Ecclesiastical polity is the operational and governance structure of a
church or of a Christian denomination. It also denotes the ministerial
structure of a church and the authority relationships between
churches. Polity relates closely to ecclesiology, the study of
doctrine and theology relating to church organization.
2 Use as a term
3 Types of polity
3.1 Episcopal polity
3.2 Hierarchical polity
3.3 Connexional polity
3.5 Congregational polity
4 Polity, autonomy, and ecumenism
5 Plurality and singularity
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Issues of church governance appear in the first chapters of the Acts
of the Apostles; the first act recorded after the ascension is the
election of Matthias as one of the Twelve Apostles, replacing Judas
Iscariot. Over the years, a system of episcopal polity developed.
During the Protestant Reformation, reformers[who?] asserted that the
New Testament prescribed structures different from those of the Roman
Catholic Church of the day and different Protestant
bodies used different types of polity. During this period Richard
Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (published
1594–1597) to defend the polity of the
Church of England
Church of England against
views of the Puritans.
Use as a term
Ecclesiastical polity is used in several closely related senses. Most
commonly it refers to the field of church governance in the abstract,
but it also can refer to the governance of a particular Christian
body. In this sense it is used as a term in civil law. Polity is
sometimes used as a shorthand for the church governance structure
Types of polity
Though each church or denomination has its own characteristic
structure, there are four general types of polity: episcopal,
connexional, presbyterian and congregational.
Main article: Episcopal polity
Churches having episcopal polity are governed by bishops. The title
bishop comes from the Greek word episkopos, which translates as
overseer. In regard to Catholicism, bishops have authority over the
diocese, which is both sacramental and political; as well as
performing ordinations, confirmations, and consecrations, the bishop
supervises the clergy of the diocese and represents the diocese both
secularly and in the hierarchy of church governance.
Bishops in this system may be subject to higher ranking bishops
(variously called archbishops, metropolitans, and/or patriarchs,
depending upon the tradition; see also
Bishop for further explanation
of the varieties of bishops.) They also meet in councils or synods.
These synods, subject to presidency by higher ranking bishops, may
govern the dioceses which are represented in the council, though the
synod may also be purely advisory.
Also, episcopal polity is not usually a simple chain of command.
Instead, some authority may be held, not only by synods and colleges
of bishops, but by lay and clerical councils. Further, patterns of
authority are subject to a wide variety of historical rights and
honors which may cut across simple lines of authority.
Episcopal polity is the predominant pattern in Catholic, Eastern
Oriental Orthodox and
Anglican churches. It is also common
Lutheran churches, as well as amongst some of
the African American
Pentecostal traditions in the United States such
Church of God in Christ
Church of God in Christ and the Full Gospel Baptist Church
Some religious organizations, for example
Jehovah's Witnesses and The
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, describe their polity as
hierarchical. In practice, such polities are similar to an episcopal
polity, but often have a much more complex system of governance, with
several dimensions of hierarchy. Leaders are not called "bishops", and
in some cases have secular-like titles such as "president" or
"overseer". The term "bishop" may be used to describe functionaries in
minor leadership roles, such as a parish leader; it may also be used
as an honorific, particularly within the Holiness movement.
Main article: Connexionalism
Methodist churches use a derivative of episcopal polity known as
Connexionalism, or Connexional polity, which combines a loose
episcopal hierarchy with a bottom-up structure, centered on small
groups of congregations called circuits.
Reformed churches, notably those in the
Reformed traditions, are governed by a hierarchy of
councils. The lowest level council governs a single local church and
is called the session or consistory; its members are called elders.
The minister of the church (sometimes referred to as a teaching elder)
is a member of and presides over the session; lay representatives
(ruling elders or, informally, just elders) are elected by the
congregation. The session sends representatives to the next level
higher council, called the presbytery or classis. In some Presbyterian
churches there are higher level councils (synods or general
assemblies). Each council has authority over its constituents, and the
representatives at each level are expected to use their own judgment.
For example, each session approves and installs its own elders, and
each presbytery approves the ministers serving within its territory
and the connections between those ministers and particular
congregations. Hence higher level councils act as courts of appeal for
church trials and disputes, and it is not uncommon to see rulings and
Presbyterian polity is the characteristic governance of Presbyterian
churches, and also of churches in the Continental
Elements of presbyterian polity are also found in other churches. For
example, in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America,
governance by bishops is paralleled by a system of deputies, who are
lay and clerical representatives elected by parishes and, at the
national level, by the dioceses. Legislation in the general convention
requires the separate consent of the bishops and of the deputies.
Note that in episcopal polity, a presbyter refers to a priest.
Main article: Congregational polity
Congregational churches dispense with titled positions such as bishop
as a requirement of church structure. The local congregation rules
itself, elects its own leaders, both clergy and laity, ordains its own
clergy, and as a "self-governed voluntary institution", is a type of
religious anarchism. Appointment of local leaders and councils by
external authorities derive from a separate bureaucratic or
Members may be sent from the congregation to associations that are
sometimes identified with the church bodies formed by Presbyterians,
Lutherans, Anglicans, and other non-congregational Protestants.
Neither the congregations nor the associations exercise any control
over each other, other than having the ability to terminate membership
in the association. Many congregationalist churches are completely
independent in principle. One major exception is
Ordination of clergy,
where even congregationalist churches often invite members of the
vicinage or association to ordain their called pastor.
It is a principle of congregationalism that ministers do not govern
congregations by themselves. They may preside over the congregation,
but it is the congregation which exerts its authority in the end.
Churches that traditionally practice congregational polity include
congregationalists, Baptists, and many forms of nondenominational
Christianity. Because of its prevalence among Baptists, and the
Baptists among Protestant denominations, congregational
polity is sometimes called "Baptist polity."
Polity, autonomy, and ecumenism
Although a church's polity dictates how it is governed and how its
ministers figure in that governance, it need not have any implications
on relationships between church bodies. The unity of the church is a
doctrine central to ecclesiology, but since the divisions between
churches presuppose a lack of mutual authority, the internal polity
does not directly provide answers on how these divisions have been
For example, among churches with episcopal polity, different theories
In Eastern Orthodoxy the various churches retain formal autonomy but
are held to be unified by shared doctrine and conciliarity (that is,
the authority of councils, such as ecumenical councils, Holy Synods
and the former standing council, the Endemusa Synod.)
Catholicism the church is viewed as a single polity headed by
Anglicanism the churches are autonomous, though more than half the
membership are organizationally united in the
which has no powers of governance.
Plurality and singularity
Plurality refers to systems of ecclesiastical polity wherein the local
church's decisions are made by a committee, typically called elders.
The system is in contrast to the "singularity" of episcopal polity
systems as used in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican
churches, or the pastor/president system of many Protestant churches.
Plurality of elders is commonly encouraged, with variation of
practice, among Presbyterians, some
Pentecostal churches, and Churches
of Christ, Disciples of Christ and
Plymouth Brethren (who employ
congregational polity). The practice is drawn from Biblical precedent,
acknowledging that churches in the time of the
New Testament appear to
all have had multiple elders.
Catholic Church hierarchy
Organizational structure of Jehovah's Witnesses
Structure and polity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
Bishop - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster
Dictionary. Merriam-webster.com (2012-08-31). Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
^ Dowley, Tim. Dowley, Tim; Briggs, J. H. Y.; Linder, Robert Dean;
Wright, David F.: Introduction to the History of Christianity.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002, S. 646
^ self-governed voluntary institutions - see Anarchism
^ Viola, F. and Barna, G.Pagan Christianity: exploring the roots of
our church practices (2008) Carol Stream:Tyndale
^ Strauch, A. Biblical Eldership: an urgent call to restore biblical
church leadership (1995) Dayspring
Cragg, Gerald R. Freedom and Authority: a Study of English Thought in
the Early Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press,
1975. N.B.: A study of religious authority (especially p. 97-218)
as well as the secular authority of the state. ISBN 0-664-20738-3
Henderson, Ian. Power without Glory: a Study in Ecumenical Politics.
American ed. Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1968, cop. 1967. N.B.: A
study of the conflict and prestige of episcopal church authority with
other forms of church polity as they affect inter-Christian relations
and ecumenism. SSN 5042-1497-2
New Testament Church Government - A Look at the Biblical Eldership
Jesus in Christianity
Son of God
History of theology
Oriental Orthodox (Miaphysite)
Assyrian Church of the East
Assyrian Church of the East ("Nestorian")
Law and Gospel
Son (Hypostatic union
Means of grace
Union with Christ
Incurvatus in se
Summary of differences
Millenarianism (Pre- / Post- / A-millennialism)
New Covenant theology
War in Heaven
History of Christian theology
Assumption of Mary
Protestant ecclesiology (Branch theory)
Priesthood of all believers
Arminian / Wesleyan
Conditional preservation of the saints
Theology of the Cross
Five solae (Sola fide
Soli Deo gloria
Baptism with the Holy Spirit
Outline of Christian theology