What is so special about Congregationalism?
What do Congregationalists believe about the nature of the church?
We need to go back to the old testament to trace the roots of our way. At the Temple in Jerusalem there was an elaborate system of sacrifice and religious practices led by priests and professional religious leaders. The priest stood between God and the ordinary person. This heirarchical system went back to Moses and the time in the wilderness when the Covenant made by Moses with God stresses the remoteness of God and the inability of the ordinary person to approach God directly.
In 586 the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the leaders of Israel were carried off into exile. There were now no priests or professional religious leaders to represent the people before God and so this system of mediation by priests ceased. But the ordinary people continued to worship as best they could and found that their worship was just as good without the priests. So during this period, many questioned the effectiveness of professional religion. On the restoration of the leaders of Israel from exile, many tried to revive the old system. But some fought against this hierarchical system and called for a freer vision. In Isaiah 56, Isaiah calls for no one to be excluded from the priestly task of making offerings - a type of priest hood of all believers. Justice should take precedence over ineffective religious activity and God's spirit would speak to the poor and oppressed.
Jesus throughout his ministry spoke out against the hypocrisy of systemised religion and its practitioners. He gave a collection of ordinary people - tax collectors, fishermen, and the like, the task of proclaiming God's kingdom. Then Jesus was killed at the hands of the priests and religious leaders of his day and his death is seen as the end of the sacrificial system. (Jn19 v 14, 35. Romans 5 v6ff. Hebrews and lPeter2v4.)
The essential fact in our Congregationalism is therefore that Christ is our only mediator. He is the one through who we can come directly to God and he has empowered believers by his resurrection. Taken seriously, this gospel governs the way, in which Christians live and interact. Congregationalists believe that there can be no hierarchy as all Christian people are equally able to come before God and serve him according to their abilities. We don't need a priest or an elaborate ecclesiastical structure, but we as individual s can simply come to God through Christ. This is demonstrated by our churchmanship. A Congregational church is simply a group of Christians who commit themselves to each other and to God, usually by making a covenant with each other, to be his church. A Congregational church is not founded by any denominational structure, and has no loyalty or duty to any religious body, but is a group of Christians, believing in Christ's promise that where two or three are gathered together in his name there he will be in their midst, and is therefore a church. The bishop, archbishop, moderator, or church structures of this world play no part in our churchmanship. We are a church because we are Christ's people and have decided freely to join with each other to be his church in a particular place. In the New Testament no church acknowledges or is required to acknowledge any ecclesiastical authority external to itself.
A Congregational church is therefore independent of all other churches; we owe no allegiance to church structure beyond ourselves. Our allegiance is to Christ alone. So a Congregational church is independent to order its own affairs. It employs its own minister, it owns its own building.
We believe that each church is the church of Jesus Christ in its entirety. This is why there is no such thing as The Congregational Church of the U.S. or of England. Each Congregational church is complete in its own right, and national bodies of Congregational churches are called Associations, or Unions. Each church is the microcosm of the macrocosm, ie. the smallest representation of the entire.
A Congregational church is a group of Christian believers who simply covenant with each other to be God's church in a particular place. Church members gather in church order in response to the initial call of God. In Congregationalism, all authority rests with the local church, this church being Christ's body. The members of a Congregational church come together in what is called the Church Meeting, this is the administrative body of the church, where all authority rests. We believe that Christ can speak through any believer, and so all members of the church have equal status, and all have the opportunity to contribute according to their abilities to the life and work of the church. Authority in Congregationalism comes from Christ, through the individual members of the church. The minister and deacons of the local church are servants of that church and fully responsible to that church's Church Meeting. Each church has sufficient grace to perform all ecclesiastical offices. We are the body of Christ - His feet, His eyes, His hands; He is the life and soul within the body. By the means of the church Christ acts and speaks today by it He proclaims His gospel, by its voice he says your sins are forgiven. By the church Christ works for the healing and redemption of the world.
The idea of the Church Meeting is central to Congregationalism. The church comes together in a Church Meeting as - "the body of Christ" - which we read about in 1 Cor.12. We all come as we are: the good, the bad, the person with a deep and certain faith, the person with just a little faith, the old, the young, and we bring our gifts and abilities. As we are all different, like the parts of a body, we all have our different functions to perform and our different talents and abilities to share with the whole church. In the church meeting we seek to discover the mind of Christ for the work and witness of the church. The church meeting can decline into a very sad affair where people want to give their opinion, and want their way, rather than seeking quietly the mind of Christ.
The Church Meeting is not a debating society where everyone presses their own opinion but it is simply the vehicle for the mind and will of Christ. Our Congregationalism centres on the church meeting - not a place for bickering and strife - but somewhere where we act and speak as the body of Christ. But when the church meeting really works, as it should, with the church prayerfully walking with Christ, then our system rises above all other church systems. R.W Dale wrote:" And so, to be at a Church Meeting - apart from any prayer that is offered - any hymn that is sung, and word that is spoken, is for me one of the chief means of grace. To know that I am surrounded by men and women who dwell in God, who have received the Holy Ghost, with whom I am to share eternal righteousness, and eternal rapture of the great life to come, this is blessedness. I breathe a Divine air. I am in the new Jerusalem which has come down out of heaven from God, and the nations of the saved are walking its streets of gold. I rejoice in the joy of Christ over those whom he has delivered from eternal death and lifted into the light and glory of God. The Kingdom of God is there."
The local church ordains its own minister - we don't have to ask other ministers or religious leaders to take part in an ordination, even though we often do so. A minister is not a class apart even though he or she have been set apart to a particular office of ministry. A minister is one member of the church who performs a particular duty, as a deacon, treasurer or other officer of the church does. One part of the body of Christ with his or her own particular function. A new minister is often accepted into church membership before they are inducted or ordained to a particular church.
We therefore don't have a priesthood in the sense of Anglicanism or Catholicism, for a minister is only a minister insomuch as their authority comes from their local church. Christ is of course our only priest - the one who mediated between us and God. But we believe in the priesthood of all believers - one of the central experiences of our Congregationalism - the joy to be obtained in the fellowship of Christ's people. We are all here for each other - we are a society of saints, - a household of faith, - all part of the same body. We minister to each other - if part of the body is in pain, the whole body shares in that pain - so it is with the church. John Robinson, the pastor to the Pilgrims whilst in Holland wrote: "If ever I saw the beauty of Zion, and the glory of the Lord filling His tabernacle, it hath been in the manifestation of the divers graces of God in the church, in that heavenly harmony and comely order wherein, by the grace of God, we are set and walk".
Congregationalism is nothing if it is not spiritual. Other churches have the support of the state or a connexional system We have absolutely nothing but the real presence of Christ. We depend utterly and wholly upon the presence of Christ. If we desire the strength and the power of the church we have to make it our daily prayer - that God's Spirit may be given to us. Our great Congregational principles which we cherish, our great Congregational heritage, will make our failure seem all the more disastrous if God's Spirit is lacking in our churches. For a Congregational church is built and maintained not by might, nor by power but by God's Spirit.