Polity (Gr. πολετεία) is the term generally used to signify government or forms of government a an administration in the Christian Church. Church polity may be considered in reference to its historical development during successive centuries, and also in reference to the various systems of government heretofore and now recognized in different branches of the Church.
Historical Development. — Nothing is more obvious from the New- Testament record than the simplicity which characterized the primary organization of the Church. In this particular Christianity was in marked contrast with Judaism. Without temple, tabernacle, or altars, without priests or Levites, and almost without ceremonies, it made known at once its character and purposes as spiritual and not carnal, as, in fact, a kingdom of God "not of this world." The first form of Church organization was that in which the Lord Jesus Christ was present as the visible Head of a body of believers. At this stage the ordinances were established by direct appointment of the Savior himself, who also gave the great command to his disciples to "Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Following the crucifixion, the resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus, the Church had for a short period a second form of organization, in which the apostles were the only officers to teach and guide the followers of the Savior. It was at this period that the promised gift of the Holy Ghost was miraculously imparted and signalized by a great awakening at Jerusalem, in which "the Lord added to the Church daily such as were saved." This period of increase was followed by the appointment of deacons or officers of help, who were especially chosen to relieve the apostles of their minor duties of a semi-secular kind, that they might give themselves "to prayer and the ministry of the Word." Notwithstanding their primary duties, some if not all of the deacons also devoted themselves to the preaching of the Word, as may be seen from the examples of Stephen and Philip. For a few years following there appear to have been no other officers in the Church besides the apostles and deacons. The next phase of Church administration is that in which elders were appointed. As no specific account is given of the mode of their first appointment, we are left to infer that it may have occurred as a natural designation of respect for seniority either among the deacons or the influential members of the Church, somewhat after the analogy of eldership among the Jews. Certain it is that as churches multiplied, the apostles recognized, possibly appointed, and actually ordained elders who from the first had greater or less functions of government, and were also active agents of evangelization. Elders were known at Jerusalem about A.D. 41, or eight years after the Pentecost. A few years later they were ordained generally in all the churches (Ac 14:23). In the council at Jerusalem they were associated with the apostles and brethren (Ac 15:4,6,23). The elders of the New Testament appear to have been evangelists, teachers, and pastors, and in a collective capacity to have ordained ministers of different grades.
Near the close of the New-Testament period the term bishop is used a few times by the inspired writers Luke and Paul, indicating an additional office growing up out of the presbyterate, somewhat as the latter had done from the diaconate. On questions that have arisen respecting the office of bishop in the New-Testament Church modern controversies in reference to Church polity have largely centered. One theory is that the apostles appointed bishops to be their direct and only official successors having the prerogative of ordaining future ministers by divine right. An opposite theory is that the ἐπίσκοποι and πρεσβύτεροι of the New Testament were absolutely identical in office and order and, consequently, that every elder was a bishop. The more probable theory lies between these extremes. It is that the episcopate was a natural sequence of the presbyterate, not specially appointed, but, in fact, recognized by the apostles. Whereas for the work of evangelization not only an elder but elders were ordained in the principal churches, there would exist in every body of elders the necessity of a presidency or primacy for the purpose of general superintendence and direction. Thus one of the number would be designated, either by seniority or formal choice, as a primus inter pares, who should serve as overseer (ἐπίσκοπος) of the body and the flock under them. According to this theory, the episcopate was an office of superintendency rather than a distinct clerical order; and in this respect it was analogous if not identical in its functions with that of such apostolical legates as were Timothy and Titus. Nevertheless, it was an office of such importance in the administration of the affairs of the Church and so well adapted to the necessities of the times that it soon became general. Nothing in its original character would prevent its being held in rotation by several elders in the same church or diocese, yet a successful administration of it would tend to its perpetuation in the same individual. Hence it soon became an office for life.
The episcopacy of the primitive Church was diocesan, and in many cases dioceses embraced only single churches. But as Christian influences radiated from those churches, and contiguous churches were established, the dioceses expanded, and the bishoprics grew in importance. At this early period an error crept into the Church which had a great influence upon its polity in after-ages. It was that of attributing priestly functions to the Christian ministry. Soon after the custom became current of calling presbyters priests, it also became customary to call bishops high-priests, and deacons Levites, and thus a full hierarchical system was initiated in the Church. After the conversion of Constantine this system became gradually expanded, until it exceeded in pomp and detail of ceremony the whole ritual of Judaism, and threw the pontifical rites of Greek and Roman paganism far in the shade. From the diocesan bishop as the primitive center, episcopal offices expanded upwards into archbishops, metropolitans, exarchs, and patriarchs; downwards into chorepiscopi, or country bishops, suffragans, titular bishops, and in the African churches intercessors or episcopal advocates. Corresponding to this expansion, the lower ranks of the clergy were similarly increased by the addition of archpresbyters, archdeacons, and subdeacons, together with acolothists, exorcists, lectors, ostiarii, psalmistae, copiatae, parabolani, catechists, syndics, notaries, and still other officers in large churches. In the upward expansion of the episcopate, the Greek Church stopped at the patriarchate, but the Roman Church was content with nothing short of a universal patriarchate or papacy (q.v.).
To state somewhat more fully the organization of the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries, it may be said that the Church of that period consisted of several orders of men. Eusebius reckons three, viz. the ῾Ηγούμενοι, Πιστοί, and Κατηχούμενοι, i.e. rulers, believers, and catechumens. Origen reckons five orders; but then he divides the clergy into three orders, to make up the number. Both these accounts, when compared together, come to the same thing. Under the ῾Ηγούμενοι, or rulers, were comprehended the clergy, bishops, priests, and deacons; under the Πιστοί, or believers, the baptized laity; and under the Κατηχούμενοι, or catechumens, the candidates for baptism. The believers were called perfect Christians; the catechumens imperfect. The former, having received baptism, were allowed to partake of the Eucharist, to join in all the prayers of the Church, and to hear discourses upon the most profound mysteries of religion: more particularly the use of the Lord's Prayer was the sole prerogative of the believers, whence it was called Εὐχὴ πιστῶν, the prayer of believers. From all these privileges the catechumens were excluded. SEE CATECHUMENS. The distinction between the laity and the clergy is by churchmen deduced from the very beginnings of the Christian Church; yet Rigaltius, Salmasius, and Salden insist that there was originally no distinction, but that it is an innovation, and was called forth by the ambition of the clergy of the 3d century, in which Cyprian and Tertullian lived. SEE CLERGY.
The various orders of the clergy were appointed to their several offices in the Church by solemn forms of consecration or ordination, and had their respective privileges, immunities, and revenues. The unity and worship of the Church were secured by laws both ecclesiastical and civil. The ecclesiastical laws were either rules and orders made by each bishop for the better regulation of his particular diocese, or laws made in provincial synods for the government of all the dioceses of a province; or, lastly, laws respecting the whole Christian Church, made in general councils or assemblies of bishops from all parts of the Christian world. SEE SYNOD. The civil laws of the Church were those decrees and edicts made from time to time by the emperors, either restraining the power of the Church, or granting it new privileges, or confirming the old. The breach of these laws was severally punished both by the Church and State. The ecclesiastical censures respecting offenders among the clergy were chiefly suspension from the office and deprivation of the rights and privileges of the order. Those respecting the laity consisted chiefly in excommunication, or rejection from the communion of the Church, and penance both public and private. SEE ECCLESIASTICAL POLITY.
The idea of the papacy or spiritual supremacy of Rome was not fully developed before the middle of the 7th century, when Theodore of Rome, not content with the title of Ecumenical patriarch, assumed that of sovereign pontiff. From that period the successive claims of the papacy — viz. temporal sovereignty, the vicariate of Peter and Paul, of Christ and of God, the janitorship of the kingdom of heaven, and the theocratic monarchy of the world-went on progressively, until in 1870 they apparently culminated in the official assumption of infallibility (q.v.). Meantime, as a system of ecclesiasticism, the papacy has retained most of the offices of the ancient Church, and added to them that of cardinal (q.v.), nuncio, chancellor, chamberlain, prefect, referendary, auditor, inquisitor, and numerous others of a political and ceremonial character. Within the sphere of papal authority no serious controversy ever arose on the subject of Church polity. Ceremonial expansion, unchecked by any idea of scriptural example or restraint, was for centuries the order of progress. It was not till the Reformation was so far inaugurated as to feel the necessity of organizing churches after the type of the New Testament that any important discussions took place respecting the principles of Church government. The Reformed churches on the Continent generally rejected episcopacy and adopted Presbyterianism. The Lutherans practically retained the episcopal office under the title of superintendent. But scarcely any two of the principal Reformed churches agreed in detail as to their plan of organization, nor were these minor differences regarded as of any serious importance.
Systems of Church Government. — England is the country that has given birth to the chief controversies concerning Church polity which have prevailed in modern times. As the Reformation in England was largely political in its character, it not only resulted in the transfer of the cathedrals, churches, colleges, etc., built under Roman supremacy, to the Reformed Church of England, but also many Roman Catholic ceremonies and usages. Hence from the first that Church was divided into two parties in reference to Church polity. Had they been content with temperate discussion, and with the peaceful separation of those who could not harmonize their views, the result might have been very different. But unfortunately both parties had inherited the principle of intolerance, either from the Roman Church or from preceding times, and also the theory of state rule in matters of religious faith and practice. To these false principles may be charged some of the most pitiable and disgraceful facts in the history of Great Britain. The oppugnant legislation, the strifes, the persecutions, and the martyrdoms which took place in the successive reigns of Henry VIII, of Bloody Mary, of queen Elizabeth, of James I, of Charles I and II, and even under the protectorate of Cromwell, are sufficient to impress any mind with the extent of human misery, and of reproach to the Christian name caused by the errors alluded to. In all history there is not a more significant comment upon the sin of constraining men's consciences by the arbitrary standards of human authority. It was not till after more than a hundred and fifty years of party strife and bloodshed that in 1689 the Toleration Act was passed, by which dissent from the faith and polity of the Established Church was legalized. Even after that it was a long time before many could see, and even yet it does not seem possible for all to understand, that details of Church polity were never appointed by divine authority, but designedly left by the Head of the Church to be adjusted on the basis of great principles rather than to be governed by fixed and uniform precepts. Scotland had adopted Presbyterianism from the Reformed churches of the Continent as early as 1550, but even after toleration was secured that form of Church government failed to become popular in England. Independency in various forms seemed to be preferred by the English Nonconformists and Dissenters. Between them and Presbyterians on the one hand, and the advocates of prelacy or episcopacy by divine right on the other, controversy has never ceased. But since the controversy has been limited to words it has been an innocent, though often an exciting one, owing to the many phases it has assumed from time to time.
While the Church of England has continually antagonized the Church of Rome on the ground of papal supremacy, it has itself been in ceaseless agitation as between the High and Low Church parties within its own pale, and more especially since the period of the Oxford Tracts (q.v.) and the more recent ritualistic discussions. All the English controversies respecting Church polity have found their way to this country, but with greatly altered conditions of the various parties. Independency having escaped from persecution by way of Holland, itself established a species of theocracy and became a persecutor in New England. But its period of intolerance was brief; and, on the whole, the Christian churches of the United States have been remarkably free from the spirit and practice of intolerance. The free institutions of the country and the absolute separation of the State from all the churches have tended to place all on a common level, and to make all alike dependent upon good arguments and good practice as means of securing public respect and increasing strength.
Controversies on Church polity in America have chiefly prevailed in the rivalry of denominations. For the most part, different churches, while commending their own forms of polity, have respected that of others. Discussions conducted after that manner have greatly extended the feeling of Christian fraternity, and at the same time made almost universal the opinion that particular forms of Church government are of quite inferior importance as compared with the essential elements of Christian faith and practice. On the other hand, pretentious claims and intolerant practice have tended to defeat their own aims and to secure public disapprobation. Notwithstanding numberless varieties in unimportant particulars, the distinctive systems of Church government are few. Designated by the highest authority recognized in each, they may be enumerated as the Congregational, the Presbyterian, the Episcopal, the Patriarchal, and the Papal. The details of these systems may be seen by reference to articles on the churches adhering to them severally.
Literature. — The controversial literature of the subject of Church polity is very nearly identical with that of the subject of ordination (q.v.). The general, historical, and didactic literature of Church polity is also quite extensive. The following list of books will at least fairly represent it in its different branches and phases: Migne, Dictionnaire des Ceremonies et des Rites sacres (Par. 3 vols. 8vo); also Dictionnaire de Discipline Ecclesiastique (2 vols. 8vo); Amyrald, Du Gouvernement de l'Eglise; Marsden, Churchmanship of the New Test.; Brokesby, Government of the Church for the first Three Centuries; Kay, External Government of the Church in the first Three Centuries; Parker, Church Government of the first Six Hundred Years; Thorndike, The Forms of Church Government; Cartwright, Directory of Church Government; Canons of the Church of England; Wilberforce, Church Courts and Discipline; Clergyman's Assistant; Clay, Essays on Church Policy; Birk, Church and State; Baptist Noel, Church and State; Thompson, Church and State; Clergyman's Instructor; Bannerman, The Church of Christ; Cunningham, Discussions on Church Principles; Canons of the Prot. Episc. Church; Vinton, Manual Commentary on the Canon Law and Constitution of the Prot. Episc. Church; Dobney, Three Churches; Uhden, New England Theocracy; Upham, Ratio Disciplinae; Punchard, Congregationalism; Sawyer, Organic Christianity; Smyth, Ecclesiastical Republicanism; Miller, On Presbyterianism; also Ruling Elders; Engles, Ruling Elders; Form of Government; Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline; Bacon. Church Manual; Cummings, Congregational Dictionary; Lutheran Liturgy; Kurtz, Why are you a Lutheran? King, Presbyterian Church Government; also On the Eldership; Hiscox, Baptist Church Directory; Wayland, Principles and Practices of the Baptists; Ripley, Church Polity; Schmucker, Lutheran Manual; Grindrod, Compendium of the Laws and Regulations of Wesleyan Methodism; Barrett, Ministry and Polity of the Christian Church; Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church; Baker,
On the Discipline; Emory, Hist. of the Discipline; Sherman, Hist. of the Discipline; Porter, Compendium of Methodism; also Helps to Official Members; Bond, Economy of Methodism; Stevens, Ch. Polity; Hodgson, Polity of Methodism; Morris, Church Polity; Crane, Methodism and its Methods. (D. P. K.)