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Ecclesiastical polity is the operational and governance structure of a church or of a Christian denomination. It also denotes the ministerial structure of a church and the authority relationships between churches. Polity relates closely to ecclesiology, the study of doctrine and theology relating to church organization.
Issues of church governance appear in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles; the first act recorded after the ascension is the election of Matthias as one of the Twelve Apostles, replacing Judas Iscariot. Over the years, a system of episcopal polity developed.
During the Protestant Reformation, reformers[who?] asserted that the New Testament prescribed structures different from those of the Roman Catholic Church of the day and different Protestant bodies used different types of polity. During this period Richard Hooker wrote Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (published 1594–1597) to defend the polity of the Church of England against views of the Puritans.
Ecclesiastical polity is used in several closely related senses. Most commonly it refers to the field of church governance in the abstract, but it also can refer to the governance of a particular Christian body. In this sense it is used as a term in civil law. Polity is sometimes used as a shorthand for the church governance structure itself.
Though each church or denomination has its own characteristic structure, there are four general types of polity: episcopal, connexional, presbyterian and congregational.
Churches having episcopal polity are governed by bishops. The title bishop comes from the Greek word episkopos, which translates as overseer. In regard to Catholicism, bishops have authority over the diocese, which is both sacramental and political; as well as performing ordinations, confirmations, and consecrations, the bishop supervises the clergy of the diocese and represents the diocese both secularly and in the hierarchy of church governance.
Bishops in this system may be subject to higher ranking bishops (variously called archbishops, metropolitans, and/or patriarchs, depending upon the tradition; see also Bishop for further explanation of the varieties of bishops.) They also meet in councils or synods. These synods, subject to presidency by higher ranking bishops, may govern the dioceses which are represented in the council, though the synod may also be purely advisory.
Also, episcopal polity is not usually a simple chain of command. Instead, some authority may be held, not only by synods and colleges of bishops, but by lay and clerical councils. Further, patterns of authority are subject to a wide variety of historical rights and honors which may cut across simple lines of authority.
Episcopal polity is the predominant pattern in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Anglican churches. It is also common in some Methodist and Lutheran churches, as well as amongst some of the African American Pentecostal traditions in the United States such as the Church of God in Christ and the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.
Some religious organizations, for example Jehovah's Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, describe their polity as hierarchical. In practice, such polities are similar to an episcopal polity, but often have a much more complex system of governance, with several dimensions of hierarchy. Leaders are not called "bishops", and in some cases have secular-like titles such as "president" or "overseer". The term "bishop" may be used to describe functionaries in minor leadership roles, such as a parish leader; it may also be used as an honorific, particularly within the Holiness movement.
Many Methodist churches use a derivative of episcopal polity known as Connexionalism, or Connexional polity, which combines a loose episcopal hierarchy with a bottom-up structure, centered on small groups of congregations called circuits.
Many Reformed churches, notably those in the Presbyterian and Continental Reformed traditions, are governed by a hierarchy of councils. The lowest level council governs a single local church and is called the session or consistory; its members are called elders. The minister of the church (sometimes referred to as a teaching elder) is a member of and presides over the session; lay representatives (ruling elders or, informally, just elders) are elected by the congregation. The session sends representatives to the next level higher council, called the presbytery or classis. In some Presbyterian churches there are higher level councils (synods or general assemblies). Each council has authority over its constituents, and the representatives at each level are expected to use their own judgment. For example, each session approves and installs its own elders, and each presbytery approves the ministers serving within its territory and the connections between those ministers and particular congregations. Hence higher level councils act as courts of appeal for church trials and disputes, and it is not uncommon to see rulings and decisions overturned.
Presbyterian polity is the characteristic governance of Presbyterian churches, and also of churches in the Continental Reformed tradition. Elements of presbyterian polity are also found in other churches. For example, in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, governance by bishops is paralleled by a system of deputies, who are lay and clerical representatives elected by parishes and, at the national level, by the dioceses. Legislation in the general convention requires the separate consent of the bishops and of the deputies.
Congregational churches dispense with titled positions such as bishop as a requirement of church structure. The local congregation rules itself, elects its own leaders, both clergy and laity, ordains its own clergy, and as a "self-governed voluntary institution", is a type of religious anarchism. Appointment of local leaders and councils by external authorities derive from a separate bureaucratic or associational polity.
Members may be sent from the congregation to associations that are sometimes identified with the church bodies formed by Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and other non-congregational Protestants. Neither the congregations nor the associations exercise any control over each other, other than having the ability to terminate membership in the association. Many congregationalist churches are completely independent in principle. One major exception is Ordination of clergy, where even congregationalist churches often invite members of the vicinage or association to ordain their called pastor.
It is a principle of congregationalism that ministers do not govern congregations by themselves. They may preside over the congregation, but it is the congregation which exerts its authority in the end.
Churches that traditionally practice congregational polity include congregationalists, Baptists, and many forms of nondenominational Christianity. Because of its prevalence among Baptists, and the prominence of Baptists among Protestant denominations, congregational polity is sometimes called "Baptist polity."
Although a church's polity dictates how it is governed and how its ministers figure in that governance, it need not have any implications on relationships between church bodies. The unity of the church is a doctrine central to ecclesiology, but since the divisions between churches presuppose a lack of mutual authority, the internal polity does not directly provide answers on how these divisions have been handled.
For example, among churches with episcopal polity, different theories are expressed:
Plurality refers to systems of ecclesiastical polity wherein the local church's decisions are made by a committee, typically called elders. The system is in contrast to the "singularity" of episcopal polity systems as used in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches, or the pastor/president system of many Protestant churches.
Plurality of elders is commonly encouraged, with variation of practice, among Presbyterians, some Pentecostal churches, and Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Plymouth Brethren (who employ congregational polity). The practice is drawn from Biblical precedent, acknowledging that churches in the time of the New Testament appear to all have had multiple elders.