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Congregationalism: Self-Governing Churches “Gathered” Under Christ’s Rule

What is Congregationalism?

In church history, the term Congregationalism refers to that form of ecclesiastical polity (or church governance) that envisions the spiritual authority of the church to reside in the local congregation. According to Congregationalists, Christ is the head of the church; he does not rule it through intermediary institutions that are above the church (such as bishops or presbyteries, bodies which are external to the local church). Rather, He rules each individual congregation immediately through his Word, the Scriptures. Because Christian believers are endowed with the Holy Spirit, they can rightfully interpret the Scriptures, “covenant” together under Christ’s kingship in local congregations, and ordain ministers who will faithfully lead them according to the Scriptures.

Read other articles from this series on American Denominations and Other Religious Movements.

Note here that the form of churchly authority arises “from below,” among true believing members in a local congregation, not “from above” the congregation in groups like presbyteries or a college of bishops (see the former articles on Presbyterianism and Anglicanism). Because of this, historic churches with a rich congregational ethos will generally possess the following characteristics:

  • They will emphasize the unmediated authority of Christ in their midst (“where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them,” Matt 18:20).
  • They possess a high view of Scripture since it is the instrument through which Christ rules His people.
  • They sometimes will cherish a cautious and even suspicious attitude toward external “authorities,” like bishops, presbyteries, creeds, or Christian “tradition.”
  • They will try to hold their members to the high standards of morality found in the New Testament.
  • They will partner with other likeminded churches through groups known as “consociations,” “associations,” and/or “conventions,” but will recognize that these bodies have no ultimate authority over individual congregations.

Baptist observers may read this and say, “Hey, these Congregationalists are like us!” This is because many Christian denominations embrace congregational polity. Virtually all Baptist denominations have a congregational church polity, as well as most independent Bible churches, non-denominational evangelical churches, and many Pentecostal and charismatic groups. We will revisit some of these groups later in this series.

For the remainder of this essay, we will focus our attention on those denominations that have identified themselves as “Congregationalists” or have the term “Congregationalist” in their name. As we shall see, Baptists and many evangelical churches today possess roots in the “Congregational Way” forged in the 17th century.

Quick Facts:

  1. Congregationalism: that form of ecclesiastical polity (or church governance) which envisions the spiritual authority of the church to reside in the local congregation.
    • Christ thus rules his church by means of His Word alone (the Scriptures), not by means of intermediary, external authorities (bishops or presbyteries).
  2. Congregationalists & Baptists: Both have similar origins and share many points of ecclesiology. The one thing that distinguishes them is their understanding of baptism:
    • Congregationalists baptize infants.
    • Baptists do not baptize infants but practice believer’s baptism.

A Brief History of Congregationalism

Congregationalism originated in England in the late 16th century as many Christian groups became increasingly unsatisfied with the slow pace of the English reformation. Leaders like Robert Browne famously argued in Reformation without Tarrying for Any (1582) that the true church is independent from the state and that Congregationalist principles (outlined above) were the foundation of any true church. In the early 1600s, Congregationalists were vigorously persecuted in England, a fact which led many to leave their homeland. The famed Pilgrims, who migrated to Plymouth colony in 1620 on the Mayflower, were separatist English Congregationalists. Within 20 years, 20,000  Congregationalists relocated to “New England” and established the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. It is because of their overwhelming presence throughout the region in the 1600s that the colonial New England church is predominantly characterized as Congregationalist.

New England Congregationalism played a prominent role in both the First and Second Great Awakenings. America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who wrote copiously on the nature of revival, was a Congregationalist pastor-theologian from Northampton, Massachusetts during the First Great Awakening. The first major revivals of the Second Great Awakening occurred among Congregationalist churches in rural New England in the 1790s. In the early 1800s, Congregationalists were at the forefront of America’s growing evangelical empire:

  • They founded Andover Seminary, the first Protestant seminary in North America (1808).
  • They organized the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first major missions sending agency in North America (1810).
  • They evangelized the great “northwest” (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois) as America’s population patterns moved westward.

Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Congregationalists were among America’s largest evangelical denominations.

Congregationalist Churches Today

By the latter half of the 19th century, however, this portrait changed. Many Congregationalist theologians adopted theological liberalism and sadly, by 1900, most Congregationalist seminaries had abandoned their evangelical heritage. Within a generation this trickled down into most of their congregations so that today only a handful of Congregational churches in the United States would identify themselves as evangelical and Bible-believing. Two Congregationalist denominations of note are the following:

  1. The United Church of Christ (UCC): the largest Congregationalist denomination in America today.
    1. The UCC champions numerous social and political causes including universal healthcare, economic justice, LGBT rights, and environmentalism.
    2. They currently have about 1.1 million members in about 5,300 congregations across the United States.
  2. The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC): a much smaller Congregational denomination which is more conservative, evangelical, and biblically centered.
    1. Park Street Church (Boston) is perhaps their most historic church. Built in 1810, it was led in the middle of the 20th century by Harold J. Ockenga, the first president of Fuller Seminary.
    2. The CCCC has about 42,000 members in roughly 275 churches, which are mainly in the Northeast.

Congregationalism has had a long and rich heritage. While “Congregationalist” denominations have mostly been overtaken by liberal theology, the historic Congregationalist ethos, that prized the Scriptures, cherished revival, and vigorously engaged in world missions, lives on in many Baptist and evangelical churches today.

Prominent Representatives:

  • John Owen (1616-1683) – Puritan theologian who was the architect of scholastic Congregationalism.
  • Isaac Watts (1674-1748) – English writer of many hymns including “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.”
  • Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) – influential theologian and pastor from Northampton, Massachusetts.
  • Harold J. Ockenga (1905-1985) – one of the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals and founding president of Fuller Seminary.
  • Donald Bloesch (1928-2010) – theologian and author of the Christian Foundations series.

Read other articles from this series on American Denominations and Other Religious Movements.

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Robert Caldwell

Robert Caldwell

Assistant Professor of Church History at Southwestern Seminary Currently writing Theology of the American Revivalists: The Theology of the Great Awakenings from Edwards to Finney. IVP Academic, forthcoming 2014.

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