Congregationalist polity

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Congregationalist polity, or congregational polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of ecclesiastical polity in which every local church (congregation) is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, or "autonomous". Its first articulation in writing is the Cambridge Platform of 1648 in New England.


Major Protestant Christian traditions that employ congregationalism include Quakerism, the Baptist churches, the Congregational Methodist Church, and Congregational churches known by the Congregationalist name and having descended from the Independent Reformed wing of the Anglo-American Puritan movement of the 17th century. More recent generations have witnessed a growing number of nondenominational churches, which are often congregationalist in their governance.[ citation needed ] Although autonomous, like minded congregations may enter into voluntary associations with other congregations, sometimes called conventions, denominations, or associations.

Congregationalism is distinguished from episcopal polity [1] which is governance by a hierarchy of bishops, and is also distinct from presbyterian polity [1] in which higher assemblies of congregational representatives can exercise considerable authority over individual congregations.

Congregationalism is not limited only to organization of Christian church congregations. The principles of congregationalism have been inherited by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Canadian Unitarian Council.

Basic form

The term congregationalist polity describes a form of church governance that is based on the local congregation. Each local congregation is independent and self-supporting, governed by its own members. [2] Some band into loose voluntary associations with other congregations that share similar beliefs (e.g., the Willow Creek Association and the Unitarian Universalist Association). [2] Others join "conventions", such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention or the American Baptist Churches USA (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention). [2] In Quaker Congregationalism, monthly meetings, which are the most basic unit of administration, may be organized into larger Quarterly meetings or Yearly Meetings. Monthly, quarterly, or yearly meetings may also be associated with large "umbrella" associations such as Friends General Conference or Friends United Meeting. These conventions generally provide stronger ties between congregations, including some doctrinal direction and pooling of financial resources. [2] Congregations that belong to associations and conventions are still independently governed. [2] Most non-denominational churches are organized along congregationalist lines. [2] Many do not see these voluntary associations as "denominations", because they "believe that there is no church other than the local church, and denominations are in variance to Scripture." [2]

Denominational families

These Christian traditions use forms of congregational polity.

Congregational churches

Congregationalism is a Protestant tradition with roots in the Puritan and Independent movements. In congregational government, the covenanted congregation exists prior to its officers, [3] and as such the members are equipped to call and dismiss their ministers without oversight from any higher ecclesiastical body. Their churches ordinarily have at least one pastor, but may also install ruling elders.

Statements of polity in the congregational tradition called "platforms". These include the Savoy Confession's platform, the Cambridge Platform, and the Saybrook Platform. Denominations in the congregational tradition include the UCC, CCCC, and EFCC. Denominations in the tradition support but do not govern their constituent members.

Baptist churches

Most Baptists hold that no denominational or ecclesiastical organization has inherent authority over an individual Baptist church. Churches can properly relate to each other under this polity only through voluntary cooperation, never by any sort of coercion. Furthermore, this Baptist polity calls for freedom from governmental control. [4] Exceptions to this local form of local governance include the Episcopal Baptists that have an episcopal system.

Independent Baptist churches have no formal organizational structure above the level of the local congregation. More generally among Baptists, a variety of parachurch agencies and evangelical educational institutions may be supported generously or not at all, depending entirely upon the local congregation's customs and predilections. Usually doctrinal conformity is held as a first consideration when a church makes a decision to grant or decline financial contributions to such agencies, which are legally external and separate from the congregations they serve. These practices also find currency among non-denominational fundamentalist or charismatic fellowships, many of which derive from Baptist origins, culturally if not theologically.

Most Southern Baptist and National Baptist congregations, by contrast, generally relate more closely to external groups such as mission agencies and educational institutions than do those of independent persuasion. However, they adhere to a very similar ecclesiology, refusing to permit outside control or oversight of the affairs of the local church.

Churches of Christ

Ecclesiastical government is congregational rather than denominational. Churches of Christ purposefully have no central headquarters, councils, or other organizational structure above the local church level. [lower-alpha 1] [6] Rather, the independent congregations are a network with each congregation participating at its own discretion in various means of service and fellowship with other congregations. [lower-alpha 2] [8] [9] Churches of Christ are linked by their shared commitment to restoration principles. [9] [10]

Congregations are generally overseen by a plurality of elders (also known in some congregations as shepherds, bishops, or pastors) who are sometimes assisted in the administration of various works by deacons. [9] [11] Elders are generally seen as responsible for the spiritual welfare of the congregation, while deacons are seen as responsible for the non-spiritual needs of the church. [12] Deacons serve under the supervision of the elders, and are often assigned to direct specific ministries. [12] Successful service as a deacon is often seen as preparation for the eldership. [12] Elders and deacons are chosen by the congregation based on the qualifications found in Timothy 3 and Titus 1. [13] Congregations look for elders who have a mature enough understanding of scripture to enable them to supervise the minister and to teach, as well as to perform governance functions. [14] In lieu of willing men who meet these qualifications, congregations are sometimes overseen by an unelected committee of the congregation's men. [12]

While the early Restoration Movement had a tradition of itinerant preachers rather than "located Preachers", during the 20th century a long-term, formally trained congregational minister became the norm among Churches of Christ. [15] Ministers are understood to serve under the oversight of the elders. [14] While the presence of a long-term professional minister has sometimes created "significant de facto ministerial authority" and led to conflict between the minister and the elders, the eldership has remained the "ultimate locus of authority in the congregation". [12] There is a small group within the Churches of Christ which oppose a single preacher and, instead, rotate preaching duties among qualified elders (this group tends to overlap with groups which oppose Sunday School and also have only one cup to serve the Lord's Supper).

Churches of Christ hold to the priesthood of all believers. [16] No special titles are used for preachers or ministers that would identify them as clergy. [17] Churches of Christ emphasize that there is no distinction between "clergy" and "laity" and that every member has a gift and a role to play in accomplishing the work of the church. [18]

Congregational Methodist Church

Methodists who disagreed with the episcopal polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South left their mother church to form the Congregational Methodist Church, which retains Wesleyan-Arminian theology but adopts congregationalist polity as a distinctive. [19]

See also


  1. According to The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement:
    Churches of Christ from the beginning have maintained no formal organization structures larger than the local congregations and no official journals or vehicles declaring sanctioned positions. Consensus views do, however, often emerge through the influence of opinion leaders who express themselves in journals, at lectureships, or at area preacher meetings and other gatherings. [5]
  2. Everett Ferguson wrote, "Churches of Christ adhere to a strict congregationalism that cooperates in various projects overseen by one congregation or organized as parachurch enterprises, but many congregations hold themselves apart from such cooperative projects." [7]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Congregationalism</span> Religious denomination

Congregationalism are Protestant churches in the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition practicing congregational government, in which each congregation independently and autonomously runs its own affairs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Restoration Movement</span> Christian movement seeking church reformation and unification

The Restoration Movement is a Christian movement that began on the United States frontier during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840) of the early 19th century. The pioneers of this movement were seeking to reform the church from within and sought "the unification of all Christians in a single body patterned after the church of the New Testament."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexander Campbell (minister)</span> Scots-Irish American ordained minister (1788–1866)

Alexander Campbell was an Ulster-Scots immigrant who became an ordained minister in the United States and joined his father Thomas Campbell as a leader of a reform effort that is historically known as the Restoration Movement, and by some as the "Stone-Campbell Movement." It resulted in the development of non-denominational Christian churches, which stressed reliance on scripture and few essentials.

The Churches of Christ, also commonly known as the Church of Christ, is a loose association of autonomous Christian congregations. The Churches of Christ are represented across the world. Typically, their distinguishing beliefs are that of the necessity of baptism for salvation and the prohibition of musical instruments in worship. Many Churches identify themselves as being nondenominational. The Churches of Christ arose in the United States from the Restoration Movement of 19th-century Christians who declared independence from denominations and traditional creeds. They sought "the unification of all Christians in a single body patterned after the original church of the New Testament."

The group of churches known as the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ is a fellowship of congregations within the Restoration Movement that have no formal denominational affiliation with other congregations, but still share many characteristics of belief and worship. Churches in this tradition are strongly congregationalist and have no formal denominational ties, and thus there is no proper name that is agreed upon and applied to the movement as a whole. Most congregations in this tradition include the words "Christian Church" or "Church of Christ" in their congregational name. Due to the lack of formal organization between congregations, there is a lack of official statistical data, but the 2016 Directory of the Ministry documents some 5000 congregations in the US and Canada; some estimate the number to be over 6,000 since this directory is unofficial. By 1988, the movement had 1,071,616 members in the United States.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Barton W. Stone</span>

Barton Warren Stone was an American evangelist during the early 19th-century Second Great Awakening in the United States. First ordained a Presbyterian minister, he and four other ministers of the Washington Presbytery resigned after arguments about doctrine and enforcement of policy by the Kentucky Synod. This was in 1803, after Stone had helped lead the mammoth Cane Ridge Revival, a several-day communion season attended by nearly 20,000 persons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thomas Campbell (minister)</span> Irish Presbyterian minister

Thomas Campbell was a Presbyterian minister who became prominent during the Second Great Awakening of the United States. Born in County Down, he began a religious reform movement on the American frontier. He was joined in the work by his son, Alexander. Their movement, known as the "Disciples of Christ", merged in 1832 with the similar movement led by Barton W. Stone to form what is now described as the American Restoration Movement.

<i>Gospel Advocate</i>

The Gospel Advocate is a religious magazine published monthly in Nashville, Tennessee for members of the Churches of Christ. The Advocate enjoyed uninterrupted publication since 1866 until the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Firm Foundation was a religious periodical published monthly in Houston, Texas, for members of the Churches of Christ. It was established in 1884 by Austin McGary. The Firm Foundation was, for the next hundred years, one of the two most influential publications among the Churches of Christ along with the Gospel Advocate.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Conservative Congregational Christian Conference</span> Congregationalist denomination in the United States

The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference is a Protestant, Congregationalist denomination in the United States. It is the most conservative and oldest Congregationalist denomination in America following the dissolution of the Congregational Christian Churches. It is a member of the World Evangelical Congregational Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Smith (Restoration Movement)</span> Early leader in the Restoration Movement

"Raccoon" John Smith was an early leader in the Restoration Movement. His father, George Smith was of German ancestry, and may have been born in Germany, while his mother, Rebecca Bowen Smith, was of Welsh and Irish ancestry. He played a critical role uniting the movement led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell with the similar movement led by Barton W. Stone and in spreading the message of the movement over much of Kentucky.

The Christians (Stone Movement) were a group arising during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The most prominent leader was Barton W. Stone. The group was committed to restoring primitive Christianity. It merged with the Disciples of Christ (Campbell Movement) in 1832 to form what is now described as the American Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.)

The Disciples of Christ (Campbell Movement) were a group arising during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The most prominent leaders were Thomas and Alexander Campbell. The group was committed to restoring primitive Christianity. It merged with the Christians (Stone Movement) in 1832 to form what is now described as the American Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone–Campbell Restoration Movement).

The Millennial Harbinger was a religious magazine established by the early Restoration Movement leader Alexander Campbell in 1830. Campbell viewed the magazine as an important vehicle for promoting the religious reforms that he believed would help usher in the millennium.

<i>Christian Baptist</i>

The Christian Baptist, established in 1823 by Alexander Campbell, was the first magazine associated with the early Restoration Movement. The prospectus for the Christian Baptist described its purpose as "[to] espouse the cause of no religious sect, excepting that ancient sect called 'Christians first at Antioch.' Its sole object shall be the eviction of truth, and the exposure of error in doctrine and practice." The style has been described as "lively" and "sarcastic". Campbell discontinued the Christian Baptist in 1830 and began publishing a new journal named the Millennial Harbinger which had a "milder tone".

The Redstone Baptist Association was an association of Baptist churches in Western Pennsylvania. The early Restoration Movement leader Alexander Campbell and the congregation he led, the Brush Run Church, were members of the Association for several years during the early 19th century.

The Christian Messenger was a religious magazine established by the early Restoration Movement leader Barton W. Stone in 1826. The paper was a key means of communication for the "Christians" led by Stone and a primary source of unity in the movement, but consistently struggled for survival. It also played a key role in promoting the merger of the "Christians" with the "Disciples" led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell.

The American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS) was the first missionary organization associated with the Restoration Movement.

The Mahoning Baptist Association was an association of Baptist churches that was established in 1820 in Ohio's Mahoning Valley. Two prominent early Restoration Movement leaders, Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott, were closely affiliated with the Mahoning Association. The Association was dissolved in 1830.

The Churches of Christ in Europe are Christian groups of autonomous congregations using the name "church of Christ" which may or may not have a historical association with the Restoration Movement. These groups are characterized by an emphasis on basing doctrine and practice on the Bible alone in order to restore the New Testament church they believe to have been established by Jesus.



  1. 1 2 Doe 2013, p. 118.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Berry 2003, p. 49.
  3. The Cambridge Platform (PDF). London. 1652 [1649]. VI.1.
  4. Pinson, William M. Jr. (2005). "Trends in Baptist Polity". Baptist History and Heritage Society. Archived from the original on 13 October 2007.
  5. Foster et al. 2004a, p. 213.
  6. Foster et al. 2004a, p. 213; Hughes 2005, p. 214; Magida & Matlins 1999, p. 103; Rhodes 2005, p. 124.
  7. Ferguson 2004, p. 206.
  8. Ferguson 2004, p. 206; Rhodes 2005, p. 124; Garrett 2002, p. 449.
  9. 1 2 3 Baxter, Batsell Barrett. "Who Are the Churches of Christ and What Do They Believe in?". Nashville, Tennessee: Woodson Chapel Church of Christ. Archived from the original on 16 June 2006. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  10. Magida & Matlins 1999, p. 106.
  11. Howard 1971, pp. 47, 54–55; Rhodes 2005, p. 124.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Foster et al. 2004b, p. 531.
  13. Ferguson 1975; Ferguson 1996, pp. 323, 335; Howard 1971, pp. 48–53.
  14. 1 2 Morgan 2004, p. 298.
  15. Foster et al. 2004b, p. 532.
  16. Roberts 1979, pp. 53–56.
  17. Magida & Matlins 1999, p. 106; Wharton 1997, pp. 112–113.
  18. Sweet 2003, pp. 38–40.
  19. Matthews 2007, p. 95.


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Further reading