Church polity (church government) refers to how a church’s leadership is structured. While there are many variations and nuances found within individual churches (and these are too numerous to list), essentially all are variations of one of the following: episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational. (The subject may be complicated by the fact that there are denominations known by each of these names.) Every church is either independent with no higher authority outside of that local church, or it is part of a larger group or denomination with leaders who exert control from outside the church.
One type of church polity is episcopal. The word episcopal is from the Greek word episkopos, which is often translated in English as “bishop” or “overseer.” This form of church government functions with a single leader, often called a bishop. The Roman Catholic Church may be the most well-known of the episcopal-type churches. The Pope is also the Bishop of Rome. Below him are other bishops who are in turn responsible for other bishops down to the parish priest. The Anglican Church, Episcopal Church, and Greek Orthodox Church all have this form of government. One priest or bishop answers to another, who answers to another, until “at the top” there is one bishop (often called the archbishop) who has final authority.
Many other churches have an episcopalian form of government, even though they may not officially recognize it. Some independent churches have one pastor who has ultimate authority in all decisions of the church (sometimes this is called the “strong pastor” form of government). Some multi-site churches may have single pastor at each location but one “head pastor” who is the final authority over all of the sites. Some churches may claim to have presbyterian (elder) or congregational rule but, in reality, have a single bishop or strong pastor who has final authority.
Another type of church polity is the presbyterian form. The word presbyterian is from the Greek word presbuteros, which is usually translated “elder.” In this form of government, authority rests not with a single individual but with the body of elders or presbyters. In denominational churches, the local board of elders answers to a higher board of elders, which is made up of select elders to represent each church. Ultimately, the final board of elders (sometimes called the general assembly) has authority on matters in that denomination. In independent or autonomous churches, final authority rests with the local board of elders. In some churches with elder rule, the elders are elected or ratified by the congregation. However, once the elders are ratified, the congregation does not have power to remove them or overturn their decisions.
The third type of church polity is the congregational form. In congregational churches, the final authority rests with the congregation. This polity takes various forms. In some churches, there are almost no designated leaders (or, as some might say, except the Holy Spirit), and the congregation is involved in virtually every decision that has to be made—from the color of the carpet to the support of missionaries. In other churches, the congregation elects the primary office holders (pastor, elder, deacons) who will then make decisions, only consulting the congregation on major issues such as incurring debt to build a new building or calling a new pastor. However, in congregational churches, if a majority of the congregation objects to any of the decisions or believes that a leader should be removed from office, they have the authority to take action. Most churches with congregational rule are also independent, as they believe strongly that final authority resides with the local congregation. (For instance, Baptist churches may be part of a denomination—Southern, American, etc., but the “denomination” has no authority over the decisions of those local churches. The strongest action that could be taken by the denomination is that the individual church would no longer be received in fellowship; likewise, any individual church can withdraw at any time. In this case, the denomination is more of a voluntary, cooperative fellowship.)
As already noted, there are variations and nuances too numerous to be covered here, and there will always be exceptions to what is stated above. Even denominations that have episcopalian or presbyterian forms of government often have to adjust their positions due to congregational pressure and popular opinion. There are evangelical, Bible-believing churches that utilize each of the forms of church government mentioned above. The form of church government is not a major doctrinal issue. The most important issue is that those who are in leadership positions must submit to the authority of Christ and obediently follow His lead as revealed in Scripture (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). Christ is the Head of the Church, and if any system, board, individual leader, or congregation begins to displace Christ and the Word with their own beliefs and desires, then that leadership is no longer legitimate.