Template:Christianity Congregationalist polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of church governance in which every local congregation is independent. The Anabaptist movement, Baptists and others besides the Congregational churches are organized according to it. In Christianity, it is distinguished from presbyterian polity, which is governance by a structure of democratically-elected representative bodies of clergy and lay "elders"; and from episcopal polity, which is governance by a hierarchy of bishops. Scriptural support can be found for all three forms of church polity, although it should be noted that those who practice the congregational form of church polity believe it has the strongest support from scripture and in fact believe that this was the predominant form of church government in the first century of the Christian era. However they also believe that the form of church government is not a doctrine crucial to one's salvation and that fellow believers can be found in churches which practice other forms of church polity.
Congregationalism is not limited only to organization of Christian congregations. The principles of congregationalism have been inherited by the Unitarian Universalist Association, some of which are Christian assemblies, by direct historical descent from the Congregational Church.
The basics of congregationalism in ChristianityEdit
Congregationalism is the theory 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 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 each 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.
Ministry and Ordination in Congregational Christian ChurchesEdit
The understanding of ministry in the Congregational Christian Church generally follows a Priesthood of all believers model in the sense that all Christians have ministry roles within the church but that God calls certain people to be ordained ministers. The process of calling and ordaining ministers is managed by the congregation, but the ordination ceremony may involve more than just the congregation calling the pastor. Typically, neighboring congregational churches within a vicinage council or association will be invited to lay hands on the confirmed candidate, in a ceremony of ordination. 
Congregationalism as a theory of unionEdit
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 owed 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 episcopal, and assures the self-government of distinct patriarchates 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.
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 according to congregationalist theory, as a union between the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. These uniting congregations were the result of several previous unions. The General Council of Congregational Christian Churches was formed from a merger between the National Council of Congregational Churches and the General Convention of the Christian Church, also known as Christian Churches or Christian Connection (not to be confused with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church)). 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 and the Congregational churches, on presbyterian principles of union but within a continuing congregational regard for local diversity.
A "liberal" theory?Edit
Churches such as the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ are sometimes thought of as being politically liberal. Similarly, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches have been accused by conservative groups of being "liberal," in one or more senses of that term. However, while self-avowed liberals or freethinkers may find some appropriate congregations in which to practice their beliefs, conservatives and more orthodox believers can also be found in large numbers in other congregations. In short, while the idea of congregationalism itself is tolerant of differences between congregations, this liberal theory in principle assures a place for both conservatives and liberals, as far as their uniting covenants allow. At least in principle, this kind of diversity may be regarded as both inevitable and tolerable under a congregational theory of union. While a similar diversity might be found under other forms of government, it is less likely to be regarded as normal or tolerable.
A conservative theory of congregationalismEdit
Contrary to the congregationalism to which the abovementioned churches adhere, there is a conservative theory of congregationalism that obtains in some non-Southern Baptist Baptist churches and in the Churches of Christ. Churches of Christ stand autonomously. These churches have developed ideas about independence of congregational authority that are quite different from the United Church of Christ. The Church of Christ does not condone the theories of unity and "merger" outlined above, as such consolidation constitutes a threat to the sovereingnty of individual congregations. Interdenominational unity is generally eschewed. Calls for tolerance are often viewed as attempts to be politically (rather than scripturally) correct. Church government beyond the level of the stand-alone congregation does not exist. Even in small towns, most Church of Christ preachers do not meet on a regular basis, and preachers are not formally ordained in the Church of Christ, because this would constitute a transcongregational authority. This is based upon the New Testament practice of epistle-writing in which letters were written from one church leader to another; but whereas these letters had some practical, doctrinal, or interpretational authority, because they were written by apostles and/or those directly inspired by God, such missives do not retain similar authority in modern times. The Church at Corinth cannot tell the churches at Ephesus and Thessalonica what to do and vice versa. The practice of writing rather than meeting is what gives rise to the well-known maxim that "Churches of Christ don't have Bishops; they have editors instead." These editors publish such magazines as the Gospel Advocate and the Herald of Truth. Other than these editors and the occasional lectureship (in which preachers from many churches come together to speak publicly on pressing issues), the only ways in which Churches of Christ generally coordinate is in disaster relief. This principle of rigorous independence even extends to some colleges in the Church of Christ, such as Florida College, which does not accept donations from churches for fear of undue influence and because it is not scriptural for churches to donate money to education. (However, most mainstream universities and colleges affiliated with the Church of Christ, such as Pepperdine, Harding University, and Lipscomb University, do accept money from churches. Note, however, that these colleges are generally as conservative as the Churches of Christ that support them.) The Church of Christ has no headquarters. The Church of Christ follows the first century church's practice of having preachers or ministers and elders and deacons.
- Baptist World Alliance (BWA)
- BWA Heritage and Identity Commission
- International Congregational Fellowship
- National Association of Congregational Christian Churches
- World Evangelical Congregational Fellowship
- World Convention - Christian - Churches of Christ - Disciples of Christ
- Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopaedia Online
- Mennonite Ethereal Library
- Conservative Congregational Christian Conferenceda:Kongregationalisme