Polity: Branches of Governance

What is commonly referred to as “Church Polity” in Dort circles should, more properly be referred to as Church Law (the science) and Church Governance (the practice).  As a type of “law” and “governance” church polity has to deal with questions and issues that confront this field in general. On such matter is distinguishing the branches of governance and balancing them.

This article reviews how the branches of governance function in the polity of Dort.

Branches of Governance

There are three branches to government: legislative, executive, and judicial. The legislative branch determines and prescribes the law. The executive branch ensures the law is put into practice. The judicial branch upholds the law.

In Canadian Society

In Canadian society the legislative branch is formed by the parliaments (of the nation and the provinces), councils (of municipalities and reserves), and boards (of regions, parks, and schools). The executive branch is formed by the armed forces (police, army, navy, air force) and civil service. The judicial branch is formed by the court system.

In Dort Practice

In the practice of Dort polity these three branches of governance are found in one, possibly two bodies. Both legislation and adjudication is practiced by the ecclesiastical assemblies. The executive arm is strictly speaking the assembly itself. However, it often mandates this task to individuals and committees appointed by the assembly. Locally such committees commonly include: the executive of assemblies, the finance and property committee, the evangelism committee, the music (or liturgy) committee. Regionally such executives are the church visitors, the needy churches committee, deputies of regional synod, etc. Federally such committees include committees for relations with other churches, the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise, the Board of Governors.

Balance of Power

Legislative and Judicial

Under civil law the legislative branch has more authority than the judicial, under common law it is the reverse. There is often tension between “the will of the government” and “the will of the courts”. In society it is commonly thought a balance of power is the best way to go. Each society will have its own way for fine tuning the balance of power.

Tension between these two branches of governance is not as evident in the practice of church polity. The reasons for this include the following.

(1) Ecclesiastical assemblies function as both legislature and judiciary.

(2) Ecclesiastical assemblies deal only with ecclesiastical matters.

(3) Ecclesiastical assemblies all hold to the same set of convictions.


When civil unrest threatens, the executive branch (usually the armed forces) may assume power. In a society with a weak government and a weak court system, bureaucrats may hold sway. When the executive branch assumes power, a measure of corruption and arbitrariness tends to arise. A society that enjoys peace (in the Biblical sense of shalom) will never be ruled by the executive branch.

In the Dort tradition executive powers often pass by way of mandates from assemblies to individuals and committees. Such individuals and committees act under the authority of the assembly giving them their mandate. Conflicts may arise with respect to the activities of the executing body as executing body. For more on this see Assemblies: The Authority of Executing Bodies.

Conflicts may also go a step further. This happens when an executing body begins to act as a legislating or judicial body. Two examples.

  • A Finance and Property Committee steps beyond its bounds in creating a user policy for the building without having a mandate to do so. Here an executing body takes on a legislating task. In this situation the committee should receive a mandate to create a policy, and should enact the policy in accordance with the directives of the local assembly.
  • Church visitors direct a consistory to lift discipline with respect to an individual. Here two executing individuals take on a judicial task. In this situation the church visitors should advise consistory under what conditions discipline is to be maintained and under what conditions discipline is to be lifted.

In Short

Ecclesiastical assemblies are the bodies exercising the three branches of governance: legislative, executive, and judicial. Executive activities are frequently mandated to individuals or committees. Achieving a balance of power between branches of governance is not an issue. It can become an issue when executive bodies take on legislative or judicial tasks.