W-4.0404 e.—Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

The very name of our denomination, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), points to our polity—and specifically to the value of shared leadership in our system of government. We can trace this principle to the Hebrew Scriptures. Jethro recognized that Moses, his son-in-law, was carrying a burden of leadership that was too heavy for him. Jethro suggested that Moses appoint elders to help him-—“able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain” (Exodus 18:21). Because these leaders were older men, they were called elders. The Greek word for elder is “Presbuteros.” While our elders no longer include only men, this is the concept from which our type of polity—and the name of our denomination—are derived.

The three types of polity are congregational, episcopal, and presbyterian. In congregational polities, authority lies in the congregation. This is a pure democracy with the principle of one person, one vote. Congregational and Baptist churches are examples. In episcopal polities authority is lodged in individuals, usually called bishops, whose authority is specific to their level in the hierarchy. Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches are examples of episcopal polity. Presbyterian polity is marked by shared authority and is a representative democracy. Its roots are in the Reformation and John Calvin’s understanding of governance, practiced in Geneva. The Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have presbyterian polities.

The first “trademark” of presbyterian polity, referenced in our name, is that we are governed by presbyters—teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament) and ruling elders. Ruling elders “rule” not with crown and scepter but with a measuring tape—they measure the spiritual health of the congregation they serve and seek to “strengthen and nurture its faith and life” (Book of Order [BOO], F-3.0202).

Deacons and presbyters are called by God to a particular form of service in the church, or “ordered ministry.” Their call is confirmed by the vote of a congregation (for ruling elders, deacons, and pastors) or another “community of God’s people” (BOO, G-2.0103). They are prepared for that ordered ministry under the oversight of an appropriate council (session for deacons and ruling elders, presbytery for teaching elders) and ordained by that council.

* Among a few others, Merriam-Webster defines polity as “4(a) the form or constitution of a politically organized unit (b.) the form of government of a religious denomination.”