Ecclesiastical Manual

The Various Systems of Church Government

Various Christian denominations not only differ on the matter of confessions, but also on that of church government. In most confessional documents the point of departure that controls the practical regulation of the life of the church is given, and in most cases it can be said that church govern­ment is very closely connected with the principle out of which the confession of the church arises. Yet one Eight possibly agree with all other parts of the confession, while disagreeing with the regulation concerning church polity. The State Church of England is an example of this. Additionally, many Congrega­tional Churches concur with all other parts of the confession of the Reformed Churches but differ on the matters relating to church government. Ecclesiastical fellowship is then impos­sible.

We will discuss here the following; the system of the Roman Church or the Papal System; following that, the system of the Lutheran Church or the Territorial System; then the Collegial System; after that the Congregational System or that of the Independents, and finally the Presbyterian System, as it has developed among the Reformed.

Papal System

The Roman Church honors a system that is best called papal or pontifical. Rome knows only the visible church. Only in that way is it possible to maintain the absolute authority of the church, which manifests itself externally in the authority of the pope. Therefore the marks of the church are, be­sides the confession of the true faith and the intimate connection of the sacraments, also the submission to the legal head of the church, the pope. The church, moreover is a divine community, a kingdom, so that a distinction exists in her midst between rulers and subjects. Those who rule form the clergy, the hierarchy. Only the clergyman can dispense grace because he alone possesses the functions of the church so that in reality the clergy constitute the church. The pope heads the list of the clergy. The Council of Trent asked for papal ratification of its decisions and dictated in its confession that every priest must pledge obedience to the pope, the successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ. Before the [I] Vatican Council, however, there was still canonical and dogmatic ground for the position that in the final analysis the ecclesiastical power lies with the Ecumenical Council. There the pope, as primus inter pares, did have supreme leadership, but nothing more. With the declaration of infallibility, however, the authority of the Council was set aside in principle (as in effect had already been done), and all authority in the church was direc­ted to the pope. This stage of the development had to be reached in order that the basis of the whole Roman system would really stand solidly: the unity of the world church and the immediate tie of ecclesiastical authority to the Christ. The authority and the unity of the church demand absolute papal power.

The feudal system had to prevail in the Church of Rome, even over the aristocratic Episcopal System that for a hug time, especially outside of Italy, found so many enthusiastic supporters.

In accordance with this system the pope has the primatus jurisdictionis et honoris, i.e., the highest jurisdiction of the church and all honor connected with it. By virtue of this primacy he represents the church in all times and places. In him the highest ecclesiastical legislative authority resides for both doctrine and structure alike. He has supreme super­vision over the whole church, confers the episcopal pallium, has the right to institute and abolish spiritual orders, bea­tifies and canonizes, etc.

He also has the primacy of honor, which is recognized by the faithful with adoration and kissing of the pope’s foot, and symbolized in his apostolic throne and tiara. The entire system of ecclesiastical government flows out of and stands in relationship to the conception of the being and the task of the church, as Rome teaches.

Rome does not know of the church as a gathering of believers.

Local churches, as one finds ‘in the Reformed system, do not fit in such a system, not even among those that were once state churches.

The Roman Church is one, large, holy institution for the­ entire world — with one church confession, not born out of the very life of each group of churches as among the Reformed but dictated from above to the world church — with one and the lame church language and universally prescribed ceremony. The essence of this holy institution lies in what is visible and, is exactly the opposite from the Reformed system. Now, if the essence of the church lies in what is visible, then the unity of the church must also be visible, and therefore there is need for a ruler, the vicarius, the Vicar of Christ, who rules over the entire world church.

Christ’s reigning authority descends directly upon the pope and his clergy. In this way the order of the clergy is formed and distinguished from the order of the laity. We Reformed people know only one position in the church of Christ, that of the believers. Spiritual emancipation of the laity is out of the question with Rome; the church of Rome does not know the office of believers. And when the name “clergy” was adopted for the priestly order, it was with the intention of denoting the double meaning that: 1) the bearer of that name possessed in a very special way charisma, denied to the lay­man, and 2) these clergymen would not be subject to civil jurisdiction but to that of the pope. Thus the clergy was withdrawn from national life in order to be able to stand in the service of the universal church and to personally represent that church over and over again. Even without cooperation or representation of the congregation the ecclesiastical cere­monies (rites) can take place. If the priest is present, then the church is present.

This system also encourages the church to become the all-dominating element in life. In principle Rome does not recog­nize the right of each area of life to develop according to its own rule and law. Therefore, there are church schools, church art, church science, and also ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the state. And there is no distinction between church and king­dom of God, the church is also God’s kingdom, and in that king­dom the pope is the viceregent, According to our principle the church has responsibility for that which relates to the spiritual only, for the area of special grace. It is the assembly of true Christ-believers. The kingdom of God relates to very much more. It involves the spheres of family life, the state, the school, the arts. In each of those areas God’s will must be done and His honor must be sought, each according to its own laws and rules which He has instituted for that purpose.

Rome cannot tolerate a single autonomous area alongside the church. That would violate both the idea of authority and of the unity of the universal church. Therefore the pope has the final say also in matters relating to the state, science, the arts, and societal life in order that the idea of one visible church may be maintained.

The Roman system proceeds from the concept of the unity of the visible church, and it makes a distinction between rulers and ruled. The system also creates two levels in the congrega­tion of the Lord, robbing the believers of their privilege of being a royal priesthood. Moreover, the system places the auth­ority ‘which Christ gave to His church in the hands of the pope and causes the church to operate as a dominant power even in such areas as have not been entrusted to it by divine ordinance.


The Lutheran Reformation broke with the papal system of church government which proceeded on the basis of the one universal church. The Lutherans chose the National Territorial System, also called the Consistorial System. Up to a certain point the Lutheran Reformation was forced, more by circumstances than by an original, principial stance against the old organi­zation, to modify the system of church government. It has been asserted that if the Rowan bishops would have accepted the new teaching from the Lutheran point of view (as was once hoped) then outwardly the old organization could have remained, even though some prerogatives in jurisdiction had been changed.[1]

The Lutheran Reformation, furthermore, brought strongly to the forefront the teaching that the civil government has the right to interfere in the affairs of the church because the government is the praecipium membrum ecclesiae, i.e., the most important component of the church. As such it has the custodia utriusque tabulae, that is, it is concerned both for the preser­vation of divine commandments regulating the relationship between man and God and for the commandments regulating the relationship of men to one another. It has the calling to keep the Christian faith pure and to maintain the legal order of the church.

In view of his position of authority the ruler of the coun­try also has authority over the church in his country. If the German emperor had joined the Reformation, then there would have been one evangelical, imperial church. Since this did not happen, there arose as many state churches as there were evan­gelical rulers. In these state churches the government admin­isters church polity, whether it embraces territories, a specific area, or is limited to just a single city. The government does this on the basis of its religious obligation.

Initially some were of the opinion that the former episcopal authority was passed on to the government and that therefore the ruler, as a bishop, ruled the church. But in fact for them it came down to this that the authority in the church is vested in the civil ruler, or, in the case of the cities that had their own jurisdiction, in the city government. Cuius region, eius religio; i.e., the point of departure for both is that the religion of the ruler is also the religion of the land.

Under the supervision of the civil ruler church government was exercised by the consistories which originated from committees of visitation and consisted of theologians and lawyers. They were not recognized as ecclesiastical assemblies but as civil, constitutional agencies. Furthermore, superintendents were appointed to whoa the ministers, exercising all authority in their parishes, were responsible. The congregation is con­sidered as completely unemancipated, and only in those church orders drafted under Reformed influence does some sort of cooperation in the matter of church discipline still remain.[2]

This is the way in which the national church operated, tak­ing over the place of the one universal church, while at the same time breaking with the Roman principle that the church has supremacy over the state. Instead, the opposite was now taught: the church ought to be completely subservient to the state. The distinguishing mark of this authority of the state over the church ties in that the civil ruler has a right to admin­ister church polity as part of his sovereign authority. The church is thus governed as part of the civil power. (This is also possible with the Episcopal and Collegial systems.) The previously described fault backfired in the Lutheran countries from the beginning of the Reformation. (It frequently happened that first one and then a still different government sought to exert a dominant influence over a certain area.) The wrong relationship between the state and the church was not resisted on the basis of principle; rather the welfare of the reforma­tion of the church was sought in the influence of civil govern­ment. The government and societal orders were called in to accomplish reform. By virtue of their administrative rank they changed the religious affairs; they regarded themselves as en­titled to compel their subjects to accept the Reformation, according to the previously stated principle “cuius regio, eius religio.” Consequently, at followed that when a Roman Catholic ruler cane to the throne in an evangelical district, this area now became Roman Catholic again, or when a Reformed ruler was succeeded by a Lutheran, the Lutheran confession became pre­dominant. The Peace of Westphalia acknowledged the jus reformandi, the right to reform, to be an essential part of the administrative power of the government.

Christiaan Thomasius in particular formulated this tent-tonal system in a scholarly way. He joined ranks (under in­fluence of the current dominating concept of the natural law) with Puffendorf; but he went further in that be subjected the church to the state so much that the church was absorbed by the state. Puffendorf had already laid the foundation for the state in the treaty, but he continued to maintain the divine institution of the church.

Thus three orders appeared in the church: the government, the clergy and the laity. The first, the government, has supreme authority; the second, the clergy, gives instruction as to how that authority must function; and the third, the congregation, has only to obey.

It is not necessary to elaborate further on the fact that this system mixes the areas of state and church, reduces the right of the congregation, and makes the development of the offices impossible.

The other name of this system (“Consistorial”) is less appropriate. This name indicates the manner in which authority is carried out, namely by sovereign consistories and superin­tendents as indicated earlier. In the Roman church the name consistories” is given to the meetings of the cardinals con­vened by order of the pope. The name is also given to those groups (“colleges”) assisting the vicar-general in the exercise of ruling power.

From the very beginning the consistories have been government institutions. The ruler of the country specified and gave the instructions to then. In some cities and countries there were Lower Consistories (“Mediatkonsistoriën”) which were es­tablished by lower authorities.

Closely related to the territorial system is that of Thomas Erastus, which is also followed by the Remonstrants in the Netherlands. Erastus (born in 1524) was professor of medicine at the University of Heidelberg 1560 and Maulbronn 1564. It appears from his writings concerning the Lord’s Supper that he shared Zwingli’s opinion on this subject. He also did so in the matter of church polity and in the relation of church and state. He very strongly resisted, therefore, the introduction of the Presbyterian system in the Pals, though quite unsuccessfully. After his death his widow published one of his tracts in which his system is further explained, lie fought against the autonomy of the church, decreed its entire submission to the state, and declared excom­munication unscriptural and tyrannical. He found many supporters, especially in England, while here in the Netherlands the Remon­strants followed him. And although the collegial system is now applied in the Dutch Reformed denomination (Ned. Herv. Kerk), actually any other scheme can be developed from that system, as we shall see. This denomination in fact originated according to the principles of Erastianism. Its polity was issued by the king in 1816. It is true that they do not have consistories or superintendents, but the synodical committee resembles the former like a twin sister and the church governing bodies perform the work the Lutheran superintendents. Furthermore, it is known that all discipline is in principle resisted. Moreover, dogmatic freedom is respected, and the office of elder exists only in name.

This Erastian system, therefore, is more vicious than the territorial because it denies all authority in the church. The government rules the church, but even then this polity does not have an ecclesiastical character. When ministers -exercise the keys of the kingdom, they do not act as ministers with authority in the name of the Lord. At best they are exhorters, not author­ized to exercise discipline. They do not guard the soundness of doctrine; rather, they allow for all kinds of nuances in the confessions. Additionally, this system violates the character of the Lord’s church as an assembly of believers. It interferes with the authority of the only King and Lawgiver of the church.


The Collegial system of church government is rooted in the tenets of natural law. According to the fundamental principles of this System neither the church nor the State are of divine origin. The state originates out of a covenant made by free people. All authority exercised in the sphere of the state de­rives its right to govern only from an additional agreement of those who together formed the state, and then again voluntarily handed over this right to the government. The same is true also with respect to the church. The church did not originate by divine institution but by people determined to form a church, which is then nothing other than a fellowship within the state born out of a mutual agreement, a “collegium” — hence the name of the system. The concept of one church is out of the question because many societies may coexist in the state, each remaining equal before the state as to their religious tenor. The church is completely wider the same legal jurisdiction as applies to all other organizations. The name “collegium” reminds one of the regulations of the Roman legislation, which for a long time recognized the churches as collegia licita, i.e., permitted or­ganizations. This system was first taught by Christoffel Mat­theus Pfaff, who lived from 1686-1780, and it was further devel­oped by Mosheim, G. L. Böhmer, Schleiermacher and others. After the revolution it was applied on a broader scale so that we find the Dutch Reformed denomination, among others, also organized according to its principles.

It need not be argued how this system is diametrically opposed to the essence of the church according to God’s Word. Obviously it also touches the life of the church at its core. It is, first of all, a complete misunderstanding of the authority which is due to Christ, the only Ruler of His church.

Under this system it is not Christ who gathers His church. The church has its origin in the free will of the people. It is not Christ’s authority that is binding so that office-bearers must rule according to His mandate; rather, the majority of the members decides what will be normative. The members do not perform as Christ-believers but only as free people who by free choice determine the character of the church. The case was therefore not overstated when it was said of this system: “If half the membership plus one is for Jesus, then the church talus its Christian character; but if that is not the case, then that same church could just as well be either Jewish or Islamic.”[3]

Furthermore, this system attacks the whole character of the church as such. The church is not a complete organism, i.e., it is not an assembly of those redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ; it is not the revelation of the body of Him who finds His fulfillment in it. The church is just an incidental society of individuals who by free choice form this society and join themselves to it or at another time might change their member­ship. One can neither speak of an office of believers, which is a ministry of believers in Jesus’ name, nor does one have a duty to join the church. One cannot even speak of the sin of schism within the body of the Lord. After all, the church does not want to be the body of Christ anymore.

And finally, this system is utterly revolutionary because it may find itself under a variety of forms of church government provided that it always derives its fundamental authority from the majority of the free members. Thus it may be presbyterial and delegate the authority to the presbyters; or papal, delegating the authority to the pope; or synodical, delegating the authority to the synod. The fundamental principle must always be: authority rests in the free will of the majority. The sate reasoning takes place in the political realm. Any form of government is possible, provided that it is rounded in the sovereignty of the people.

That this depiction of this system is correct is clearly seen from what Pfaff taught (and what agrees with the principles of natural law). He taught that when the fellowship (“collegium”) becomes too large to govern itself cooperatively (“collegialiter“) it can delegate its rights to the government by an unspoken or enunciated agreement. When according to this principle the gov­ernment rules the church, then in fact the same situation is cre­ated as with the territorial system. But while in the case of the territorial system the government rules by its own right, under the collegial system it rules by a right born out of a free agreement.

Of all the various systems the collegial system is the most dan­gerous because it reduces the church to a society born out of free will.


The Congregationalists or Independents locate the point of departure for their system in groups of believers who organize themselves into churches. They think of the local church in quite different terms than the Reformed. According to the Congregational system there can be at one and the same place different assemblies (congregations), each with its own consistory, without destroying the unity of the church. Such an assembly must be totally independent in its own sphere. Hence the name “Independents.” That independence not only includes the calling of ministers, but also the cultus, confession and discipline.

State control over the church must be resisted, as well as any specific interchurch relationship which would result in firm control over that particular church (or group of churches). That too would be considered hierarchical, just as in the papal system.

This principle must be rigorously applied. The churches are allowed to meet together in conferences, but these confer­ences cannot make any binding decisions; the most they can do is give advice. As mentioned earlier, this principle affects even the area of the confession. The congregationalists, therefore, cannot have confessional documents with universal authority. Actu­ally, there must be as many confessions as there are congrega­tions. A conference can, at best, issue a communal declaration of faith at a certain time, but it cannot issue a binding formula. Most congregational confessions have only local authority there­fore. The more commonly known confessional documents are, on this viewpoint, correctly called declarations. Thus there are for instance, the Savoy Declaration of 1658 and the 1833 Decla­ration of the Congregational Union of England and Wales. With regard to the founding of churches, the Savoy Declaration states re the fundamental principle of Congregationalism that those called by God must “walk together in particular Societies or Churches,” that is, they must live together in special church assemblies. According to this principle, Scripture alone is the confession. This is in conflict with the Reformed principle that God, by His Holy Spirit, has led the church of Christ throughout the ages. And it also disagrees with the principle that God has revealed the truth of Scripture more and more freely, and that He has prepared the church, through its struggle with doctrinal errors, to confess that truth more and more purely and clearly. Such communal confession is necessary to prevent the church from dissension and to maintain its purity and unity. Congregationalism, breaks the organic tie with the past, and is for the present completely individualistic. With such a view­point, doctrine could only become progressively weaker, While in all other matters the old Congregationalists assented to the strict Reformed Westminster Confession, the later movement passed for the most part into Modernism. The Declaration of 1833 sought to ex­amine the Scriptures by means of sound criticism. According to the Declaration, original sin is an inclination to moral evil, while at the same time the doctrine of election was treated very vaguely and weakly.

There were other divergences that resulted from the Indepen­dents’ viewpoint. The complete autonomy of the congregations resulted again in a kind of popular sovereignty in the congrega­tions themselves. There is no governing authority in the con­gregation. The authority rests with the congregation itself. Therefore, it has to Judge everything and decide all matters by vote. The consistory carries out the will of the congregation, but does not govern it. The Congregational system differs from the collegial system in that the latter derives the sovereignty of the congregation from natural law, while the Congregationalists speak about the divine authority of the congregation.

Also, it is impossible to make any distinction between the offices. Every elder must also be a teacher. This too is a misjudgment of God’s historic leading of His church. It is true that in the beginning the office of presbyter was one office. As time went on, however, it became necessary for certain presbyters to devote their life to doctrine, so that it would develop more soundly and the heretics would be resisted. This needed to be done because the charismata were decreasing and the threat of error was on the increase. Moreover, apostolic supervision be-case weaker in the individual congregations because of the expansion of the church. This became the situation at the time of the apostles already.

The present Congregational churches no longer have elders. They only have a minister (also called elder) and deacons. The congregation consists of 1) members, i.e., the actual members who have been accepted into membership by vote, and 2) the society, i.e., those participating in the worship service, without belong­ing to the narrow circle of members. They do, however, contri­bute to the financial needs of the congregation, and they have, for instance, a choice in the ordination of a minister.

Rome does not do full justice to the invisible character of the church, and Congregationalism fails to do the same with the visible character of the church. It does not know of a polity for the church that is exercised in the name of the Lord, and which alone can keep the church on the right track.

This Congregationalism is not rooted as such in the Puritan movement in England. The independent character of their first congregations was only a result of the pressure under which they lived and which made a closer church relation at the time impossible. Congregationalism roots in the fundamental separatism of Robert Brown. And that is why in the Netherlands people used to speak of the Brownists.

Besides the Congregationalists proper, the Baptists, Adventists, Unitarians and Quakers held to the Congregational system.


The Reformed system is usually characterized as Presbyterian. This word summarizes the main characteristics of this system. The Reformers broke with the Roman idea of the universal church as absolutely and fundamentally as possible. The Lutherans did this only partially when they accepted the principle of national or state churches. The Calvinists (Gereformeerden) begin with the principle of the local church. This originates from their doctrine of the essence of the church. The church is not in the first place a holy institution, but the body of Christ. The essence of the church is thus invisible and spiritual. However, that church becomes visible wherever true believers in Christ are found. These believers must in turn appear in the visible institute of the church. The invisible church of Christ does not become visible therefore by establishing some external kind of priestly service. The principle for Rome and in part also for the Lutherans is: if there is a priest present, then the church is present that brings the sacrifice or, according to Lutheran principle, that administers the Word and Sacrament, whether there are believers present or not. According to the Reformed principle, believers must first be present, otherwise the offices cannot be instituted and the church cannot become visible. The unchangeable position of the members of the congregation is bound up with this principle. According to the Word of the Lord, they are a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices. They have rights and duties according to the nature of their own office of believers. They have the right and duty to meet together, to confess, to re­spond to the call to special office, whether this happens directly or by way of the consistory representing the congregation. They have the calling to test the work of office bearers with the Word of the Lord, and to refuse obedience whenever the office bearers depart from that Word.

The local church is governed by the consistory. This is the only ruling authority in the church. The Reformed do not know classical, provincial, or synodical control. The authority of the higher assemblies is always less than that of the consistory, because they are only allowed to deal with matters that could not be resolved in the lower assemblies. Furthermore, there are things they cannot do, things which can only be done by the con­sistory, such as the discipline of members, the calling of minis-ten of the Word, etc.

Nevertheless, in contrast to the system of the Independentists, the Reformed principle demands that local churches maintain a close relationship with each other. And this is done in a manner un­like the papal and the collegial systems, in which the autonomy of the local church is completely lost.  Voetius defines it as a solid union of many churches under a specific polity and corres­pondence for mutual edification and preservation. The unity of the body of Christ comes to expression fir this union, while it is necessary to guard each church against deviation, and to enable it to fulfill its calling. Voetius also mentions as the aim: the preservation, confirmation, and promotion of churches in the confession and practice of the catholic faith and godliness, and also the joy that comes-from-the promotion of peace and unity.

This ecclesiastical unity works predominantly through meet­ings of classes and synods, and the visitation of the churches.

Furthermore, the presbyterian system demands that all three offices must be instituted in the congregations. And that is in direct contrast to all hierarchy. No church can have only a minister of the Word. Besides the minister there must be elders, who with him constitute the consistory, and the deacons, who are called to the ministry of mercy. There is no overlording by the ministers, and among the ministers there is complete equality. In various ways care is taken so that there is no such thing as clericalism. At the level of the higher assemblies there are as many elders as ministers (when there are vacant churches in a classis, then there is a greater number of elders). All have equal voting rights. This development of offices is seen only among the Reformed. All other systems (except the Congregational) are more or less clerical in orientation.

Another characteristic of the presbyterian system is that it advocates separation between government authority and church authority; it does not attribute to the government the right to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs.

The presbyterian system, then, recognizes for its church polity the absolute authority of God’s Word. It derives its en­tire structure from that Word. It confesses the church to be the gathering of the elect, Institutes the ministries ordained by Christ, and opposes all false hierarchy, while honoring Christ’s very own authority over His church. It seeks fellowship with all Churches that confess the same faith.

The different church orders contained in this “Manual” were organized according to the principles of this system of church government. These church orders resulted in the Church Order of Dordrecht (1618-1619) in accordance with which the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands conduct their affairs.


[1] Cf. E. Freiberg, Lehrbuch des Katholischen und evangelis­chen Kirchenrechts. Fünfter Auflage, Leipzig, 1903, p. 83.

[2] Freiberg, loc. cit., p. 89.

[3] Dr. A. Kuyper, Tractaat van de Reformatie der Kerken, Amsterdam 1903, p. 51.