Church Polity (Government)
"Church polity" likely isn't a term you hear everyday. However, it likely effects you more than you realize.
So what is it? Well, it's a fancy way of saying "church government" or "church structure."
All organizations have their own structure, and the church is no different. Like any organization, the way it is structured matters, and can determine its long-term health. If that is important for other organizations, how much more so for the Bride of Christ, the Church?
Historically there have been three primary models that the Church has used: Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational.
Common example(s): Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox.
Structure: One individual (i.e. the Pope for Roman Catholics) leads everyone. This individual has the final authority within the structure.
Each congregation is led by a Priest/Rector.
Each Priest/Rector is led by a regional Bishop.
Each Bishop is led by the Archbishop (the head honcho).
Common example(s): Presbyterian Church
Structure: Similar to the episcopal model. However, instead of a single individual at the top, there is the General Assembly. This is a board of elders who have final authority within the denomination.
Each congregation is led by elders.
Those elders are led by a regional board of elders, also known as a Synod or Presbytery.
The Presbytery are led by the General Assembly.
Common example(s): Baptist, Non-Denominational, Evangelical Free Church.
Structure: Each church is autonomous and is led by the congregation. Because of this autonomy, not every congregational church will operate in the same way. However, the final authority within any congregational church resides with the congregation.
There are two offices within the church: Elder and Deacon.
Typically (although not in all cases), the congregation is led by a plurality of elders (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Elders serve the church in leading, while deacons lead the church in serving (Acts 6:1-7). No one is granted either office unless first affirmed by the members of the congregation. Therefore, although the church is led by the elders, the authority of the church resides with the congregation.
Do we have a preference?
We prefer the Congregational model over the other two options. Specifically, the elder-led, congregation-rule model. We believe that when rightly exercised, this most accurately portrays the New Testament Church and the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5-9).
With that being said, we greatly appreciate the wisdom behind the Presbyterian model in placing multiple elders in their churches, Synods, and General Assembly.
Although there are certainly faithful churches within the Episcopal model, the idea of one individual (Rector/Bishop/Archbishop) over a body of believers (local, regional, and global) comes with more risks than we're comfortable with.
Sojourners and Strangers by Gregg Allison