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 ]

Congregationalism is distinguished from episcopal polity [1] which is governance by a hierarchy of bishops, and is 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. Most Jewish synagogues, many Sikh Gurdwaras, and most Islamic mosques in the US operate under congregational government, with no hierarchies.

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 American Unitarian 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]

Congregational church

The earmarks of Congregationalism can be traced back to the Pilgrim societies of the United States in the early 17th century. Congregationalism expressed the viewpoint that (1) every local church is a full realization in miniature of the entire Church of Jesus Christ; and (2) 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 former, the latter precept 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 defenders of this view usually decline, often intentionally, to elaborate more clearly or consistently. This first, foundational principle by which congregationalism is guided results in confining it to operate with the consent of each gathering of believers.

Although "congregational rule" may seem to suggest that pure democracy reigns in congregational churches, this is seldom the case. It is granted, with few exceptions (namely in some Anabaptist churches), 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 clergy, 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, collectively and individually. With that freedom comes the responsibility upon each member to govern himself or herself under Christ. This requires lay people to exercise great charity and patience in debating issues with one another and to seek the glory and service of God as the foremost consideration in all of their decisions.

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 committees further constrain the pastor from exercising power without consent by either the particular committee, or the entire congregation. 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 deacons, elder or session (borrowing Presbyterian terminology), or even 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 congregationally governed church would more likely define tyranny as "transgression of liberty" or equivalently, "rule by one man". 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.

One of the most notable characteristics of New England (or British)-heritage Congregationalism has been its consistent leadership role in the formation of "unions" with other churches. Such sentiments especially grew strong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when ecumenism evolved out of a liberal, non-sectarian perspective on relations to other Christian groups that accompanied the relaxation of Calvinist stringencies held by earlier generations. The congregationalist theory of independence within a union has been a cornerstone of most ecumenical movements since the 18th century.

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. [3] 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] [5] 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] [7] [8] Churches of Christ are linked by their shared commitment to restoration principles. [8] [9]

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. [8] [10] 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. [11] Deacons serve under the supervision of the elders, and are often assigned to direct specific ministries. [11] Successful service as a deacon is often seen as preparation for the eldership. [11] Elders and deacons are chosen by the congregation based on the qualifications found in Timothy 3 and Titus 1. [12] 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. [13] In lieu of willing men who meet these qualifications, congregations are sometimes overseen by an unelected committee of the congregation's men. [11]

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. [14] Ministers are understood to serve under the oversight of the elders. [13] 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". [11] 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. [15] No special titles are used for preachers or ministers that would identify them as clergy. [16] 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. [17]

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. [18]

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. [4]
  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." [6]

Related Research Articles

Presbyterianpolity is a method of church governance typified by the rule of assemblies of presbyters, or elders. Each local church is governed by a body of elected elders usually called the session or consistory, though other terms, such as church board, may apply. Groups of local churches are governed by a higher assembly of elders known as the presbytery or classis; presbyteries can be grouped into a synod, and presbyteries and synods nationwide often join together in a general assembly. Responsibility for conduct of church services is reserved to an ordained minister or pastor known as a teaching elder, or a minister of the word and sacrament.

Congregational church Religious denomination

Congregational churches are Protestant churches in the Reformed tradition practising congregationalist church governance, in which each congregation independently and autonomously runs its own affairs.

Restoration Movement 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."

Alexander Campbell (minister) Scots-Irish immigrant in the US

Alexander Campbell was a Scots-Irish 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. Campbell was influenced by similar efforts in Scotland, in particular, by James and Robert Haldane, who emphasized their interpretation of Christianity as found in the New Testament. In 1832, the group of reformers led by the Campbells merged with a similar movement that began under the leadership of Barton W. Stone in Kentucky. Their congregations identified as Disciples of Christ or Christian churches.

Churches of Christ are autonomous Christian congregations associated with one another through distinct beliefs and practices based on their interpretation of the Bible. Represented in the United States and one of several branches across the world, they believe in using only biblical precedents for their doctrine and practices citing limited examples from the early Christian church as described in the New Testament. They typically reject doctrinal writings that disagree with their interpretations, and all written religious creeds; the churches of Christ thus identify themselves as being nondenominational.

Barton W. Stone

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.

Thomas Campbell (minister) 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.

Cambridge Platform

The Cambridge Platform is a statement describing the system of church government in the Congregational churches of colonial New England. It was written in 1648 in response to Presbyterian criticism and in time became regarded as the religious constitution of Massachusetts. The platform explained and defended congregational polity as practiced in New England and also endorsed most of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The document was shaped most directly by the thinking of Puritan ministers Richard Mather and John Cotton.

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.

Ecclesiastical polity is the operational and governance structure of a church or of a Christian denomination. It also denotes the ministerial structure of a church and the authority relationships between churches. Polity relates closely to ecclesiology, the study of doctrine and theology relating to church organization.

In Christianity, an elder is a person who is valued for wisdom and holds a position of responsibility and authority in a Christian group. In some Christian traditions an elder is an ordained person who serves a local church or churches and who has been ordained to a ministry of word, sacrament and order, filling the preaching and pastoral offices. In other Christian traditions, an elder may be a lay person serving as an administrator in a local congregation, or be ordained and serving in preaching or pastoral roles. There is a distinction between ordained elders and lay elders. The two concepts may be conflated in everyday conversation. In non-Christian world cultures the term elder refers to age and experience, and the Christian sense of elder is partly related to this.

The Disciples of Christ 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 in 1832 to form what is now described as the American 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.

Congregationalism in the United States

Congregationalism in the United States consists of Protestant churches in the Reformed tradition that have a congregational form of church government and trace their origins mainly to Puritan settlers of colonial New England. Congregational churches in other parts of the world are often related to these in the United States due to American missionary activities.



  1. 1 2 Doe 2013, p. 118.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Berry 2003, p. 49.
  3. Pinson, William M., Jr. (2005). "Trends in Baptist Polity". Baptist History and Heritage Society. Archived from the original on 13 October 2007.
  4. Foster et al. 2004a, p. 213.
  5. Foster et al. 2004a, p. 213; Hughes 2005, p. 214; Magida & Matlins 1999, p. 103; Rhodes 2005, p. 124.
  6. Ferguson 2004, p. 206.
  7. Ferguson 2004, p. 206; Rhodes 2005, p. 124; Garrett 2002, p. 449.
  8. 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.
  9. Magida & Matlins 1999, p. 106.
  10. Howard 1971, pp. 47, 54–55; Rhodes 2005, p. 124.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Foster et al. 2004b, p. 531.
  12. Ferguson 1975; Ferguson 1996, pp. 323, 335; Howard 1971, pp. 48–53.
  13. 1 2 Morgan 2004, p. 298.
  14. Foster et al. 2004b, p. 532.
  15. Roberts 1979, pp. 53–56.
  16. Magida & Matlins 1999, p. 106; Wharton 1997, pp. 112–113.
  17. Sweet 2003, pp. 38–40.
  18. Matthews 2007, p. 95.


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Further reading