Church Structure - An Introduction

The Reality of the church

In its essence, the church is a mystical reality which, as attested to by the apostle Paul, is best described as ‘the Body of Christ.’ This image, which appears in its most straightforward form in 1 Corinthians 12, but is also referenced in Romans 12, Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1, is Paul’s inspired attempt to express a reality that is, in many ways, beyond description. It is easy enough to describe the structure of the church as a human institution, and we shall do that below. To explain its reality as a spiritual institution with Jesus Christ as both its head and its heart is an entirely different thing. With Paul, we resort to metaphor to at least try to say something.

The image of the Body of Christ is one Paul landed upon as he reflected on his own life-changing encounter with the Risen Jesus. In the course of that traumatic event, Saul of Tarsus (as he was known then) was asked this question: ‘why are you persecuting me?’ Discovering that in persecuting Christians he was persecuting a man already dead (in his experience anyway), Paul began the long journey to understanding the relationship between Jesus and those who believe in him. Jesus relates to those who follow him as being himself.

This experience would lead to Paul’s insight that the church, the followers of Jesus, are collectively the Body of Christ, but each with his or her unique role to play. As the body has many parts, and all of them essential to the healthy life of the body and its optimal performance, so too does the Church. Within this image, there is no hierarchy of importance, other than to note the most honoured place belongs to the head (Jesus Christ). Every other part of the body is of equal importance and is essential to the whole.

However, the church is also a human institution. It must organise itself, maintain the essential elements of its communal life, make decisions about its teaching and its mission, fund its works and provide for the formation and support of those who attend to those works. This is the structure that most people perceive as the reality of the Catholic church. Like all human institutions, it requires leadership, planning, and coordination. It has also evolved a hierarchical structure to make clearer lines of authority and to expedite decisions. This is seemingly at odds with Paul’s image of the body but is also drawn from his teaching. We read in 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 of the order of ministries within the church and the contribution each makes to the life and mission of the whole.

Church structure is typically viewed as a hierarchy in the form of a pyramid, with the pope at the top, then bishops, priests and deacons, religious and laity structured on down through to the base of the pyramid, there is more to be acknowledged. Because of the servant-leadership exemplified by Jesus Christ (see John 13), those in leadership in the Church are to be profoundly aware that their leadership is not to be modelled on the way that leaders ‘of this world’ conduct themselves (Matthew 20:24 – 26). When faithful to the teachings of its head, the pyramid is inverted: the laity at the top as the ones called to go out into the world, and the religious, deacons, priests, bishops and pope there to support and serve them in this mission. See Grounded in baptism we all have roles to fulfill.

Organisational Structures within the Church

The following offers some insight into the functional organisational structures within the Catholic Church:

“Like any intricate and ancient phenomenon, Roman Catholicism can be described and interpreted from a variety of perspectives and by several methodologies. Thus the Roman Catholic Church itself is a complex institution, for which the usual diagram of a pyramid, extending from the pope at the apex to the believers in the pew, is vastly oversimplified. Within that institution, moreover, sacred congregations, archdioceses and dioceses, provinces, religious orders and societies, seminaries and colleges, parishes and confraternities, and countless other organizations all invite the social scientist to the consideration of power relations, leadership roles, social dynamics, and other sociological phenomena that they uniquely represent. As a world religion among world religions, Roman Catholicism encompasses, within the range of its multi-coloured life, features of many other world faiths; thus only the methodology of comparative religion can address them all. Furthermore, because of the influence of Plato and Aristotle on those who developed it, Roman Catholic doctrine must be studied philosophically even to understand its theological vocabulary. Nevertheless, a historical approach is especially appropriate to this task, not only because two millennia of history are represented in the Roman Catholic Church but also because the hypothesis of its continuity with the past, and the divine truth embodied in that continuity, are central to the church’s understanding of itself and essential to the justification of its authority.” See

Some Statistics and Facts Concerning the Church in Australia:

“There are more than five million Catholics in Australia. It is the largest single Christian denomination, representing nearly 25% of the community….The Church is made up of bishops, priests, deacons, men and women belonging to religious orders and laypeople. Through their baptism, all are called to enter into the life of the Church…The Church is organised into thirty-five dioceses, each headed by a Bishop. Dioceses include geographic areas as well as Eastern rites and the Military diocese. Each diocese is made up of smaller geographic areas, called parishes…The permanent national assembly of Bishops is the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). The elected President of the ACBC is the Most Reverend Mark B Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane…The Church, through its members, seeks to respond wholeheartedly to Jesus' command to love God and love neighbour. The Catholic Church is a worshipping, Eucharistic community, which carries out its mission to the broader community in a number of key areas including education, health, social justice and social service.” See

Original text by Shane Dwyer
Blue sky photo by Xavier Coiffic on Unsplash

Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019

30 October 2019

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