Presbyterian polity

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Presbyterian polity is a method of church governance typified by the rule of assemblies of presbyters, or elders. Each local church is governed by a body of elected elders usually called the session or consistory, though other terms, such as church board, may apply.[1] Groups of local churches are governed by a higher assembly of elders known as the presbytery or classis; presbyteries can be grouped into a synod, and synods nationwide often join together in a general assembly. Specific roles in church services are reserved for an ordained minister or pastor known as a teaching elder, or a minister of the word and sacrament.

Presbyterian polity was developed as a rejection of governance by hierarchies of single bishops (episcopal polity), but also differs from the congregationalist polity in which each congregation is independent. In contrast to the other two forms, authority in the presbyterian polity flows both from the top down (as higher assemblies exercise considerable authority over individual congregations) and from the bottom up (as all officials ultimately owe their elections to individual church members). This theory of government developed in Geneva under John Calvin and was introduced to Scotland by John Knox after his period of exile in Geneva. It is strongly associated with Swiss and Scottish Reformation movements, and with the Reformed and Presbyterian churches.



Presbyterian polity is constructed on specific assumptions about the form of the government intended by the Bible:

  • "Bishop" (Koine Greek "episcopos") and "elder" (Koine Greek "presbyteros") are synonymous terms. Episcopos means literally overseer and describes the function of the pastor, rather than the maturity of the officer. A bishop is the highest office of the church (there is no Patriarch or Pope over bishops).
  • Preaching (the ministry of the Word) and the administration of the sacraments is ordinarily entrusted to specially trained elders (known as ministers of the Word and Sacrament,[2] sometimes called "teaching elders") in each local congregation, approved for these tasks by a governing presbytery, or classis, and called by the local congregation.
  • In addition to these ministers, there are also "others… with gifts for government… commonly call[ed] "elders"[2] or "ruling elders" (but not in the sense of "presbyteros").
  • Pastoral care, church discipline, leadership and legislation are committed to the care of ruling assemblies of presbyters among whom the ministers and "ruling elders" are equal participants.
  • All Christian people together are the priesthood (see priesthood of all believers), on behalf of whom the elders are called to serve by the consent of the congregation.

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