Church: Church Polity

views updated


The governance of the Christian churches has assumed a variety of forms based on historical factors as well as on theological positions regarding the origin or root of ministerial functions. In a descending degree of local autonomy, these forms are broadly classified as congregational, presbyterial, or episcopal, but within each category significant modifications exist. After a historical survey of church governance from its beginnings through the Middle Ages, the orga-nization of the major denominations will be considered individually.

One cannot speak with precision or certitude about ministry in the early church because it is difficult to date and evaluate the documentary evidence, including the New Testament writings, and because of differences of organization in the primitive local communities. At the conclusion of an eighty-year evolutionary process there emerged, apparently first at Antioch around 110 ce, a threefold hierarchical leadership that gradually became normative throughout the Christian world. The hierarchy (sacred rule) consisted of three grades: a single bishop charged with the "supervision or oversight" (episcopē ) of the community; a group of consultors called presbyters (elders); and a subordinate group of deacons, who assisted in the administration of property. Certain functions, such as presiding at the Eucharist, were ordinarily reserved to the bishop. The distinction was thus made between the people and their leaders, soon called "clergy," who were ordained; that is, set apart for the ministry by the imposition of the bishop's hands. The local church presided over by the bishop was in time known as a "diocese" or "eparchy."

Church organization gradually accommodated itself to the political divisions of the Roman Empire. The local churches in a Roman province constituted an ecclesiastical province under the presidency of an archbishop, or metropolitan, who was the bishop of the capital city of the province. By the fourth century the beginnings of a patriarchal system could be detected in the large regional groupings of provinces. Eventually, all the dioceses and provinces of the Empire were subject to one of five patriarchs (father-ruler), namely, the bishops of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. The prominence of these bishoprics may be accounted for on grounds partly theological and partly political.

Among the five patriarchs, the bishop of Rome was accorded a certain primacy that was not clearly defined. The support of the Roman bishop, or pope (father), was particularly crucial in the fifth-century doctrinal disputes over the relation of the divine and human nature of Christ. These controversies were settled at ecumenical (worldwide) councils or synods of bishops held in Asia Minor. The conciliar condemnation of the monophysites and Nestorians greatly weakened the patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria, in which they were largely concentrated. Constantinople emerged from these crises as the bastion of orthodoxy. After the Muslim conquests of the seventh century, only Rome and Constantinople survived as major churches. The growing estrangement of Eastern and Western Christianity became complete with the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.

In the West the position of the bishop of Rome, the only see (bishopric) to claim apostolic foundation, remained unchallenged for over thirteen hundred years. From the period of the Gregorian Reform (c. 1050), it embarked on a program of centralization, making effective use of councils, papal legates, and revivified canon law. In the wake of the Great Western Schism (13781417), during which there were three simultaneous claimants to the papacy, attempts were made to declare the ecumenical council the supreme authority in the church to which even the pope owed obedience. In the sixteenth century the failure to deal with abuses led to the Reformation and the establishment of a number of separate churches with divergent patterns of government.

Episcopal Form of Government

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, which considered the historical continuity of ministry from the beginning of Christianity to have the highest priority, retained the episcopacy as the key office in the church. The bishops were viewed as the successors of the twelve apostles. Each of these communions, however, has structured its episcopal commitment in a different way.

Roman Catholic

Echoing the Second Vatican Council, the Code of Canon Law promulgated by John Paul II (r. 1978) in 1983 affirms: "Just as, in accordance with the Lord's decree, Saint Peter and the other apostles constitute one college, in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are united with each other" (canon 330). The special responsibility of Peter continues in the bishop of Rome, the pope, who is head of the college of bishops, the vicar of Christ, and the shepherd of the universal church here on earth. He obtains full and supreme power in the church once he has accepted legitimate election by the cardinals. The college of bishops, whose head is the pope and whose members are sacramentally ordained bishops and officially recognized (i.e., in hierarchical communion), also possesses full and supreme power. The college exercises its power over the universal church in a solemn manner through an ecumenical council that can be convoked only by the pope.

The Second Vatican Council introduced a new structure known as the Synod of Bishops. Since 1965 this representative body of about two hundred bishops chosen from different regions of the world has met, usually every three years, to aid the pope in promoting faith and morals, in strengthening ecclesiastical discipline, and in directing the church's worldwide activity.

The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, who are appointed for life by a reigning pope, constitute a special college whose chief function is to elect the bishop of Rome. From 1586 until 1958 the number was limited to seventy; beginning, however, with the move of Pope John XXIII (r. 19581963) to promote representation from all areas in the world, the college of cardinals has expanded to about two hundred. Only those not yet eighty years of age, however, may participate in a papal election. The cardinals also act as a body of advisers when summoned to deal with questions of major importance, and they head the most important departments of the Curia Romana.

The pope usually conducts the business of the church through the Curia, which acts in his name and by his authority. The Curia consists of the Secretariat of State (which also performs a coordinating function), nine congregations (including the Doctrine of the Faith, Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the Causes of Saints, and the Evangelization of Peoples), three tribunals, twelve pontifical councils (e.g., for Promoting Christian Unity, for the Laity, for the Family, for Justice and Peace, and for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts), and a number of offices (especially, Economic Affairs) and institutes (e.g., the Vatican Library).

Furthermore, the papacy maintains a corps of representatives throughout the world. When these legates are only to the local churches, they are known as apostolic delegates. If they are accredited to states and governments, they are ranked nuncio, pronuncio, or internuncio. (Reciprocally, more than 170 governments, including the United States, maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican.) In addition to serving a liaison function, the papal legates, in cooperation with the bishops, clergy, and laity of the country, transmit to Rome lists of potential candidates for the episcopacy.

The Roman Catholic Church, over which the pope presides, is made up of particular churchescertain portions of the people of God "in which and from which the one and unique Catholic church exists" (Code of Canon Law, canon 368). In current canonical terminology, a particular church is a diocese that is entrusted to a bishop assisted by a presbyterate. As a general rule, a diocese is circumscribed by territorial bounds so as to embrace all the faithful within that area.

It is the prerogative of the pope to appoint bishops to take charge of particular churches or to confirm those who have been legitimately elected. (In a few European dioceses and in the Eastern Catholic or Uniate churches, the right to elect a bishop is recognized.) At least every three years, the bishops of an ecclesiastical province are to draw up a list of priests suitable for the episcopacy that is then sent to Rome. A diocesan bishop governs the particular church committed to his care with legislative, executive, and judicial power according to the norms of the law. He exercises legislative power personally, executive power either personally or through vicars, and judicial power either personally or through a judicial vicar. He is aided in his government by the presbyterial council (a body of priests) and by his staff, including vicars, a chancellor, a finance council, a promoter of justice, and a defender of the bond (for suits alleging the nullity of marriage or of holy orders). Every five years the bishop is to send to Rome a report on the state of the diocese. Upon reaching the age of seventy-five, he is asked to submit his resignation to the pope.

Every diocese is divided into parishes, which are established by the bishop after consulting the presbyterial council. Parishes are usually territorial, but they may also be determined on a personal basis, incorporating, for example, all those of Korean nationality or all those belonging to a university community. The parish is to be entrusted to a pastor appointed by the bishop, who is considered an extension of the bishop bringing spiritual care to his people. Every parish must have a financial council in which the laity participates. In many dioceses a pastoral council (with only consultative voice) is organized. If the number of parishioners requires it, the bishop may appoint additional priests as parish assistants or curates. Parishes may also be entrusted to religious communities such as the Dominicans or Franciscans.

While the diocese is the basic administrative unit in the Roman Catholic Church, there is some provision for supradiocesan structures. These include provinces, a grouping of neighboring dioceses presided over by the metropolitan or archbishop, and the episcopal conference, which includes all the bishops of a given nation or territory. While an archbishop has only a general supervisory role in the province, a conference may make deliberative and binding decisions in particular matters, while on other issues the diocesan bishop has freedom regarding implementation.

Of the approximately 1.07 billion Catholics in the world, about 17 million belong to the Eastern churches. Except for the Maronites, these churches represent various groups that have reunited with Rome since the sixteenth century. Almost all of them have larger counterparts that are Eastern Orthodox or non-Chalcedonian Orthodox. The Eastern churches, Catholic as well as non-Catholic, follow different rites, which entail a special liturgy, law, and spiritual tradition. Thus, in addition to the Latin church, to which the vast majority of Catholics belong, there are also twenty-one Catholic Eastern churches. These churches, with considerable autonomy, especially in the choice of bishops, are in six instances headed by patriarchs who acknowledge the primacy of the pope.

Orthodox and other Eastern churches

The Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern churches are firmly committed to apostolic succession and the episcopacy. The Eastern Orthodox churches accept the first seven ecumenical councils (through the Second Council of Nicaea in 787), as do Roman Catholics. The smaller Eastern churches, refusing to recognize the third (Ephesus [432]) and fourth (Chalcedon [451]) ecumenical councils, are divided into two Nestorian churches and four others known collectively as non-Chalcedonian Orthodox.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is not centrally organized but is a federation composed of fifteen autocephalous, or self-governing, churches and four others, which are known as autonomous. "Autocephaly" connotes the right possessed by a group of eparchies (dioceses) to settle all internal matters on their own authority and to elect their own bishops, including the head of the church. The boundaries of autocephalies are usually coterminous with those of a state or nation. Four of these autocephalies (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) are based upon ancient Christian tradition, as has already been noted. The remaining eleven have resulted from modern political developments: Russia, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Poland, the Czech lands and Slovakia, Albania, and North America. The autonomous churchesFinland, Japan, and Ukrainewhile to a large degree self-governing, have not yet achieved full independence. The head of the monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula has the rank of archbishop of Sinai; his jurisdiction over the immediate neighborhood constitutes an autonomous church.

From antiquity the heads of the churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch have been known as patriarchs. That title is also accorded the heads of the Russian, Romanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian churches. The head of the Georgian church is known as catholicos-patriarch; the heads of the others are metropolitans or archbishops. Ecclesiastical provinces in western Europe, North and South America, and Australia depend upon one of the autocephalous churches or one of the emigrant Russian jurisdictions. There is no bishop among the Orthodox churches who holds a position analogous to that of the pope in the Roman Church, but the patriarch of Constantinople is recognized as the ecumenical or universal patriarch. He holds a place of honor and precedence, and his authority over the Orthodox world is a moral one, the first among equals. Supreme authority belongs only to a pan-Orthodox council.

The Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America, the largest body of Orthodox in the Western Hemisphere with two million communicants, was originally incorporated in 1921 as the Greek Orthodox Diocese in North and South America. It eventually embraced the Archdiocese of New York, nine dioceses in the United States, and one each in Canada and South America. On July 30, 1996, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate provided separate metropolitanates for Canada, South and Central America, so that the Archdiocese of America subsequently exercised jurisdiction only over the United States. The archdiocese, with its seat in New York City, includes the Direct Archdiocesan District (New York) and eight metropolises (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco). It numbers one and a half million members.

According to a new charter approved by the patriarch on January 18, 2003, the archbishop and the metropolitans make up the eparchial synod that governs the archdiocese, subject to the superior authority of the ecumenical patriarchate. The synod ordinarily meets twice a year and has exclusive jurisdiction over all legal issues that affect the archdiocese as a whole and its metropolises.

In each archdiocesan district and in each metropolis, there is a spiritual court of first instances to, as the 2003 charter stipulates, to deal with family problems, as well as with moral and disciplinary charges against clergy and lay persons. The eparchial synod comprises a second instance or appeals court. The ecumenical patriarchate is the final court of appeals. Archdiocesan clergy-laity congresses are convened at least triennially. "Except for dogmatic or canonical matters," says the charter, "they are concerned with all other matters which affect the life, mission, growth and unity of the archdiocese" (Article 10 a). There is also a clergy-laity assembly for the archdiocesan district and each metropolis to treat local matters, "including the uniform governance of the parishes, educational programs, financial programs and philanthropic concerns, as well as with the better organization and effectiveness of the parishes" (Article 11 b). Councils at both the archdiocesan and local levels, comprising representatives of clergy and laity, meet at least twice a year to function in an advisory and consultative capacity. The election of the archbishop is the "exclusive privilege and the canonical right of the Holy Synod" (Article 13 a), though the eparchial synod and the archdiocesan council have an advisory role. For the election of other bishops, three names are submitted to the Holy Synod, which chooses one of them.

The second largest Orthodox body in the New World is the Orthodox Church in America, with approximately one million members. It received independent status from the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1970, against the will of the ecumenical patriarch, who refused to recognize its autocephaly. It adopted a new statute in 1971. The supreme canonical authority is the Holy Synod, which includes as voting members all the diocesan bishops under the presidency of the metropolitan. It meets twice annually and is competent to treat "all matters involving doctrine, canonical order, morals and liturgical practice" (The Statute of the Orthodox Church in America, Article 2, Official Text 1974). The synod regulates the election of bishops and the establishment of new dioceses.

The All-American Council is "the highest legislative and administrative authority within the Church" (Statute, Article 3). It is composed of the metropolitan and all bishops (who must approve all resolutions by a majority), the priests of each parish (and an equal number of lay delegates); priests not having parishes; two delegates from each seminary; and one representative from each organization officially accredited by the Holy Synod. It convenes every three years. The metropolitan is elected by the All-American Council with the approval of the Holy Synod. He is assisted by the Metropolitan Council, the permanent executive body of the church. He is the bishop of one of the dioceses.

The diocese, the basic church body, comprising all the parishes of a determined geographical area, is governed by a diocesan bishop with the advice of an assembly and council. The Diocesan Assembly nominates a candidate for an episcopal vacancy. If the candidate is unacceptable to the Holy Synod, it elects its own candidate. The Diocesan Assembly is made up of all the clergy and an equal number of elected lay delegates. For validity, all resolutions of the assembly must be approved by the diocesan bishop. The Diocesan Council, the permanent body of diocesan administration, meets at least twice a year. Its decisions become effective upon approval by the diocesan bishop. The bishop, as head of all parishes within the diocese, appoints the parish clergy. The rector, the head of a parish, is assisted by a parish council elected by a meeting of all the parishioners.

Besides the two main bodies of the Orthodox Church, there are a number of smaller national and language jurisdictions, such as an archdiocese dependent upon the Arab-speaking patriarchate of Antioch and dioceses under the patriarchates of Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. There is also a Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, which seeks to coordinate the activities of the various jurisdictions throughout the Americas.

Anglican and Episcopalian churches

The episcopal constitution of the church and apostolic succession are also fundamental to the Anglican Communion, which is made up of thirty-eight provinces found mainly in English-speaking countries and former colonies of England. The communion has been described as a federation without a federal government. Usually every ten years, an assemblage of archbishops and bishops of the entire communion, called the Lambeth Conference, convenes in the Lambeth Palace, London, under the presidency of the archbishop of Canterbury. The conference, which does not publish details of its debates, issues resolutions with only morally binding force. At the 1968 conference, a body representing the laity and the clergy as well as the bishops was formed. The Anglican Consultative Council, headquartered in London, meets biennially with about fifty delegates.

The parent body, the Church of England, is an established church with the sovereign of the country as its supreme governor. Acting upon the advice of the prime minister, the sovereign appoints the archbishops and bishops. Since the 1970s, however, procedures that give more weight in the selective process to ecclesiastical authorities have been followed. The church is divided into the province of Canterbury, whose archbishop is styled Primate of All England and Metropolitan, and the province of York, whose archbishop is called Primate of England and Metropolitan. The archbishop oversees all the dioceses within the province, confirms the election of every bishop and is his chief consecrator, and hears appeals in his provincial court. The archbishop of Canterbury, with the approval of the crown, may grant licenses and dispensations that are valid throughout the province of York as well. The jurisdiction of the bishop in his diocese is similar to that of a Roman Catholic bishop. He can promulgate binding rules of discipline, but in the matter of parochial appointments he is limited by extensive rights of patronage held by laity and certain corporate bodies. At the parish level, church councils elected by the lay members cooperate with the incumbent in developing church activities.

Each province, not more than three times a year, holds a convocation that, subject to the supreme authority of Parliament, determines policy with regard to doctrine and practice. The convocation, under the presidency of the archbishop of Canterbury, has an upper house of bishops and a lower house made up of senior archdeacons, representatives from each cathedral chapter, and elected representatives from the clergy. Both provinces together form the General Synod or Church Assembly, composed of a third house of laity in addition to the house of bishops and the house of clergy. The Assembly deals with legal and administrative matters but not with doctrine.

In the United States the church affiliated with the Anglican communion is the Protestant Episcopal Church. It is governed by a bicameral General Convention meeting triennially or at special call. The House of Bishops consists of all bishops; with the approval of the other house, it elects one of its members as presiding bishop, an office held until retirement. The presiding bishop is entrusted with general executive power over the whole Episcopal Church. The House of Deputies comprises not more than four priests and four laypeople elected from each diocese. All legislation must be passed by both houses. Between sessions of the General Convention, the church is governed by the presiding bishop in consultation with the Executive Council, whose members are elected by the General Convention and the Provincial Synods. The council is organized into a number of departments, with staff to coordinate activities at home and abroad.

To establish a diocese there must be at least six parishes and six voting presbyters. The diocese meets in convention annually with all diocesan clergy and representatives from each parish as members. The convention elects clerical and lay delegates to the provincial synod and to the General Convention. Each diocesan convention also elects a standing committee to advise the bishop between sessions. The convention lays down rules and procedures for filling an episcopal vacancy. The person chosen must be confirmed by a majority of the standing committees of all the dioceses as well as of the diocesan bishops in the United States. A bishop must retire at the age of seventy-two.

The diocesan convention is responsible for defining the boundaries of parishes and for establishing new ones. Each parish is governed by a vestry and wardens selected according to diocesan law. The number and qualifications vary from one diocese to another. Similarly, there is no canon specifying their specific duties, term of office, or voting rights. The vestry elects the pastor or rector and notifies the bishop of its choice. The bishop may try to dissuade the vestry but has little option in the matter. The appointment is considered to be for life; the rector cannot be removed unwillingly except with the consent of the bishop.

Methodist churches

The vast majority of the Methodists in the United States recognize the centrality of the episcopacy in their governing structure, although they do not accept it as an order different from the presbyterate. (Churches deriving from British Methodism do not have bishops.) Apostolic succession in the sense of historic continuity in the ministry is not viewed as necessary. The ordained ministry consists of elders (presbyters) and deacons who are "set apart by the Church for the specialized ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order," as stated in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (par. 302, 1972) It also states that "to be ordained to the ministry of Order is to be authorized to equip the laity for ministry, to exercise pastoral oversight, and to administer the Discipline of the Church" (par. 309.1).

The Annual Conference corresponds to a diocese in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches. It consists of all the presbyters in a given geographical area plus an equal number of elected lay representatives. A bishop presides over the conference. He is responsible for appointing ministers to parishes after consultation with the district superintendents as well as with representatives of the local congregations. The appointments do not convey tenure but must be renewed annually. Each parish or local congregation has a Charge Conference, which serves as a liaison with the general church; the Charge Conference elects lay members of the Annual Conference and all local officers.

The Annual Conferences are grouped into Jurisdictional Conferences made up of an equal number of lay and clerical delegates. In the United States there are five regional jurisdictions, which normally meet once every four years. Their chief responsibility is to fill vacancies in the ranks of the bishops, to determine the boundaries of the Annual Conferences, and to provide for the work of the church within the jurisdiction.

The highest legislative authority in the United Methodist Church is the General Conference, composed of from six hundred to one thousand delegates, ministers and lay, chosen by the Annual Conferences based on size of membership. The General Conference also meets quadrennially before the Jurisdictional Conferences. It defines and fixes the powers and duties of all ministers, bishops, and subordinate conferences. It regulates the boundaries of jurisdictional conferences with the concurrence of the Annual Conferences involved. The General Conference initiates and directs all connectional enterprises of the church and provides boards for their implementation.

Presbyterial Form of Government

Presbyterians do not admit as normative a historically validated episcopal succession. They hold that there is no New Testament warrant for a distinct office of bishop; presbyters (elders) and bishops designate the same leadership body in the church (Acts 20:1728, 1 Tm. 3:113). The polity of Presbyterian churches rests on three constitutive principles: (1) "the parity of presbyters" (both clergy and lay); (2) "the right of the people through their representatives or lay elders to take part in the government of the church"; and (3) "the unity of the Church, not simply in faith and order, but in a graduated series of Church Courts [session, presbytery, synod, General Assembly] which express and exercise the common authority of the Church as a divine society" (Moffatt, 1928, p. 2).

The basic governing body is the session, which is made up of the minister or ministers of the local church and a group of ordained laity (ruling elders) elected by the congregation. Administrative authority rests with the representative body, not with the whole congregation. The session is charged with the "spiritual oversight of the congregation." While the minister presides, all elders have equal rights of discussion and vote. All congregations in a given geographical area belong to a presbytery, which is composed of all the ordained ministers in the area and elders from each congregation. The presbytery has several key responsibilities similar to those of a diocesan bishop in Roman Catholicism. The presbytery supervises ministerial candidates, ordains ministers, concurs in a "call" to specific pastorates, and in general oversees the discipline of the local congregations. The presbytery elects a moderator and a stated clerk, who may be either clerical or lay. The stated clerk functions as a chief administrator.

The presbyteries of a region are grouped into a synod. A synod must have at least three presbyteries. Elected representatives, both clerical and lay, from each of the presbyteries constitute a synod, which meets once a year. It serves as a court of appeal from actions taken by the presbyteries and stands in an intermediary position between the presbyteries and the General Assembly. The General Assembly, the highest representative body, meets annually for about one week. Its members are elected directly by the presbyteries, on the basis of one ministerial commissioner and one ruling elder commissioner for a determined number of church members in the presbytery. It is the supreme court of appeal in matters of doctrine and discipline. The General Assembly elects a moderator, a largely honorary official, who acts as titular head of the church for the next year. In fact, however, the stated clerk holds the most powerful leadership position.

In 1983, the two largest Presbyterian bodies in the United States merged to form the Presbyterian Church (USA). Presbyterians are joined with other churches of the Calvinist tradition in an international confessional group, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, with headquarters in Geneva.

Congregational Form of Government

Opposed in principle to any form of control above or outside the local church, a third group of Christian denominations is organized along congregational lines so that each community is independent. The defenders of this ecclesial pattern of government maintain that the New Testament does not recognize any higher structure. Paul, for example, sent a general letter to the several churches in Galatia (Gal. 1:12). The author of Revelation was told to write to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rv. 1:4). The Acts of the Apostles indicates that each congregation has the right to choose its own leaders (6:3, 13:2). The congregation can also regulate discipline without reference to any bishop, presbytery, or council (1 Cor. 5:12, Mt. 18:17).

In the United States, the Baptists have been the most conspicuous advocates of a democratic polity. Although Baptists do not have an official creed, they generally subscribe to two important confessions of faith, the Philadelphia Confession (1742) and the New Hampshire Confession (1833). Each congregation is self-constituting: the members bind themselves together by covenant, accepting as the sole rule of faith the Bible, which the members interpret according to their own lights. The members choose their own leadersvariously called elders, bishops, or pastorswho are set apart for the ministry. The laity retains full control so that all business is determined by majority vote.

Congregational autonomy, however, has had to be accommodated to the needs of fellowship and cooperation with other churches. Historically, the chief impetus leading to the formation of "conventions" was the concern for foreign missions that swept the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Baptist churches are grouped into associations at local, state, and national levels. The five largest of the thirty-one bodies in the United States, embracing about 90 percent of the denomination, are the Southern Baptist Convention; the National Baptist Convention, USA; the National Baptist Convention of America; the American Baptist Churches, USA; and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. In addition there is the Baptist World Alliance, founded in 1905 to discuss matters of common concern; it meets every five years. The delegates, or messengers, who participate in the meetings of the associations have no power to bind the groups they represent. Even with this understanding there have been protests that the Baptists are drifting toward denominational centralism or Presbyterianism. One important function of the associations is to give counsel in the selection of ministers. Ministerial standards are set and recommendations are made to the congregations, who proceed to elect and ordain the ministers.

Congregationalism is also espoused by the United Church of Christ, which was formed by the merger of four denominations in 1957: the Congregational Church, the Christian Church, the Evangelical Synods, and the Reformed Church. Each of the uniting churches has maintained its own theological position and form of worship. The constitution of the United Church of Christ states explicitly that "the autonomy of the local church is inherent and modifiable only by its own action" (Horton, 1962, p. 135) The local congregations, however, are joined together for mutual support.

The organization resembles that of the Presbyterian Church. The churches of an area are grouped into an association that meets annually and that is made up of all the clergy and elected lay delegates. It accepts new churches into membership and is responsible for licensing, ordaining, and installing ministers. Associations within a region are joined in a conference composed of the ministers and elected lay delegates; meeting annually, it serves as a coordinating body. The "minister" of the conference, also called the superintendent or president, acts as the executive officer.

The highest body in the United Church of Christ is the General Synod, which assembles biennially. The conferences elect delegates to the General Synod, which has an equal number of clergy and lay people. The synod chooses a president for a four-year term and a moderator to preside over the synodal sessions. An executive council is elected to transact business between synods.

Contingent Polities

Not all churches fit neatly into one system or another. The Lutheran Church, the third largest body of Christians in the world after the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, does not hold that any polity is divinely sanctioned. The sixteenth-century reformers were prepared to continue such existing institutions as the episcopacy, provided that the gospel was preached and the sacraments were administered. Thus, at the start of the twenty-first century there are bishops in the Scandinavian countries where, except for Sweden, Lutheranism is the established church. In general, however, apostolic succession and episcopal ordination are not considered essential to the church.

An early treatise of Martin Luther (1483-1546) suggests that he advocated a congregational type of government (On the Right and Power of a Christian Congregation or Community to Judge All Doctrine and to Call, Install, and Depose Ministers, 1523). Although every Christian is a priest (Rv. 5:10) and has the same right with respect to Word and sacraments, no one may use this right publicly except by the consent of the community. Otherwise there would be a "shameful confusion," a kind of "Babylon in the Church, as the Apostle teaches" (Luther, Concerning the Ministry, 1523, Works 40, pp. 3435). The congregation retained the right to remove any minister who should preach falsely.

In the United States the three largest denominations, about 95 percent of the nine million Lutherans in the country, acknowledge varying degrees of local autonomy. Parishes are generally grouped into districts, which in turn are organized into territorial synods. The powers exercised by the synod are specified in a constitution. At all levels, pastors and lay representatives participate in the government. Synodal authority is concerned chiefly with the ordination and discipline of the clergy and ownership of property.


Despite the diversity of views about the ministry and government in the church, the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century uncovered a certain compatibility and explored the possibility of reconciliation. In the early 1960s nine church bodies in the United Statesincluding Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and United Church of Christformed an association known as the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). On a number of occasions over the next thirty years, representative committees attempted to formulate a detailed plan for union. Though the member churches could subscribe to the theological consensus presented, they were unwilling to ratify the structures or the nature of the ordained ministries, especially the episcopacy, proposed for the new uniting church. Finally, at Memphis, Tennessee, on January 19, 2002, the consultation, COCU, was formally superceded by a simpler relationship, Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). As reported by Thomas F. Best, each church retained its own identity and decision-making structures, but with the anticipation that the participating churches will achieve "mutual recognition and reconciliation of ordained ministry by the members of Churches Uniting in Christ by the year 2007" (2002, p. 403).

The status of ministry is central in any discussion of church polity. The most thorough investigation of ministry was undertaken by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. In 1982 it submitted to all Christian churches for an official response the document, long in preparation, entitled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. After receiving and analyzing almost two hundred responses, the commission published a summary report of its consultation Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry 19821990 (Faith and Order Paper no. 149, 1990). According to that report, the vast majority of the responses affirmed that the church, from its earliest existence, has needed ministers, "persons ordained through the invocation of the Spirit and the laying on of hands and holding specific authority and responsibility" (p. 75). While there was "considerable appreciation for the description of the development of the threefold pattern of bishop, presbyter and deacon," many of the Reformation and Free churches "question its normative character" (pp. 8081) and hold deep differences over episcopal suc-cession.

Despite disparate polities, a number of churches have sought common ground for unity. At a service on October 4, 1998, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church of America formally entered into full communion. In A Formula of Agreement, the four bodies acknowledged, as reported by their committee of theologians, that though the sixteenth-century differences "regarding Eucharist, Christology, and predestination continue to shape and reflect our identities, they cannot claim to be church-dividing today and should not stand in the way of achieving 'full communion' among us. In addition, we affirm that the differences among these churches of the Reformation on questions of confessional commitment, ministry, and ecclesial polity fall within the bounds of allowable evangelical diversity and are therefore not church-dividing" (Nickle and Lull, eds., 1993, p. 65).

On January 6, 2001, after twenty-five years of dialogue, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church entered into full communion. The ecumenical accord, "Called to Common Mission," provided for the recognition of the present clergy of both denominations as equal, but stipulated that in the future all ordinations were to include the laying on of hands of a bishop ordained in a historic line of succession. However, because Lutheran tradition had sanctioned ordination by pastors, some Lutheran synods almost immediately sought an exemption so that "for pastoral reasons in unusual circumstances" a synod president could authorize a pastor to preside at an ordination. The Lutheran position has always been that polity is essentially adiaphoral (something indifferent, neither prescribed nor forbidden by scripture). At the same assembly at which they approved full communion with the Episcopalians, the Lutherans also sanctioned the agreement with the Moravian Church in America. The historian Martin Marty has noted that "it is the first time in U.S. religious history that a church has bridged the gap between churches so diversely governedcongregational, Presbyterian, synodical, conferencial and episcopal" (1999, p. 797). Undoubtedly the major polity issue yet to be resolved among Christians is that of a primatial authority.

See Also

Apostles; Armenian Church; Coptic Church; Denominationalism; Eastern Christianity; Ethiopian Church; Greek Orthodox Church; Nestorian Church; Papacy; Reformation; Russian Orthodox Church; Schism, article on Christian Schism; Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch; Uniate Churches.


Baima, Thomas A. The Concordat of Agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Church in America: Lessons on the Way toward Full Communion. Lewiston, N.Y., 2003. Analyzes method and content of negotiations.

Brand, Chad O., and R. Stanton Norman, eds. Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views on Church Polity. Nashville, 2004. Representatives support their own and respond to other traditions.

Campenhausen, Hans von. Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries. Translated by J. A. Baker. Stanford, Calif., 1969. Treats the relationship between ministerial office and charismatic gifts.

Dulles, Avery. Models of the Church. New York, 1974. Discusses five major approaches, types, or models through which the character of the church may be grasped.

Gray, Joan, and Joyce Tucker. Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers. Louisville, Ky., 1999. Treats the impact of Reformed theology on church government.

Kirby, James E. The Episcopacy in American Methodism. Nashville, 2000. Traces the evolution of Itinerating General Superintendents into residential diocesan officials.

Kirk, Kenneth E., ed. The Apostolic Ministry: Essays on the History and the Doctrine of Episcopacy. London, 1946. A team of writers explores the Christian doctrine of ministry.

Kretschmar, Georg, et al. The Councils of the Church: History and Analysis. Edited by Hans J. Margull. Philadelphia, 1966. After a historical treatment of councils, authors from various churches present their respective theologies on the subject.

Longenecker, Richard N., ed. Community Formation in the Early Church and in the Church Today. Peabody, Mass., 2002. Following nine scriptural and historical essays, the final three "assess modern episcopal, Presbyterian, and congregational polities in light of their biblical and theological roots."

Maring, Norman H., and Winthrop S. Hudson. A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice. Rev. ed. Valley Forge, Pa., 1991.

Mead, Frank S., and Samuel S. Hill, eds. Handbook of Denominations in the United States. 11th rev. ed. Revised by Craig D. Atwood. Nashville, 2001.

Meyendorff, John. The Orthodox Church: Its Past and Its Role in the World Today. 3d ed. Crestwood, N.Y., 1981. Chapter 8 discusses the autocephalous churches in the postWorld War II era.

Moffatt, James. The Presbyterian Churches. 2d ed. London, 1928

Niebuhr, H. Richard, and Daniel D. Williams. The Ministry in Historical Perspectives. New York, 1956. Nine authors treat the ministry from the primitive church to the twentieth century, with emphasis on Protestantism.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Spirit versus Structure: Luther and the Institutions of the Church. New York, 1968. After sketching Luther's rejection of sacramental ordination, monasticism, and canon law, Pelikan considers the struggles of the reformers to deal with the need for concrete structures.

Puglisi, James F., ed. Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church: Toward a Patient and Fraternal Dialogue. Collegeville, Minn., 1999. Twelve Protestant and Catholic scholars comment on recent papal overtures.

Sykes, Stephen, et al. The Study of Anglicanism. Rev. ed. London and Minneapolis, 1998. A collection of essays that introduce "the history and ethos of the Churches which constitute the Anglican Communion."

John E. Lynch (1987 and 2005)

About this article

Church: Church Polity

Updated About content Print Article