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Congregationalism is a form of church government in which every local congregation is independent. The Anabaptist movement, Baptists, and the Congregationalist churches are organized according to it. In Christianity, it is distinguished from Presbyterian government, and Episcopalian government.

Congregationalism is not limited only to the organization of Christian congregations. Most of the principles of congregationalism have been inherited by the Unitarian Universalist Association, by direct historical descent from the Congregational Church. The Neopagan Church of Wicca, and numerous other religious groups, which may dispense entirely with Biblical or Christian rationale, have adopted part or all of the congregationalist plan of organization.

The basics of congregationalism in Christianity

Congregationalism is the theory that every local church is a full realization in miniature, of the entire Church of Jesus Christ; and, the Church while on earth, besides the local Church, can only be invisible and ideal. While other theories may insist on the truth of the first precept, the second of congregationalism gives the entire theory a unique character among plans of church government. There is no other reference than the local congregation, for the "visible church" in congregationalism. And yet, the connection of all Christians is also asserted, albeit in a way that can't be clearly or consistently described. This first, foundational principle by which congregationalism is guided, results in the extreme limitation of authority, confining it to operate with the consent of a single gathering of believers.

Although "congregational rule" may seem to suggest that pure democracy reigns in congregational churches, this is usually not really the case. It is granted with rare exception, that God has given the government of the church into the hands of an ordained ministry. What makes congregationalism unique, is its system of checks and balances, which constrains the authority of the minister, the lay officers, and the members.

Most importantly, the boundaries of the powers of the ministers and church officers are set by clear and constant reminders of the freedoms guaranteed by the Gospel to the laity, and to every person. With that freedom, as the shepherd in a congregationalist church is quite likely to frequently remind his flock, comes the responsibility upon each member to govern himself under Christ. The theory of congregationalism designs its own failure upon lay members who will not meditate on the sermons and apply their lessons in their lives, who will not study the Bible, who will not charitably and patiently debate issues with one another, or vote with the glory and service of God as the foremost consideration in all of their decisions. Congregationalism provides no safety net for an ungodly people, and therefore envisions ideally that none but truly converted Christians will be members of the church.

The authority of all of the people, including the officers, is limited in the local congregation by a definition of union, or a covenant, by which the terms of their cooperation together are spelled out and agreed to. This might be something as minimal as a charter specifying a handful of doctrines and behavioral expectations, or even a statement only guaranteeing specific freedoms. Or, it may be a constitution describing a comprehensive doctrinal system and specifying terms under which the local church is connected to other local churches, to which participating congregations give their assent. In congregationalism, rather uniquely, the church is understood to be a truly voluntary association.

Finally, the congregational theory strictly forbids ministers from ruling their local churches by themselves. Not only does the minister serve by the approval of the congregation, but in addition committees must be elected, consisting of lay officers and the pastor. It is a contradiction of the congregational principle, if a minister makes decisions concerning the congregation without the vote of these other officers. The other officers may be called "the board of deacons", "the board of elders" or "the session" (borrowing Presbyterian terminology), or even "the vestry" (borrowing the Anglican term) — it is not their label that is important to the theory, but rather their lay status and their equal vote together with the pastor, in deciding the issues of the church. While other forms of church government are more likely to define "tyranny" as "the imposition of unjust rule", a congregationalist church would more likely define tyranny as "transgression of liberty" or equivalently, "rule by one man". The reason for insisting upon congregationalism, besides the belief that it is the Biblical and primitive pattern of Church government, is to prevent any transgression of liberty by those in authority. To a congregationalist, no abuse of authority is worse than the concentration of all decisive power in the hands of one ruling body, or one person. Following this sentiment, congregationalism has evolved over time to include even more participation of the congregation, more kinds of lay committees to whom various tasks are apportioned, and more decisions subject to the vote of the entire membership. Consequently, with the onset of the Enlightenment, congregationalist churches easily adopted and contributed to the Enlightenment ideal of the Individual, against which there has simultaneously been a continuous revolt as it is perceived to have eroded legitimate congregationalist principles of authority and connectionalism.

Congregationalism as a theory of union

It may seem ironic given its adamant emphasis on independence, but one of the most notable characteristics of the Congregationalist Church has been its consistent leadership role in the formation of "Unions" with other churches. In fact, the persistence of the Congregational Church is owing simply to the fact that these Unions tend (by the inherent nature of congregationalism) to be imperfect, because some congregations decide not to enter into them. The congregationalist theory of independence within a union has been a cornerstone of most ecumenical movements since the 18th century. An older, competing, but somewhat related theory, is sometimes called nationalism (in the Reformed churches tradition), or autocephaly (in the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition). Between these latter two there are further differences. In both, nationalism and autocephaly, one unifying doctrine is given local expression, according to differences in language and customs. Autocephaly is strictly episcopalian, and assures the self-government of distinct partiarchates within a structure of common doctrine, comparable practices, with some degree of mutual accountability through which they remain in communion with one another. In nationalism (in recent times, more accurately called "culturalism"), there is no institutional accountability to churches with separate general assemblies, although churches with separate histories typically form voluntary confederations with one another. Congregationalism, in contrast, guarantees a completely independent government for all of the uniting parties, down to the level of every local congregation.

A conspiracy of historical factors guaranteed that Congregationalism would become the distinctively American idea, the very stamp of America on religion and secular government. In combination with Presbyterian theories of government, Congregationalism was essential to the construction of a constitutional republic that preserved guarantees of local autonomy to the states. It also contributed a theory of separation of church and state, which for a long time proved more protective of religious freedom than the French Revolution had done, although it has fallen out of favor in the United States, since Reconstruction following the American Civil War.

The congregationalist principles of complete autonomy and strictly voluntary union produces a practically indescribable diversity of beliefs within the congregational unions. The United Church of Christ is the result of a series of Unions constructed on the most liberal congregationalist theory, between the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. These uniting congregations were the result of several previous unions. The Congregational Christian Churches were formed by congregations of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Campellites. The Evangelical and Reformed Church was the result of a partial union of the Reformed Church in the United States and the Evangelical Synod of North America (a union of Lutherans and Reformed). The UCC is by far the most diverse of the Reformed churches at the present time. In the United Kingdom, the United Reformed Church is the merger of the Presbyterian churches and the Congregational churches, on congregational principles of union.