According to the great, all-knowing Wikipedia:
Ecclesiastical polity is the operational and governance structure of a church or Christian denomination. It also denotes the ministerial structure of the church and the authority relationships between churches. Polity is closely related to Ecclesiology, the study of doctrine and theology relating to church organization.
Theopedia provides a similar definition:
Church government (or sometimes church polity) is that branch of ecclesiology (study of the church) that addresses the organizational structure and hierarchy of the church. There are basically three types of church government that have developed in the various Christian denominations: the episcopal, the presbyterian, and the congregational.
So, church polity (or ecclesiastical polity or church government) refers to organizational or governing structure among the church. Polity is closely related to questions of hierarchy and authority. And, in fact, one’s view of ecclesiology is strong influenced by one’s view of church polity (and vice versa).
The definition from theopedia also tells us that three basic types of church government are episcopal, prebyterian, and congregational. I’ve planned a blog post about each of these three basic types of church polity. In each one, I will talk about the scriptural justification as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each type of government.
To begin with, though, I want to point out what I think is a major weakness of each of these three types of polity as they are generally practiced today. For the most part, church polity deals with organization and hierarchy. The church, however, is not an organization or hierarchy. The church is a group of people. Don’t misunderstand me: any group of people will be organized in some way, whether that organized is intentional or not, highly structured or not. Whenever two or more people get together, there will be some type of organization.
However, the organization is not the church. Too often today the organization and especially the leadership is confused as being the church. The church comes before the organization, supersedes the organization, and is more important than the organization. But, when the church acts as if organization and hierarchy and government make up the church, the growth of the church will be stunted. (I’m not talking as much about numerical growth as much as maturity growth.)
Even though the church comes before the organization, organizational and governmental issues often drive the direction of the church, even when the matters being governed are not truly “church” issues. Often, polity revolves around making other organizational decisions, which should have very little, if anything, to do with the life of the church. But, when the church puts too much emphasis on organization, these organizational issues soon take on a life of their own, and begin to take over the life of the church.
So, while organizational issues are not as important as the church itself, often the church makes organizational issues more important because of the way they handle polity, organization, structure, hierarchy, and decision making. I’ll talk a little about this in each of the three posts related to the three basic forms of church government.
Then, in the last post of this series, I will talk about a fourth form of church government, one that is not episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational. This fourth type of church polity also has scriptural roots and has strengths and weaknesses.
I look forward to your interaction in these posts.
Church Polity Series
- Scriptural Evidence
- The Problem
- Moving Forward
- From Experience