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Polity is the term used to describe the way in which the church is governed. Mennonites, while looking to the example of the church in the New Testament as normative, exercise considerable freedom and flexibility in working out their patterns of church government. In the past several decades there has been a considerable shift in patterns of congregational oversight in the North American churches, for example, with some conferences eliminating the office of bishop in favor of conference ministers and area overseers. The Brethren in Christ, meanwhile, have strengthened the office of bishop with a bishop responsible for the administrative and spiritual oversight of each district conference.

The Mennonite churches of the Two-Thirds World during their formative years by and large took on the organizational and leadership patterns of the founding churches of North America and Europe as mediated and interpreted to them by the pioneer missionaries Other factors over the years have also been significant in shaping their governing structures, notably the theological influences of' the seminaries and Bible schools where the pastors have studied. The indigenizing process has also affected the way in which the younger churches have modified their organizational life. Yet an additional factor has been the way in which a growing number of these churches are reading the Anabaptist sources, not simply adopting 16th-century European models but adapting basic Anabaptist principles to their own situation in life.

There is considerable diversity in forms of governance among the several groups of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ and even within a given group. Some congregations have a plural ministry with the historic threefold pattern of elder or bishop, preachers, and deacons; some have lay ministers; and an increasing number have professionally trained and salaried ministers. Some have boards of elders and others have boards of deacons who, along with the pastors, provide spiritual leadership within the congregation.

Mennonites tend more toward the congregational pattern than episcopal, or presbyterian forms (congregationalism). That is, they emphasize the central importance of the local fellowship of believers though they vary on the relative degree of congregational autonomy. Each congregation is responsible for church discipline, for maintaining standards of faith and life. Each has a voice in the selection of its pastoral leadership. Each is free to plan its own order for worship services. The lay members participate in the governance of the congregation and of the wider church organizations its well.

However, Mennonites are not pure congregationalists and have at some points in their history drawn certain elements (bishops, elders) from both the episcopal and presbyterial traditions. General Conference Mennonites lean closest to a congregational model while the Brethren in Christ would he least congregational. The Mennonite Church (MC) in its reorganization of 1971 emphasized the centrality of the local congregation. At the same time in the decade following, its 21 district conferences took on new strength and vitality in their roles.

Mennonites have historically recognized their need for mutual support and counsel from beyond the single congregation and their patterns of organization have reflected this. All of the several Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ bodies have organized themselves into general [churchwide] conferences coordinated by a general board. All have also organized themselves into district conferences. In addition they have provided some form of congregational oversight ranging from consultation only to direct administrative and spiritual supervision.

In many parts of the church in North America, conference ministers or area overseers serve functions similar to those of the bishops at an earlier time with somewhat less authority and a more narrowly focused range of responsibilities. In some cases, administrative and spiritual guidance responsibilities have been separated with administrative guidance given by an executive secretary for the conference. This pattern is still in process of being refined as the district conferences gain more experience with it.

On the local level, many congregations have set up (1) church councils for administrative oversight and program coordination and (2) boards of elders or deacons for the spiritual oversight of the congregation and counsel to the pastor(s). The trend on congregational, district and church-wide levels seems to be that of separating administrative and spiritual direction rather than keeping them integrated.

The historic Mennonite pattern of ordaining bishops or elders for pastoral oversight continues in many places in the church, notably among the Brethren in Christ and in several conferences of the Mennonite church (MC) in the eastern United States (e.g., Lancaster, Virginia, and Franklin) which have bishop districts. Midwestern and western Mennonite church conferences have overseer "districts," "clusters," and "councils" with oversight provided by "overseers," "coordinators," and those bishops ordained for life who are still active in the conference.

The historic Mennonite office of bishop should not be confused with the classic episcopacy. "Bishop" in Mennonite practice has its roots not in the Anglican or Catholic tradition but in the tradition of Titus 1:5. It has simply been a term meaning senior minister or pastor. The ministers were normally chosen from among the brethren in the congregation and the bishop was selected from among the ministers. There was no sacramental distinction, only a functional one, between the ministers and the people and between the bishops and the ministers. Nor was there any thought of apostolic succession through ordination.

One of the most significant developments of the past decades is the ordination of women in the Mennonite Church (MC) and General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM). There have been strong differences of interpretation and opinion as these denominations and their constituent district conferences and congregations have taken up this issue. Proponents of the ordination of women have emphasized spiritual gifts, asserting that gifts of leadership, preaching, and pastoral care are sovereignly bestowed by the Spirit of God and given to various women and men alike without regard to gender. Opponents have emphasized office and the spiritual authority that goes with the pastoral office holding that the Scriptures are clear that women are not to exercise authority over men. Here again the considerable diversity of interpretation and practice on this issue has not for the most part caused the churches to break fellowship with each other. This is further testimony to the belief that freedom and flexibility with their attendant diversity are appropriate when it comes to church polity.

The following paragraphs are a description of the organizational patterns of four of the larger groups of Mennonites in North America. Having been written in the late 1980s, they do not anticipate the polity under review in the merger of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church approved in 1995, but scheduled to be implemented in 1999/2001. RTB

Mennonite Church (MC)

The Mennonite Church (MC) maintained its principal office in Lombard, Ill., until 1988, when it was moved to Elkhart, Ind. Its organization included a (1) General Assembly which met every two years with delegates from the 21 district conferences in Canada and the United States and a (2) General Board which served as the church's board of directors. Each district conference was represented on the General Board; there were also a number of members at large.

Each district conference is composed of local congregations. The delegates from the local congregations normally meet at least once each year both for spiritual inspiration and for conducting the business of conference. Their agenda has to do with the mission of the church in evangelism, nurture, church planting, stewardship, youth work, congregational leadership and oversight, and being a liaison between the programs of the larger denomination and the local congregations. The determination of ministerial credentials is a district conference responsibility.

The bylaws of the Mennonite Church (MC) stated that "the congregation is God's people with a common confession of Christ uniting in worship, nurture, fellowship, proclamation, service, discernment, reconciliation, mutual care and discipline. It is a local group of believers whose commitment to Christ and to each other and whose proximity to each other makes it possible to experience these activities on a regular and continuing basis."

There were five church-wide program boards whose work was coordinated and reviewed by the General Assembly and the General Board. They were Congregational Ministries, Publication, Missions, Education and Mutual Aid. The Mennonite Mutual Aid Board has become an inter-Mennonite board serving also the General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren. Some program board members were elected by the General Assembly delegates and some were appointed by the General Board.

The General Assembly, in addition to receiving reports from program boards, standing committees, and associate groups (e.g. the Women's Missionary and Service Commission, the Afro-American Mennonite Association, and the Concilio Nacional [National Council of Hispanic Mennonite Churches]) dealt with issues of faith and life identified by the district conferences. This usually involved a process of study and discernment covering several biennia and involving local congregations. It sometimes resulted in policy statements referred to in the bylaws as "interpretive guidelines for congregations and conferences in biblical and practical doctrine." One important is sue before the General Assembly in 1987 was the development and adoption of a contemporary confession of faith; this confession was formally approved in 1995 in cooperation with the General Conference Mennonite Church. WN

General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM)

The General Conference Mennonite Church had central offices in Newton, Kansas. Every three years delegates from its member congregations met. The Conference of Mennonites in Canada, the conferences in various regions and provinces of Canada, and the conferences of the five districts in the United States, meet annually. They were all part of the General Conference. Changes were anticipated in the relationship of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada to the structure of the MC/GCM, when that merger is completed  in 1999.

Each conference is composed of autonomous local congregations. Decisions and actions of conferences are not binding on their member congregations. The General Conference constitution stated: "The congregations have every responsibility to support the conference and, therefore, the conference has a right to lay claim to the support of the local congregations. However, in fulfilling its mission, the conference seeks to serve and strengthen the local congregations and regional conferences, not to control them."

The three commissions -- on education, on home ministries, and on overseas mission -- carried out the programs of the conference under the overall coordination of the General Board which sets the annual budgets and reviews the work of the commissions. The Conference of Mennonites in Canada and the district conferences in the United States had representation on these commissions.

Each conference seeks to serve the congregations. Conferences cooperate to reduce duplication and competition. General Conference was a resource to regional conferences and to congregations.

In each district and each province a conference minister assists congregations who are seeking pastors and support the pastors. A regional conference committee processes candidates for ordination who are ordained in and by the local congregation with some involvement of that conference.

General Conference has had no national conference in the states. Annually the district presidents and the U.S. members of the conference executive committee met as a U.S. council to handle unique agenda. A U.S. delegate assembly gathers each time General Conference met. 

Women in Mission served a vital role in mission education, service projects, and fund raising for their own and General Conference projects. Mennonite Men also were organized but less active.

Resolutions could be brought to a triennial session by the General Board, one of the commissions or a resolutions committee. A study process was used for major issues which may or may not result in a statement voted upon by the delegates at a triennial session.

General Conference has consistently sought to be open to inter-Mennonite cooperation. The Africa overseas mission work is carried out through the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. VP

Mennonite Brethren Church (MB)

The General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches (which became the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America in 1987) is registered as a corporation in the state of Kansas. The head office of the conference shall be in the town of Hillsboro, Ks., or at such place as the conference may from time to time determine.

The conference includes all churches founded on the confession of faith adopted by its members at a regular convention. The conference in session has the right to make the final decisions in all matters that relate to the united activities and the common welfare of the churches. Each church is autonomous in the government and administration of its own local affairs. However, churches are to accept as binding decisions made by the conference in accordance with the provisions of its constitution.

The churches that comprise the General Conference come from two national conferences: Canada and the United States. These in turn are divided into six provincial conferences and five district conferences respectively.

The General Conference convenes once in a period of three years. This convention is called for the purpose of hearing reports, projections, and recommendations of the conference boards. There are seven General Conference boards: Reference and Counsel, Christian Education, Christian Literature, Mass Media, Missions and Services, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, and Trustees. In addition, there are three committees: Executive, Nominating, and Program. The Executive Committee, made up of a moderator, assistant moderator and secretary, is responsible for those affairs of the conference not within the jurisdiction of any board or committee. These three officers are members of the Board of Reference and Counsel. This Board is to watch over the spiritual life of the General Conference and its churches and give guidance in matter of faith, doctrine and Christian life. It also convenes study and faith conferences for the purpose of examining faith and discipleship. HJB

Brethren in Christ (BIC)

The Brethren in Christ is a General Conference comprised in 1987 of six regional conferences in Canada and the United States and over 200 congregations.

Each local congregation represents a self-governing unit, functioning with the oversight of the bishop and under the direction of the pastor and the church board. When a pastor is being chosen, the bishop serves as chairman of the local church board. Each congregation holds its own business meeting and is responsible for its life and practice, but with ties to its regional conference and the General Conference.

The bishops each reside in their own regional conference, but are chosen by the General Conference. The bishops are responsible for the administration of their respective regional conferences in cooperation with the General Conference. There is an annual meeting of each regional conference.

The General Conference has a biennial meeting as a representative body of all regions and congregations. It is served by a Board of Administration that includes representatives of the regions, the six General Conference boards, and administrative personnel. The general secretary of the General Conference is accountable to the moderator of the General Conference (one of the six regional bishops), and the six bishops are accountable to the general secretary. The six General Conference boards are: Board for Brotherhood Concerns, Board for Congregational Life, Board for Evangelism and Church Planting, Board for Media Ministry, Board for Ministry and Doctrine, and Board for World Missions. The Board of Administration also has within its structure the Board of Bishops, the Board for Stewardship and the Jacob Engle Foundation. The Board for Ministry and Doctrine with the Board of Bishops care for the credentialing of ministers.

The decisions of the General and Regional Conference are considered guidelines for all congregations. The Manual of Doctrine and Government includes the denominational statements of faith (under revision in 1987), bylaws and conference rulings, conditions for membership, and guidance in Christian living. These are given to local churches to be received for unity, to promote spirituality, and increase efficiency in program. Some congregations are more oriented to General Conference ties; others tend toward independence. North American culture accents the latter, but as a conference, Brethren in Christ call for a focus on the concept of the larger church family, including other evangelical groups in such associations as Mennonite Central Committee, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Christian Holiness Association, with which they have official representation. RDSh

Author(s) Ross T. Bender
Wayne North
Vern Preheim
Herbert J. Brandt
R. Donald Shafer
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Ross T., Wayne North, Vern Preheim, Herbert J. Brandt and R. Donald Shafer. "Polity." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 28 Sep 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Polity&oldid=177259.

APA style

Bender, Ross T., Wayne North, Vern Preheim, Herbert J. Brandt and R. Donald Shafer. (1989). Polity. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 September 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Polity&oldid=177259.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 714-717. All rights reserved.

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