doctrine as by disagreements about how to organize the church.  This lesson explains these different ways to organize the church.  All of these different viewpoints were brought to China by the missionaries.  Even though the China of today has united all these traditions into one organization, yet the different viewpoints still exist, and these different ideas all remain part of the legacy of Christianity in China.
  1. Church of England.. Before the reformation, the people of England were Catholics.  In 1532, the King of England¹ replaced the pope as administrative head of the church in England, and instituted the Church of England.  He did this because he had asked the pope to allow him to divorce his wife and marry another woman, but the pope did not give him permission.  However, the king did not change the teachings of the church in England; the teachings were still Catholic teachings .  The Church of England was at first influenced by Luther’s ideas, and then began to include Reformed ideas during the time of the king’s son². The next ruler, a queen³, made the Catholic church legal again, but England separated permanently from the Catholic Church during the long reign of the  next queen¹¹.  The Church of England is also called the Anglican Church. In the United States, it is called the Episcopal Church   After 1800, the Anglican Church sent missionaries around the world, so there are now Anglican churches in many countries.  In 1835 the first Anglican missionary arrived in China,  The following paragraphs explain how the church of England is organized.  
  1. Rule by bishops. The Church of England maintains the same organizational method as the catholic and eastern orthodox churches, which is “rule by bishops,” also called the episcopal system (because the English word “bishop” developed from the Greek word “episcopos,” which means “supervisor.”) Each bishop is responsible for a region. In that region, they can make decisions, settle disputes, and appoint people to be pastors.  However, the bishops are not independent.  They are appointed by a higher authority, and they are responsible to that person.  For the Church of England, the highest authority is the king.  Today, the religious guidance is carried out by the highest bishop in England, but the King has the honorary title of head of the church in England. In the orthodox churches, there are several regions, and each has a high authority called the “patriarch.” For the Catholic Church, the highest authority is the pope.  In today’s China, the Catholics are allowed to give honor to the pope, but not decision-making authority.  That is why some Catholics have not registered.  The bishops have authority in this type of system because of another idea, described below.
  1. Apostolic Succession. According to this idea, a bishop has authority only if he is ordained by another bishop, who was ordained by another, in a line stretching back to the apostles in the first century.  This approach can not be found in the Bible, but it appears very early in Church History.  Around 96, the bishop of Rome, promoted apostolic succession.  He taught that the apostles appointed people to take their place, and arranged for this process to continue.  Up to today, a bishop under this system is not considered “valid” unless he is ordained by someone in the apostolic succession. Most Protestant churches do not accept the need for apostolic succession, but believe that what is important is that the apostles’ teaching is passed down from generation to generation through pastors and teachers.  Protestant churches that do use the apostolic succession include the Church of England and the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Some other Protestant churches use the word “bishop,” but do not insist on apostolic succession.
  1. Dissenters. Even though the Church of England accepts justification by faith and the “three onlies” and other Reformed views, yet some English Christians left the Church of England, because they felt the church’s views of  “church organization” and “church customs” were not sufficiently different from the Roman Catholic views.  According to the principle of “Bible only,” they felt a church should not teach something that is not in the Bible. They wanted the Church of England to give up the rule by bishops, and to give up other external similarities to the Catholic church, such as special clothing for pastors, and having statues inside the churches. These people were called dissenters. There were two types. Some of these dissenters remained within the Church of England, to try to change it from within: they are called “Puritans.” Others left the Church of England, and had to worship underground, since the Queen Elizabeth only regarded the Church of England as legal. These people were called “separatists.”  When the dissenters said “Bible only,” they had a different meaning than that of Luther and Calvin.  The latter two men were concerned that the only norm for doctrine be the Bible, not the pope or tradition.  However, the dissenters went beyond this, demanding that even customs be limited only to customs that are found in the Bible.  We can ask ourselves whether their views are a bit extreme since the Church needs to be able to adapt to the situations it finds itself in every age.  Most Protestants feel that we have the freedom to change our administrative structures and practices as long as they are not contrary to the Bible.  For example, we may use microphones and other technologies without fear that we are committing a sin.
  1. Presbyterian system. The dissenters all agreed that they did not want to be led by bishops, but they could not agree among themselves as to which organizational system was more biblical.   Some of them followed the method of the reformed churches in Europe.  In this system, each church elects delegates.  At a delegate meeting, decisions are made for all the churches in that area.  This meeting elects delegates for a higher level meting, which makes decisions for a larger area.  Since the biblical term for leader is “elder,” these churches are called Presbyterian (because the Greek word for “elder” is “presbyter.”)    In the local congregation, there are “ruling elders” who take care of church business and a “teaching elder” who is the pastor.  At the time of Queen Elizabeth, use of this system was illegal in England, but in 1560 Scotland accepted the Presbyterian system.  Presbyterians in Scotland have become well-known for their educational attainment, and have thought of many logical ways to overcome objections to the faith.   The first Protestant missionary who came to China, Robert Morrison who came in 1807, was a Scottish Presbyterian.  When you hear preaching about the intellectual basis for the Christian faith, you are receiving a legacy of the Presbyterian movement.
  1. Congregational System. Other reformed believers did not accept the Presbyterian system. They felt that every church should be independent, and that there should be no delegate meetings.  Their system is called the “congregational” system.  During the time of Queen Elizabeth, this system was illegal, so many of these people emigrated and in 1621 emigrants from England set up the Congregational church in America.  Since 1957 part of the congregational church in the USA has called itself the “United Church of Christ.”  Many  other church groups have organized themselves in a congregational system, and many of these groups have served in China. 


  1. Biblical systems. All these reformed groups condemned one another because they felt that only their system was biblical. However, in time each body recognized the others as being a denomination of the Universal Church.  All now realized that the method of organizing is not a reason to doubt whether someone is a true believer. The Lutherans did not enter this controversy, because they have existed successfully under all of these systems.  In Scandinavia, Lutherans  have bishops, who are under authority of the king.  In Germany, Luther relied at first on the help of the government to improve the church.  Today the church in Germany makes decisions independently of the government, although until recently the government did subsidize the church.  In America, Lutheran churches are independent, but often have delegate meetings.  In today’s China, the church organization system uses ideas from many of these historic methods.  There are bishops, and there are levels of decision making at many levels, through meetings of the government religious affairs representatives and the government-sponsored church representatives. When they meet together they are called the “meeting of the two” (liang hui.)   There are also unregistered churches that do not take part in these meetings, though many keep in touch with each other.
  1. Methodists.   John Wesley was a Church of England pastor. He tried hard to live a holy life, but  was worried about whether he truly was saved.  One day he attended a worship service in which Luther’s teachings were being read.  Luther emphasized that we are saved by faith alone, and in that year, 1738, Wesley realized that justification was by faith alone  He preached to the poor outside the church and formed them into groups for Bible study and mutual accountability.  His method of forming groups for systematic teaching explains why the groups were called “methodist.”  The Church of England did not approve of Wesley preaching outside of church buildings, and creating a movement that was outside of their control.  However, Wesley did not leave the church of England.  The first group to organize separately from the Church of England was when in 1784 Wesley’s followers in America founded the “Methodist” church.  In 1795, the Methodists in England separated from the church of England. The organizing method of the Methodist church is similar to the Presbyterian method in that there are delegate meetings, and similar to the Church of England in that there are supervisors, who assign pastors to churches, generally for three years at a time. In America, these supervisors are called Bishops, though they do not require the apostolic succession.  Many teachings of the Methodist church show the influence of Calvin, except that Methodists accept views that were taught in 1610 by a Calvinist who did not accept Calvin’s views on predestination, but rather emphasized free will. ¹²   In 1847 the first Methodist missionaries came to China.
  2. Personal Holiness. Wesley stressed growth and improvement in the Christian life. Further, Wesley taught “Christian Perfection:” that people can grow to the point where they can refuse to do outward sins. (Wesley admitted that he had not grown to that point).  Wesley thus had a more idealistic view of the possibilities for human change than other churches had.  Lutherans for example looked at people’s “old natures” realistically, and reminded people that we are “sinners and saints at the same time.” Please read the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 7:14-18.  Was the apostle Paul able to stop sinning completely? ___  That is because sin is not only the bad things we do, it is also the flaw of human life. We are sinful, having a human nature that is inclined to do evil. While we should strive not to do sin and only to do good, the Bible teaches us that we cannot become perfect in our actions on this side of heaven. Though Wesley had an idealistic view, one cannot deny that he spurred many Christians to good works.  He himself strongly urged the poor to leave their habit of drunkenness and to take care of their families.  To do this day Methodists are very active in social ministry.  When you hear preaching that urges you to strive for personal holiness, you know that Wesley’s influence is still active today.  Lesson 37 will explain more about Wesley’s views. 
  3. Toleration. Each country slowly accepted the independent churches that did not join that country’s official church. For example, in 1689, the King of England allowed the other Protestant churches in England to be legal.  However, not until 1778 did the Catholics in England receive full tolerance. Because every kind of church emigrated to America, the idea of religious toleration was essential in America.  In 1783, the United States declared that the government could not prefer one church above another


Go on to next chapter         Return to church History English Menu

Fottnotes”  1) Henry 8  享利8    2)  Edward 6    3)  Queen Mary    11) Queen Elizabeth I    12) The man was named Arminius, and so the emphasis on free will as opposed to predestination is called “arminiansim.” The Methodist church is a major example of a church that teaches arminianism.  The next chapter will sow that some Baptist churches teach arminianism, and some teach predestination.

 Word List.  apostolic succession [shi tu lu xu]  使徒陆续   使徒陸續 。 Church of England  英国国会, 英國國會 = Anglican Church [an li gan pai] 安立甘派,[sheng gong hui]  声公会    聖公會, also Episcopal Church. Congregational Church  [gong li hui] 公理会  Congregational System  Dissenter [fan dui zhe]  反对者  episcopal system [zhu jiao xi tong]  主教系统   liang hui  两会  Methodist Church  [Xun dao Hui]  循道会 (會); a branch is [wei li gong hui] 卫(衛)理公会.  patriarch [mu shou].牧首  Presbyterian church [zhang lao hui] Presbyterian Church [zhang lao jiao hui]  长老会  長老會  Presbyterian System  [zhang lao xi tong]  长老系统 [,ei ge jiao hui z zhi xi tong]  每个教会自治系统 Puritan  [qing jiao tu]  清教徒  Scandinavia  [bei ou]  北欧  Separatists [fen li pai]  分离派  United Church of Christ [ji du ian he jiao hui]  基督联合教会  Wesley, John [ye han.wei si li]  约翰。卫斯理    衛斯理