CONGREGATIONALISM; BASIC DOCTRINE
Congregationalism speaks of a form of church government. “Episcopal” church government is rule by bishops, “presbyterian” church government is rule by elders, and “congregational” church government is rule by the congregation. Episcopal government usually includes a hierarchy over the local church, and presbyterian government sometimes does as well. Congregational government nearly always avoids such hierarchy, maintaining that the local church is answerable directly to God, not some man or organization. Congregational government is found in many Baptist and non-denominational churches.
In addition to those churches which practice a congregational form of government, there are also those which call themselves Congregational Churches. Most of these are affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, or the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. These groups share a common history which is traced to the New England Puritans.
In 1648, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans drew up the Cambridge Platform as a means of protecting their assemblies from interference by unfriendly authorities in England and to formulate a common church polity based on Scripture. While formally still a part of the Church of England, these Puritans were unwilling to conform to the corruptions in the forms of worship and government that they saw in the church. Stepping outside the authority of the mother church, the Platform declared that “a company of professed believers ecclesiastically confederate” is a church, with or without officers. This clearly separated them from all forms of hierarchical church government.
The Congregational churches eventually merged with the Christian churches, which had separated from the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This new group maintained the congregational form of government, and with the strong emphasis on the autonomy of the local church, tolerance of doctrinal variations was essential.
BASIC DOCTRINE OF CONGREGATIONALISM
While the Congregational Christian Churches were growing, two other groups were formed that would eventually become part of the United Church of Christ. German settlers in Pennsylvania formed the Reformed Church in 1725, and many years later, German settlers in Missouri formed the Evangelical Church in 1841. These bodies merged in 1934 to become the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
Congregationalists accept the Bible as a sufficient rule in matters of faith and practice. They seek to base their doctrine, their conduct, and their church government, upon Scriptural foundations. What then is the content of Congregational faith and practice and how does it harmonize with the Bible?
As adherents to the historic Christian faith, Congregationalists subscribe to the tenets of the Apostles’ Creed. The congregational movement was inspired and shaped by the Protestant Reformation. As Protestants, Congregationalists have also subscribed to the traditional doctrinal statements and confessions that have defined Protestant Christianity. The great central text of Congregationalism is Matthew 18:18-20, in which Christ says to the early Church:
Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. From this passage we draw several principles of faith which distinguish Congregationalists from many other Christian churches. These are:
THE DIRECT HEADSHIP OF CHRIST OVER THE LOCAL CHURCH
THE COMPLETENESS OF THE LOCAL CHURCH\
THE AUTONOMY OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE CHURCHES
THE DIRECT HEADSHIP OF CHRIST OVER THE LOCAL CHURCH is affirmed in Matthew 18:20. Even the smallest gathering of saints in a particular locality is blessed by the presence of Christ. The promise of Jesus that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” is an assurance that the worship, work and ministry of the local church does not depend on the authority of ‘any outside ecclesiastical councils, but is derived from Jesus himself. Christ is the guiding head over every local congregation.
THE COMPLETENESS OF THE LOCAL CHURCH is based upon Christ’s words to the Church; “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18) This means that God has given to the local Church every power necessary for its spiritual functions. The local Church does not need the authority or a pope or general council or any body external to itself in order to do the Lord’s work.
THE AUTONOMY OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
Congregationalism is that system of church organization which recognizes the equal rights of all believers, the independence and autonomy of the local church, and the association of the Churches through voluntary organizations devised for fellowship and cooperation. Self-government under God is the distinct witness of churches of the congregational order. It is worth remembering that the most popular polity in the United States is congregational. In practical terms, Autonomy means that a local Church is free from the dictates or decisions of outside ecclesiastical councils.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE CHURCHES
In the New Testament we find the Churches associated with one another as equals. The early Churches lived together in an atmosphere of mutual love, not in a relationship of dominance and submission. Congregationalists, following their example, have companied together in regional and national associations because they have wanted to, not because they have been forced to.
Any organization which claims to be congregational in polity will therefore have these four marks, clearly stated and visibly practiced:
1. It will specifically honor the Headship of Christ in each local gathered Church;
2. It will exalt the spiritual completeness of each local Church;
3. It will acknowledge, respect, and defend the autonomy of each local Church;
4. And it will recognize Christian fellowship, not ecclesiastical law, as the tie that binds our Churches together.
Today’s Congregational Church Christians trace their core religious beliefs back to the Pilgrims and Puritans who fled persecution from the corrupt, authoritarian Church of England of their time, as described by the church publication, The Art and Practice of the Congregational Way.
In the United States, the Congregational Church includes the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. Each of these groups is an association of independent, autonomous individual churches.
Here are five key beliefs of Congregational Church Christians that set them apart from other Christians:
1. The importance of self-governance of the local church congregation gives the church its name. Local congregational churches recognize no higher outside authority or governing body such as most denominations have.
Decisions of doctrine and practice are not handed down to the church from outside, but rather originate from within. Because of this belief in congregational autonomy, specific doctrines can vary widely, from theologically conservative to liberal and Unitarian.
2. Congregational Church Christians believe in the spiritual equality and priesthood of all believers. In practice, this means they hold to the Bible and belief in Jesus, but individual members have “the full liberty of conscience in interpreting the Gospel,” according to The Art and Practice of the Congregational Way. Church members are trusted to interpret the Bible and apply it as they best understand it, and the church embraces differences of interpretation. The elevation of the layperson in this way limits the authority of clergy within the church.
3. While the Congregational Church does not submit to outside governing bodies, it does encourage associations of individual congregations for the purpose of fellowship, encouragement, and cooperation in larger ministries. Local churches are represented at association meetings by their chosen delegates.
4. Church membership is based on a voluntary covenant by which members believe they are bound together with Christ alone as the head of the local church. Within this covenant context, members believe they help to form the body of Christ in the world. The details of these covenants are determined specifically by the congregation and may vary from one church to another.
5. Congregational Church Christians believe in democratic and representative decision-making within the church. Member consent is required for decisions, and much of the work of the church is accomplished through various types of representative committees to ensure the membership is involved.
In summary, Congregational churches recognize the sovereignty of Christ over His Church and make that a touchstone of their faith. What some congregational churches fail to recognize is the duty that all believers have to correct and instruct one another. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6, the believers were commanded to withdraw themselves from “to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” Likewise in 1 Timothy 6:3,5 (NKJV), we are told “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness…from such withdraw yourself.” In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find repeated references to correcting or withdrawing from those who teach or practice falsehood (Galatians 2:5, 11; 4:16; 6:1). God’s design for believers is that we would be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29) and that our fellowship be based on a unity of faith and practice (Philippians 3:16).
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