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Some years ago, I attended a church that belonged to a denomination in the Methodist family of churches. This church did not, however, betray much about its Methodist or Wesleyan heritage. It’s not that these aspects were hidden but that the church looked to all the world like any other modern, probably nondenominational, evangelical church. That meant that members were occasionally surprised to find out its affiliation and how that informed the workings of the church.

For a time, I was part of a council that advised the pastor. There, I got to see some folks’ first up-close encounters with church polity. People who were elected to the council were sometimes surprised to learn that they had no actual power. This council did not run the church. It did not have the power to hire and fire. It did not have the inherent authority to set the direction of ministry. It was purely advisory, with its power deriving solely from the pastor’s allowing it to advise him. The pastor, in reality, could do as he pleased with nearly any dimension of the church’s life.

The pastor was seen as a bit of a rising star within the denomination. There was therefore concern that the pastor would leave the church for some more prominent position. What would happen then? Some church members were alarmed to learn that the denomination has bishops and that the bishop could appoint as pastor whomever he saw fit to appoint, with or without any input from the congregation.

These matters and more come under the heading of church polity or government. This is an area of church life that doesn’t seem to affect us much—until it does. But it is always there, determining key things about how the church is run and who runs it. Who preaches on Sunday mornings? Who can be baptized? What kinds of ministries does the church have? What happens when someone is found to be in gross sin? And who makes these decisions?

The Bible does not give us a detailed manual for running the church, but it does give us some crucial data. The various denominations and families of churches then use this data to structure their governments or polities (some groups go beyond the Bible alone and read church history or tradition also to structure their polity).

Ultimately, church polity has to do with who runs the church and how. This is the question of authority. Does authority lie with a single officeholder? Does it lie with elected representatives? Or does it lie with the congregation as a whole?

The New Testament speaks of the offices of Apostle (Greek apostolos; Acts 1:2, 21–22; 2:42; 1 Cor. 9:1–2), bishop (episkopos; 1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–7), elder (presbyteros; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1–2), and deacon (diakonos; Acts 6:1–6; 1 Tim. 3:8–13). There is disagreement on exactly how these offices are defined and how they relate to one another. The disagreement is particularly sharp with regard to the offices of bishop and elder.

On the other hand, most denominations today would at least agree that Apostle was a unique, unrepeatable office limited to those who were associated with the earthly ministry of Christ and appointed by Him after the resurrection. This office has lapsed with the closing of the New Testament canon.

Church polity is an area of church life that doesn’t seem to affect us much—until it does. But it is always there, determining key things about how the church is run and who runs it.

Deacons are usually understood today as carrying out a ministry of mercy and service to the congregation. Some congregationalist systems, however, see the deacons as serving as a set of advisers to the pastor or pastors and as exercising spiritual authority as well.

Another question that polity addresses is that of an individual congregation’s relationship with other congregations. Are congregations connected administratively, within a hierarchy? Are they connected spiritually, part of an interdependent network of mutual submission? Or are they not connected at all?

Broadly speaking, there are three forms of church polity: episcopalianism, presbyterianism, and congregationalism. Let us look briefly at each.


Episcopalianism is defined by rule by bishops. In this view, a distinction is made between the bishop and the elder (who is also often called priest or pastor). It is a hierarchical polity that gives bishops greater authority than elders.

A bishop rules over a given geographical area and has authority over the churches and clergy within that area. Sometimes that bishop is subject to a bishop at a higher level (who may be called an archbishop or metropolitan), and sometimes, as in the case of the pope in Roman Catholicism, there is one bishop who rules over them all.

Episcopalianism is especially associated with the Roman Catholic Church. But it also exists in various manifestations in Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Methodism, and Lutheranism.

In practice, many modern multisite churches approximate an episcopal form of government. They have a strong head pastor who has authority over the various sites and the other pastors.


In a presbyterian form of government, authority is vested in elders who are elected by the congregation; these elders are then seated in graded councils or courts.

The lowest court—called the session or kirk session in presbyterian denominations and the consistory in Dutch Reformed denominations—is usually elected by the congregation. All the ministers and elders then sit on a regional body called a presbytery or classis, which deals with appeals from lower courts and matters that concern the regional body. Finally, there is a group that oversees the denomination as a whole called a general assembly or synod.

These courts have the same nature and the same kinds of powers—being made up of elders—but different duties as appropriate to their jurisdiction, whether local (e.g., receiving new members), regional (e.g., ordaining ministers), or national (e.g., amending the book of church order). When matters are elevated from a lower to a higher court, settling the issue thus involves bringing in more elders rather than higher elders. As an example of this playing out, Presbyterians point to Acts 15, wherein the issue of the inclusion of gentiles was brought before the Jerusalem church and decided by a group of elders beyond the inquiring church.

A proper understanding of church polity is usually recognized as something that contributes to the well-being of the church rather than its existence.

Some presbyterian denominations recognize two offices—elder and deacon—and distinguish between the classes of ruling elders and teaching elders. There is one office of elder, and all are called to rule, but some—also called pastors or ministers—are tasked with the additional duties of teaching and preaching. Other presbyterian denominations see ruling elders and teaching elders as distinct offices and so hold to a three-office view.


Congregationalism is defined by the independence and autonomy of each local church. Each congregation is its own entity, accountable only to God. Congregationalism is therefore explicitly anti-connectional, in contrast to episcopalianism and presbyterianism. There is no higher earthly body or authority to which a congregation answers.

Congregational churches often associate with one another in bodies that carry out ministries such as education and missions. But such bodies have no binding authority or power to dictate matters to the local church.

There are two offices in congregationalism: pastor (i.e., elder) and deacon. Some churches are led by a single pastor or elder while others hold to a plurality of elders. The single-elder form may actually include other pastors, but there is a single primary pastor with greater prominence or responsibility. In the plural-elder form, the various elders are not distinguished between ruling elders and teaching elders; they are all considered elders and pastors.

Sometimes congregationalism also encompasses the idea of democracy, wherein decisions are made by the congregation as a whole. In some churches, the authority of the congregation is ultimate. Other churches see the elders as having explicit biblical authority that does not derive from the congregation.

why church polity matters

Ultimately, a proper understanding of church polity is usually recognized as something that contributes to the well-being of the church rather than its existence. Few would say that only those who hold to their particular polity are the only true churches on earth. But many would say that the church best carries out the mission of Christ and serves its people when their particular polity is observed.

Yet church polity is important. Christ clearly gave officers as a gift to His church (Eph. 4:11–16). He gave these officers a weighty responsibility (James 3:1). He calls church members to submit to them (Heb. 13:17). As churches and denominations strive to honor our Lord by obeying His commandments in structuring our congregations as He has directed, we do so in the knowledge that it is through our efforts that He has promised to build His church (Matt. 16:18).

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From the April 2023 Issue
Apr 2023 Issue