- A church's polity is its form of government. Like the words politics, police, and policy, the word is ultimately derived from the ancient Greek polis, which evokes both the order and the community of the ancient city state. As Protestantism developed, especially during the Puritan controversies in England, three forms of church polity were recognized - episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational. over time, additional variations were introduced.EPISCOPAL POLITYAs the name implies, episcopal polity is based upon the authority of the bishop (episcopos, overseer), originally the leading Christian elder in a given city. By the time of ignatius, at the beginning of the second century c.e., evidence shows a single bishop as the head of each local church; ignatius likens the one bishop to the one God, whose representative he was. From the city, the bishop's authority reached out to the surrounding countryside. The bishop's headquarters was almost always the central city of the territory over which he presided (the diocese), and bishops came to be called by the city name, rather than the district or province name (hence, the pope is referred to as the bishop of Rome). The bishops of the larger dioceses came to be seen as archbishops and/or metropolitans.in the fourth century, when Christianity aligned with the Roman government, the church began to acquire secular authority. Constantine, for example, granted the church some judicial powers. over the centuries, the authority of bishops increased as all rival religions were pushed to the fringe of society. The centralized authority of the church in the West came to be focused on the diocese and bishop of Rome.Some Protestants found the episcopal system acceptable. In England under Henry VIII, where the anti-Catholic cause revolved around the authority of the pope within England, the early reformers did not question the authority of bishops. The new Church of England simply transferred the pope's authority to the archbishop of Canterbury (under the king's supervision).Episcopal polity assumed that the bishops' power was derived from Christ through his apostles, the original bishops, by a process of laying on of hands - ordination. This is termed apostolic succession. The church came to be defined as those individuals, congregations, priests, and so forth, who were in communion with the bishops. In this system, bishops should be able to trace their lineage back to one of the apostles, although modern scholarship maintains that such lineages cannot be accurately traced in the first two centuries after Christ.As Protestantism developed, a legitimate apostolic succession became a prized possession for those favoring some form of episcopal polity, including the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Moravians. However, it was not always available. Following the American Revolution, after John Wesley failed to gain Anglican episcopal orders, he improvised. Declaring that he had for some time done the work of a bishop in raising the Methodist movement, he assumed episcopal authority and designated two "superintendents" with authority to organize the now independent American branch of the movement. American Methodists allowed Wesley's superintendents to pass episcopal authority on to Bishop Francis Asbury. In effect, the church replaced apostolic authority with Wesley's charismatic authority.A number of newer Protestant groups, especially in the Holiness and Pentecostal tradition (both ultimately traced to Methodism), have chosen to adopt an episcopal form of church government, but without succession. They simply designate leaders as bishops and define their powers in the denomination's constitution. These churches consider their bishops legitimate and expect them to be shown proper etiquette.PRESBYTERIAN POLITYJohn Calvin, founder of the Reformed Church in Geneva in the mid-16th century, argued that there was no biblical justification for a separate order of ministry called bishops. Bishop was just another name for elder. He argued for a church ruled by elders or presbyters (Greek for old man), hence the name Presbyterian. In his system, there were two kinds of leaders - teachings elders or ministers, and ruling elders, laypeople who cared for the temporal affairs of the church. Elders carried out their functions in a system of ruling bodies, decision making being seen as a corporate rather than individual matter.Within the Reformed tradition, the name given to the gathering of elders varies from country to country and from denomination to denomination. In American Presbyterianism, for example, the elders at each local church constitute a session. Representative ruling elders and teaching elders in a region together constitute a presbytery. Three or more presbyteries may come together in a synod. The larger Presbyterian bodies have a national gathering, the general assembly. The decisions at each level are binding on those below it.The Reformed or Presbyterian churches saw themselves ideally as exclusive state churches, aligned with the government. This actually occurred in several Swiss cantons, one German state, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Calvin's polity spelled out the church-state relationship, including the duties of the magistrate to order society and keep sinful behavior in check. The magistrate also had the duty of supporting the church and backing its efforts to perform its divine mandate. Under the Puritan Commonwealth in England in the mid-17th century, an attempt was made to impose a presbyterial system on England. Outside of these countries, however, Presbyterianism has always had to develop in a pluralistic setting, without the benefit of backing from the government, and often in the face of state hostility.CONGREGATIONAL POLITYIn England and New England, immediately after the Westminster Assembly of 1645 published its "Form of Presbyterian Church Government," presbyterian polity was challenged by a dissenting group, the Congregationalists. This group shared Calvin's Reformed theology with the Presbyterians, but opted for a polity centered on the local church. Their position was offered in two documents, both released in 1648, the Savoy Declaration in England and the Cambridge Platform in New England. in both cases, the authors argued that the basic form taken by the visible church in the biblical text is the local church. As the Savoy Declaration notes, "To each of these churches thus gathered ... he [Christ] hath given all that power and authority, which is any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe."in the congregational system, there was room for synods and other pan-congregational gatherings, but their role was largely advisory. Their authority came for their wisdom and the power of social pressure. The Congregationalists, just like those favoring episcopal or prebyterial polities, saw themselves ideally as the state church of the nation (or of the colony, in New England). They expected close cooperation from the magistrates, who were to support the church by providing civil order and prosecuting those who actively opposed the church, such as blasphemers and heretics.The Puritans, who began to emerge during the Elizabethan era, all supported Reformed theology, and all agreed that the church should remain coterminus with the nation and aligned with the government. They disagreed as to polity, with groups supporting all three forms.THE FREE CHURCH CHALLENGEA fourth possible polity was proposed at the very start of the Reformation among the Anabaptists.They argued against the assumption that all citizens should be defined as Christian at birth, and that the church was coterminus with the state. To them, the church consisted only of those who as adults had come into a relationship with God, believed the Gospel, and committed themselves to Christ in baptism. The church was thus a small gathering within the larger society under the otherwise secular state.For Anabaptists, the essential goal was to develop a pure assembly of believers, purity defined as conformity to biblical behavior patterns and allegiance to the doctrinal consensus. in the absence of the magistrate, the only means of imposing discipline on misbehaviors or dissenters was through shunning (banning) and ultimately excommunication or disfellowshipping.The early Anabaptists practiced a Free Church congregationalism, with charismatic individuals assuming the authority to carry out specific tasks, such as writing a statement of beliefs (the Schlei-theim Articles). During the era of persecution in the Netherlands, Menno Simons assumed the authority of a bishop, much as Wesley would do among the Methodists, and operated as the guiding force in the movement. over the centuries, various Mennonite groups retained the office of bishop, but as time passed, most of its real authority was stripped away.Baptists, the most radical wing of the Puritan movement, departed dramatically from their fellow Puritans on polity issues. They rejected any ties to the state and opted for the congregation as the seat of authority. Any pan-congregational gathering could have only the authority it was specifically given by the local churches.As the Baptist community developed, it reflected a spectrum of opinions on pan-congregational structure. The Southern Baptist Convention accepted the idea that the convention could develop programs serving the whole membership, which were not subject to the dictates of any single congregation. The Primitive Baptists held annual meetings for fellowship purposes only. The most radical branch, the Churches of Christ, rejected the idea of any churchwide conventions or gatherings. Those tasks that other denominations assign to such bodies, such as the publication of periodicals or the founding of colleges, are left to the initiative of individuals or local congregations.TRANSITION TO THE MODERN WORLDAs Protestant churches moved into highly pluralistic countries and had to abandon even the hope of state-enforced domination, the nature of church polity changed. The authority that once rested with the state was now transferred to whoever owned the property. in the American Catholic Church, for example, all property in the diocese is invested in the bishop, who holds it in trust for the church.in most of the larger episcopal or presbyterian denominations in the United states, property is held collectively by a judicatory, which owns it in trust for the denomination. in Congregationalist churches, both those of a Puritan Congregational background and those of an Anabaptist or Free Church background, local congregations own their own property; pan-denominational organizations may also own property, held in common for all of the congregations. For example, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is a denomination with a congregational polity. The synod is the child of the churches, but also exists as a corporate entity that owns a headquarters building and educational institutions, and controls a variety of agencies and boards, some of which also own property On the other hand, in the Churches of Christ, there is no pan-denominational facility; periodicals, mission agencies, and schools are in the hands of individuals, private not-for-profit corporations, or local churches.Today, many Protestant denominations have a mixed polity. some groups that appear to have an episcopal polity are in fact congregational, with bishops serving as little more than office managers or administrative personnel. in almost no Protestant denomination with episcopal leadership is the diocese's property placed in the name of the bishop.one popular model of polity appeared within Pentecostalism in the mid-20th century: the fivefold ministry model. Based on Ephesians 4:11-14, it calls for the church to be organized around five orders - apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Apostles function as pan-congregational figures who reach that status after they help found and nurture multiple congregations. on close scrutiny, however, the five-fold ministry is usually a variation of Free Church Congregationalism with property ultimately in the hands of the local congregations and apostles exercising only whatever charismatic authority they possess.some modern Protestant groups believe that no exclusive polity design can be derived from the Bible. instead, organization should follow function. Whatever is needed and helpful for the fulfillment of the church's mission is acceptable. Evangelist Charles G. Finney began to develop such a position 150 years ago. A functional approach has been nurtured by the development of corporate law. in the united states, for example, corporations generally consist of a board, constituted of its officers (president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer) and additional members. The board may hire additional executives and support staff. in the 20th century, nonprofit corporation models paralleled those of business corporations. Many churches have chosen explicitly to organize along the nonprofit corporation model instead of any traditional polity, thus facilitating their relationship to the internal Revenue service.Further reading:■ David W. Hall and Joseph H. Hall, ed., Paradigms in Polity: Classic Readings in Reformed and Presbyterian church government (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1994)■ James K. Mathews, Set Apart To Serve: The Role of Episcopacy In the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1985)■ Ross P. Scherer, ed., American Denominational Organization: A Sociological View (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1980)■ J. L. Shaver, The Polity of the Churches, 2 vols., 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Grand Rapids International, 1956)■ Conrad Wright, Congregational Polity (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.